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Cinematics are still the best storytelling option for RTS games, says Blizzard

Although the game industry as a whole has been steadily moving away from cinematic cutscenes, Blizzard believes that they're still the best way to humanize the story in an RTS.
Although the game industry as a whole has been steadily moving away from cinematic-style cutscenes, Blizzard believes that they are still the best way to humanize the story in a real-time strategy game. Cinematics are expensive, slow, and difficult to alter later into a game's development, reasoned Blizzard leader writer Brian Kindregan at GDC Europe today. They can break immersion, and generally there are plenty of reasons not to tell a video game story through cinematics. Yet despite all this, Kindregan and his team decided that cinematics would work for the best for StarCraft 2 and its expansions -- and the reason for this is that it's the best method for pulling players into the story of an RTS. Using cinematics in an RTS game allows the developer to bring the action down to eye-level, he explained, and allows the players to become more engaged in the characters and the story. If a studio decides to instead tell the story through gameplay in an RTS game, you simply end up with tiny pixel characters on the screen, and it's far more difficult to feel anything for them. As an example, Kindregan described a cutscene in which three large ships storm out of the darkness and launch a large-scale attack on a building. While you can really feel the action and intensity in a cinematic version of this scene, you wouldn't get any of this at all from the gameplay point of view -- instead, you'd see three small ships roll in and shoot at a tiny building.

Pacing is key

When it comes to building your cinematic, Kindregan noted that it is incredibly important to know what your central idea is, and make sure never to move away from that, no matter how many iterations the video goes through. The StarCraft 2 writer showed multiple versions of the opening cinematic for Heart of the Swarm, noting that he and his team rewrote the script 13 or 14 times, simply to cut the length down and make sure the story was snappy. They also had to make sure to keep the balance of power between characters that they were looking for. In particular, Kindregan noted that "when a cinematic starts, a timer starts [in the player's head], and when it reaches zero, the player will hit the Escape key to play the game." And once a player has escaped one cinematic, they'll most likely escape them all. Hence, making sure that your cinematic keeps its momentum and doesn't dawdle is completely essential to keeping the player invested in your game's story throughout.

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