Sunday, June 16, 2024

Starcraft Remastered – A love letter to balance

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Starcraft’s getting a remastered version! This is very exciting news, if you’re a fan of real-time strategy games. Although some readers are probably wondering why Starcraft needs a remastered version if it only just came out.

I’m referring to the original Starcraft, Starcraft 1, or Brood War…the old Starcraft. Although, Starcraft 2 is getting old now too, isn’t it? One of the main faces of Battlenet, it’s been five years since its first iteration and it continues to go through a lot of patches, updates, and sometimes even improvements.

Did I say BattleNet? I meant Blizzard. Blizzard is the company that makes things like Warcraft and Diablo. BattleNet was their service for online gaming, but now they’re just calling it “Blizzard”, since everything is online now anyway and they shouldn’t confuse people with multiple words for their game client. The times are changing, but the coming of a remastered Starcraft is very good news for nostalgic gamers.

Why am I nostalgic for Starcraft? Well, old games are sort of my area, being a very slow gamer. I’m an extraordinarily lazy gamer. Everybody’s running around, having strange sorts of fun in Breath of the Wild and Mass Effect: Andromeda. But I still gotta finish Mass Effect 3. I got lost in the multiplayer, logged a thousand hours, and never got around to beating the game. Don’t pressure me. I’ll get to it. It’ll probably take another thousand hours.

I haven’t gotten off that freaky first planet, uh, that Earth one.

Okay, I don’t play many games outside of my comfort zone. This way, I can never fail. Remember, don’t do anything new because then nobody can hurt you. Starcraft has always been in my comfort zone, ever since it came out. Which wasn’t that long ago. Well maybe it was. I’m not old, if anybody’s old, it’s you.

Starcraft came out like two decades ago, back in 1998. It received an expansion called “Brood War”, and a few patches to fix a few balance things and the normal glitches and stuff. This is back when patches were optional if you just chose to never hop on to Battlenet to fight other humans.

Not everybody has played Starcraft, so let’s go through some background as to why this was such a definitive game for Blizzard and RTS games in general.

Starcraft came without a historical background or fantasy theme. It didn’t draw upon an established narrative; instead, we were thrown into a different galaxy with no particular frame of reference. The story felt as new and futuristic as the technology and the characters. It wasn’t polished like Star Trek or mystical like Star Wars, but it felt like outer space with aliens ranging from awe-inspiring to terrifying. And of course, it came with those good old rule books that had like, art and stuff. We don’t get those anymore. No more CDs, no more CD cases, no more random extra materials with funky art that you’re not sure ever appeared in the game….

I still don’t know who this dude is.

The real part I want to focus on is the gameplay. Starcraft set itself apart in a lot of ways, but it got to the top of the competitive gaming scene (and the top of my heart) through its consistent balance and capacity for strategic play. Like other real-time strategy games, you would gather resources, build up an army, and then kill everybody. Unlike other RTS games, it had three unique factions to choose from. And not just unique like what had come before. What had come before? I have to explain a lot of old stuff just to get to my point.

A contemporary of Starcraft was the Microsoft game Age of Empires. It was released some months before Starcraft and was a lot of fun for everybody, letting you build up ancient armies and kill your friends with them. Age of Empires evolved in sort of a parallel manner to Starcraft, getting sequels and improvements and even its own remastered version on steam these days.

Battle of the Anachronisms

There were about a dozen different civilizations you could play as; compared to the 3 races of Starcraft, you would think that Age of Empires would have the edge in diverse gameplay. However, in AOE, the uniqueness of the factions was not due to different units. Every single civilization had the same tech tree, the same soldiers, the same towns. The differences were in what technologies or units they might be missing, or what bonuses they got. They weren’t unique, they were just a little different. And it was not noticeable. Oh, I’m sure there’s a few experts in my audience who insist that one civ is clearly overpowered or broken or whatever. But was it noticeable the first time you played it? The second time? The fiftieth time? Or only after you had mastered the game?

It didn’t really affect your play style if you didn’t know that your archers were getting +1 attack against buildings as this civ, or that your workers cost 15 less food as this other civilization. As a beginner, you probably wouldn’t even notice these differences. It certainly was not important in playing against the computer (though as always, PVP is an entirely different animal.) In Starcraft, the differences between the factions were in your face from the beginning: unavoidably affecting how you played the game from the first time you play it.

This probably isn’t a human base.

Starcraft was designed from the beginning to have incredibly unique factions. This was partially due to Blizzard trying to get away from their previous title, Warcraft. It apparently wasn’t enough to change one or two letters in the title. The designers had to get CRAFTIER.

Blizzard’s Warcraft, much like Microsoft’s Age of Empires, had factions that were basically identical. You might have a human footman, and I’d have an orc grunt, but they had just about the same stats. Unless you care about a difference of 1 or two damage, it wasn’t noticeable at the beginner level. It was cosmetic. Nobody in the history of the world has cared about differences on the cosmetic level.

For a differing opinion, see “The entire history of the world”

Starcraft started out the same way, in its design phases. But after being told the game just looked like “Warcraft in space,” they decided to rework it from the ground up. The factions weren’t different enough, so they pulled it apart and got creative. When they finally released it, the three factions of protoss, zerg and terran were radically different from each other. When a beginner sits down to play as terran, they would absolutely have to play differently than when they play as zerg.

The game forces you to place buildings differently as protoss, and everything is grown from the same central hive as Zerg, not trained at factories as other factions. Each was intrinsically unique: it wasn’t just a reskinning of another. The theme permeated every aspect of the game, from resource management to base-building to obliterating your enemies. This wasn’t like Age of Empires, where you could get by without noticing the differences. You were reminded of who you were playing every time you clicked on a soldier, a little zerg creature, or a psionic warrior.

Let’s play “Zerg? Or pasta?”

From the ground up, Starcraft looked like it would be absurdly unbalanced. Yes, I’m going to get into numbers, but I’m not going to go crazy. If you don’t like numbers or even the barest hint of math, just skip this section. I won’t judge you. Just skip to the part with the picture of the checkerboard now.

Aw yeah, baby. Look at those bad boys.

In Age of Empires, the first actual military unit you could get as you built up your cute little empire was an axeman. The dude cost 50 money. What kind of “money”? Go away, I’m keeping it simple, call it what you like. He did 5 damage, and had 50 hit points. So if an axeman whacked another axeman ten times, that guy is dead. 5 damage x 10 hits is 50. The end. Very simple.

Look at those beautiful, intuitive numbers. 50 money to 50 hit points to buy a guy who does 5 damage. Same basic thing in say, Warcraft. Doesn’t matter if you have a human swordsman or an orc axe grunt as your starting unit. They cost the same, and your opposing unit is about the same as you.

Now enter Starcraft. JUST the first unit. For Zerg, it’s a zergling. Simple so far, and what a creative name. Costs 50 money…great. They do 5 damage…so they’re an axeman. And they have 35 hitpoints, so they’re a weak axeman. And every time you buy one, you get two of them…Wait, what? Some sort of two-for-one sale is going on. That seems unbalanced. How can the other factions keep up? Well let’s look at what the next faction has.

Protoss zealot. 100 money…Okay wait. Already, Zerg is getting a two-for-one situation, and here Protoss is, with their very first military unit, costing twice as, quadruple as much. Not looking great. How much damage does he do? 16, okay, that seems high, but hey. He’s twice as expensive, so he should get twice as much damage. Wait, 16 is more than 3 times as much as 5. And they get 4 zerglings so he’s really 4 times as expensive. Wouldn’t they need 20 damage then?

You see how, already, the comparisons are falling apart? We can’t intuitively grasp how the units were designed. It was constructed in a linear sort of way for the earlier RTS games: This guy costs 50 and does 5, my enemy’s unit costs 50 and does 5. It’s clear-cut, but in Starcraft, your guy costs….25? And does 5? And mine costs 100 and does 16? Is that balanced? Are the protoss just wild like that?

Nah, this guy looks pretty chill

I’m struggling to explain the zealot’s damage. How’d they get to the number sixteen? It doesn’t fit into a nice, “double the price, double the damage” narrative either.

Let’s move on to their hit points. Zerglings had a strange number of 35, so what could this zealot guy have? Oh, 160. One-hundred and sixty hit points. This guy does sixteen damage to the poor zergling, who will be mauled in 3 hits. The zergling does 5 damage to this 160 HP heavyweight. 160/5 = 32 hits to kill the zealot. Well at least we’ve got four zerglings for the price of one zealot, right? So it’s probably balanced? I don’t know! It’s a dangerous sort of balance.

And wait, we’ve got one guy left, the human faction. Oh sorry, Terran. Whatever. Their basic guy. Costs 50 money. Okay. sounds simple, but we’ve been fooled before. How much damage? 6. Okay. unimpressive. Except it’s ranged. All these other examples were melee. As in, i gotta walk up to my enemy and touch them. This guy has a gun. Who brought a gun to a swordfight? The humans, of course. He’s got 40 hit points. So that’s not much more than a zergling, and we get two-for-one zerglings, remember? Is that balanced? Well this human dude has a gun, i mean, couldn’t he shoot them without ever being touched? I don’t know. You can’t tell from the numbers.

I can tell we need more space marines, though.

This is what I’d call a dangerous sort of balance. You can’t know for sure until you’re testing it. And it has to be balanced, because otherwise the players won’t have fun. You need to feel it’s balanced enough that your decisions make a difference—in an unbalanced game, the only decision that matters is picking the right team.

You’d have to be crazy to take a 160-hp unit, match it up against a 40 hp unit, and say, yeah. This looks good, ship it.

We haven’t even gotten into how these units are produced, or how upgrades increase their effectiveness, or how quickly they attack in this real-time sort of game. We have an entire army we could go through, examining every level, comparing the units that couldn’t possibly work together in the same game. But it did work. The game was balanced, or at least balanced enough to make you feel like it was strategy that decided the outcome of the game. Starcraft succeeded in an unprecedented sort of way for a strategy game.

Whatever happened to the days of simple, nicely-balanced games?

So when Blizzard publishes this remastered version, you can get into Starcraft for free—the original games, without the updated graphics, will be free to download. With the remastered version, they won’t be touching the gameplay, so all those wonderful statistics I described above will be the same. No changes, despite the years it’s been, because like I said, it’s sort of complicated.

You might think that they’ve probably learned something about how to improve the balance of the game, maybe take some of those units and tweak it a little bit? But I doubt anybody fully understands the ramifications of changing the Starcraft system at this point, and they would only alienate many classic (or lazy) gamers who like things to stay the same.

The other major improvement will be multiplayer matchmaking, bringing Starcraft remastered into the modern age of PvP. If you’ve never played Starcraft before, or if you’ve just lost track of it, or if you just find numbers inspiring, then maybe this summer is a good time to give RTS a shot.

this is really just a quick summary i didn’t even get into the romance of the attack-move command so count yourselves lucky

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment and EA Games

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