Blizzard balances Starcraft II

BlizzCon 2010: Sci-fi RTS designers and balancers delve into the process behind honing gameplay; Battle.net Marketplace not before Heart of the Swarm.

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Who was there: Starcraft II design director Dustin Browder was again joined by associate game balance designers David Kim and Matt Cooper, as well as multiplayer systems designer Josh Menke.

It might not be possible to see what's happening, but rest assured that it's balanced.
It might not be possible to see what's happening, but rest assured that it's balanced.

What they talked about: In what could be considered a continuation of yesterday's "Secrets of the Masters" panel, Blizzard's Starcraft II design and balance team returned to the stage to talk about what goes into honing multiplayer for the popular sci-fi real-time strategy title.

To accomplish the daunting task, Blizzard relies on a number of tools, including community feedback, pro feedback, tournaments, and statistics, as well as a prototyping program called "Make Combat." Browder emphasized that taken individually, these tools would be insufficient for properly balancing the game. However, taken together, they provide a comprehensive look at many of the different facets that can impact game balance.

The first step toward tuning the game, the team said, is player feedback. Since the community is made up of hundreds of thousands of players, playing millions of games, they are able to really put the game through its paces. Plus, community can inspire productive debate about strategies and counters. The drawback with community input, though, is that the loudest voices tend to come to the fore.

Pro feedback is also useful, primarily because they know the game very, very well. As such, they often offer in-depth critical feedback after truly studying the game. Unfortunately, this feedback often only takes into account a single race, since nearly all pros only focus on the Terran, Zerg, or Protoss factions. Also, it's difficult to tell whether a pro's victory is as the result of skill or imbalance.

Tournaments are also a useful balancing tool, in that competitive play tends to expose cracks in the game. After all, if there is a weakness in the game, the pros will exploit it to win. However, the sample size is small in these scenarios, and it's also difficult to tell the reason for a defeat, due to variables ranging from preparation of players to whether the competitors were playing at the top of their game or not.

The more traditional spreadsheet route of balancing is also employed by Blizzard. The team members noted that it's incredibly helpful to lay out all the different numbers side by side in a spreadsheet, as it helps them analyze build times and the cost of units very quickly. However, spreadsheets don't account for a large number of variables, including unit pathing, terrain, and strategies.

One tool that Blizzard thought would turn into the be-all, end-all form of game balancing was called Make Combat. With it, the team could simulate battles very quickly to see how certain changes would impact the tides of war. As it takes place in-game, it accounts for pathing and movement, as well as other intangibles not captured by spreadsheets, such as unit size.

However, the problem with the tool is that real-life scenarios typically never play out the way they do in these pitched battles, and it fails to take into account player strategy. In the end, while helpful, the tool creates a false sense of security for the team, they said.

The Blizzard team then broke down current win/loss ratios for one-on-one matches on Battle.net. In Terran vs. Zerg games, the humans hold an edge of 51 percent to 49 percent. Protoss hold a slight advantage of Terran, 53 percent to 47 percent. Lastly, Protoss also outdo Zerg 51 percent of the time.

These numbers, the team notes, are misleading. After all, Battle.net's matchmaking functionality aims to accurately match players by skill, so the fact that the stats are even can be misleading in terms of future game balance.

As for future developments, the team members said that they feel there is some imbalance in the Protoss vs. Terran matchup, which they plan to address. They also feel that Terran marines and marauders may gain a bit too much of an advantage from the Stimpack ability at its current levels. Lastly, they said they are also looking to possibly tweak the Protoss' psi storm.

As one bit of news from today's session, Browder also briefly addressed the Battle.net's Marketplace. First detailed at BlizzCon 2009, the Marketplace would allow Starcraft II players to sell their custom creations through Battle.net. According to Browder, though, players shouldn't hold their breath for this feature to arrive, saying that it is unlikely to be available before the launch of Starcraft II's second chapter, Heart of the Swarm, which may arrive in mid-2012.

Quote: "Every one of these tools have failed us at some critical point."--Dustin Browder, on the importance of using all of Blizzard's balancing tools together.

Takeaway: Even the most minute of changes can dramatically impact the way Starcraft II plays, creating ripple effects that extend to one-versus-one pro matches to three-versus-three exhibitions between friends. As such, the team has to very carefully weigh the implications of a change before implementing it and then react to the outcome.

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