StarCraft 2 continues slow evolution into (not quite) free to play with Patch 2.1

Starcraft 2 Blizzard

As Blizzard outlined how StarCraft 2 will change with the upcoming 2.1 patch, it seemed almost like a tacit admission that the future of StarCraft is not be found in balance tweaks and expansion campaigns and units. Not that many people want to commit to playing competitive StarCraft on the ranked ladders, and even fewer want to play ranked year in, year out. The 2.1 patch reflects a slight expansion of Blizzard’s focus, away from the people who just want to play and watch StarCraft, and onto the people who want to play with StarCraft.

StarCraft 2.1 is about playing team games with friends, playing mods, or even building new kinds of games. And as Blizzard are also drastically expanding what they offer in the StarCraft 2 Starter Edition, it’s also about making StarCraft, if not quite free-to-play, then as free-as-possible.

Blizzard are looking back to go forwards, remaking StarCraft 2 more in the image of its predecessors, Brood War and Warcraft 3, and trying to recapture what made them such fertile soil for experimentation. These are games that helped spawn modern eSports, as well as the tower defense and MOBA genres, and they did that by encouraging people to keep playing in whatever way they saw fit.

That includes in the time-honored “without paying for it” way, explained producer Jordan Womack. While Blizzard took a half-step towards a free-version and the old “multiplayer spawn” tradition of early Blizzard RTS games with the free Starter Edition of StarCraft 2, they always kept a lot of content locked away from free players. Free players got a taste of the campaigns, a single faction for multiplayer, and severely curtailed matchmaking options. 2.1, by comparison, opens the floodgates for free players.

Starcraft 2 Blizzard

“For the foreseeable future, we’re just going to leave all the races unlocked and let people come in and experiment with all of that. So currently, with Starter Edition and you’re playing by yourself and not spawning, if you go into the custom game section, there’s a handful of maps we flagged as playable. After the patch, you’ll be able to play all the custom user content you want. And with spawning, when you’re playing with friends [with the full edition], you essentially have all the game available.”

Womack explained that their goal is not to make StarCraft free, but to expand its audience. They want it to be a game shared between friends, not just competitive RTS die-hards.

That also means making sure people get lots of reasons to play StarCraft 2 besides the core game. Where the StarCraft 2 Arcade was previously a playground for paid-players, now the user-created offerings in the Arcade are open to everyone.

“This means your audience is as big as the number of PCs in the world that can run StarCraft, essentially,” Womack said. “Blizzard is not the gatekeeper, if you’re a creator, to the people you want to reach with your game. And if you’re a player, it might be you were having a great time in Arcade and wanted your friend to come, but it was too big a barrier to say, ‘Well, but first you have to buy StarCraft.’”

Blizzard are really pushing the Arcade as an option for amateur game creators. During the SC2 panel, one of the speakers pointed out that the editor now includes 14,000 models and 22,000 textures that creators are free to use.

Starcraft 2 Blizzard

“Having all of that to work with, all that kit, is of huge benefit if you’re going to start making games,” Womack said. “People are all about taking something that’s inspiring to them, a piece of art, a game, music, and picking it apart to make something new out of it. The experience of using the SC2 editor in Arcade is just like that.”

Helping game creators is another reason why Blizzard are opening up the Arcade to Starter Edition players, Womack explained. Not only do their games get access to a large audience, they also get feedback from that audience, and publicity if their games catch on and begin to be featured on Arcade.

The upshot for Blizzard seems primarily to be getting people playing more StarCraft. As I listened to the SC2 panel and chatted with Womack later, I found myself flashing back to progamer and streamer Steven “Destiny” Bonnell’s rant from almost a year ago. He’d said that by making ranked play the centerpiece of the game, Blizzard had overlooked the main reason behind games like Brood War’s and Warcraft 3’s popularity. They were fun for casual players, and offered countless ways to kill time and hang out with friends. StarCraft 2.1 is an effort to get back to that.