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"They envy the distinction I have won; let them therefore, envy my toils, my honesty, and the methods by which I gained it". -Sallust
TeamLiquid: Final Edits
A Legacy of Distinction
A legacy is an enduring presence, a lasting and unquestionable attribution to a relevant discipline which revolutionizes that discipline. A legacy is emulated because it defines the discipline it is a part of, sets important precedents, and fundamentally alters that discipline. Legacies can come in all forms, and in all disciplines. The paper “Syntactic Structures” by Noam Chomsky defined the future of the scientific study of language. The organization of the Roman republic continues to influence governments and political theory, nearly two millennia after its passing. J. S. Bach, called “the father of all music” influenced Western musical composition and theory, from rock to classical, even to this day. In science, politics, and art, legacies are omnipresent parts of their pursuit.
In gaming, however, there are few legacies. The atmosphere changes with each generation of consoles and the maturation of developers. Thematic continuity in genres and occasionally in titles provides some looks at what a legacy could be, but because the focus in gaming is always on the newer, the glossier, and the more powerful, there are few legacies—only nostalgia.
A legacy in gaming would require that a game transcend the lusty sheen of higher polygon counts or 3D graphics acceleration; it would require that a game be so profoundly deep that innovation would be its golden rule, skill its cardinal virtue, and victory its only pursuit. It would require the harmonic convergence of nearly flawless gameplay and epic competition. There has been only one such game to ever combine these fortuitous properties, and it was released on March 31st, 1998.
StarCraft, and its subsequent expansion, quickly became one of the best-selling PC games of all time, having sold over 9 million copies since its release. With its expansion, StarCraft was lauded across the gaming world, with numerous accolades and awards—5 Game of the Year awards, a star on the Walk of Game, and an acknowledgment in GameSpot’s Greatest Games of All Time—and praise from reviewers and personalities, expressing what would be its legacy:
With its excellent campaign, elegantly designed factions, and simple to learn but deep, strategic gameplay, Starcraft is the defining game of its genre. It is the standard by which all real-time strategy games are judged. -GameSpot
StarCraft is hands down one of the best, if not the best, real-time strategy games ever created. With three distinct races, both in terms of gameplay and style Blizzard's masterpiece contains some of the most balanced and yet widely-varied units in the genre. -IGN
This game is one of the best in the genre and should be a part of all strategy gamer's libraries. You'll find yourself coming back to StarCraft again and again. -The Gamers Temple
The hype from Blizzard is that this is the best real-time strategy game ever created. And as a complete package, you'd have to make a pretty good argument to punch holes in the veracity of that statement…StarCraft may not be the next generation of the genre but it is easily the current pinnacle of how good it can be. -The Electric Playground
It truly revolutionizes and sets a new standard for real-time strategy games on the PC. –All Game Guide
Starcraft showed how games could express our imagination and help us experience it in an exciting way. -Lim Yo-Hwan, from Crazy As Me
Starcraft was a landmark in online gaming, and put RTS on the map as a competitive, incredibly fun genre. -Tom “Zileas” Cadwell
The game is incredibly balanced which is almost nonexistent with other RTS games…The depth of the game on the competitive level rewards hard work and creativity where as other games have been 'figured out' fairly quickly resulting in a stagnant metagame. -Nick “Tasteless” Plott
But this is not enough. The true question worth examining is—why? What is it about StarCraft that has made this legacy? Last season, ICCup hosted over 2 million games. Every day, tens of thousands of people still log on to Battle.net to experience a game that is over a decade old. This is unparalleled in gaming. Truly, very few games are able even to cultivate a dedicated player base, much less for 11 years. The answer to why, in a general sense, is that there are qualities intrinsic to a game that allows for its success or failure. An artist or scientist without vision, intelligence, or talent will not leave a legacy, and neither will a game without equivalent properties.
What are these equivalent properties? Gaming can be considered like a painting: when it is beheld, its art is experienced; when a game is played, its gameplay is experienced. A painting must have a vision for what that experience should be, as must a game. For a game, that experience is competition, and that competition must be unadulterated and unmolested. A painting must have some complexity, in any manner of speaking, whether it be abstract or concrete complexity (of meaning or graphic detail), and so must a game have some level of complexity, either, but preferably both, in strategy and gameplay. For a painting, when vision and complexity are combined, it is said to be art. When a game combines competition and complexity, it is said to have a metagame.
A game that is pure is one that has at its core the essence of strategy. Undoubtedly, there is no way for a real-time strategy game to be purely strategy; some technical component must accompany and complement the strategic one. But the physical component should not be considered irrelevant to competitive purity—competitive purity stresses strategic advantages over technical prowess, but technical ability is also a major factor. The prevailing idea behind a purity of competition is that, in the end, the better player must be the one to win, whether or not the play of the victor is defined by technical rather than strategic prowess. The favoring of strategy over technical ability is not a slight to the value of technical play, but rather it is meant to disqualify a game that permits the player who button-crunches faster and harder to always be the victor.
Technical ability and strategic execution are very different functions for a player, as different as the functions of the parts of the brain that control these activities. Without technical ability, the execution of a strategy will inevitably fail. Without a strategy, technical ability is useless. This is to point out that these two must act together; they must be completely and consciously coordinated. It is difficult to quantify or investigate which of these skills is more important to the outcome of a game, and it ought not be a concern for the player. In StarCraft, as in other competitive games, it is the fundamentals of strategy and technical ability that prove most important. Flashy hand motions or micro gimmicks are superficial and irrelevant to game outcome if the fundamentals of strategy and technique are not in place.
StarCraft at its highest levels requires dozens of strategically complex decisions to be made in just seconds. The richness of this complexity is what makes the game so interesting and powerful. With the literally hundreds of ways to tech between the races, each game is a unique struggle and no two games are completely alike. Thousands of games are played every day, most opening with the same handful of refined build orders, and nearly each one, at the very least, ends uniquely for the player.
StarCraft is not a march to the biggest unit or biggest gun, it is not the unidirectional march to the highest perch on the tech tree for the weapons that overpower all enemies. Its design is far more complex than that—as GameSpot’s review elaborated: “Even more remarkable is that the game's early combat units, like the lowly Zerglings and Marines, maintained their usefulness all the way to the end of the longest matches. Units higher up on the technology tree did not make earlier units obsolete--they only added to the array of strategic options available to the player. Impressively, the Brood War expansion pack threw even more units into the mix without breaking the game's delicate balance.”
Complexity does not imply the existence of balanced and prevalent metagame. A hypothetical game with five races instead of StarCraft’s three would prove incredibly, perhaps impossibly, difficult to balance. A hypothetical fighting game with sixty playable characters will not have all of these characters viable in competitive play. In this sense, overly complex and overly simple games share the same damning principle that fails them: they cannot completely support a metagame. Overly simple games, because of their lack of innovation or even distinct variance, prevent a metagame from even being possible. Overly complex games, because of the problem of balance, cannot support a metagame.
StarCraft splits this appropriately down the middle. It is not a perfectly balanced game; such a feat is impossible, but it is balanced enough that it is pure. StarCraft has developed a fascinating metagame; the strategic innovations over the years and the interplay of older builds and concepts with newer builds and concepts is a salient example of what makes StarCraft unique, and what enables legacy. The history of StarCraft metagame is not the irreversible march to the single most optimal strategy for each (one could argue, non-mirror) matchup. There are safe builds, economic builds, aggressive builds, cheese builds, all-in builds—but all have harmonious advantages and disadvantages, which are suited to a player using them per situations and per a personal style. It is not possible to imagine that the entire history of StarCraft strategy was mapped out and balanced during playtesting. This is either a lucky accident, a one in a thousand chance that StarCraft in its most competitive forms would be so harmoniously complementary, or the deliberate and impressive foresight of the developers, that the metagame has proven to be appropriately malleable to allow for depth in innovation, but also that it is not infinitely malleable.
StarCraft’s real innovation over the years has been the gameplay itself. The innovation was the potential of the game for boundless outcomes, but even more that these outcomes are almost exclusively a function of player skill. The innovation in gameplay was this: the player’s mind, and the player’s hands, against another’s mind, and another’s hands. The function of all the complexity and purity in the game is this simplistic result.
In personal correspondence with Zileas on this very topic, he raised an important spectre: StarCraft 2. Zileas is an important old-schooler who playtested StarCraft in its infancy, and who himself is responsible in some way for the legacy of this game. Doubtless, StarCraft 2 will be judged by the same properties that were responsible for the success of its predecessor: purity, complexity, and metagame. It stands to reason that if these of the sequel fall short in quality as compared with the original, the game will not prove as successful in the long term. As the reviews come out, and awards come in, there will be a clear and objective measure of how well the legacy of StarCraft has been succeeded. It is impossible to predict, at this point, what the result will be, but there is some optimism from Zileas on the matter: “Starcraft 2 is going to be an incredible game -- I know the team from my time at Blizzard working on the RTS team and I know that the product they are going to deliver is going to be a huge milestone in gaming just like the first.”
So, as StarCraft 2 looms just over the horizon, this may be the appropriate time for reflection on the legacy of this game, what has made it so great, and what the game has meant to the RTS genre and gaming as an industry. If StarCraft 2 does supplant its predecessor, then all that will be left in the end, after serious competition has moved on and left impoverished this unadulterated art of war, is its legacy: the legacy of the greatest game ever made.