By Dennis Scimeca
When the original Starcraft turned into a national sport in South Korea, I’m sure that Blizzard Software was as surprised as anyone. To the best of my knowledge, it’s a unique phenomenon in the history of video games. Sure, we have MLG, but that can’t hold a candle to the hype, and media circus, and downright pageantry of South Korean professional Starcraft play. So when Blizzard sat down to design Starcraft 2, it was going to be an eSport from the very beginning.
Dustin Browder was new to the company when this work began, and he thought Blizzard was a little crazy. “Games that were five years old had more content than Blizzard had intended from the beginning!” he said. “Units equal choices, choices equal gameplay, and gameplay equals fun, right?” And when Blizzard said that some of the units were going to be the same, Browder couldn’t believe it. “But Blizzard said ‘Don’t worry, this isn’t like other games. This is an eSport. This is different.”
Browder described the process of creating Starcraft 2 as akin to trying to create “Basketball II.” Blizzard had to build on the original or fail. So while critics might have felt that Starcraft 2 was too much like the original, not only was this intended, but it was also completely necessary. And the decision to design as eSport from the ground up had effects on the entire product, not just the multiplayer portion.
“eSports need to be watch-able,” Browder said. That means they need to be clear. Therefore, Blizzard had to limit the size of units. The Zerg Ultralisk was conceptualized as a huge monster that would absolutely tower over infantry units, but if you made the Ultralisks that big on the screen, players could hide tons of other units behind them, like a throng of Zerglings. Battles could be over in the blink of an eye and audiences would have no idea what they’d just seen.
eSports need to be simple. “Football has wide receivers, quarterbacks, a very small number of pieces to keep track of,” Browder said. Starcraft has between twelve and fifteen units per race. This is to allow the pro players to play the scouting and guessing games effectively. “Part of the fun is countering your opponents by guessing what they are going to build next,” Browder said. If there are too many possibilities, players can’t make those determinations in a way that is fun to watch.
eSports need to have a very high skill factor, and that’s why Starcraft 2 has stuck with an RTS mechanic that many feel should have been left behind: micromanagement. “Micromanagement is a dirty word to a lot of players in real time strategy games,” Browder said. But this is fun for Blizzard. It allows for skill. “It’s not just clicking really fast, but clicking really fast while doing 17 other things, and getting into your opponent’s head.”
Finally, eSports need uncertainty a football game can be won or lost with just a single interception. Audiences need to be motivated to stick to edges of their seats through the entire game, and this is why Blizzard kept the Zerg Rush around, even though Browder admitted at the beginning of the session that it was, in his words, the most unbalanced thing in video games, ever. “I worked for companies that tried to crush the rush,” Browder said, “and all that does is just delay when the game gets interesting.”
The decision to develop as an eSport also forced concessions for the single player campaign like removing proposed units from the multiplayer which wouldn’t work competitively, and instead building those units, and the art assets Blizzard had already designed, into the tech upgrade system of the solo campaign. The need to keep units small on the screen meant that characters like Tychus had to be characterized huge, instead. “Tychus isn’t a Marine, he’s a MARINE!” Browder bellowed. Competitive play often rewards defensive players, and that leads to a boring dynamic for stories if carried over to the campaigns. So Blizzard had to get creative with single player mission designs in order to enforce the kind of dramatic arcs they wanted.
Was it worth making the decision to design as an eSport, with all these wide-reaching design ramifications which have frustrated almost everyone who worked on Starcraft 2 at one time or another? Browder thinks it totally was. “This is a way for players to experience games in ways they never have before,” he said. “This is a way for us to come together as a community in ways we never have before.”
To read more about Dustin Browder's eSports philosophies check out the interview we did with him.