This Q&A session is with primarily with Rob Pardo. However, Dustin Browder steps in to help answer a few questions. The questions cover numerous topics including LAN, Battle.net 2.0, Pirating, and core game development.1) You build in-depth to the hardcore first, then work backwards into making the game more accessible for more casual players. Is that a design philosophy that you employ across all of your products, or is that a product-specific thing?
It's something we do across all of our games. I'm a big believer in that it's the right way to develop a multi-player game, one that is capable of lasting for years and years. It's a little bit counter-intuitive in the gaming industry that I think most other gaming companies tend to tag multi-player on at the end. From an hours of play standpoint, it's logical if you want a game to last for 500+ hours, which is something we strive for in all of our games. You have to spend a lot of time making sure that your game has that much depth to it. Then you really want to put in that single player element and read that story through, once you have those fundamental foundations of gameplay if you consider single player can last anywhere from 24-50 hours of gameplay. People go through it once, twice, maybe a few times. But multi-player is really what has longevity that can last for years and years.2) You'd recently said that Battle.net was started about halfway through the Starcraft 2 development cycle. Looking back, do you wish you'd started it earlier?
I don't know that it would've been possible to start it earlier. From a purely production point of view, that would've been great to start single player and multi-player at the same time. But the reality is that we have to figure out the units and what's fun. A lot of our early development with a lot of our games is to get the multi-player up and running really quick. We want to be able to play against each other as soon as possible in the development cycle. Then we start designing the units, figuring out what's fun. And really, how do we build a single player campaign when we don't even know what the units are going to be in the game? So we have to get a certain amount into the game so that we feel like we can trust what's going to be there. If we start single player too early, then we're just going to be throwing out missions constantly - which we still do, even when we do start playing it. The units are just changing so much earlier in development that, until we've got that multi-player foundational base in, we can't really seriously start to work on that part. Of course, we do lots of things like story development and talk a lot about what kinds of design - come up with ideas like story mode and what we want to do with that. But we really can't physically implement the levels until multi-player is kind of to - I don't know - maybe a 70% state of unit design.
To do awesome! Is that too specific?4) Do you feel pressure that you're one of the last companies to still work on PC products, specifically RTS games?
Pressure? I don't know about pressure - I say more of a privilege to be one of the few developers that are still doing big PC products. I mean, I'm sure you guys write about this stuff more than Dustin or I ever would. But I think the PC is still a very strong platform for gaming. You have a system that - I don't know what the penetration rate of PCs are in the world, but it's got to dwarf all the consoles, right? Everyone's got a computer on their desk and some have multiple computers on their desk. It's always going to be a great platform. The problem with PC is largely kind of a business financial one for a lot of companies. It's figuring out what the right way to monetize is for people. There's a lot of big positives in the PC business. You don't have to pay console royalty fees and things like that, but you also have a lot more struggles with digital distribution, piracy, and other things like that. Certain games struggle with that more, specifically single player only ones struggle a lot more on PC. You know, how do you monetize those games without them getting pirated? But we feel like the types of games we make with the model that we have, we can dominate on the PC. It's a great platform for us. And obviously there are other companies out there like Valve who do awesome on PC. The other thing about the whole myth with the PC gaming industry dying is that they don't have a good way to show metrics anymore in how much money PC games make. Console, everything's done in retail. With PC, you have digital distribution, subscription models, micro-payment models, and all these other models out there. There's nothing out there that accurately describes how much revenue is coming in through PC gaming. But I guarantee you that anything that MPD or anything that anybody else shows out there is at best 50% of it.5) What do you have planned for Starcraft 2 distribution as far as digital distribution?
What we've typically done in the recent past is give retail an exclusivity window, so that's something we'll likely continue to do. But we haven't finalized our plans on that, but we will definitely digitally distribute it.6) Have you considered licensing Battle.net to other products like Steam or Windows Live?
It's something that always comes up to talk about, but it's difficult for us to focus on things like that because I think that once you go 3rd party, that's a whole different sort of model for custom support than it is developing for ourselves. The thing that's great right now for us with Battle.net is that it's made custom-tailored to whatever game is next coming out on the platform. Then all the previous and future games get the benefit from all the features that are developed, but it's really developed around that model. If we wanted to go for a 3rd party licensing model, we'd have to think for a long time - how would we support it on 3rd party, what kind of requirements we'd want to do.7) Do you expect the sales of the "expansions" for Protoss and Zerg to be as successful as the main game?
I certainly hope so. In the past, we've had a really good success rate with our expansions and add-on products. I don't know numbers off of the top of my head, but when you look back at Brood War and Frozen Throne, you have well over 50% that got the original to get the add-on. With WoW, because of the description model and nature of the game, it's way beyond that.8) Will they be priced as expansions?
They'll be priced appropriately to the content. Right now, the plans are to do something along the lines of a full single player campaign and some additional features to the multi-player side. It'll obviously use the same engine; so that, to me, is an expansion price point. If we decided to put in 3 new races and a bunch of new technology and features, maybe that would be a stand-alone product. But right now, we're looking at much more of an expansion-like feature set.9) Have you made any final decisions on your plans to recoup the investment you've made into the new Battle.net?
We're still finalizing that. The big question out there is, "Will it require a subscription?" We are certainly not doing that for Starcraft 2. That's really our approach for monetization and business model for a game, whatever is right for the game. What's worked well for World of Warcraft doesn't mean we're going to put that on Starcraft 2 because it's entirely a different kind of game. So as far as what we do for Battle.net, we have a lot of different ideas, but nothing that we're going to talk about here. I don't want to put the scare out there that it's going to be subscription-based, because it's not. What I've said previously is that we're probably going to take an approach that is a little bit micro-transactiony, like value-added services in WoW where you can do a paid character transfer and re-customization of your character - things that you really don't need to play the game. Like, you can get the full experience of WoW without any of the value-added services. We're going to take more of that approach with Starcraft 2 and Battle.net. There will be things, like, if you want to rename or delete your character and other things like that where we might do some of the business model for Battle.net10) As of this morning, the petition about the exclusion of LAN from Starcraft 2 was up to almost 80,000. To be blunt, do you actually care?
Of course we care - though I don't think that's as high as the Diablo 3 art direction petition. It's not like we're surprised that there's a petition about LAN in Starcraft 2. It's not like we went, "Doh! People care about that?" Clearly, we knew. It was a very, very tough decision. We've been talking about it back and forth for well over a year before we finally decided that this is more of the direction of the future for us and actually for the industry. If you look at LAN, that goes back to the Warcraft 2 days. I think LAN will always be a footnote in our history, just like DOS was. It's just with broadband and the things we can do on Battle.net and having to support LAN in addition to that - the decisions we make that have to be the lowest common denominator for both. I don't think that's the wave of the future. That's going to be the best thing for Starcraft 2 and our future games. We're going to do everything we can to support real, legitimate LAN users like eSports and the tournament community. We're going to try really hard to look into ways to have Battle.net work really well that previously really needed LAN play. But I think outside of a couple little niche groups, I think we can come up with better solutions that people are going to be really happy with in the future.11) Are there any plans to fight against piracy, except for Battle.net? But as you know, Battle.net was also pirated.
Dustin: I think the most powerful solution for piracy is to create a compelling enough experience that people don't want to go elsewhere. That is ultimately our best weapon. At some point, we can't stop every hacker in the world who has some enthusiasm to get us. That's one of the things we're really focusing on - trying to make the experience so strong that people really want to come to us to get that experience.
Rob: Historically, though, piracy for us has not been that big of a deal. There have been some big deals like the BNet DKs - which we won, by the way - and cases like that. We can shut down those services. And even if those services exist, which is quite possible, I don't think there's going to be any way that they're going to be able to compare to the feature set that will be available on our version of Battle.net. A really good example of that - it is possible to pirate Wow today. You can do your own set of servers and your own immulation technology, but it's just not going to be as good.12) But WoW is a completely different game than Starcraft is, and the model of playing is different
Someone is going to have to alter a significant amount of code in order to do their own version of LAN or Battle.net to do that in the first place - which is still quite possible. But I'd hold to it that once you've gone through all of that work, you're not going to have nearly the same multi-player experience that you're going to have on Battle.net, especially with things like achievements, ladders, a community that actually plays it. One of the reasons Warcraft 3 is very successful is because there is a lot of people saying it. If you think about the match-making system, if you go up to some of the 2nd or 3rd teir RTS sites that might be hosting a server somewhere - even if you love the game, there's just not a significant population of players to match against and play the game. So you typically want to go where you can play the game. So I think there are a lot of things that Battle.net has going for it, and I'm just not overly concerned with the small amount of piracy that I think will exist with Starcraft 2.13) Can you play single player offline?
Dustin: Yes, but we don't encourage it. Like, you don't get access to achievements and your friends list. You're basically saying, "Please, I would like to break your game now because I want to play offline for some reason." Maybe you're going on an airplane or something. We totally allow it if you want to do it, but it's just not encouraged.
Rob: Let me give you guys an example. Have you played Spore? They have a login right at the front where you can login to the game. You don't have to, but the thing is, they've built a lot of things into the game that really leverage having a community while you're playing the single player. Cross-pollination of a content is the primary example. You can still play offline, but you don't get quite as much of an experience. XBox Live is another good example, too. You can play a lot of single player games without being logged in to Live. There will be other things that do become a little bit more core to the experience that I'm just not going to tell you today.14) Do you have any plans for a demo or spawn installation to try it out before you buy?
Dustin: We've got lots of different things planned, like trial versions and stuff.
Rob: We'll do all that kind of stuff after release; we always do.15) So you will be able to chat and have those kinds of services available through single player?
Yes.16) How does match-making work on the new Battle.net?
Dustin: It's similar to how it works in Warcraft 3. After about 5 or 10 games, we have a pretty good idea of your skill level, and we're matching you at that point based on your skill level. So assuming you're paying attention, you should win about half of your games. As you begin to improve, we upgrade your skill level once again. I know a lot of players would rather win 60-70% of their games because that would be the most fun, but that means that somebody else is losing 60-70% of their games. We had some - not a whole lot - of issues with players re-rolling characters in Warcraft 3 and coming back through ranks and being rematched. So you'd be enjoying your lower rank of gameplay, and here comes somebody who's obviously meant to be at level 25. He's going to be there in a minute, but meanwhile he's going to pound on you. We've got some ideas on how to smooth that kind of thing out and prevent a lot of that kind of behavior.17) Do you think it will be ultimately multi-player or single player that determines the success of Starcraft 2?
Hopefully both. They kind of have different measures of success. Long term, I think people are going to look at multi-player because that will have to stand the test of time more. Most of the time, when you read a book or play a single player, you do it just once or twice. But that doesn't mean that they don't influence each other quite a bit. I feel like one of the reasons Starcraft has been successful is because it had that story and had those strong characters, and you identify and personalize with it much more than other RTS' which focus only on multi-player. I really think they become more interwoven with one another, and I don't think you really can break them apart.