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StarCraft 2 at ten: the past, present, and future of the world’s greatest RTS

Five years on from Legacy of the Void, will it ever see fresh story content, or has it evolved past the need for it?

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty released on July 27, 2010. Ten years and one day later it received its biggest patch to date, the Tenth Anniversary Update, a context that makes me feel like every word in the phrase should be capitalised.

The update adds new achievements for every mission in the main campaigns, support for custom campaigns within the Battle.net client, a ‘prestige’ system for co-op commanders that unlocks new talents, and more than I could possibly summarise here – but check out the full patch notes at the StarCraft 2 website.

It reflects the sprawling, unique creature that StarCraft 2 has become. One might assume that, with the release of its last full campaign, Legacy of the Void, back in 2015, this mostly traditional RTS would be winding down, and from the outside it appears to be one of developer Blizzard’s more neglected properties. But Blizzard has found a number of ways to extend the experience, each catered for in some fashion by this huge update, and the developer insists the playerbase has remained remarkably consistent through the highs and lows not only of StarCraft 2, but of RTS as a whole.

On the eve of the Tenth Anniversary Update, we spoke with StarCraft 2’s lead artist Rob McNaughton, and designer Ryan Schutter, about those highs and lows, and what the future may look like for StarCraft 2.

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PCGamesN: As developers, what have been your personal highlights over ten years of StarCraft 2? What are you most proud of in that time?

Rob McNaughton: One of my absolute favourite highlights was being around the fans in 2018 at BlizzCon, and in particular watching the WCS final. I was sitting at the raised bar, and watched Serral win it all [vs Stats] with a Zerg beer in my hand. That was pretty impressive.

Ryan Schutter: And that was especially awesome because he’d played against Stats in GSL vs The World as well, which was a really awesome final too, so those two had a bit of a rivalry going. So yeah, absolutely 2018 WCS finals was one of my favourite moments.

I’ve been around since about 2014 on the StarCraft 2 team, and before that I was a modder in the StarCraft community, so for me my favourite moment – my favourite personal moment – was probably the release of Legacy of the Void. Both because that was the first product I’d worked on in game development, but also because it did so much to lift the game and the experience of playing it. It sped up the start, and the UI was just so much cooler, which is the part that I worked on the most.

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StarCraft 2 soon developed maybe the best esports scene on the planet, with some of the most magnetic personalities. How were you able to create that?

McNaughton: Early on we really focused on making StarCraft 2 an esport. We wanted the game to be quick and accurate – StarCraft 1 as an example is pixel-perfect and every frame is exactly as the game sees it.

With StarCraft 2 and going to 3D, things get a little looser, so we spent significant time making hit test selection – where you actually click on the characters and how fast the game reacts – a very high priority for us. So StarCraft 2 is a very tight RTS, even though it has lots of crazy combat that’s very fast. We spent a lot of time making it very accurate and feel snappy. We’ve made art that fits within those confines – we’ve made sure the characters aren’t too crazily large, or or too spindly, or too long. We do all kinds of things to make all the art fit within these tight designs to make sure that the whole package looks beautiful and plays quick.

Schutter: Yeah, I agree – StarCraft 2 as a game lends itself really well to esports. It’s very snappy to play; there are so many diverse strategies that you can employ; as a spectator sport it’s fantastic because of the top-down camera, and the art that Rob is talking about is very clear. Even people who are new to watching esports can understand a lot about the game. Like when you see a tank, you have a general idea that that tank is going to be stronger than a marine, and you can see that zerglings are small so they’re probably weaker, but there’s a lot of them, so maybe they add up. Some other games are harder to understand.

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Another part of what’s made StarCraft such a great esport is the community. We have so many awesome personalities in our community, people who contribute their time to build awesome events and to continue to improve everything around StarCraft esports. I think that’s been one of the biggest driving factors.

Some might say the scene isn’t quite what it was – many of the old personalities have moved on – to what do you attribute that? Is it just an inevitable result of the game’s age, or is there something else?

Schutter: I think that right now, actually, StarCraft is the most entertaining to watch it’s ever been. I genuinely believe that. It is incredibly entertaining right now. We have so many incredible personalities in the scene.

Literally as we speak is the first broadcast day for the War Chest Team League, which has nine different StarCraft 2 commentators acting as team captains, and they draft teams of four players, pit them against each other, and then the captains commentate the matches together, so the commentators are essentially rivals while they’re commentating. Trying to select team captains for that is so hard, but we can only have nine, so determining who to reach out to was a difficult process. So that broad community of incredibly high quality commentators, personalities, and unbelievable pro players is a strong basis for the esport continuing to be the best one out there.

Do you think you achieved everything you set out to do with the game? What’s the one thing you wanted to achieve but couldn’t?

McNaughton: There’s a wish list thing that I’ve always wanted that we weren’t able to hit, and that was just even bigger battles. Computers for whatever reason have not grown at the speed I hoped they would – I was expecting to be able to play StarCraft 2 with eight players, with max armies, and at 120 frames per second. I would love to try and figure out how to make that work.

Schutter: For me my biggest personal goal for StarCraft 2 was actually to get custom campaign support in, so this moment [the Tenth Anniversary update, which adds custom campaign support to Battle.net] is pretty exciting for me. I’ve been pushing for that for the six years I’ve been at Blizzard. I actually feel that was an omission from the Wings of Liberty launch, and it’s never really felt like a complete game to me. Not that I think it’s a complete game now – there’s so many more awesome things we can do – but I felt that was the biggest hole in the feature set for StarCraft 2 and I’m super glad that we were able to hit that.

What do you want to see players come up with, or what would you personally create, with the huge recent updates to the editor and campaign editor?

Schutter: I’m hugely passionate about the StarCraft 2 editor, the arcade, and the modding community, as I was a modder before I joined Blizzard. But a good chunk of the development team too are former StarCraft 2 modders – and WarCraft 3 modders before that – so our whole team is very, very passionate about this patch, because a lot of us have roots in that community. So we really wanted to bring these changes to the StarCraft editor so that people could do the kinds of things that they’ve been wanting to do from the beginning.

As for what I’d like to see people do with them, my favourite part of this is the custom campaign section. StarCraft 2 already has a robust custom campaign modding community, but unfortunately, those modders have been largely out in the cold and unsupported by the Battle.net client itself all this time, so hopefully now those guys can bring their stuff into the client. Hopefully that encourages people to create new custom campaigns, because I think people really love campaign content for StarCraft 2, and we could never keep up with the demand ourselves.

What have you learned from WarCraft III: Reforged, and the community reaction to it, with respect to user-generated content?

Schutter: I don’t think Reforged had much influence on our decision to make these changes. As I said, our development team is really passionate about modding, and these changes have been planned for a pretty long time. With custom games policies and stuff like that, as far as StarCraft 2 is concerned, the policy is effectively exactly the same as it was when I was a modder seven years ago. So I don’t think anything’s changed there for StarCraft 2 and I don’t think that our community should be too concerned about that.

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RTS is often said to have declined, but there’s been a resurgence lately, especially for ’90s examples with the C&C, Age of Empires, and of course WarCraft III and StarCraft remasters. StarCraft 2 has been a constant throughout all this – has your playerbase been as turbulent?

Schutter: There’s this perception that RTS has declined, but I think it’s more that other genres have exploded. The way we perceive games now, through things like Twitch and YouTube, is very focused – almost everybody in the world jumps on one thing and then on the next instead of spreading around and figuring out what’s the right thing for them at that moment.

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RTS has continued to chug along in the background while people are finding these new types of games that they’re getting super excited about, but on StarCraft 2 we’ve seen such an incredibly, almost disgustingly consistent playerbase over the over the last ten years. It’s really astonishing how consistent that playerbase is, though since going free-to-play we’ve seen a lot of players come into the game. We’re seeing a lot of popularity behind our co-op mode, and our custom games as well are incredibly popular. So I definitely think that RTS still has a lot to offer – people still really do love this genre and they keep logging in to play.

But you’ve never been complacent about this – Legacy of the Void made some accessibility changes and you’ve gone free-to-play. What else are you doing in this regard?

McNaughton: It was very important to us [to minimise that] StarCraft 2 had a very large barrier to entry for a new player if you’ve never seen an RTS before. If you’re logging in for the first time, and you see your units aren’t moving, just the act of auto-moving the probes to go get minerals makes a huge difference to the early player. Now, at the top levels, I don’t think those little nuances that make it easier for the newer player actually help much. Instead they’re going to split their probes instantly to get that little extra. But those little touches definitely help – I think, going forward, if you’re going to have a very successful new RTS, I think you really do have to cater to that early entry for a new player.

Schutter: Yeah, I think the trick is to lower the skill floor without lowering the skill ceiling. That’s a complicated thing to do, but it’s not impossible, and we continue to think about that problem and how to address it. I also think co-op in StarCraft 2 has done a lot to appeal to players who are interested in RTS but don’t want to tackle the challenge of the competitive ladder, as well as those who just want to take a break from it.

Turning to the future, StarCraft 2 has gone without substantial new story content for a long time now. Should we dismiss all expectations of that?

Schutter: I would never close the door on anything completely. Certainly right now our focus is just to do things that we think are fun and well within our reach. So creating new co-op commanders, and doing this kind of update for the tenth anniversary – these are all things that we’re really passionate about, and we’ll continue to look for opportunities to do similar things that we think will be awesome for our players. But yeah, I would never close the door on anything completely.

Would you ever make another expansion, or a StarCraft 3?

Schutter: I’d definitely say that, for the team at Blizzard, the development team on StarCraft 2, these are things that we would be very excited about, but we don’t have anything to announce as far as that’s concerned.

Can you outline what’s next for the IP?

Schutter: Well, I think the way to think about StarCraft 2 going forward is that it’s an incredibly popular game even ten years in, and one of the interesting things about it is there’s just so many different ways to play it. I don’t say that as some kind of marketing thing – it’s actually more of a stress for our team in some ways, because we have a varied set of communities to support. We’ve got our campaign community, our custom games community, the multiplayer community, and the co-op community, and it can be difficult as a developer to jump between supporting those things, but we’re going to continue to do so.

McNaughton: I just want to chime in here that we are still actively developing war chests for multiplayer, and new co-op content – the team is hard at work continually making awesome content for StarCraft 2 in the future.