We caught up with Lead 3D Artist on StarCraft II, Allen Dilling, and shared some table-time with him while asking things peripherally related to what he might be working on with Heart of the Swarm. We did ask about Warcraft IV…
It is… this is my first name, Allen’s my middle name that I go by. Every year it’s the same issue, I really should print up new cards.
You are Lead Artist on StarCraft II.
That is correct.
Looking very nice, by the way. We just finished playing the campaign demo in the demo room. No beef with the art whatsoever.
Awesome! Thank you. Appreciate that.
How have you managed to not fall into the next-gen trap of making everything mud-brown?
There’s always the temptation this generation to make things as detailed as possible, cuz you can, and not trying to be judicial with your edits… in RTS you have to be more crystal clear, because the top-down view, there’s 500 units swarming on-screen, if you can’t pick out that one guy that’s gonna ruin your game you’re screwed. So I think we try to put as much detail as possible, but you really have to have a unique silhouette and distinct outline for each guy.
What’s been the most fun for you, working on Heart of the Swarm?
Oh man. I mean, this is really fun. We work really hard, but we have a lot of passion and have great fun doing it. Um, I think it’s been making the campaign, making it Zerg from the ground up. It’s not like we just took Zerg textures and put them on the old bridge from Wings of Liberty.. everything is brand-new, so we had a chance to make all new sets, new high-polygon characters for the cutscenes. Um, just really theme everything after that Zerg-centric vibe, it’s really cool. Especially since we went all-Terran with Wings of Liberty.
Do you find there’s a lot of pressure working with Zerg, so as not to upset the Koreans?
(laughs) Not so much pressure there, that’s more the designer’s issue. They’re more worried about the play balance and whatnot. I think there’s just pressure because they’re the hardest to make out of the three races. Terran is pretty easy, we understand how that stuff works, it’s kind of rooted in the real world. Protoss are the clean lines, that’s my favorite race artistically, and it’s pretty, it’s a little easier than Zerg, which are more challenging because you gotta make them scary and gross, but you gotta be careful to not make them look silly. Which you can easily… you can cross that line really easily. We polish a lot, try to figure stuff out, like it’s got veins on the texture, but you’re not allowed to put bones on it, so we try a lot of different things out. We have some amazing artists, and I think the multiplayer units are the best units we’ve ever made as far as the visuals and the design. So I think that really shows in all the new screenshots we’ve released.
What’s been a challenge, like something you got stuck on for a while?
Um, there’s always a lot of pitfalls along the way, like you go “that’s awesome” and then six months later it’s like no, that’s crap. We thought that was cool, dunno what we were smoking, so we had to change that… so every day there’s always something we’re tweaking, iterating on. Um, the biggest challenge falls to the designers. Changing multiplayer units, taking out the carrier, we’re like ‘whoa, what are you doing’ – that stuff takes a lot of leap of faith, but at the end of the day it really drives everything, because we’re trying to put out the best game possible and we’re really dedicated to like, a fun, balanced, hopefully visually cool-looking game. And so then we’re okay with killing our fun ideas and favorite units, because that kind of stuff, we know that as long as the main product is better for it, then it’s okay.
If you had to list things you personally were involved with, what would that be?
I do a lot of the effects, I supervise the animation. There’s some really fun ideas in the campaign that I can’t tell you about unfortunately, very unique things we tried to do on the art side, and I had my hand in the direction of that. I think, I’m curious to see what people think. We did a really good job, there’s so much unique art in the campaign, compared to Wings of Liberty – which I thought looked great – but we definitely raised the bar. In some levels, there’s so much art you’re playing on the art, there’s not even terrain underneath. It’s like there’s 90% of it that’s just pure art. It’s a lot of work, but I think it’s going to be really fun. There are a lot of levels where there’s unique art just for that one level. We make all this crazy art just for one mission, and never use it again.
Do you find that’s one of the benefits you’ve gained from having split the campaign up into three sections?
Absolutely! I know at the beginning people were like “oh what are you doing, you’re dragging it all out” but really it’s amazing. We can add so much more detail, tell such a better story now, and art-wise we can go off and have time to focus on what does Zerg stuff really look like, instead of just kinda trying to put it in and go “eh, it’s part of the campaign”. No, this is a full-on game we’re making, it’s nothing like an expansion. It’s crazy. Um, for us it’s a huge advantage on the production side.
Were there a lot of lessons learned from Wings of Liberty that you managed to apply to Heart of the Swarm?
Oh yeah. There’s a lot of things, like being more efficient, sitting back and having time to look at it, also getting community feedback, and like okay cool, let’s make some changes here and there. We used some texturing techniques on the art side, watching people play through the campaign, trying to make it more accessible and streamlined. Um, and just, RTS is kind of a complex genre. We pride ourselves on making it appealing to someone who doesn’t really know how to play, we try to make it, we don’t try to hold you hand, we just try to make it accessible and fun and the next thing you know you’re commanding huge armies and kicking butt and pwning people on Battle.net.
Is there anything specific you’d like to mention with regards to Heart of the Swarm? Like, how Boyarsky suggested Diablo III players not mash the spacebar to skip dialogue…
(laughs) That is true, that’s a big fear. We have these nice, high-detail in-game cutscenes, inside the game engine, and our biggest fear is hey, we spent three weeks working on this one scene, it looks amazing, that was a lot of hard work, and all it takes is like boop, you hit the escape button and you skip it. It’s like, craaaaap! That’s okay, it’s gonna happen, as long as people enjoy the game on whatever level they wanna enjoy it on, we’re totally fine on it, but yeah, we’d like to see all the artwork get seen, obviously. Um, and there’s a lot of fun stuff too. The campaign, we can’t talk a whole lot about it, but there’s so much unique art and fun stuff, we try to make a lot of distinctive settings and scenarios. And the big thing that’s coming out is DOTA, we’re really proud of it, we’re just excited on the art team and design. I mean where else will you get the play a character like the Witchdoctor from Diablo III, next to Thrall and Arthus from Warcraft, next to Kerrigan from StarCraft, and you’re kicking butt in this brand new universe…
The trailer made the DOTA seem bent towards a more humorous style, is that the focus or was it just for the trailer?
We’re definitely making it tongue-in-cheek. StarCraft II is a little more serious than Warcraft, so we’re trying to put it somewhere in-between. But I think it’s nice for us, it’s a good change of pace, to go back and have a little more of that Warcraft III. Like the two-headed ogres, but now they have like laser-guns and stuff. It’s fun to mix stuff together. And because of the PvP aspect, it’s a little more light-hearted, we can do that more. We’re not trying to tell a story, and it doesn’t matter that all the characters are a mish-mash from different universes, because we’re like hey, we make fun of that fact. We have dialogue between them as they walk along, mocking each other. It’s fun taking a break, messing with both worlds.
You recently took your DOTA back to the drawing board, what prompted that?
Well first, it started off as a mod, like Aiur Chef and StarJeweled, it was kind of a test to see how we could push ourselves and push our tools, in-between the expansions, and then we had really good response to it, but then we kinda boiled it down and went well, we could release it now as a little mod, it is fun, or we could really focus on it like it was a real full game. And that’s what it is now, a full game – we put a ton of effort into it, a ton of art and design. There’s a lot of temp stuff in right now, but it’ll look even better when we ship. But we really said okay, let’s take it back and make it a real Blizzard version of it. That’s why the design has changed a lot – we have mounts, the towers have ammunition so you can rush them when they’re out of ammo, when you’re going into the jungles between the lanes when you take over an encampent you actually get the two-headed ogres working on your side now in the lanes with you. It’s a lot of fun stuff we put our stamp on.
Would you like to work on a Warcraft IV?
I love the Warcraft universe. It’s fun. But I think that, I’ve been at the company 12 years, and we wanna try something new. But that’s kinda what’s cool about the DOTA stuff, we get to put in some new tweaks and some old favorites. Like a cybernetic robot wolf. Warcraft IV would be awesome, but there’s a lot of other stories out there to tell.