How can you possibly follow up a game like StarCraft?

Blizzard’s landmark 1998 RTS is one of the most successful games of all time judging from the number of copies sold – a hefty 11 million units – but its influence extends far beyond mere numbers on paper. StarCraft defined the RTS genre – and for many, PC gaming as a whole – for years after its release. To this day, it remains one of the most intensely beloved and highly-acclaimed games of all time. So when Blizzard announced a sequel in 2007, many of the game’s fans, whether casual or diehard, were skeptical. How could any sequel possibly live up to the original?

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It was Dustin Browder’s job to answer that question.

When Browder joined Blizzard in 2005 as the Lead Designer on StarCraft II, he was hardly a newbie to RTS design – he’d previously led the charge on games like Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 and The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth – but that didn’t necessarily mean he was prepared for the task ahead of him. It was more than merely overwhelming. “Let’s call it ‘terrifying’ – that’d be much more accurate,” laughs Browder. “The fanbase for the original StarCraft is extremely enthusiastic, and rightly so. We’re talking about arguably the best RTS of all time, right? You can just sense the enthusiasm for this product.”

Browder wasn’t a part of the team that developed the original StarCraft, but he identifies himself as an ardent player and fan who played the game “for many, many years,” and who, as a designer, tried to apply “many of [StarCraft‘s] design sensibilities” to his own games. However, that did little to make the job of building a sequel any less daunting.

By the time he joined the team, part of the work had already been finished. The game’s engine had been under development for several years – the team even had a working recreation of the original StarCraft to test it out – and Blizzard’s VP of Game Design, Rob Pardo, had already set the vision for the sequel: “Hearken to the legacy of the original, build on the huge success of [its] multiplayer, expand on Battle.net and do something completely fresh and new for the series with the solo campaign,” recounts Browder. “Those were the goals set for the project before I got there, so the rest of the time we were grinding away at them.”

Of course, having the vision in place doesn’t necessarily make executing it any easier. What, exactly, does it mean to “hearken” back to the original title? What makes StarCraft, StarCraft?

For Browder and the rest of the team, part of it was the idea of the “rush.” “We love the speed, the chance to lose – or win – the game at any moment; these were all critical components,” says Browder. “We don’t want it to be the sort of RTS where you’re absolutely safe for 15 minutes and after that, that’s when you might lose. We really wanted to make a game where you need to be on the edge of the seat from the first 10 seconds onward, thinking, ‘I could win or lose right here. Oh man, I need to harvest, I need to get ready as quick as I can!'”

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Going hand in hand with the game’s speed and urgency was the idea that any given match’s decisive victory could happen on any scale, from a tiny skirmish to an epic finale. In StarCraft, Browder explains, the player has “the ability to build up from small armies to massive fleets – and like I said, either could decide the game. StarCraft is a game where you can see the game end in a fight with five Marines versus eight Zerglings,” depending on the skill of the players involved. But the game also has an incredible sense of scale. “If both people are of equal skill,” Browder says, and the match goes on long enough, “I could have a fleet of 15 Battlecruisers.”

“So you go from a very small scope that’s almost squad-based, to this epic, insane battle with dozens or even hundreds of units all fighting in a massive clash, over a 20-minute period,” he continues. “That sudden change of scale is really crucial to StarCraft‘s success: Every moment is critical, whether big or small. You can win or lose anytime.”

It was one thing to make a game that looked like StarCraft, but more important was making a game that played like StarCraft – and the team made a deliberate decision to keep the sequel’s scope limited in order to preserve that essence. To that end, the team opted to stick with the original’s three core races: the Terran, the Protoss and the Zerg. “We could have added a fourth, fifth or sixth race, and you bet we certainly discussed it,” Browder says, but the sticking point was this: When do they start to feel the same as the other races? That each race was carefully distinguished from the others was “absolutely key” to StarCraft, and that was a point on which the designers would not budge.

“The game feels fundamentally different when you’re playing as Zerg than when you’re playing as Protoss – you approach it in a different way. That is absolutely critical,” Browder says. The team chose to limit the game to the original three races not out of a lack of urgency or a fear that the team wouldn’t have enough time – “Lord knows we’ve taken enough time with the game,” Browder laughs – but out of a “genuine enthusiasm to make them all feel and play really distinct.”

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Beyond having a scope and feel very similar to the original game, StarCraft II has come under fire from some hardcore RTS fans who say that the title is “dated,” and that it ignores many advancements in the RTS genre that happened in the last decade. That, too, was a conscious choice says Browder. If Blizzard “included 12 years of features from every game that we ever thought was cool, it would be the most messed up, complicated, confused and psychotic RTS ever.” Instead, he says, designers need to focus on what makes sense for their own games and not shoehorn ideas from other games into them simply for the sake of having cool features.

That’s not to say that Blizzard didn’t consider new game mechanics for StarCraft II. The team experimented with a cover system similar to that of Relic’s RTS titles like Dawn of War II and Company of Heroes, in which certain terrain like forests would give your units defensive bonuses. “We tried it many, many times, and every time it was always a fail for StarCraft because it’s such a fluid game,” Browder says. “There’s a very specific pacing to StarCraft … [the cover system] made it a lot slower and a lot more boring.” Company of Heroes and Supreme Commander are “great games in their own right,” Browder says, but that doesn’t mean their mechanics worked in the game his team was making.

“There isn’t just one continuum for RTS design; we’re not all working on the same game and throwing all of our ideas into one big pot,” he elaborates. “We’re working on our own games with our own goals. We added what would add value to StarCraft but not make it too incredibly complicated.”

The need for relative simplicity is partly due to the fact that players need to be able to reasonably predict (or at least guess) what their opponent is up to at any given moment, but also due to the fact that StarCraft II needs to be fun to watch as well as fun to play. The team is designing it with an eye toward the “e-sport” industry – especially in Korea – that the original StarCraft helped bring to prominence.

“It’s true that Korea’s embracing of StarCraft and Brood War showed the world just what an e-sport could be,” says Browder, and that’s something the team wholeheartedly supports. “It doesn’t matter if it’s for our games or our competitor’s games – I don’t care. I just want e-sports to be more successful here in the States, in Europe, in South America, wherever! It’s just a really fun way to experience and promote this hobby that we all love, and I’m hopeful that it continues to grow.”

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Unfortunately, this may also be the toughest nut for the StarCraft II team to crack. Many players have 12 years’ worth of experience with StarCraft: Brood War. Will they be willing to jump ship when the sequel arrives? “We hope that if we make a good game, they’ll come over,” Browder says; but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a realist. “I don’t expect every Brood War player to embrace StarCraft II. Many of these guys have 10-plus years with Brood War, and they’re going to love that game no matter what we do with StarCraft II, and that’s how it should be.”

One potential setback is the game’s famous lack of LAN support, crucial to ensuring lag-free gameplay particularly in the tournament scene, where milliseconds count and where forcing all connections through a limited bandwidth pipe would be infeasible. While Browder is enthusiastic about the idea of making the StarCraft II experience inseparable from Battle.net, arguing that the game is at its best when played between opponents of equal skill (via their matchmaking system) and when players are all part of the same huge community, he admits that the team is still mulling over how to handle tournament play.

While the “pseudo-LAN” option that would transmit data peer-to-peer over an ethernet connection while requiring players to stay logged into Battle.net is still the plan according to Browder, Blizzard hasn’t finalized anything yet in terms of making sure tournaments are the best experience they can be. “We’ve gotten a ton of feedback; we’ve heard that even [the pseudo-LAN] isn’t enough. I don’t know what the final form will look like, how that will finally shake out – but we’re really aware of the problem, and we’ve heard the feedback, and we’re trying to deal with it.”

Hang-ups and speed bumps aside, there’s very little suggesting that StarCraft II won’t be a massive hit – but can it have an impact anywhere close to that of the original? “Who knows?” says Browder.

“All we can do is build the best game we can make and hope the fans embrace it; get millions of them together and then we’ll maybe know the answer to that question.”

He drew a parallel to another Blizzard behemoth, World of Warcraft. “No one thought WoW would be so big; we were hoping for 500,000 subscribers, tops!” he says. Instead, the game came out and defied the expectations of journalists, analysts, gamers and developers alike, currently sitting pretty atop 11 million subscriptions worldwide. But that wasn’t what the team originally set out to do, says Browder – they just tried to make the best game they possibly could, and the fans took it from there. “You can’t set out to sell 10 million copies; if that’s your goal, it’ll paralyze you. Your goal has to be to deliver a quality experience; you have to do the best you can and see what the fans think. They’re the ones who make the game big, not you.”

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That’s the philosophy Browder and his team have had throughout the game’s long development process, and as the game nears its release, they’re sticking to it. “Ultimately what made StarCraft great – what will make StarCraft II hopefully great – is that, yeah, we work really hard at making a game, and the community works really hard at loving it.” It’s a collaborative process, says Browder, “and honestly, [StarCraft‘s] success wasn’t even half on our end.”

“The community invented e-sports. The community invented Battle.net’s success – yeah, we made the service, but they were the ones who used it in vast numbers. The community showed us just what was possible with modding in StarCraft and Warcraft III. We didn’t invent [the popular Defense of the Ancients] – that was all them!” Browder says.

Surpassing one of the most beloved games of all time – and getting the diehard community to let its baby go – is a task of Herculean proportions, and nobody knows that better than Blizzard. Still, as the company once noted on its official StarCraft II FAQ, it’s been in this position before. Warcraft II was an influential and beloved classic; Blizzard made Warcraft III and WoW. Diablo practically defined the dungeon-crawler, and Blizzard surpassed it with Diablo II. The developers have bested themselves before – why not now?

So far, reactions to the StarCraft II beta have been almost universally positive from press and fans alike, but the real test will come when the game finally sees the light of day and finds itself on the hard drives of eager gamers worldwide. Then and only then will Browder and his team know if they’ve succeeded in their very own Mission Impossible.

As a StarCraft player might say, Dustin, “GL, HF” – good luck, have fun.

John Funk tried to construct additional Pylons, but he plays Zerg. It didn’t end well.

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