Commentary

'Starcraft 2': Success Without Innovation

If you're reading this column, you probably don't need me to tell you that (1) "Starcraft 2" came out this week, and (2) it's probably the biggest PC. gaming story of the decade. Gamers have been anticipating the latest installment of the franchise for 12 years; while they waited; they've been playing its predecessor incessantly.

But despite its absolutely glowing reviews, "Starcraft 2" isn't the game it could've been. For the last 12 years, Blizzards' developers have been toiling away on a product that they knew they couldn't fundamentally change - they're prisoners of their own success. The vast majority of "Starcraft" fans love the game so much that any significant deviation from the formula, aside from a graphic update, would've elicited shrieks of outrage.

This is a common phenomenon in the gaming space when it comes to cult hits or mega-blockbusters. "Fallout 3," which was released back in 2008, had a core of embittered haters who despised developer Bethesda for its decision to bring out the game with a first-person perspective, among other things. Another game currently in development, "X-Com: UFO Defense," is getting a similar update, and fans of the cult classic are totally writing off the possibility that the new game could be any good at all.

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Blizzard has been clear that it's not interested in improving or innovating on the "Starcraft" formula -- only on bringing it up to a 2010 polish. Lead developer Dustin Browder told Gamasutra that the team wasn't really trying to change anything about the 1998 classic. "We're not trying to be innovative," he said. "We're not trying to change for change's sake. We're just trying to make quality, and we definitely felt there were some things in the previous game that were high quality, that we weren't super confident we could do much better."

It's a unique feature of gaming that a creative product that's admittedly not innovative can still be wildly successful -- both critically and commercially. Imagine going to a movie or reading a book where the creator openly admitted that there wasn't anything especially new. The reason that sequels can be non-innovative but still successful is simple: The best games leave players craving more of the same, and it's relatively easy just to give it to them.

I hold out hope, though, that it won't always be this way -- more of the same isn't a great way to move the medium forward. With its enormous budget and huge development timeline, "Starcraft" devs had a chance to do something really new -- but it was much safer to give the fans what they wanted. Did they make the right call? What do you think?
6 comments about "'Starcraft 2': Success Without Innovation".
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  1. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, July 30, 2010 at 1:57 p.m.

    I don't blame them. I played EverQuest for years. Then EverQuest 2 came out. I jumped ship. But the social aspects/control/management sucked. I went from talking with all these people during play to playing solo. But the old game I couldnt go back too. Then I tried World of Warcraft. Just like EQ2. Great game, graphics etc but the group play and communication among players sucks. EQ was so simple and easy. So I played WoW pretty much solo for a year and then dropped it.

    So dangerous to mess with success INDEED!

  2. Jeff Rutherford from Jeff Rutherford Media Relations, LLC, July 30, 2010 at 2:45 p.m.

    Shankar, I think in this situation, the video game industry resembles Hollywood. When you have a successful "franchise" like Starcraft or the various WWII first-person shooters, sequels are going to be more of the same.

    Not many companies have the stomach to spend millions to completely revamp a franchise and risk alienating their core customers and having low sales.

    So, sadly innovative games are usually not going to have huge budgets. There will be a low-budget first generation, and then if a new genre develops, large studios will rush in with their large budges to piggyback on the initial success.

    Right now, a lot of the innovation in video gaming is happening in the casual game arena.

  3. Jim Raynor from Myself, July 30, 2010 at 3:58 p.m.

    I'd just like to comment on this really quick:

    "Imagine going to a movie or reading a book where the creator openly admitted that there wasn't anything especially new."

    While, to be fair, nothing was ever admitted, think about last year's biggest blockbuster: Avatar. Ranting and raving in the reviews, when all we got was "The Last Samurai" or "Dances with Wolves" with more shine and some 3D glasses. Yet it was still a great movie.

    Innovation isn't always the most important thing. For entertainment, the key is, wait for it, to be entertained. Starcraft was a success because of the amazing balance between three distinctly different armies and a depth of tactics and strategy that, 12 years later, people are still discovering new things in. Adding smoother controls, nicer graphics and a continued storyline and keeping what made the game great is far from a bad thing.

    Heck, think about every gaming sequel for the most part. The wildly successful ones (Halo, God of War, Gears of War, Devil May Cry) realized that they did good on the first game and simply added to it. That's what gamers want, for the most part. If there is innovation in the series, it's usually in offshoot games (like Curse of Cerberus, an action adventure game based off of the turn based Final Fantasy 7) and not the main series.

    Did you run this same story when the Halo sequels came out? Aside from Halo Wars (which was mediocre at best), each game was basically identical, but with better graphics, new mechanics, and a continuation of the storyline, kind of like Starcraft is doing now. I don't think the series would have done quite as well if Halo 2 was a puzzle game.

    Innovative games *do* come around, but they're not genrally part of a series. Look at Portal, one of the most notably "different" and mind bending games. It incorporates first person shooter and physics puzzle gameplay, something that's never really been done before. Is it slightly connected to the Half-Life series? Yes, there are references made, but it's not a direct sequel, and never was intended to be. If they had intended it to be, the players would be, frankly, insulted that the formula from such an iconic game series would be changed so drastically.

    So, obviously, I respectfully disagree. Innovation in new games and reboots are acceptable and, indeed, gratefully recieved, but not in successful series.

  4. Ken Geddings, July 30, 2010 at 4:29 p.m.

    I must say finally a "review" that doesnt praise the game as the best game ever made.

    Starcraft 2 is overated. Most sites are giving it 90s, 97s ...its NOT that good. Anyone who knows squat about games and has been following games seriously for the last 15 years should know this game simply isnt good enough.

    It is overhyped and some of the money they used to make the flashy cinimatics could have easily gone into actually making it a more unique experence.

    they are going to rely too much on the mod community for members to make it the game it should have been in the first place. for 60 bucks i should think on day one it should have been an awsome game.

    If you are an old school RTS fan sure it might be fun.... for those used to the epic feel of Homeworld and Sins of a Solar Empire with full rotating Camera views.. you are going to be dissipointed. given the fact the actual engine itself is capible of full camera movement and rotation WHY in the world this was not put into the actual game itself is BEYOND me.

    given the fact you have to be ONLINE to play skirmish against the AI and NO LAN really gives it a step BACK and not foward.

    Battlenet is ok but it is NOT the greatest thing in the world...and Blizzard needs to stop hyping it as such.

    Great article. I put up with the clicking 50 uncheck boxes for spam newletters to my inbox so i could comment to this article!

    though boo for this website defaulting to "subscribing" to 50 or so newletters to clutter up your inbox! shame!

  5. Anthony Giallourakis from Advergames.com, LLC, July 30, 2010 at 6:31 p.m.

    StarCraft 2 is a huge hit, PERIOD. In a market full of junk, crap and just plain horrible video games, Blizzard knocked the ball out of the park, again. There is no other way to look at this.

    The wise old expression "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" comes to mind here. Far worse to tinker with a sure thing and screw it up for both players and shareholders of Activision. If the developers at Blizzard feel the need to innovate, I don't blame them if the aim that urge at something new, perhaps a yet to be named new game (think skunk-works).

    Highly recommended: Buy an Optoma high end gaming projector. Hook it up to a high end gaming quality PC. Load StarCraft 2 and project onto a white wall (gloss finish) at 100 inches diagonal. Turn off the lights and be amazed. It just doesn't get any better folks. The game looks brilliant, the graphics, the colors, etc.

  6. John Adams, August 10, 2010 at 11:12 p.m.

    Look here kid: i am sure that you would not like Starcraft 2 anyways. The only thing for sure is that anything has a complaint behind it: if Blizzard did actually make a "revolution" for the gaming formula, you would complain to it anyways, saying they are dumb for destroying a classical gaming system and aruing that Starcraft 2 is not a RTS but a RTT like DoW or WtFT.
    My point is, if you do not like the game, yust dont buy it, because there are people who likes the game anyways because it keeps being a classic and it feels like starcraft, not just any other RTS games that recently have been turning more focused on units alone than large armies (exeptions of course, as age of empires among others). As for people complaining about LAN and single player: nobody cares as you are just thinking on spamming the game with friends, in your cybercafe, pirate it for self gaining purposes or just being able to download it for free, which is selfish, not to mention illegal (copirights. you might say they are "bad" but whithout them we would never see games again as it is more profitable to copy it and there would be probably thousands of games with the same name but different producers, taking advantage of the sucess).Battlenet is FINE as it is, although i miss spamming funny messages in public chat, everything else satisfies my expectatives. Real changes should not happen on LAN or gameplay or anything related to the game, but on implementing public chat and region connections.

    Going off topic: blizzard should do something for the competitive gaming of starcraft 2 on korea though, i would miss their fanaticism.

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