Preventing The StarCraft Dark Age
Part I: Setting the Scene
StarCraft: Remastered is above all else a good thing. It will do what it promised - bring StarCraft to a new generation of gamers. It will bring new blood and perhaps rekindle old flames. Yet it will not prepare players for the history they must face.
This release is only the beginning; the coming months will be crucial. A community framework needs to be revived after the initial coverage subsides, and new players need to be made aware that there is more to this old game than they might expect.
There are truths that will seem disingenuous to most, issues that can be seen clearly when taking the history of this game into account, to see it and the evolution it has undergone through the eyes of those of us that have witnessed the last two decades of Starcraft.
There is a potential worst case scenario looming. A reality in which too few players will get to know the context in which they will be required to brave this game. I’ve given this scenario the dramatic title of ‘The Starcraft Dark Age’ - in which the new generation of players will be stranded in the past, unable to move beyond their predecessors - the veterans still present today.
‘An Old School Hard-core Game.’
‘Archaic UI and Arbitrary Mechanical Skill.’
‘Near-Infinite Skill Ceiling.’
‘The Promise of Established, Long Standing, Professional Gaming.’
There is a problem I tried to face when writing this article, one that finds root in the current need for everything written to have a certain level of hyperbole.
When discussing StarCraft, there is an issue of scale.
Because of StarCraft’s age we are also dealing with historical facts competing with the “present day” practice of pandering to a player’s initial perception; there is too much StarCraft for it to fit in a single digestible paragraph or video. Current marketing and journalism only speak in extremes with no substance.
StarCraft’s extremes are very real indeed and they shape the foundation of its terminal flaws.
I am not here to sing StarCraft’s praises; I will let 20 years of history do that for me. I am not here to debate and compare, to explain the different ways in which Brood War is superior.
I am not here to live out an elitist fantasy of Brood War’s return to its rightful place in eSports.
Instead, you will note my eyes are filled with sorrow, for we have seen all of this before.
StarCraft died. It died in that way games tend to die, fading from the public eye.
Not once, but twice now this ‘perfect game’ has failed to hold an audience. Like an ancient city, it stands the test of time yet no families dwell within. A barren temple to greatness none attempt to equal.
Brood War lived longer than most and lived again thanks to the announcement of its sequel. The anticipation was enough to force an audience to attempt to brave it once more, preparing themselves for what was to come next.
Once StarCraft 2 was released, Brood War died again.
StarCraft 2 then tried to solve Brood War’s recurring flaw - retention. It tried and failed.
I don’t want to digress and talk about the sequel too much; this is not the place for another exhaustive comparison - what’s done is done. More interesting is StarCraft 2’s attempt to solve Brood War’s weakness.
Accessibility was first tagged as a potential issue. Older games were deemed limited by their engines. Their arbitrary difficulty seen as flaws easily remedied by current day design.
There is a sorrowful irony in StarCraft 2’s attempt. The “Quality of Life” improvements to the game and engine succeeded in making the game more accessible, but in doing so it made the game less forgiving and removed agency from the player. The more the game is automated, the fewer actions are necessary or beneficial. Smarter units, better control and larger groups meant units and abilities became more devastating.
In a pruned decision making tree, each branch becomes more important. Timings became minute, speed paramount, anything other than perfection punished.
In a way, StarCraft 2 became harder, individual styles less distinct - what was lost in depth was replaced by anxiety.
All this coincided with a paradigm shift in gaming culture.
There wasn’t just a shift - there was a schism. From this point on there was a strong divide between the casual and the competitive gamer. eSports was no longer a distant pipedream, it was made accessible for everyone. Tournaments were plenty and real money entered the scene. And so, things needed to be taken more seriously.
In the past the ‘competitive gamer’ was just a symptom of games, now they came to the forefront, a marketing target. Almost instantly the ‘casual gamer’ arose to oppose this new distinction.
Both sides equally militant, both sides imposing demands. The now interconnected online gaming community demanded clarity in the development of games - were games preparing for competition? To whose needs would they cater?
In the end, the casual gamer won. Unbeknownst to newer generations of competitive gamers - generations that never thought to look back and see what games used to provide - were losing more and more agency in exchange for accessibility.
Game knowledge gained substantial ground over pure mechanical skill. One no longer had to practice mechanics for months on end to be “competitive.” eSports didn’t seem to mind.
Class-based systems and focus on teamplay took the pressure away from the individual. A player’s class is not capable of all roles in the game and so there would be less to focus and improve on.
In this world StarCraft: Brood War suddenly stands as an ancient monolith with no context for people to get to know it again.
My point here is that we need understand that the reality of games has changed. StarCraft was made in a different time, and rather than it having found an audience it shaped its own.
Today we live in a world where the game conforms to the player. In StarCraft, the player conformed to the game.
Again, this article is not about glorifying these old values, my intent here is to warn you of what effect these values will have on the potential playerbase.
This is not elitism, this is not boasting that our game is perfect. On the contrary, it is a cry for help. StarCraft’s depth and complexity is what has driven it to extinction.
This is compounded by the gaming industry’s abandonment of Starcraft’s type of game, the “hard core” present day marketing seems to love so much.
I want nothing more than the continuation of the StarCraft community. I want nothing more than to see new players discover this game. I want casual players to have fun, as well as seeing competitive players push themselves to the limit.
However, while StarCraft is fully capable of providing both these things simultaneously, as it has proven since its inception and throughout the decades, I fear the game will break the spirit of players expecting a “normal” game before they are given a chance to truly understand the potential of what they will encounter.
We need to face this issue with earnest intent to change people’s preconceptions, as this will likely be the last chance we have to increase StarCraft’s player base outside of Korea.
Part II: The Issues We Face
This is where I will attempt to preempt some misconceptions or perhaps wrong approaches to Brood War. It operates on a very different logic than what most players are used to and a simple misunderstanding can lead to conflict and eventual abandonment of the game.
Starcraft: Remastered simply provides you with a way to experience this game again. It does not prepare you for the era this game originated in, nor does it impart you with the laws that have been etched in stone these last two decades.
1. Quality of Life
StarCraft: Remastered stands untouched and there is no need to fear that. It is open to all players, both casual and competitive, but it cannot change.
Blizzard was correct in not trying to change a single thing about the game other than the graphics - even the limits of those graphics are paramount to the integrity of the game.
Brood War is a game shaped by flaws. These flaws are apparent now, but are an integral part of what makes the game what it is today. You need to play the game the way it is, the way it was in '98 when no alternatives existed.
Now, because of the pure mechanical requirement in Brood War, you, as a player, will always have too many options, too many things to do. The limit of what you can achieve is illustrated by your APM - Actions Per Minute, the maximum number of useful actions you can do.
It is impossible to take all actions you want at the time it would be most optimal to do them. This means that you need to prioritize at every single moment. The things you chose to prioritize, the things you wish to focus on determine your style of play.
Focus on Micromanagement? Then for that moment you will have less macro - meaning your production or economy (routing workers) will suffer.
Focus on Macromanagement? Perhaps your units will act like idiots for a moment as they need to be monitored at all times (i.e. your Dragoons) because the AI is non-existent - an army is only as powerful as its commander; the stats of your units mean little.
In Brood War you can use the mechanics, use the overabundance in micro or macro actions to overcome mistakes by taking a different angle or countering your opponents use of one by using the other, or excelling in the mirror.
The nature of the balance also allows micro to be used to elevate units above their intended counters. Larger battles become exponentially more difficult to control, large bases harder to macro from.
It's a fight against your own ability, a fight to control the game as best you can while your opponent does the same. It is a test of will, a test of mental stamina.
And so, the changes that so many file under “quality of life” would in fact alter integral elements to the type of gameplay StarCraft has fostered. Many of the changes that have been suggested - many features that StarCraft 2 has - used to be cheats and hacks used in Brood War.
The very core of what makes Brood War what it is would be corrupted.
2. The Many Facets of the Newbie
I have been playing for nearly 20 years. I am a noob.
There are a thousand things that distinguish players in this game. Every single element of this game is used to decide whether one player is better than the other.
At the professional level of StarCraft one can talk about different “styles” of play, where a player might forgo one thing to excel at another. These are minute differences, as excellence is still required in each discipline.
Note, many of these things apply to StarCraft 2 as well; these are not unique to Brood War.
A broad summary of said disciplines would look as follows:
Game knowledge: Basic units, economy, build orders, meta.
Map knowledge: Match-ups, positions, wall-ins, meta.
Micro: Unit-specific movements, casting, grouping, boxing, targeting, hotkeying.
Macro: Economy, unit construction, base management, expanding, hotkeying, army positioning and rallying.
Game sense: Scouting combined with the knowledge of the opposing race and opponent.
Awareness - interpreting the minimap. Timing and passage of time.
All of this is governed by the binding force of Actions Per Minute and one’s capacity to multi-task.
A “mid-level” (C on ICCup) player usually ranges between 150 - 220 APM and would be assumed to have adequate knowledge of 1-3 build orders for each of the match-ups, and should be relatively familiar with upwards of 5 maps.
Most non-StarCraft 2 players picking up this game for the first time will come in at 35 APM with basic unit knowledge from the campaign - but not their application in multiplayer. Or they know build orders learned from the StarCraft AI.
A casual Brood War player, who is currently not competitively active but has played a fair amount in the last two decades will average around 75 APM with an archaic knowledge of build orders and likely has terrible map knowledge.
All these players can be considered to be bad players when comparing them to the players residing in the upper levels of StarCraft. Most of these players will indeed consider themselves to be bad players.
The lesson here is simple: there are a thousand tiers of bad players that might consider themselves to be newbies. The only way to find out whether or not you are matched in skill is to play.
Perhaps you indeed have the same “capacity to win” as the other, perhaps your styles are complete opposites yet still rank the same. You could lose handily to someone who has the same ladder rating as you simply because of how they play.
Statistics mean nothing. They are indicators, yes. But in the lower levels, there is so much to learn that a single difference in one of the disciples is enough to make it impossible for someone to win against an opponent that is just a single step up - even if the player didn’t make any large mistakes.
This is where I tell you that I have specialized in casting these low level games and the ways that people can fail to play this game still astonish me. I can still find people that have no business winning, but because of their opponent’s exact combination of shortcomings, do manage to eke out a victory.
If you do not embrace this part of the challenge of Brood War, if you don’t see the joy in that, then you will not last long.
3. The Depth of Study.
StarCraft can no longer be learned solely by playing the game. One cannot ever hope to compete at even the lowest levels without outside sources.
StarCraft is about learning a skill. The game is raw and unaugmented, forcing the player to be the only source of action. The game does not play itself, it makes no decision without input. There are no unlockable mechanics that will ease gameplay as it grows in complexity. The only experience points here are the synapses being strengthened in your brain.
To illustrate: let’s assume there is a new player with no prior Real Time Strategy experience, before entering any matchmaking or multiplayer, dutifully completing the single player campaign.
This player now has a baseline grasp on all three playable races, understands various units and their function as intended by the developer in various arbitrary scenarios.
The player, fully versed in all the game can teach about itself, has now arrived in 1998.
This player is the absolute baseline, and although he is just an example I assure you that he is very real and alive today - many don’t even complete the full single player.
Now, a competitively-minded player will of course inform himself, but that already separates them from a large portion of the playerbase that will not. They will be stranded in the past forevermore. They might be happy but no amount of self-study and discovery is going to bring them to even to the mid-level. They would have to fight through every incremental change in their respective skills, starting from the StarCraft Stone Age - and perhaps never discovering critical mechanics that were only discovered in a professional environment, after years of play.
This is purely academic, but nevertheless a symptom of the type of game we’re dealing with. There is no saving grace for innate talent in Brood War, it needs to be directed with knowledge.
Yet here we are, the competitive player who has chosen to inform himself. And so they land on beginner tutorials, detailing basic mechanics, micro, and of course build orders.
Build orders are as their name implies: the order in which you build units and buildings. They are assumed to be the most efficient and fastest way to reach a certain strategic goal. They are meant for specific race matchups, players, and stylistic patterns - aggressive or passive, safe or based on a specific timing.
When I advise our newest newbies, I tell them to take caution when learning these builds. They are the refined product of two decades of analysis and metagaming, an end-result of the combined knowledge of the most dedicated players and coaches.
If you keep mimicking them, even to very perfection - even after many victories, you will learn nothing. The timings and the reason for doing things exactly this way will be lost and when the build gets foiled by a sudden superior opponent, or a failure of the newbie in question then the the order is broken and there is no understanding to fall back on - no basis for improvisation.
I see so many new players execute a build so beautifully, only to collapse like a pudding after the last line of the build has been completed. All the advantages that these builds provide will be lost if one doesn’t understand why they followed it.
Many build orders are created to counter others. Many staples of the metagame exist at the tip of a pyramid, each layer narrowing down the most optimal play and the plays that can be expected as counters. If neither you nor your opponent know the reasons why one build is superior to another, then the builds have already lost all value.
Although Brood War’s meta changes mostly as a result of maps, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t continuous flux in the use of build orders - or that the discussion of those builds lies dormant. Each level of play will need to figure out to what extent they can follow the professional level. If a build requires a player to have a certain level of speed or mechanical skill then it might as well be useless for those who are mechanically challenged. Following the pros on their streams will only help you go so far. Look for builds and strategies that are within your current grasp.
Builds at the beginning of the game are perfectly simple and anyone can chose to follow the exact builds that even the grandest titans of the game use. Yet even minor hesitations will soon snowball as mechanics begin to lag behind. Yet many builds can be considered ‘safe’ in that they do not require complex action, minor inaccuracies that soon can be compensated by interacting with your opponent.
For those who want it, there is decades worth of study available. The true depths and intricacies of the economics and balance are endless. This, once again, is no hyperbole - university courses have had StarCraft as a subject. Even after more than a decade of professional play people are still not done talking about it.
4. The Sport and the Wall
No matter your knowledge of the theory of StarCraft, the mechanical requirements of executing even the simplest task will forever remain the same. ‘Actions Per Minute’ will always be a deciding factor in the calibre of the player.
This is why StarCraft is not an ordinary game, as laughable as true athletes might find it. StarCraft is the closest thing to a true sport ‘electronic entertainment’ has ever seen and it needs to be treated as such by its players, not only in how one approaches training, but also due to the possibility of injury when pushing the body too far.
Not everyone can be an Olympic level athlete, sometimes it simply isn’t written in your genes. At one point a StarCraft player will have to accept their limits; even with proper understanding and training there will be a point where the required effort for improvement will soar to unattainable heights.
For those who take up the mantle of the competitive StarCraft player, who commit to the burden of study and practice, those who find and vie to shatter their limits and rise above: this is the key warning: Perfection is an impossibility. There will always be room for improvement yet at one point the price for improvement will be too great to maintain.
This is where one of my greatest fears lies: that the current generation of gamers has forgotten to have fun while losing and gaining no visual reward from it. Brood War does not reward you for losing. It provides you with a replay and a chance to relive your failure so you can improve. Few will find it within themselves to do so.
The mechanical requirements of the game create a decision tree that is nigh infinite. Even at the very pinnacle of competitive play mistakes and missed opportunities are simply part of the game. Again, StarCraft is primarily not a fight against your opponent, but a fight against oneself. In this struggle it is the one who fails the least that has a chance at victory.
5. The Perpetual Newbie
So what is the verdict then? No one should ever attempt to be good at StarCraft? Bow down to those who have mastered it? Weep at the impossibility of success?
Perhaps. All that is needed from the coming generation of StarCraft players is a simple understanding: to be happy with the level of play they can achieve comfortably.
A pure competitive drive, a sole longing for victory and nothing else will destroy you. A solitary dedication to playing the game will get you nowhere.
I don’t have time to discuss whether StarCraft is a true sport. The unalienable truth is that it needs to be approached as one. It was the first “eSport’ when that word still meant exactly that.Practice, study, and routine - daily. A mindless grind will only get you a depressing statistic.
Does one stop playing a sport because they will never play in a stadium? Does losing a game have to diminish the fun had while playing?I see the common toxicity of the competitive gamer, and yes it exists in StarCraft too, but truly it is simply a sign of surrender.
It means the game is being played for the wrong reason.
Sure, I’m being melodramatic to a point, I have been since the beginning of the article. However, I see the extremes of what I’m talking about more often than not and it does sadden me. I believe many more people would truly enjoy this game if they were to ease on competitive drive.
In the beginning there was Battle.net - nothing more than an IRC-like client connected to the game so people could chat. First a meetingplace for friends, then a place for clans to grow into communities.
Those communities are the foundation of the eSport we see today. Korea had a similar phenomenon in their internet Cafés.
All of what I discussed above cannot be achieved alone. As proven by Korean team houses and their general training ethic - this game cannot be learned alone.
The entirety of StarCraft’s history demonstrates a reliance on human interaction. It requires people to find regular training partners of similar level - so that specific training exercises can be had.
It is important for others to review each other’s replays - to assist them in showing them their mistakes and flaws that they might otherwise not see.
More importantly, there needs to be a group of people to talk to and to play the game with in a casual sense.
It is also required for these lost newbies that come blowing in on winds of social media to be directed to adequate sources and to teach them the many ways to approach this game.
We live in an unprecedented time of communication and interaction, especially compared to when this game was new. Yet somehow I see more and more isolation when it comes to games.
Sure, we now have streamers and YouTubers - but most of those will bring their own community for as long as the game might interest them.
There is always a demand for community events and organisation.
Everyone is always waiting for some community action, for someone to start something.
A community is not a singular being, it is not a unified front. It simply constitutes an amalgam of individual people and projects working with a common subject. If you’re reading this, you’re the community. Each step an individual makes is made part of the perception of the whole.
Reach out to those you play with, gather them and pluck them from the inevitable isolation of automated matchmaking, for I believe that is one of the major reasons we don’t see large communities form in the way they did before. Most initiatives are still done by those who were part of those first movements in the late nineties. I should know, I’m one of them.
There is also a duty to combat generalisation. Brood War has been retroactively flagged as a nation of “elitist” gamers - and there is no denying there are elements of truth to that. Yet much of that is the result of the topics I have already discussed here. Like all old games, there is a core of neglected veterans that will crush newer players like a bug underfoot, never noticing they were there.
This is simply the nature of the game. Similarly, many debates will once more be had, and many of us have seen these conversations a thousand times before. For some, Brood War is simply a hobby and stirring them in their pastime can get tiring.
Again, I am one of them. However, I see the need to inform the newer generation to at least attempt to explain to them the issues they will face.
This is why this article has been so hard to write, to find the right tone. Some of this elitism is well-founded. In many ways this game is everything you can imagine and possibly even worse. It has broken many players and it will break many more. Somehow, in today’s gaming climate it has become impossible to downright say that. Say that a game requires far more effort than what players might be used to in present day gaming will be met with hostility.
However, on forums, channels, Discords, streams, and subreddits, this unbridled “passion” flows freely and without nuance. For many of us veterans it is still odd to see our world challenged. So many of us fought the perceived inferiority of StarCraft 2 in vain, and eventually nothing but malice remained. The superiority of Brood War stood as an unquestionable fact and whoever chose to challenge that was simply wrong.
We were happy enough to be right, while the game bled out around us.
So I ask of my fellow ancients … Do not simply use your powers to crush those who would oppose you. Don’t simply go on the ladder and show these upstarts how it is done. All that you are doing is killing that which you love and we will soon be the kings of a graveyard once more, following the path that so many more “better” games have already travelled. Reach out and save them.
I hope the StarCraft community is prepared and I hope we can weather the initial hype and flow of soon-to-be-disillusioned new players. I hope we can inspire a new generation that allows this unique freak experiment to last just a little longer. I hope our community - us - can pluck enough people from the maelstrom to join us to become bitter elitists alongside us.
If all that I have written here falls on too many deaf ears - if none of this will come to pass, then all of this will converge into the single phenomenon of the StarCraft Dark Age.
The term “Dark Age” makes historians roll their eyes and we best stop using it in a historical context, but in the case of StarCraft it is quite applicable.
The “Dark Age” consists of all these wide-eyed new players - the new blood that this game needs to survive the next decade - coalescing at the very bottom of the ladder. They will be happy and have fun playing against those at their level - playing a metagame that this game has not seen for twenty years.
However, without outside help, without reaching out to what is established, they will never progress. They will remain in ‘98 or ‘99; some might even make it to ‘04. Once those at the bottom start informing themselves, start practicing as a competitive player would, it will still take months to catch up to the worst of veteran players. Even if these new players are seasoned or above average StarCraft 2 players, they will miss mechanical complexities and will lose games for reasons completely unbeknownst to them.
My fear is not that they will rage at their opponent; my fear is that they will rage against the game, that they will see nothing more than archaic mechanics, that they will not see the game they are supposed to play, that there is nothing there but arbitrary difficulty and a forgotten genre to relearn for no real reward. For better or for worse, this is what StarCraft is: a mutual struggle of the players facing each other while fighting against themselves.
It is the timeframe that worries me most. For us veterans, StarCraft was the only game. We played it for decades, whereas games released today might be lucky to see play for several months.
For this new wave of players, the underlying hidden mechanics and strategies will be as much of a mystery as they were to us back in ‘98.
The key difference in mentality is that we played a game where not all things were within our reach. We saw what was possible and at one point had to accept that we would not be able to follow.
In today's games all elements of gameplay are available to all players. Some mechanics are gated behind progression or a gameplay choice. But very few games still have a mechanic like “Mutalisk Micro” which is an integral part of Zerg play - which can take months to learn.
I am afraid that the toll this game takes, the requirements for improvement, will be too much for gamers that have come to expect victory in the games made today without targeted practice for months on end, because as I mentioned before, there is no prize at the end of a StarCraft game, only a replay that shows all your mistakes in minute detail and everything your opponent did right.
One needs to realize that the prize is in the opportunity for self-improvement. Victory should not be the goal when playing StarCraft. Perhaps, even at its most competitive, we first and foremost need to have fun when playing a “game.” Fun, not because we demand to be entertained, but fun through our own accomplishments. If those accomplishments lead to victory then that is simply a bonus, an incidental result from pushing ourselves to our limit.
In closing, I am worried, but I don’t despair. I have spent the better part of the last decade making commentaries on players of the lowest level, and so many of them do realize all of the things I have discussed here. Yet there is this idle hope inside me that wishes for more.
I want to see StarCraft restored to its rightful place, for no other reason than to have people stand in awe of what can be achieved with it as a legitimate sport, an ageless game that is worth the reverence we have given it throughout all these years.
We now enter the era of StarCraft: Remastered, a possibility few of us were expecting, offering a glimpse of hope where none has resided for many years.
I will do what I have always done: make silly videos about newbs and wrangle some Perpetual Newbies into a Free-for-All now and then. I am happy that I spilled my bile into this article; I felt the need to be that angry old man on the corner of the street, yelling at kids who clearly didn’t know what they were doing.
With this my duty as a grizzled veteran has been complete. Thank you for reading.
Johan ‘Greth’ Martens
Editing: Jealous - @ Teamliquid.net