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Starcraft - it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
by Josh Bycer on 04/09/10 01:21:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 
Someone who shall remain nameless that I know very well is playing the Starcraft 2 beta and lest he summon the wrath of Blizzard will not talk about anything Starcraft 2 related. While I leave this mysterious person to play Starcraft 2 I do want to talk about the style and design of Starcraft. Looking at Starcraft I can't help but feel that it is one of the best the RTS genre has to offer and at the same time it is one of the worst.

Looking at Starcraft from the design point of view it is amazing: three asymmetrical sides with balance going across the board from what each unit is strong against down to time and resources required. Starcraft was not like other RTS games where each side was different but had similar units, here every unit was unique. There was no mistaking a ghost for a dark templar or marines to zealots. The variety of tricks to pull out against your enemy was unending as every possible matchup had its own playbook to use.

Then we had the single player campaign which to this day still stands as one of the best seen of the genre. The story played across each side delivered mission variety and some epic battles, like the attack on the zerg over mind at the end of the first one. Throw in an expansion pack that not only continued the story but added in even more units and it is no reason why Starcraft was amazing. Yet even with the spectacular single player campaign it was of course the multiplayer that is why people are still playing it today.

Thanks to Battle.Net Starcraft took off as one of, if not the best game for competitive games. Having balance down to the time required for each unit to build gives high level playing a mathematical focus as you try to time everything to be built on a schedule. High level Starcraft playing could be considered another game compared to what us normal guys can do; the amount of macro and micro management skills required is immense. There is a reason after all that it is a cyber sport in South Korea and tournament players practice nonstop to play Starcraft. I've been watching pro level Starcraft 2 games over on YouTube and it is mind boggling the stuff these guys can do.

Now with all that praise it's time to talk about why I think Starcraft is one of the worst games of all time. Starcraft fails one of the most important tests of a great game, which is teaching the player to actually play the game. A common problem with RTS titles is the disconnect between single and multiplayer modes, while both use the same mechanics they both have a different experience and cannot easily mesh well. Single player campaigns are about a narrative which requires the player to be put into situations that will not be seen in multiplayer games. Such as the player vs a pre built base or with the recent Dawn of War 2, boss fights. Likewise multi player gives you all the tools available and just asks you go at it. The main problem is that multiplayer skills translate into single player but it does not go the other way.

Multiplayer is about dealing with build orders, spam attacks and advanced micro and macro skills that the single player does not go into or even require. The problem is that if you take someone who plays single player superbly and throw them into a multi player match, chances are they are going to lose horribly. Starcraft is one of the worse examples of showing the player how to play and learning from it. With three asymmetrical sides and a somewhat hard counter system it is impossible to know what counters what without scouring the internet and if your game requires that then the designers have failed on this issue.

There is no feedback playing Starcraft to let you know what is going on or how you are playing. Most players are going to see one blob of units kill another blob of units without any understanding or explanation of what is going on. The game doesn't even mention unit balance on the tool tips, something I loved about Rise of Nations. Why did all my zerglings die to an army smaller than mine? I will never know. Learning Starcraft is like trying to learn Geometry without first being taught Algebra, you may have a faint idea about it but you have no basis of how to learn it and everyone is already ahead of you. Ironically these skills would be useful to find out about in the single player, but you will never need to use it other than in the multi player where you are going to lose and not have a chance to learn it.

Many people say that you learn best by losing and finding your mistakes, but if you don't know why you lost then you have no idea what your mistakes are. Watching replays of my games don't help as I don't know what I did wrong and the game doesn't tell me, so all I'm left is watching my greatest failures over again. If Blizzard was smart they would round up the best Starcraft 2 players and create four videos that ship with the game. Three going into detail about each side, how their units work, their counters, strengths and weaknesses. With the last one talking about basic Starcraft 2 play, how to micro and macro, base composition and so on. I've given up ever getting to a pro level at Starcraft on my own; maybe I need a tutor to help me. These issues have not escape other RTS designers and the genre has changed considerably making the Starcraft design a product of another time.

Looking at recent RTS titles like Company of Heroes, Sins of a Solar Empire among others and even the recent Command and Conquer game are moving away from the Starcraft and 90s style of RTS games. Where each side has completely distinct units and instead focus on sides that have few unique units and units that fall into different roles or classes and tweak the stats from there. For example in Company of Heroes, both the Allies and Axis have a unit classified as "light infantry" or " light vehicle support" and so on. The roles stay the same but each unit has certain tweaks to it, such as the automatic BAR upgrade for the allies. Higher up in the tech trees you find unique units, some fill the same role as units from the other side but differ in a few areas.

Another key aspect of recent RTS titles is the importance of "teching up", in Starcraft the main purpose of teching up is increasing your troop composition but in recent games it can become a mad scramble. For example in Company of Heroes the arrival of tanks changes the match drastically as all those infantry units are now useless without having Anti Tank backup. To put it another way, imagine if marines in Starcraft could not even touch siege tanks or ultralisks and you can see the difference. These differences in design have a huge affect on the genre and are almost night and day compared to Starcraft's design.

Due to army compositions staying for the most part the same across the board, the learning curve of modern RTS games have smoothed down compared to Starcraft. Yet due to the almost class system of unit design, hard counters are more effective. In Starcraft having 100 hydralisks fully upgraded can basically spell doom for the other enemy. Today however all it would take would be a few hard counters to wipe them off the map. Another twist I'm seeing in RTS games is the customization aspect seen in Age of Empires 3.

Personally I love customization in RTS titles as it adds that element of creating custom play styles seen in Collectible Card Games. Some titles use it as a way of adding tech or supplementing strategies like Age of Empires 3. Another side of this is the concept of "unlocking" units and abilities like in the recent Command and Conquer game. However this would never, ever, ever work in Starcraft due to the blessing and curse of its design.

Starcraft like I mention was meticulously balanced and that led to its popularity. However you cannot change any of the mechanics of Starcraft without destroying that balance. Starcraft is like a beautiful glass table that has only 3 legs, perfectly balanced but if you upset it then the whole thing comes apart. Imagine Starcraft where a Zerg player doesn't start out with zerglings but instead has enhanced hydralisks, somewhere I just gave a pro gamer chest pains. Strange as it sounds Starcraft has hit a design dead end in my opinion and with rare exception the genre as a whole has moved on. However Starcraft really did strike perfection with one shot and if there was ever a poster child of the RTS genre of the 90s that would be this game.

For those that cam play and understand Starcraft and can reach the pro levels , you'll find a virtual Valhalla waiting for you, but the rest of us are going to be stuck in the dirt and have to slowly crawl our way out. I'm interested to see the reaction Starcraft 2 will have among the newcomers to the series, who have been wean on titles like Supreme Commander, Dawn of War etc. At least we can teach a new generation of RTS gamers the concept of the "zerg rush".

 

Josh


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