Starcraft, Too

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Here are the things that make StarCraft II great: it is an improved StarCraft, adapted to modern technology and paired with a superb matchmaking service, and bolstered by a huge player base. It is also a very much aimed at sustaining the original game's success as an e-sport.

Those virtues are also problematic when I try to render a critical judgment. StarCraft II does not feel like a new game, but a lavish new edition. Thanks to StarCraft II, I'm playing StarCraft again, and for that I'm grateful. But when I look at its accomplishments as a design, I mostly see achievements Blizzard attained twelve years ago.

I admire the skill with which Blizzard has updated and improved a classic game without yielding to the temptation to fix what was not broken. StarCraft needed restoration, not re-invention. But that also leaves StarCraft II without a distinct identity. It comes wearing hand-me-down greatness and the thick coat of polish that Blizzard has always used in place of daring.

Re-creating a classic 1990s strategy game also required imposing some painfully artificial limitations. Though I've gotten used to StarCraft II's claustrophobic zoom-level, I still find myself vainly spinning my mouse wheel in an effort to get some distance on the action. Armies move and fight like the Keystone Kops, shambling around in disorganized hordes and coming to a dead stop when engaging targets, leaving trailing units bumbling around out of range. I've had 10 years to get used to RTS armies moving and fighting in formations, and doing battle with some rudimentary common-sense. StarCraft II forces all that unwelcome micro-management back into my hands.

This is not a stand against over-simplification. StarCraft II is not any richer for making the player directly responsible for the actions of every last zergling. In point of fact, combat in StarCraft II is less complicated than you find in many other RTS games, and features commensurately reduced tactical variety. StarCraft II's conspicuously primitive controls and unit AI are not really about game design at all, but a familiar battle between technology and sport.

A few years before StarCraft came out, Formula 1 racing was at its technological pinnacle. Active suspensions adjusted the car setups during races, responding to feedback thousands of times a second to provide the best handling possible. Traction-control and anti-lock brakes smoothed away the rough edges of drivers' techniques. At the start of each race, launch-control managed the power to the wheels, so that everyone left the line smoothly. This was F1 at the forefront of computer-assisted racing—and there was a huge backlash. The next ten years were about taking tools away, forcing drivers to manage tasks that a computer could handle better. It remains controversial. On the one hand, the point of sport isn't efficiency, but skill. On the other hand, sport is also about performance, and artificial challenges can impose frustrating limitations on what is possible.

StarCraft II struggles with that dilemma, and errs on the side of caution. Its interface and controls are designed to fight back rather than facilitate mastery. It cannot be more user-friendly than it is, because all that endless multitasking is the source of its depth. It is the skill that competitive StarCraft is meant to exhibit. Ungainliness is part of the sport. Still, a good sport does not necessarily make for a good game. Designed to be a platform for high-level competition, StarCraft II has become less satisfying as recreation.

StarCraft II still provides a great multiplayer experience, but I'm unconvinced the game deserves credit for that. The Battle.net interface and matchmaking are excellent, but ultimately StarCraft II's strength derives from the sheer number of people who are playing it right now. The community that Blizzard won over in the late '90s has re-coalesced around this game, and it is that community that ultimately makes StarCraft II a multiplayer joy. How could it not be, when I can log onto Battle.net and see a half-dozen friends waiting to play? But if another RTS, say Rise of Nations or Dawn of War had such a community, I suspect I would be playing that.

Nevertheless, I suspect StarCraft II's community is likely to thrive in a way few other RTS games ever have, and for that Blizzard will deserve full credit. A couple months ago on Three Moves Ahead, Julian said he didn't think most game developers "believe their games are long-lasting enough or important enough." He pointed out that while people will be playing chess a hundred years from now, nobody will be playing StarCraft.

I replied that I wasn't sure, because "we are seeing an RTS begin to develop the sort of community and the sort of existence as an intellectual pursuit that I really only see reserved for games like chess. So for the first time, we're seeing bodies of work develop to explain and deepen the game." Having seen the finished product, I think I was right.

Blizzard created a game and service that invites, encourages, and practically demands that players take part in competition. With just a few clicks, you are playing ranked matches in StarCraft leagues. And when you're done, for good or ill, you can reload the game film and analyze every aspect of a match. You can review film from other matches. If Blizzard sacrificed some of the gameplay in favor of creating a competitive sport, they also made something that makes sportsmen out of gamers.

StarCraft II has many facets, and they are not all complementary. I thank heaven I don't have to review it or assign it a score, because I have no idea how to weigh the factors I outlined above. But one thing, I think, is clear: StarCraft II is the product of awkward compromises and contradictory goals. As such, it is not and never could be an unqualified triumph. It had too many constituencies to satisfy. Ultimately, how you feel about StarCraft II comes down to how you feel about the bet Blizzard made: Are strategy gamers ready to get off the sidelines and onto the playing field?

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Welcome to the front page Mr. Zacny!

Welcome Rob, great first article. But what happened to the picture of zerglings devouring Tony Romo!?

Honestly, if you want to photoshop it, I'll be happy to throw it up there. Though personally, I like the idea of a shot with Romo holding the ball for a field goal, and a Hydralisk standing in place of the kicker.

Rob Zacny wrote:

Honestly, if you want to photoshop it, I'll be happy to throw it up there. Though personally, I like the idea of a shot with Romo holding the ball for a field goal, and a Hydralisk standing in place of the kicker.

Nice one! Less horrible for Cowboys fans too, I suppose.

Perhaps a Terran Ghost could be sneaking in for the surprise FG block.

Really good stuff, Rob!

*Throws bra on stage*

Bout time, Zacny.

StarCraft II still provides a great multiplayer experience, but I'm unconvinced the game deserves credit for that. The Battle.net interface and matchmaking are excellent, but ultimately StarCraft II's strength derives from the sheer number of people who are playing it right now. The community that Blizzard won over in the late '90s has re-coalesced around this game, and it is that community that ultimately makes StarCraft II a multiplayer joy. How could it not be, when I can log onto Battle.net and see a half-dozen friends waiting to play? But if another RTS, say Rise of Nations or Dawn of War had such a community, I suspect I would be playing that.

Completely disagree. You mean Blizzard didn't meticulously balance the three factions for multiplayer? I'd argue the entire company should be diagnosed with OCD.

You can say a community makes a game, but more likely the community builds around a good game than a bad game.

Demiurge wrote:

Bout time, Zacny.

StarCraft II still provides a great multiplayer experience, but I'm unconvinced the game deserves credit for that. The Battle.net interface and matchmaking are excellent, but ultimately StarCraft II's strength derives from the sheer number of people who are playing it right now. The community that Blizzard won over in the late '90s has re-coalesced around this game, and it is that community that ultimately makes StarCraft II a multiplayer joy. How could it not be, when I can log onto Battle.net and see a half-dozen friends waiting to play? But if another RTS, say Rise of Nations or Dawn of War had such a community, I suspect I would be playing that.

Completely disagree. You mean Blizzard didn't meticulously balance the three factions for multiplayer? I'd argue the entire company should be diagnosed with OCD.

You can say a community makes a game, but more likely the community builds around a good game than a bad game.

Daaaamn - he just called your mom fat!!!

Online is the only place I can call Rob out. Have you seen the man? He *is* the Brute Squad.

But seriously, folks. It's high time we stop giving the credit for good mulitplayer experiences solely to the community. Someone's gotta design the thing the community's building up around. Icing doesn't just happen on a cake, you gotta have cake first.

And now I want cake.

Sure, there have been sketchy games that are only fun when you've got friends - I'm looking at you, Crackdown - but even my limited time with SC2 MP has shown me that the mechanics of the game have been obsessively balanced. That doesn't happen by accident, and it certainly didn't only happen 12 years ago.

This is not a stand against over-simplification. StarCraft II is not any richer for making the player directly responsible for the actions of every last zergling.

I disagree with this point in particular, as I used to think this way and Starcraft 2 has completely turned me around on this. If a game is designed to be challenging and compelling because it's constantly increasing your skill by teaching you new things about the game, then it makes that skill completely unnecessary, is the game better off? It's easy to make an auto-aim comparison here, but the element that's missing from this discussion is that the compelling part of a skill-based game is learning. When you learn to get better and a game rewards you for this by giving you more to learn, this can be a very rewarding and engaging experience. If you remove this required skill, there's no learning and no fun.

You can't remove micro from Starcraft because Starcraft is micro. It's also macro. That balance is the very definition of the game. Learning this game can be alot of fun.

Zoom level is the same way, this game requires the skill of dividing your attention all over the battlefield. If you can see more of the battlefield this skill is diminished.

But one thing, I think, is clear: StarCraft II is the product of awkward compromises and contradictory goals. As such, it is not and never could be an unqualified triumph. It had too many constituencies to satisfy.

I disagree that not satisfying a constituency completely suddenly makes it a bad game. Should every game try to appeal to every single person in the world? It's odd how we can praise a niche game like Dwarf Fortress which has obvious deficiencies that will never allow it to be enjoyed by most people, but when you put a huge budget behind a (very large) niche game, it's suddenly deficient. Starcraft is a thing that is immensely compelling to a fairly sizeable group of people. If that group of people doesn't include you, it's not a failure that Starcraft 2 didn't appeal to you. In fact, I'd consider it to the game's credit that they didn't try to appease people who dislike playing a micro-heavy game.

Don't get me wrong, disliking Starcraft 2 is a completely valid thing. I think it's to the game's credit that it's such a well-realized, distinct, recognizable thing that people dislike it precisely because of it's core game mechanics and not stupid distractions like graphics, art direction or voice acting. The things people dislike about Starcraft 2 are the very things that make it so recognizably Starcraft. It's rare to do that and still have a compelling game when you're done.

Sure, there have been sketchy games that are only fun when you've got friends - I'm looking at you, Crackdown - but even my limited time with SC2 MP has shown me that the mechanics of the game have been obsessively balanced. That doesn't happen by accident, and it certainly didn't only happen 12 years ago.

Blizzard (and the SC community) really didn't consider Brood War this balanced till about 6 years after it's release. It blows my mind to have a video game that has that kind of staying power.

PyromanFO wrote:
Sure, there have been sketchy games that are only fun when you've got friends - I'm looking at you, Crackdown - but even my limited time with SC2 MP has shown me that the mechanics of the game have been obsessively balanced. That doesn't happen by accident, and it certainly didn't only happen 12 years ago.

Blizzard (and the SC community) really didn't consider Brood War this balanced till about 6 years after it's release. It blows my mind to have a video game that has that kind of staying power.

So you're saying the balanced gameplay in SC2 is in large part because of the chances they made 6 years ago? You're not helping my case, dude.

Demiurge wrote:
PyromanFO wrote:
Sure, there have been sketchy games that are only fun when you've got friends - I'm looking at you, Crackdown - but even my limited time with SC2 MP has shown me that the mechanics of the game have been obsessively balanced. That doesn't happen by accident, and it certainly didn't only happen 12 years ago.

Blizzard (and the SC community) really didn't consider Brood War this balanced till about 6 years after it's release. It blows my mind to have a video game that has that kind of staying power.

So you're saying the balanced gameplay in SC2 is in large part because of the chances they made 6 years ago? You're not helping my case, dude. ;)

No, I just mean that it took Blizzard 6 years to get Brood War to the balance it eventually arrived at to wear the crown of "best balanced RTS ever". SC2 is starting off much more balanced than Starcraft ever did. But it's an entirely different balance in alot of way and I'm sure Blizzard is going to be working on it for years to come.

If the argument is "SC2 is only good because of work Blizzard essentially did in the 90s" my counter-argument is that not only did Blizzard do a ton of work already on SC2 just to get it right, the work they did on the first game wasn't even really done in the 90s. It's a constantly ongoing process.

Rob Zacny wrote:

StarCraft II struggles with that dilemma, and errs on the side of caution. Its interface and controls are designed to fight back rather than facilitate mastery. It cannot be more user-friendly than it is, because all that endless multitasking is the source of its depth. It is the skill that competitive StarCraft is meant to exhibit. Ungainliness is part of the sport. Still, a good sport does not necessarily make for a good game. Designed to be a platform for high-level competition, StarCraft II has become less satisfying as recreation.

Rob - are you saying StarCraft is essentially handcuffed to its "ungainliness" because the competitive community demands it?

Let's say StarCraft II were a single-player only game. How likely do you think it would be that Blizzard would radically alter the formula to streamline resource/unit management?

I guess what I'm asking is, to what extent is the "endless multitasking" a hallmark (or symptom, I suppose) of StarCraft the franchise, not StarCraft the "sport"?

PyromanFO wrote:

Zoom level is the same way, this game requires the skill of dividing your attention all over the battlefield. If you can see more of the battlefield this skill is diminished.

I think the only real skill that the lack of zoom requires, is being able to move your screen around quickly. The biggest problem with Starcraft 2 is two people with equal abilities in tactics won't have a close match if one guy is slower with the interface. Starcraft 2 is anything but modern and that is probably the biggest problem I have with it. The only redeeming factor is the single player is fun.

Three Moves Ahead crossover with GWJ is awesome! Go Rob!

kazar wrote:
PyromanFO wrote:

Zoom level is the same way, this game requires the skill of dividing your attention all over the battlefield. If you can see more of the battlefield this skill is diminished.

I think the only real skill that the lack of zoom requires, is being able to move your screen around quickly. The biggest problem with Starcraft 2 is two people with equal abilities in tactics won't have a close match if one guy is slower with the interface. Starcraft 2 is anything but modern and that is probably the biggest problem I have with it.

I think this begs the question: what does "skill" mean in this game? Does StarCraft unfairly privilege simple manual dexterity over tactical thinking?

kincher skolfax wrote:
kazar wrote:
PyromanFO wrote:

Zoom level is the same way, this game requires the skill of dividing your attention all over the battlefield. If you can see more of the battlefield this skill is diminished.

I think the only real skill that the lack of zoom requires, is being able to move your screen around quickly. The biggest problem with Starcraft 2 is two people with equal abilities in tactics won't have a close match if one guy is slower with the interface. Starcraft 2 is anything but modern and that is probably the biggest problem I have with it.

I think this begs the question: what does "skill" mean in this game? Does StarCraft unfairly privilege simple manual dexterity over tactical thinking?

No, but it definitely rewards tactics that are traditional to the game more than "thinking outside of the box."

kincher skolfax wrote:

I think this begs the question: what does "skill" mean in this game? Does StarCraft unfairly privilege simple manual dexterity over tactical thinking?

Manual dexterity is certainly one of the necessary skills to be a top-level StarCraft player, but isn't that true of most sports and even most online gaming (Counterstrike, etc.)? Is it unfair that soccer privileges those with more dexterity?

PyromanFO wrote:

Zoom level is the same way, this game requires the skill of dividing your attention all over the battlefield. If you can see more of the battlefield this skill is diminished.

True. However, that doesn't mean that that particular skill needs to be part of the challenge or competition.

After all, if you had to complete a Tower of Hanoi mini-game any time you wanted to build a unit, that would really reward people with skill at Tower of Hanoi! However, it would still be a really dumb thing to do.

Starcraft is a game where competition involves using many different skills in order to win. I think it's fair for people to have varying opinions on which skills it should require and which it shouldn't. And just because a skill was required in SC1 doesn't necessarily mean it should be needed for SC2, though here I imagine you'll have a hard time convincing the longtime SC1 hardcore players that.

Playing Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance has reminded me again how much I really appreciate near unlimited zoom out/zoom in.

PyromanFO wrote:

If a game is designed to be challenging and compelling because it's constantly increasing your skill by teaching you new things about the game, then it makes that skill completely unnecessary, is the game better off? It's easy to make an auto-aim comparison here, but the element that's missing from this discussion is that the compelling part of a skill-based game is learning. When you learn to get better and a game rewards you for this by giving you more to learn, this can be a very rewarding and engaging experience. If you remove this required skill, there's no learning and no fun.

You can't remove micro from Starcraft because Starcraft is micro. It's also macro. That balance is the very definition of the game. Learning this game can be alot of fun.

But I'm not learning so much as I'm building muscle memory and routines for playing Starcraft II. I haven't learned very much about how to better employ my units and resources, but how to more efficiently queue them up, give them the appropriate orders in combat, and trigger spells. By this standard, any game can provide this joyous learning experience simply by cranking up the speed and making it difficult to do simple tasks.

PyromanFO wrote:

Zoom level is the same way, this game requires the skill of dividing your attention all over the battlefield. If you can see more of the battlefield this skill is diminished.

You are totally accepting the definition of skill created by the sport that has grown up around Starcraft. As a strategy gamer, not being able to see the frigging map is not a test of skill, it's an obnoxious limitation to create yet another artificial obstacle that must be overcome. Where other games try to make it easier to survey the battlefield and get your troops doing what you want, aka strategy and tactics, Starcraft II adds a new layer of challenge just in order to see what the hell is going on.

PyromanFO wrote:
But one thing, I think, is clear: StarCraft II is the product of awkward compromises and contradictory goals. As such, it is not and never could be an unqualified triumph. It had too many constituencies to satisfy.

I disagree that not satisfying a constituency completely suddenly makes it a bad game. Should every game try to appeal to every single person in the world? It's odd how we can praise a niche game like Dwarf Fortress which has obvious deficiencies that will never allow it to be enjoyed by most people, but when you put a huge budget behind a (very large) niche game, it's suddenly deficient. Starcraft is a thing that is immensely compelling to a fairly sizeable group of people. If that group of people doesn't include you, it's not a failure that Starcraft 2 didn't appeal to you. In fact, I'd consider it to the game's credit that they didn't try to appease people who dislike playing a micro-heavy game.

There are several problems here. First, you're putting words in my mouth. I never even came close to saying that a game has to satisfy everyone to be good. But a game that's trying to be accessible and enjoyable, but also competition-ready, is at war with itself and I don't think it offers a lot to the people who aren't willing to make Starcraft II a rather serious hobby. That's a problem, because that's not the relationship most of us have with videogames.

And just because a game is great at satisfying niche tastes doesn't make it a great game. We can only judge a game on how well it delivers on its own objectives? So Starcraft II is artificially difficult to control, has simple combat that's challenging only because your tools are bad, and is really designed for serious competitive play. But it's a great game, because people who love artificially difficult controls, simple, click-heavy combat, and competition will love Starcraft II! So any criticism that doesn't accept this premise is invalid?

ClockworkHouse wrote:
kincher skolfax wrote:

I think this begs the question: what does "skill" mean in this game? Does StarCraft unfairly privilege simple manual dexterity over tactical thinking?

Manual dexterity is certainly one of the necessary skills to be a top-level StarCraft player, but isn't that true of most sports and even most online gaming (Counterstrike, etc.)? Is it unfair that soccer privileges those with more dexterity?

Understood, but what I'm asking is whether the balance of manual dexterity to tactical thinking is too heavily slanted in favor of the former, not if it's unfair period. I could have a brilliant mind for the game, but I'll always lose to this dude because I can't get my fingers to work that fast.

For an RTS game that prides itself on balance, I wonder if StarCraft is too heavy on the "Real Time" and not enough on the "Strategy."

To some extent, every RTS has that problem. Where I take issue with Starcraft II is that it treats it like a feature. It hurts SC2 as a strategy game, but probably helps it as a sport. Depends on how you decide to engage with the game, which was kind of my point above.

I used to do a lot of fencing. Now fencing is inherently physical and intellectual. There were guys who were awful tacticians and predictable as hell... but they were tall and had quick reflexes. There were guys who had a couple attacks they always used, but they were so frigging good at them that it was tough to stop, even if you knew exactly how they could and should be stopped.

I still love fencing, but I also would never call it a strategy game. It's a sport where strategy plays an important role, but not as much as physical dexterity and practice. That's Starcraft II.

But I'm not learning so much as I'm building muscle memory and routines for playing Starcraft II.

How is muscle memory and routine not learning? It's a type of learning you evidently do not enjoy in this case. People can spend hours and hours practicing a jump shot and we never question their enjoyment of that time.

But a game that's trying to be accessible and enjoyable, but also competition-ready, is at war with itself

That's why Starcraft 2 is great, in my opinion, because they made it competition-ready then tried to make the competition accessible. Not the game itself. The game is still stubbornly in the competition genre.

And just because a game is great at satisfying niche tastes doesn't make it a great game. We can only judge a game on how well it delivers on its own objectives? So Starcraft II is artificially difficult to control, has simple combat that's challenging only because your tools are bad, and is really designed for serious competitive play. But it's a great game, because people who love artificially difficult controls, simple, click-heavy combat, and competition will love Starcraft II! So any criticism that doesn't accept this premise is invalid?

I didn't say it was invalid to dislike it. I'm saying Blizzard made a conscious decision to completely ignore that line of criticism. I consider that a far more respectable decision than someone who really, really wants you to like it and fails. What Blizzard did was instead go after people who like StarCraft with more StarCraft. I don't think that's just the hardcore crowd, but I do think there's a ton of people who like StarCraft precisely because it's trying to be competitive in all the areas you list above as detriments to the casual game. Blizzard made a purposeful stylistic choice instead of following a list of bullet points to maximize marketshare, which I always think is great even when I disagree with the artistic choices made.

PyromanFO wrote:

What Blizzard did was instead go after people who like StarCraft with more StarCraft. I don't think that's just the hardcore crowd, but I do think there's a ton of people who like StarCraft precisely because it's trying to be competitive in all the areas you list above as detriments to the casual game. Blizzard made a purposeful stylistic choice instead of following a list of bullet points to maximize marketshare, which I always think is great even when I disagree with the artistic choices made.

I'll reiterate a point I've seen Tom Chick made on Jumping the Shark and in his review. Blizzard came along with Starcraft and totally ignored all the cool innovations introduced in the intervening 10 years. I think this commitment to their work is credible, rather than focus testing it into being something else.

Maybe they did this for the competitive scene, but I never played Starcraft competitively. For me it was always a single-player game, yet I've found myself pulled into the competitive aspect of the sequel, despite sucking.

I have the same fascination with Starcraft 2 that I have with rugby, yet unlike rugby, I can take part without getting my spine snapped.

Are the limitations in Starcraft 2 bad design? Maybe, but they are there for a reason. In rugby you are only allowed to pass the ball backwards. It's a limitation designed into the system, and while it may seem silly, it has a purpose.

Limitations mean the players need to work around them without doing whatever they like. Not being able to zoom out, and units not making formations are there for a reason.

Ultimately I think Rob is right, Starcraft 2 is more a sport than a game, and ultimately I don't think it matters.

...with Joe Pesci

kazar wrote:

I think the only real skill that the lack of zoom requires, is being able to move your screen around quickly. The biggest problem with Starcraft 2 is two people with equal abilities in tactics won't have a close match if one guy is slower with the interface.

kincher skolfax wrote:

I could have a brilliant mind for the game, but I'll always lose to this dude because I can't get my fingers to work that fast.

Have you guys played SC2 multiplayer much? From the sounds of it, either you haven't, or you have but with a very firm set of preconceptions. Yes, there are people that click quickly. Yes, that can be valuable. Yes, you can kick the sh*t out of fast-clickers with a solid gameplan.

Now, obviously, when you're dealing with two people of identical skill level, whoever has an edge in some other factor will win, but that's not the way the real world ever works. SC2 is about awareness, not about clicking fast. If I know when my buildings finish, I don't need to hop around the map like a jackrabbit on PCP. If I understand where my army will be in relation to his in 7 seconds, I don't need to check each unit individually - twice. I can do a lot at 60 APM (actions per minute), or 40. If my 40APM are meaningful, and your 200APM are a whole lot of extraneous clicking, you're not winning.

The lack of unit formations and map zoom-out both require a certain level of awareness. If you have it and your opponent doesn`t, physical skills don`t matter much.

I'm an outlier because I very rarely like competitive games and I often actively dislike any hindrance to implementation that would hamper or otherwise mediate my strategy, preferring instead for my strategy to stand on its own. I suppose I do enjoy games that emphasize performance, but only when they aren't also trying to be strategy games.

But I did want to welcome Rob to the Front Page. Welcome, Rob!

Welcome, Rob! While I disagree with several of your points about Starcraft 2, I thoroughly enjoyed the read and look forward to more of your articles.

I think there is a bit of worship being done at the Blizzard altar over SC2 because they saw fit to bestow the great unwashed masses with a release. It's the same with all their games, to a proportion of the audience they're untouchable.

Don't get me wrong, it's a good game, but there's a lot that SC2 is not. I guess the reason for what SC2 is, is because of it's earlier version and Bliz feel the need to cater for their fans (which is a good thing overall) and not to turn SC2 into another game entirely.

What I'd be curious to see is what they would make if unshackled from all their previous games and given a blank sheet of paper, but it's going to be the other end of the decade before that's likely to happen. Knowing luck their second MMO is going to consume the content creating part of studio the same way that WoW did.

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