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The panel began with a description of Blizzard’s art style, outlining Blizzard’s style as having epic ideas, bold shapes, crisp and colorful textures, and dynamic animations. The epic ideas are what makes units cool, making each unit interesting in its appearance and backstory. Bold shapes along with crisp textures are important to make each unit distinct and clear on-screen, and it’s important not to go overboard with details or else the RTS view of StarCraft makes everything look cluttered and busy. The animations are stylized and over-the-top, and the main point for the animators is to have fun with it.

With the art style direction in mind, the presentation moves to the new multiplayer units that are being planned for Heart of the Swarm. Things to note about the new units are that some are ideas that are being revisited, and some were initially concept art that the designers made concept work on the gameplay side.

The Zerg are getting two new units called the Viper and the Swarm Host. The Viper was born out of a desire for a cool snake-like animation for the Zerg, and the concept was put on hold before Wings of Liberty so that the appropriate technology could be developed. The unit is fleshed out now, and ready to be shipped out in HotS. The Swarm Host is a siege unit that has a unique silhouette that stands out from other units.

The Terran are getting three new units, one being a transformation of the Hellion. The Hellion itself is getting updated textures to go with its transformation, which turns it into a more durable, bipedal battle mech. A completely new unit that’s coming with HotS is the Warhound, which follows the principle of having a distinct silhouette that makes it pop out. It’s another bipedal battle mech, one about the size of a Thor. The last unit the Terran are adding to their arsenal is the Shredder, which looks like the old Spider Mine, but has a mobile mode and a burrowed mode. While in burrowed mode, they emit a damaging field whenever enemies are nearby.

The Protoss also have three new units, the Tempest, the Star Relic, and the Replicant. The Tempest is replacing the Carrier and the Mothership as the Protoss’ capital ship of choice, and has a splash damage attack. During its design it was changed from the Dark Templar green-silver theme to the traditional gold-blue theme. The Star Relic, a unit that was removed during the development of WoL, returns in a remodeled, retextured form as a flying harassment unit. The Replicant, the third new unit, can become a permanent copy of any unit it targets, the video example showing a group of Replicants turning into Siege Tanks. One thing the artists love about robotic units, such as the Shredder and the Replicant, is that they don’t need cockpits or technical details.

Environments in HotS were shown, including the Installation, Lava, Manmade Flying, and Ice tilesets. The Installation tileset was made to look cleaner than the other tilesets, and have a lot of reflective surfaces that make the environment feel like the inside of a high-tech facility. The Lava tileset was worked on to make oilrig-like structures emerging from the lava, with Terran structure models made to look durable and rooted to the ground. Small doodad models have been added to make the map more Terran-occupied along with the custom walls that have been implemented. The walls are customizable by mapmakers and modders, and are even pathable by some units. The Manmade Flying tileset is a new tileset, featuring floating bases filled with construction machines. Massive cannons in the background make the map look like a well-defended Terran base. The Ice tileset is coming after going through several iterations on ice. The artists eventually decided on a bluish tint for the environment, making white less predominant. Also, each doodad is handmade for each tileset, customized so that they are customized towards the unique details for each tileset.

Technology was also improved alongside the environments, such as development for shaders. The shaders in HotS are more versatile, allowing the look of new materials or substances in the game. The cliff models were made to be less modular so that they looked like one solid artwork, moving away from terrain, cliff, and environment assets looking like different elements. Something the Zerg players will love is the addition of creep crawling up buildings as it spreads, leaving pulsing purple veins on the structures of your Terran or Protoss foes. A new physics engine is coming, allowing a unit’s corpse to fly through the air upon death. In the realm of graphics settings, HotS will be further optimized so that the lowest graphics settings will look much better without giving up performance.

The last section of the panel is about Blizzard DotA. The artists wanted to shift the general StarCraft focus of “massive armies fighting massive armies” to a group of really polished hero characters fighting on a cyber “gaming world”. The backstory is that heroes are abducted from various locales to provide entertainment on this gaming planet. Throughout the design of minions, the artists decided to simply their models to really portray their mass-produced status. An addition they are planning for neutral minion camps is the Ogre King, a large enemy that can be killed for a large sum of gold for the entire team. The basic item shop is now run by goblins, and is called the Goblin Shop. “Lord Order” replaces the King Towers shown in previous versions, taking the place of the final objective that must be destroyed to win the game.

The panel opened with some brief descriptions of key characters that will appear in Heart of the Swarm, such as Kerrigan, Zeratul, Izsha, Abathur, and Za’gara. Kerrigan, shown to have been turned human at the end of Wings of Liberty, still has her “Zergy” dreadlocks. The panelists confirmed fan speculation that Kerrigan’s connection to the Swarm was not completely severed, although her memories of being the Queen of Blades are mostly lost. With Kerrigan seeking out the Swarm, Raynor is left without the picture-perfect ending he hoped for.

Not much was revealed about Zeratul, except that he is still working in the shadows, behind the scenes, acting much like a “detective” trying to unravel the mysteries behind everything. Because of his search, he’s discovered a cause that’s above all else.

There’s many Zerg characters appearing for the first time in Heart of the Swarm, one of them being Izsha, Kerrigan’s advisor of sorts. She’s a unique Zerg, an infested Terran, created personally by the Queen of Blades several years before the story for the purpose of storing information. Izsha holds the Queen of Blades’ knowledge, memories, thoughts, and plans, and thus she is able to give good advice to Kerrigan through the course of Heart of the Swarm.

Abathur, on the other hand, was created by the Overmind as the genetic engineer for the Zerg Swarm. He served the Queen of Blades in the past, and now serves Kerrigan in Heart of the Swarm. As his function is to evolve and improve the swarm, he’s the character to go to when you want upgrades. With regards to how he achieves improvements to the swarm, he consumes creatures and breaks down beneficial components in his body, allowing him to manipulate them at will and apply them to new Zerg strains.

And then there’s Za’gara, a Broodmother, which is a type of Zerg created by the Queen of Blades as a variation of Cerebrates from Brood War. Za’gara is the leader of the brood on Char, with a tough and merciless personality to go with her power. She isn’t approving of Kerrigan and her human form, and she refuses to believe that Kerrigan has any relation to the Queen of Blades.

In Heart of the Swarm, a key point is that there are many stories woven together. There is the main story, where Kerrigan seeks to retake the Swarm, but there are also individual character stories that the player can explore. There’s ambient stories in the game that float in the background, such as other Broodmothers that can be encountered, and there’s character backstory that can be learned through repeated interaction with said characters.

And of course, there’s Sarah Kerrigan’s personal story. She’s received and done unspeakable things, and as this conflicted, angry anti-hero, she seeks vengeance against those that made her suffer. And, eventually, she’ll have to accept her relationship to the Swarm.

Heart of the Swarm is continuing the StarCraft story of great wars between different species, but it is also unique in the way that it is the closest look at the Swarm thus far. The game aims to delve into the “heart of the swarm”, and the gameplay reflects this. In Wings of Liberty, the Terran campaign, the story was about one man leading a group of rebels around the stars, earning money to fund their rebellion. The missions are tactical and strategic, and gives a sense of Raynor always in way over his head but pulling off miracles. The Zerg campaign is designed to be very different, focusing on the concept that Zerg invasions are all-ending and apocalyptic for the residents of a planet. Heart of the Swarm was designed around the desire that players will feel like the Swarm, invoking fear through world-destroying raw power.

An example of a Heart of the Swarm mission is playable on the BlizzCon floor, and it’s about Kerrigan reacquiring the Char brood through a race against Za’gara for unhatched Baneling eggs. The player wins when Kerrigan hatches the eggs into a Baneling army to defeat Za’gara. In a different mission, Kerrigan learns about a “flash freeze”, a periodic occurrence on a cold planet that leaves the Swarm temporarily frozen. Seeing the indigenous creatures and their immunity to the flash freeze, the Zerg consume the creatures to adapt to the cold.

Between missions, you can access the Evolution Pit, an area to upgrade your units. Simply spending points to obtain upgrades was too similar to Wings of Liberty, so mutations are unlockable through playing the game, with three mutations available for each unit. On top of that, genetic splits make the player choose certain units to become entirely new units. For example, Zerglings can be advanced to either Raptorlings or Swarmlings, but not both. Raptorlings can jump cliffs and leap to get close to the enemy, while the Swarmlings are spawned faster and in greater number per egg than Zerglings. There are clear benefits to both, and which genetic split the player chooses will ultimately depend on their playstyle.

As a final note, the panelists discuss the destruction of worlds as a key feature in Heart of the Swarm. As the player progresses in the campaign, Broodmothers will join Kerrigan’s Swarm and strengthen the Swarm. Also, after a certain point, Izsha will identify planets available to destroy, each planet providing certain benefits, such as one planet giving increased mineral harvesting, or another planet giving faster Larva generation, or more Overlord supply.

 

The StarCraft Mod panel this year featured new info concerning Battle.net features pertaining to joining custom games, the plans for editor improvements, and previews of Blizzard DotA. The discussion revolved around upcoming features in Heart of the Swarm, so the content mentioned is still a ways off.

  


The panel started by introducing the Arcade, the upcoming improved menu for joining custom games. The Arcade replaces the Join Custom Game screen entirely, adding in a five star rating system and game info pages for each map that’s been uploaded. In addition, the front page of the Arcade includes lists of the most popular maps, what’s hot (maps that are rising in popularity but aren’t popular yet), up and coming (high ratings, but aren’t played a lot), new and noteworthy (new and high ratings), and featured maps chosen by Blizzard. With these improvements, Blizzard hopes to make the Arcade an effective hub for games created by the community.

  


There’s a number of improvements to the menus we currently have in Wings of Liberty, one being the method you join games. When you choose one of the various games up on the front page or from a list of all games, you are taken to the game’s respective info page where you can then click buttons for joining a game or creating one. When you choose to join a game, the game actually uses the matchmaker to match you with players of the same skill level. This matchmaker is completely separate from the matchmaker for ladder games; you could get a Diamond rank in Blizzard DotA specifically, for example. Also, while you wait for a match, you can browse the game’s How To Play page or its patch notes, or even take a look at the reviews that other players have given the game along with the rating.

  
  
  

For people who have been waiting since the announcement of the map Marketplace, there’s still plans to release the Marketplace sometime after the release of Heart of the Swarm, and the Arcade will be a preparation for that. With the addition of the Arcade, there will be a strong foundation for adding in new content, and make the Marketplace more accessible and congruent in style to custom game menus.

The Arcade, once released, will be available to everyone, not just players who purchased Heart of the Swarm. Even Wings of Liberty players and Starter Edition players will get the update, which means it will be a general Battle.net improvement that allows as many people as possible to join and create games. Of course, this might not necessarily mean that all maps will be playable on Wings of Liberty; maps that use Heart of the Swarm units might not be playable on Wings of Liberty, although such a thing would be unreasonable considering entirely new units can be made, imported, and exported with the map editor.

 


Concluding the Battle.net side of mods, the panelists move on to the editor, saying they plan on making improvements to debugging, UI editing, making cutscenes, and a custom model exporter for 3DS Max. These editor improvements will allow modders (map makers) to build higher-quality maps without struggling as much with the editor to do so.

One thing they are adding to help debugging is the trigger debug window. This window provides a number of ways to debug , such as helping identify the most expensive routines and allowing line-by-line stepthrough.

  


As mentioned before, they’re also adding in a UI editor to make the creation of custom UI a much easier task. You can now click and drag elements around the screen to realign them, change the property of any element by clicking on it, and save all frames with the click of a button.

  


They’re finally adding a cutscene editor, which will make it easier for both mapmakers and machinima directors to create high-quality content in a shorter time. While, currently, the only way to create cutscenes is with triggers, the new method is visually based, meaning there’s panels showing the map exactly as it looks in-game and has many functions that can be used to alter camera movement and positioning, model positioning, and special effects.

  


Next up is the exporter for 3DS Max, which is hoped to empower modders by allowing them to create custom models with their own tools. The exporter allows users to make custom models for units, buildings, doodads, spell effects, and even entire tilesets. There’s also documentation included, such as tutorials, tool breakdowns, and example files to help people start off.

  
  


Finally, Blizzard DotA is brought up, which Blizzard is aiming to be a DotA game that fixes the fantasy of fighting as iconic heroes on a battlefield. The fantasy, which involves being an epic hero in an epic battle, is generally underplayed in other DotA games because, in reality, players have to hide behind towers and run back and forth waiting for last hits. Blizzard is trying to fix the fantasy by rewarding early aggression and creating a more intuitive battle line, both accomplished by making towers have regenerating ammunition and adding health globe minions.

To elaborate on both changes, towers that are generally used as a full crutch for early-game defense now have ammunition that runs out fairly quickly. This ammo does regenerate, but since the regeneration rate is slower than the fire rate, the towers are severely weakened. Essentially, enemy players can take down towers in the early game if they are left unchecked by heroes, and creates a more hero-versus-hero gameplay rather than a hero-versus-tower gameplay.

In the case of minions, game designers felt that something was missing when they playtested a version of the game that removed the benefits of last hitting entirely. Realizing that last hitting adds tension and positional gameplay, Blizzard decided to add minions that drop health globes upon being last hit. This creates the results and benefits of last hitting without making the effects “hidden” (hidden by making players keep track of minion kills to assess how much gold and experience they earned).

Another thing they removed is the concept of boots. Boots seemed bland and detrimental to gameplay because all heroes are unconditionally required to purchase them, so the designers decided to introduce mounts. Mounts have a two second channel time and allows heroes to move around faster on their respective summoned mounts. This replicates the boots mentality, but removes the need for boots.

One core Blizzard mentality they wanted to add to Blizzard DotA was making games that are easy to learn, but difficult to master. When first playing DotA, players pick a hero they like, go to the hero’s wiki page, choose and memorize a build, and learn the jungle paths if applicable. While it’s not bad to teach people the importance of studying hard, but it doesn’t make for compelling gameplay. To make the game easier to learn, they made the stats more simplified, by only having Health, Damage, and Mastery. This removes stats like Armor that, at its core, is just another form of health that forces players to perform calculations. Items are also simplified, making all the items fit on a single page and each one be upgradable.

On the hero design side, they wanted to add iconic Blizzard heroes from different games into one battlefield. They also wanted to form crisp hero roles that were easily identifiable, such as Tank, DPS, Support, and Siege, all of which are fairly self-explanatory and easy to memorize.

With a more exciting metagame in mind, Blizzard wanted to add more exciting map bonuses. For example, there are merc camps in the jungle that, once defeated, will be impressed by your hero’s strength and fight on your side by replacing lane minions. These mercs are naturally stronger than lane minions, so this allows a team to gain map control by sending out stronger waves of minions than their opponent. There is also the Stone Zealot, which replaces high-level bosses in DotA that grant a substantial boss upon its defeat. The Stone Zealot, however, fights on your side and pushes a lane after it is defeated, which forces a team fight since it outranges towers. This, in Blizzard’s opinion, creates more exciting gameplay than just a buff.

Something that was finally decided on was the possibility of multiple maps. The decision was initially an uneasy one, likening the impact to having different fields for football. Even though many ideas were found to be unbalanced in testing, one map that was found to be decently balanced added some fun to the game because it added variety. An analogy was made to StarCraft II multiplayer; it’s possible to play Lost Temple a hundred times over, but people will seek out variety eventually. Once the decision was made to include different maps, this created the opportunity to find new locations, such as Tristram, Korhal, Onyxia’s Lair, etcetera.

Watching people play DotA, it’s not difficult to conclude that DotA players are known to rage. Blizzard, as developers, wanted to see what they were responsible for, and if they can fix some of the problems that lead players to get angry. To remedy some of the rage, a goal of Blizzard DotA is to create faster games (average of 20 minutes long) so that players won’t have to be stuck spending an hour with poor allies. Another goal is to remove conflict points, which the panellist explained to be a desire to be the superstar of the game; players want to choose heroes that get them more kills, but a team full of these types of heroes are unlikely to win. Blizzard wanted to remove these superstar heroes and reward players for unselfish play. Kills, Assists, and Deaths have been removed. Instead, if you contribute to the takedown, you get your own full bonus. An analogy was made to WoW, that if the player that got the last hit got all the loot, the game would become outrageous and would be more hardcore individual focused instead of hardcore team focused. Also, non-kill-based heroes became popular as these changes were implemented because team play was rewarded, not an individual’s kills.

The Q&A is forthcoming, so check the frontpage to see when all the Q&As are up.

Dustin Browder, David Kim, and Josh Menke came on stage for the StarCraft II Multiplayer Panel, discussing the balance between race matchups as well as plans for balance in the upcoming expansion, Heart of the Swarm. After some introductions, Dustin Browder shows what the current balance is for various race matchups in StarCraft II multiplayer.

Global Balance
- Terran vs. Zerg: Even
- Protoss vs. Zerg: Even
- Terran vs. Protoss: Even

Across all leagues and all divisions around the world, all of the races are doing evenly well against each other. Dustin Browder notes that since this includes players from every league including bronze, it’s a good idea to look at Masters level players to observe balance in a highly competitive setting.

Masters Level
- Terran vs. Zerg: Even
- Protoss vs. Zerg: Zerg dominance in Europe (10%)
- Terran vs. Protoss: Terran dominance in Korea (10-12%)

Something that’s concerning is that, while race dominance is generally even across the world, there is a notable Zerg dominance over Protoss specifically in Europe, statistically putting a Zerg player about ten percent above any Protoss player. Similarly, Terran are displaying strength over Protoss in Korea by ten to twelve percent. For these two matchups, they are only seeing notable imbalance in these two respective regions, which is why Blizzard is keeping a close eye on how to proceed with region-specific balance issues.

After the overview of race balance is done, the focus turns to major tournaments and the balance issues that become apparent through professional play. David Kim proceeds to explain that Blizzard tries to observe all the major StarCraft II tournaments and how tournaments are taken very seriously from a balance perspective. Taking a look at as many tournaments as possible, evidence is gathered on what races have what balance issues.

GSL Code S
- Terran is overpowered
GSL Code A
- Even
IEM Guangzhou
- Even
IEM New York
- Zerg is more powerful
IPL
- Protoss is weak
MLG
- Even

Having looked at the results from major tournaments, each of the race matchups must be further analyzed. For the Protoss versus Terran matchup pre-1.4, problems only arose in Europe and Korea judging from adjusted player ratings. Looking at community feedback, many players were saying Protoss were weak against Terran, whereas pros were commenting on how it is impossible to win as Protoss, especially against the Terran 1/1/1 strategy involving building one Barracks, one Factory, and one Starport, amassing units until a key point when the player pushes out with their units along with a large number of their workers in an all-in push.

After saying that they concluded that 1/1/1 and EMP are too strong and needed changes, David Kim added that Immortals could use a buff. For EMP, it was difficult to guage its lategame potential due to the prevalence of the 1/1/1 strategy and therefore difficult to change, and for Immortals, the range is planned to be increased from 5 to 6. For all the changes they planned, they didn’t want to flip the matchup too much, thus the careful changes.

After the 1.4 changes, the feedback from both community members and pros significantly improved, and that 1/1/1 wasn’t a problem any more. Tournament results were also improved, with Protoss players placing higher in major tournaments. The adjusted ratings, however, didn’t provide a definitive answer due to the fact that ratings tend to fluctuate after patches and take a while to settle.

Currently, Blizzard is looking at reducing the radius of EMP to offset the high raw damage it deals. It’s the strongest burst damage spell in the game. Other than EMP, they’re also looking at giving Protoss a general buff that will allow Protoss players to play more evenly against the other races.

Dustin Browder takes the mic again, this time talking about the development concepts behind Wings of Liberty and what they learned from Wings of Liberty that will carry on to making Heart of the Swarm. He notes that there are core race weaknesses, that stale matchups such as Zerg versus Zerg exists, and missed opportunities in Wings of Liberty. Continuing on, the plans for Heart of the Swarm is to fix the core weaknesses, fix matchups, and fix or replace units.

As the discussion continues, the focus turns to the new units in development for Heart of the Swarm.

New units and abilities


TERRAN
  • New "battle mode" for hellion - transforms like a viking
    • Battle mode hellion has more hit points, moves more slowly
    • Shorter, wider arc on flame attack, and stronger
    • Gives terran a beefy front-line fighter in the late game

  • Warhound
    • Smaller, more nimble version of Thor
    • Effective anti-mech ground weapon to help break siege tank lines
    • Anti-air attack with splash damage

  • Shredder
    • Robot that emits channeled, area of effect damage when immobilized
    • Damage automatically shuts off when an ally moves into range
    • Gives terran cheap zone control, but can't be used near main army
    • Is still very work-in-progress

  • Thor
    • Moved to late game, more hit points and damage
    • Can only have one, like mothership from Wings of Liberty


ZERG
  • Ultralisk
    • Existing version is bulky and has difficulties engaging in battle
    • New burrow charge ability lets it dive underground and get into the fight easily

  • Viper
    • New caster unit with detection -- replaces overseer
    • Has abilities like blinding cloud to help break entrenched positions
    • Abduct ability allows it to pull units to itself -- pull siege tanks or colossus out of death balls

  • Swarm host
    • Zerg artillery for map control and siege
    • Burrows into the ground, and continuously generates small creatures to attack
    • Feels very zerg-y


PROTOSS
  • Tempest
    • New protoss capital ship, replaces carrier
    • Anti-air splash damage for mutalisks and other aircraft
    • Has direct air-to-ground attack as well that isn't splash

  • Replicant
    • Special unit that can clone itself into any non-massive unit
    • Allows protoss to also take siege tanks or infestors from enemies
    • Is very expensive
    • Still very much a work-in-progress, not-final unit

  • Oracle
    • Caster unit used for raiding and harassment
    • Can disable enemy structures, or prevent miningwith its abilities
    • Doesn't actually kill or damage anything
    • Mothership is cut in favor of this unit

 

  

  

  

  

There are also a number of smaller changes that are being worked on, “smaller” meaning more minute in scale but nevertheless able to drastically impact gameplay.

Other Stuff
  • Ghost Cloak cost
    • Fixed cost for a fixed duration
  • Reaper health regeneration out of combat
  • Battlecruiser speed boost ability
    • has a cooldown
  • Baneling burrow move
    • Hive upgrade
  • Hydra Speed Upgrade
    • Hive upgrade
  • Corruptor Siphon ability
    • attaches to a building and gathers resources
  • Nexus defensive ability
    • turn any building into a Photon Cannon temporarily
  • Nexus Recall ability

 

That was the end of the discussion section of the panel. The Q&A is being worked on, and will be posted in this article soon.

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