Last week we asked for interview questions to help supplement our face-to-face interviews at Blizzcon. Over the course of the two-day con we were able to sit down with StarCraft II's Dustin Browder, Diablo III's Leonard Boyarsky, WoW's J. Allen Brack, and Battle.net expert Rob Pardo to answer a few questions on each of the four major camps in Blizzard at the moment. Since this wasn't a usual Slashdot-style interview, we tried to use as many of your suggestions as possible, but the conversation often took us in a unique direction once it got rolling.Dustin Browder — Lead Designer, Starcraft 2
Slashdot: How much of the team has already rolled over to Heart of the Swarm?
Dustin Browder: Almost no one. Occasional meetings with Cinematics team, who wants to get a jump on things, and the occasional water cooler conversation. Pretty much everyone is focused entirely on Wings of Liberty.
Slashdot: How much of your work from Wings of Liberty will you be able to duplicate throughout the other two installments of the trilogy?
Dustin Browder: Very little. We have tools and we have an engine, and that's huge. We also have a lot more knowledge of what we're trying to accomplish with the scenes and with the story, so we have a lot of benefit from the software that is already created and a lot of knowledge to help us move faster.
Slashdot: How many of those software tools are going to be available to the community-at-large?
Dustin Browder: As many as we can. Certainly the data editor, the map editor, and the terrain editor. That lets users create pretty much anything the design staff can create. Since the story-mode stuff is put together by one of our designers — he collects the art from cinematics and makes it all happen — all that stuff is accessible as well. I'm not gonna lie to you and tell you this stuff is easy; this guy is really smart, and this stuff is complicated, but it's totally doable. We have seen our fans do some amazing things in the past with a very limited toolset by comparison. In this case we're really hopeful that they will do a lot of cool stuff. I can't even guess what they are going to do. [Dustin gave a panel later on in the day where demonstrated some of the things that Blizzard employees had done in their spare time just playing around with the tools. A few examples were; an "Uberlisk" which had a number of spine crawlers on his back and wandered around terrorizing a board filled with hostiles, a zoomed-in third-person action game with a Ghost as the main character, with the ability to interact with "quest givers" and actually go inside buildings and underground, and a top-scrolling space shooter.]
Slashdot: There has been some talk that the streamlining of commands has been moving the focus away from actions per minute [APM]. How important is APM as a metric for you and will we see a decline in the importance of this metric?
Dustin Browder: That type of feedback is incredibly important for us. We want players making smart decisions all the time and we want a lot of skill required to play this game at the highest levels. We absolutely want the best players to be the best players. We're not looking to even out or flatten the skill curve so that "everybody can be a winner." This is not the first grade. We want this to be tennis, baseball, football, whatever, we want this to be a game that requires real skill. But at the same time we don't want this to be a bunch of bogus skill. We have definitely gotten rid of some clicks, but we have also added some clicks back in. We got rid of some clicks in terms of how you had to select your buildings and how you had to give build commands, but we also made sure that we had the finest amount of control at the same time.
When we originally put it out there we said you could double-click the barracks and hit 'M,' and you get five marines, one from each barracks for instance. The fans were outraged and we kind of ignored them, saying, "Whatever, this is a better gameplay experience," but as we played it, we realized that it wasn't a better gameplay experience. Maybe when you hit 'M,' what you really wanted was three marines and two marauders, and you couldn't do that. Instead we have said you can select all of your barracks at once, but each click sends a build command individually to each of those barracks. So now you are able to hit "M, M, M, D, D." This gave us a decent amount of clicks, but actually the correct amount of control. That's actually the control you wanted as a player. We weren't looking to hurt you by giving you too many clicks or hold your hand by taking away some of the gameplay experience. We were actually giving you the controls that made you powerful by having the correct balance between the two.
Also we have a bunch of macro mechanics in the game to encourage players to control their economy better, because as you know in Starcraft, economy is king. One of the things that we loved about the original Starcraft was not so much that we want you to click a bunch, but that there was a lot of tension between players who were micro-oriented and players who were economy-oriented. For instance, if you are playing Zerg and are micro-oriented and I'm playing Zerg and I'm economy-oriented, we're kind of playing two different races — not exactly, but a little bit. We're having a very different experience, and that style difference now becomes the interesting problem for both of us, and that is what we're really pursuing with a lot of this stuff. So, we've definitely taken some clicks away, but we have added some back, and I think the fans will be fine with it. Certainly the hardcore fans I've spoken with, who have actually had a chance to play the game, seem to be very positive about the experience.
Slashdot: It looks like the new league system is going a long way toward making the play experience much better across the board, and will allow people to grow at their own pace. What can you tell us about how this system works?
Dustin Browder: We think this system will really help a lot of players. Even if you are going to stay down in the copper league forever, at least you are playing against your skill level and can hope to win something. In Warcraft 3, minus the "Smurfs" who would come through and ruin everybody's day, we had a pretty good matchmaking system and you could win about half your games. I know most people would prefer to win about 70% of their games, but that would mean someone else has to lose 70% of their games, and we don't want that. If we can match you against your skill level, I think that's where you wanna be and you'll have a good time. So now, if I can put you in a bronze league of 100 players and all those players are your skill level, that means you have a shot of being number one in that league at the end of the season. I think that is going to be a lot more fun for people. When you go to play intramural softball, you know Sammy Sosa isn't showing up. While it might be fun for about two minutes, it would ruin the game and no one would have a good time. If we can keep everyone organized into the skill level they belong I think everyone will have a lot more fun.
Slashdot: What kind of side projects is Blizzard looking at? Any possibility of expanding things to the console, tangentially-related mobile games of any kind, or maybe another pass at Ghost?
Dustin Browder: Starcraft 2. That's about it. We're really focused and we don't mess around with a research division or anything like that. When we think of cool ideas, we build them until they are done and we don't stop. We had the mobile Armory that we announced, but that's more of a support tool than a new game or stand-alone app. For console, we certainly don't have anything that I'm aware of that's going on right now. I'm not saying we wouldn't explore it down the road; it could be a very real possibility. All of us play console games and we all love our XBoxes, Wiis, and Playstations. The gamers are there, the fanaticism exists in the building, it's just a question of when it will bubble to the surface and find a successful outlet.
Slashdot: How do you see ongoing content being developed? You have the main trilogy, but once you are done with that, do you see discrete content releases of some sort, ongoing smaller patches, or maybe even interesting things like the holiday patches in WoW? The new Battle.net framework seems to offer you a lot more options for keeping people up-to-date.
Dustin Browder: The holiday stuff is certainly something we would like to explore via free patches, just to throw it out there. Other smaller patches like new maps or bug-fixes would also certainly come quickly as it was needed. What additional content we actually choose to possibly charge for, I don't know, but I think it would have to be something of extreme value in order to get excited about that. We don't like putting out stuff that we feel dirty about. We argue about it quite a bit, what is enough value and what isn't, what did it cost us, what do we have to charge, those kinds of decisions. Most of those decisions happen above my level, which is great, but certainly the teams have a great deal of influence over those decisions. Most of that stuff, at least initially, will be more patch oriented, but if we find something that is of real value we'll discuss it.
Slashdot: With Starcraft being so data-oriented, you have already put out some really cool tools for recap and data-analysis. Is there any hope of external APIs so that third party developers can do things like scorebots, profiling, armory-type tools that don't necessarily live within Blizzard?
Dustin Browder: Certainly a lot of that stuff is exposed and is possible for players to get their hooks into. I don't know what will happen ultimately with that, but I'm certainly hopeful that we have a large, happy, thriving community of people developing third-party support tools.
Slashdot: As Linux and open source continue to gain popularity and market share, is there any hope of Blizzard allowing some of the internal Linux-based tools and clients to make their way into the public domain, even if they weren't supported?
Dustin Browder: I have no idea what the rules surrounding that are or why that may or may not happen. I don't know of any plans, but that doesn't mean they aren't happening out there. Certainly we have supported the Mac for years and years and definitely plan to continue to do so. We try to support other platforms, but at this point I don't know of any specific plans for Linux.
Slashdot: The other question that is a constant concern within the fan base of Starcraft is the question of disallowing LAN play. How are you solving problems like making sure this is a valid replacement for LAN plan; security, reliability, speed, or even people playing behind things like NAT routers?
Dustin Browder: These are issues that we continue to address as we go forward. Some of these things we have some plans for, but not all of them. It is something that we definitely plan on working on as we go forward to make sure we have things in place to handle every possible user case out there. We just know from WoW that most people can connect online and play. There are some cases out there, some legitimate-use cases — that aren't just people that refuse to buy a modem or are crazy and weird and living in a closet. We want to make sure we are able to support these legitimate-use cases for LAN play and make it accessible to those users, but we're still trying to identify all of those and decide which cases are legitimate and which are not. These are definitely legitimate concerns, and we're certainly looking to address them.
Leonard Boyarsky — Lead World Designer, Diablo III
Slashdot: I noticed that you have moved away from the strict left mouse/right mouse ability limitation and have created more opportunities for players to map keys and use abilities beyond the two major "equipped" abilities. What was the driving reason behind this decision?
Leonard Boyarsky: Well, we had that to some degree in Diablo II, it was just really inaccessible and not fun. Our main goal is to have the player focus on two skills and maybe that alternate ability that you can tab in, while moving some of the more passive or non-targeted abilities to the hotbar. Of course, minor refinements are going to continue to go on as we develop, but we wanted a way for you to augment your main skills. In a game like Diablo, your character is really defined by what your main attack is. Unless you are a real hardcore user, you probably aren't going to be switching up attacks constantly.
Slashdot: With the advent of the new Battle.net features and the evolution of gameplay in Diablo III, do you anticipate any major changes to the PvM Ladder setup or maybe some specific PvP elements?
Leonard Boyarsky: A lot of the stuff being developed for Starcraft II and Battle.net, we want to incorporate. All of the community features and chatting across games is very important and we'll definitely incorporate that where it makes sense. We haven't talked a lot about a PvP component, but we think it is a great aspect of the game. The part that we didn't like from the earlier games is that people could turn hostile at any time and stab party members in the back. The people who get upset that we're not going to have that aspect are generally the people who would kill their party members at a moments notice. So, maybe we'll find something where they can all go stab each other in the back apart from the people who don't want that as an experience. As far as specifics for PvP, rest assured that we're going to come up with whatever we can that is the best possible PvP experience for a Diablo-style game. Right now, we're really focused on the co-op play and using whatever we can from Battle.net to enhance that experience.
Slashdot: When you integrate with Battle.net, will that also integrate with other data streams? Recently when they were discussing World of Warcraft's integration with Battle.net, there was the possibility of a guild news RSS feed. Can we expect to see things like data export and clan support?
Leonard Boyarsky: I don't really know what the plans are for that, but I would assume if they are going to have something like that for WoW or StarCraft II and it works out, there is no reason why we wouldn't integrate that into Diablo III. I'm not the most technically-minded person; I'm more on the artistic/creative side of things, but we talk all the time about how to get all the community stuff that we can in, even if it isn't there at launch, so that it becomes this fantastic player experience.
Slashdot: Speaking of the artistic side of the house, are you looking to leverage your community for artistic injections into the Diablo III universe, like custom levels, modding, or even total conversion mods that just utilize the Diablo III engine?
Leonard Boyarsky: We discussed that early on because Starcraft II is doing so much modding support. But when you look at the style of game that Diablo is, it is based around a lot of random content. So when you look at it from that standpoint, someone might be able to make some very specific content, but the basis of what we're providing for the player is a random system. So are they just going to provide a different random system? Also, the creation of our art is very intense in terms of not only the talent and technical expertise required to get it into the engine, but manipulating it and using it with our tools. It would take a lot of work to make that friendly for the end user who didn't have a programmer there to help them figure out some of the finer points. We just didn't see the bang for the buck in doing something like that and it was never really a big part of the Diablo fan base. Having said that, if someone comes along and takes the Diablo engine and makes a fantastic game out of it, more power to them. We just didn't feel that was where we could add the most value for the players, because that just isn't what the community is about.
Slashdot: The Diablo franchise is especially iconic for things like easter eggs and secrets. Can we expect the same of depth in Diablo III? Any hints?
Leonard Boyarsky: No, no hints. They wouldn't be easter eggs then. We'll probably drop some hints here and there, maybe post some easter eggs on the web for people to dig out. Maybe some red herrings to send people in the wrong direction, but most of that stuff just comes naturally during development. As you develop areas, these things come up, and we're always throwing around ideas. So yeah, we talk about that all the time, and we are planning on doing quite a bit of that stuff.
Slashdot: I'm sure you guys are tired of the LAN dispute, but what specific things are the Diablo team looking at in terms of trying to provide value from Battle.net to assuage some of the fear that this is just an inconvenient take on DRM?
Leonard Boyarsky: Well, once again, I'm not the most technically-minded person and I want to get you guys a really good answer for that. I don't want to steer you guys the wrong way. Right now most of the implementation of Battle.net is Starcraft-focused, so I know that is our goal right now, but I know Rob [Pardo] has talked about how their fans use LANs for tournaments and the like ,so they have talked about how their fan base might need some kind of deployable LAN solution. The Diablo team is in the enviable position of letting them work out how all that is going to work and how they are going to solve all of those contingencies. Hopefully our track record will speak for itself and our fans can take us at our word that we are doing this not because of any business model or corporate mandate. We believe that we can give the best multiplayer experience by going in this direction. Just in terms of philosophy, we're all about making choices for the gameplay and then worry about the monetization later, which is great because there are many companies out there that go the opposite direction.
Slashdot: One of the things some of our readers really want to know is: what are the biggest deficiencies that you are seeing from young college grads trying to break into the industry? What words of wisdom could you impart to people trying to get their start, especially with respect to gaming?
Leonard Boyarsky: I can speak a little bit more to the artistic stuff because of the position I'm in; that's how I came up. I would say that, from an artistic standpoint, it's not about how well you use 3D Studio Max. Obviously you need background in some sort of 3D program, unless you just want to be a concept artist, but it's more about just being a great artist and having a great artistic eye. The same thing goes for creativity; it's more about having something to show that shows what you can do. If someone comes in and has something to show, it doesn't matter where they went to school or what they accomplished at school; it's what we can see. Because there are so many people out there that have resumes with great schools, it just really comes down to what they can do. If I find someone who just blew me away, I could care less if they even have a diploma. I think the biggest thing you can tell people is to do stuff on their own. It's probably easiest as a level designer, because you can get a Half-Life or a Quake and build your own levels, and then you have something to show. The more stuff you do just shows your passion, your creativity, your ability, as opposed to trying to get a job first if that makes sense.
J. Allen Brack — Production Director, World of Warcraft
Slashdot: What caused you to make the new level cap 85 as opposed to increasing it the usual 10 levels.
J. Allen Brack: Well, we looked at a lot of the things that we wanted to do for this expansion. Going back and revamping the old world and bringing the level of quality of the experience of the 20-60 game up to the level you saw in Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King was a hugely monumental task. We also looked at how much people say they like leveling, then tried to balance that with people who say the game doesn't start until max level, and tried to figure out what the right decision for the game was. We definitely didn't want to feel like we were trapped into adding 10 levels every time, because I think we could make an expansion that was very compelling where we didn't add any level increase, and I think there are situations where we would want a 20 level increase. It all comes down to what the right decision for the game is.
Slashdot: Can you describe the difference between this expansion and previous ones in terms of the time and difficulty it took to revamp an existing area versus creating an entirely new area?
J. Allen Brack: Well, this is actually, by far, the largest expansion that we have ever done. We are creating five new zones completely from scratch for level 80-85, we're also going back and retouching a lot of the existing zones. Some of the existing zones have been very good and have worked out very well and some of them we have always regretted and not worked out very well at all, but we're going back and evaluating those on a zone-by-zone basis. Many of the old zones are actually getting rebuilt from scratch just due to the massive amounts of changes.
Slashdot: How are you going to manage the difference between someone who has just purchased vanilla WoW versus someone who has all of the expansions up to and including Cataclysm?
J. Allen Brack: Well, we haven't talked about launch plan specifics, but we do want everyone to get Cataclysm. It is our intention that the world will experience the cataclysm for every player regardless of patch level. There are a couple of reasons for that, but one of the main reasons is we want people to play together and the idea of having segregated the players into the "bought Cataclysm" and "didn't" camps is really not the right decision. The other thing is that Cataclysm has lore and a reason behind it, so it doesn't really make sense to have it happen for some players and not for others.
Slashdot: There has been a lot of talk about the new phasing technology that allows entire continents to change. Was that very difficult to implement compared to what was already in Wrath of the Lich King?
J. Allen Brack: Yeah, it was. In Lich King, we didn't really have the ability to do terrain; we had the ability to skyboxes, quests, and effects, but now we have the ability to have different versions of terrain that get triggered based on other events. One example is being able to go into a cliffside dwelling and down into the storm cellar to weather a storm and when you come out, the entire cliff has been sheared off and there is nothing left. It's pretty exciting.
Slashdot: We have heard a lot about how StarCraft II is going to integrate with Battle.net, and a little about what World of Warcraft is going to do. Is there more coming?
J. Allen Brack: Sure. Battle.net is going to be the way that all players log into Blizzard games in the future. We have optional Battle.net conversion right now, but that will be mandatory at some point in the not-too-distant future. Once we have that integration, we'll layer the Battle.net features on top of World of Warcraft. We're not talking about changing the way that Guilds or Friend Lists work for Battle.net; it's more of just adding a layer of Battle.net features and community features on top of the existing game.
Slashdot: Has there been any talk of making APIs or data feeds that would allow fan sites or forums to integrate game data directly?
J. Allen Brack: That is an interesting idea. Yeah, we have seen a lot of neat little apps come out of the armory, to a degree that I don't think we really anticipated. There are now loot apps, community aggregation apps, and others, but we certainly were not prepared for the amount of traffic that is just to gather data from the armory for other apps.
Slashdot: The EVE team recently announced a project called Dust 514 that is a separate game that hooks into the EVE universe. Has Blizzard considered any side projects that might have some tie in to existing games?
J. Allen Brack: We typically think about things as a team — in my case, World of Warcraft — and what we could do within the existing WoW universe. Something like that offers a lot of wish fulfillment for me as a gamer, and we definitely talk about what kind of gameplay experience that we want to offer with each expansion, so we definitely have a lot of new things that we're talking about for Cataclysm, just not quite that extreme.
Slashdot: How about a console version for WoW?
J. Allen Brack: Console is one of those things that we probably talk about once every six months. I have probably met with Microsoft two or three times to discuss what it would be like to have WoW on the console. Where we are today, and I can't say we'll always be here, but right now WoW is very much designed for the mouse and keyboard interface, and doing another type of control scheme would be very challenging. I think it will be done, and if we had started WoW with the idea that we would move to console, I think it would be a much different game and the control scheme would support that.
Slashdot: Once the Battle.net integration is complete, you'll be able to talk to friends from different servers and even different games. Has there been any talk of being able to form instance groups across servers?
J. Allen Brack: Yes, and we're actually doing that in an upcoming patch. In 3.3 we're going to revamp the Looking For Group interface to allow that. The idea wasn't necessarily for existing players that are in a guild at high level, it's more for the people who want to run Wailing Caverns on a character that is level appropriate.
Slashdot: Lately there have been some problems with instance server congestion; is that something you are focused on?
J. Allen Brack: We're hugely focused on it. I mentioned the cross-server instancing — that is also a part of that solution as well. We have some technology that allows multiple servers to share certain instance blades and that gives us a lot of efficiency. We're going back and reconfiguring all of our servers for this, so it should be done before we launch 3.3.
Slashdot: There is always a call for increased support (even if it isn't official) for Linux, Wine, etc. Is there any possibility that future support for WoW on the Linux platform could grow?
J. Allen Brack: We have been a long time supporter of alternate platforms with the Mac, and have supported many of our games on both PC and Mac, so we're a big supporter of platform independence. We have experimented with a Linux client back in the day, but right now it is a resource problem. We have to consider how many resources it would take to put out a Linux client versus how many people would actually use something like that. We have to consider how many people aren't playing WoW right now and would if we had a Linux client. Or is it people who play already and just want support in their preferred operating system? If we decided to support a new platform, we would have to figure out how many game features we had to give up development on in order to develop a new client.
Rob Pardo — Executive VP Game Design
Slashdot: Is there any any possibility that Battle.net might interact with other systems like XBox Live, Steam, or other games?
Rob Pardo: I think there is the potential to do something like that, but there are certainly no immediate plans. We certainly are trying to engineer the platform in a way that it could do those sorts of things, and we have talked about trying to link in things like Facebook, Twitter, and mobile applications. We definitely have kept in mind that if we do go to console, we can still use Battle.net, in which case we would have to talk to things like XBox Live. So while there are no plans to do something like that, we certainly are keeping it in mind.
Slashdot: Are you thinking about making any APIs for Battle.net that would allow the community to start scraping some of the data directly?
Rob Pardo: That is a question I'm not entire sure of the answer, so I don't want to screw it up. Probably not extensively, but I know that in the past we have done things with game results and similar things, plus we have the Marketplace, which is a pretty big area. But we don't have plans to allow people to reconfigure Battle.net in a major way like that add-on system for WoW.
Slashdot: Now that you have mentioned the Marketplace, is there going to be an approval/rejection system for the things that are uploaded?
Rob Pardo: Yes there will, although our philosophy will probably be more of an iPhone philosophy and less of an XBox philosophy. We really want to try to have the community itself manage that, but we will probably still need some sort of light approval system to make sure that there aren't any viruses or wildly objectionable content. I really don't want us trying to make a quality call; that's where I don't want us to be.
Slashdot: Apple has been taking a lot of heat lately for how opaque they are when they reject a particular app. When you reject something, is there going to be some indication or explanation why?
Rob Pardo: I would hope so, but it's all new to us, so I can't tell you how it's all going to work. We have never done anything like this before, but we know where we want to be philosophically. We have done a lot of research on the other services, but I'm sure there will be lots of surprises to us when we start rolling it out.
Slashdot: We have heard a lot about how Starcraft II is going to be affected by Battle.net. Can you tell us a little bit about how Diablo III and WoW might be integrated?
Rob Pardo: Nothing specific yet, because all of our focus is on StarCraft II. But certainly, since I have been really involved with Battle.net, it's something that is always on my mind. A lot of the Starcraft II design was done so that it could be agnostic to our other games, so I would say that assuming everything goes well and the new service is as great as we want it to b,e I would imagine that you would see something very similar. There will obviously be Diablo-specific features that don't make sense for StarCraft II and vice versa, but as far as the always-connected experience and being able to talk across games, I would expect the same experience.
Slashdot: The LAN-play question has been a major issue. What are you doing to facilitate gameplay between people who are in the same room?
Rob Pardo: There are definitely some things we are investigating. Whether or not they will be in at launch, I don't know. I really think that the vast majority of people wont have an issue. Even if you look at Warcraft 3, which did have LAN play, the vast, vast majority of people played on Battle.net and that was what, seven years ago? So I think that it is a very small percentage of people that will be affected, and only a small percentage of the time. That said, we are looking at some technology that would allow us to detect a peer-to-peer connection if we detect something like a high latency over a certain amount. Unfortunately, this would only be able to work for custom games, since we need to ensure the accuracy of competitive or ladder games via Battle.net.
Slashdot: Are there any plans to build in some sort of reputation tracking to see how often someone has disconnected from games in progress or partakes in harassment of some sort?
Rob Pardo: No, there isn't at the moment, although it is something I'm interested in looking at in the future. We have talked a lot about it; it was one of those features that when we tried to develop a good social rating system we didn't see a great one out there that we could point at. It is a pretty tricky system to design, but it is something that I would like to tackle; maybe in the expansion.
Slashdot: With World of Warcraft, there are regional server groupings. How is Battle.net going to integrate with different parts of the world?
Rob Pardo: I believe the current plan is to do a similar approach to the way WoW is set up, so there will be large regional breakdowns. Hopefully in the future we will even have the ability for you to move around, but that isn't decided yet.