Blizzard Evolution – An RTS Retrospective

Be warned: acquiring a copy of Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty may cause your friends to giggle with excitement, bombard you with questions, and find reasons to come over before letting slip a diffident, “Oh, is that the Starcraft II?

This could be because it has been over ten years since the release of the award-winning Starcraft, it could be because they have heard so much about the recent release from hyped fans, or it could even be because they have played every game ever released by Blizzard Entertainment. One thing is definitely true: Starcraft II will be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, release of the year–a fact that will keep old pros and younger generations in acute anticipation.

But to understand the underlying reasons behind the franchise’s success and how it became so heralded, you have to trace back to the game’s origins and that of its brother series Warcraft – two friendly adversaries as well-matched as the units within them…

Not-so-Humble Beginnings: Early Real-time Strategy and its Ongoing Legacy

Blizzard’s Game of the Year 1994, Warcraft: Orcs vs. Humans, has little to no replay value sixteen years later, but you better respect it. By today’s standards in RTS (real-time strategy) game play, it is a laborious and unbalanced game that is so paltry when compared to its impressive sequels it is easy to forget they are even related. The Fog of War is so precise that half the mission was spent uncovering tiny chunks of darkness, knowing full well that nothing of importance could fit hidden beneath. Catapults decimate entire armies in a single shot, usually your own as your footmen engage the enemy directly in the blast radius. Excessive road building becomes an obsession harkening back to Sim City and wasting tons of time better spent skirmishing. Yes, all these details have aged worse than Lothar himself, but that being said: you better respect it because the game had magic.

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No, not Water Elementals versus Demons or Necromancers versus Clerics (though both are, not surprisingly, present), but a breath of adventure and glory unfound in computer games of that era.  Out in the darkness somewhere was the enemy: battles to be waged, spells to be cast, villages to be put to flame. Even bit by bit, traveling the map was exciting. If when the combat began it was difficult to get your units to act logically, so be it. There was mettle here. The game had lore.

Warcraft: Various Orc units attack creeps in an underground hall.

Having since spawned two sequels and expansions, the Warcraft franchise has never lost the zeal of its original, engrossing thousands of gamers across the globe–and perhaps even more impressively, retaining an intense (nay, rabid) fan base for decades following each subsequent release. Thousands of players still log onto Blizzard’s online server Battle.net, with battles raging every day between new generations of players and ten-year veterans alike. In Korea and other East-Asian countries, tournament-winning champions are treated like sports stars and receive similar endorsements and prestige. Full tournaments are even held for the Warcraft III mod known as DOTA (Defense of the Ancients – see below), a user-made hero-central contest completely unique to the game it stemmed from.

Going through the history of Blizzard’s RTS franchises, three distinct reasons for their worldwide acclaim become evident: First, they are meticulous beta testers who have mastered the fine art of balance. Second, they are exceptional artists, producing stylish visuals, compelling soundtracks and moody storylines. Finally, Blizzard has always managed, with each new addition to the family, to introduce fresh concepts that revolutionize the way real-time strategy games are played.

Tides of Change: Opening the Floodgates of RTS Success

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Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness brought plenty of advancements over the original, and it was likely the sturdiest and most versatile RTS of its time. In 1995, at the dawn of the game’s release, online head-to-head gaming was yet to fully develop, but Tides of Darkness allowed for amazing user-generated content through a powerful map editor and almost perfectly balanced game play (the only differences were each race’s spells; although it can be readily argued that when not used by the computer, the Ogre-Mage’s bloodlust greatly trumped the Paladin’s heal). The user interface was expanded to allow the selection of nine units, instead of four, while implementing hotkeys as well. Single player campaign included visually stunning movie scenes to compliment the improved plot, all much superior to the choppy offerings of Orcs vs. Humans. The graphics, although cartoon-like, even compared to the pixelated-but-gritty look of its predecessor, were artistic and held a charm in their simplicity.

Warcraft II: Human knights raid an Orc settlement

If the visuals were simple, the unit and building tech were anything but. Warcraft fans were introduced to the possibility of more than just land battles. As the title Tides of Darkness indicates, naval warfare became an important part of the game, with the creation of three distinct ship types and four new buildings to facilitate them. Although the naval concept was dropped in subsequent games, it was a unique idea which did not detract from the game’s foundation of building cities and mêlée combat. Similarly introduced were airborne units, particularly Human griffons and Orc dragons. Though both were ridiculously overpriced (likely due to their novelty at the time), aerial units stuck with the series ever since, coming to prominence in later releases.

The last key feature of Tides of Darkness worth mentioning was the game’s use of heroes–an element which is particularly noticeable in the expansion Beyond the Dark Portal. With a greater emphasis on the writing and story, as is consistent with the densely-packed novels of the fantasy genre, came a greater back-story, history and characters – including ten new characters from Beyond the Dark Portal to add to the pre-existing five. Warcraft III would totally change the use of in-game hero units, but first came Kerrigan, Zeratul and the release of Starcraft.

Science Fiction Invasion: RTS Rivalry Between Command & Conquer and Starcraft

The success of Tides of Darkness initiated a rivalry between fantasy and futuristic RTS games through competition with Westwood Studios’ Command & Conquer series. Set in a near-future alternate reality, the Command & Conquer franchise appealed to players who preferred realism, modern warfare and the apocalyptic. A drive to enter this market could perhaps have influenced Blizzard’s choice to make the rivalry internal with the release of Starcraft in 1998–a game that took over as the dominant science fiction RTS and effectively ended the competition despite the best efforts of 2000’s Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2. Westwood studies would liquidate three years later.

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Starcraft: Protoss Archons attack a Zerg nest.

Starcraft immediately also stole the crown from Warcraft II, making an even greater impact on the future of RTS. First and foremost, Starcraft had not just two races but three–and they were flawlessly balanced. Even better, the Terrans, Zerg and Protoss were entirely unique in their buildings, units, tech structures and advancements. The depth of match-up possibilities and the tactics required to best an enemy had become exponentially more complex and Starcraft used this to create more ambitious campaign missions. The use of triggers allowed for an interactive landscape of motion-sensing doors, hidden traps, and in-game cut scene plot points which spiced things up considerably from typical maps of general exploration. It also allowed for countdown missions wherein the objective was to survive waves of enemies for an allotted amount of time. Upgrades to the solo campaign were impressive, but the biggest factor in Starcraft’s success was the maturation of something Blizzard had no control over at all: the Internet.

Online, Starcraft was a hit. The variables required to conquer live opponents, coupled with the chaos of free-for-all brawls, were engrossing to any fan of the RTS genre. Far-advanced from the dial-up modem one-on-one match-ups of Warcraft II, the new Battle.net proved to be a powerful and ingenious construct for Blizzard to house its digital disciples under. By controlling the channels on which its users went online, Blizzard had a direct grasp on Starcraft’s online use, promoting tournaments and encouraging player-to-player interaction. The expansion Brood War was released more as a patch to balance online matches than as a new campaign and it forced Battle.net users into purchasing it in order to keep up with the online community.

Realizing how successful Starcraft had become, and having a firm grasp on RTS in the science fiction genre, Blizzard realized Warcraft too could thrive by way of Battle.net and they turned their attention to bringing their flagship franchise up to speed. In 2002 came the release of Warcraft III, a final RTS offering before what would become almost a decade of waiting.

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The Plateau: Warcraft III and the Third Dimension RTS

It took Blizzard a while to apply its formula to Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos as it was under vastly increased scrutiny and the expectations were sky-high. They had to produce a knockout, both in its style and originality, while keeping the delicate unit balance they were so well-known for. When Warcraft III was finally released, it was not long before the pundits recognized that they had done all three by way of four tightly-balanced and distinct new races, 3D environments and a re-education in hero units.

Joining Orcs and Humans in the fray were the Undead and Night Elf factions, both as fully-realized as the Azeroth regulars and both featuring elements derived from Starcraft. (For example, Undead Acolytes could summon buildings and move on, akin to Protoss drones, and Night Elf Archers were cheap, basic, range units akin to Terran marines). The visuals were stunning, taking Starcraft’s layered environments one step further by creating fully three-dimensional and multi-faceted maps. Though players could barely play the game from any view which was not directly above their units, the physics and gradient landscapes played a large part in combat, effecting units’ range of vision, projectile arcs, and casting capabilities.

Warcraft III: Dwarven Sniper and Skeleton King spar during a game of Dota (Defense of the Ancients), a fan-made Warcraft III mod whose popularity rivals the game itself.

Even more importantly, hero units were used in a wholly unique and captivating way. Instead of being a particular unit with beefed up stats and a different face, each race had three heroes they could summon as units from Altars. Each hero gained levels, new spells or skills, and could even hold up to six items. Alone, heroes are an impressive feature; they can readily sway any battle, provide a focal unit to rally to, and become an immediate target. But the inclusion of heroes dramatically shifted the game play, because in order to gain levels you needed to fight, and that meant either taking on neutral creatures or engaging the enemy. No longer were online matches to be fought from behind impenetrable walls of towers as was often the case before, Warcraft III enforced a new era of activity, making players engage with the map and the enemy. More recent RTS games, such as the Company of Heroes and Dawn of War franchises have also taken this idea on.

Despite these new concepts, the years to come would prove that Starcraft retained its own strong fan base, with the primary divide not being in the game play, but rather the simple difference of genre. Both games would also hold up surprisingly well compared to their contemporaries (considering how diminutive Unreal and Half-Life seem by today’s first-person shooter standards). Even more than in 2002, Blizzard now has had the time, focus and resources to produce the new high watermark in real-time strategy.  Ten years to amass beta testers and adjust balancing, ten years to evolve the Starcraft universe and, best of all, ten years to develop new innovations to revolutionize the genre.

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Next Generation: RTS’ Return to the Stars

There has been a lot of time and energy put into the Warcraft and Starcraft franchises since 1994 and it has amounted to the newly minted Starcraft II, a release that is not just another game promising hours of entertainment, but the culmination of all the strengths that went into the award-winning games before it. The anticipation is amped up for a reason and it is not hard to see why the beta for this game was a big deal. In addition to a whole generation of new gamers who may not have appreciated the coming of age of Starcraft and Warcraft, thousands of players still logging in to play Starcraft online will finally get the chance to switch over to something that better-utilizes the technology of the times. It is a long-awaited franchise facelift which is even more notable for the inherent trust one can assume in Blizzard’s track record. It will have that magic found in Orcs vs. Humans and that is the reason fans believe Starcraft II will become a paragon of real-time strategy for the decade to come – at least.

Starcraft II: A Terran base is under attack by Protoss.

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