StarCraft II launched last year with an editor designed to allow fans to create their own mods. No surprise there. But at BlizzCon, Blizzard announced plans to release StarCraft II mods of its own. Why? Well, just for fun.
Now, in 2011, we see the fruits of Blizzard’s effort in the form of three mods now in beta: Aiur Chef, StarJeweled and Left 2 Die. And with the launch of Blizzard DOTA – a mod that’s generating as much excitement as a fully-fledged Blizzard game – not far behind, it’s a great time for user-generated PC gaming.
Here, Eurogamer sits down with StarCraft II design director Dustin Browder to find out what Blizzard’s trying to do with the release of its mods. Is this a precursor to a marketplace, where gamers can buy and sell their own creations? And what happens next?
Eurogamer: Now these are in beta, what kind of feedback are you getting and how does it differ across the three games?
Dustin Browder: It’s surprising how similar it is. Our fans are very loyal and very enthusiastic about our products. They’ve given us some great balance feedback. They’ve found a few bugs for us. They’ve made some great suggestions in terms of things we can do with the core mechanics and design of the games. Some of those things we’ll be able to take back. We’re working on fixing those up right now for the final release.
Eurogamer: Will you release these free?
Dustin Browder: These will be free. The final release should be within the next few weeks to months. We’re fixing a lot of bugs. We’re going to put in achievements and then we’re going to put them out for everyone to play with and enjoy.
Eurogamer: DOTA is perhaps the highlight. I know it was always scheduled to launch later than the others. What’s the latest?
Dustin Browder: As you can imagine DOTA is a little bit more work for us. We’ve got a slightly larger group of people working on DOTA. DOTA requires a level of polish and balance that… it’s just not there yet.
One of the reasons we did DOTA in the first place was we wanted to work through some of the basic code and UI problems in building a DOTA in StarCraft II. A lot of the systems that existed in Warcraft III just don’t exist in StarCraft II. An inventory system, a shop system, these are not natural parts of the game. So we wanted to make this DOTA to fix a lot of these issues, and frankly, we’re still fixing.
Our inventory system is not great yet. Our shop system is kind of a disaster. We’re really trying to clean those up in addition to fixing all those core elements. The balance problems in a DOTA are a lot more exciting than they would be in an Aiur Chef for example, or even in a StarJeweled. Last week we had to ban Zeratul from matches because he was wrecking everything.
We’re going to keep working on the balance, but we’re also going to keep working on these core systems to try to make those really polished, so we put it out there not only so our DOTA’s good, but so that all the DOTAs our fans want to build are also good. They have access to all of those UI elements, those bits and pieces that will make their mods great.
Eurogamer: Do you have a target release window for DOTA?
Dustin Browder: It’s going to have to be when it’s done. I don’t know. If I could tell you that I played the shop system today and it was awesome and Zeratul wasn’t being a pain in the butt then I could give you more of a window. But we’re still working out some basic stuff.
Eurogamer: What about introducing some persistence? Could leaderboards and experience gain be added?
Dustin Browder: Dude, how fun would that be? Oh my God! Yeah, I’d love to be able to do that.
I can tell you two things. One, it’s going to be a timing issue for us. I need to get people focused on Heart of the Swarm. That’s where most of our effort’s going to go, going forward. Some of our mod makers, as you can imagine, are pretty fanatical and they do want to keep balancing and patching these mods going forward and we’ll definitely try to give them the time to do that. But we’re probably not going to have time to introduce leaderboards in this pass. But it might be something we can address much further down the road once Heart of the Swarm is in full swing.
I will say this: we do have what’s called our bank system, which allows you to save data to people’s Battle.net profile. Our mod makers have already discovered this system and have already done a number of things with persistence in other mods. There is the ability to do persistence on Battle.net. It is a little complicated right now, but our fans have discovered the triggers to make it happen, and they are doing it on some of their mods.
You can definitely expect to see more and more done with that. Maybe RPGs where you get to carry your character from map to map, is something I believe is possible with our current system.
Eurogamer: These four mods, are they it for you guys, or will you do more?
Dustin Browder: We could definitely do more further down the line. I do not have a secret list of mods I’m not telling you about right now. DOTA’s on the way. The mods we’ve released are going out there. We do have some more challenge maps we’re planning to release in the next few months that are not really mods but they are more content for our community to expand on the challenge mode.
There’s not a ton of mods in development at the moment. We probably will do more mods closer to Heart of the Swarm. Once Heart of the Swarm is looking really great we’ll probably do a little bit more work on these, maybe do some additional mods. But there’s not a hidden array of thousands more mods waiting to go out. All of that work is being done ultimately by the community.
Eurogamer: Have you come up with any games you’d like to riff off of as you have with the ones in beta?
Dustin Browder: We have not. I tell you, I really do like for mods to encourage the designers working on them to build them and own them. What’s exciting about these mods is, I didn’t do any lead design work. In fact, I almost did nothing. These guys did everything on their own. These are really talented developers who get a chance to stretch and show their skills and come up with some original and creative content. We try to make sure the individual designers, like mod makers in the community, are empowered and running their own show, that they are the lead designers of their own efforts.
I don’t know what the next ones will be and I don’t want to know. I want them to be empowered to come up with their own work. That approach has proven itself with these mods. They’ve come up with stuff I never would have come up with that was spur of the moment and inspired.
Eurogamer: Where are we at with the marketplace idea and players being able to charge for created levels and mods?
Dustin Browder: Struggling. We are moving forward. We are working on it actively now. As you can imagine there is an immense number of challenges for us to overcome. We’re trying to deal with those issues. I don’t know how we’re going to solve some of the player rights issues. How do players protect their own maps so they don’t get ripped off by other players? What are the rules of how much you’re allowed to charge? There’s just a ton of work for us to figure out.
We’ve never, ultimately, built anything like this before. Some of our competitors have and more power to them. But we haven’t done it yet. So there’s going to be a bunch of work for us to figure out how to get this done. But it’s something we’re working on. It’s definitely a distance down the road. It’s not in the next month. It’s going to be some distance before we get this in the hands of the fans.
Eurogamer: Is there a chance it may not happen?
Dustin Browder: Who knows, dude? Anything is possible. We’ve cancelled whole games before. Warcraft Adventures never made it out and that game was basically done. But we are working very hard on it. We have a bunch of people dedicated to it. I have every hope and belief and faith in its success and we’re absolutely committed to getting it done.
Eurogamer: Can the RTS evolve significantly from what you’ve done with StarCraft II?
Dustin Browder: If you hate this answer, I apologise: It’s already evolving in so many exciting ways. I’m speaking here about my competitors’ products, so I could be totally wrong about what they’re trying to accomplish, but I’m going to make some guesses.
If you look at Dawn of War, this is a game that’s trying to create a very cinematic experience. They’re being very successful at that. It’s a fun gameplay experience as a cinematic experience. If you look at StarCraft what we’re trying to fundamentally create is an e-Sport, something that’s not only fun to play but is fun to watch other people play. The values are fundamentally different. The interface looks the same, but how you play and experience it is completely different.
If you look at a DOTA, a League of Legends, would you call that a RTS game? It’s kind of a real-time action game, but it’s got some strong strategy components to it. So we’re seeing some exciting evolution of the genre in that direction. Do tower defences count as RTS games? I would say they do because they’re less action and more strategy than even a game like League of Legends.
I’m playing so many tower defences on my iPad it’s insane. We’re seeing this fragmenting of the genre in lots of different directions. I’m excited to see RTS, not necessarily Command & Conquer or StarCraft, go in so many different directions and pick up such a large audience all over the place.
Eurogamer: What is the future for specifically base-building, army-building, hero-management RTS? You’re seeing different directions. I hope people will continue to innovate. I have no idea what’s going to happen with the guys from Ensemble who are doing an online version of Age of Empires. That seems like, woo! Who knows what that’s going to be? They’re doing different pay models, something more integrated online, more cooperative in its approach. It sounds fun.
Dustin Browder: It seems to me the genre is exploding in recent years. We’re doing this e-Sports driven experience. Our fans in custom games are doing all kinds of crazy mods. Remember, Warcraft III put to the forefront, fundamentally, both tower defence and DOTA. Who knows what’s going to come out of custom games in StarCraft? Maybe nothing. Maybe some of the most amazing games you’ve ever seen.
Maybe I’m biased working on it, but where I sit the future for RTS is both diverse and very bright. If you’re not going to give RTS credit for DOTA, for tower defence, if you can’t see the differences between a Dawn of War and a StarCraft, I guess it all looks the same.
But to me they’re all very different games with different goals, all producing very different types of fun for very diverse audiences. I’m excited about it.