I was really excited when StarCraft II was first announced. If the leap from StarCraft to its successor even approached the leap from WarCraft II to III, this game would be another epic. Instead, it seemed Blizzard began to go down the path that often plagues established entities in business – the sacrifice of daring innovation for comfortable stability.
But before I get into what I dislike about SC2, let’s consider why there were such high expectations for it. Because by the time of SC2’s release, Blizzard had pretty much established itself as the RTS king, a distinction which I hope it will continue to deserve by merit – rather than lack of competition – if the Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void expansions really meaningfully change the game, as BroodWar did.
First, I can’t overstate the importance of the stories and environments that Blizzard created, which certainly helped pique player interest, immersion, and investment even before widespread and stable online play was possible. Most other major RTS contemporaries of Warcraft II and Starcraft were historical (Age of Empires and Command & Conquer come to mind) their missions carefully triggered and narrated.
Let’s be clear – I love historical shit. From Civilization I learned the basic flow of human history (with absurd shenanigans like catapults defeating tanks) and negotiation (“our words are backed with NUCLEAR weapons!”). I’d never have heard of Archimedes if his fucking magical ancient laser towers didn’t blow my shit up in Age of Empires. I would still have never heard of Joan of Arc, or grasped why the chiefs of Central American tribes wear jaguar masks if not for Age 2. And who is this Tesla, whose coils fry pitiful grenadiers into crispy heaps (C&C)?
But these video game monuments to accidental learning were ultimately no match for the immersive universes that Blizzard created, which utilized the chemistry of imagination and play. Warcraft II laced the natural crack of high fantasy with a tale of corrupt ambitions with multi-dimensional consequences. In-game, you get to control everything from mages who can turn people into sheep or cast blizzards on them, to ogres who cast floating eye scouts and the coolest sounding spell effect in game history. The game manual came with the compelling backstory, and even the soundtrack was mostly badass.
Storywise, StarCraft remains probably the best mainstream sci-fi game yarn this side of Mass Effect. Again, you’ve got ambition, sacrifice, betrayal, and corruption set against the backdrop of galactic conflict between the future of humanity and two vastly different divine offspring of an ancient progenitor race. But what really defined this game was how it just took “spell” effects and empire management mechanics to the next level. You could blind something, mind control it, infest it with a parasite, put a protective cloud of insects over it, irradiate it, and then put it into untouchable stasis, and you still had only scratched the surface of possibilities. What made this the vast spectrum of abilities – and the races who wielded them – especially impressive is that all of it was implemented into a generally balanced game. Most RTS games before this hadn’t managed or even really tried to pull these things off, because it’s tricky. In Age of Empires, units are basically the same for everyone, excepting bonuses and availability for specific civilizations (not everyone in the ancient world used elephants or centurions); the multiplayer variety came from randomly generated map features for each game. The stark differences between Terran, Protoss, and Zerg gave StarCraft profound strategic depth.
You’ll notice that the way I mentioned these games shifted from their creativity and capacity as conduits for curiosity to their design and gameplay. That’s because it was around this time that it first became possible for huge numbers of people to play with and against each other in stable, protected, and organized online platforms. This eSport infancy needed to be nurtured by games that possessed fun, challenging complexities for players of all skill levels.
As a freshly transplanted 8th grader struggling to adjust to the social shock of New York City, I gladly adopted gaming as a competitive proxy. StarCraft, though not then my game of choice, became the backbone of a whole gaming culture in Korea, where the game’s legends practiced and played not only with astounding speed and precision, but also genuine brilliance in both unique styles and moments of desperate improvisation. Some of these moments aren’t even hard for the uninitiated gamer to appreciate; putting a probe into stasis to block a ramp and buy just enough time to muster defenses for an enemy horde gathering below, or using a floating building to conceal an unexpected nuclear silo (you can find clips and writeups of a series called Pimpest Plays immortalizing these). StarCraft enjoyed over a decade of prominence and gave birth to the world’s first professional eSport structure. Expectations were certainly high for the next Warcraft RTS.
Once again, Blizzard more than responded to the challenge. They could have “settled” for making Warcraft III into Starcraft with a Tolkien skin by just adding more units and spells. Instead, they once again took the RTS genre in an original direction.. While most RTS games (Starcraft included) eventually progressed to players controlling huge armies and sprawling bases, WC3 would focus on tactics between much smaller groups, using a “true 3D” engine to the point that you could view the map from any angle or distance, and actually physically surround units. The main innovation here (and even if Blizzard wasn’t the first, they certainly were the most polished, which counts for quite a bit) was that players could control heroes who were noticeably stronger than regular units, could gain experience and cast multiple spells of increasing strength, and use items to augment themselves or friendly troops. Or in the case of goblin land mines – obliterate an entire army if stepped on. The smaller-scale battles and caps for army size made it easier to bring the Warcraft series from two to four playably balanced races, each with unique flavors and ability synergies for heroes. Other fresh mechanics included neutral enemies of varying strength who could be killed for gold, experience, and items, and features like in-game night and day (which would influence visibility and give advantages for the Night Elf race) and neutral mercenary and item shops. The role-playing element within a strategy game even spawned an entire genre of huge eSport entities of its own (including DotA, but that’s a story for another day).
StarCraft II was officially announced in 2007. By its 2010 release, it had already been in development for 7 years. The original StarCraft’s lead designer, James Phinney, had long sinced moved onto the crew of a ship more his own (resulting in Guild Wars, a refreshingly different MMO). Of course, there were probably countless other personnel changes over the years, with reasons and ramifications that we the gaming public don’t really understand. But with much of Blizzard’s founding leadership still around, I expected the next game to have the same kind of polished, transformative originality.
SC2 immediately cost me 20 more bucks than it should when I wagered that my friend who had played it during beta testing would win against another friend, a far superior RTS player, who was playing it for the first time. The cause of death, a simple zealot rush, was my first clue that this game was more of a StarCraft 1.5 than a truly unique successor with a soul of its own. By this point I could no longer be blown away by improved functionality and presentation, because these are expected additions to the game’s interface when an entity like Blizzard gets 7 years to do it. And I didn’t really care that Tassadar would be voiced by Worf, and Kerrigan by Number Six. I was looking forward to the next generation of RTS possibilities. Even if my gaming tastes had matured and changed, my expectations had not.
The league classification system, probably SC2’s best new feature, was a great way to create an intuitive competitive ladder and allow players to measure their relative skill and progress. For a few months, this really sucked me in, while simultaneously overriding and revealing the game’s shoddy depth. At one point I was so focused on earning a place in the Master League (before the introduction of the even higher Grandmaster League) that I checked myself into a PC Cafe, and emailed my friends informing them that I wasn’t going to stop playing until I made it or passed out. Some excerpts:
“diary entry 5:40 pm february 10, 2011: due in part to my mouse being worn out from years of use and occasionally not working, i have arrived at cybercraft lan in flushing, where i will play starcraft 2 until one of the following happens:
1) i am made a master
2) i collapse from exhaustion”
Then, triumphantly exhausted at the end:
“10 hours and 40 games later I AM A FUCKING MASTER
I HAVE CONSUMED:
ONE GRAPE VITAMIN WATER
ONE DASANI BOTTLED WATER
ONE THREE PACK OF CHOCOLATE COOKIES (ACTUALLY ONLY ATE TWO BEFORE I FORGOT WHY I BOUGHT THE COOKIES)
ONE SNICKERS ALMOND
ONE BAG OF PIZZA FLAVORED COMBOS
At this point you’re probably thinking, damn man, you sure were really into this game that you’re about to criticize. But as I mentioned earlier, the increasing familiarity with the game that I needed to get better at it also illuminated its shortcomings. I became really bored, and not just because I had gotten to a plateau where continued improvement would basically require a committed practice schedule. First, many of SC2’s spells and abilities weren’t much different from the original game, just recombined or put into different units. Ghosts and High Templars barely changed; the Dark Archon’s mind control and maelstrom abilities landed, slightly changed, on the Zerg Infestor. Many units in the game gave disproportionately high rewards for minimal management, while requiring very precise control to counter. Games against Protoss revolved around the force field, with which you would be almost entirely at the other player’s mercy, and the Colossus, which would shred everything on the ground and immediately became the highest priority target in the match. And as a Terran player, I could certainly understand the gripes about how we could sometimes just win games by attack-moving with infantry.
Then, there are units so pigeonholed into specific functions with little to no skill cap for effective use, or units so easily countered that they’re basically not viable. Vikings and Carriers, for instance. I realize that in RTS games, it’s unavoidable that as matches become more competitive and people look for the most effective ways to win, some units are just not going to be as good. But SC2’s unit design seemed to veer away from Blizzard’s vaunted philosophy of “easy to learn, difficult to master”, which paradoxically might have been enhanced in the original StarCraft sometimes by accident because of technological design limitations. In SC2, it’s about counters and composition more than control, partly because those technical limitations no longer exist, but also largely by design.
It now seems appropriate to bring the design of StarCraft II full circle into the much earlier business context. Imagine that you had to make your own liquor from scratch. You’d have to micromanage everything from how and where you got the ingredients to how you allowed them to ferment, and how you distilled, flavored and diluted what you produced. There’s a HUGE skill cap in this activity…fuck ups could potentially cause the resulting alcohol to be the kind that makes you blind or kills you. By the late 2000s Blizzard had the technical wherewithal and financial incentive to take much of that skill cap out of the process. StarCraft II is a liquor factory producing a familiar brew, but this time most of the process is decided and your input has limited, defined consequences. If you’re established and can afford to keep a steady business going, you build liquor factories. If you’re not, you can swing big and hope to come up with the next tantalizingly intoxicating drink, like Blizzard did once upon a time.
Years ago, I’d have been delighted if I even knew it was possible to produce stable liquor that I could share with everyone. But I’m no longer a kid, easily fascinated by even the idea of such a thing. I’m a greedy grownup who, at the moment, is clutching the toilet swearing to never drink again.