Dustin Browder, lead designer for StarCraft II at Blizzard Entertainment, is pretty good at his own game. A few months ago, he was ranked around the top 7 percent in the world, although he admits he's a bit rusty, and may now only be in the top 10 percent.
For a large portion of StarCraft II's players, it's that competitive aspect that matters most -- not only playing directly against other players, but also being compared to other players through the game's extensive Battle.net ranking system.
StarCraft II and its Battle.net framework were made with competitive gaming and eSports largely in mind, and updating a game as a sport was a creatively restrictive experience, Browder told Gamasutra in a recent interview.
The lead designer, who previously worked on real-time strategy games in Electronic Arts' Command & Conquer series, said he had to make creative adjustments when he joined the StarCraft II team. For him, the main hurdle was learning how to take some of the "fun" stuff out of the game.
"It took me a year and a half to figure this out," said Browder, an enthusiastic designer who might also be around the top 10 percent in the world in terms of speed-talking.
"I kept trying to shove stuff in that was fun but wasn't a sport," he said. "And everybody would tell me 'no,' and I wouldn't understand why. And I thought they were all jerks. I didn't know, right? I couldn't figure it out."
1998's original StarCraft wasn't intended to be a sport -- the game's community made it that way, and Blizzard has since run with the idea. Browder said he's seeing anecdotal evidence that StarCraft II is moving beyond its reputation as mainly a Korean eSports phenomenon, and sweeping Westward, with schools participating in collegiate StarCraft leagues, "strong membership" for Major League Gaming and lots of hits for StarCraft YouTube replays in the U.S.
And just this week, gaming and entertainment hub IGN said it would make a serious foray into professional competitive gaming, using StarCraft II as a platform to launch the initiative.
Browder admitted that taking out "fun" aspects was completely counterintuitive to his perception of game design. And certainly StarCraft II critics will point to his comments with a triumphant "A-HA!" now that there is hard evidence that the game was engineered to have "less fun" in its design.
But just as the NBA doesn't allow jet packs in basketball and the Olympic Committee frowns on nuclear-powered luges, sometimes self-imposed restrictions are in place because what might sound like fun -- or even actually be fun -- could ruin or over-complicate the design of a competitive game.
The StarCraft II team's goal wasn't necessarily to make the game less fun, but to find gameplay that was both fun and compatible with a sport -- the two elements had to coexist. At GDC this year, Browder likened the process to creating "Basketball 2."
"It took me a long time to understand why this sport value is so important," Browder continued. The development team kept itself in check, nixing units that overlapped with the roles of other units and dumping units that were deemed too complicated. Some of the units cut were fun to use, but just didn't fit with the game's objectives as an eSport.
"It makes it so challenging for designers on the project to come up with new and good ideas," said Browder. "We could sit here right now, and come up with 10 great ideas for an RTS. But I almost guarantee you that all of those would get shot down for a sport."
"There would be some fundamental reason why [our ideas] wouldn't work for an eSport. It's a much more challenging job," he explained. "It's not as easy as making 'cool' RTS units. ... That's not that challenging. Well, to be fair, it really is, but it's easier than trying to describe a crazy, crazy thing of a unit that's not only fun to play, but it's easy to understand, and allows for skill differentiation, and all of these variables [conducive to a balanced sport]."
Browder said that much of the pre-release balancing and related frustrations resulted in positive changes to the game's single-player mode as well. Blizzard is currently at work on expansions for StarCraft II, which will in return inevitably bring new updates and additions to the current game's multiplayer.
In the end, Browder believes the team created a game that has fundamental similarities to traditional sports: "The reality is that the game is trying to be easy to learn, impossible to master."