StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm Q&A With Dustin Browder

We talk to the current man for all things StarCraft related, Dustin Browder, on Kerrigan's space-laced revenge tale.


GameSpot Asia managed to land a tour around the hallowed halls of Blizzard Entertainment's Irvine campus recently. In addition to checking out one of Blizzard's other long-awaited title (stay tuned next week, by the by), we had a chat with StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm's lead designer Dustin Browder about the expansion's progress and the changes it may bring to the multiplayer scene.

GameSpot Asia: What's the main theme of the Campaign mode if you have to sum it up in one word?

Dustin Browder: Fury. Revenge. Hatred. Kerrigan has been grievously wronged by the universe. Arcturus Mengsk has betrayed her, left her behind, and taken by the Zerg to become a murderer of billions. After the events in Wings of Liberty, she now has some of her free will back, and she's pissed. That's going to be one of the challenges for the character. Does she succumb to that rage completely and be destroyed by it? Or does she transcend in any way?

GSA: Will we see a more sympathetic side to this tale?

DB: Definitely. We're going to beat up on the poor girl really badly in the story. Raynor had it easy in Wings of Liberty. Kerrigan has experienced a lot of losses and destruction, and she's going to be enraged by all that's taken from her.

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GSA: What was your team's inspiration in doing a DOTA-style take on StarCraft II's Campaign mode?

DB: We had to. Raynor's made of flesh and blood. If he gets shot on the chin with a Yamato cannon, he's dead. And there's no logical, rational way to come back from that. You could make up a story where he teleports at the last minute, but come on: He's dog meat in that circumstance. We've all seen that Kerrigan is the queen goddess of the Zerg. She's capable of dying and returning; players have seen that several times in Wings of Liberty. Not putting Kerrigan [in that gameplay spotlight a la DOTA] is like not having Superman in a Superman game. People will be like "What, are you kidding me?" She can blow up Thors with her mind and smash a battle cruiser fleet with sheer power.

We figured that she had to be on the map, and she had to be a weapon of war you can employ. She had to be something that you could put at the forefront of the army and cut enemies into ribbons.

GSA: With the level on the snow-heavy Kaldir being shown on the first time on the StarCraft II engine, what else can players expect in terms of new stages and hazards?

DB: We're doing everything we can to bring players into the weird exotic places in the StarCraft II universe. We're definitely not going to bring Kerrigan over to farm areas like Raynor was in back in Wings of Liberty. I don't know where we're all going to be yet, but we're working really hard on [figuring out locations for Kerrigan's revenge trip]. [We're brainstorming to ourselves] "Can we go to strange exotic gas giants? Can we go to the frozen and hot worlds? Can we go to the forbidden areas where the Zergs were first formed? Can we go to that top secret Dominion labs?"

GSA: What are your thoughts on the latest StarCraft II balances?

DB: It's going well for us. I don't know if the fans agree with that.

GSA: What are the most common complaints?

DB: There's currently a concern with the Zerg Infestor's power fungal growth. I still hear a lot of complaints about the Zerg still not being strong enough, as well as Terrans still being too flexible. The latter's the most persistent one for the longest time. That's almost a design flaw not a balance flaw. We just have too many good units in that race. It's hard to cut units in that race and say, "I know you have a lot of good units, but we're killing two because [your race] is too good." (laughs) That's not going to work. And it's not fun to go, "Hey, you know that unit that was fun and useful? Well, we ruined it, so now your race is balanced." That feels terrible too. Those are some of the hot areas I've heard.

We've fixed a lot of that. The other complaint we're coming back to that was frustrating was the four gate rush in Protoss vs. Protoss. We've done some fixes and it was great. Within the first three days, everyone stopped doing it and it was like, "Arrgh, Blizzard nerfed it! Don't do it anymore." We were like, "We don't think it was that bad." Sure enough, a week later the community was fine with it. PVP was still not as diverse as we wanted it to be; so we'd like to fix that. We're still studying this stuff. Things change so rapidly. We had multiple times now where we've gone and put out a patch. The patch goes through quality assurance and through localization so that it releases throughout multiple regions at the same time.

It's a lengthy process from deciding which balances we want to do to the point where it got live in the community. We've done nerfs to the bunkers and the rushes are no longer in the game by the time the patch goes live. We're like, "Do we need this? Eh…alright, let's just put in what we thought was good at the time and just go with it." The dynamics change so quickly that sometimes it's hard for us to keep up. The fans are still learning so much from the game and figuring out what works. I don't know how much balanced the game is six months from now to a year, but our internal members that checked the win/loss percentage in all regions are very positive except for Grandmaster Korea, which shows an advantage to Terran.

However, we've heard from Korean pro gamers and casual players that this is more of a cultural issue than anything else. Part of the factor is that Terrans do the easiest early-game rushes and they're the most defendable against them too; Koreans do the most rushing when compared to the rest of the world. But I don't know; it could all be lies. It could be, "Oh, it's broken, but [the dev team] did not know that yet." The Europeans, the Americans, and the Chinese haven't figured it out yet.

On the plus side, specifically in the e-sports scene, the win-losses are pretty good in all tournaments. We've seen lots of champions for different races. We've seen Terran, Protoss, and Zerg players win in America, Europe, Korea, Southeast Asia, and China; that's good diversity. If suddenly we get a month of Zerg wins every match, it would be a total disaster. Keep your fingers crossed; things have been going real well for us.

Looking sharp, Kerrigan.
Looking sharp, Kerrigan.

GSA: The official SC2 forums stated that there will be a Heart of the Swarm multiplayer beta coming out. What else can you add on that Wings of Liberty's multiplayer has covered last year?

DB: Well, it's tough. The Terrans have enough stuff already, thus it becomes a guessing game to know what to do for them. We have to be careful about what new units we can add to the game. At the end of the day, we still have to add in cool s***. [Players] are giving us their money; we have to give them something cool.

There are some easy things we can do and there are some hard things. If we study the game, for example, you would say that the corruptor is lame. Don't get us wrong; they're useful. If there are a lot of colossi, you need corruptors. If there are dark templars, you need overseers. They have a battle function for a situation, but what new battle strategies and tactics do they add in the game? Compare the two to the mutalisks; a player can raid, harass. They can get board control; they can decimate opponents without antiair. Party, right? Having those guys around changes the match. Corruptors? Meh. You build colossi, I build corruptors; end of story.

There are some units we can upgrade wholesale or remove and replace with something better. That's one easy way to give better gameplay without giving so many options you don't know what's going on while also not compromising balance. There may be other places we can legitimately add. For instance, the Protoss don't really have a great way to raid. To a point; they can kind of raid with Phoenixes with anti-gravs and they can cheese with void rays, but that's not really fun. But we can add in a legitimate Protoss raider that gives a player new strategies.

There are a few places (not very many) where we can do new roles for races that are missing roles. There are definitely units that can die in the fire so that we can replace them with something cool. We're looking to upgrade some units and add a few, but we need to keep the unit list down because we don't know how big it's going to be [at this point in time].

GSA: How about applying the expansion concept of Brood Wars in terms of multiplayer?

DB: In that expansion, we added two or three per race. I don't know what we'll do ultimately. We may add one per race plus tweaks, or we may do two on some, maybe three. Not all races will be given equal treatment; the Terrans are really, really good and it's really hard to do more with them. While the other races currently have an equal opportunity to beat them (except for Korean Grandmasters), Terrans are still more flexible and we don't want to add that.

GSA: How about new additions for

Kerrigan's Zerg army kicking tail on Kaldir.
Kerrigan's Zerg army kicking tail on Kaldir.

DB: We'd love to [do shoutcasting features]. Right now, there's arcade where we overhaul our custom game interface to make it easier for players to search for custom mods, as well as filter searches so that it'll display the most popular, the most-played ones and new ones off the assembly line. This would lead to a quality-based mod ecosystem, right? The current interface just shows off the most-played ones all the time, so we wanted to shake that up a bit. We'll also have to add in the ability for users to share and sell their custom games to other users.

GSA: Borrowing an example from SSFIV: AE, are there any plans to add in an option to track pro players from the replays they contributed online?

DB: That would be cool. We don't know if we'll have that or not though. The team has been doing a lot of live server updates and a ton of stuff since Wings of Liberty was shipped like the Grandmasters league; more content patches than we did for WarCraft III, we might add. We're not nearly as efficient as the World of WarCraft guys [due to team numbers differences], but we're way more efficient than before.

GSA: How many people are working on Heart of the Swarm?

DB: The total number of people who worked eight hours on StarCraft is over 150, but the number of core guys who are working on the user interface and game content is about 70.

GSA: Any past units from the first StarCraft to make a comeback? (*cough*Lurkers*cough)

DB: There's a chance[laughs]. We're not ashamed of putting [the Lurkers] back in. I'm sure they're pretty high on the community request list. They are pretty mighty, since they offer two things to the overall Zerg strategy: the ability to attack while cloaked and the ability to push into a tier-two building. We may have different solutions other than the Lurker, but we're still working on it.

GSA: With a total of 20 missions for the Story mode campaign, how many hours do you think the single-player campaign will take?

DB: We don't know. We just make the missions as cool as they can be, then worry about the number of hours one mission would hit later. For most users, I would guess about 20 hours or maybe less.

GSA: How about the price point? What about the rumors of Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void costing the same as Wings of Liberty?

DB: I don't know what the price point is, but we always charge what we think the game is worth. So, if Wings of Liberty had 30 missions and Heart of the Swarm has 20, then that will probably amount to less money [on the consumer's part]. Because we're offering less, players will expect less than Wings of Liberty. It also depends on what the competition is charging, alongside other variables [in terms of expansions]. The plan is not for all three to be the same price; there was never a secret plan by either us or Activision.

Players can evolve their Zerglings into two different subspecies to complement their play style.
Players can evolve their Zerglings into two different subspecies to complement their play style.

GSA: What about cameos and appearances of characters from part one and Brood Wars?

DB: We don't want to spoil anything, but we're obviously big fans of the lore. We'll definitely bring back the characters from part one and Brood Wars. Samir Duran? Maybe, but you can expect the obvious major players like Raynor and Mengsk.

GSA: Here's a hypothetical one: When the StarCraft II trilogy is all said and done, would Blizzard be looking back and reforming the pieces of StarCraft: Ghost?

DB: It's a possibility. I don't want to lead [people] on; no one's working on it. But that would be really fun and cool, and we've also talked to the team about it from time to time to see that project finished.

GSA: Finally, could you cap off with a release window for Heart of the Swarm?

DB: We don't know; almost really not this year. If we come to a point where we release [Diablo III and Heart of the Swarm] almost around the same time period, then that would be a tough one. I mean, that never almost happens with us, right? It's not something we're sweating about. The two missions we've showed off [in May] are polished, but they're really not done. We've got lots of missions done to a pretty good level but not like the [aforementioned ones]. We're pretty far along in development.

For more information, check out GameSpot's previous hands-on with the expansion.

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