Alan Dabiri, Lead Software Engineer For StarCraft 2
The StarCraft 2 team spent most of Blizzcon talking about the map editor and custom games. We spoke with Alan Dabiri, a Lead Software Engineer for Wings of Liberty who worked on the user interface and helped out on the game’s integration with Battle.net. He provided some more details about plans for making the map editor more approachable, the coming updates for Battle.net (including chat channels), and a bit about the development of Heart of the Swarm, the Zerg-themed expansion being worked on now. Read on for our conversation about StarCraft 2.
Slashdot: Can you tell us how development has been split up now that you’re maintaining Wings of Liberty, starting on Heart of the Swarm, and providing updates through Battle.net?
Alan Dabiri: Since we did just ship Wings of Liberty, obviously we want to support that product and focus on issues we need to correct. Balance is always a focus we want to make sure we get right. We are kind of split right now in terms of our work. We’re supporting the game, we’ve released a few patches, we have more coming, and at the same time we’ve got people working on Heart of the Swarm. Now is really a good time when the designers and the artists are jamming on all the design ideas for it, and the programmers can hit up any bugs we missed, things we can improve. We’ve added features in patches, and we’re adding more coming up here. It is a bit of a balancing act, but it’s one that we’re used to, just because we’ve supported our games well after their initial launch.
Slashdot: Can you talk a bit about the upcoming 1.2 patch?
Alan Dabiri: 1.2 is our next feature patch. We’ve got a few things going in. Probably one that people have been asking for a lot and they’ll be excited to hear about is chat channels. We’ve also added customizable hot-key support. We shipped with a few different profiles you could pick from, but now we’ve actually implemented an interface where people can completely configure the hotkeys and set them up the way they want. We’re going to have more balance stuff as well, and that’s dependent on the feedback we get with our most recent patches, although things have been looking pretty good in that department.
Another thing from the Battle.net competitive side is that we’re adding a couple of new leagues. I don’t know if both of them are going to get into 1.2, but I believe the first one, Masters, will be going in. Right now the Diamond league is a top league, and it’s a pretty wide range. You get people who [barely] meet the cut all the way to the top. The Masters league is a desire to split up that top a little bit and make it the top couple percent of those people. Then, we’re eventually going to come along with the Grandmasters League, and that is going to be the top 200 people, and literally it’s by invitation. These are really the cream of the crop, on the level of the pro-gamers.
Slashdot: Are you working to publicize or promote these leagues so that the average player can more easily view them?
Alan Dabiri: Yeah, that’s another thing that’s coming along. There are already these tournaments going on, right? One thing we want to do is to start showcasing replays from these games, so people can watch and say, “Oh, there’s that awesome match between FruitDealer and whoever.” So, we’re going to start putting them right on the front [page]. There’s basically a news carousel where you get the latest news, and we’re going to start throwing games on there where you literally click on that and it will launch the replay. So we’re going to start showcasing those top-level games.
Slashdot: A lot of your focus for this Blizzcon has been the map editor, the custom games, and the new tools. Is it one of your goals to encourage map makers to think of themselves as software developers in their own right?
Alan Dabiri: Yeah, absolutely. Here’s the thing. We’re making StarCraft 2, right? So we’re bound by some stuff, like lore, etc. These guys — the sky’s the limit. And they’ve got such creativity, such imagination, that we just want to give them tools to make stuff, and let them do whatever they want. So one thing that’s nice, when you say software developers or software engineers — with the editor, you don’t need a programming background or anything like that. We’ve made it in a way that while it is a very involved tool with a lot of complexity to it, you can get someone who’s not a programmer making these maps. So that’s the cool thing about it. We absolutely want to encourage that, because from our previous games, people do amazing stuff. We go on Battle.net and we look at these custom game lists, and we get blown away. We’re not even sure how they did half this stuff.
Slashdot: Have you thought about releasing some sort of guide or tutorial for map making?
Alan Dabiri: Yeah. We realize that there’s quite a bit of knowledge that has to be built up, and we are working on some documentation, some tutorials. I don’t know the timelines for all those rolling out, and at what level, but I know we were at one point talking about having a dedicated website, almost like a Wiki, where we would post all this information. We’ve already got a forum for this, and we’ve had people responding to those posts. But we want to take even a more active role than that, where people can start asking questions and we can answer and everyone can benefit from the answers. We don’t want people just floundering around. We’d like to help them out any way we can.
Slashdot: At one of the panels, it was mentioned that you’d be releasing some new tools. Will those be released incrementally, or can we expect them alongside Heart of the Swarm?
Alan Dabiri: The four maps we’ve show here? These are 100% made in the editor. Anyone outside can make these right now. So, using the editor, you kind of have every tool you need. The one thing they’re missing right now is being able to generate the art assets, because we have specific file formats for our models and textures and whatnot. And so, just like we did with Warcraft 3 — shortly after we shipped, we released our exporter for Macs, and stuff like that — we’re going to do the same here, too. We’re working on our tools. We don’t have a timeline yet on when we’ll be able to get them out, but we want to get them out as soon as possible.
The funny thing is that some guys have reverse-engineered our formats, and they’re already putting assets into the game! But they’re missing the bells and whistles. There are a lot of features in the engine. So we’re like to get that out to help them. Another thing we’ve been talking about — in our campaign, if you’re seen our in-game cinematics, you’ve got these awesome-looking characters talking to each other, and they have facial animation. They’re lip-syncing. We want to get that out to the end user too. So, literally, they can make their own movies in the engine. [They can have] a mini-campaign they’ve created, and use our story-mode space to make their guys talk as well. I’m super excited to see what happens when that gets out.
Slashdot: We saw how the Outbreak mission in the single-player campaign inspired the Left 2 Die custom game. Will we see the reverse happen? (Outbreak was a mission in which zombies rose and swarmed your base at night. The onslaught abated when the sun rose, and you had a brief window to rebuild and go on the offensive before you had to bunker in again. The Left 2 Die custom game expands on that concept and makes it a co-op fight.)
Alan Dabiri: I would say that it already has happened. Some of the maps in our campaign were kind of inspired by concepts from Warcraft 3 maps. If you’ve played through the campaign, you know it’s not the same as the multiplayer game. Every mission has a unique twist on it, and some of those twists have come from either mods that we’ve made or other styles we’ve played in different game, and then also new stuff we’ve come up with.
Bob Colyaco: Specifically, the prison-break mission, where you play as Tosh — that’s very DotA-like.
Alan Dabiri: I think that’s definitely going to happen some more, too. That’s the cool thing about the campaign space: we can play around. Multiplayer, we’ve got to make sure that it’s balanced — we can’t really screw around with just going crazy. On the campaign side, we still want it balanced, but we can flex our muscles a little more, and really play around with cool game types.
Slashdot: Is it getting tougher to come up with new twists for the campaign?
Alan Dabiri: I don’t know. There are a lot of ideas out there. There are a lot of ideas that were brought up for Wings of Liberty that we didn’t have a chance to get to. So, I don’t think we’ll run out of ideas soon.
Slashdot: Dustin Browder had mentioned that one of the downsides to splitting StarCraft 2 into three campaigns was making, for example, Zerg fans wait for a the Zerg campaign. Are you feeling the pressure to step it up for them in Heart of the Swarm?
Alan Dabiri: Well, since it is a Zerg-focused campaign, you’re going to see a lot more spaces in the Zerg world and the characters of the Zerg, so it’s definitely going to be a cool thing for Zerg players. But, definitely, for the Zerg campaign and then the Protoss campaign, the guys who play those races are going to be excited about what we have in store for them.
Slashdot: Now that you’ve had some time to see people play Wings of Liberty, and you’ve had some time to reflect on it, is there anything that made you think, “We did this well, but we can see a better way to do it for Heart of the Swarm?”
Alan Dabiri: Absolutely. Yeah. There are tons of things. We have these lists of everything want to do, and obviously there’s just not enough time in the world. We try to get in as much as we can, but we acknowledge that there are certain areas where we think, “You know what, this is cool, it works in Wings of Liberty, but there’s so much more we can do with this.” Back at the office before Blizzcon we were talking about replays, and how we want to really expand that area. Everyone loves replays. They like watching their own games, pro games. We want to add a ton of features to flesh out that concept. On Battle.net, there are a lot of things we want to add. The custom game interface, chat channels that we didn’t get in for shipping the game but now we’re adding. And the game itself; the user interface, the units, the composition — everything is fair game, and we’re always trying to improve.
Slashdot: How will the multiplayer be affected by the launch of the subsequent games?
Alan Dabiri: Since we do have the split of the campaign versus the multiplayer side, we can go crazy on the campaign side without affecting the multiplayer side. But at the same time, if you look at our previous RTS expansions, we have pretty full-featured expansions in the sense that — we don’t just ship a new campaign and that’s it. We touch a lot of the units, we add new units, we come up with new game mechanics, new tile sets, all that stuff. I think the multiplayer space is open for change and will have change to it. Right now, in fact, we’re asking ourselves, “what are the areas where there’s maybe something missing from the multiplayer side?” Maybe the composition of units that exist on one side. “What hole is there that we might want to fill?” It’s kind of like what happened with Brood War. Brood War identified areas where [we decided] we could add some cool units and make it better. I think we’ll do the same for our expansions.
Slashdot: You mentioned earlier the constant need for balance updates. Can you take us through the internal process for identifying and fixing a balance issue?
Alan Dabiri: There are a lot of different ways we get feedback. It comes both from external sources and internally. We’ve got several balance designers on our team who are, literally, pro-level players. They’re top-ranked on the ladder. So, they have an insight into how these things work. But, at the same time, we also view games that are played on the ladder from other top level players. We view replays, we get feedback from pro-gamers, and we get feedback from lower-level players, who maybe aren’t so good. That, combined with direct community feedback from forums and other types of communications, we take all that, and the final piece we mix together is the real hard stats. We collect a ton of stats. We know who’s winning, we know the race matchup, we know what units you’re making. We have all this.
So we can take all this info and provide it to the designers. With all of it taken as a whole, we can sit down and make some intelligent decisions. You know, it’s real easy when a guy on the forums goes and says, “Oh, Terran is this,” or “Zerg is that,” but we’re not going to just change the whole race based off of one guy. But when you have all this info, now you can make an informed decision. I think we have a real advantage.. because, to be honest, we didn’t have a lot of these things earlier on for StarCraft 1. We’d play the game ourselves and listen to what people were saying outside, and hope that we’re doing the right thing. We’ve got a lot of hard data now that we can lean back on.
Slashdot: Have you thought about cutting out parts of that data that are relevant to a particular debate and working that up into a visualization for the community?
Bob Colyaco: We’ve done that already, to a degree. If you go to StarCraft2.com, Dustin [Browder] wrote a post showing the win percentages and ratios, compared against regions and compared against leagues. So, for example, Diamond-level PvZ or Gold-level TvT.
Alan Dabiri: Yeah, we’ve actually provided a lot of data already, and we plan on doing more. Even in Warcraft 3, we had a web page that broke down game matchups, what maps people liked to play on the most. So, I think we have plans to also add that stuff. It’s just cool information for the end user. They want to kind of geek out on that. And it helps the debates also, because a lot of times on the forums they’ll argue one way or the other, but they don’t have really hard stats. They just got done playing against Protoss, and they got beat, so suddenly Protoss is the most overpowered race there is.
Slashdot: Have you heard about the StarCraft AI competition?
Alan Dabiri: I did, yeah! That was really cool. We were excited to see that. The funny things is, with StarCraft 2, we’ve actually built a system where now they can do that in the game. I know with that [competition], they kind of had to work around the game. So it’ll be really cool to see what they do with StarCraft 2, because you can actually make your own AI in a map, using the scripting language, and do different takes on build orders and what the AI does defeat other types of players.
Slashdot: What would you, personally, consider the most underrated aspect of Wings of Liberty?
Alan Dabiri: I think everyone knows we have a full, epic campaign, and everyone has seen those and played those. And everyone knows that for RTS games the multiplayer side is huge — e-sports or just playing with your friends. I think this custom angle that we’re pushing at Blizzcon now — while we had that in Warcraft 3, and we had a bunch of maps, DotA being the most popular one — I think we’re really seeing an explosion there, and still a lot of people don’t realize it’s a feature of StarCraft 2. And now, with Battle.net the way it is, it’s so easy to get these maps. You don’t have to trade them or find them in other ways, they’re all just up there. And we’re also going to improve that mechanism so it’s even easier.
But, I think this custom game aspect is really cool because it makes it so there are infinite games within this game. You can play the single-player and multiplayer of StarCraft 2, which are both super fun, but now you have another thing that just goes forever. Myself, I love going and just jumping into a map I’ve never heard of and saying, “Wow. There’s so much imagination here. We would never have thought to make something like that.” I think that’s one area people will play more and more. There are people who are open to the two different sides I’ve already talked about, but [custom games] are something where we can get even more players in.
Slashdot: Is that served by the large size of the community?
Alan Dabiri: Definitely. Without a lot of people creating these maps and playing them, it’s not going to go anywhere. It’s going to fall away. But the Battle.net community, the Blizzard community is enormous. We have that momentum, we have that group of people. Literally, every day there are maps on there I’ve never seen. So, these guys are just coming out with maps, and the awesome ones rise to the top. And obviously there’s always going to be the ones that aren’t so great. With our community, and how passionate they are — they were making maps during the beta, before you could even publish maps to Battle.net. I think that’s awesome.
Slashdot: Going back to the e-sport aspect, what’s your goal for a brand new player loading up StarCraft 2 and looking over the multiplayer? Are you trying to nudge them gently into participating in e-sports?
Alan Dabiri: No, I don’t think that’s our initial goal. That’s one of the cool things about how the matchmaking system works on Battle.net now. You will converge into your comfortable zone. So, if you’re playing StarCraft 2 and you’re not that great of a player — after those first few placement matches, you will actually be playing against people of your equivalent level, and you’ll find really fun games. You are going to go back and forth. You are going to win some and you’re going to lose some. I think that’s what’s cool. We also have other angles; if you don’t want to play against other players to start with, because maybe you’re nervous and don’t want to jump right in, we have co-operative play, where you play with other players against the computer. It’s a really cool way to practice strategies.
This came from StarCraft and Warcraft 3, where a lot of players were making these “comp-stomp” games, which were you and a bunch of other guys against a computer. So, we thought, “Hey, you know what, this is a cool thing, a lot of people like to do it, so let’s build it into the system.” So, the intention when you come to the multiplayer side is to have a fun experience, to have a fun game. And this applies to all levels; you can be horrible at games or horrible at RTS games and still have a fun experience in StarCraft 2. But, at the same time, we cater all the way up to the top, where you’ve got these extremely high level players, who are just out of control. I watch them play and I’m amazed. The matching system works beautifully where everyone will go to a fun experience.
Slashdot: I know you don’t want to say anything about release dates. But can you give us a feel for how much work needs to be done yet on Heart of the Swarm?
Alan Dabiri: Sure. I’ll give you an example. For our previous RTS games, it took about a year for expansions to come out. The difference between StarCraft 2 and Warcraft 3 is that we’re going to have a whole new campaign, and the campaign is going to be on the same level as with Wings of Liberty. Meaning the quality level, and [it'll be] enormous. So, obviously it’s going to take a little more time than what we’ve previously done. But it’s not going to take as long as the original game took. We were building the engine, we were building the infrastructure, so it’s definitely going to be in a shorter time frame than that. But we do want to put a lot of features into the expansion. Historically, we’ve always done this. Our expansions have had tons of things — it’s not just a couple new maps. And we’ll continue to do that.