Due to StarCraft’s robust map editor, decade-long popularity in the professional circuit, and a lack of competition in the RTS space, the original StarCraft custom map community was surprisingly active. When WarCraft 3 was released, the trend continued, even spawning an entirely new genre with the custom map Defense of the Ancients.
But what makes this branch of mod development unique isn’t just its popularity, but also its focus on gameplay. Almost every StarCraft and WarCraft custom map uses only in-game assets. Many StarCraft 2 custom maps even use the core game mechanics for things like combat or resource management, while wildly varying in other areas. There's nearly infinite experimentation and exploration of the game’s possibilities, while staying firmly grounded in the original game’s setting and characters.
In other words, it’s fan fiction.
Now what is being toyed with here isn't the fiction itself, though sometimes that comes into play. No, what the mod makers are playing with is the gameplay. They are taking the rules of the game and messing around with them. Similar to how a Star Trek fan will take certain characters or settings and write entirely new stories about their adventures. StarCraft 2 custom map makers take parts from the old game and tweak, remove and add new components until they have an entirely new game. At it's core it's still StarCraft, but it’s different. It’s surprisingly compelling to experience so many variations on the StarCraft universe.
As a recovering Desert Strike addict, I can tell you how addictive StarCraft 2’s custom maps can get. Desert Strike is a “Tug of War” style game, where your units spawn in waves and fight amongst themselves in the middle of the map. All of the “micro” or tactical management of units is taken out of your hands. What do you do instead? Take the resources you get allotted each wave and build buildings which spawn units. The key is to counter your opponents unit choices with better units.
Desert Strike takes away all the micro, all the resource gathering, all the differences in player’s reflexes, and focuses in on one core gameplay mechanic: unit choice. This complete focus on production yields a wildly addictive result. It takes one aspect of the game and removes all other distractions—it’s the gameplay equivalent of taking a character and spinning them off into their own story. It worked for Han Solo and Captain Jack Sparrow, so why not? This laser-like focus on unit composition has been more compelling to me in some ways than the main game.
Galaxy Wars is another example. It's really almost an alternative universe game, what if StarCraft were set in space? You’re only given one capital ship that you can upgrade and use to attack your opponents. Both teams have a Mothership to defend at each end of the map. You then fight off the other team’s capital ships and tiny fighter ships to earn cash to spend on upgrades. If you die, that’s it. No respawns allowed. This makes for a tense capital ship battle where you constantly try to fend off attacks while hoping to catch one of your enemy’s ships alone so you can surround it and finish it off quickly.
All standard StarCraft units, but completely revamped gameplay. It actually feels like a naval battle, in an arcade sense. Constantly maneuvering slow ships to outwit your opponents. It’s a very different feel from the manic pace of StarCraft 2’s main game. It takes a part of the StarCraft universe that's only addressed in cutscenes and fleshes it out completely - the space battles. Completely different rules, gameplay and goals but all the same units and setting. It still feels like StarCraft, even though it clearly isn't.
It wouldn’t be fan fiction without some dreck, of course. There’s “Fastest Map Possible,” which rapidly speeds up build times and gives almost infinite resources to 4 players, then increases the food count limit for good measure. It’s a ridiculous game of cannon rushes and massive carrier fleets. It’s the StarCraft equivalent of a Mary Sue story, though in this one everyone gets to be all-powerful.
Blizzard is even getting in on the act with StarJeweled, a Bejeweled clone where matching gems gives you energy to spawn units. The units then spawn and march towards the enemy base, in a standard “tug of war” style game. It’s a mash up, crossover fan fiction from the game’s original creator. It's a fun little side-romp, like a TV show guest crossover episode. “You'll never guess who StarCraft has been having an affair with, Bejeweled! This week on As The StarCraft Turns.” It's the torrid love affair you can't stop watching, I put hours into it without even trying.
Another Blizzard map is called Aiur Chef, where you do fetch quests WoW-style to complete recipes for the Chairman using a theme ingredient. You play as a Protoss Zealot with an apron and glowing kitchen implements. The Chairman begins each round with “En Taro Cuisine!” It's a parody episode, like the X-Files “Cops” parody or Futurama's “Star Trek” episode. A one-off completely different game that is completely ridiculous but still manages to be fun.
Playing a StarCraft 2 custom map feels like you’ve carved out your own little section of Battle.net with it’s own rules and secret lore.
You run into may of the same people playing these games. With so few popular custom maps, the community can seem very small and insular. Yet in the end we're all drawn by the same thing: We want to play with the StarCraft universe and bend the rules. And why not? Isn't playing what it's all about?
That's really the point of it all: Finding your own little piece of the StarCraft universe where you get to play by different rules. It lets us all explore the possibilities of the game, stepping out of the standard StarCraft gameplay and setting and into a weird alternate dimension, where units fight an endless tug of war and occasionally a Zealot decides to become a master chef. It lets us play in the StarCraft world—not just to play by the rules, but to play with the rules.
In the end it's just another way to play.