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GDC 2011: Developing  StarCraft II  Like Inventing 'Basketball 2'
GDC 2011: Developing StarCraft II Like Inventing 'Basketball 2'
March 4, 2011 | By Kris Graft

March 4, 2011 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC, GDC

When Blizzard Entertainment's Dustin Browder and his team set out to create hit real-time strategy game StarCraft II as an e-sport, he knew it would be a daunting task, he told attendees at GDC 2011.

The original StarCraft virtually became a national sport in Korea, and with StarCraft II, Browder wanted to preserve what makes that game so successful as an e-sport, as well as improve upon the formula.

At the outset, the enthusiastic designer knew that "This is going to be insanely hard. It's going to be like inventing Basketball 2."

In 2005, the StarCraft II team was scoping out the competition. Games like Relic's Dawn of War and Gas Powered Games' Supreme Commander were on the market, and they were successful pieces of strategy game design.

But they weren't as lean as an e-sports game could be. In Supreme Commander's case, Browder said he stopped counting after he tallied 150 playable units. While that approach worked for those games, StarCraft II had to take a different approach.

That's because it wasn't just about making a game with lots of fun aspects. It also had to be a sport that people want to play as well as watch.

Blizzard told Browder that StarCraft II was to have three sides and 45 units - which on paper sounds like less content than its competitors. He thought that those restrictions were crazy, but said he was told, "Hey man, don't worry, this isn't like other games that you play, this is an e-sport."

And in order to create a game as an e-sport, there are a few basic rules - an e-sport must be fun to watch by an audience, it must be playable, it must be clear and simple, it must involve skill and also provide an amount of uncertainty.

Creating a game that would separate those with skill from those without was at first counterintuitive for Browder. For previous strategy games he worked on, "We were not trying to separate the have and have-nots; we were trying to bring them together."

Browder explained that achieving clarity in visuals was particularly challenging for artists - trying to make a gargantuan Ultralisk readable in a top-down strategy game and distinguishing all of these different units with different abilities from one another was no easy task, he said.

And the game's designers were challenged by the fact it needed be fundamentally simple (easy to learn but hard -- or impossible -- to master), and have as few playable units as possible.

That simplicity must still provide for complex, skill-based gameplay, said Browder. For instance, the Zerg Baneling unit overpowers the Terran Marine, but a Marine with a Stimpack upgrade overpowers the Baneling unit… unless that Baneling unit has its own upgrade. It's a simple concept, but it provides for skilled gaming and also injects a dose of uncertainty that makes traditional sports fun to watch.

Browder also said making the game require a certain amount of actual skill is "why noobs hate me. Sorry noobs." Various aspects of the game opened it up for skill-based play, like micromanagement, terrain-based maneuvers, and flanking.

By allowing players to use their skill, it "allows for degrees for success," said Browder, just as a football team might barely pull off a win, or win by a very large margin.

Injecting the gameplay with uncertainty makes StarCraft II matches very fun to watch, Browder said. His focus on making matches uncertain "is why everyone hates me and why people get bitter about e-sports from time to time," he joked.

In particular, he addressed the Zerg Rush, a tactic from the original StarCraft that could end a multiplayer match very early on. The tactic earned the reputation of being a rather cheap way to win a match.

But in StarCraft II, Browder said the team kept the tactic - which is counter-able - because it provides a degree of uncertainty right off the bat, and that's fun to watch. A multiplayer game could end in the first few moments. Or not. "By delaying the rush, you're just delaying when the fun begins," said Browder.

In all, making the game an e-sports game heavily affected the story, the kinds of units included in the game, the art, the multiplayer options and the game's features. It was an extremely difficult task, Browder said.

But it was worth it, he said. "This is a way for players to experience the game in ways we've never had before."

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Rob Peek
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Basketball was more or less re-invented at one point. The original game play didn't really involve dribbling, you just couldn't run while holding the ball. Once people started dribbling, it changed the game. We sort of are already on Basketball 2...

The positive change came from NOT changing the rules, but changing how those rules were interpreted and obeyed...

Starcraft definitely didn't need to change much, and I hope they don't go trying to re-invent themselves.

Sting Newman
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"Starcraft definitely didn't need to change much, and I hope they don't go trying to re-invent themselves."

I don't think you understand, at the time Starcraft basically re-invented RTS. It was not a mere refinement, most RTS games up to and after starcraft had mirror image sides. It took starcraft 1 to add variety. The real issue is that innovation is hard and many developers just don't have the intuition and insight on where to take the RTS genre. The same could be said about many games today.

Bisse Mayrakoira
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Command and Conquer preceded Starcraft and was strongly asymmetric. That's neither something Blizzard invented nor something Blizzard brought into the mainstream.

Sting Newman
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"Command and Conquer preceded Starcraft and was strongly asymmetric."

Your comment makes little sense because most command and conquer games were not anywhere near as successful as SC1. It's not just 'asymmetric' it's being GOOD at being asymmetric which lets face it command and a conquer wasn't because it was a casual game. Where SC1 went on to become an e-sport.

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"Your comment makes little sense because most command and conquer games were not anywhere near as successful as SC1. It's not just 'asymmetric' it's being GOOD at being asymmetric which lets face it command and a conquer wasn't because it was a casual game."

That's funny, because the C&C franchise has outsold Starcraft plenty of times over. And C&C was one of the first tournament RTS games out there. They are two different breeds of a genre.

I'm really starting to wonder if you play games other than Starcraft I.

Arnaud Clermonté
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You won't succeed at rewriting history, Sting, because too many of us here remember it.

Asymetry existed before Starcraft, they didn't "re-invent RTS", they just developed the idea further and highly refined it.

Also, C&C was very successful, and I remember being surprised by its strong asymetry and enjoying it.

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Thank you, seems to have his facts mixed up.

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They did a great job striking that perfect balance of new elements while still being familiar to verterans.

For me, that's always the hardest thing with sequels too. Knowing what to keep, what to improve, and what to add.

Sting Newman
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"They did a great job striking that perfect balance of new elements while still being familiar to verterans."

The opposite is actually true, they basically remade SC1 and everyone heaped praise on them only because it's blizzard. Blizzard and it's fans exist in their own alternate universe, 10 years from now SC2 will be forgotten mark my words unless one of the expansions starts to take risks again. RTS is among the most stale genre today, and only DOTA and DOTA clones like League of legends and heroes of newerth realized where to take RTS in new directions by adding more arcade elements back into gaming.

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I'm replying to not only my post, but your reply to Rob Peek's post.

Don't say someone doesn't understand something when they don't necessarily share your point of view. Blizzard listened to what the fans wanted, and they got what they want. YOU may not like it, but that doesn't count for everyone else. They also pulled in a lot of new fans.

They put a lot of time into that game. Games on this scale, especially in this genre, don't get made overnight. Please think before you post.

Sting Newman
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"They put a lot of time into that game"

It doesn't matter how much time they put into it, what matters is, is the game designer at the helm afraid of change? There was no innovation at all in SC2. It was the most conservative sequel to one of the best RTS games of all time and they just remade SC1 with only the most minor and trivial additions to gameplay because they were afraid.

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They weren't afraid, and that's the point. They were servicing their fans, who they knew were going to be the primary buyers. Why change something if an entire nation loves it? Doesn't seem very smart to me.

Jose Resines
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Is he joking?. If someone "developed" Basketball 2 like they've done SC2, the matches on TV would be on HD and have a lot of bloom, but they'd lose the triples, matches could only be played against teams of the same state, and every player would need an internet connection and a account to be allowed to play in the game.

Basketball is fine as it is, and so was being StarCraft 2 until Activision bought Blizzard and gave Browder the scissors to start cutting functionality to spite the Korean leagues.

Cate Ericsson
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Activision has so little to do with Blizzard Ent. on the creative side/decision-making process, it's not even worth mentioning.

Zach Grant
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It might be true that Activsion has little impact on Blizzard, but it is very apparent that Blizzard has gone from a company who primarily makes games for it's fans, to a company who makes games to maximize profits and make a game at the same time.

/They are a business, so of course they need to make money, but I still miss the good old days.