Who was there: Hosting this panel were game director Dustin Browder, game balance designer David Kim, and senior designer Josh Menke.
What they talked about: Browder led this extensive panel on the state of Starcraft II's online balance and discussion of the new multiplayer units in Heart of the Swarm. The opening section focused on which matchups were seen as the most balanced in casual and high-level play, and which were the most one-sided in certain parts of the world. Apparently, Terran has advantage over Protoss in South Korea, while Zerg has an advantage over Protoss in Europe.
Of course, the topic everyone was most excited about was the new units. Browder began the discussion by detailing the current issues facing the Terran faction. He admitted the team was disappointed by the performance of the Thor and the lack of a good option to countering a Protoss late-game Zealot rush when using the charge ability (outside of tedious kiting), and they also didn't want to give the Terrans any more gameplay options. They have enough already, Browder said.
With that in mind, he announced that the Hellion is gaining a transformation ability. When used, this ability changes the quick and nimble Hellion to the slow and tough Battle Hellion. This new unit retains the Hellion's flamethrower weapon, but is now a late-game counter to Zealots (while still being an early- to mid-game harassment unit). Next up was the Shredder. Browder explained that this tiny machine is a cheap way for the Terrans to control space on the map.
When deployed, the Shredder emits a field of radiation that continually damages enemy units that stand near it. However, this unit will shut off if a friendly unit, ally unit, or friendly worker enters its range. Therefore, you have to keep it away from your army to be effective. In addition, the damage from the radiation waves does not stack, so keep them spread out.
Finally, there was the Warhound. Browder described this unit as a medium-cost, fast-moving, smaller version of the Thor that functions as an anti-mech unit. What all that means is that it's great for taking down enemy Terran or Protoss vehicles either in the air or on the ground, while also letting the Thor ascend to a true uber-unit role with vastly improved damage output. You're also now limited to one Thor at a time.
Kim took over next and laid out some of the issues facing the Zerg. In the early game, he said, the Zerg have trouble countering a well-entrenched player. Instead of fighting that player directly, they must expand into an economic battle. He also mentioned that the Overseer didn't get used much, and the Corrupter had a very narrow application.
Enter the Viper, a new Zerg spellcaster unit that will replace the Overseer. It will function as a chokepoint breaker with three support abilities. Blinding Cloud temporarily reduces the attack range of all ground units inside the cloud to melee range and prevents energy-based abilities from being used. Abduct pulls a unit to the Viper's location (and is great for snatching weak units that hide in the back). Ocular Parasite lets it plant a seed into any friendly, non-massive unit, turning that unit into a detector.
The Swarm Host was next. This unit burrows into the ground and spits out waves of timed-life units called locusts, making the Swarm Host a form of "Zerg artillery." These locusts are free, they're endless, and they're designed to help the Zerg control more of the map. "It's the endless Zerg swarm knocking at your front door, and it won't stop until you figure out how to deal with it," Browder added.
"The Protoss ball of death is pretty strong," Kim said, introducing the third and final faction. He went on to add that they don't have a good raiding option in the early game, nor a viable area-of-effect antiair unit. The antiair issue was granted a hard fix with the Tempest, a new capital ship that deals--you guessed it--area-of-effect damage to air units (especially helpful for killing Zerg mutalisks wholesale) while having a ground attack as well. This unit replaces the Carrier.
For harassment, the Protoss were granted the Oracle. This unit is "very worker-friendly" and doesn't hurt workers so much as annoy them. Using the Entomb ability it can temporarily block mineral fields from being harvested by placing a field around them. Its second ability, Preordain, grants vision of a targeted enemy building, allowing the Protoss to see which units or technologies are being researched. Finally, there's Phase Shift, which phases a target building, preventing it from being attacked, using its abilities, or granting technology. So just disable the antiair structures and harass, harass, harass.
Their third and final new unit is the Replicant, which has one ability. It can transform into any non-massive unit. The huge downside is its cost, which is currently set at 200 minerals, 200 gas, and four population. However, you do receive all the upgrades the copied unit has as well. You can even copy enemy workers and construct your own enemy structures, although this ability may be removed before the final release.
At the end of the discussion, Browder dropped a rapid-fire series of additions to other units and structures in the game. The Ghost's cloak ability is now a fixed cost for a fixed duration, thus requiring less babysitting from the player. Reapers now regenerate health when outside of combat, increasing their harassment potential. The radius of the Science Vessel's EMP ability has been reduced. Battlecruiser has a speed boost ability that functions on a cooldown to get it into combat faster. Banelings can move while burrowed. Hydralisk have a speed upgrade. Ultralisk has a new burrow charge ability that lets it move a short distance underground before bursting out and damaging nearby foes. Corrupter has a siphon ability that lets it attach to a building and harvest resources from it. Nexus has a defensive ability that basically turns buildings into photon cannons to defend against attacks. Nexus also gets a recall ability to bring units back to it; this will let Protoss players bail units out of bad fights and be more aggressive.
Did you catch all that? Keep in mind that these changes are a work in progress and can change without notice. After a brief question-and-answer session, the trio concluded the panel and thanked everyone for their attendance.
Quote: "We do take [the results] of every single major tournament very seriously."--David Kim, on analyzing unit balance in Starcraft II.
Takeaway: The developers on Starcraft II have a lot of ideas on how to make the game better, and they're not afraid to try them out. Some will work, others will flop, but the important thing is making the effort. For a game with such a diverse audience, and a steady stream of updates and expansions, absolute balance is almost certainly out of the question. And that's what keeps things interesting.