Last night, outside GAME's flagship store on Oxford Street, London, hundreds of PC gamers queued to buy Blizzard's real-time strategy sequel StarCraft II. It wasn't exactly chaos - more like orderly enthusiasm - but it was fun nonetheless.
Before all the hullabaloo, Eurogamer hopped on the train to London to chat with Blizzard's vice president and executive managing director for international operations Michael Ryder, and StarCraft II's lead software engineer Carl Chimes, to get some insight into the launch of what will no doubt be the biggest PC exclusive game of the year (unless World of Warcraft: Cataclysm comes out in 2010, anyway).
Read on for Real ID, really epic stories, and what's next.
Eurogamer: What emotions are you experiencing now that the game is finally out?
Carl Chimes: It's very exciting. We're all pumped up and ready to start work on the expansions. We're just very happy to be releasing StarCraft II. It's riveting.
Michael Ryder: It's been a huge effort. The one thing that makes it even more exciting for us is the fact that it's a global launch. We're launching in 11 languages on five continents within 24 hours. So there's a lot of excitement. We've got the adrenaline.
There's going to be a lot going on starting in a few hours. It is really exciting. It's kind of exhilarating, actually.
Eurogamer: What do you do after the servers are turned on and the game goes on sale? Do you obsess over what people say on forums?
Carl Chimes: We're always interested in hearing what the community has to say about the game. We're going to be monitoring the balance of the game. We were in beta for a while, and we think we've nailed it and come up with a finely tuned, balanced game.
We'll definitely be monitoring it going forward and we're ready to react.
Michael Ryder: Part of our company culture is to be in tune with the players. We want to hear what they're thinking and make sure everything's working right.
Obviously with such a big launch in so many different places, there are bound to be a few things here and there that need to be tweaked. So we want to be right on top of it. We're going to spend a lot of time listening to how people are responding.
Eurogamer: What can you do then? Can you react quickly to what people are saying?
Carl Chimes: It's true, we do have the ability to patch the game when we feel it's necessary. We're able to react very quickly if we need to.
Michael Ryder: We've got an organisation at Blizzard, even as we speak, we've got a group of people that are in a command centre, so we can coordinate on issues that need be addressed as we launch around the world. We monitor that on a 24/7 basis all the time.
Eurogamer: StarCraft is known for its balance. Did you keep the number of playable races in StarCraft II the same as in StarCraft to preserve the balance?
Carl Chimes: At Blizzard we have this core design philosophy called concentrated coolness. If we think we can make the races completely distinct and unique from one another and still balance them appropriately, then that's what we'll do.
We don't think we're going to add much to the game by adding an extra race and diluting the abilities of the existing races. So really early on we decided we want to stick with the three races. We love them. We just wanted to make them even more distinct and still just as balanced as the original.
Eurogamer: Was part of the decision about making sure Koreans would be able to seamlessly transition into the game without having too much that is new to wrap their heads around?
Carl Chimes: No. Actually, it plays like a new game. But it definitely harkens to the legacy. They'll find it's the same: fast-paced, hundreds of units bellowing out on the playfield, and still very balanced.
But on the other hand, we did re-imagine what we wanted the races to be like. So you'll find completely new units on each of the races and completely new abilities. Even some of the old units from StarCraft 1 that made it back in can do new tricks now.
Eurogamer: So you reckon fans of StarCraft will feel like they're playing a completely new game?
Carl Chimes: Yeah. We think players will find it fresh. It'll be a fresh experience. But it'll also feel familiar to them.
Eurogamer: How important is this release to PC gaming?
Michael Ryder: We don't think about it in terms of the platform, necessarily. We're more focused about the game itself and the gameplay. We think it's an important game for us to continue the success we had with StarCraft 1.
If it enhances the PC as a platform in a broader way, that would be great. But it's not something we made out as an objective.
We've always worked on the PC. For us it's a viable platform and supports the kind of game designs we want to work with.
Our focus is on delivering a great game and making the players happy. If that somehow enhances the PC platform, that's awesome.
Eurogamer: How does Europe compare to the US and Korea in terms of StarCraft? Is it as popular here as it is in the US?
Michael Ryder: The game is the same everywhere. That's what we care about. Certainly the game is popular in all the areas where we ship it. It'll be more popular in some areas than others. But this is a new game. It's 12 years later.
We look at all the regions equally. We try to approach them all with the same point of view.
One thing that's a bit different in the way we approach things is we try hard to modify and adapt our business models on a regional basis, so we can provide as much accessibility to the game as possible.
We have a different business model in Europe than we do in Korea. We have different business models around the world. It's something we pride ourselves on because we want to make the game accessible. Other than the business model itself it's the same game.
Eurogamer: How have you changed Battle.net?
Carl Chimes: There were three overriding core ideas behind the new Battle.net. First of all, we wanted players to always be connected. They're always connected to their friends and they're always connected to the service.
So even as you're playing the campaign, it can be saving your campaign progress up to the cloud, essentially. So you can pick up the campaign on some other computer, if you switch computers.
And we have plans going forward to be able to let people share their replays online, as well.
Another core idea behind the new Battle.net is we wanted it to be competitive for everyone. We cater to both casual players and the hardcore players. We have a state of the art matchmaking system, now. It'll find someone of comparable skill to your own.
Every game you play competitively will be on the edge of your seat.
But at the same time, we've split the ladder up into five different leagues. Within each league there are about a hundred people per division. So, as you progress up the ladder it's more meaningful and you'll actually see some progress, rather than being the thousand whatever on the ladder.
As far as the casual play goes, we've done a lot in the single-player and the challenge mode to get people ready for competitive play.
But we've also released the StarCraft editor. It's the same tool the developers used to make the game. During the beta we've seen people make custom games, like racing games, puzzle games, first-person shooters, third-person shooters, side-scrolling games.
As you make your maps you have the ability to publish them on Battle.net, and then everyone on the service can enjoy the game you've made.
The third principle of the new Battle.net is we're uniting all the Blizzard communities. So if you choose to use the Real ID option, you can chat to your friends. Even if you're playing World of Warcraft, no matter which realm they're on and no matter which faction they're playing, you're always able to talk to your friends.
Eurogamer: Were you surprised by the reaction from gamers to your plans to make people use their real names when posting on your forums?
Michael Ryder: Well, we weren't surprised to get feedback. That's something that's part of our culture. We know we're really fortunate to have a lot of passionate players that care about what we do.
So we always go out to the players and give them a heads up on what we're thinking about doing, and we look for their feedback.
In this case we got feedback.
We were able to then take that feedback, reconsider, consider all the factors, of which that feedback was one. Ultimately we decided we would not go in that direction for the time being, and see if there were other ways we could address the objective we had, which was to improve the forums generally.
So, all in all, the process worked. We put the word out. We got the feedback. We reconsidered. We made a change. We appreciate the fact that we have such passionate fans.
Eurogamer: What other ways can you address the objective you had for your forums?
Michael Ryder: There are a couple of things we're doing and there are other things that we're thinking about. But one of the things we're doing is allowing people who are posting on the forums the ability to rate the post, so that the moderators can see where the quality conversations are happening. That will help.
There are other things: an improved search function, for looking for different things in forums. We're going to continue to try to find other ways to upgrade the quality of the experience in the forums.
More on StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
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Review: StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
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Hands On: StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
Eurogamer: Has the whole experience with Real ID and your forums reinforced in people's minds that there is a dialogue between Blizzard and its fans?
Michael Ryder: It's not the only thing we think about. But, certainly, getting feedback from our players is a big part of what we consider when we're making changes or innovating.
It reinforces the notion that we're privileged to have those players that care and give us feedback.
Eurogamer: StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is the main game, and two expansions are planned for release afterwards. Has anything been held back for the expansions?
Carl Chimes: We didn't hold anything back for Wings of Liberty. Early on in the development process we realised our story was so epic we couldn't fit it in one box. So we decided to make three unique campaigns.
Wings of Liberty focuses on the Terrans. You play the role of Jim Raynor. In the second and third expansions we'll be focusing on more of a Zerg theme and a Protoss theme in the campaign.
We'll also be making enhancements to the multiplayer. We haven't decided exactly how we're going to do that. Traditionally you've seen in previous Blizzard expansions there might be a new unit or two per race, or new abilities, or things get changed up.
Eurogamer: How long will fans have to wait for the release of the first expansion?
Michael Ryder: I don't think we expect players will have to wait a long time. This is a relative term, I guess. But that's not our intent.
But we haven't announced a schedule for when the future games are going to be coming out. Those details will be coming out in the future after the launch. Right now we're focusing on launching Wings of Liberty, and then we'll shift gears and start thinking about the next game after that.
Eurogamer: Hopefully it won't be in 12 years.
Michael Ryder: Hopefully not.
StarCraft II is out now for PC and Mac.