Nearly two decades after Blizzard released its sci-fi real-time strategy game StarCraft, the game is still being played at a professional level.
Why? What is it about this game that gives it such enduring appeal?
That's basically what Blizzard senior producer Pete Stilwell has spent countless hours trying to understand as part of his work leading development of StarCraft Remastered, the revamped 4K version of StarCraft that's coming out this summer.
As part of a larger conversation about the state of RTS game design and where the industry is headed, Stilwell recently sat down with Gamasutra to chat about what he's learned while rooting around in the guts of one of the most popular RTS games ever made.
We got into a lot of nuts-and-bolts talk about what makes a competitive game timeless, where the RTS market is at these days, and how developers can walk the tricky path of trying to make a strategy game that's both accessible and deeply complex.
Hey Pete! Tell me a bit about your time with the company and your work on StarCraft Remastered.
Stilwell: Sure! I guess I'll start with my time at the company. I've been with Blizzard about five years now. Most of that time was spent with internal tools working to help game teams streamline their process and get games out faster.
I think that's a lot of where that experience came in dredging up and resurrecting our classics. Dusting them off and getting new tool chains built up, things of that nature. That's kind of been my time at Blizzard until about 18 months ago when I got tapped to help with this classic game.
I'd love to know what you've learned about the design of StarCraft as you've been revivifying it for modern machines. What is it, you think, that makes it so enduring that it should be remastered and revitalized?
It's the balance. That's the key note that you take away from any conversation you have, whether it be a pro, a passionate fan, even the initial developers.
"It's important to have that, 'I give a piece in order to take another piece away.' That, to me, is the fundamentals of an RTS."
That was what we spent our pre-production doing. We didn't have to find the fun or anything like that -- we had to go find what made the game fun and successful. So we talked with the initial devs, we spent months and months in Korea talking with folks there that have really been the community around this game for the past ten years, especially since most of the community moved on to StarCraft 2 when it was released.
So it's the fact that -- And [Blizzard cofounder Mike] Morhaime touched on this recently, they kind of came up with a foil for every unit, right? If this enemy is strong this way, it needs something that can counteract it so that a smart player will see it emerge on the battlefield and realize they have a counter to it.
That's like learning chess or similar games, where there are set moves and set strategies and it's interesting when you can counter plays really well, because that's the high-level gameplay.
But also, even as you're seeing with Brood War right now, guys like Flash are emerging onto the scene and saying, "You know what? We haven't explored everything yet. There are some other ways to play this game and play it more aggressively than Terrans typically have, but rely on strong macro to deal with some losses in a way that didn't used to be the case."
I think that speaks really well to that balance and to what makes it interesting, and why the remaster makes so much sense. That there's a generation that grew up playing. I'm one of the guys who played this game and was like, "Someday, I want to grow up and work at a Blizzard and work on games like this."
So to come here and actually unlock that reality is amazing. But to me that's what we're doing for another generation of players. You've already got this game that was so lovingly crafted and turned out to be so well balanced. Why not unlock it for a new generation by making it more approachable and giving it all the features that our modern games get? Like matchmaking and being inside of the Blizzard launcher so you can have your friend network and things like that.
To me, the community is as big of a part of these games as anything, because you need someone to tell you about strategy. You need to realize why you just got your ass handed to you by this guy that you got matched against.
That's what makes this interesting, I think, is that you can speak to it. It's not just that you missed the headshot in a first-person shooter or something like that where you need to work on your mechanics, your muscle memory. That's understandable. RTSes have a depth, I think, outside of the game that can be really engaging. That's another one of those things that, in our pre-pro[duction] period, that came up routinely.
We used to talk about it. We would talk to people in Korea who still go to the IGR [Internet Game Room] for an hour after work to just chat with their buddies that they've had for 20 years now. Like how insane is that? They'll just go and pay a dollar to get into that chat channel that their clan has and just BS about life and the game and it's like a World of Warcraft guild or something like that. The thing that really binds it is that sense of community, and that you have now a game that's lasted 20 years that has a shared experience and dialogue.
Like we grew up playing baseball, hockey, whatever, and you can usually find another kid who played that sport and have a shared dialogue about that common experience. And we're seeing that with StarCraft now. Where we remember aspects of the game, the exploits, the things that we can talk about and have a little laugh and it doesn't matter that you and I are only just meeting now, there's a bond there. We really hope, with the remaster, to unlock that for another generation. Keep it vital.
It's been strong for 20 years, there's no reason it shouldn't be strong for another 20.
As you were going back talking to folks who worked on the original and getting ready to put this together, what stories of the original development of StarCraft stood out to you?
I think it was the "oh, shit" moment when they went to E3 and realized that they had a top-down game -- and perspective was a thing now. And their game was not going to be able to compete with Age of Empires.
So it was like a paradigm shift, and they had to adapt in short order. They did it in like less than six months or something like that to get the game ready and make the release date.
Because you have to understand how much aesthetics are part of the appeal of games, especially back then. I used to do that thing of turning the box over and really looking at the game to see if I wanted to buy it. Because we all knew the game art on the front was lying to us, making false promises.
So I think seeing [the StarCaft dev team] being reactive like that was a great lesson for us to apply even now as we are making some fundamental changes to the graphics engine and the input system. That we have to be equally reactive. And that's been the great thing about the PTR [Public Test Realm] with the community, is getting the game out there...and taking a few licks, admittedly.
But the community is so engaged, they know this game so well. Even if my APM is never going to be over 300 like a lot of these pro players, they're there and engaged and can articulate what we need to do to tweak it to remaster exactly what matters.
Thinking back to the original StarCraft, it feels like RTS games were legion in the '90s, then kind of faded away as everyone congregated around a few genre leaders. Does it seem like RTS is having a bit of a resurgence, here in 2017?
RTS is like my main genre, and I agree with you. And maybe to build on the dialogue of this, I think there's two things: I think like everything else, there's a fashionability of games. We go through cycles, just like music and fashion. And I think FPS had such a dominant run for a while.
But now, I think people are revisiting and reaffirming a lot of classic gameplay elements; like look at the Telltale games that are popular right now. Those types of point-and-click adventures and decision trees that were the foundation of games 30 years ago, are now coming back in a cool way, and getting kind of re-imagined.
In a lot of ways MOBAs are a reimagining of an RTS, I think, but obviously building out of an actual RTS engine owes to that.
"We grew up playing baseball, hockey, whatever, and you can usually find another kid who played that sport and have a shared dialogue about that common experience. And we're seeing that with StarCraft now."
But the biggest lesson I've taken out of this is that there are -- like you were just touching on, kind of like enduring communities around certain games and genres where, they never left it. And to your point, if we were players that enjoyed the campaign and story moreso and got engaged there, we wanted the next story -- like you wanted Warcraft 4, you wanted StarCraft 2 to be out really quickly and then 3, 4, 5, 6.
And just to consume the game that way and kind of watch it evolve, whereas, with the level of play and time you've got to put into be really great at multiplayer StarCraft, you don't necessarily need a new one. Because then you've got to start over, there's going to be differences.
It's one of the things we see with SC and SC2, that they are different games. I don't like when people make the comparison that StarCraft got changed. They're different games. If there had been a second expansion beyond Brood War, then it would have been an evolution of StarCraft, but no, the teams sat down and made a new game that they thought would be the new exciting way to play an RTS. And you have dedicated communities around both.
Even as we look at our other games like Diablo 2 and Diablo 3, you get exactly the same thing, of people who swear it's the best game and they'll be damned if the other one tries to take the same credit. And they're all Blizzard fans, right? But whether it's music or cars, we kind of fall in love with a certain brand and enjoy that for what it is. Especially when it has a hold on your youth and that nostalgia and all those things. There's a reason that it then resonates with you for the rest of your life.
That, to me, is where we can leverage the fact that there's a bunch of dads that grew up playing this game that they love and their kid's starting to get old enough to play a game.
And if StarCraft Remastered looks beautiful enough, and maybe that kid then has a button that finds you a person to play against because everybody expects that in modern games, it will unlock the experiences and subtlety and nuance of being really great at StarCraft for a new generation.
Because it does have the muscle memory of micro, but there's also the deep understanding of strategy; it engages you on so many levels. StarCraft, I think, is really well-rounded in that respect and that's why, especially in Korea, you'll hear people say like, "That's the [game] that separates really good players from bad," because it pushes you on all levels.
I wonder, do you think there's room in the industry for more than a handful of RTS games? Is there room for something outside of StarCraft, and if so, what do you think that is?
Yeah, I think so. I'm excited to play Dawn of War 3. And even in the Blizzard family, Warcraft 3 is significantly different from StarCraft, StarCraft 2. So just right there within one company those are three pretty different experiences. Which, War 3 and Dawn of War have that in common where there's that hero class built into it and it kind of blurs the lines between the MOBA and the RTS. I believe in the evolution of game mechanics; that's what makes new experiences engaging, is having to learn those things and figure it out.
So I think that's where there is still room for growth and for other companies to explore the space. I think in any genre when you see people trying to carbon copy, it usually doesn't work out, right? There has to be some sort of originality, some sort of new mechanic or something like that that draws people in, beyond a great story, great aesthetic, and IP. In my opinion that's where someone could see something new and then not just be Blizzard or Relic or whoever in the industry.
Is there much left to be mined, in terms of RTS design?
I hope there's still a lot there to be mined! My current task at hand is to make StarCraft accessible again and I think we've made the right choices for that to hopefully bring a bigger, broader appeal to it to help the state of RTSes in the industry and I hope at some point to unlock that as a future for me at Blizzard, is to help the evolution of RTS.
Do you think there's any truth to the notion that MOBAs and mobile strategy games have taken up a lot of the audience, and in a sense expanded both the bounds and the reach of real-time strategy games?
Yeah, 100 percent. I don't disagree with anything you said. I think that's what also makes it exciting to have platforms that have an editor in them that let people unlock new games like that. China right now with Warcraft 3 has a stupendously vibrant modding community and mapmaking community. The stuff they're turning out over there is amazing and who knows? Any day now could be that next paradigm shift and what people love because somebody has created a new game with the world edit from War 3.
That to me is part of the -- What you would call an RTS. The machinations of our youth in the sandbox that are the editors.
We're constantly reminded by the best and the brightest from the game industry to return to your roots. Go play board games. Go play tabletop games. Do those things that have the fundamentals really well set and I think in a lot of ways, that's what your Brood War is. It has fundamentals that everybody can point at and understand and articulate about good game design and hopefully that means having them around and keeping them vital is a good way to challenge the next generation of really great game developers.
In your own work on StarCraft Remastered, what have you seen the need to add? What features have you felt were most lacking in that game and how did you go about addressing those issues for a modern audience?
We jokingly called this game "Make It an Option Edition" at a certain point because there were so many of those things. And that was also where we kind of had to go back to our identity when we started making the game of what are we really setting out to do. It was to keep this thing a timeless classic, sort of.
So we don't want to change gameplay. That's an option that could easily be done. We could make your control groups bigger. We could do a bunch of other things that would be a more modern mechanic and better quality of life, but it would shatter those things that I touched on earlier about the fact that you can only have these small control groups means you have to make some tough decisions about who you put together and who you micro, versus who just shows up to the battle because of the rally point and then you hope to get them involved before the end of it.
But to address your question of what did we want to add? Matchmaking was a huge one -- and an associated ladder. Everybody talks about how good they are. They can point at win-loss records but it's very easy to just manipulate that with your buddies or understand this is a channel I can go into and find matches that I'm going to win in.
So having a true, "Who's the best in the room?" and being able to use some algorithms and some text to prove it I think is going to be super exciting. Then extending the social experience -- Again the chat channels were such a big part. Getting to bring in some of our other features for whispering and your friends and all those types of things I think are a huge value add to the game.
And the last one and then I'll shut up, I know I talk too much.
Not at all!
The cloud is huge for us. So especially in Korea with folks playing in the game rooms. If you can get up from your computer and leave and come back and tomorrow you can jump back into the game with a save location in the campaign, that's huge.
Revamped stat and replay systems in StarCraft Remastered
Also because they've never had the campaign; it's never been localized before. The people we talk to are incredibly excited to finally get to unlock the campaign and that it won't matter where they play it from. All of your-
So in Korea, they never localized all the text and audio of the campaign?
The entire game is in English in Korea. That's another reason why we had to make it the "Options" edition, because they still -- most people want to still hear the confirmations in English, even if all the dialogue gets changed to Korean, because they're just so used to hearing the marines giving their confirmation orders and things like that.
What if a player is colorblind, or has a hard time with a mouse and keyboard. Have you given any thought to making the game more accessible?
We do have two guys on the team that are colorblind, so that one has certainly come up. We have not dealt with eye tracking or something like that to help somebody control the game that has a physical disability to play. I believe somebody out there made an addon that might address that.
But yes, to me, that type of accessibility is different than watering down gameplay to make it for a more casual audience. I don't believe RTS will ever appeal to a non-hardcore audience. And I think that's okay. League has a massive following of the most hardcore people ever and that is still, I think, what the game industry's bread and butter is: hardcore players. The mobile market and online stuff may be a little bit more appealing to people that are casual because it's more accessible. But if you're going to have a gaming rig and the right paraphernalia to play a game properly, you're hardcore and we should be challenging you with depth of play that requires you to put the hours in. Again, when push comes to shove you can say, "I'm undeniably better than you at this because of these variables that add up to being good at it."
Well, in all the time you've spent going back over this game and putting it together again, what have you learned about the art of designing an RTS game that maybe other developers could benefit from learning from?
Perfect is the enemy.
It's a really simple concept. Brood War isn't perfect, it's far from it. It has plenty of flaws, it's the fact that it's a shit-ton of fun on top of being well-balanced, right? The perception of being perfectly balanced is a perception. Who knows? With guys like Flash out there, there still could be a time where somebody finds how to break the game and then we would have to make a balance change, right? In a hypothetical.
But that to me is what makes it fun. Makes it good to see a unit and know what the foil is and bring that out and decimate it. And if the other guy doesn't have his own counter in his back pocket, you're going to win the game because you've got that. It's important to have that, "I give a piece in order to take another piece away." That, to me, is the fundamentals of an RTS because you have a limited amount of resources and you've got to make those tough decisions on the fly, and the outcome of that is what makes it good or not.
If you can't learn from those mistakes and get better at it, then your game isn't good.