This interview was conducted with site reader Southern Cross and formed the basis of a publication in the Polish-language game magazine LAG.* While the answers have been checked for grammar, spelling, and other errors, they are otherwise unedited. In-text links and citations have been added for reference. The interview was conducted in February of 2013 and withheld until publication of the subsequent article was finalized.
Southern Cross: Why was it StarCraft that gained so much popularity, and not, let’s say, Total Annihilation or one of Command and Conquer games?
Michael Lowell: There’s two reasons, the major reason being Battle.net. Unlike most of the popular real-time strategy games of the day (Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, Command and Conquer: Red Alert, Total Annihilation), StarCraft got the benefit of a centralized, company-endorsed online gaming service at the time of its release. Warcraft II and Command and Conquer were played through popular third-party services like Kali, but they simply couldn’t get the same exposure as “online gaming service coded and built directly into the game client”. (For instance, 1995’s Warcraft II would not be adopted for Battle.net until 1999, long after the rest of the genre had stolen its thunder.)
The other being that, as a product, StarCraft has an extremely low barrier of entry. What do I mean by “product”? Well, in spite of what the community will tell you, StarCraft is a strategically simple real-time strategy game. The appeal of StarCraft lies in its well-developed tactical component and its extremely fast action. When compared to StarCraft, the complexity of games like Total Annihilation and Settlers 3 seems absolutely terrifying. I would also argue that StarCraft‘s single-player game mode was very conservative and introduced new concepts very slowly, making it easy for beginner players to learn the basics. (For this reason, I think the StarCraft single-player campaign is overrated and has way too much hand-holding. But for beginners, it works.) But in addition, StarCraft also shipped with an excellent official map editor. And when players began creating their own content for use on Battle.net, that further lowered the barrier of entry. If the base multiplayer modes were too complex, then players could play anything that the community created.
So I think that just snowballed. It’s lazy to go with the popular game journalism narrative that StarCraft is the best real-time strategy game ever, because I don’t think it is. Ultimately, StarCraft was not just a real-time strategy game. It was also a content engine built around a global gaming service, and I think Blizzard just happened to release the game at the right time. It was the first real-time strategy game the company had released since Warcraft II, coming off the heels of their popular Diablo at a time when online multiplayer was coming into huge demand, and boom. StarCraft became a huge hit, and Battle.net ensured that it would have legs.
SC: We (more or less) know what the cultural and economical reasons for StarCraft boom in Korea were. But how could the professional players hypnotize the general public with their play? Can you tell me why StarCraft was so appealing to watch, how could a video game have two dedicated cable TV channels in its heyday, how could a gamer become a celebrity?
ML: As I already mentioned, StarCraft‘s strategy component is fairly simple. This keeps the game from overwhelming spectators who only have a rudimentary knowledge of the game. Also, there isn’t a lot of specialized information which needs to be understood in order to watch others play the game. Zerglings shred things with their claws, and claws hurt. Psionic Storm shoots lightning, and lightning hurts. (This is an important reason that Warcraft III had difficulty getting traction with spectators. You had to know what the spells, abilities, and systems did in order to understand their effect on the outcome of the game. This is also a problem which plagues the Defense of the Ancients subgenre.) In addition, the visual feedback in a game like StarCraft is extremely obvious. Sprites are drawn with sharp black outlines, and when they die, they usually explode in puddles of bright red blood, bright blue goo, or just blow up. Important identifying details are not difficult to discern in the heat of a large battle.
But within the genre, StarCraft is a notable example of the “soft-counter” system. Obviously, the real-time strategy genre is built around a rock-paper-scissors counter system. And in most real-time strategy games, flashing scissors usually gives you an indisputable advantage against paper. Look at a basic matchup between Lurkers and Marines. Lurkers were introduced into StarCraft: Brood War as a direct counter to massed Marines. And for the most part, Lurkers do an excellent job of discouraging frontal assaults featuring lots of low-health units. However, as we all know, the Lurker’s attack travels in a slow line. So, with enough tactical skill, a skilled Terran player can simply dodge the Lurker Spines and defeat the Lurkers with his Marines. Countless similar matchups exist: Vultures versus Dragoons, Mutalisk versus Scourge, Zealots versus Hydralisks, Marines versus Zerglings. This keeps things interesting for spectators. As spectators, they can see which sides both units are making. And while proper unit composition will always give one player an advantage, both players still have to execute and perform at the tactical level in order to come out on top. This makes every engagement interesting because no outcome is in doubt. And when an engagement concludes, it’s usually easy to make a judgment and determine who got the better of the situation.
And also, the demands for skilled play in action-oriented real-time strategy games are visually evident. The difference between a competent amateur and a professional player is striking. When playing StarCraft and other Blizzard real-time strategy games, my Actions Per Minute usually runs in the 150-200 range, and when I compare my output to the salaried players, I feel like I’m moving at half-speed. That’s because I am, and that’s fairly damn terrifying. So you can imagine how somebody who has only played StarCraft a couple of times feels when they see players executing nearly perfect tactics with a two-hundred-supply army. The first thought is, “Holy crap, these guys are fast!” There’s no doubt that these guys are good at what they do.
SC: What do you think were the most fascinating things about StarCraft scene in the golden age of Brood War?
ML: The crowds. No question. By Western standards, big-time professional StarCraft should have been utterly ridiculous. Look at the details. You have players donning jumpsuits featuring the decals and advertisements of some of the biggest corporations in South Korea. They play for teams which are sponsored by those same Korean corporations. They’re being introduced in elaborate television openings which rival the production values of major sporting broadcasts. And yet, you have tens of thousands of people coming out to cheer these guys on, and a large percentage of the audience is women. You have women coming out in droves to watch video game tournaments in-part because they think the participants are cute and their line of work is attractive. (All the while, the players are playing in soundproof booths and can’t hear any of the sheer energy being directed towards them.) That’s absolutely crazy. I mean, people are watching video games as a spectator endeavor to this day, but the KeSPA tournaments just had an unrivaled scope. Paid attendance or not, you had 120,000 people come out to watch the 2005 SKY Pro League Finals.
I think the best way to surmise it is: The Koreans were absolutely enthralled and enamored with this stuff, so it was okay for you to do the same. It was okay to believe. I haven’t seen any video game tournaments which have provided that same feeling.
SC: What would you say are the most important reasons for casual interest in StarCraft seeing a steep decline? How does that affect the eSports scene?
ML: I’ve heard a couple of people make the argument that real-time strategy games are stuck in the same rut that the fighting game genre was a decade ago. Basically, developers were making excellent, excellent games that were exploring the outer reaches of the fighting game model (the Guilty Gear series being the best example), but they were doing it at the expense of the casual fans that are supposed to become tomorrow’s serious players. The games just got too hard for most people. (For all the praise given to Street Fighter III: Third Strike, it would be nine full years before Capcom released a new Street Fighter game. Think about that.)
I don’t really accept the argument that real-time strategy games got too hard. StarCraft II is conceptually similar to the 1998 original, and that game sold eleven million copies. What do I think happened? The DotA clones happened. Being a subgenre of real-time strategy, they require a fairly similar skill set. But at the same time, the DotA clones possess a much lower barrier of entry than real-time strategy games. There may be a lot of items, characters, and spells that have to be understood and memorized, but it’s a game where you control a single unit, a game whose mechanical demands bear many comparisons to point-and-click Action-RPGs like Diablo. Essentially, the large audiences who play the DotA clones are the people who, ten years ago, would have bought StarCraft and Warcraft III for the custom game content.
And what happened to custom content in StarCraft II? Battle.net 2.0 strikes again! I mean, the user base had to spend months petitioning for chat rooms. And then Rob Pardo makes an ass of himself and asks people, “Do you really want chat rooms?” How does “No Chat Rooms” create community? And on top of that, the system for creating and hosting custom content was dreadful. It’s the kind of design philosophy you expect from a modern corporate notion of intellectual property, a design philosophy which screams “Battle.net for consoles”. Battle.net 2.0 eliminated all of the things that made Blizzard strategy games appealing to players who had little interest in “competitive” multiplayer modes, the same players who bought the game for the single-player campaign and the custom game content, the same players who may have been willing to watch professional StarCraft with a passing interest.
I will admit this is not a totally original argument. Steven Bonnell (Destiny) is the first person I saw make this argument and I defer most of the credit to him. I didn’t think about this because I very rarely play these custom games. However, I had a very similar experience with the StarCraft II team game types. Like a lot of people, I prefer to play the StarCraft series in a one-versus-one format. However, I like to play team game modes in order to “cool down” or “relax” after a series of tough matches. The problem? The high lethality of units in the StarCraft game model lends itself to hyper-aggressive play in team gametypes, and the result is that StarCraft team games tend to be unplayable. They’re boring. Blizzard did nothing to fix this problem in StarCraft II, and I just got sick of the team game modes. I’m sure that I’m not the only one.
I do think that the community is partially to blame for this. On the Battle.net Forums, any plea to fix team games or make team games playable was usually met with “Team game modes aren’t meant to be taken seriously, anyway.” And what kind of asinine response is that? The entire modern multiplayer movement is built around team and co-operative game modes. You’ve got Halo, Call of Duty, Gears of War, Defense of the Ancients, Team Fortress 2, Minecraft, World of Warcraft. And it’s not like real-time strategy games are absent from this. Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne, Supreme Commander, and Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings all have excellent team game modes. (That doesn’t even include real-time tactics games like World in Conflict, Men of War: Assault Squad, and Wargame: European Escalation.) And I’m being told that StarCraft II can’t have a competent team game mode because “team games don’t matter”? Well, there’s your problem. StarCraft II is only appealing to those who are interested in playing the mentally demanding one-versus-one game mode. And when it comes time to count the number of spectators, it’s showing.
SC: It seems to be a trend to switch from SC to MOBA games. What do you make of it?
ML: At least in my own circle of readers and players, it’s not a well-kept secret that I don’t really care much for games like Defense of the Ancients. I won’t say that I loathe them, but I think there are much better variants of RTS games out there. (Herzog Zwei would be my go-to example, but Command and Conquer: Renegade is another excellent example.) Now, I can certainly understand the appeal of Defense of the Ancients if your body of game experience is rooted in Action-RPGs like Diablo or MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. In a lot of ways, the DotA subgenre can be thought of as a versus multiplayer hybrid of those two genres. However, I’ve been playing real-time strategy games for twenty years, and I consider Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne one of my favorite games of all-time. It is utterly impossible for me to view DotA clones as anything but a simplification of the game model laid out in Warcraft III. You control one hero unit, and everything else (unit construction and your economy) is automated. My grievances with the DotA clones actually run far deeper than that, but that’s the core sticking point.
Normally, I have no issue with a competing design philosophy. However, that competing philosophy has completely cannibalized the sales of real-time strategy games. Let’s make this clear: This is not a StarCraft II problem. This is a genre problem. But thanks in-part to a game development climate where it costs millions of dollars to make anything vaguely resembling a “Triple A” video game, the companies with the resources to make top-notch real-time strategy games are looking for the highest-margin products, and they’re choosing to make their own DotA clones. Ironclad Games (Sins of a Solar Empire) is making one, Gas Powered Games (Supreme Commander, Supreme Commander 2) was working on its second DotA clone, Blizzard keeps teasing Blizzard All-Stars, and it seems fairly likely that “Warcraft IV” will end up being a DotA clone. Everyone else seems to be moving towards real-time tactics (Command and Conquer 4, End of Nations) and stripping out base construction entirely. It’s disappointing.
SC: What are the other eSports trends right now, positive and negative? What is the mood of eSports fans, how do they see the future?
ML: Honestly, I love the idea that people are interested in professional video game tournaments. I’ve heard some arguments that there are better pursuits than becoming the best at a video game. However, I take the point of view that you do what you enjoy, and as long as you’re not hurting others by taking up that pursuit, do what you like. I don’t really care. Is there anything wrong with creating another outlet where people can earn a degree of celebrity status because of the crazy things they can do with their mind? I’m okay with that. As a game critic, these guys help make my job easier. They give me a vast body of knowledge to examine and analyze. Why would I object to that?
That said, I think that this pursuit of becoming the best at a single video game is causing people to lose perspective of the medium. I get an impression players have convinced themselves that games like DotA 2, League of Legends, and StarCraft II are fundamentally unlike anything which has been seen in the forty-year commercial history of the business. Effectively, the argument is that this combination of widely-spectated video game tournaments, salaried players, persistent developer support, and ‘highly competitive player base’ have created a series of games which are immune to the rules and tenets of traditional game criticism. Therefore, you’re not allowed to criticize the game unless you’ve played it at a high level. Therefore, you’re not allowed to cast judgment unless you’ve played 100+ hours. That’s just bullshit. Yes, “games as spectator sport” are gradually becoming more popular in the West, and its a fairly interesting phenomenon. But StarCraft II is a real-time strategy game and I judge its quality against other real-time strategy games. DotA 2 is a video game and I judge its quality against other relevant games. When I cast my opinion on the quality of a video game, whether or not people are being paid to play the game seventy hours a week is irrelevant to me. Yes, you’re entitled to be a “StarCraft expert” or a “DotA expert”, but when it comes time to judge these games against the rest of the medium, leave those judgments to “video game experts”.
SC: Do you believe that Heart of the Swarm is going to change the tide for Blizzard, if only a little? Could they do anything to bring back the glory days of Korea SC craze right now?
ML: Honestly, I believe South Korean professional StarCraft II is a lost cause. That disappoints me, because the game is the current figurehead for one of my favorite genres. I want the game to succeed so companies will make more real-time strategy games. But we’ve already talked about that a little bit. I don’t know what Blizzard can do. I think StarCraft II is a flawed game, and I think Heart of the Swarm needed to make the kind of overhaul that The Frozen Throne made for Warcraft III. But even if it did, what new audiences would that attract? Nobody. It’s tough to convince people that they should pay forty dollars for an expansion pack when they can play League of Legends or DotA 2 for free. I think Heart of the Swarm will revive some interest in StarCraft II, I think players will return to see if the game has become more interesting, and then they’ll go back to playing something else.
However, I think that professional StarCraft in South Korea was going to decline, anyway. It was inevitable. The die-hards on both sides of the ocean would have stuck it out to the very end, but the screaming crowds of Korean girls would have moved on. From what I have read, the gambling scandal took a fairly miserable toll on the circuit. But this also is a medium where technological process comes extremely quickly, and with every passing year, it becomes more and more difficult to sell the public on a “sport” which plays out at a 640×480 resolution. Blizzard Entertainment would have been compelled to release a high-definition version of StarCraft: Brood War at some point in the future…which is basically what the company did, anyway. Only it was called StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty.
I will just say one thing, and I know this is going to be controversial. I think Blizzard Entertainment is the party most responsible for the decline of professional StarCraft. I believe that, in conjunction with the Battle.net 2.0 gaming service, StarCraft II was part of a business strategy to consolidate control of their games under Blizzard jurisdiction and copyright. I believe that the Korean e-Sports Players Association (the governing body for South Korean professional StarCraft) posed a threat to that jurisdiction and copyright. I believe that South Korean professional Brood War posed a threat to the success of StarCraft II in that critical Korean market. And I think that in order to eliminate both of these problems, Blizzard Entertainment called the legality of the South Korean StarCraft tournaments into question and launched their own authorized StarCraft II tournaments in order to destabilize KeSPA’s core attraction. That’s what I genuinely believe. And in the end, none of it mattered, because the South Koreans don’t really care for StarCraft II, anyway. Blizzard replaced an established, entrenched, culturally-significant spectator endeavor with an imitation product. And the reception is only going to become more and more ugly as League of Legends continues to run away with the viewership.