The lead designer of StarCraft II says there are several ways the popular real-time strategy series could make its way to consoles — and that under the right circumstances, Nintendo's upcoming Wii U might be a good fit.
Blizzard has traditionally focused on PC-only titles, but the brains behind massive franchises like Diablo, Warcraft and StarCraft are no stranger to console gaming. The studio has confirmed that it's exploring options for a console version of Diablo III. Ports of the original Diablo and StarCraft have made their ways to PlayStation and Nintendo 64, respectively. And of course there's Blizzard's most infamous piece of vaporware, the elusive console game StarCraft: Ghost.
So while speaking to StarCraft II lead designer Dustin Browder in an extensive phone interview last week, I asked if he thought a game like StarCraft could work on consoles, particularly a system like the Wii U, which seems like the perfect fit for strategy games. He confessed that he hadn't seen Nintendo's upcoming console in action, so I gave him the basics: it's coupled with a touchscreen tablet controller that's sort of like an iPad with joysticks, buttons, and triggers. Basically, the whole kitchen sink.
"The problem I have with the iPhone interface is the big meaty sausages called my fingers that are always in the way," Browder told me, explaining that he thinks devices like the iPhone and iPad work well for games that allow you to casually lift up and put down your fingers, like tower defense.
"If I can control a cursor on the television with my hand on the touchscreen, that might be able to work," he said. "[But] because of the hotkey scenario, it's not like players actually play StarCraft with the mouse only — they play with the mouse and keyboard... We obviously allow new users to play mouse-only and that's really fun, but when you get serious about the game you do move into the mouse and keyboard space."
So maybe the Wii U wouldn't work for a real-time strategy game like StarCraft II. Or maybe it would, with some tweaking. Maybe if Browder and his team got a chance to play around with the tablet, they'd figure out a proxy for the keyboard. Maybe they'd come up with an entirely new idea for the franchise. Or maybe they'd leave with nothing at all.
I asked Browder if Blizzard has a team "exploring" console versions of StarCraft II like they do for Diablo III. He said no — nobody is working on a console StarCraft, although he confesses they've thought about the possibilities.
"Every now and then we do have people show us things," he said. "Or we will see demos to kinda dip our toe in the water and say, 'Is this real yet?' But we've never been able to convince ourselves."
Back when Sony was first showing off its PlayStation Move motion-control accessory, their people came to Blizzard to demonstrate how it might work for a game like StarCraft II.
"The demo that I saw was really fun because the guy who came in and showed it to us was a big StarCraft fan, and he put a significant amount of effort into trying to make it work," Browder said.
"And when I tried it, I wanted to kill myself. I found it very difficult to make it work. I believe that if I had practised as much as he had, I would've enjoyed it more... but for us it felt like it was gonna be a lot more effort to still make that work, to still make that really sing. And for us, control is king, and it's so critical. Everything's gotta move when you tell it to move. It's gotta be really tight. You can't feel like you're battling the interface."
At this, Browder paused and laughed. "Although people could argue that StarCraft is such a challenging game, you're always battling the interface."
Still, Browder says any sort of controller would have to live up to what he describes as Blizzard's "ridiculously high standards".
"It needs to match a very high quality level for control for us to consider a StarCraft move in that direction," he said. "Again, if there is enough there, totally we could make a port. And if there's not enough there, it still might be exciting to do a whole new title."
Blizzard doesn't want to do "kinda crappy ports," Browder says. They don't want to put new users in confusing or misleading situations. "Like, if I'm a new user, I don't wanna come over and see StarCraft on the Wii platform and StarCraft on the PC and go 'oh, I guess it's a Wii game,' and get it and find out that was the bad version."
In other words, they don't want another StarCraft 64.
"So [a console StarCraft] would have to be just an awesome experience. As an alternative, we'd have to redesign the game for that UI which could be something we can do down the road, but that wouldn't be a port anymore," Browder said. "That would be a much more serious endeavour with lots of design time and lots of work poured into it."
If they were to bring StarCraft to consoles, Browder says, it would likely be a new game. New interfaces. New units. New controls. "Whatever it takes to make it feel really tight, really clean," he said.
"We haven't seen the system that we felt we could easily do it," Browder said. "And that's not to say that some day we won't make a really special effort to get it done, cause it certainly would be exciting. We're just not there yet."
Photo: Damian Dovarganes/AP