Crispy Gamer

Rush, Boom, Turtle: The Game So Nice They Made It Thrice

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Of course, the big news this week in real-time strategy games is the Multiwinia patch that nerfed ant hives. But since everyone's already talked that issue out, I thought I'd focus on something you might not have heard about. Did you know that StarCraft II is being split into three games? Blizzard quietly announced this during the hullabaloo about some World of Warcraft expansion.

Now your first reaction might be to get worked up into a snit because you're going to have to buy three games instead of one. Perhaps your concern might be financial, you parsimonious bastard. You doubt Blizzard can deliver $150 worth of entertainment over the three-plus years it will take to get all three games out the door? Just consider that over the course of those three years, you'll be paying less than the cost of a single year of World of Warcraft. How's that for value?

Rush Boom Turtle: StarCraft II
Here we see characters struggling with themes of redemption.

Or maybe your concern is one of a lack of content. Instead of three full games, will Blizzard instead make three one-third games? Moot point, you greedy bastard, since one-third of a Blizzard game is usually three times the game of a non-Blizzard game, right? In fact, consider yourself lucky that by that metric, Blizzard's games don?t cost $450. (Can someone check my math on that?)

Then there's the issue of splitting up the multiplayer community among haves and have-nots. Maybe you've tried finding an online game of Age of Empires III that'll let you use your city from the WarChiefs expansion. I feel your pain. But if this is your concern, I have to question your commitment to StarCraft. Any RTS fan worth his salt will buy all three.

But then there's the concern about why Blizzard is doing this, and here's where I simply can't defend the decision. According to Blizzard, it's not a business decision. According to Blizzard, it's a matter of being able to do justice to the single-player campaign, which is big. Way big. Too big for a single game. Epic big. In fact, it's so big, they haven't even started working on the non-Terran parts of the campaign.

Rush Boom Turtle: StarCraft II1
This is the "hero's journey" of mythology, as popularized by Joseph Campbell.

Blizzard would have you think it's no longer content to simply offer incredibly polished and derivative games, and now it wants to jump on the narrative bandwagon with BioShock, Lord of the Rings Online, Grand Theft Auto IV, Braid, Call of Duty and Portal. Like Miramax chasing Oscars, maybe Blizzard wants someone to look at its games and go, "Now that's some great storytelling!"

But with an RTS? There are only a handful of types of missions in a real-time strategy game, and the stories they tell are pretty much the same. It goes like this: "So I harvested some stuff, then I built a base, then I killed all the scripted AI dudes." Sometimes you have to play a commando mission without base building, which goes like this: "I killed all the scripted AI dudes." The better RTSes tell the same story minus the word "scripted."

Rush Boom Turtle: StarCraft II
This mission demonstrated the classic three-act structure of most drama.

Now I don't deny that some RTSes have excellent stories stuck around the edges. But they have next to nothing to do with the RTS part of the RTS. They are invariably the domain of whatever cut scenes get put between the missions. For instance, the original StarCraft is widely regarded as having a great story, and I'd probably agree if I could remember anything about it beyond some chick named Kerrigan getting turned into a Zerg. But I'll bet the bulk of the development process for the original StarCraft wasn't spent on the story, which was entirely typical of how RTSes tell stories: gameplay, then cut scene, then gameplay, then cut scene, then gameplay, then cut scene, then credits, then multiplayer.

To Blizzard's credit, it knows that a cut scene is a good format for storytelling. Just watch a movie (preferably a good one) for an example of how well this works. Blizzard's internal team working on cinematics exceeds 100 people.

But the actual real-time strategy gameplay doesn't lend itself to storytelling, because -- and I almost hate to tell you this -- it's a puzzle. And here is the heart of the puzzle: \How do you convert the on-map resources more efficiently than your opponent? Single-player missions often modify the puzzle with certain restrictions, like making you play chess without the bishop or Tetris without the "L"-shaped piece. But unlike a shooter or a role-playing game or a driving game, it always comes down to the puzzle-ness of it. There's a certain purity at the heart of any RTS.

So there you go. I've effectively stripped every RTS down to its bare bones. I'm sorry you had to see that, because RTSes are kind of ugly when you look at them as a barebones framework. Luckily, most RTSes layer on some graphics and personality and tactical fiddling. And many try to tell a story by having some hero unit assist the puzzle (don't let him get killed, or you'll have to start over because you've messed up the story!). Blizzard notoriously tried to build WarCraft III as an RPG before finally deciding to just make it an RTS after all. But you can no more make this puzzle a compelling story than you can build a plot around a bunch of games of Sudoku. Or chess. Or Tetris.

Rush Boom Turtle: StarCraft II
This mission was a whimsical bildungsroman.

Now I could be wrong, and I welcome any corrections, but I can't think of a single compelling instance of storytelling that happened during an actual RTS match. The real narrative is between missions, whether you're talking about the excellent DIY story of dynamic campaigns like Rome: Total War, the goofball cinematics of Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, or the tragedy of Arthas in WarCraft III. But in each case, before and after there are the puzzles. Always the puzzles.

All this is my way of saying Blizzard's decision to stretch StarCraft II into three games strikes me as a simple grab for more money, which is entirely within its rights. But I'm not buying the whitewash about how its storyline is just too epic and the game needs triple the development time to correctly tell it. If they want to draw out StarCraft to make more money, they should have found a better excuse. They could have just said they were once again imitating Warhammer 40,000 by adopting the Dawn of War model!

My more significant concern about StarCraft II is that the company hasn't made an RTS in a very long time. The last studio to try to recapture its former glory as an RTS luminary was Gas Powered Games, who completely understood the appeal of Total Annihilation and captured it beautifully, but long after the genre had moved forward. Whatever happens with StarCraft II, I just hope Blizzard is willing to learn from the guys who have been making RTSes over the last 10 years. Because these days, a good RTS takes a lot more than a long, drawn-out branching campaign, no matter how many separate games it takes.

Unit of the Week

Rush Boom Turtle: StarCraft II
The left side of this is the Unit of the Week.

The Unit of the Week is one-third of a Terran Battlecruiser. I'm selecting the port third, which still looks like an entire Battlecruiser if you look at it from the left. But turn it around and you're looking at a cutaway view of the interior, like those diagrams of the lower decks of sailing ships.

However, a third of a Terran Battlecruiser only has 166 hit points and it only does eight points of damage. On the upside, it only costs 133 Crystal and 100 Vespene Gas, so it's got that going for it.

In future columns, I'll award the rest of the Terran Battlecruiser its Unit of the Week Award, which I've decided to expand to epic proportions that are too big for a single column.

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