Feature Article

StarCraft II: Co-op, Console Considerations, and the Future

At Blizzcon 2016, we talked with StarCraft's Allen Dilling about the future of the enduring RTS franchise.

Blizzcon 2016 revealed a new commander, new maps, and a War Chest coming to StarCraft II, but we also had a few moments to talk with Allen Dilling, the assistant art director on StarCraft II's team. Dilling is a Blizzard veteran who joined the team back in 1999, and had a lot to share about where StarCraft came from and where it's going.

Here's the full transcript of our interview at the show:

And StarCraft in particular has changed a lot over the years. In a lot of ways Starcraft was the progenitor for the trends we see in esports today. After being with the company for 20 years, how has that transition been for you?

It's been interesting. I was around when StarCraft 1 launched. We were a little bit siloed back at home as developers, we were working on Brood War. But we kept on hearing these stories about Korea. The executives would go out there and they'd come back like, "Oh my god. You guys would not believe..." They'd have all these photos. It's been pretty amazing.

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I was there for Warcraft 3, which did really well. Going into StarCraft 2, it was definitely a conscious thought. We knew that StarCraft 1 was so popular, especially in Korea and the competitive scene. We were terrified of making a mistake with StarCraft 2. I think StarCraft 2 did a great job continuing that legacy down the esports road. So it's been really amazing. Seeing all the other games like Overwatch having it's first world championship. Heroes is doing it. Watching Hearthstone organically grow into an esport. I don't think those guys originally imagined that this would be considered a competitive game. It's awesome that the fan base for everyone who enjoys playing video games, watching video games, helped fuel this. So just being a part of it's just an honor.

That hunger for RTS, I wouldn't say it's gone away, but it's changed. The landscape is very different. MOBAs have become one of the de facto competitive games people play, and first-person shooters are rising. Where does the RTS genre fit in now?

I think it's great that all these other team-based games are doing so well in esports. It brings much more awareness from outside. Esports itself is starting to hit more and more people who are not so familiar with games. StarCraft 2 in particular is really the ultimate 1v1 competitive game, so I know all these other games out there have a really large audience, but I think one of the things that the StarCraft 2 team really hangs their hat on is the fact that this is like the chess of RTS. This is the pinnacle. The most competitive 1v1 aspect. And we're really happy with the participation of the crowds.

Going with that chess analogy, StarCraft 2 was very controversial when that came out. And the thinking seemed to be, "How do you improve on StarCraft? This is chess. You're not going to make another one." From a developer standpoint, where do you go from here? Are you just going to keep trying to refine StarCraft 2, or...

That's a great question for [Blizzard designer] David Kim. He's got his panel later today doing the deep dive on the multiplayer changes and stuff like that. I think there's always room for improvement. Take, for example, the NBA five or six years ago. They weren't doing so well in the ratings, right? Then they started making a lot of changes to the rules, and they started doing a lot of different things, and it's really helped that league in particular grow. The NFL is constantly changing.

So, I think it's just a natural step for something like StarCraft 2, competitively, to make these changes. To continue to find what is attracting the fans, what is it appealing to the players. How can we make this more exciting and fun to watch? I think there's probably a lot of room to grow here.

What is the allure now of StarCraft 2? What is it that keeps fans coming back?

For me it's the drama. When I play StarCraft, I'm not good, but when I start watching these pro players and how quickly they can manipulate so many units to do so many different orders simultaneously--even at a early level of them scouting, you see the pro running around. I know what would if I'm did that, because the thing would just be dead. But watching these pro players react to the moment that it's happening is just astounding. For me, that builds a lot of drama. If there's too much predictability in something, I find that I'm not going to be as drawn into it. But, because of the way that esports is growing, there are always new faces. It's different every time, and to me that's a lot of the draw.

When you say, "I'm not good," I feel like, from an audience perspective, people always assume, that the guys who work on games at Blizzard are almost masters of the titles they play. But that's never actually the case.

There are exceptions. [laughs] David Kim is literally very, very good. There are guys on the team and in the company who are grand masters, which puts them at the top 1% of the StarCraft world. I think it varies as you start coming down. I say, "I'm not that good," because I'm always standing next to people who are really, really good.

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I'm probably okay when I play most people. So that's kind of where it's at. As far as the perception from the fans expecting the dev team to be so good, we're very familiar with it. Especially in development, you're playing the game every single day, and I think that's what you see with these pro players. They're so good because they're so committed to practicing, and that's what it feels like during development because you're looking at it all the time. Once we released it, though, we're looking at something different. We don't get to continue to refine our skills--we start out good and they'll slowly not be so good a little bit later.

Have you worked directly on StarCraft your entire time at Blizzard?

Not entirely. StarCraft 1 was my first chance to start doing design. Back then it was a small company, a small development team, and they were looking for some missions on the multiplayer maps. I had submitted a couple maps to the development team, and a few of them got onto the disc and actually became a ladder map, so I was just like, "Oh, this is awesome!" Then I finally got into real design on the team officially on Warcraft 3 in the Reign of Chaos and Doom expansion.

But when World of Warcraft came out, that was the whole company. Everybody had to help. It was such a big game. So there was a bit of time between Warcraft 3 and StarCraft 2 development, and that's where a lot of those guys were, helping to ensure the success of WoW. After that we had time to breathe, and we were like, "StarCraft 2!" I've been there since the start of it, as far as the development cycle.

And now in November you have new content coming out for StarCraft 2.

Yeah. We've got new content coming out. I think it's Patch 3.8 that's coming out. We have Minor Evacuation, which is a new mission for co-op as well. And we have the final installment mission packs for the Covert Ops mission packs.

What have you guys learned from all the content you've put out so far for StarCraft? What's been the key takeaways on how that relates to the StarCraft world?

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There's been a few lessons, I think. One of the ones that I've enjoyed the most, that's been very positive for us, is prior to Legacy of the Void, everything was a boxed product. We developed the features and the content for a product and then we released it. 2016 has been about these micro-content drops. Every couple months we're adding more things. As a development team, that allows us to get more feedback quickly. When we were going from Heart of the Swarm into Legacy of the Void, there wasn't a lot of feedback. We could ask, and would get stuff from the fan base, but now that we're in the cycle of continuously releasing content, we're starting to get more feedback which allows us to really react. That's probably been one of the biggest, positive aspects of going to this kind of model.

What's been the primary type of feedback you've gotten from the community?

Well, it depends on which person you're listening to. There's been a lot of positive feedback. This is the thing that probably caught us off-guard the most surrounding co-op. People came out and were like, "I've never posted before. Thank you so much. I love StarCraft. I really couldn't play multiplayer, but now I'm coming in and I'm playing co-op again."

So we've seen positive feedback about the mode in general. We've seen feedback on particular commanders, if they feel that they're not utilized properly. We get a lot of bugs that way. People tell us when something's broken. We're like, "Oh, we didn't know that. Let's take care of that." So we've seen that kind of feedback. We've seen just general, healthy comments about the game. I think StarCraft 2 fans are so avid and they're so good about policing themselves. Even when people have had bad comments, the rest of the community will just come down and say, "No, no. What are you doing? StarCraft 2 development is awesome. We should be trying to throw money at these guys, because we love this game. We want this game to keep going." Right? So it's been mostly positive. I can't really, off the top of my head, think of a negative comment that I've read in the last year.

For me personally, I love that single-player experience, the story-based experiences. When do you think you'll revisit the story of StarCraft in a big way?

"Consoles and other platforms are what a lot of people are playing, so if somehow we could convert that stuff and figure out what would work, I think that would be awesome."

We talk about it, but right now we aren't going to do any more single-player campaigns. We're not going to do another mission drop, like the Covert Ops. We do have War Chess that we announced earlier today that's coming out for StarCraft, which is a series of exclusive content, so players can buy into that, get that content, and then earn more content. One of the big pieces that you get with this War Chest is lore. You could get it from the client as a graphic novel kind of comic book...We still have areas to explore story-wise, but as far as making single-player campaign mission? We're not doing that. We're going to be focusing on the co-op, and driving, what I would call, a loose narrative with the co-op missions.

For you, what excites you most about the future of StarCraft?

I'm still super excited about the co-op because we get to break a lot of game rules. Single-player has a very strict narrative story we tell. Multiplayer has very strict rules, because of the meta and the competitive landscape. But with co-op, we just keep coming up with crazy ideas like Stukov. He's really stretching the boundaries for us as to the things we can do in an RTS.

We have all these infested units that just automatically spawn from his factory. He's got a special ability in the barracks, and then he's got a top-bar ability, which is kind of like dropping a beacon, and you just guide this massive army rolling around, and you build a couple of units on top of it. It's been a lot of fun coming up with crazy powers and coming up with fun missions that we think would be fun for two players to play. I don't think there's an end in sight for us as far as the things that we can do with co-op.

What made you decide to go with Stukov?

Over the last year, we've heard a lot from fans about what commanders they thought we were going to do next. Most of the time they were pretty close. We were thinking along the the same lines, and for me, Stukov has such a visual brand recognition. I mean, he's the crossover from StarCraft: Brood War. So for all the people have that nostalgia for Brood Wars, here's a direct character from Brood War. Obviously we saw him in Heart of the Swarm as an ally with Kerrigan.

Gameplay-wise, smashing Terran and Zerg technology together, we just did some crazy stuff. Our siege tanks have tentacles, right? And, these tentacles grab their own infested units as ammo and fling them off like a catapult. We're just doing weird stuff. It's been a lot of fun.

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Speaking of weird stuff, a long time ago there was a console version of StarCraft 2. Have you guys ever thought about going back to that and maybe reinvigorating StarCraft that way. Particularly with the success of PS4 and Xbox One?

RTS on console is a conversation probably happens in the hallway regularly. What would it look like? How would it work? All those things come up. Going back to the N64 version of StarCraft, I don't know if you remember, but it was a split-screen. You could have a co-op experience. Two big armies on that, so you just had this really, narrow view. But the thing that always came out as a challenge was the controllers.

How do you control it? How do you micro? Or do we change RTS to be macro? We don't know. We have no plans of making a console RTS just to be clear on that. But I think someone at some time will come up with some kind of control scheme. It might not look like a StarCraft 2 thing, where StarCraft is really about large armies. It's the whole resource, macro-level, then the micro-battles. It might be something closer to War 3 or just more squad-based. I don't know what it is, but I love RTS. I think more people should be looking into RTS.

Consoles and other platforms are what a lot of people are playing, so if somehow we could convert that stuff and figure out what would work, I think that would be awesome.

And, not as something you guys are working on, but several great RTS experience have come out on VR. Have you gotten to try many of those?

I have not tried a lot of them. Last year Blizzard helped out with the inaugural TwitchCon where some of the artists got together and the story-mode space. They built it so that you could just stand there and look around in that space. It was well received, and it was a lot of work just to get that little bit working. I'm excited to see what VR's going to do. For me, I don't think it's even scratched the surface yet. I think it's going to take a lot of games to come out to figure out what really works. I can only imagine what an RTS in the VR space, of seeing so many units running across a battle field. I think that would look awesome.

Thinking about StarCraft as an esport, what do you see as the future of of the game going in to 2017?

I'm not as in-tune as David Kim as far as the plans for the esports team, but what I hope to see more of is what I'm seeing a now. I didn't even realize that ESPN esports is broadcasting these, right? I'd love to see more and more people just become familiar with it, and to start to see this on major network channels. I think StarCraft 2 is one of the best 1v1 competitive games out there. People who aren't familiar with games can get caught up in it, and that's where I hope we grow.

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