Crafting a Sequel for Everyone: The Frank Pearce Interview
While StarCraft is popular worldwide, it's a religion in Korea -- with tournaments, TV shows, and high-ranked players who are treated like sports stars. So how is Blizzard readying the game's sequel to make not only the hardcore happy, but also suck in newbs like myself? Crispy Gamer gets the latest on StarCraft II from Blizzard's executive vice president of product development, Frank Pearce, and its associate PR manager, Bob Colayco.
Crispy Gamer: Generally, there are a lot of games that are more popular in specific territories, but Blizzard titles are popular worldwide. What's it like making a game that has such an international appeal?
Frank Pearce: It's exciting for us to know that we've got really passionate fans that are interested in the game. I wouldn't say that we're specifically trying to target functionality for specific regions. We try to make a game that's really, really fun and hope that it has global appeal, but we definitely take the unique needs of each of the regions into consideration.
Crispy Gamer: How do you balance designing a game that has such a hardcore user base -- especially in Korea -- while keeping the more casual StarCraft player in mind?
Pearce: One of our development philosophies is to try to create games that are easy to learn but difficult to master: make sure that there's a fast learning curve. When you sit down and play the game for the first time, you feel like it's accessible to you -- that you can grasp the basic concepts, and play and enjoy the game. But we try to also create opportunities to distinguish the average player from an expert player. So there are a lot of units that'll have unique abilities that give the expert players the opportunity to develop strategies around those abilities that the average player might not be able to leverage as well.
Crispy Gamer: How long has the game been in development? What percent complete is the build that you're showing now?
Pearce: Four to five years. We don't even measure [percentages]. It takes 50 percent of the time to get the game 80 percent complete, and the other 50 percent of the time is the last 20 percent of the work. We have such an iterative process that it doesn't really matter what percentage complete the game is, because we still have a lot of work to do in terms of iteration and the quality of experiences that we expect for ourselves and that fans expect.
We have project management folks on the development teams and they're not required to do anything in terms of measuring percent completion. We have the tasks ahead of us and we have to make sure they get completed, and we also have to iterate on the entire experience. It's not an exact science by any stretch of the imagination.
Crispy Gamer: Are there plans for a training mode and tutorials to bring new people into the fold?
Pearce: Yes, we're definitely talking about tutorials and whatnot. If we need a lot of tutorials, however, then we really haven't made the game accessible.
Bob Colayco: We're doing a couple more things in that regard. What a lot of players run into is that they get Zerg-rushed in five minutes online, or whatever. So, teaching people how to build more quickly, using special challenge missions. Build five Marines in four minutes; maybe that will help players get going.
Pearce: The single-player campaign plays a role as an introduction to the experience as well. You're learning about the multiplayer gaming experience through the single-player mode, and in some ways you're not even aware of it because you're immersed in the story that's being told.
Crispy Gamer: I've been playing the Lich King beta for a few weeks now, and I like the introduction of the Achievements system. Are you planning on bringing Achievements across all titles, including this one?
Pearce: Yes, it's definitely something really cool with Wrath of the Lich King, and it's something that we've talked about for StarCraft II, but we haven't made any final decisions on it. It would be really cool, though.
Crispy Gamer: Do you think Achievements are necessary in general for games?
Pearce: I don't think it's a necessary feature. It sort of bridges the gap between the gaming experience and the social networking experience. From that perspective it's kind of cool, and a little bit necessary -- but it's not critical.
Crispy Gamer: Real-time strategy games are, in some ways, turning around on the console. StarCraft mostly worked on the N64, for what it was. What do you think about bringing this to consoles?
Pearce: We don't have any plans to bring StarCraft to the consoles; we're developing it specifically for the PC. I'm sure it's a topic that's going to come up periodically, but there are no plans to do it right now.
Crispy Gamer: You guys are planning on supporting DirectX 10, but what do you think about the DirectX 11 stuff that's been floating around?
Pearce: Yes, we'll support DX 10 -- definitely. That's pretty far out. I haven't had a chance to look at any of the specifics for DX 11. That's more along the lines of what we have our graphics programmers on staff to deal with.
Crispy Gamer: How has StarCraft II been received by the hardcore, and are you bringing in some of the hardcore players from Korea to beta test the game and get feedback?
Pearce: Yes, definitely. We have hosted a number of StarCraft or Warcraft III-focused events over the last six months, but also used those opportunities for PR and media for StarCraft II. We actually had some pro players play StarCraft II, and they really seemed to enjoy it. Obviously they had feedback for us, but they all seemed to think that the game was coming along really well and was fun to play.
Crispy Gamer: So what are you most excited for, and what makes you most nervous about bringing back such a highly-esteemed franchise?
Pearce: The basic RTS experience isn't something that's unfamiliar to us -- right? We're not worried about that. Some of the ambitious goals that we have in terms of the online experience and Battle.Net -- bringing that to the next level, and contemplating the things that are going on in social networks and other online gaming services like Xbox Live -- I think that's where we're going to have some of the biggest challenges.
Crispy Gamer: Are you planning for voice-over IP (voice-over-Internet protocol)?
Pearce: That's something that we're talking about. It would be really cool. That presents some immediate challenges from a social community perspective and online community perspective, but it's something that we're talking about.
Crispy Gamer: Is the online community element something that you're thinking about adding to Battle.Net?
Pearce: It's something we're talking about. We've got such a big community surrounding StarCraft. There's a big community surrounding World of Warcraft and there's a big Blizzard community in general, and we would definitely like to do more with that.
Crispy Gamer: Are you looking at Steam as something like -- not just downloading games through Battle.Net -- but the community as well?
Pearce: It's really interesting, and we've been looking at Steam even before they brought those features in.
Crispy Gamer: I know you said that you're not interested in bringing StarCraft II to consoles, but do you think consoles are powerful enough this generation to handle StarCraft II?
Pearce: Yes. As far as minimum system requirements, we haven't locked them down yet. But we're only targeting video cards that have Shader 2.0 technology. We want minimum system requirements that will make the game accessible to a broad audience, so I think the latest-generation consoles are powerful enough for it. I don't know about the memory requirements -- right now, the game uses a lot of memory, and that's something we still have some work to do on, even on the PC side.
Crispy Gamer: Are you sad that StarCraft: Ghost was never released?
Pearce: I don't know if I'd say that I'm sad. I'm not crying in my beer over it. It's certainly disappointing; the game had a lot of potential. With World of Warcraft as big as it is, we're spread extremely thin. We've got a lot of stuff in development right now. Three products that have been publicly announced at this point -- that's unprecedented for us. It's disappointing, but we've got lots of other cool stuff that we're working on. @@ Crispy Gamer: What is that like, having all of those projects going out at once? Is it more stressful for the team, or more exciting for the company as a whole?
Pearce: For the team, they're used to working on a single, focused project anyway, so for the development teams it's exciting. Not only do they get to see what the individual development teams are working on, but there's all this other stuff going on that they have the opportunity to provide feedback on as well.
Crispy Gamer: What about plans for an open beta for StarCraft II?
Pearce: A beta is very important from the perspective of getting feedback from the community and continuing that process of iteration. A beta is something that we're very likely going to need to host. But we haven't made any determination whether we're going to have to host a closed beta or an open beta, or both yet.