I’m brownbear. Today we have a special treat: an interview with StarCraft II developers Kevin “monk” Dong and Ryan Schutter. Kevin is the lead cooperative missions designer, while Ryan is the lead UI designer. These folks were kind enough to sit down with me for about fifteen minutes to talk design and balance for cooperative missions and competitive multiplayer.
This interview has been mildly edited to make it easier and clearer to read.
brownbear: Alrighty, just to get started, would you guys like to quickly introduce yourselves?
Kevin: Hi, I’m Kevin Dong, I’m the lead co-op designer.
Ryan: And I’m Ryan Schutter, I’m the lead UI designer.
brownbear: OK. So one of my first questions is, when you guys are in development, how do you split your time between the cooperative missions and other game modes like the versus mode?
Kevin: We take both modes very seriously, because they’re very different audiences as well. I guess, we have more ship dates for co-op missions, so we have to plan design time for those, we plan art time for those, we plan sound time and voice recording. Whereas multiplayer is more, we see how the matches go, we have the meta-game developed, and we respond more to that. So I guess multiplayer is a bit more responsive.
The one exception to that is at the end of the year, in the past three years at least, we’ve come out with huge multiplayer updates. So those need to be slotted in into timeslots as well.
brownbear: Do you guys plan on doing another multiplayer update next year?
Kevin: We don’t currently have – we may or may not, I guess. It just remains to be seen what the meta is like at the end of the year. Every year we take a look at how the game has developed over the year that has preceded it. For example, this year, we’ve heard such great comments from the community about how the game is going, that we decided, this year, maybe we want to make more smaller tweaks to the game compared to previous years.
brownbear: OK. Now I think in the community there are kind of two dueling schools of thought. One school of thought is kind of the Brood War school of thought, which is, you should leave the game alone once it’s in a good state and let the meta develop. The other school of thought is, you should just change it proactively and, maybe every year, no matter how the meta is, you should do a big design patch to draw interest and so forth. Where do you guys fall in that philosophical debate?
Ryan: So, I think actually what I’d like to see is, not just from a balance perspective we should not just look at 1v1, but also how things are happening in some of the team games as well. I think that’s an area we could maybe take a look at. So I would like to see us make some more proactive changes there, but that’s really not my department.
Kevin: Yeah, so you mentioned that there are these two schools of thought. And, it’s not just with the Brood War community versus the SC2 community, I think those two schools of thought exist in both communities. And we definitely heard, actually both those schools of thought from our community members [at the recent community summit]. So, I guess how we deal with that is we just take all that feedback in and balance it between the two schools of thought.
Right now, we’re more slightly leaning toward, we want StarCraft II to be a final and idealized game, sort of to what Brood War is, but we’re definitely very open – and I emphasize, very open – to exploring new routes for StarCraft to go down.
brownbear: So if you guys ever do reach that final phase of development, where would you want to take StarCraft next?
Kevin: I think there’s a lot of opportunities to expand StarCraft. One of the biggest surprises of the last few years has been the cooperative missions mode, of course. I don’t think anyone on the team, of course I wasn’t working on the team [back then], but what I’ve heard is that no one on the team expected co-op to blow up as much as it really has. I think people expected, oh, they’re going to play this game mode for like ten, maybe twenty, thirty hours.
But what we’ve been seeing in practice is that people are playing it over and over again, and once they beat a mission they’re like, can I beat this faster? Can I complete this with my objectives losing less health? Or, oh, I’m beating this and I get a new level, I get more mastery points. Or, I’m playing the new weekly mutation. The initial design of co-op had replayability in mind, but I don’t think we expected this much replayability.
brownbear: You know, that brings up an interesting point, because there’s some people who they love co-op so much, they’ve maxed out all their commanders, they’ve hit level 90. And what they’re finding is that maybe there’s not as much end-game content as they would like. What do you guys think about that?
Kevin: Right, I think that’s one piece of feedback we get a lot, especially in the last year. And what we’ve always said there is, it’s very easy to make changes to end-game such that we can increase the mobs, the number of units that spawn, we can increase the HP or damage of the units that spawn. But the challenge there is that co-op commanders are so powerful compared to their multiplayer counterparts that they kind of have, like, “delete wave” buttons no matter how many units there are or how much HP there is. So, we’re actively looking into how we can expand the difficulty of co-op but we’re thinking in more perhaps creative ways other than just scaling the power.
brownbear: OK. Can you talk about some of those ways?
Kevin: I think one of the ways in which we’re currently doing it right now is with weekly mutations. They change up the game in a way that’s not just linear scaling and power, they’re more, we have this unique challenge that you have to figure out and deal with. That way, you can’t just go into the game and be like, I’m just going to do my normal strategy and do it a little bit better or a little bit faster. You also have to think about, how am I going to adapt to the mutations or strategies or the enemies that are coming to me.
brownbear: I know that there was a period where you were repeating mutations. Now we’re in a period where we’re getting new mutations. What’s your philosophy about that – in the future, are you going to try not to repeat the mutations, or, what do you think?
Kevin: Well we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from the community that players want these new mutations. Previously the thought process was, co-op missions has been around for such a long time that there’s a lot of mutations that players haven’t played in the very beginning. I know I was very excited to play the first Oblivion Express mutation, I think that was the very first mutation we ever came out with. But we listened to the feedback from the community that, hey, these guys want new mutations so that’s what we did.
brownbear: Anything else for the end game? Anything like maybe a horde mode, special events or leaderboards?
Kevin: Right. So we don’t have anything to announce right now regarding those. But we definitely considered and have extensively talked about all those options. Leaderboards is the one that stands out. We’re still working on that, there’s some challenges with it, but it’s still being in development.
brownbear: OK. How about mission packs? Any plans to continue working on those? I know I myself played the Nova pack, I loved it, curious if you’re planning on doing any more of those?
Ryan: Yeah, so we’re really focused more on co-op and getting out some new commanders. It’s something that we really like the Nova pack and that kind of thing, but right now we’ve really shifted focus more towards co-op.
brownbear: OK. Swinging back to the multiplayer side of things, how do you guys feel about the new balance patch and relative to the play that you’ve seen in the Blizzcon Finals, do you have any specific concerns?
Kevin: For the balance patch?
Kevin: So the general philosophy with the end of the year balance patch, or one of our main points of thinking with the balance patch is, we generally try to tune some changes to be more powerful than we believe to be completely balanced. And that’s mostly so that players can really feel powerful and we encourage them to try out the changes. If some changes are too minimal, I think players, it’ll be hard for them to notice these changes. So generally with some things, I think we’ll see maybe some scaling back on the changes that we have proposed.
And we’ve already seen some of that, for example the Carrier, we introduced the new Carrier which has some lower damage and decreased interceptor release time. And we kind of scaled back on that due to the feedback in the beta testing.
brownbear: Can you describe your feedback process? What percentage would be public forums, what percentage would be pro player feedback, and what percentage would be community or influencer feedback, maybe like casters for example?
Kevin: I think it’s a good mix. This may sound like a very PR answer, but it actually is a good mix of all those. *laughs* We read pretty much all the forums, Reddit, Team Liquid, Battle.net, some foreign forums as well. And we regularly get player feedback from, we have an email list, we’re open to direct communication as well. And I think, due to that feedback we’ve been iterating on the changes that have been initially presented in the initial proposal that happened two years ago. [Editor’s Note: I think Kevin intended to say two months ago.]
Ryan: On the pro player side as well, we often send people out to the different events who get to sit down and talk with pro players over the course of the year and actually, not just find out how they feel in that moment, but, you know, also three or four months later at the next event, see if anything has changed.
brownbear: Clearly you put a lot of time into getting pro player feedback. What about newer players or more casual players?
Kevin: We definitely do consider newer players into that equation as well. For example, there were many reasons for why widow mines were changed in the last balance patch, but one of the reasons was we felt that the difficulty to execute widow mine drops in TvP was maybe a little bit too easy relative to the difficulty it took to defend against them. And that’s something you don’t see at the tip-top pro levels, but something that you do see not only at the newer levels, but even at low- or mid- or even high Grandmaster that’s not the pro levels.
Ryan: It’s definitely important to the team that StarCraft is not just an awesome esport, but also a fun game for people of all levels to play.
brownbear: I think it’s interesting that you mention widow mine drops, because I feel that in Legacy of the Void you introduced some mechanics, for example shift-clicked liberators on a mineral line, where executing the attack does seem like it was almost designed to be easier than defending it. Is that intentional?
Kevin: Well I can’t really speak to the design team at that point because I’m relatively new to the design team. But I think that design kind of speaks to, we want there to be a lot of action on the map, we want there to be a lot of opportunities for harassment on the map. I think that’s a large part of what makes StarCraft exciting.
[A question and answer about StarCraft Esports was omitted here; Kevin redirected me to the Esports team, whom I wasn’t able to follow-up with.]
brownbear: OK. Next I’d like to swing back to co-op and talk a little bit about Zeratul. What was the development process for Zeratul like?
Kevin: So we always knew on the team that we wanted to create the Zeratul co-op commander, right. He’s super iconic both in StarCraft I and in StarCraft II and I think there’s a lot of fans who were clamoring for Zeratul, but the challenge was creating a Dark Templar Zeratul commander that didn’t overlap too much with Vorazun.
And, how we did that was, we kind of had to delve into what Zeratul was, his identity besides that he’s a Dark Templar. And we really leaned into the Xel’Naga concept, and we really leaned into the prophetic vision concept, the prophecy concept. Zeratul has a new ability called Prophetic Vision, for the first time ever you’ll be able to find procedurally generated artifact fragments on the map that power Zeratul’s units, his calldowns and himself.
brownbear: Interesting! In your concept phase, you focused more on the lore and the concept of the commander and not necessarily a specific gameplay target you’re trying to hit?
Kevin: Right. So actually there’s generally two ways we approach it. One way is from the lore side of things where we think, we have this really cool character that we want to build a commander out of and we kind of delve into the lore and find cool mechanics for that. But there’s the other side of it, where we have, this is a really cool mechanic that we think of, what characters can we use to fit that mechanic? I’m new to the development team, but I would say with Tychus and with Zeratul, the design has been more leaning towards the former.
brownbear: One of the things I noticed with both Tychus and Zeratul is they both feature mechanics of permanent choice – Zeratul in selecting calldowns, Tychus in selecting outlaws. Is that a new change in design direction, do you want to introduce more of that?
Kevin: Well, just personally one of my favorite design aspects is the ability for choice. So I think you can see that in some of the recent commander revamps as well. With the revamps, our goal was to create more choice for players, create more unit compositions that are viable. And I think you can see that in the design of Tychus and Zeratul as well. We want players to feel like all the units in their kit are viable at certain times, but we want every mission or any mission to feel different enough from one another, to use tools in that toolkit such that it never feels stale and that everything is viable at some point in time.
Another part of the permanent choice part is, we feel co-op missions, each individual mission is short enough that it doesn’t feel like you’re committed to this choice for too long of a time. If you choose a quote-unquote incorrect choice, you can fix that, you can change it up in the next mission.
[at this point we ran out of time]
brownbear: Thank you so much for sitting down with me, I really appreciate it.
Ryan: Thank you.
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