StarCraft 2 Beta

The original StarCraft was launched in 1998 and became an amazing success. Now, 12 years later, we can finally get our hands on the sequel to this real-time strategy game.

Three-way mayhem
The focus of the game is still on its three playable races with drastically different mechanics in base building, tech and units.
Zerg, the evil animal-like alien invaders, are all about wave after wave of cheap units. All of their units and buildings are biological, living things, spawning on a purple slime called creep.
Protoss, the ancient race of philosophers and century-old rastafarians, use more expensive units which have a lot of nifty abilities up their sleeve. Their buildings are powered with energy radiating from giant crystals called pylons.
The most user-friendly race are the Terran, a bunch of human ex-convicts let loose in outer space. They take the middle ground between the cheap masses of the Zerg and the high tech units of the Protoss. Most of their buildings can be lifted off, and landed somewhere else. Vastly different races, but the different matchups rarely feel unbalanced.

As with the first StarCraft, your economy is the backbone of your play. Each map has a few areas which have a cluster of minerals (the basic currency) and vespene geysers (whose gas is used for more high-tech units and research). Maintaining a strong economy is crucial for your survival: if you fall behind in workers, you might very well never catch up, and diverging economies can mean vastly unequal armies in a matter of minutes. Some tweaks have been made to the original: expansions now all have two vespene geysers instead of one, giving players more flexibility in choosing when to expand, whereas high-tech army builds (higher tech costs more vespene gas) used to force a player to early expand to get sufficient gas to keep teching at an acceptable pace.

sc2-screen-01Once you have a decent economy, you can diversify your build any way you want, and believe-you-me, there are a lot of options. There’s a wide array of units with a lot of different abilities and mechanics. Some units from the original have been left out, such as the Terran vulture or goliath, Zerg lurker and defiler and Protoss reaver, corsair or dark archon, but they all got very nice replacements, among which the Terran hellion and thor, Zerg infestor and broodlord and Protoss immortal, phoenix and colossus.
Overall, the new units work very well, and after a few matches the new mechanics feel very familiar and just right. They also show a lot of potential for high level play. Features like spamming impenetrable force fields with the Protoss sentry to contain your opponent’s forces (these recently got nerfed in patch 13 for the beta), or controlling your foes’ units with the Zerg infestor is a blast (especially if you manage to convert a handful of giants like the Terran thor or the Protoss colossus). Old favorites such as launching nuclear missiles with a Terran ghost are still present, and just as fun as they were back in the 90’s.

It is when juggling with all the elements of managing an economy, finding the right time to expand, fine-tuning build orders and micro-managing your units to use them to their fullest potential, that the complexity of the game becomes apparent. A typical match of StarCraft 2 requires you to multitask in three or four locations at the same time, and hotkeying your production pipelines and economy buildings are essential to succeed. That is one of the reasons why a lot of players stress APM (Actions Per Minute) as a measure of a player’s strength. For some very high-level players this can go up to more than 400, meaning more than 6 actions per second. Quality prevails over quantity, however, so you can get by with a lot less neurotic clicking if you know what you are doing. It does make a big difference in managing individual units in big fights, and differing levels of APM can often mean a huge difference in the outcome of an otherwise equal battle.

The gameplay is still as engaging as when the original game launched and flourished, and the game has been given a serious facelift. The result looks very good: no longer are you forced to play in 800*600, as the game runs very smooth on high graphic settings, so you’re sure to find a playable yet eye-pleasing setting for your pc. To be honest, the graphics are good, but not really spectacular. The physics engine, however, is a serious powerhouse. Watching giant units come apart and crashing vehicles litter their final resting place with wheels, tripod legs or pieces of wing are a sight to behold, as these parts realistically bounce across the battlefield.

sc2-screen-02StarCraft 2 will be released as a trilogy. Blizzard has opted to release each race’s singleplayer campaign as a stand-alone product. These will be Wings of Liberty (for Terran), Heart of the Swarm (for Zerg), and Legacy of the Void (for Protoss). While this formula allows the developers to create much longer and more detailed singleplayer campaigns, this move has been questioned by many. At first I was not sure whether I liked the tri-release or not, but Blizzard’s record and previous commitment to quality seemed enough of a reassurance. However, some very poor design choices with 2.0 and an even worse job on communicating with their fanbase has raised serious doubts among players whether Blizzard has their best interest in mind. 2.0
StarCraft 2 also means the arrival of the long-awaited new version of Blizzard’s online server and matchmaking system: The changes to this service are not just cosmetic: the entire system has been redesigned.

Blizzard has tried to create engaging online competition on different levels. On first starting up the game, a player gets to play a few practice matches, after which he plays 5 placement matches against other players of varying skill levels. When placements are done, that player will find himself in one of 5 leagues (these used to be from low to high: copper, bronze, silver, gold and platinum, but with patch 13 these have been altered to bronze, silver, gold, platinum and diamond league). Each league consists of numerous divisions (horizontally separated pools of players) and each division within a league has its own ladder with players that have more points (calculated from win-loss ratios, relative strength of the opponents you played, etc.) higher on the ladder. The system is good for letting people with little or no experience play against people of roughly equal strength, and give them attainable goals.

sc2-screen-03One noticeable problem, however, was the lack of transparency of actual player strength. When checking profiles of people on the ladder in your league, you might find someone twenty spots below you in bronze league actually being a top-ranked platinum-league player. Also, when moving up the ladder, you don’t always get the competition you’d expect. When a friend and I made it to the 3rd position on the 2v2 ladder in our copper league division (pre-patch 13), we were matched almost exclusively with teams from gold and platinum league. At that stage, it seems more logical to match players with bronze and silver teams instead, to determine whether a player or team could migrate to these leagues. So while the leagues system is well thought out, it still lacks somewhat in user-friendliness and transparency.

The problems with the league system are nothing compared to some other fundamental shortcomings built into 2.0: there are no chat-channels, clan support, LAN-support or cross-realm (Blizzard has hacked the community into separate realms for Europe, North-America and Asia) play. Basically, you can’t join a chat-channel to look for other players to form a clan or 3v3 team unless you already know them and have their account. Also, playing with friends from another continent is not supported. When Blizzard was asked if this would be addressed, their response was to buy another client to access that realm. With 3 expansions that would mean buying the game 9 times to play cross-continent on a competitive level. These are the sort of PR-blunders that can really damage the trust from your fanbase.

With so many incomplete features, they still found the time to include achievements (for winning a certain amount of matches, going on a 3-game win streak, etc…) and unlockable content such as player decals and profile pictures. Blizzard has obviously got their priorities wrong as these are rather unnecessary additions to an as of yet flawed multiplayer experience.

StarCraft 2 as a vehicle for professional E-Sports in the West
Note: The terms amateur and professional are used here not in a way as to denote skill level, but to describe whether or not a person can make a living from playing a game.

People play games on different levels: some focus on singleplayer, while others enjoy casual competition. Some players, however, continually hone their skills to push the envelope of what is possible in competitive play. For these last players we have seen the formation of clans, and the emergence of sites such as clanbase which have played and continue to play a pivotal role in organizing and tracking competitions in various genres.
Nowadays, tournaments with cash and hardware prizes (a grey zone between amateur and professional play) exist for almost any game with a decent-sized player community. Most of these forms of competition, however, pale in comparison to the phenomenon that is StarCraft in Korea. StarCraft sold well with over 9 million copies worldwide, but 4,5 million of those where sold in South-Korea alone. The game had enough followers there for true professional play to become possible.

The different components that make up a StarCraft match make it an ideal candidate for high-level mind games, bizarre strategies and skill acquired through hours upon hours of practice. As a game, it has all the right ingredients to distinguish it from rival rts-games and establish itself as the definitive e-sport. This is one of the main reasons why the support for the game has remained, even though it is now well over a decade old.

Traditional television channels in Korea perceived that market demand was sufficiently high to create dedicated channels, only broadcasting StarCraft matches. These televised StarCraft matches, in studios full of raving fans, show just how big a game can become.
The case of Korea shows the two requirements for competitive (online) play to mature into a professional competition: a large target audience and continued interest and support for a game. These conditions are necessary to attract sponsors to continually fund prize pools for tournaments.

sc2-screen-04It seems that with StarCraft 2, the world is really taking notice. So why could StarCraft 2 succeed where others did not, and make e-sports a mainstream phenomenon? Hype, for sure. StarCraft 2 has been over a decade in the making, and is being plugged all over the place: in magazines, on websites,… More importantly: the audience demand for this product is unbelievable at such an early stage (remember that the game hasn’t even been launched). One can notice this on youtube, where the hard work of StarCraft 2 commentators Husky and HD has ensured them to be among the most viewed channels for quite a while now.
While only a few months into the beta test of StarCraft 2, the aforementioned casters hosted a major online tournament: the HDH Invitational. They managed to find a sponsor to fund a whopping $2.450 prize pool, and that sponsor was so pleased with the feedback and results that mid-tourney, they added another $1.000 to the prize pool. That is a lot of prize money for a game in beta-testing.

So what are we seeing? Large demand and satisfied sponsors. Personally, I don’t think that we’ll ever see dedicated StarCraft 2 channels on traditional television; but with peoples’ lives migrating more and more to “online all the time”, video sites such as youtube are definitely a viable alternative for sponsors. Time will tell if the hype remains, and StarCraft 2 can attract enough sponsors to fund a true professional scene in the west.

A lot of elements are present for making StarCraft 2 a major success and a gaming phenomenon for years to come: engaging gameplay, good and scalable graphics and enormous media attention. However, the 2.0 system seems to discourage organized competition and its incomplete feature set and Blizzard’s official replies to fans’ inquiries about this are a serious blow to its potential as an e-sport in the west. Let’s hope the problems with 2.0 will be sorted out before the game actually hits the shelves. It’s more likely, though, that these features will be added much later, or might never be added (e.g. LAN support).

Read on : Gamespot