The 90s was a pivotal decade for Real-Time Strategy games. Thanks to advancements in technology and the medium’s growing global popularity, several companies were able to dedicate a lot more resources to their products. This allowed two upstart developers, Westwood Studios and Blizzard Entertainment, to dictate what an RTS game should contain and how they will evolve overtime. Both were in direct competition for a while with Westwood’s Command & Conquer going toe-to-toe with Blizzard’s Warcraft. Their content and style were completely different, but gameplay was similar enough that one could easily have been a fan of both. Eventually other companies hopped onto the bandwagon and it wasn’t immediately clear which developer could claim dominance. Then 1998 rolled around and Blizzard quite handily showed its competition that they had this genre down to a science.
StarCraft came at the tail-end of this sudden RTS boom, and it quickly grew to become one of the industry’s most popular franchises. Pre-release buzz for it was understandably huge. WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness, which came three years prior, was a monumental release that permanently put Blizzard in the category of gaming elite. Fans were very eager to see what Blizzard had in store for them next. Then you have the fact that StarCraft was an entirely new property set to take place in deep space during the 26th century. It was an instant hit, likely because putting WarCraft’s innovative gameplay into space was a brilliant idea. This has paid off in dividends for Blizzard as StarCraft is now their principal RTS game with World of WarCraft dominating MMORPG’s. The recent expansion to StarCraft II, Legacy of the Void, is proof too that this series is still going strong.
It’s pretty astounding how a very simple change made StarCraft stand above everything else. Before it came out, RTS games strictly featured two opposing sides. There was of course plenty of characters to control and tons of room for tactical growth, along with each force being fully fleshed out, but you were still tied to either one or the other. StarCraft surprised everyone by featuring three fully formed factions with their own benefits and drawbacks. There’s the Protoss, a race of aliens that are powerful but extremely costly. Their greatest strength is small numbers with immense firepower. On the other side of the spectrum are the Zerg, horrific creatures that trade their cheap value for less power. One on its own is easily to kill, so the tactic there is to make as many as you can to overwhelm your opponents with sheer numbers. Lastly, since it’s almost a requirement to include people, there are the Terrans, human forces that occupy the middle ground. Terran’s are great for beginners and experts alike. Finding your niche force and capitalizing on that was necessary for victory.
What’s important about these three distinct races is that no single one is the best. Blizzard keeps their game as balanced as possible, making it so skilled playing can overcome someone who believes they just picked the better side. This is vital considering how popular StarCraft has become with multiplayer. Millions across the globe have played StarCraft competitively with South Korea as the unequivocal hub. StarCraft is the national e-sport in this country, and professional gamers there are considered big time celebrities. Competitive matches are broadcast across major television networks with the best players receiving company sponsorship. Salaries of these lucky individuals can actually hit six figures annually. It’s a pretty big deal! Fanaticism for this game was so great, it prompted Blizzard to keep it running for 12 years straight with regular updates and one expansion, Brood War. Only World of Warcraft is close to beating that record, and it was kept afloat with many more enhancements.
That almost wasn’t the case though. Way back in 2002, only four years after StarCraft took the world by storm, Blizzard tried to change its formula with StarCraft: Ghost. The game was planned as a third-person shooter starring a Terran espionage operative named Nova, the titular ghost. Fans were extremely excited for this release with many pre-ordering the game right off its initial announcement. Development was in full force too. Trailers were released showcasing some incredible cinematics, the campaign and multiplayer features were really detailed, and Nova had a complete backstory. All signs pointed to this game becoming a reality…and then all news ceased. Blizzard stopped providing updates and the release date was indefinitely postponed. It wouldn’t be until 2014 that the game was officially cancelled, finally ending hope of a late release.
How could a game that had so much behind it suddenly get dropped? It’s pretty easy to see when you take into account that World of WarCraft came in 2004. Right when Ghost was supposed to get the care it needed, WarCraft became bigger than ever by changing into an MMORPG. The success was unprecedented and suddenly that game received top priority. Ghost was never intended to be a total sequel either. Blizzard began working on StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty in 2003, eventually releasing the game to massive critical acclaim seven years later. With the sequel to one of their biggest properties and the game that would become one of the largest in history on their plate, Blizzard simply couldn’t keep Ghost afloat. Would Ghost have changed StarCraft the way WoW revolutionized WarCraft? It’s doubtful, but there’s nothing wrong with exploring StarCraft’s deep history through a different lens.
Growing up, I had a reputation for loving video games (shocker!). People recognized my “ability” to dump hours of my day into gaming without even batting an eyelash. So when I would tell people that I just couldn’t grasp StarCraft, they were all very surprised. I was open to every genre, but RTS games never meshed with me for whatever reason. My attempts to play StarCraft were frequently met with failure and, at times, deep frustration. Fortunately, that didn’t stop close friends from inviting me to StarCraft focused birthday parties. They were always more than accommodating of my skill level and happy to just include me, a courtesy I’m still very thankful for.
Despite not starting out as such, StarCraft is now Blizzard’s flagship RTS series. WarCraft has long since abandoned its roots for the much more profitable realm of online RPGs. While there are rumblings of a new WarCraft RTS game at some point in the future, there’s no way that it can ever hold a candle to what StarCraft has become. Legacy of the Void has received immensely positive reviews and the sequel has done an excellent job bringing what made the original such a success into this current age. It’s amazing that people were (are) still actively playing a late 90s game, but that’s just further proof that Blizzard knows the benefits of maintaining rather than completely recreating every step of the way. If history is any indication, we should look forward to StarCraft III in at least 2020. I’m sure the first StarCraft will still be very active then.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television editor. Every Saturday afternoon you can read his video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.