Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Blizzard is 'Crafty'

"I think a lot of the design is geared towards what Chris refers to when he talks about it as an e-sport. There are a lot of arbitrary interface issues where the line is drawn at this point INSTEAD of this point because they want to cater to people who think of StarCraft as a skill. StarCraft isn’t built to be just a cerebral strategy game. It’s also built to be a test of reflexes, micromanagement, and multitasking, things that have been---very often, sort of designed out of RTSes as far as necessitating how well you can play and how well you do."
--- Tom Chick

One of my questions was just recently answered, and the other---well, it will be soon enough (which is another issue all in itself).

It wasn’t the game itself that inspired this post, but rather a recently released podcast featuring Rob Zacny, Tom Chick, Chris Remo and Troy Goodfellow talking about it on a podcast this week (good listen by the way).The game of course, is StarCraft 2.

Now, while I’ve always been a big fan of StarCraft (or at least the first and its expansion), I also instantly recognized the diversity that the RTS genre at large was sucking in for itself over the past ten years (even those within StarCraft’s original timeframe). I’ve always been a big fan of the genre for its balance between strategy and action, as well as being one of the individual exemplars of that ‘balance-of-evils’ I so often bitch about. I do however, grow weary of its placement in the current package though (i.e. StarCraft 2). A common pulse in the aforementioned podcast is one of the many who enjoy the ‘sport’ of it (while not necessarily being pros), the competition that the games so easily implement, nurture, and revolve around.

I’ve never been one for competition though, so this kind of places me on the opposite end of the spectrum. This is someone who doesn’t necessarily enjoy the ‘sport’ of the game (at least not to such a disciplined extent), but is probably more seemingly adept at it by default because of that fact. Mostly this is due to the fact I have never—once in my life actually played a game of StarCraft to win. I just enjoy the nuances of actually playing, whatever that may entail (though I am admittedly a big fan of the cerebral strategy-rape that the game so easily plays house to). It’s in this tactic that I organically relate the game to the third-most common comparison I’ve seen of the franchise: chess (i.e. I play that almost exactly the same way). I’m going to avoid that board-game-&-video-game can or worms though, I just wanted to emphasize my relationship with the title. It’s a game that provides a lovely little mask for how I enjoy tormenting people.

I just recently finished the campaign for myself, but this was entirely by accident. How so? Well, because I’m not a big fan of playing pretty much anything online to the extent that is now almost required in most games. I happen to be in an increasingly endangered species of players that are extremely quick to hit the ‘LAN-off’ switch on their laptops when booting up any title. So when I trucked right on past the 7 hour time-limit that the guest pass gives you, I didn’t even notice it. When I finally did however, I was already more than halfway through the game. This leaves several issues to discuss on its own, such as:
  • Did Blizzard just not pay attention this? I’d assume that the craft required to design this game---this game in particular, would hint at some sort of definitive grasp on the its networking aspect as well. I’d imagine this could easily be fixed with a patch (of course!), but it does leave to question just how much focus this game is meant to have (and where that focus is meant to be drawn to), which of course, leads to…
  • If it was simply an oversight and if the multiplayer aspect was polished to death in spite of the single-player’s neglect (which is not so unreasonable given the title we’re speaking of here), how much praise can we really allot Blizzard at this point?
  • That sacrifice leaves what? A hackneyed and retconned campaign only slightly hidden by fantastic production values and the game’s own base formula/design.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that by the time I DO actually buy the game for myself (which I'm not doing until it's either incredibly cheap or I have the luxury available by the time Heart of the Swarm's releases), the service will have developed into something I was looking forward to (see also: above post on Game Informer), but that doesn’t absolve what it is now, which is---less than optimal (to be generous).

So how is it a mess? Well first, let me just put up the disclaimer here on how I’m going to completely ignore the current gimps it’s already showing in terms of technically embracing its viciously-competitive playstyle (i.e. structuring of leagues, interface, map editor, etc.). Those are already being debated by those that care far more about them than I do. First and foremost however, would be the forced online aspect that this post is already seething against. Forcing people to play together (which Battle.net 2.0 quite effectively does) is a mask that’s as old as dirt. I’m sure there’s some kind of terminology here to describe the effect (if you know it, please let me in on it), but I’ve always called it the ‘Can-Kicker Syndrome’. You can see this in full effect when anyone chooses to do a mundane task over a personally enriching one, with the caveat being that the mundane action is done with a couple of other people. So as contingent as StarCraft’s heartbeat is on its multiplayer, there is little room to deviate from that raised expectation. This is also ignoring the fact that even though the game isn’t technically demanding, it still doesn’t have the install-base its predecessor had either (e.g. being able to run on virtually anything). Stack this on top of the PC audience’s insularity as well and you have a recipe for disaster (that’s lining Blizzard’s fat-ass wallets as you read this). Battle.net is NOW trying to perpetuate something that I respectfully hate in a way that absolutely detest.

Among the many of the symptoms-of-excess that Blizzard’s path has caused, one particularly humorous one is also one I’m fairly proud to be immune to. The first thing I saw when I noticed I could play the entire campaign offline was the constantly (and almost infectious) sentiment of…

“OMFG, YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO GET ACHIEVEMENTS MAN!”

…which actually made me laugh out loud. With a ‘bye bitch’ I was swiftly off to play something I thought I had to pay $60 for to begin with. Little did I know that I was hopping off a burning train into a pit of fire though. The next trench of debate I take up against StarCraft 2 is a common one, its narrative. Now while I do consider myself a fairly pretentious ass, I also see much potential in the general StarCraft universe, some of it realized---most of it not. As a large science fiction fan, it’s only a fleeting dream I have to someday see a game soar among the heights that I would love to see the medium find for itself. StarCraft does not do this, it doesn’t even aspire to do it. It takes an interesting backdrop, interesting archetypes, and an interesting design---and well, it just runs them through the motions.

I had one of my infamous ‘moments’ in the first game during Sarah Kerrigan’s betrayal on Tarsonis. Something about seeing the character I had grown somewhat attached to become completely overtaken by Zerg with no one around her kind of struck a personal chord for me. Thanks to that though, I was able to grant leniency to the bad-girl trope she later falls into, but that’s a digression. The second game’s moment came for me when Jim Raynor/Player is guided into reliving/playing Zeratul’s vision of the entire cosmos’s fall at the hands of the Zerg. The ‘In Utter Darkness’ mission’ was by far one of the greatest and mind-numbingly dumbest things I’ve ever seen in a game, both at the same time. Both of these moments are just personal instances where I could assert my perception where the game dares not to. StarCraft has always kind of felt like a brilliant toolset and nothing more, anytime I try to break it free of those restraints in my head, I always end up slamming into these hundred-foot high walls. StarCraft 2 is faulty in the sense that it doesn't try to change this at all, it just tries to hide behind its inability to do so.

Had more time been spent actually crafting this universe, StarCraft 2 might deserve at the very least, the majority of its hype. Since all signs point to its multiplayer being the reason the campaign is so silly, I have no choice but to raise my resentment towards online play in general (and anybody that's familiar with me knows how unreasonably high it already is). This  is mostly because Blizzard, one of the largest and most successful companies can get away with this swindle unchallenged:
  • Making people pay well over $100 for a title who’s functionality is tantamount to that of a fixer-upper hot-rod; only bolstering the fact that games can only be products rather than pieces (or even a fusion of both, which StarCraft is perfectly poised to do) will never set well with me.
  • It took ten years…for this? Blizzard shouldn’t just go unchallenged in this category anymore. Yes, they polish their games extremely well, yes it takes a while to design and furthermore test something as gargantuan as StarCraft, but a decade of unchallenged criticism is something they’re simply not getting from me. What’s shocking is the legion of defenders mindlessly defending this particular aspect of the game as well (e.g. "Well it's Blizzard, heh").
  • The DRM and ‘influences’ on this game have been horrendous; that I can’t play LAN or with someone overseas right now is somewhat sad, and I’m embarrassed people aren’t bitching about these things MORE.
The upgrades (and some units) in the campaign which you’ll never see in the multiplayer are just a small example of how the single player’s wasted treasures mean absolutely nothing at the end of the day. Yes, the easiest answer to THIS is ‘why disrupt the balance of such a well-designed multiplayer?’ and I’ll agree with that for the most part. However, it’s the only alternative I can think to Blizzard actually putting some effort into their seemingly-weighted single player campaign/narrative. The Dragon Age/Mass Effect-Lite just wasn’t doing it for me (and it probably insults those games in correlation). The move from the real-time story of the first game (which was minimal in its use of cutscenes by the way) and the more cinematic approach with its successor is something I perceive as a much larger problem than people are giving it credit for (or even care about for that matter).

It was StarCraft 2, and I wanted to care about it far more than I currently do (which is of course, why I'm so peeved). All I can do at the moment however, is offer some rather crazed and fanboyistic musings over the 'Queen of Blades'…but nothing else.

And though reading this would certainly make it seem like I loathe the damn game (which is untrue, being that I love it by default given my affinity for the first title if nothing else), I actually don’t. It’s just the burden so few of us bear now to hold this dumbass industry to a higher standard.