starcraft-1

The big daddy of esports is back with a brand new expansion pack - but how do you fix what ain’t broke?

StarCraft 2: Wings Of Liberty changed online gaming forever when it landed back in 2010. The strategy sequel became the go-to multiplayer game for millions around the world; new athletes broke through the ranks of esports, StarCraft 2 commentators even became celebrities themselves.

Now Blizzard is back with a follow-up, expansion pack StarCraft 2: Heart Of The Swarm. Except calling it an expansion pack doesn’t really do it justice. It’s taken the team three years to make, and with 20 new single player missions, it’s a game in its own right, Blizzard production director Chris Sigaty tells Red Bull UK.

“It’s about the length of what we think is a fully featured campaign - 20 missions with all new environments for players to explore. We’ve also completely redone the story mode,” he says. “We [only] considered it an expansion because of its direct connection to Wings Of Liberty.”

Heart Of The Swarm focuses on the insect-like Zerg race favoured by players like Machine, and the rise of their vicious queen, the humanoid Sarah Kerrigan. Sigaty says that the game’s meant for every type of gamer though, whether you play Zerg, Terran or Protoss.

“There are lots of different player types, those who play just for the campaign, mostly for multiplayer, for the social experience, for the mod experience. I feel the guys and girls on the team did a great job speaking to all types of players, tightening up the missions, adding a great story mode, mechanics and gameplay combined with all new multiplayer that speak to both hardcore and new users.”

Heart of the Swarm mixes things up with seven new units for the three races too, each with their own new look and skill. One Protoss unit lets you lob giant balls of energy across the battlefield like an evil laser slingshot, while the new Terran Widow Mine is a remote control bomb on legs.

They’re all new, but they fit perfectly into the design of each race. With years to prepare, how do they find the perfect ones?

“I feel like people want to hear that there’s this rulebook but it really happens very organically,” explains Sigaty. “Often our art director will just get [draw] something very cool and that will become a new unit in the game. Sometimes the reverse will happen and our designers will say ‘We want a transforming unit” and the artists will think about that...we try to ensure that any bit of inspiration that any member of the team comes up with that resonates has a chance of being incorporated into the game.”

Throwing new designs into the mix can upset the perfect balance Blizzard tries to keep between all three races and their very different units. Think of it like introducing a new piece in chess that can kill a piece anywhere on the board - except only the white army gets to use it. Now make it so that white only wins half the time.

“What we did after Wings of Liberty is look at the areas where matches weren’t as interesting as they could be,” says Sigaty. “A lot of work that goes into that. The main thing is looking up the results of player games...we spend a lot of time with players talking about options, playing balance changes, looking at the results with players of all skill levels - is it doing what we expected, is it doing what we wanted to?”

Blizzard even keeps a statistician on the payroll just to keep an eye on the numbers and make sure everything’s fair. “His primary job is to design things like the ladder system and how the ladder system should work...see when a particular race is winning too frequently or not enough,” says Sigaty.

“Another member of our team...[our] lead of multiplayer balance in StarCraft, he literally plays StarCraft every day, three or four games an hour. He’s playing 10 to 20 minutes, stopping, making some notes and then jumping back again.”

Striking that balance means not every new idea makes the cut - Sigaty says some of his favourite units were dropped because they turned out to be just too powerful after thousands of hours of testing.

“We had one unit that we pulled from the game, a unit called the Warhound on the Terran side - it just turned out to be very powerful,” he remembers. “We’ve still got the community talking about it, there’s definitely still players saying ‘Where’s the Warhound?’”

That’s before you get to all the other new ideas the team at Blizzard are still itching to do. “We have a huge list of features, we call it our backlog, we’ve got literally hundreds - things that never got started that we wish we could do,” admits Sigaty.

They’ll have a chance to fit some of them into the next expansion pack - Legacy Of The Void, another mammoth expansion pack focused on the Protoss that may take years. Sigaty won’t say what’s planned for the game, but he insists Heart Of The Swarm won’t be forgotten about immediately after launch by the team.

“We’ll continue to concentrate on [Heart Of The Swarm], it’s one of the things that allows me to sleep at night - we support our games for a very long time,” he says.

“We’ve got Legacy Of The Void to look forward to after that. We’re going to move a smaller team over to the next product...the rest of us will come along to Legacy Of The Void as we understand more what’s going on there.”

Before that happens though, there are thousands, millions of games to be played online. Will Heart of the Swarm change who’s on top of the ladder? Will today’s StarCraft pro players be able to stay on top?

“My personal guess: we’ve changed it to add more variation but it won’t be as alien as StarCraft 2 was to [the original] StarCraft,” says Sigaty. “There were so many changes in that environment that, yes, you saw a whole new crop of players. With Heart Of The Swarm the existing players will have an equal chance, but there is enough variety there that players may be able to break through.”

You heard it here first - better get training.

StarCraft 2: Heart Of The Swarm is on sale on March 12.

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