SEOUL--Believe it or not, even though the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational 2007 event is home to music concerts and some of the biggest game tournaments in the world, one of the most intriguing activities is actually sitting quietly in a theater. Three of Blizzard's top creative talents--creative director Andy Chambers, senior game designer Dustin Browder, and vice president of game design Rob Pardo--sat on a panel to discuss gameplay details for the company's newly announced sequel, Starcraft II.
Pardo began the discussion by revisiting several of the studio's previous games, going back as far as Warcraft II, which the vice president cited as the first Blizzard game to garner a significant following as a competitive multiplayer game. Pardo explained that the original Starcraft arose from the team's desire to create a fast-paced real-time strategy game like Warcraft II, but in a different universe, then described how Blizzard's subsequent RTS project, 2002's Warcraft III, took a very different approach by offering slower-paced gameplay with smaller armies, hero units, and many units with activatable abilities to appeal to "the average gamer." Pardo suggested that the units in both the original Starcraft and in the sequel will instead act as "movers and shooters"--mostly autonomous forces that generally lack special abilties but will be used in large control groups to "do their own thing" in battle, rather than requiring the micromanagement of high-level Warcraft III play.
Pardo continued to contrast Warcraft III against Starcraft II, explaining that Warcraft III had less of an emphasis on economic buildup to allow more focus on battles. The 2002 game, suggested the VP, also was much less about early-game victories. While that game did introduce "creeps"--neutral creatures that could be fought to gain experience points for your hero units--early armies in Warcraft III were generally capable of only harrassing your enemies, not defeating them outright. Pardo suggested that "with Starcraft II, [Blizzard is] really going back to its roots to make a true sequel to Starcraft"--a sequel where resource management will be much more central to gameplay, with less micromanagement of different units with special abilities, and in which full-on early-game "rushing" (making an all-out assault at or near the beginning of a new game session) will be much more viable.
In fact, the VP went on to state that the game will probably offer more early "tech tree" options--different development paths players can take by building different structures and researching different upgrades--which will make early-game scouting more important, and will make early-game rushing a more diverse, deeper strategy.
Pardo also suggested that Warcraft III might have been a more forgiving game for beginners--differences in skill levels seemed less pronounced in that game. The VP said that in Starcraft II, there will be many more nuances that will separate highly skilled players from beginners, and good players from great ones. So in contrast to the sometimes-protracted matches of Warcraft III, Pardo expects the average Starcraft II multiplayer match to last about 20 minutes of real time, possibly even as little as 15 minutes when played by the pros. Pardo pointed out that there will be numerous subtleties added to the game that expert players will learn to use to their advantage, such as a revamped "high ground" system. In the previous Starcraft, ground units that had a height advantage by standing on high ground gained attack bonuses, but would also reveal themselves when attacking. In the sequel, units with high ground will still gain the attack bonuses but will remain concealed by the "fog of war" (the black shroud that covers unexplored areas)--a fact that can be used together with other line-of-signt nuances to your advantage.
Pardo ended his part of the talk by emphasizing that Blizzard remains committed to making the three factions distinct, and to making Starcraft II's gameplay true to the original game, but also different and new. For instance, the VP cited the new Protoss units and abilities that have been shown, such as the ability to "warp-in" to different locations, and the powerful mothership unit. Pardo said Blizzard could have also attempted to create a "Terran version" and a "Zerg version" of these new units and abilities, but the team did not. It is instead looking to balance the factions against one another while keeping them distinct.
Pardo suggested that Starcraft II will, like the original game, be a game about "hard counters"--how certain units can be directly "countered" (defeated decisively) by specific counterunits. As an example, Pardo showed a brief demonstration of Protoss templar units, which are the counterunit to zerglings, annihilating a swarm of the tiny Zerg infantry with their "psi storm" ability. Said Pardo: "Yes, [Starcraft II] will stil be fast-paced and have 'multitasking' for resources and combat, but it'll be a very different game."
The floor was then given to game designer Dustin Browder, who used his time to cite specific examples of different units in play. To begin with, Browder showed a demonstration of the Protoss stalker, a ground-based unit that can attack both air and ground enemies and isn't all that tough, but can "blink" (warp in and out) to any location to which they have line of sight. The obvious uses of this handy ability include pursuing fleeing units by constantly "blinking in" in front of them, but they can also apparently be used as powerful base raiders.
In addition, extremely skilled players will be able to defeat slower-moving melee enemies with stalkers by sticking and moving, repeatedly blinking in and out of range. The designer showed a demonstration of stalkers up against a group of Protoss zealots, somewhat slow melee units that simply weren't able to close in for a hit as the stalkers kept blinking away and firing constantly, eventually winning the battle.
Browder showed how the new units and new abilties for existing units will help diversify gameplay and work within the counterunit system. For instance, the Protoss immortal, a ground-based tank unit, is extremely tough, but slow. It can therefore be countered by quick-thinking players with enough resources to build up counterunits, and therefore is also unable to effectively flee from a losing battle. However, it does possess a powerful energy shield that is triggered only from heavy-duty fire. This makes the immortal a natural counterunit for the Terran siege tank, whose powerful cannons can't do much against the immortal's energy shield. However, the slow-moving immortals themselves can be easily countered by a large swarm of zerglings, which don't deal enough damage to trigger the immortals' shields, and are too quick for the tank to outrun.
Browder then showed an additional example of the kind of subtleties that will separate skilled players from unskilled players. The Protoss phoenix, a flying unit, has a special "overload" ability that creates a damaging energy field around itself, then renders it immobile and helpless shortly afterward. Browder showed a simulated battle between a player with six phoenix units and another player with only four. The player with six phoenixes choked and used the overload ability too early, allowing the other player to dodge out of harm's way; then the player arranged the four phoenixes around the now-immobile six in a loose formation and overloaded the six into oblivion, which suggests that sheer numbers won't always prevail in the face of high-level skill in Starcraft II.
Browder then showed a demonstration of Protoss warp-in technology, which can be used to mount a powerful surprise offense by summoning a large army seemingly out of nowhere. However, the same tech can apparently be used for base defense; the designer showed how an early zergling raid on a Protoss base went sour as the tiny Zerg suddenly found themselves boxed in between Protoss buildings and a small contingent of melee-attacking zealots, with immortal tanks lobbing fire from a distance. The designer closed by stating that the team's goals are to "recapture the magic of the original Starcraft, which was a wonderful, wonderful game," and to "make Starcraft II about these three unique races by generating new tactics and strategies."
The panel then took questions, which revealed some intriguing new details about the sequel. An audience question about future beta plans prompted Pardo to state that Starcraft II will likely have a "closed beta by invitation, similar to [Blizzard's] other products--though this time, [Blizzard] will also enlist the help of pro players to help test for balance."
When asked about the status of the Terrans (who were decimated at the end of the Brood War expansion pack for the original Starcraft), creative designer Andy Chambers explained that "the UED terran forces were destroyed by Kerrigan's Zerg armies (though a few surviving companies may still be around somewhere)," and that the Terran faction in Starcraft II will primarily consist of the "evil empire" of the Terran Dominion. When asked about the status of lead character Jim Raynor, Chambers replied that since Starcraft II takes place four years after Brood War, "Raynor has been having some adventures for sure," but he declined to comment further.
Chambers also suggested that the ancient Xel'Naga, which helped both the Protoss and Zerg races become what they are (but were later destroyed by the Zerg) will also figure into Starcraft II's story "in a rather epic tale." To cap the presentation, Browder fielded a final question that may come as a relief to some players: There are "no plans at this time for naval combat in Starcraft II."