How Starcraft beat Chess: Blizzard looks back on the world's best strategy game.

With Battle.net, Diablo and WOW behind them, it’s probably fair to suggest that PC Gamers have probably spent more millions of hours on Blizzard’s games than any other company’s. With the upcoming release of StarCraft II we spent an hour chatting to three team leads of the original game, now all working inside Blizzard on StarCraft II. They are Frank Pierce, the executive vice-president in charge of product development (he oversees all the new games), Bob Finch, the lead software engineer on (he makes the engines and decides on game features), and Sam Didier, Senior Art Director (he makes the world look o-so-pretty). In line with their history of fantasy roleplay, if anyone fancies LARPing this, Frank Pierce’s voice suggests a paternally-growling Tauren, Bob Finch is an tinkering Gnome alchemist, and Sam Didier is some sort of excitable Goblin with ten tonnes of hi-ex strapped to his endlessly-whirring noggin.

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To The Tune Of: The Tallest Man On Earth – The Blizzard’s Never Seen the Desert Sands

This was a feature originally written on Eurogamer. I’m rerunning it because I can.

With Battle.net, Diablo and WOW behind them, it’s probably fair to suggest that PC Gamers have probably spent more millions of hours on Blizzard’s games than any other company’s. With the upcoming release of StarCraft II we spent an hour chatting to three team leads of the original game, now all working inside Blizzard on StarCraft II. They are Frank Pierce, the executive vice-president in charge of product development (he oversees all the new games), Bob Finch, the lead software engineer on (he makes the engines and decides on game features), and Sam Didier, Senior Art Director (he makes the world look o-so-pretty). In line with their history of fantasy roleplay, if anyone fancies LARPing this, Frank Pierce’s voice suggests a paternally-growling Tauren, Bob Finch is an tinkering Gnome alchemist, and Sam Didier is some sort of excitable Goblin with ten tonnes of hi-ex strapped to his endlessly-whirring noggin.

Let me take you back to the original product, back to your childhood; It’s 1998, Warcraft and WarCraft 2 have been successes, there’s a lot riding on Starcraft and there’s problems in development. People are calling it Warcraft in Space, it had a slightly negative aspect at preview, and it took a lot longer than you thought it would do; how does it feel to look back on the pain you went through to birth this amazing product?
(Sam immediately starts corpsing in the background, presumably at the image of himself giving birth.)
FP: Back when the impression was orcs in space, it was mainly the visuals that saved it, so Sam should handle this.
SD: (stifling giggles) When we first worked on SC, when we first showed it at CES, we didn’t have the look set.
BF: And we were also trying to use the first engine for it.
SD: And we basically took how some of the old Warcraft stuff and, okay this is how the backgrounds were made, let’s draw over them and give them a space feel. We did that and it wsas very rushed and obviously not the coolest thing in the world. So we went back and redid it, and that was the first game that we used 3D studio in; for WarCraft 2, we made some 3D models and drew over them; this was the first time we actually made them in 3D and went with that; we didn’t do a whole lot of touch-up in the art. We took all the basic ideas we wanted to do and started implementing them in 3D and that’s what gave SC it’s look. The earlier one was rushed just so we could have something to show at CES.
BF: We were also using the WarCraft 2 engine at CES, which made it look like just WC 2 1/2. After we got back, we rewrote the entire engine.
FP: When the game came out, a lot of the fans lamented the fact that the game was not true 3D because at the time, y’know, 3D games were starting out. Ten years later, it’s nice to know that our philosophy of focussing on gameplay was validated; no-one cares that it’s not 3D anymore, all everyone says is that it’s a really fun game.

Starcraft 1

A lot of the most beautiful games of history are 2D, like Planescape Torment; is it always a necessity for 3D in the modern day?
FP: I would say it depends on the game; there’s lots of really compelling experiences that are just small web applications; it’s about the experience and the quality of the game.

The original design of StarCraft was, you’ve admitted, a bodge-job. Yet when you redesigned you came up with three impressive new races; where did the inspirations come from? Did you just pull them out of a hat, did you pull them out of (ahem) somewhere else?
SD: In Warcraft we took the classic mythological races and we put our own spin to it. We did the same with Starcraft. The Protoss are just a Blizzard spin on your typical grey alien. Super-intelligent, robots, lots of technology, big giant ships. We put our spin on it and turned them from little skinny grey guys into big, imposing grey guys. The basic units of these guys is the Zealot, he’s a powerful fighter, great a combat, but they also have the intelligent, spiritual vibe to them where they harken back to the old typical SF alien. The Terrans are your classic marine guys but with our vibe on them; they were all convicts, hill-billies and biker types, not galactic noble warriors; their armour is dirty and worn down, they have tattoos, smoke cigars and drink. And the Zerg stemmed off the all-devouring alien menace and we put our spin on them too. Each of them has their classic SF mytholog and with a dose of your Blizzard spin.

Do you think it’s possible when developing races, with the tremendous amount of content that’s out there, to avoid this kind of “inspiration”? It’s very hard to come up with something completely original these days.
SD: Yeah, the goal is; we don’t want to come up with something totally original, we want something people can relate to, that we can, as artists, designers and programmers, infuse with our ideas. We could, as designers, have a race of space aliens that are a big mass of amorphous goo that have the flying shit but nobody could relate to that, they’d be like they “how come they’re flying a spaceship but they don’t have any arms or legs and how come they’re shooting lasers from their tentacles..?” That’s original, but it’s also kinda stupid.
(laughter). Even that’s unoriginal! Have you seen the Simpsons?
FP: I think there’s a reason why developers do better when they include aliens and that’s because that’s what people are drawn to.

Did the three factions already exist from the previous games or did the redesign reshape your ideas for the factions?
BF: Starcraft was our first game where our sides weren’t basically symetrical…
SD: …chess pieces…
BF: …this was the first time where we tried to make each side its own unique army and not copy whereever possible any of the things the other sides did. It probably would have been easier to do two, three seemed like the good thing to do. While we could have done more, it would have been diluting one of the others taking cool ideas and forcing them into a fourth one.
FP: One of our design philosophies is “concentrated coolness”. There’s only so many great ideas you can come up with at any one time. When we started making Warcraft III, a little off-topic, we were talking about 9 different races.
SD: Yes! (Everyone else groans)
FP: Probably a little too ambitious, there’s only so many good ideas you can deal with; with SC it was really important for us to make all three races compelling.

Looking back, Starcraft was such a tremendous success. Firstly, What do you think made it such a success compared to any other strategy game; secondly, what was the biggest flaw, looking back?
SD: The gameplay. It was really balanced and fun to play. It wasn’t as balanced as it is now, but everything was really balanced from the off, it definitely has a faster pace than the other competitive RTSes out there. The art isn’t what’s still bringing people back to the game, it’s the gameplay. I’ve said this many times, but chess and checkers are still being played and the art for those isn’t great. Gameplay!
FP: You can’t really point at any one particular thing that we can hang our hat on, but certainly one thing was Battle.net, the online matchmaking and the community that grew online. Before that people were only playing RTSes on LANs, so the experience of bringing multiplayer to the internet and creating this mass community of millions of players is certainly a factor as well.
BF: The user interface was one of the best of its time and still hasn’t been improved on, actually. It gave you fine control over the units and it makes a big difference for gameplay. Aside from any little pathing issues there might be, in SC when you click and tell a guy to go there he goes there. He goes as fast as he can, and does exactly what you tell him what to do.

He also mouths off when you ask him to go.
FP: That’s another good point, something we try to do with our games to draw people is to inject personality. EVen though the unit you see on screen is only a handful of pixels tall, we draw portraits and voices so we can build a stronger emotional connection. That applies to the story; we tried to make not just a compelling story, but a compelling universe, so you’d have that emotional connection.

So you’re basically saying it looked great, had great gameplay,played great in multiplayer, a great story… were there /any/ weaknesses?
FP: There definitely were. The game really took off when we launched the expansion.
BF: Brood War filled some holes.
FP: Balancing the three races was not easy and when the game launched I wouldn’t say it was ideally balanced. I don’t know even how many patches we’ve released; one within the last six months. We have to make sure the game is viable for the e-sport community and we have to keep correcting bugs. We certainly were doing a lot of that in the first year, and the expansion addressed that too.

With Brood Wars why did you stop there? Why no more expansions after that?
FP: Warcraft III! We also splintered off another group of people who started work on another product that got shelved. These guys were then moved onto their next big project, something you may have heard of called, erm… World of Warcraft? So the development team that started working on Starcraft seeded the team that ended up working on World of Warcraft and also the team that made Warcraft III.

Battle.net was one of the only multiplayer / match-making arenas that was fair, moderated and easy to use; has anything superceded it?
FP: Xbox Live? Gamespy, Steam.

Are your older products ever going to be on Steam?
FP: That’s a good question. We’ve talked about it, but we’ve not made any decisions beyond our own. We already offer WoW for digi-download on our own site.

Yeah, and you don’t need more people on that particular game, really. Going back to SC, the spawn installation thing that allowed 8-player multiplayer from one copy of the game; it was an early version of viral marketing – one person selling to 7 friends. Why did that die after Total Annihilation? Why haven’t more games made use of it?
BF: I have a theory about that; People were afraid that they wouldn’t make enough money. They would think they’re selling one copy to eight people when they want to sell eight copies. That’s just not the way we think about it. Anyway, now you can download demos right from the internet, so there’s not much point to doing it right now.

What was the riskiest thing you did with SC?
BF: Delay! (laughs)
FP: Is that a risk? We felt like the game wasn’t ready so we had to hold it until we felt it was. That certainly paid off in spades.
BF: Sure, but generally delaying can be risky for the company. It’s just a risk we’re willing to take every time. We can delay and the game’s going to be great.

Ten years ago you were a mid-rank developer. Back then, you obviously didn’t expect to be where you are now; but where did you see yourselves going in the next ten years?
BF: (laughs) Did we look that far ahead?
FP: A lot of the stuff we did then was seat of the pants, impulsive, short-sighted stuff. Ten years ago we were a lot younger than we are today.
BF: Ten years ago it was “let’s make a great game and see what happens” rather than really trying to plan it out.
FP: We’re gamers ourselves so our focus is always on making games we wanted to play. While we were wrapping SC there were a handful of guys on the team playing Ultima Online. EverQuest came along afterwards, but I don’t have to spell out where that took us.

N64 Starcraft didn’t do badly, but not well either. People have tried strategy games on the consoles; why did you try it? Why you’ve never gone back to consoles?
BF: It was on a console. It’s hard to do RTSes on a console.
FP: SC was designed with the PC and its peripherals in mind, so it was a different experience. Because it was on the N64 we didnt have the benefits of PC communitieis, who are critical to our experience today.

In-game editing package in SC. Did that push the game’s developmenent and community?
FP: I don’t know if that’s a huge factor but it helped. We do it because it’s cool, not because it’s going to market the game. There was a website that hosted millions and millions of map downloads for Warcraft III and that’s great that the community’s creating content that’s so popular amongst them.
BF: When I play other people’s games, one of the things I’m constantly saying to myself is “Boy, I had wish this game had x” and everytime I say to myself I come back here and say “we’re having that.” So every time I played a game and I said “I wish this game had a map-editor” I come back here and our game has a map editor. That’s how these things get into the games.
FP: One of the most popular experiences in WIII right now is Defence of the Ancients. It’s not our braintrust, y’know; we provided a really powerful map-editor and someone conceived of something in the community that was extremely popular in the community and that’s cool.
SD: It started tower defence maps too, which had become their own genre.
FP: To some extent we want to provide a defined experience for the community but we also want to provide a little bit of a sandbox, for the creative people who want more.

You sold 1.5 million of SC in the first year, x million of WoW; what keeps you going?
FP & BF: (Shouting) BECAUSE WE WANT TO PLAY COOL GAMES.
FP: One of the best ways to ensure that we get to play the games we want to, is to make them.
SD: You have to like home-cooking, y’know! (laughs)
BF: It kinda goes back to the point I just made, they don’t have all the features that I want; there are games out there that get 90% of the way, but I want to work for the company that pushes it to the 100% mark.
FP: Not to say that there aren’t other companies making great games out there, but we want to contribute to that.

Isn’t there a balance to be struck though, with game features. I interviewed Jeffrey Steefel from Turbine last month and he described one of his new features as “another mouth to feed”, implying it could just be more work. As you make more features, there’s more work to do; do you find that?
BF: No!
FP: We’re here to work on the games to make great games; that’s why we’re here! Once you’ve shipped the PC boxed product, it’s behind you, but WOW we’re always refining. An artist can work on a piece in perpetuity, it’s never 100%, always can improve.
BF: As an example, the entire time we’ve been talking Sam has been sketching. He’s drawn, what is that one over there, a Night Elf? And what’s that one? You can’t make an artist not want to do it. An artist wants to keep creating. He’s over here sketching, we’re constantly making games, it’s what we like, what we do, there’s no reason we ever want to stop.

 

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