“I don’t care about Starcraft II.” — Me last year.
“Oh my God, is it time for Starcraft II yet?” — Me at present.
Somewhere down the line I will make the grand argument that my reverse course on Starcraft II was born from the unflagging dedication to quality that Blizzard exemplifies in their game development. While the game maker's once mighty guiding North Star is riding low on the horizon of late, its record as a premier game maker remains relatively unimpeachable, so I expect that when I make this argument -- and I will make it -- it will seem pretty damn convincing.
“They just made too good a game to ignore,” I will proclaim emphatically and with the benefit of empirical evidence on my side.
Let me tell you now, it’s a smoke screen made entirely of vaporized, high-grade, Oscar Meyer baloney. A delicious yet questionably toxic smoke screen designed to distract you from the truth, which is that I crossed Blizzard's hype event horizon, and was pulled inextricably into their fold.
I never really really cared for the original Starcraft. I grew up a Warcraft II kind of guy, wielding the unimaginable power of the Orcish Horde across Lordaeron and Kalimdor with impunity. It is, in many ways, the last game that I learned at a depth that made me consistently competitive, and even I — the man that multiplayer games forgot — once invested countless hours on Kali or whatever IPX emulator software I could find holding court and taking on all challengers.
Starcraft failed me not because it wasn’t a well created game. It simply was not Warcraft II. I was a victim of familiarity, and as a result my slow extraction from the RTS genre once powerfully set in motion gathered momentum enough to carry it through decades. In fact, with the possible exception of Rise of Nations, every other RTS game I have played failed for basically the same reason, and so I cared not a whit for Starcraft II at its announcement.
The problem is that Blizzard may be at the top of the game when it comes to promoting their product. There is no better company in the biz at announcing a game. After too many years of website countdowns that lead to the announcement of vague product-point promises and a snazzy logo, watching as Blizzard unleashed videos, gameplay and legitimate content at their announcement set a powerful foundation for mania in the fertile space of gaming media.
It’s like Lays Potato Chips. The more you get, the more you want.
But, it wasn’t until the beta replays starting hitting YouTube that the hook finally sunk its barb into my cheek. Somehow the broadcasting of this game that was still months out, this title that threatened to become an event unto itself, finally fired the right cocktail of chemicals in my brain.
I suppose most of us have had that moment where something you cared nothing about suddenly becomes a thing that you sinfully covet. Watching my first Protoss 4-gate push online as enthusiastic match-casters talked arcane strategies and identified key moments of play by people with unimaginable skill was the zombie bite that muddled my brain and turned me into the mindless automaton I now am.
I’m not suggesting that Blizzard’s approach should be the new model by which every game maker needs to launch a title. Let’s be honest, they can get away with this strategy because they know how to deliver the goods. They have the phenomenal luxury of spending months in a sophisticated beta that outshines most other companies’ release code, because they have authority, they have power and they have leverage. Or, more succinctly, they have cash.
However, breaking from traditional models, even on a budget is not only possible, but potentially a great way of keeping your game current. Look only at what Stardock is doing with Elemental, and you have a great example of how you can leverage a fanbase into visibility.
This industry is far too ridiculously secretive and restrictive, as though every publisher were designing elaborate Manhattan Projects of gaming. There is under-explored benefit to the timely release of meaningful and substantive game information, and by letting a following grow organically rather than through some artificially constructed marketer’s wet dream, there is not only opportunity for generating fan interest, but you might just end up making a better game as well.
As always, Blizzard isn't creating a platform for the new direction all companies should take, but they are showing that by being both daring enough to break traditions and receptive enough to their customers to change course when necessary, they can chart a sophisticated path toward success.