Feature Article

Starcraft 2 Dev On The Effects Of Going Free-To-Play

We chat with Blizzard's Tim Morten about the big announcements for Starcraft from Blizzcon 2017.

Almost every major Blizzard game had a major update for this year's Blizzcon, but Starcraft II had one of the most surprising: the main game is going to be free-to-play.

The update will start November 14, but for more insight into what the changes will mean for players, we caught up with Starcraft production director Tim Morten at the convention. In addition to learning the team's expectations for how this update will affect the player base, we also found that there'll be a little something available for players who already own all of the Starcraft II expansions.

And for even more from Blizzcon, check out our roundup of all the biggest news, announcements, and trailers from the show.

This transcript has been edited for content and clarity.

Starcraft II had a really big announcement in going free-to-play, that's huge for the franchise. What does that mean to you guys on the development team?

Tim Morten: For us, and this came from the dev team as something that we wanted to do, we feel like Starcraft II is such a special game. One of the things that has been confusing for the audience is how to get into Starcraft II, in its current form. We had Wings of Liberty, plus two expansions; we've had a lot of post-launch content. I think there's a lot of confusion about what you need to play Starcraft II. This just simplifies all of that, and gets the message out loud and clear: that you just download the game and play. Obviously, we love the game, so we just want to share it as broadly as we can.

But there are still some parts that you pay into, right?

Yeah, so the parts that are free when you download Starcraft II are Wings of Liberty, which is the entire first part of the game. Plus access to ranked and unranked multiplayer, plus all of the commanders to level five. Each game mode provides a tremendous amount of free content. The things that you then can pay for, if you choose to, are continuing the story. Heart of the Swarm will be free to those who already own Wings of Liberty, but if you don't, Heart of the Swarm is a charge. Legacy of the Void, Nova Covert Ops, all of that story content.

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In multiplayer we offer some skins, and the war chest, which helps fund our esports events, so there's an opportunity to contribute financially that way. Then for co-op, to unlock the commanders leveling past level five, there's a charge to do that.

And if you have the first expansion, you get access to the second one.

Yeah. Basically we wanted to make sure that everybody who had already purchased the content that we're now including as part of the free-to-play Starcraft II, they get rewarded for that purchase. Their reward, if they don't already own it, is the Heart of the Swarm campaign.

Is there anything if you've already bought into everything, you already have all the expansions?

If you've already bought into everything, we're talking about some sort of digital rewards, just to acknowledge that people are veterans. But there isn't new story content that's available.

PR Representative: I think they're calling it the founder's gift. It's like a portrait skin.

That's right.

Thinking about Starcraft II, is this going to reinvigorate that player base, is it going to bring in a new audience?

The crazy thing that a lot of people don't necessarily appreciate about Starcraft II is how stable the player base has been. Of course, we saw a big surge around the original launch, but for the last five years, we've had a stable player base in terms of monthly active users. We do expect that, obviously, as we lower the barrier to get into the game and just clarify the understanding that it's free to download, more players will come in. So, we're super excited to see how many new players come try Starcraft II, or come finish the experience that they started with Wings of Liberty.

When you're talking about a stable player base, is that primarily on that multiplayer side?

It's interesting how varied the continuing player base is. Co-op, which we just launched with Legacy of the Void, that's become our single most popular game mode. I think if you add up all of the competitive modes--ranked, unranked, and custom--competitive is probably the biggest slice of current players. But even for campaign, there's a considerable number of people who grind to get all of the achievements, and come back to experience the story content. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Starcraft II Arcade, as well.

Even though that content isn't the same as Starcraft II RTS game, there is a lot of content as part of Starcraft II available in the arcade for free. And that audience is remarkably large.

Is this update changing the way you guys are rolling out any of that content, like the updates to arcade, or anything on the multiplayer side?

We do a very regular cadence of releases to keep updating and extending the game. But with each release we do, we tend to focus on one player segment. So, we have some big releases that hit multiple segments, but coming up after BlizzCon, we have a big balance patch coming out that will really change the meta of the multiplayer competitive game. I think that very much speaks to that audience. And that particular one will also have a new co-op commander, new co-op map, and we've just recently done some arcade improvements. We're going to revamp the front end for the arcade, and we are going to, in future releases, continue working on that.

Last but not least, we're always just making general improvements to the overall user interface experience, and quality of life for our players.

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Speaking of the new commander, this one's definitely a big change. It's basically two commanders in one. How does that work, exactly?

This is our first time trying a two-in-one format, but the two characters from the lower end question are actually married in the story, so it seemed like a logical pairing. And they have distinctive styles--they are both Terran, but one is a bit more military and precise, and the other is a bit more commando and scrappy, in terms of her style.

There are different distinct abilities associated with each commander, and by choosing the combined commander, you have availability for all of those abilities as you unlock them and as you level up.

So you can change them on the fly? Or you just have access to more of them than you would normally?

Well, I think it's access to more, but it's also just the very distinct difference between Horner's abilities and Hans' abilities as you play through.

So, they say you shouldn't mix work and romance. Is this going to change the lore at all, or the canon? I imagine it might be a strain on the relationship.

The way the story goes, Horner was playing a poker game, and he didn't know what it was he was going to win if he won. Indeed, he won, and his prize was Mira Han's hand in marriage. He wasn't necessarily a willing participant in the outcome, because he didn't know what he was going to win, so their relationship is a little tenuous, I would say. But, she's more into it than he is, but he's fulfilled his obligation. We're really not so much changing the lore, as leveraging the tone of that relationship, which is one of the more comedic elements in Starcraft II, and trying to play that up to full effect.

Going back to the game, now that you're going to have new people coming in who didn't play before. Is there any thought given to making that a friendlier process for onboarding people who maybe never played any of the Starcraft games before?

Yeah. We put some thought into the onboarding experience for players who are coming back to Starcraft II, or for players who are new to Starcraft II. We've got a bit of handholding that happens as you start the game, to establish are you new to RTS? An RTS veteran? And help kind of instruct on what the options are. Because Starcraft II, the game modes, though they're obviously all RTS, and they have a very common experience, there's a very distinct campaign way to play the game, a co-op way to play the game, and a competitive way to play the game. The way that you learn how to play each of those modes is a little bit different.

We have a base tutorial that we revamped for Legacy of the Void that I think helps onboard pretty well for campaign and for co-op. For multiplayer, there's a little bit more to learn in terms of build order, and just even how to aproach the game. There are some other tools in the game that we direct players who are coming in towards, so they can prepare themselves for whatever mode that they want to play.

Any final thoughts?

The other stuff to know about, we do have a new co-op map that's coming out, and we are looking forward to having another season of war chests, which provides content that services players for all modes, particularly competitive mode in terms of having army skins that can be applied no matter what race you are. And that, of course, does help fund Starcraft Ski Sports moving forward. Just a tremendous amount coming for Starcraft II.

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