As a writer for TeamLiquid and passionate Starcraft fan, I have a vested interest in the continued popularity of the best game in the world: Starcraft 2. Most of the video game world, however, thinks that another game is the best in the world: Call of Duty. It is the undisputable leader in terms of modern franchise sales, game time logged, and growth speed. Before the days of yearly releases and Activision becoming an example of an evil corporation, Modern Warfare was the hardcore gamer fix. From there it became the fix of the casual audience as well, becoming a worldwide phenomenon. A simple google search of “call of duty 4 sales” tells the story, watching as sales passed 7million, then 10, and settling on 13 million sales. Just a few years later, Black Ops would sell 1 billion dollars’ worth of software, “outpacing theatrical box office, book and video game sales records for five-day worldwide sales” (ibtimes). So, Call of Duty is a pretty big deal. Parents know about it, kids know about it, and everyone in between knows about it. Right now, we are blissfully ignoring this console behemoth; rather than trying to learn from it, we are content to keep things years in the past. The purpose of this article will be to point out the things that Starcraft could learn from Call of Duty to create a more sustainable and popular future. Things we could inherit from Call of Duty include, its ranking system, accessibility, its unlock system, and its brief campaign. Please keep in mind that the main reason most people dislike Call of Duty now is for its annual release schedule with little change from game to game; this does not contradict, however, the revolutionary things that this franchise did to take over Halo as the biggest household name in gaming.
The ranking system in Starcraft is outdated and poorly designed for growth in player numbers. Halo 3 was the last blockbuster game release to feature a ranking system based directly on player skill, and there’s a reason for that. When implementing a ranking system, you must ask yourself, what are we incentivizing? Call of Duty’s ranking system, and most games since its release, incentivize playtime over skill.
To take a brief example, I am a rank 52 on Battlefield 3 with a score/minute of 461 and 120 hours played. My friend Zach is a level 40 with a score/minute of 185 (276 less than mine) and 115 hours played. As you can see, skill plays a very small roll in ranking, as I’ve pulled ahead only about 12 levels. Despite not being very good at the game, Zach still feels incentivized to play, only trailing a few levels behind me. The game is not deranking him for bad matches where he doesn’t get any kills and it’s not punishing him for mediocre gameplay. For him, it's not a question of rank going down, he just has to play a little longer to make up for it.
Call of Duty (and most modern games) do this incentivizing of game time over player skill, and this is essential to allowing a community to grow around a game. Starcraft, due mostly to its unnatural control scheme, is already extremely intimidating to approach. When you are immediately placed into a league after your first 5 matches, and can even get demoted from there, that pressure is even further exfoliated. How do players respond to this added pressure? They just stop playing. The vast majority of users take little interest in jumping in feet first to a system where player skill is the main determinant of rank, it makes learning too hard and too full of pressure.
As another example, I was a level 46 on Halo 3’s game mode Lone Wolf. After a certain point, I just couldn’t play anymore. I had hit the level where if I didn’t spend a considerable amount of time and thought trying to improve, I would just continue deranking. So how did I respond? I stopped playing. Now that I’m in masters division, I play less Starcraft than I ever have. My friend recently got promoted from platinum to diamond, and also plays less than ever. Most people do not have the pro player drive to be the best, that's what make the pros the pros. A ranking system based more on time than skill means that you can hit a skill cap, and continue to be happy with your performance.
In the end, most people want playing a game to be a mix of fun with challenge, and rankings based on skill suck the fun out of it, turning the game into homework. When you rank up with time over skill, your rank can never go down, and means that everyone can improve at their own pace. I also want to add here for clarification that MMR would still be the determinant factor on matchmaking, that number (MMR) would just be hidden while a displayed number would be based more heavily on time played.
Call of Duty is so successful because it pairs its time related leveling system with rapid unlocks, so even the worst player feels as though they are working towards something. Starcraft currently has 5 "unlocks", silver, gold, platinum, diamond, and masters. Most players need to feel as though they are unlocking cool things in order to keep playing. Some practical ideas for Starcraft unlocks off the top of my head are maps, custom game types, and unit/weapon skins. Unlocks for everything from killing a certain number of terran units to defending a certain number of cloak banshee rushes should be awarded to give the player constant feedback. Imagine the feeling a new player gets when they unlock a new missle turret skin for shutting down their 10th cloak banshee rush.
Call of Duty was even brilliant in its execution of “prestiging.” When you prestige in Call of Duty, you get a new ranking symbol in exchange for starting over on your unlocks. The popularity of this system shows two things: first, people really care about their symbol, even if it’s not very meaningful, and second, it allows for an almost infinite number of unlocks, as the player is choosing to unlock everything all over again.
People care a lot about meaningless numbers tied to arbitrary unlocks, and that's not a bad thing. It's something that we need to exploit so that newer players can get into the game. Heck, a lot of people even pay actual money for things like costumes and weapon skins.
Robust Replay, Party, and Gametype Systems
Since the release of Call of Duty, we have had many revolutions in user accessibility, all of which Starcraft seems to have ignored. Replay saving and sharing is a standard, including editing clips and taking pictures from them. I can’t remember the last game that didn’t have a party system with party chat, match searching, lobby hopping, and auto searching into the next map. If games are released now with less than three or four different game types, they are brutally assaulted in reviews for not having more options.
First, a robust replay system is essential for incentivizing trying new things. The throwing knife on Call of Duty is in almost no way preferential to a grenade, and yet many players still use it. Why? It’s so that they can create a unique clip to share with their friends of “oh my god, guys we have to watch this after the match!” The equivalent here is something like planetary fortress rushing. Simply having a replay system in place that has easy to share clips incentivizes doing unique strategies. In Starcraft, the moment is even more exhilarating, as the person who is executing a planetary fortress rush serves as both easy wins and fun losses for their opponents. Everyone is happier with a better replay system of sharing, lobby viewing, and clip editing.
Second, Starcraft makes playing with friends a chore. Once you get everyone into a party you have to search a match only when everyone is completely ready, and then continue doing that over and over again just to play a few games. This system encourages only playing 3 or 4 games in a row before people decide they're too tired or want to play something else. I remember my days of playing Call of Duty late into the night because the next match or round starts automatically, not giving you time to even think about quitting. It doesn't ask you if you’re ready, it doesn’t kick you to an outside lobby after every game, the partys just roll over and the next game starts. Starcraft has a real opportunity to get a flow like this going, imagine you join a game set to a best of 13, mixed game modes, and just keep playing, I don't know if I'd ever get to bed on time again.
I think this is a bad use of this meme, but it's how their community feels, and rightly so
Finally, having only the options of 1v1, 2v2, etc., and FFA is almost inexcusable. While these modes bread a competitive multiplayer, they do not breed a fun multiplayer. Where are the fun and different game types? Right now, alternative game modes are completely reliant upon the fans to make. There should be matchmaking for Desert Strike, Monobattles, and Marine Arena, there should be game modes that include all of them, even a mode where you and a friend can play a mix of custom games and the standard game in a best of 9 against another team. Players need variety, and Blizzard has ignored everything but the most basic implementation of the standard game.
A Smaller Campaign
All of the things I discussed above require a large amount of work, and Blizzard is a company with limited resources. In my mind, the campaign goals set by Blizzard for Starcraft 2 have been far too lofty. IGN’s review sums up most reviewers opinion of Starcraft pretty well “It's not a step forward for the genre, exactly, but StarCraft II is still one of the most polished, finely crafted and well presented real-time strategy games available.” As much work as Blizzard puts into its campaign, it will never be what truly revolutionizes and makes Starcraft more popular than other games. People may come for the single player, but what keeps them around is the multiplayer. While most games have been trending towards a 6 hour campaign “sweet spot,” Starcraft 2 aimed for a 15-20 hour length. The problem is that now a days most people don’t want a game that long. Sure, I enjoy having a long campaign because I, like all of you, absolutely love Starcraft; but at the same time, I would never play a 20 hour campaign of Call of Duty, a game I at least moderately enjoy. I’m guessing that most people don’t finish the campaign, and multiplayer serves as a much better game extender.
The way you keep the campaign short and satisfying is simple, Wings of Liberty’s story, without a lot of the arbitrary side stuff (Tosh, saving the colony, etc.), could probably be told in about 6 hours. You’ll notice that the single player of WOL has many of the things that the multiplayer should have, a lobby hub area, upgradable buildings, and unique game modes. I can’t entirely blame Blizzard for a lack of multiplayer unlocks because so much effort went into the single player; I do believe, however, that this is a misallocation of resources.
I know that the Starcraft series is the best series ever made, and I love it just as much as anyone else. The problem is that the game ignores many of the things that have made modern games more accessible and fun for everyone. I’m not saying that we need yearly releases or subscription services, I’m saying that we need to pay attention to a 5 year old game that revolutionized the video game industry. Our ranking system needs to change, we need unlocks, shorter campaigns, and a more accessible system. I want Starcraft to be the leader of E-sports, but it needs to be a popular game in order to that, and in this case, we have to learn from the best.
Some practical considerations:
1. In terms of ranking, of course you keep an MMR going in the background, the shown ranking just has very little correlation to it
2. The pro players should still be segmented and ranked in a special way, a special separate ladder once you hit a high enough MMR would be really cool, especially because it would be a surprise if you were good enough to unlock it
3. With a focus on time based rankings, you can still show a win/loss ratio and no one is ashamed, because the focus isn’t only on skill
4. Obviously nothing gameplay altering can be unlocked, things like weapon/unit skins, decals, custom maps, and certain game modes seem to be the way to go
5. There would need to standards set for professional matches (perhaps unlocks could carry over B.net though, imagine Idra gets a special rage skin or something)
6. Unlocks probably can’t be as rapid as in other games.
7. Perhaps a better AI needs to be built in order to make a player leaving early okay