Observer Mode

David Kim in the Heart of StarCraft's Storm

Psionic Storm StarCraft II
© Blizzard

StarCraft 2's balance designer talked to the community, but was he also listening?

On Thursday, Blizzard's David Kim donned his flak jacket and did an AMA on the Blizzard forums. As the game designer in charge of overseeing the game's balance, Kim is always in the line of fire for whatever flaws (real or perceived) exist in StarCraft 2's current metagame. With Protoss winning almost every major tournament, a plurality in every WCS division, and with only a single Terran in this season of the GSL, StarCraft 2 is under more scrutiny right now than at any time since the end of Wings of Liberty.

The fans grilling Kim had a lot of pointed questions, on topics as diverse as the Swarm Host, the role of capital ships, the Swarm Host, warp-ins, and the Swarm Host. While Kim had a lot of encouraging and thoughtful answers, however, it sometimes seemed like he and his community are stuck talking past each other.

That's understandable: Kim and Blizzard are justly proud of their vision for StarCraft 2, and some of the changes people want to see would fundamentally compromise that. On the other hand, a work stops belonging to its creator the moment it is released to the world, and sometimes Kim seemed to have a hard time hearing the concerns fans have been articulating.

Balls of Death

The tension was on display beginning with the first question. Forum user "Boomer" wrote, "Why is Starcraft 2 so much more deathball-y than Brood War? Have you thought about changing SC2 to allow for battles that last longer and let players more easily recover from setbacks?"

Anyone who watches StarCraft 2 understands this question and the premise behind it. StarCraft 2 armies tend to fight in tightly-concentrated groups, and even the biggest engagements can last only a few seconds thanks to how quickly units get killed. Among other things, the popular Starbow mod is a direct reaction to the death ball issue.

Kim's response was odd. He said, "As far as deathball goes, we believe having to micro armies and their positioning correctly to win major battles is a good thing...We don't think we're completely there yet and will continue working towards a more action packed game where there's a lot of action leading into army vs. army battles sometimes. The end goal in this area in our opinion is not to get rid of mass army vs. mass army scenarios, but more so to have a lot of action, a lot of harassment opportunities, and have each game feeling different."

Here's the thing: nobody has ever argued that having to micromanage StarCraft armies is a bad thing. The issue is that units get killed so quickly in isolation that there is no upside for spreading out unless players are trying multi-pronged harassment. Otherwise, units who get split apart from the main army tend are just wasted losses. So players tend to default to death balls, harassment, or cheese. What we see only rarely is a lot of back-and-forth army action.

The Swarm Host solves some of this by letting the Zerg throw tons of free Locusts at their enemies, meaning that combat is nonstop and the game turns into a battle of maneuver. Kim admitted as much when he said, "[The good use of Swarm Hosts are in] games where Swarm Hosts are used and there's constant action everywhere, including Swarm Hosts aggressively moving around often after spawning Locusts leading into each side's victory are really fun to watch."

The Power of Theme

Kim admitted that Blizzard aren't happy with the current state of the Protoss vs. Zerg matchup, especially the stalemate games that are becoming commonplace in Europe (Korea doesn't quite seem to suffer from the problem to the same extent). He gave a hint as to what might change with the Swarm Host in the near future, saying, "...We are also internally discussing if it's a bad thing that locusts keep spawning automatically. The main reason being often times Zerg players just leave Swarm Hosts rally pointed at a location, and it's very common for the observer to go and watch nothing happening because there are no units to attack."

But the biggest thing Kim might be up against is that StarCraft 2 was a really daring attempt to create three races that played in a way that was consistent with their fictional theme. Zerg are macro monsters, an army that fights as an ever-evolving swarm. Protoss are masters of the warp, appearing all over the map at-will. Terrans are high-tech space cowboys who try to solve every problem with the biggest guns and explosives possible.

The Difficult Dance of Asymmetry

This is what makes StarCraft 2 so great, but it also creates some potentially problematic asymmetry. The Swarm Host exists because the Zerg needed a siege unit and its free Locusts fit with what the Zerg are all about. The Mothership Core let the Protoss break the rules of time and space to give them some incredible early flexibility. But over time, the Protoss have gotten ever more flexible and dangerous in the early stages of the game, and other races have more things to defend against and fewer opportunities to seize the initiative.

Kim pointed to this thematic constraint during the Q&A, writing that, "We feel Warp Gates are very race defining for Protoss. It's a completely different way to produce units. Because we want every race to feel unique and asymmetric, we like the design of Warp Gates. ...We've talked about our stance on Force Fields in the past, and it still remains unchanged. We feel like we get a lot of feedback from forums saying there's no micro anyone can do against Force Fields. However, we just don't see this."

StarCraft 2 is a great game in part because of its faction design, and it's impossible to imagine them without warp-ins and Force Fields. But it also has issues that are driving players like Greg "IdrA" Fields away from the game and frustrating faithful veterans like Jos "Ret" de Kroon, who recently had to explain in a blog why he badmouthed the game during a stream. The problem for Kim is addressing and validating the kinds of concerns that StarCraft's biggest fans and players are raising (Tip: "We just don't see this" is not the way you do this) while protecting the strong design choices and faction identity that define StarCraft 2.

His Q&A last week was an imperfect start, but it's encouraging that to hear that he will apparently be doing a lot more sessions like this in the future. StarCraft 2 is set up for a great year, but it will need greater understanding between its balancer-in-chief and its community. When you're making a great eSport, it's not just about win-rates. It's what happens along the way to GG, and whether people consistently enjoy playing and watching it.

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Observer Mode

Red Bull eSports' opinion column