Hard as it is to believe, StarCraft II has been out for five years now. And after five long years, Blizzard is finally getting ready to wrap-up their sci-fi strategy epic.
In doing so, they hope to put an exclamation mark on the sequel, which continues to command a loyal following, but has lately been troubled by the rise of MOBAs. It's no secret that Blizzard would like to recover some lost ground in the eSports scene with Legacy of the Void, which will mean boosting it appeal to viewing audiences on outlets like Twitch, as well as bolstering its hardcore bonafides.
As senior designer David Kim told me in a recent interview, that means a renewed emphasis on individual skill.
"If there are two opposing armies in a given game where both armies don't really require much micro, players will be able to just look at the size of the armies and determine who has already won. This removes a lot of the excitement of 'anything can happen' depending on the skill of each player in that given match," he explains.
"On the other hand, if armies require more micro to be fully effective, and even if one side is behind in army count, both the players and viewers will know that there's still a chance to compete and possibly win the game if that player manages their individual micro more effectively in the next match. A good example of this is the current Marines vs. Banelings strategy. Due to how much micro is required on both sides to maximize efficiency for cost trades, it's really difficult to predict who will come out ahead in a given battle. It really depends on the skill of each player in that battle, and that’s exciting for both the players competing online against opponents of similar skills, and those watching competitive matches."
This approach is necessitating a rethink of how Blizzard approaches its unit design, both in regards to established units like the Swarm Host and new additions like the Protoss Adept. In that light, Kim took the time to shed some light on their thinking behind the design of Legacy of the Void's newer units.
The Protoss Adept: The Core of Legacy of the Void
The Protoss Adept embodies much of Blizzard's approach to Legacy of the Void. It is a micromanagement-heavy unit whose effectiveness is dependent on its user's individual skill. Its Psionic Transfer ability allows it to send out an invulnerable ghost, which the Adept will teleport to after seven seconds. This ability makes it an intriguing option for worker harrasment, as well as a high speed flanker during combat.
"Whether you are playing or watching a game of StarCraft II, our goal is to make sure the winner of a given battle isn’t already decided before a battle even begins." - David Kim
As of right now, Kim sees the Adept as a strong early harassment unit for the Protoss owing to its relative effectiveness against Zealots, Marines, and Zerglings. And after getting the damage upgrade from the Twilight Council, Kim says, he think it can form the core of the overall Protoss army.
The Adept's ability is similar to that of the Stalker's Blink, but the Adept is much more timing, positioning, and strategy, Kim says. "The Adept's current ability is very different from a twitch micro ability such as Blink, because the player using it really has to strategize over a much longer term and manage the placement of both the Adept and its duplicate properly to gain the maximum impact from the unit."
It's an intriguing unit, but there's still work to be done. "We are aware that the balance isn't quite there yet," Kim says, "and this unit is one of the things we're looking at for the first balance patch."
The Terran Cyclone: A Herald for a New Endgame?
StarCraft has long been known for the way in which early units are useful for the entirety of a match. The Terran Cyclone, a fast-moving mechanical unit able to attack at range while still moving, is one such example. With its Lock On ability, the Cyclone can target a single unit and fire continously while moving, significantly improving its rate of fire in the process.
Kim says that it will be a good opening option for Terran players, augmenting the traditional Reaper, Marine, or Hellion opener. It will also serve as a useful option for sniping Zerg Queens and other vulnerable units.
Once the endgame commences, Kim hopes the Cyclone will be an effective option for countering bigger, more expensive units. "We're buffing a lot of end-game units and making them stronger such as Carriers, BCs, or Ultralisks," Kim says, "and we're hoping the Cyclone will be an effective tool against these units."
Blizzard's strategy is obvious. They hope that strengthening endgame units will make them a more attractice option for high-level players, thus making for a bigger and flashier grand finale. But Blizzard doesn't want them to be too powerful, so they're introducing the Cyclone to counterbalance them.
Like the Adept, the Cyclone also reflects Blizzard's renewed focus on creating units that balance accessibility with an emphasis on micromanagement. "Newer players will be able to use it more easily due to the auto-cast of its ability," Kim says, "but to really have the unit perform at 100% optimal efficiency, it needs to be micro-managed manually by an expert hand."
The Zerg Lurker: Return of the King
Zerg fans have long missed the Lurker — a burrowing siege unit that doubled as an infantry shredder. It has popped up in StarCraft II's single-player campaign, but it has otherwise been missing in action... at least until now.
The Lurker is currently slated to make its triumphant return in Legacy of the Void, where it will partly replace the Swarm Host. Kim explains, "The Swarm Host took a completely different approach to siege range damage, because unlike the normal high-burst siege range options, this unit was constantly dealing out low damage over a long period of time to achieve a similar end result. While we loved how this worked in practice, there were always a few super dragged out games due to the unit."
As a result, he says, the Swarm Host is being completely redesigned, potentially giving the Lurker a niche as a siege range unit and Roach counter.
Should the Lurker survive until release, though, it will not be without some tweaks. As of right now, the Lurker is not a great Roach counter, Kim says, which they are planning to address in an upcoming balance patch. However it turns out, though, it'll be nice to have back an old friend.
The Terran HERC: The Missing Unit
When Blizzard first unveiled Legacy of the Void, they announced that the Terrans would be getting a unit called the HERC — a mech suit that would serve as an effective tank for Terran infantry. In addition to being a useful counter to Zerglings and Banelings, the HERC was to have a grapple ability that would allow it to pull itself to an enemy unit's location.
As of the current beta, though, Blizzard has decided to cut the HERC. Kim explains, "One of the things we try to avoid in StarCraft II is having two units perform very similar function, and the main reason for cutting the HERC was the unit's overlap with the Hellbat. This does not preclude another unit for the Terran, but we'll be evaluating everything in the beta to see what makes the most sense."
Over the course of StarCraft II's lifespan, Blizzard has rarely been shy about cutting units or introducing heavy modifications to its planned units. As such, it's not surprising to see the HERC join the likes of the Terran Shredder on the multiplayer scrap heap. But that doesn't mean it's gone entirely. If Blizzard follows their usual course, the HERC will likely pop up in the single-player, especially if the Terrans end up teaming up with the Protoss in the endgame.
More changes are still to come elsewhere as well. Legacy of the Void is currently in the midst of a closed beta, with a final release date likely to be in late 2015 or in early 2016. In that time, more units may end up being cut or added to the mix. But the core of Blizzard's strategy won't change. There are some who may see StarCraft II as having outlived its usefulness as an eSports fixture, but Blizzard clearly doesn't intend to allow what was once their flagship series to go quietly into the night. There's still plenty of work to be done, but with Legacy of the Void, they are off to a good start.