Saturday, November 10, 2012

Balancing Starcraft II - Making an E-Sport

It's no big secret that I'm a big Starcraft II fan. Apart from Portal and the odd session of Angry Birds it's the only video game I play. For those not in the know, Starcraft II is a real time strategy game. Think of it as competitive SimCity building but with marines. The best way to play Starcraft II is over the network with friends  However, it's really hard to design a real time strategy game that's balanced and fun. In fact it's taken Blizzard 5 tries to get up to this point.


Blizzard's first attempt was the original Warcraft way back in 1994. It featured two races; orcs and humans. You can play either side and each side had different units and abilities. Well, by "different" I mean mostly different graphics. The actual abilities between the two sides were really quite similar. The game units were also of vastly different abilities meaning that games always degenerated into a rush to some big unit and then produce as many as possible. It was a fun game but a bit simplistic.


Blizzard's next attempt was Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness. This game was also a huge amount of fun. In all the inital head-to-head games I played it felt really balanced. Unfortunately there was this unbalancing orc spell called blood-lust that would allow you to obliterate your human opponent. In the end, my friends and I reverted to simply playing against the computer on custom maps - which was also an insane amount of fun.

The box art of StarCraft

The original Starcraft was a big win for head to head play. The expansion pack called "Brood war" was even better. This was the game that created the e-sport phenomenon in South Korea. Not only were all 3 sides (!) balanced but the game had depth to it. You could play forever and keep getting better. There were two big problems though. Finding a person to play against online was hit and miss. Because there was so much depth you'd either play against someone who was clearly better or against someone who was clearly worse. There was also the problem that the super balanced head to head play meant that playing against a real person was very, very intense. So intense, in fact, that we often just played against the computer. That could be intense but not to the point where you had to take a break after each game :-O.


Warcraft III came next and it was a serious attempt to create good head to head playing experience. The biggest improvement over Starcraft was the opponent matching system. The system would keep track of who won against who and try to automatically match you with someone of your skill level.

Warcraft III was also less intense than Starcraft. Warcraft III was built so you focused more on managing your troops and less on building an maintain you bases. It focused on the generaling more and less on the SimCity building aspect. Blizzard's idea was that the troop control was the fun part and base building a distraction. It isn't. The real fun in Starcraft, and the earlier games, was managing both the SimCity aspect and the troops at the same time! To be honest it's actually more multi dimensional. You can have to balance your technology and upgrade, with the quantity and composition of your army, while balancing troop production with how quickly your mineral production expands and then balancing that with how many troop production building an of what type you want to build. Oh, yes and on top of that you have to be the general in the field and tell your troops what to do.

StarCraft II - Box Art.jpg

Thanks to the enormous success of Stacraft and its use in e-sports, Blizzard, for the first time, made a game that was focused primarily on making that experience awesome. They also took the opponent-matching ladder system from Warcraft III, made a huge number of improvements and stuck it into Starcraft II. The whole package is a work of art.

So that brings me to the point of this post. I have recently come across a talk by one of the people involved with designing the Starcraft II online gaming experience. In this talk he relates how difficult it was to build a game that will work as an eSport while looking good and being fun to play for multiple levels of players. I found it fascinating.

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