Earlier this week Blizzard Entertainment was in London showing off the single-player campaign for its forthcoming RTS StarCraft II for the first time.
Frank Pearce (executive VP) and Bob Colayco (international PR manager) were on hand to chat, so we talked about the development so far, social networking features, achievements, micro-transactions and the age rating in Korea.
Q: The development process has been lengthy for StarCraft II - what are the main areas you've been polishing in the last phase?
Frank Pearce: The biggest focus I think in terms of recent development was polishing up the single-player campaign experience - because that's not something we've done in such an immersive fashion before. The tools, the methodologies and the production of that is new to the development team - so that plays a big factor in the focus.
Then also the Battlenet experience itself - the landing page, and all the features we want to integrate in terms of the Real ID, that's something we've definitely wanted to take extra time on.
Q: The multi-player beta has been running for a while now - has that thrown up any problems, or is it running as expected?
Frank Pearce: I wouldn't say anything we've done is "as expected" - but I don't think it's thrown up any big red flags either. The multi-player experience, and delivering a quality, balanced experience there I think is something we're experts at - assuming we take all the steps we traditionally take to get there - and the beta is definitely one of the steps along the way.
Player feedback and response has been very positive - no one's every going to be completely satisfied with balance, so we'll continue to iterate on that right up until launch... and probably indefinitely after that as well.
Bob Calayco: It's also impacted Battlenet as well, actually - the algorithm for match-making has been iterated on a number of times. That's something that's a little bit opaque to the players, because it happens behind the scenes, but there's been a lot of attention there.
Also some user interface elements - one example is when you end a match it used to be really hard to get information about the player you just played. You couldn't easily see their profile, or try to add them as a friend - but now that's been fixed.
Q: There have been a number of key evolutions in the multi-player space since the company's last RTS game - World of Warcraft and Call of Duty to name just two - so are there specific learnings you've taken from games like that, albeit they're occupying different genre spaces?
Frank Pearce: You can look at user interfaces - we could talk, not just about games but also things like Facebook as an example. We're definitely leveraging components of those social networking experiences that make sense for Battlenet - Real Life ID, friends lists and things like that.
Bob Calayco: And using achievements as a means of directing gameplay - certainly we see that with Xbox Live games, but also World of Warcraft. When you see the list of achievements it kind of compels you to try things you maybe wouldn't normally have done before.
As an example, in StarCraft II there are hundreds of single- and multi-players achievements. There's one where you need to seek out a giant Zerg unit that you only see in the single-player, called the Brutilisk - it looks a little bit like a lobster, and it's on the volcano map.
So there's an achievement for luring the Brutilisk out and getting it cooked by the lava - it's called "Red Lobster" or something... There are a lot of ways to encourage players to try new types of gameplay using achievements systems - maybe that's an example of how we leverage things from other games.
Q: Achievements worked well for World of Warcraft, as you mention - was there a solid flow of learning from the WoW team to the StarCraft team on that aspect?
Frank Pearce: Definitely - not just on the achievement system, but all of the learning from World of Warcraft is a big factor in StarCraft II, and certainly with the Battlenet experience. The social of WoW are such a big part of it.
Bob Calayco: There's a lot of collaboration between the strike teams, where developers on other teams take a look periodically at what other teams are doing and provide feedback.
Frank Pearce: In fact one of the engineers that worked on the achievement system for World of Warcraft also contributed to the achievement system for StarCraft II.
Q: You mentioned the social networking elements - there's a lot of discussion in the industry about the likes of Facebook and MySpace. While embedded games are different for the time being, why stop with just the friends list? Why not take it further and integrate gameplay elements into social networks... Is it because Battlenet is your platform instead?
Frank Pearce: Battlenet is definitely our platform. It really depends on the game - I think for StarCraft II it's a little bit more challenging to figure out how you'd integrate that, but with World of Warcraft we're in beta right for remote access to the Auction House.
What that means is that with your mobile device, or web-based browser, you can connect to WoW and access the Auction House. For free you can browse, and with additional costs to your subscription we actually allow you to place items there for sale, as well as bid on items.
For us, looking at things like web browsers, mobile devices and social networks, it's about identifying what we can do within the scope of those things to enhance the gameplay experience that we already provide through our game clients and platforms.
Q: And is control also important? I'm sure a lot of companies would love the luxury of being able to build their own platform to bring their games together...
Bob Calayco: It's a differentiator. The ability to be able to integrate the platform into the game is really what differentiates Battlenet from other services that act more like a shell on top. The examples would be the unlockable decals or portraits you get in the game for earning achievements - certainly the ladders and match-making are StarCraft's specific functionality.
Frank Pearce: I would definitely say it's about the functionality we want to implement and deliver to the fans. If we're developing Battlenet, our platform allows us to prioritise the future sets, and the order in which we want to deliver them to fans - and not be subject to the mercy of whatever else people are doing.
Q: Micro-transactions have worked very well for World of Warcraft - the Celestial Steed sales and forthcoming Auction House to name two - do you have any plans to look at micro-transaction elements for StarCraft II?
Frank Pearce: Not right now - no plans. But if you look at the micro-transactions for World of Warcraft as an example, as much as possible, we're not trying to do anything that impacts the gameplay experience, or affects the integrity of the game world at all.
I think micro-transactions probably don't make sense for a game like StarCraft II. Unless we decide to do something much more extensive with player profiles, then maybe we'll evaluate it.
But for me personally what I think is most exciting and what I want to see implemented and executed on well, is the StarCraft II marketplace - we talked about it at Blizzcon, where the community makes its own maps, and has the mechanism to distribute those maps to the rest of the community.
Historically, with a game like Warcraft III there's no easy way to get your map into the hands of the community.
Q: There was some concern over the age rating for StarCraft II in Korea - what's the latest on that?
Bob Calayco: The latest is that we submitted an updated build, and it's received a 12-plus rating.
Q: That could make a big difference....
Frank Pearce: Well the biggest factor is that if you have an 18-plus rating, it's really hard to get the game into game rooms for people to play - and that's where a lot of people play games. So we want to make sure that we can get the game into as many people's hands as possible.
Q: What was the change that brought it down to a 12-plus?
Frank Pearce: You know what? We submitted a build with changes, and they didn't really tell us what the big difference-maker was. We're just happy to get the rating.
Frank Pearce is executive VP and Bob Colayco is international PR manager at Blizzard Entertainment. Interview by Phil Elliott.