Justin Groot’s Video Game Analysis: Starcraft II

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February 8, 2012 by justingroot

Starcraft II is interesting in that it is a game utterly unconcerned with the things that characterize most big AAA titles these days. First, it’s a game made exclusively for the PC, in a time when consoles like the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 dominate the market. The original Starcraft was infamously adapted for the Nintendo 64 — a port that served more to illustrate the limits of real time strategy (RTS) games on consoles than to expand the audience of the series.

Another interesting aspect of Starcraft II is its focus on multiplayer. This is the era of Mass Effect 2, Bioshock, and Red Dead Redemption (the top 3 “modern” video games, according to IGN). Starcraft II has a single player mode, and it’s fairly good, but it’s almost an afterthought, featuring the Terran race exclusively — a stark departure from Starcraft I and its expansion, Brood War, both of which featured a campaign for each of the game’s three races.

This also translates to a game that isn’t particularly concerned with narrative. At the start of each multiplayer game of Starcraft, the players are set down on a field to do battle with no justification whatsoever. A game of Starcraft II doesn’t follow a predetermined storyline through to a conclusion — instead, it resembles a chess match, in which each player wields his pieces without thinking too much about what they represent, and seeks not narrative fulfillment, but the utter destruction of the opponent.

Nor is Starcraft II particularly beautiful by modern standards. Most who play the game competitively turn the graphics down to low to minimize distracting death animations and ambient effects while they play. On the other hand, the health bars are prominent and glaring, a functional requirement for excellent players, who must be able to spot weakened units at a glance.

To understand how such a game could have emerged today (and to understand its impressive sales — 1.5 million copies in its first 48 hours, according to developer Blizzard), it is necessary to look back at the effect the first Starcraft had on the video game scene. Starcraft II’s competitive scene was expected from the start; the original’s sprouted up out of pretty much nowhere. Twelve years later, the Starcraft Brood War competitive circuit is still alive and well in South Korea.

In fact, one could arguably say that Starcraft II was one of the world’s first intentional E-Sports. Other titles that wound up being played competitively for extended periods of time — CounterStrike and DOTA come to mind — originated as lucky modifications of other games. For Counter Strike, that game was Valve’s Half Life; for DOTA, it was Blizzard’s Warcraft 3. Others, like the first Starcraft and Call of Duty 4, got there through pure blind luck (and, in COD4’s case, a community willing to put in the effort to produce an competitively viable version called Promod, in which major competition continues to take place, despite several newer iterations of the series).

Starcraft II follows the trend of many modern multiplayer games in that its developer Blizzard has actively pursued its improvement long after its release in 2010. Since then, there have been twenty-two patches to Starcraft II. Through constant tweaks as players discover new compositions, exploits and tricks, Blizzard has managed to maintain not only a relatively even balance between the game’s three races, but also between the many strategies available to each.

But what exactly is Starcraft II? It’s a game of digital chess, except that all the pieces move at once, and you can only ever see a fraction of the board at any given time. It’s a game of multitasking — of managing multiple armies and bases, all the while keeping an eye on what your opponent is up to.

In a game of Starcraft, as in most RTS games, each player starts out with the same basic setup: six workers, which are used to gather resources and build structures, and a “command center,” which is used to build more workers. As the game progresses, the player slowly masses up an army, eventually engaging the opponent’s forces and, hopefully, destroying him.

In practice, it usually involves much more than throwing two clumps of units at each other. Mobile units like the flying “Mutalisk” creature and devastating “Banshee” gunship are used to harass the opponent’s mineral line, wreaking havoc on his economy. Army compositions are selected and altered on the fly in response to meticulously collected scouting information. Split-second decisions, for instance on whether to counterattack or defend when the opponent advances, lead to pivotal shifts of momentum in each game.

Actual battles also take a lot of skill to execute. Unit control can be the difference between victory and defeat when two opponents have armies of roughly equivalent size.

High-level games of Starcraft involve two players undertaking both “macro” (building an army) and “micro” (using it) at the same time, flashing from point to point on the map with upwards of three hundred actions per minute (APM).

It’s a mentally and even physically exhausting experience, but the rewards are handsome: a first place finish in a tournament like the Korean GSL or North American MLG championship can net a player close to $50,000 dollars.

What makes Starcraft II fun is that it pits human players against one another. Tom Bissell discusses this in Extra Lives, when he describes the increased intensity of Left for Dead when the opposing zombies are controlled by real people. Starcraft II’s singleplayer might not hold your attention for particularly long, at least compared to epic sagas like Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption, but its multiplayer facilitates a competitive 1v1 environment unmatched in all of modern video games.

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5 thoughts on “Justin Groot’s Video Game Analysis: Starcraft II

  1. aakang says:

    Having played Starcraft II, I completely agree with you that it is a RTS game that rewards knowledge, reflexes, and skills like the ability to “macro” and “micro” in order to win a 1v1 setting. Although you did mention cooperation and coordination as described in Bissell’s experience of playing Left 4 Dead, I feel that one very important aspect of ludology comes from cooperating with teammates to beat a better team. Although each person in team A might be better than each person on team B, the collective skill of team B may be greater than that of team A. Also, although Starcraft II is more known and important for its competitive gaming, I find the narrative to be a core aspect of the game. In playing as a race such as Terran, the humans, I find that knowing the human side of the story and having played through their campaign get me more emotionally compelled in playing against a race like the Zerg, the enemies of Terran.

  2. aakang says:

    -Andy Kang

  3. dbfeder says:

    I find the idea of competitive, professional gaming very intriguing – it’s amazing to me that video games have reached a point where skills in them can be recognized on a wider basis, in actual leagues and such. I was wondering if you had an opinion on why similar leagues haven’t popped up for other games? We don’t see competitive gaming in the same organized, team sense for games like FIFA or COD when team-oriented leagues of a similar social style could be easily put together for either. Does it have to do with the complexity of the game as compared to the others? Or is it just because the following Starcraft II has amassed is large enough to support it?

    • justingroot says:

      There actually is a relatively large competitive COD community. COD4 in particular is still played competitively on the PC, despite being downright ancient in video game terms. The later Call of Duty games are played quite enthusiastically at a semi-pro level in the GameBattles system mentioned by one of our presenters.

      Other E-Sports include fighting games and a variety of shooters ranging from Halo to Counterstrike. Although Starcraft is a particularly successful scene, it is by no means the only one.

  4. wcparti says:

    One thing you didn’t mention (or at least didn’t dwell on) that I think is worth noting is competitive Starcraft’s ability to successfully replicate the model used in more widely played “sports.” I don’t have any hard data to back this assertion up, but I feel that the entire scene is completely modeled on ESPN’s method of somehow making sports extend “beyond the game.” By that I mean, very little of ESPN actually revolves around shows sports; most of the time is devoted to discussing trades and upcoming matches, reporting on scandals and rivalries, showing highlight clips and rising stars. I think what keeps us coming back to Starcraft is the simple fact that it “looks like a sport.”

    Thinking about this on a more general level, if Starcraft’s success is dependent in part on an externality. Are there other games that are successful (or uber successful) because they can appeal to a traditional structure “at large”? I am tempted to think this is an explanation for the continuing popularity of games based on movie franchises.

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