I’m sitting at the far end of a long table with four dudes who make strategy games, waiting to moderate a panel in front of about a thousand or so people at this year’s Game Developers Conference. Folks are milling around finding seats.
“You gave us a 75,” says Dustin Browder, sitting directly to my right. He’s the lead designer of Starcraft II.
After the jump, I try to think of something to say.
“You gave us a 75,” Browder says.
“No, I’m pretty sure it was a B.”
“It’s the lowest review on Metacritic.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. I love Starcraft II.”
“You don’t love it. There’s three kinds of reviews. There’s don’t buy it, maybe buy it, or buy it.”
“I think people should buy Starcraft II. But when I say that, I have a few caveats I wanted to talk about. Well, to write about.”
“You said we were the most disappointing game of the year.”
“I don’t think so. I think that was Civ 5. You guys were most overrated.”
“You should see what he wrote about Civ 5,” Soren Johnson notes good naturedly, pointing down the table to Jon Shafer, the lead designer of Civ 5, who gives a little wave. I’m not sure if Shafer can hear us or if he’s just waving because someone pointed at him. Johnson is sitting next to Browder, listening to us spar. He’s the guy who made Civilization IV, which Metacritic might tell you I gave a 100. In fact, I did no such thing. I gave it five stars. Next to Johnson is Ian Fischer, the guy who made Age of Mythology, which Metacritic might also say I gave a 100. Fischer also worked on Age of Empires III, which Metacritic will tell you I gave a 60. Neither of those things is true. Thanks, Metacritic.
“So are you just one of those guys who writes reviews that have to slam the big guys because it’s cool, because you want to stand up for the little guys?” Browder asks.
“I get that all the time from people. I guess you could interpret it that way, but I would hope the review explains it better than that.”
Browder actually calls up the review on his iPhone. He starts reading it to me, which is a slightly surreal experience. Have you ever had the developer of a game read back to you the review you carefully wrote about his game that you had hoped was expressing in equal parts your adoration for and your reservations about that game? It’s pretty trippy. It’s a bit like dreaming down a layer in Inception. When is the van going to hit the water already?
Unfortunately, he doesn’t get to the part about the zombie gorilla on the sled, my favorite bit in the review, because the microphones go live and suddenly we’re doing a panel on the future of strategy gaming, with Browder sitting immediately to the right of some dude (me) burbling on about how we’re in the goldenest age strategy gaming has ever known.
I’m pretty sure it was all good natured, and Browder has no reason to be anything but ecstatic about the critical reception to his game. But the irony to me is that I gave Starcraft II a B — and really, forget what I gave it, because the rating should never be the starting point for a discussion about a videogame — because it succeeded at what Browder had just spent an hour telling a crowded and enthusiastic room he was trying to do. Namely, to be an e-sport.
Browder’s talk on Starcraft II, which immediately preceded our panel, was equal parts post-mortem, design philosophy, and motivational speech. It was practiced, funny, and easily the most spirited talk I saw this year. Browder has the look and energy of a wrestling promoter. His game is a wonderful piece of work for a number of reasons, and as anyone who’s played it knows, it’s carefully built around a long shallow learning curve that rewards as much time as you want to put into it. It’s a classic example of how micromanagement — often misused as a dirty word — is gameplay. It’s full of detail, minutiae, dexterity challenges, and shifting balance. Like a Ferrari, it turns on a dime and can take off in unexpected directions. Browder details a lot of this stuff in his talk, explaining how the game was built to cater to the e-sports crowd, despite his own early reservations when he first joined the team.
It’s a luxury that only Blizzard enjoys. They can afford to make a demanding, challenging RTS with a story as dumb as a bag of hammers because they’ve long since laid the groundwork for a fanbase that will adjust to whatever they want to do. In a way, I applaud them for giving the hardcore fans what they want, and dragging along the more laidback among us for the ride. I don’t think I’ll ever be good at, say, dropping the Protross sentry’s shield walls, stimpacking Terran marines, or even the Zerg infestor zombie armies that I’ve tried a few times to not much effect. But I don’t have to. There are enough people playing Starcraft II, and it has enough sizzle and personality, and it caters to enough different ways to play, and it has a strong enough AI that it has plenty to offer me. It’s a fantastic RTS and one of the clearest signs of strategy gaming’s latest goldenest age.
I mean, it’s no Supreme Commander 2. Which I also gave a B, so actually, maybe it is.