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Thursday, October 25, 2012

My Take on the "Decline" of Starcraft II

The sky is falling, the sky is falling!

Starcraft 2 Logo

What's the deal with Starcraft II lately?

League of Legends is the most popular game in the world. Korean SC2 team Slayers is disbanding and three of their players are switching to LoL. Event prize money is stagnant and stream viewer numbers are down. The game's popularity is even dwindling in South Korea, a Starcraft hotbed for more than 10 years; SC2 isn't even among the top 10 games played in the country's "PC bang" LAN centers.

Is SC2 on the way out, or are these just growing pains?

My SC2 Experience

I nabbed an SC2 beta invite from a WoW guildmate in April or May of 2010. Prior to downloading and installing the game, my only experience with Starcraft was playing a couple of customs with a friend via a spawned copy of the game. I had played some Warcraft II and Warcraft III in addition to custom games like DOTA and Burbenog TD but that was pretty much it.

I was hooked immediately and logged on frequently. When the beta went down for maintenance, I started watching HDStarcraft and Husky on Youtube, later graduating to Day9. While I was routinely placed in the Bronze or Silver leagues during the beta, I qualified for the Platinum league after the game's release and was promoted to Diamond midway through the first season. Most of my friends had purchased the game as well and we usually ended up queuing for 3v3 or 4v4 several nights per week.

When I wasn't playing the game I was usually watching it. I tuned into the first few seasons of the GSL as much as my sleep schedule would allow; I vividly remember watching all of the pageantry of the first season and witnessing FruitDealer take home the trophy. The "foreign scene" (meaning "non-Korean" in SC's case) exploded as well, with major tournaments like Dreamhack, MLG, IPL, and NASL happening all over the globe. Gaps in tournament scheduling were filled by dozens of players streaming on (now and

Despite the initial pull of Starcraft II, my friends gradually drifted back to other games - HoN, BF3, WoW, or whatever was the flavor of the month at the time. Team games became less frequent and I ended up playing dozens of 1v1 ladder matches by myself. Over time my pledge to play 5 or 10 ladder games daily turned into more of a chore than anything else and I took a break myself.

Why the Declining Interest?

Destiny recently posted a few things on reddit that I thought made a lot of sense:

Steven argues that Blizzard hasn't done nearly enough to embrace casual players of SC2. Whether you're a fan of World of Warcraft or not, Blizzard's casual-friendly approach to the game as of late has allowed them to maintain a healthy subscriber base entering the game's ninth year. By catering to the 95% that doesn't grind out 30 ladder games per day, Blizzard could reinvigorate the SC2 playerbase and draw players back to the game rather than driving them from it. In addition, despite billing Starcraft II as a AAA next-gen eSport, Blizzard has repeatedly shot themselves in the foot by focusing on things like clan support instead of chat channels, name changes, and offline LAN support for tournaments. I cry emo tears every time I see a lag screen pop up during a major event.

I agree that the current custom game implementation leaves a lot to be desired, but I also think that some of the player exodus involves SC2's steep learning curve and relatively high barrier to reentry. A lot of my friends had "ladder anxiety" that prevented them from playing 1v1. No one wants to be judged and scored competitively when they're just learning the game, and those sentiments are echoed every time someone tries to pick up the game after a hiatus.

Every time I think about "coming back" and laddering again I realize that I'm going to be absolutely horrendous. After weeks or months away from the game my APM is going to be down, I'll be fumbling over my hotkeys, I won't be familiar with any new maps, and I'll be unaware of any major shifts in the metagame. I've always been a Random player, meaning I've been forced to learn at least a rough overview of nine matchups instead of three. Knowing that I'll probably lose 15 of my first 20 games doesn't exactly get me motivated.

Starcraft 2 Match History
As you can see, I'm incredibly active.


The events of the past week or two and the general pessimism surrounding Starcraft II have spawned a movement known as #SaveHOTS. People have been posting their comments and concerns on Twitter and making lengthy forum and blog posts describing their overall frustration with the current state of the game.

So what needs to change? While it's true that gameplay seems a bit stagnant and HotS may or may not be injecting enough life into the game, intense balance and metagame discussions are a bit above my paygrade. I'll instead focus on things that aren't directly related to game mechanics.

As I mentioned above, both ladder anxiety and skill degradation end up killing the competitive 1v1 experience for many players. The unranked matchmaking feature that was teased in a developer blog post should help to address these issues, but I'd like to also see changes to the ranked side of things.

Something akin to MMR decay would be awesome. For example, after two weeks of ladder inactivity, start dropping a player's MMR by 3-5% per week until they start playing again or it reaches a floor of 40-50% of the original rating. Use this temporary MMR for the first 10-20 games or so, slowly increasing it towards the original level until a new equilibrium is reached. I hate feeling like I need to "practice" before laddering. Unranked matchmaking would be viable way to shake off some rust before jumping back in, but I'd rather keep all of my "serious" laddering in one place.

The custom game interface definitely needs an overhaul for players who don't want to ladder. Let us give lobbies custom titles again, and allow players to search through custom lobbies to find one they'd like to join. It'd be a helluva lot easier to find a practice partner if you could do something as simple as putting your league ranking in the title of a custom game. At the same time, many custom games allow players to vote on rulesets and game options at the start; it'd be much easier to assemble a group of like-minded players if you could specify the type of game you'd like to play in the title.

Above all, Heart of the Swarm needs to feel like more of a social experience. Destiny brought up the point that the chat interface in Brood War took up "70% of the screen." SC2 didn't even ship with chat channel support, and the current implementation crams everything into two tiny buttons in the corner of the screen:

SC2 Social Buttons
That's actual size, 120x54 pixels, less than 1% of the available space for content in the game's UI. Individual chat channels or player-to-player messages show up as tiny dockable windows that aren't very conducive to conversations involving multiple people.

In many ways SC2 can be a cold and impersonal experience. In most games communication between players is limited to "glhf" and "gg," with the occasional "wow cheezing fgt" thrown in for good measure. While you can whisper other players (should they allow it) and manually enter chat channels, there's no easy way to sit back and shoot the shit with random people. I played WoW for about 5 years, and half of my play time involved me using the game as a glorified chat client. Player relationships forged in-game are a major reason why 10 million people still play WoW after 8 years. I don't know if Blizzard is worrying about the need to moderate things like user chat and game titles, but if that's the case it's a pretty shitty reason to exclude or diminish those features. Obviously SC2 isn't an MMO, but anything to help it seem less like an epic grindfest would help.

Blizzard has put forth a couple of UI previews in the last week that sort of feel like forced responses to the drama the community has stirred up lately. Last week they gave us a sneak peak of the UI in HotS, and today we learned about an overarching leveling and XP system. While the UI seems to be moving in the right direction and the stat-whore in me is loving the built-in statistics breakdowns, I'll need to see more of the custom game interface before passing final judgement. The XP system immediately reminded me of Call of Duty (from the Activision side of Activision-Blizzard), and while it's not a big deal for me personally it should give people added incentive to log on. People love their levels and achievement points.

While looking through the 2012 release schedule late last year I told myself that HotS would be the only game I felt comfortable pre-ordering (Brink has ruined me for life). I hope I still feel the same way when Blizzard finally announces a release date.


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