Blizzard recently announced its set of post-Blizzcon changes for 2019. While I have mixed feelings regarding the changes themselves, I am mostly disappointed by the scope of changes and the stated high-level goals. Here’s how the developers describe their approach in the opening paragraph (emphasis mine):
As we come closer and closer to stability with each passing year, for 2019, we’ll be focusing more on tweaks and refinements to existing units.
This sentiment dovetails with what the developers told me last year when I interviewed them at Blizzcon:
Right now, we’re more slightly leaning toward, we want StarCraft II to be a final and idealized game, sort of to what Brood War is, but we’re definitely very open – and I emphasize, very open – to exploring new routes for StarCraft to go down.
I don’t agree with this approach – stability is a worthwhile goal, but it needs to be balanced with other considerations.
One of the longest-running observations I’ve had about StarCraft II relative to other RTS games is the way its competitive meta, particularly in the late-game, tends to become stale. For a variety of reasons – the power of late-game spellcasters, the cost-efficiency of free units and energy, the difficulty in breaking entrenched positions, the supply efficiency of static defense, etc – the meta stabilizes into slow, defensive, sometimes attrition-based warfare. Legacy’s historical meta progression is a good demonstration of this, with the game becoming incrementally less aggressive and less mid-game focused despite yearly design patches and despite mechanics intended to mitigate this, like the emphasis on asymmetric interactions.
This is the natural progression of most RTS games; it’d be reasonable to argue that 2-1-1 was never going to be the meta build, that ZvZ being stuck on roach play forever wasn’t a stable game state, etc. But it’s a more critical problem in StarCraft II due to its strong unit AI, efficient user interface, and high unit responsiveness, particularly among spellcasters. There are just too many incentives to defend and tech and too few incentives to attack baked into the core gameplay. The necessity to make the second and third bases easily accessible, driven by the way Protoss works, compounds with this and limits the degree we can change these incentives through map tweaks.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the progressive gameplay improvements over the past few years – at least from my subjective standpoint – coincided with drastic gameplay changes introduced in Legacy, followed by another drastic set of changes in 2016 followed by a complete Protoss rework in 2017. The designers have done a good job keeping the gameplay fresh and patching out pathological design problems through major design changes.
I understand the argument that change is not synonymous with improvement; I further understand the frustration of high-level players seeing their preferred playstyles getting patched out of the game. But we should think about this practically – everything has trade-offs, including doing nothing. Completely overhauling the gameplay every year would not be healthy, but neither would keeping it identical from year-to-year. There are reasonable arguments for a number of positions on that spectrum, but the current approach is too close to the latter for my tastes. The argument that this is how Brood War works is compelling, but insufficient – StarCraft II simply works differently.
I can’t be the only one slowly growing tired of today’s late-game attrition warfare. I find it hard to believe that nerfing position-breaking units like Tempests and Liberators is going to change that. I can’t be the only one getting bored with the Queen playing too many roles or Protoss being balanced around not losing their prism. None of these are game-breaking – if they were, I wouldn’t have played hundreds of games this season – but they’re just a few of many interactions that are ripe for experimentation and creative thinking.
Setting aside the design arguments for a second – it’s just more fun to play with big changes and learn a bunch of new stuff every year. It gives lapsed players a reason to boot-up the game again and check out what’s new. We have argued back and forth for years as to whether such changes are alienating to experienced players, but the population figures don’t support that assertion (or, at least, the effect is small enough or offset enough by its benefits to be unmeasurable).
There’s nothing in these changes that really gets me excited, nothing that makes me think, “wow, I really want to go try this on the ladder”, in the way that permanently cloaked Ghosts, shield batteries, or BCs shooting-while-moving did. Honestly, it feels like a bit of a burden – at least in the past, all the random new cheeses and unpolished interactions were paired with lots of fresh new gameplay. Here there’s a bunch of minor build order deviations and responses I’ll need to learn, and yet in return I’ll get something very similar to what I already have.
Stability, in my view, is not a worthwhile design goal in isolation. It needs to be balanced with considerations like how varied or exciting or interesting the gameplay is and what its trajectory looks like. A better goal would be ensuring that we’re rewarding players who have put in the work over the years. This goal also has the benefit of being directly measurable, for example by tracking the fluctuations of players at the top ranks of the game or looking at MMR deviations before and after the design patch on an individual player basis.
StarCraft II is a fantastic game – it deserves a bolder, more ambitious approach to its design and balance direction.