Dustin Browder, Game Director, took the stage first to discuss overall global balance. He initially concluded that between all of the rankings globally, all the races are “pretty even”. However, in the Master and Grandmaster levels of gameplay, Protoss vs. Zerg has a few issues with Zerg dominating, but only in Europe. Likewise, Terran dominates against Protoss, but this problem is mostly isolated to Korea. After presenting this brief overview, Browder sat down and passed the stage to Game Balance Designer David Kim, to discuss the game balance decisions that have or will be made.
Kim began by explaining that in addition to overall data from the online multiplayer in the game itself, they also take into consideration tournament specific data. He pointed out a Terran dominance in FSL Code S, a Zerg dominance in IEM New York, and a slight Protoss weakness in IPL. He then proceeded to explain the game balance decisions that went into patch 1.4.
Before 1.4, Kim noted that Community and Pro feedback pointed out some issues with Protoss when playing against Terran. This was exponentially compounded on the Pro level, where the feedback noted that a Protoss win was near impossible against the Terran “1/1/1 All In” strategy, which consisted of building one barracks, one factory, and one starport; building marines, siege tanks, and banshees; and then attacking with everything – including half of your workers.
Kim said that this feedback caused them to do some more analysis; the result was that they decided the 1/1/1 strategy was too strong. He also noted that EMP may be a little overpowered as well, but they were unable to gauge this due to the majority of the Protoss players being disadvantaged in the late-game by having to prepare a defense against the 1/1/1 strategy in the early game; this resulted in Protoss having to overbuild their early-tier units. To attempt balancing this issue, they chose to buff Immortals, increasing their attack range from 5 to 6. Kim explained this minimal change was to avoid unbalancing what they consider to be solid overall gameplay.
The results of this change were greatly improved feedback; many pro Protoss players went as far as to say that the 1/1/1 strategy no longer posed an unmanageable threat. This was reflected in more Protoss wins in tournaments.
Currently, Kim said the team is also looking at possibly changing the radius of EMP, because the damage inflicted on Protoss units because of it is too high. Hitting 10 units with an EMP right now results in about 1000 damage, making it the strongest burst damage unit ability in the game. Additionally, he said they are looking at just buffing Protoss a small amount as a whole, so that they are more competitive with the other races. In order to accomplish this, they are looking at decreasing the costs of the level 2 and 3 upgrades from the forge, but they are also considering buffing Protoss shields as well.
Browder reclaims the stage at this point, saying they are trying to be very careful with their gameplay changes because of the drastic repercussions it can have on tournament play, as well as casual play. He then followed this up by listing some overall issues they found with Wings of Liberty. Among these were some issues with inherent weaknesses in the races. He gave Zerg as an example, stating that they don’t gain much of an advantage by moving to tier 2, and if they get ahead resource-wise, their only real option is to expand. This can pose a real problem if their enemy out-techs them, or if the Zerg player fails to maintain map control. Additionally, Browder stated that they found the matchups between like races (particularly Zerg vs. Zerg and Protoss vs. Protoss), to be stale – you aren’t given many options as far as strategies go. Finally, he mentioned that particular units that they hoped would greatly affect the gameplay have not done so and they are considering tweaking them to change this. The Protoss mothership was displayed for this slide, hinting very heavily that they were unhappy with the performance of the unit. He concluded this section by stating they planned to fix the race weaknesses, fix stale match-ups, and fix or replace the units. The units displayed were the mothership, an ultralisk, and a thor.
After this, Browder proceeded to cement the fact that everything shown is work in progress by showing some units that were not implemented in Wings of Liberty. First Browder presented a Protoss unit called the soulhunter or the purifier, indicating the unit had several name changes through the course of its life, full concept art, and even an in-game model with stats. Second was a sporebeast, which also got quite far before getting cut, and finally the Protoss Adept, which had a throwable shield, but after months of work it was cut because it was too similar to the marine and they couldn’t find a reason to keep it.
Kim then took the mic again to discuss each race individually, and the changes and additions being made to each one for Heart of the Swarm. He began with Terran, citing issues with the Thor unit: It’s intended to be a counter to mass mutalisks, but it’s so big that it can easily get stuck between buildings. Additionally, the unit has a high cost that prevents more than one or two being built in response to the mutalisks, meaning that the mutalisks can “magic box” to counter this, forcing the thors to kill them one by one. The second issue they found with Terran is their ability to handle a late-game mass charge of zealots. The only existing counter to this is by using marines, marauders, stimpacks, and kiting. Kim stated that while they enjoy having the ability to micro-manage units like this to overcome an obstacle, they would like for the race to have an actual counter to turn to.
As a result, the team is trying to avoid adding to the strengths of the Terran, while at the same time addressing their weakness, when designing their new units. The first thing unveiled is a new transformation for the Hellion. This transformation slows the unit down, but greatly increases defense, allowing them to withstand zealots and splash damage. The team hopes this will also allow the hellion to be a viable end-game fighter unit.
The second new Terran unit is the warhound. It’s a new low cost, fairly fast mechanized unit produced by the factory, intended to be a counter to mass mutalisks like the thor was. Additionally, the unit also has a very powerful anti-ground anti-mech attack, so a Terran opponent utilizing mostly factory units will be easily thwarted by it. This in turn allows the team to increase the power of the thor, making it a super-powerful unit akin to what the mothership was intended to be.
The third Terran unit is a radiation robot called the shredder. The intent for this unit is to replace siege tanks as a method of map-control. They are cheaper units and essentially spew radiation damage any time units move within their range. A video was shown that depicted two of these units decimating a force of about 20 zerglings. However, the radiation ability will not activate if you have other units near it. This means they are standalone units, and do not work in groups.
Next, the weaknesses for the Zerg race were detailed. It was noted that Zerg has problems dealing with heavily guarded opponent bases. When a player using this race encounters this, their only real option is to expand and race to gather more resources to be able to just barrel through the defenses. They would prefer if Zerg had the ability to build up their army instead, to overcome this. Additionally, the fact that Serg has several units not being utilized to their greatest extent was mentioned.
The first set of modifications dealt with the ultralisk. Ultralisks are very large, which can easily cause them to be stuck on your own units, and therefore easily picked off by an opponent. They also have a good splash damage attack, but not quite good enough. To deal with this, they will be buffing the splash damage of the unit and introducing a burrow charge ability, which allows the unit to quickly dig and pop up under the feet of the enemy units.
The first new unit introduced for the Zerg was the Viper. It is a full spell caster unit, possessing three spells. The overseer will be cut as a result. The intended use of this unit is to break chokepoints. To do this, it has an ability that spews a cloud over a group of enemy units that reduces the attack range of said units to 1. It also possesses an ability that can pull units around, allowing the destruction of specific units or extended reach.
The second new Zerg unit is an artillery unit called the Swarm Host. It is intended to be a good way to gain map control, via an ability that allows the unit to burrow and spawn locusts, that will swarm the map at a rally point.
The final race to be mentioned was the Protoss. There were several issue mentioned for the Protoss; among them were the lack of area of effect anti-air and not very many good raiding units. The first new unit was a capital ship called the tempest. It requires a fleet beacon and at the moment is replacing the carrier entirely, as the carrier is cut. The unit has a powerful AOE anti-air attack, designed to fend off mass mutalisks. Additionally, it can also fire upon ground units, making it a good all-around air assault unit.
The second new Protoss unit is the replicant. This unit cannot attack, and its only ability is to transform into any unit that you have vision of in the game. This allows you to copy units the opponent has as well, but the downside is the cost of the unit (200/200/4). In addition, the copied unit will be the upgraded version, despite whether or not the unit you clicked on is upgraded.
The third unit being introduced for the Protoss race is the oracle. This unit is a raiding caster air unit, and the mothership will be cut and replaced by it. Its first ability is one used to temporarily disable buildings. The second is an “entomb” ability, which allows you to lock out minerals from being used, but presumably other things as well.
Finally, Browder mentions other significant changes that will potentially be made. The first is a change to the cost of ghost’s cloak ability. This will be a fixed cost for a fixed duration. Additionally, reapers will now regenerate health out of combat. Battlecruisers will be getting a speed boost ability on cooldown, allowing them to more easily catch up with fleeing units. Banelings will be receiving an optional hive upgrade that will allow them to move while burrowed. Hydralisks will also be receiving a speed upgrade, also available through the hive. Corruptors will be receiving a siphon ability that allows them to attach to buildings and harvest them for resources. The nexus will be receiving a defensive ability that allows you to change a building into something similar to a photon cannon, for a short period of time. The Nexus will also be receiving a recall ability, which will allow you to recall an entire slew of units to your base at will. This will enable the player to avoid sacrificing units once the battle has turned for the worst.
Analysis: I can’t help but feel that Zerg got the fewest buffs, but the added ability to the ultralisks will hopefully make them more useful. Many times I outright avoided building them to instead mass other, more viable units. Baneling’s burrow-move and hydralisk’s speed upgrades will be greatly appreciated, however.
I’m somewhat surprised the carrier is being removed from the Protoss fleet. However, the unit replacing it may or may not be better. I hated how the carriers required you to construct interceptors before they were of any use. I’m even more surprised that the mothership is being removed entirely and not simply buffed. However, the oracle appears to be by far more useful, so I’d wager it’s a good tradeoff.
Finally, I can’t help but feel that Terran got a big buff with these units and changes, right after they sort of admitted how powerful Terran is. They have way too many options, and these units and changes might just undo the work they did with patch 1.4. However, the only real way to find out is to see how the changes go. I just hope Heart of the Swarm is not as expensive as Wings of Liberty. If it is, I will be pretty upset.
As a final note, I apologize for the lack of images regarding the new units. BlizzCon’s virtual ticket player had a bug that mixed up the playback bookmarks, and I could not access this panel after the fact (I wasn’t watching it Live because it ran the same time as another panel). As a result, I found a low resolution youtube video to watch it, but did not deem the quality high enough for screenshots. For those interested, the video is located here.