More than 'Orcs in Space': Devs measure the enduring influence of StarCraft

Game makers from Blizzard, Riot, Gas Powered Games, and more cast themselves back to the strange, hazy days of the late '90s to talk about how StarCraft changed the way they thought about game design.

The original StarCraft was a phenomenon, a game that changed the real-time strategy landscape in startling ways and whose influence would ripple out across a huge number of other genres and formats.

Released 20 years ago this month as the science fiction successor to Blizzard’s own breakout real-time strategy kingmaker, Warcraft, StarCraft did more than take a successful format to a different setting.

Instead, it was a generation-defining title, and the game responsible for much of what we consider modern esports. But during development, the game's fate was uncertain; development happened at a haphazard pace, and use of the Warcraft II engine early on earned the project a dubious nickname among some members of the press: "Orcs in Space."

Of course, the game went on to become much more than that. To mark the passing of StarCraft's 20th birthday, Gamasutra reached out to a number of the people who built this seminal work and those whose lives were affected by it to get a sense of the game's enduring legacy.

The dream of the '90s

“In late 1995, a small group of developers, led by Bob Fitch, were working on a new game to be called ‘Shattered Nations,’” StarCraft’s senior programmer, Collin Murray, told us. “We had been working on it for about 6 months, when Bob and I were approached by Allen Adham with the opportunity to work on a proposed sci-fi RTS game that sounded exciting. We decided to proceed, and work on StarCraft began in earnest.”

"The most notable change was from the Warcraft II style to a more 3D rendered sci-fi look...our original design mimicked the art style of Warcraft II, and was quickly tagged in the press with the nickname ‘Orcs in Space’, which was a less than flattering moniker."

Blizzard was understandably keen to follow up on Warcraft’s runaway success, but the team wanted a diversion from the sort of work they’d been doing for years.

“Work on StarCraft began off the heels of the success of Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness and its expansion pack, Through the Dark Portal,” says Chris Sigaty, an executive producer at Blizzard who was lead tester on StarCraft.

“Going back to the original Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, the dev team had already spent a number of years working on strategy games in a high fantasy setting. I was very excited for StarCraft because I was such a huge Star Wars fan growing up and the StarCraft characters and setting represented our own science fiction playground. While we all love the Warcraft setting, moving from fantasy to sci-fi was an exciting change for many of us in the company at that time.”

While the original design hewed quite closely to the template established by the Warcraft franchise, a public showing demonstrated to the team that a new direction was called for if Blizzard wanted StarCraft to truly shine.

An early look at the game that became StarCraft, circa E3 '96, where it earned the nickname 'Orcs in Space'

“The most notable change was from the Warcraft II style to a more 3D rendered sci-fi look that took place after E3 in 1996,” Murray says.

“Our original design mimicked the art style of Warcraft II, and was quickly tagged in the press with the nickname ‘Orcs in Space’, which was a less than flattering moniker.  Seeing all the other new games being demoed at E3 that year made us realize that our sci-fi game needed a 3D rendered look to feel right. After the show, we refocused and completely redid all the art in 3D, which our artists would render into sprites and touch up by hand.”

A prototype of what became StarCraft, after the engine was rewritten and the art was redone

For Sigaty, it was a turning point in StarCraft’s development. “Rather than being offended or distraught, the team took the feedback in stride and effectively gained strength from it. I was so impressed with the developers’ grit and determination. The engine was completely rewritten and the ambitions for the project were reset to something much grander. From my perspective a big portion of the ‘commit to quality’ core value we have today as a company was forged through this experience.”

Finding success

After years of hard work and a major redesign, StarCraft launched to an eager public. The pivot in development seemed to pay off in spades, as the game found tremendous critical and popular success, becoming the best selling PC game of 1998 and going on to move over 9.5 million copies across its lifetime.

Notably, StarCraft was also instrumental in growing Blizzard’s multiplayer service, which expanded more than 800 percent following the game’s release. It was a significant achievement, and inspired more than one young developer, including Uber Entertainment’s Jeremy Ables, an associate producer on Supreme Commander and producer on Forged Alliance at Gas Powered Games.

"Without the precedent of StarCraft, no current esport would have been nearly as ambitious as they have been; it's only by standing on the shoulders of both Jim Raynor and bonjwa like Flash and BoxeR that we could think to build out our own studios."

“My group of friends were big fans of Warcraft 2 and I ended up playing StarCraft the first time at a friend's LAN party,” Ables says. “Bought it after that and played through the campaign, which blew me away with the 3 factions and how differently they played. We were playing a lot of Total Annihilation at the time, so this was a great change of pace as it allowed us to choose between the mass unit swarms of TA and the more tactical decisions of StarCraft. Also cool that the folks who just swore by TA had Zerg to play and get at least something they felt familiar with on it. Made it easier to get the groups to play together.”

For Ables, the key to StarCraft’s success was the exquisite balance between three asymmetrical factions: the cold steel and deadly firearms of the Terrans, the high technology and graceful energy weapons of the Protoss, and the overwhelming swarms of the Zerg hive.

It’s a refrain you hear a lot when you talk about StarCraft and what established it as a blueprint for everything that followed. Jesús Arribas of Numantian Games, director and lead designer of They Are Billions, talks about how the factions were a key differentiator between StarCraft and Blizzard’s previous work.

“I got to play StarCraft quite late. My first RTS was Warcraft 2 and I really enjoyed it and let me wanting more. I found playing StarCraft was a much more rewarding experience. In Warcraft, both of the factions were quite similar, the differences were so subtle that I found myself using the same strategies when playing either faction. In StarCraft, by contrast, Blizzard managed to create three really unique factions with their own aesthetics, play style, story and personality.”

His thoughts are echoed by Chris Hopper, the head of North American esports at Riot Games. Hopper was an established RTS fan who was drawn by StarCraft’s sci-fi setting and by the possibilities presented by a third playable race, which he says Blizzard executed masterfully.

According to Hopper “it made RTS non-binary; previous to that, most games either felt like there weren't substantive differences between the races you played (Age of Empires, for example) or there were only two options (Warcraft). By introducing the third race, it became an exponentially more complicated decision to determine what race/army/build would be optimal in any given situation.”

Of course, a third playable option was a big step for the development team, and one that required a tremendous amount of careful balancing.

“One of the things that I think made StarCraft different from other games at the time was the fact that the 3 playable races all had such distinctly different strategies, yet all had a sort of “rock-paper-scissors” counter for one another’s abilities,” says Murray. “This was a significant challenge to balance. We spent a lot of time playing the game to get it right.”

StarCraft was one of the first strategy games that featured three asymmetric factions and still came out balanced,” Sigaty chimes in.

“RTS was a growing genre in the PC gaming space back in those days, but back then most games featured factions that had more of a mirrored symmetry to each other. We were very proud of the fact that StarCraft had three races that both built and fought completely differently to one another. Designing the three asymmetric races leveled up our balance chops considerably. We weren’t sure that asymmetric factions would work, but through a lot of experimentation, feedback, and learning, it ultimately did. I believe this was critical to our long-term confidence as developers, giving us more self-assurance to tackle larger, more complex games and designs as we moved forward.”

While StarCraft has been lauded, rightfully so, for its sprawling, epic science fiction narrative and its important contribution to making online real time strategy a viable concept, the consensus seems to be that its biggest contribution was in gameplay, in its three deftly balanced factions. But it also had a wider impact on the state of competitive gaming, and shaped the future of esports in a number of critical ways (evidenced in part by the fact that, of the 9.5 million copies StarCraft eventually sold, 4.5 million of them were in South Korea).

Hopper, who helps oversee one of the world’s largest current esports, League of Legends, says it’s difficult to imagine the scene without StarCraft grandfathering it. “It's hard to overstate how important StarCraft was to esports; it's entirely possible that without Brood War and StarCraft 2, LoL, CSGO, and other titles would never have achieved nearly the success they have. StarCraft enraptured an entire nation in South Korea, and showed the world that a massive population of fans could not only unite behind a new sport (made from a video game, nonetheless!), but could do so quickly and profitably for hundreds of companies, investors, players, and organizers.”

StarCraft no only provided the basic tools to create an esports phenomenon, but Blizzard’s support and commitment created a template for success that is still replicated to this day in almost every major esports tournament and league.

“Without the precedent of StarCraft, no current esport would have been nearly as ambitious as they have been; it's only by standing on the shoulders of both Jim Raynor and bonjwa like Flash and BoxeR that we could think to build out our own studios, run high-quality leagues, and host Worlds in venues like the Staples Center or the Sang-am World Cup Stadium. StarCraft and StarCraft 2 were the first games that made me want to practice to get better, and if that's not a clear validation of the competitive mastery these games allowed to be displayed, I'm not sure what is.”

Pro StarCraft players Lim "BoxeR" Yo Hwan and Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier at the 2001 World Cyber Games

The growth and intense popularity of esports, especially overseas, had a rebounding effect on Blizzard, which Murray says taught the company a great deal about how to operate as an international venture.

StarCraft’s success in Korea had a profound effect on how we thought of ourselves and how we operated. It helped pave the way for Blizzard to become a global game company. “

Sigaty agrees, and also talks about the power of StarCraft as a vehicle for massive celebrity.

“Obviously, the massive scene that was created in South Korea in the 2000s with the Brood War pro scene will be remembered as a pioneering expression of esports in the world. The pro players there achieved national fame, and the teams earned corporate sponsorship with matches televised on multiple cable networks.“

An enduring legacy

“No matter what style of RTS you prefer, StarCraft is just ingrained into the DNA of the genre. No matter what subgenre of RTS you play, most likely something from StarCraft inspired part of it.”

"The development of StarCraft taught me a few things, primarily that long crunches are bad in general. And in the end, extended crunches don’t actually get the game out much faster."

Able’s words are echoed in almost every conversation about StarCraft’s legacy. Few games, particularly those that were effectively spin-offs of existing franchises, have made such an indelible mark on games, from design to online play to the way real world events are arranged around them. For Arribas, who is currently deep in the throes of crafting his own real-time strategy, StarCraft is a beacon lighting the way forward.

StarCraft has become the RTS ‘gold standard’. Its execution, pacing, way of playing, controls and handling, are perfect. For our RTS game, They Are Billions, StarCraft has been the reference for the controls scheme. We are not trying to reinvent the wheel. Most RTS players have already played StarCraft and they feel at home playing They Are Billions. StarCraft was the nexus between hardcore strategy games and action games, and was able to attract that big mass of action game players towards the strategy genre.”

For those that worked on the game, the legacy is even more personal and intense. For Murray, the intensity of the StarCraft dev cycle meant a lot of lessons piled up in a relatively short time-span.

“The development of StarCraft taught me a few things, primarily that long crunches are bad in general. And in the end, extended crunches don’t actually get the game out much faster. And another important lesson I learned is: avoid demoing your product to the public before it is ready. No matter what you may say, ‘we’re 50% complete’ or whatever, the public will always judge the game as a finished product," Murray says.

"Also, it is easy to get caught up in the temptation to do temporary work to put together a demo, but this should be avoided at all cost. Any throw-away work is time lost to the final product. We made the mistake of showing StarCraft too early. That committed us to a longer series of press and marketing demos than we expected, which I personally believe slowed down our development process.”

For his colleague Sigaty, one of the biggest lessons StarCraft taught was how to deliver story in a way that didn’t feel flat or stuffed into fat capsules outside of the gameplay. StarCraft demonstrated some of the possibilities of a story that was delivered alongside play and how that kind of storytelling could keep players consistently engaged.

“As simple as it sounds, adding portraits to the mission briefings where characters appeared to explain situations, give orders, threaten, etc. made for a much more immersive, character focused experience,” Sigaty explains.

“I was especially excited about how we began to tell more story during the missions themselves. Rather than having almost everything explained as text at the beginning of missions, we were now incorporating lines from characters before and during missions. Characters like Raynor and Kerrigan were much more front and center than anything we’d done in the past and this allowed players to fall in love with them in a more meaningful way. This would continue to evolve how we told story as we moved forward into our next games.”

The net result of all of these lessons, some of which were painful or cost the studio dearly, was a singular game that has withstood the test of time.

StarCraft was a labor of love,” Murray says. “All of us that worked on it truly believed in what we were making, and we put our heart and soul into our effort to make it the best RTS ever made. Now 20 years later, we’re still talking about it, and people are still playing it. Its diverse, yet balanced, strategies and easy to learn, but hard to master, fast-paced gameplay have set a standard for all similar games to follow.”

BONUS FUN FACT: In researching this story, we checked in with Blizzard to find out why the "C" in StarCraft is capitalized after the "c" in Warcraft was not. The answer, as you might expect, is simple: the company wanted to ensure the game wasn't confused with the extant Starcraft Bus company. 

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