No one likes to lose. But no one likes winning too easily, either. The question of how hard to make a video game has plagued developers since the dawn of the first commercial games. The Atari 2600 had physical switches players could toggle to adjust the difficulty; since then, most games have difficulty settings in the software itself. In the popular first-person shooter Halo, if “Easy” and “Normal” are cakewalks, you can try your hand at “Heroic” or “Legendary”. The real-time strategy game StarCraft II uses “Casual”, “Normal”, and “Hard” as its first three options.
For those that want a true challenge, developers design the hardest modes as a sort of taunt; playing Halo solo, on “legendary” and with difficulty-increasing skulls turned on is called “Mythic” difficulty, and how fast and how few times you die playing a level on said difficulty is a badge of honor. StarCraft II‘s top level of difficulty is the come-hither masochistic “Brutal”. Having levels of difficulty allows players who want to decompress or learn the game an easy outlet while veterans chew through ever increasing enemies or tougher scenarios.
But difficulty is much easier to judge when players are going against computer-controlled bots. Head-to-head multiplayer against other human beings is another ball game, and one developers can’t shirk. These days the longevity of a video game is determined by its updates, new content, and how addicting its multiplayer mode is. The Halo series tops the Xbox 360’s multiplayer charts regularly, usually only temporarily ousted from its top position by new games. The original StarCraft, meanwhile, was still being played competitively in massive tournaments, more than a decade after it was released (1). Clearly, there’s something in these games that makes them more than just a new title, but an icon. It’s a spark that’s hard to capture and nearly impossible to duplicate.
But when there’s money to be made, duplication seems like the best route. For StarCraft II, that meant developer Blizzard mostly prettied up the game, keeping many of the core units, strategies, and buildings, polishing its three-faction gameplay to a silvery sheen (2). That makes players happy, because while they may clamor for the latest graphics and new units to throw at enemies, they ultimately don’t want that much change. Much of our entertainment medium is deeply conservative, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Tried-and-true formulas will prevail over new iterations until a new idea or gameplay conceit or genre breaks into the mainstream and, in turn, becomes the standard.
But where does the comfort of sameness end, and the tired repetition begin? How do you stop your game from becoming stale? How do you sate that competitive edge? Let’s look at StarCraft II as a case study.
While its storyline was somewhat subpar (see “The Unfinished Video Game Story”) there’s no doubt StarCraft II‘s gameplay is at once easy to pick up and difficult to master. Players pick one of three races, each with unique units and strategies. The Terrans are a middle-of-the-road race, with powerful, static defenses and the ability to repair damaged buildings and units. The Zerg are insect-like creatures that primarily overwhelm others by sheer numbers and speed. The Protoss are high-tech aliens that are the toughest and most expensive to field, with their units protected by recharging energy shields. Each race constructs primary buildings and gathers two resources, minerals and vespene gas, while managing a population limit. So simple on paper, so dizzyingly complex in practice. The amount of strategies and unit combinations is sometimes staggering, and with the expansions Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void coming in the future (3), the depth of the strategy is likely to increase.
StarCraft II also refines gameplay options through its revised Battle.net multiplayer platform. Like many new games, in an effort to integrate social aspects of gameplay and stave off piracy, StarCraft II has the majority of its features tied into an active connection to Battle.net. Once logged in, players can resume their single-player campaign missions, try their hand at puzzle-like “Challenge” scenarios, or zip over to the multiplayer side of things. StarCraft II features “achievements”, online trophies for accomplishing special tasks, and the sheer number of them in all areas of gameplay make it certain that most players will invest the time in all game modes. Players can team up cooperatively with other humans to fight computer-controlled bots, create a custom melee scenario, or join one of many custom gametypes created by intrepid mapmakers, using Blizzard’s bundled SCII Map Editor.
Finally, there is the League. Players who want to be ranked against others must complete five placement matches in four matchups: 1v1, 2v2, 3v3, and 4v4 (a FFA or free-for-all option is unranked.) Once these matches are complete, StarCraft II places the player in a division and league. The League is the barometer of relative skill: the best players are sorted into the “Diamond” category, followed by “Platinum”, “Gold”, “Silver” and “Bronze”. Each league contains several divisions, such as “Lassatar Echo” or “Epsilon Tau”. This is a change from the original StarCraft‘s ladder system and from most other ranking mechanics is games: players are not competing for spots against the whole StarCraft II playerbase so much as the hundred or so players in their division.
Another change is that your win-loss record is not the total sum of your player ranking. Every win and loss gives players points, which affects their standings in their division rankings. How many points you win or gain depends on how the computer decides you are favored in the game: a loss to a team or player who was “favored” means a loss of just a few points, while winning against such an opponent could net you 16-20 points or more. In practice, it is far easier to gain points over time than lose them, because StarCraft II contains “bonus points” at each league mode. Over time, these bonus points increase as a form of “rest experience”, meaning that every time you win a game you gain points based on matchup, combined with an equal number of points from the bonus pool. If I win a game, I’ll get +10 points plus another 10 as long as there’s still that many points in my bonus pool (unless you are playing one league mode exclusively almost 24/7, it’s pretty hard to completely exhaust this supply.)
The combination of point ranking and division sorting means that the competitive landscape of StarCraft II is greatly changed. Blizzard regularly releases weekly standings for the top 200 players in each world region, but there is a disconnect between these standings and the average players’, who can only say with certainty that they are top-ranking in their division. Playing exceptionally well or poorly will cause you to be promoted or demoted from your league to a higher or lower one, bringing you a new division assignment as well, but there’s no easy way to tell when you are going to be bumped one way or another.
Is this the best way to configure a game? StarCraft II is inheriting the title of biggest competitive strategy game, and while these changes don’t affect the people playing on pro circuits, it does provide a far different flavor to those who aren’t going to tournaments but still read up on the latest strategies and troll the boards. While the current Battle.net ladder system doesn’t exactly empower the statistic-happy player, on the other hand it prevents easy discouragement and ennui from losing repeatedly. By focusing player attention on smaller pools of players it essentially works to create winners at every level, as it were.
But StarCraft II’s longevity won’t be guaranteed because of its point system and achievements. Thanks to the epic sandbox of units, players can tinker with a great number of build strategies and unit compositions to try and top their opponents. By providing a flexible framework and monitoring player feedback, Blizzard can create a “more perfect” game. These balances often inspire rage from players in the short term (4), who are forced to modify their game strategies, but it’s with the goal of creating a game that never frustrates due to a mismatch in units or races, something that took the original StarCraft years to achieve. Before the internet, game manufacturers were sunk if there were critical or even minor flaws in their game design that did not make themselves known until after ship. Now, using the data leveraged by the monopoly of Battle.net over competitive StarCraft II play, Blizzard has perhaps the greatest statistics pool available to any multiplayer game with which to tweak elements as they see fit.
Finally, the last secret of player investment comes in the form of defeat. As IGN’s Ryan Clements wrote in an article entitled “The Sweetness of Defeat”:
“Unlike an FPS where you might get killed by a random grenade toss which costs you the game, a loss in StarCraft II has purpose. ‘I was killed because I didn’t have enough Zerglings.’ ‘I got supply capped and my unit production suffered.’ These very specific problems have very specific solutions, which can be applied in future matches to help you win. This is what sets StarCraft II, and other similar RTS titles, apart from other games. When you have the potential to do better, you’re motivated to continue on and enjoy the thrill of trying something new, seeing it succeed or fail, and continuously refining your ability in a palpable way” (5).
Blizzard, then, has created the ultimate game, because players like Ryan Clements and I ,who are not pros but still want to improve, are not stymied by defeat; we treat it as a learning experience. By making losing not a horrible proposition and making the game not just about grinding for rank, StarCraft II has ensured its place in the pantheon of PC gaming for the foreseeable future. I know I’ve got plenty more games left in me.
* (1) Kevin Cho (January 15, 2006). “Samsung, et al sponsor South Korean Alien Killers”. Bloomberg. Retrieved November 27, 2010.
* (2) Adam Biessener (August 3, 2010). “StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty”. Game Informer. Retrieved November 30, 2010.
* (3) Mihail Cernea (July 26, 2010). “SC II Single-Player Campaign Detailed”. Softpedia. Retrieved November 29, 2010.
* (4) Jordan Devore (August 27, 2010). “Blizzard Talks StarCraft II patch 1.1, rage ensues”. Destructoid. Retrieved November 30, 2010.
* (5) Ryan Clements (November 19, 2010). “StarCraft II: The Sweetness of Defeat”. IGN. Retrieved November 30, 2010.