By Jason Schreier
It's hard to imagine a world without StarCraft. Blizzard's innovative sci-fi series is known not only for revolutionizing the real-time-strategy genre, but evolving into a national sport in South Korea, where matches are televised and some professional players can make six-figure incomes just to play the game. But how did StarCraft grow so popular? How did it sell 11 million copies worldwide? When did it become the poster child for the genre?
In order to answer those questions, first we have to look at the history of the RTS. Read on to find out how real-time strategy games gave birth to StaCraft, and eventually the wildly successful StarCraft II.
Though many games in the early 90s featured elements of real-time strategy, 1992 PC game Dune II may have been the first to coin the genre and embrace its mainstays – mechanics like resource-gathering, base construction and tech trees all appeared in the Westwood Studios title, which pitted rival factions in a war to the death for control of the planet Arrakis. Westwood would eventually go on to work on Command & Conquer, which became a massive success – to this day, there are almost twenty different games in the series – and might have completely dominated the real-time strategy market if not for a little company called Blizzard.
Before Blizzard became the Blizzard we know today, it was a small developer that focused mainly on porting other companies' games to systems like the Amiga and Macintosh. Then came 1994, when the company released a game called Warcraft: Orcs & Humans that would change its destiny forever. Although it borrowed quite a bit from Dune II, Warcraft was unique for two reasons: It was the first well-known real-time strategy game to feature multiple types of missions, and it was the first to feature multiplayer skirmishes – both of which would become major components of future games in the genre. Most importantly, Warcraft: Orcs & Humans – and its sequel the following year – sold quite well, allowing Blizzard to stay financially stable and continue creating original intellectual properties.
Real-time strategies hit a major boom during the Clinton years. The late 90s saw a host of games like Total Annihilation, Age of Empires, Command & Conquer, all attempting to snatch their own chunks of the PC and Macintosh markets. And the markets ate them up – people loved the amalgamation of fast-paced action, resource management, and strategic outmaneuvering that RTS games offered. Still, there was no clear industry winner; fans of the genre would often stick with their favorite series and never venture outside of their comfort zones. Until StarCraft.
The first build of StarCraft, demonstrated in E3 1996, looked like somebody had taken Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness and replaced all of the unit icons with ugly, washed-out alien sprites. If StarCraft had launched like that, the real-time strategy genre might be drastically different today. Fortunately, Blizzard decided to revamp the game's engine entirely and develop a new isometric perspective that would allow the game to appear more three-dimensional and less grotesque. Some of the art still looked a little bizarre, but it worked.
When Blizzard finally released StarCraft in 1998, it became an instant hit, moving over 1.5 million copies and becoming the best-selling PC game of the year. It was critically acclaimed as well, scoring 9s and 10s from almost all the major websites and magazines. Blizzard came out with an expansion later that year, StarCraft: Brood War, which continued the story, added new units, and also sold like hotcakes.
So why did StarCraft work so well? Maybe it was the racial balance – StarCraft's humanoid Terrans, swarming Zerg, and psionic Protoss were carefully designed to play off one another. Each race had its own play style and none of the three felt any more powerful than the others. For every unit, there were multiple counters – see an opponent's Siege Tanks and you could bring out a swarm of zerglings or air units to take it out. Trying to fight off a batallion of Protoss Scout ships? Try whipping out a Goliath or a few Mutalisks. Nothing was too powerful and the numbers always seemed to make sense.
Or maybe StarCraft worked because of the amount of care that Blizzard put into the game. Even a decade after release, the company kept a dedicated team for balance and server issues. Free patches were released on a regular basis to offer additional functionality and minor gameplay tweaks. Today, you can play the original StarCraft with thousands of other people thanks to Blizzard's battle.net online service – how many other games from the 90s still have active servers, let alone regularly updated ones?
It could have been the observability factor – StarCraft games are fun and easy to watch, even if you're not familiar with every unit and building out there. Factions are color-coded and the action is fast-paced enough to entice even non-gamers. Like national sports, StarCraft can be viewed again and again – it's hard not to be amazed when you see what the experts can do.
Most likely, it was a combination of all these factors: StarCraft wasn't a great innovator in any real way, but it managed to deftly blend the successful elements of previous real-time strategy games into a streamlined package that, much like chess, was easy to pick up but difficult to master.
StarCraft was undoubtedly a success in the United States, but it might have been relegated in history as just another real-time strategy game if it hadn't completely taken over the nation of South Korea. When the game was first launched in 1998, it started springing up in Korean LAN centers called PC bangs. More than just arcades or Internet cafes, these PC bangs were full-fledged gaming command centers – the perfect place for gamers to spend hours competing against one another. The perfect place for long StarCraft marathons.
Since South Korea had poured torrents of money into its Internet infrastructure, PC bangs became something of a standard for small businesses nationwide. While American LAN centers carried the stigma of only being populated by unwashed teenagers, South Korea's PC bangs were well-maintained and clean, appealing to everyone who might be interested in gaming. And everyone wanted to play StarCraft.
Soon enough, professional leagues were formed and the game started earning TV time. Top-notch players like Lim “BoXeR” Yo-Hwan and Lee Jae-Dong became veritable celebrities for playing StarCraft at a high level – many of them earned sponsorships and starred in commercials for their work. Huge tournaments like the World Cyber Games would offer six-figure payouts to the winners – even today, the best StarCraft players can make inordinate amounts of money playing the game. South Korea currently hosts ten different professional StarCraft teams, all of which perform nationally on a regular basis.
Blizzard launched StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty in July, 2010, twelve years after the first StarCraft's release. Though the company triggered some controversy when it said StarCraft II would be split into a trilogy, all was forgotten when audiences saw how good Wings of Liberty actually was. Everything about the game felt polished and innovative despite the fact that no core aspects of the game had changed in the past twelve years. Both critics and consumers loved it – StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty garnered a 93% on Metacritic and sold 3 million copies during its first month in stores.
StarCraft II is also gaining traction as a televised sport thanks to streaming videos – the game is even more accessible today than it was back in the 90s. Commentators and analysts like Mike “Husky” Lamond and Sean “Day” Plott regularly discuss StarCraft matches on their Internet channels to an audience of hundreds of thousands. Communities like Team Liquid regularly foster games, discussion, and analysis. Many people have sunk countless hours into not only playing the game, but talking about it, analyzing it, and watching other people play it. To some, StarCraft is the virtual equivalent of football or basketball.
Today's real-time strategy market might not be as dense as it was last decade, but the genre is as popular as it ever was. If not for StarCraft and its polished, well-planned interface, would we even care?