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TVG speaks with Blizzard co-founder Frank Pearce about development of the StarCraft sequel, and more...
The excitement surrounding the development of StarCraft II is near palpable in RTS circles, with Blizzard Entertainment now a decade on since the first title launched. Since then, the studio has experienced massive changes, from the launch of World of Warcraft to the merger with Activision - but how has that all affected the team ethos?
At the Leipzig Game Convention, TVG caught up with Blizzard co-founder and Vice President, Frank Pearce, along with PR man Bob Colayco, to discuss the ongoing development of the long-awaited StarCraft sequel, the franchise's competition, the current state of the Warcraft movie, and the future of the genre itself...
TVG: How is development on StarCraft II going to date?
Pearce: Go ahead Bob...
Bob Colayco: Right now, we're at internal alpha, we've been playing multiplayer games with all three races. In recent months, there's also been a lot of focus on the single player campaign, implementing certain ideas and trying out certain things to finalise decisions on the direction that's going to go.
That's where it stands right now, there's still all lot of work to do on the single player campaign, and also building things up on the Battle.net side of things. [On the] multiplayer, we've got a solid foundation right now, but there's continuing balance work being done.
TVG: StarCraft's main virtue has always been its multiplayer, but it does sound like the campaign is being focused on late in the day. Why leave it so late?
Pearce: I wouldn't classify it as 'late'. We've been contemplating the single-player component since day one, it's just a question of where our focus has been in applying the resources to actual implementation. It's really important to have the multiplayer foundation in place for iterating on that experience, as well as determining what the single-player experience is going to be like.
We have a general idea of the storyline we want to tell, but we have to set that in the context of the missions that you play. It just made more sense to focus on the multiplayer missions and the multiplayer foundations before we moved onto the single-player experience.
Colayco: If you think about the framework of how the different factions and units are built, that's kind of the skeleton of an RTS game. Once you have that more or less in place, you can then build up on that and create a single-player campaign with those principles in mind of how those units and factions are going to work.
TVG: I ask because StarCraft II seems to be every bit the 'traditional' RTS, and is trying to capture the strengths of its heritage. At the same time though, do you feel there's enough there to drive forward a genre that's fifteen years old and has been described as stale?
Colayco: I think there's a lot we have to offer for people who've played RTSs for this long, but [also] players who are new to the genre. You mentioned that there's a lot of multiplayer focus in StarCraft and that it was its real strength, but I think that maybe sometimes people also forget that when StarCraft was originally released, it was also hailed as having one of the most dynamic and interesting campaigns of a strategy game.
We've got awesome lore and very iconic characters and an epic storyline to tell, and with StarCraft II we're trying to flesh that out and build that out even more. If you think about the way that the single-player campaign and the lore expanded between Warcraft II and Warcraft III, we really put a lot of focus in that game on telling more details about the locations.
In StarCraft II, you're going to learn a lot more about the planets and the settings; we're introducing more characters, exploring multiple plotlines in the campaign, bringing players closer to the characters with our interactive sets. I think that aspect of it holds a lot of appeal for anyone really, not just people who are interested in strategy games.
Pearce: It's really a factor of looking at the classic RTS experience and not necessarily evolving that experience, but building around that experience to build the game.
TVG: You talk about expanding the lore this time around in a similar manner as Warcraft II to Warcraft III; the next step after Warcraft III was World of Warcraft, so I have to ask - is this laying down the foundations for the often rumoured 'Universe of StarCraft'?
Pearce: Anything we do to evolve the storyline in a franchise lays the foundation for whatever we want to do in the future. One of our goals with these franchises is to create rich, deep worlds that we can use to leverage for all sorts of things, whether it's novels, comic books, games of different genres, or even movies. We're also in the process of trying to have a Warcraft movie made.
Colayco: In recent months we've had a StarCraft board game introduced, and manga comics. So having a greatly fleshed out lore and background to a story lends itself to all these different projects.
TVG: Is there a plan in place for StarCraft II to take its place in professional gaming tournaments, perhaps replacing the likes of Warcraft III, which is still being used?
Pearce: Well we don't have any intention of launching StarCraft II and having it replace any of the products, whether it's our games or somebody else's games for eSport. Even after we launch StarCraft II, we'll continue to provide support for the original StarCraft in the competitive community. Hopefully Starcraft II will be something that's leveraged right at launch in competitive gaming, but a big factor is how big third party leagues and tournaments and pro players want to leverage it.
Colayco: You talk about whether we have a plan in place - we don't have a release date, so it's hard to have a plan in that regard.
TVG: You obviously have your own internal targets for when StarCraft II will launch, but are you even able to say '2009'?
Colayco: We're not really able to say anything other than 'when it's done'.
Pearce: We'll see how things go.
TVG: Relic Entertainment has announced that Dawn of War II will be released in the first quarter of 2009; how do you feel about their ideas about where the RTS genre should be heading?
Pearce: They've got some cool stuff. I've heard about Dawn of War II potentially having a co-operative [campaign] experience, which is a really cool idea. [It's] something we talked about that we don't have for the launch of StarCraft II, but it's definitely something that we've kept in mind when creating the technology so it doesn't preclude from doing something like that in the future.
TVG: If you went down that path, is it something you'd consider for a patch or would you keep it back for an expansion?
Pearce: It could be either. I don't know about a patch, hopefully the technology we'll have in place with the map editor and Battle.net will make it something that if we wanted to do, we could do it with a map pack.
TVG: How has the merger with Activision affected development?
Pearce: It hasn't really affected us at all. The folks at Blizzard that are mostly impacted by something like that are the ones in finance, in Human Resources, and in IT. The development teams have been able to continue and not worry about that.
Colayco: Even as a Product PR Manager, I haven't been affected by that. For a vast majority of people at Blizzard, it really has been very much business as usual during and after this whole process. That's really a credit to our executives like Frank, Mike Morhaime, and Paul Sams, who really have enabled us to maintain an independence to stay focused on what's important - which is the product.
TVG: As an executive Frank, you've no doubt been in meetings with the Activision top brass; have there been any new targets or milestones for Blizzard, or has the strategy for the franchises changed through the merger?
Pearce: The Activision leadership have a lot of industry experience; they're been in the industry for a long time. They definitely recognise the value of what we've achieved and the difficult in achieving that success, and don't' have any desire to change the way we do things because we've been successful.
TVG: I was asking because Activision as a publisher has several franchises that they rely upon for annual updates, and I was wondering whether there'd be any changes to planned development cycles?
Pearce: No, we're still going to take whatever time is required to make our standards of quality. One of our policies is to make investments in the Blizzard brand and not take withdrawals. We make investments in the brand by taking a long-term view of the world and recognising that more damage is done by releasing a game that's not ready, than the damage that's done by holding it for a little bit extra to make sure that it's right.
TVG: With several attempts made by the likes of EA to bringing RTS titles to console failing to really taking off, do you think that the RTS genre could make it on the console? Both Michael de Plater at Ubisoft Shanghai and Mark Noseworthy at Relic Entertainment agree that one of the main hurdles is that PC titles are generally played eighteen inches from the screen, whereas console games can be played several feet away - what are your thoughts?
Pearce: It depends on whether you have a development team that's really committed to that idea. If they were developing it from the ground up with that in mind then it's certainly a possibility. We're developing StarCraft II for the ground up on the PC in mind, and we don't have any intentions for taking it over to the console. But you know, it just depends on the development team, their ambitions, and their thoughts about it.
TVG: There's no plan to even pave the way for a StarCraft RTS on the console by resurrecting StarCraft Ghost for instance?
Pearce: No, we've got our hands full with StarCraft II, Diablo III, and Wrath of the LIch King - Ghost isn't even on the radar.
TVG: So as it stands, Ghost remains a dead project?
Pearce: No one is working on it - describe that however you want.
Colayco: We still think it's a cool idea, but no one is working on it.
TVG: How do you think the RTS genre will develop in the coming years?
Colayco: One thing that's cool about RTS over the years is that there seems to be a lot of games filling a lot of niches. The Total War series has a meta-game attached to it; you can even think of games like Patapon on the PSP. In the strictest way it's an RTS, just one that's been married to Parappa the Rapper.
There's a lot of different niches and a lot of different places for people to be doing different things in the future. But we feel like there's plenty of demand for more traditional games like this.
TVG: Are there any new modes for Multiplayer in StarCraft II?
Pearce: We're just planning the basic gametypes right now. One of the things that we want to do is wait and see what kind of gametypes evolve from the community, because we're going to launch will a fully featured map editor.
TVG: How flexible will the map editor be?
Pearce: It'll be more flexible than the Warcraft III editor.
TVG: And is it something that you plan to make pretty accessible or is it targeted towards the hardcore?
Pearce: It's the same development tool that our designers are using, so it's not something that a novice will be able to just pick up and use. Some of the development philosophies that we have for the game, 'easy to use, difficult to master', don't necessarily apply to the tools that we release to the community for user-created content.
TVG: A lot of people were rumouring that Diablo III could hit in 2011 or 2012...
Colayco: Personally I hope that it's sooner.
TVG: But StarCraft II would be released before that, wouldn't it?
Pearce: I wouldn't assume anything. Certainly, that's our hope - StarCraft II is ahead of Diablo III in the development cycle.
TVG: Despite the success of WoW, is the Warcraft RTS series something you'd consider going back to?
Pearce: It's really a factor on what the development teams want to work on. At the moment they're busy with the projects they've got, but when they roll off those projects, if one of those teams were passionate about a new Warcraft RTS then we'd seriously discuss it.
TVG: What's the latest on the Warcraft movie?
Pearce: I think they're looking to assign a screenwriter and director to it right now.
TVG: So it's still very early days?
Pearce: Yeah, it's still really early.
TVG would like to thank Frank and Bob at Blizzard for taking the time to answer our questions, together with Jonnie Bryant at Vivendi Games. StarCraft II is due for release 'when it's done'.
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