Retro Round-Up is a regular feature that takes a look at what’s new in the world of old games. The original Starcraft turns fifteen in just a few days, so now seemed like as good of a time as any to take a look back on Blizzard’s monumental RTS.
Starcraft wasn’t the first RTS ever made. But it is arguably the most important.
The RTS genre began quietly with pioneering games like Herzog Zwei on the Genesis/Megadrive and Westwood Studio’s Dune II on the PC. Though early RTS’s featured clumsy controls and extremely simple mechanics, within the span of a few years the genre quickly bloomed into one of the most popular and complex styles of gaming available on the PC.
Even before Starcraft’s release, Blizzard was already considered one of the top RTS developers in the world, thanks to the success of the original Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, and its sequel, Tides of Darkness. Expectations were high for the company’s next RTS, and despite Blizzard’s reputation, Starcraft faced a surprisingly cynical reaction from the press and PC gamers alike when it was first shown at E3 1996: the game’s less than awe-inspiring first screenshots disappointed fans who were expecting something revolutionary from the title, and attendees at the show openly mocked the game due to the perception that it was simply a sci-fi reskinning of Warcraft II. For months after the game’s reveal, members of the press referred to the game with the derogatory nickname “Orcs in Space.”
The initial reception to the game was so poor that some members of Blizzard even considered cancelling the title outright, but thankfully, the company instead decided to double-down and do their best to re-work Starcraft into something they could be proud of. It would take Blizzard an additional two years of development time (which included a number of high profile delays,) before they finally finished Starcraft.
By the time the game was finally released in 1998, Blizzard faced stiff competition from multiple fronts: Westwood Studios, one of the original pioneers of the genre, was already turning out increasingly polished Command and Conquer games on a nearly yearly basis, Microsoft had just launched their Age of Empires franchise the year prior, and Cavedog Studios’ innovative Total Annihilation was moving the genre into the third dimension for the first time. Starcraft had less units, fewer types of resources to collect, and was less technically advanced than most of its competitors, yet despite all of those apparent drawbacks, Starcraft has gone on to become more successful than any of those games.
So what makes Starcraft so special? Why has Starcraft’s popularity persisted while it’s RTS contemporaries from 1998 haven’t? Why is Starcraft still as fun today as it was in 1998?
The answer, of course, is balance.
The game offers 3 playable races, all of whom play completely differently from each other, but no one side is overpowered. While Starcraft has fewer units that other RTS games, each unit in the game is genuinely useful. There is no “best” unit in the game, and depending on the situation, specific units can either be total powerhouses or completely useless: for instance, the Siege Tank can blow apart enemy bases effortlessly, but if your opponent has a lot of aerial units, they’re pretty much useless. Unlike other RTS’s, you won’t get anywhere in Starcraft by simply building a mass of units, selecting them all, and then throwing them at your opponents base. Even the infamous “Zerg Rush” can be easily countered if you know what you’re doing. Pro-players have spent years developing strategies and counter-strategies to constantly one-up each other, and nobody has ever been able to figure out a single game-breaking tactic that’s guaranteed to win 100% of the time.
Most modern RTS’s fail to achieve the balance that the original Starcraft has, and the feat was even more amazing back then: back then most RTS developers balanced their games by simply making the playable factions identical to each other. For instance, in Blizzard’s own Warcraft II, the Orcs and Humans are basically the same outside of a couple unique units. Once you learned how to play as the Humans, you knew how to play as the Orcs. In sharp contrast, the Terrans, Zerg, and Protoss were all completely different from each other. Even basic actions, like building a structure, required different steps depending on which race you were playing as: Terrans could simply erect structures anywhere provided they had the resources, while Protoss had to build them within the radius of an energy providing Pylon, and Zerg structures required players to sacrifice a unit. Each side was so different that switching between the three different factions almost felt like switching between three different games. At a time when most developers couldn’t figure out how to create two playable races that were different yet balanced, Starcraft managed to do it with three.
It’s doubtful that “e-sports” would be anywhere near as popular as they are now without Starcraft and its legendary balance. You’ve no doubt heard stories about how monstrously popular Starcraft is in South Korea; over there, SC tournaments are broadcast regularly on national TV, and the best Starcraft players are just as famous and revered as athletes from traditional sports like baseball or soccer. The game could never have achieved this level of popularity and legitimacy if it was filled with exploits or unbalanced, broken units. While different shooters and fighting games fall in and out of favor with competitive players and tournament organizers, Starcraft: Brood War remained a staple of the competitive gaming scene even well after the release of Starcraft II.
Of course, the original Starcraft’s longevity is also probably due in part to the twelve year gap between it and its eventual sequel. While lesser developers probably would’ve tried to cash-in on Starcraft’s success by creating as many annualized sequels as they could, Blizzard wisely instead chose to wait until the time was right to develop the successor to the most popular RTS of all time.
In the interim, Blizzard attempted to satiate their fanboys’ desire for more Starcraft with a spin-off game for consoles. Originally announced in September 2002 for the PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube, Starcraft Ghost would’ve let players view SC’s battlefields from the viewpoint of a single unit, which in this case was a female Ghost named Nova. The game was to feature a mix of third person shooting and Splinter Cell-style stealth sections as Nova snuck into enemy bases in order to mark targets for nuke strikes. The developers said that while Nova went lone-wolf inside enemy bases, players could witness massive Starcraft-style battles raging just outside each stage’s boundaries. Both gamers and the press loved the idea of being able to experience Starcraft’s epic firefights from a more personal perspective, and early previews and demo impressions from the game were unanimously positive. Unfortunately, Starcraft: Ghost suffered from repeated delays, and the game was ultimately cancelled by Blizzard despite all the positive hype that it had managed to build up. To this day nobody really knows why Blizzard canned the game: while its been suggested that the game didn’t live up to Blizzard’s high standards, early footage and demos shown to the press all looked very promising and the game seemed on track to be a hit.
It wasn’t until 2007, nearly ten years after the first Starcraft was released, that we finally got our first look at Starcraft II. While the game was unveiled in South Korea to an audience full of cheering fans, SC2 was met with a more tepid reception when the game was finally released nearly three years later in 2010: while critics loved the game, it took fans a little bit of time to warm up to the game. In the years since its release, Starcraft had basically become the RTS equivalent of Chess, and just like pro Chess players, hardcore Starcraft fans were happy with the game they had been playing for years and were hesitant to accept any changes to it. Thankfully, people eventually adjusted to the substantial changes that SC2 brought with it, and the game is arguably just as popular now as the original game was in its heyday.
The recent release of the Heart of the Swarm expansion for SC2 seems to have guaranteed that Starcraft will remain the top RTS for at least another few years, as the Major League Gaming association announced that their latest Starcraft II tourney was the most watched livestream in their history. While MOBA’s like League of Legends and Valve’s upcoming DoTA 2 have eaten away at some of SC2’s audience, Starcraft has spent the last fifteen years proving that it can outlast the competition. Blizzard has already begun development on SC2’s second and final expansion, Legacy of the Void, and while it’s impossible to predict what changes will happen to the series in the coming years, it’s safe to assume that Starcraft will continue to be at the forefront of the genre.