As part of our ongoing celebration of all things StarCraft, we're hosting a Starcraft smörgåsbord, with a different theme for each of the days leading up to and the week following SC2's release. This article is a part of the "Everything We Know About StarCraft Day", the first of the bunch, and harkens back to the day the LAN parties stopped--when it was announced that SC2 would not allow for games to be hosted over local networks, our October 2009 issue.
Blizzard giveth; Blizzard taketh away. With one small upgrade, StarCraft II becomes the ultimate training tool for competitive multiplayer strategizing. But with another modest modification, this very same game places an enormous restriction on…multiplayer gaming. We investigate both changes, and tell you what each really means for the final game.
The ability to step back is a huge step forward for RTS replay watchers
Since the dawn of competitive real-time strategy games, the best way to improve your own play is by studying an epic match between two great players. But watching replays has always been a pain in the butt. In the age of Blu-ray and on-demand video, these downloadable replay files have been stuck at the equivalent of the 8-track—practically the Stone Age. You can view them and fast-forward just fine, but if you were watching what one player was doing in his base and you wanted to catch a glimpse of his opponent's game-changing move on the other side of the map, you couldn't rewind—you'd have to re-load the replay and watch the whole thing again until you get to the part you want to see.
Rewinding sounds like it should be easy, and technically it could be done, but it presented a problem: the saved game files would go from a couple of megabytes to hundreds, making them much more difficult to post and trade online. The downside outweighed the benefits.
But now, in StarCraft II, Blizzard is implementing an ingenious innovation that will revolutionize the way we watch replays. The new system works something like streaming video on YouTube. You'll still download a small replay file from the internet, but as you watch the game will auto-save every 10 to 30 seconds (Blizzard is still working out how frequently the save points will occur). This will create that monster-sized rewindable save file on your hard drive, allowing you to easily skip back and see the events you just witnessed unfold from a different perspective. You still can't skip ahead to the climactic ending battle until you've watched the whole thing, though, since the game must run out the replay to create the save point—but you can fast-forward through the game to do it.
With hard disk space so cheap these days (a terabyte drive can be had for less than $100), a 200MB replay file on your hard drive won't even be noticeable, and if you need the space back you'll be able to delete it once you've watched the game. Plus, you'll still have the original small file that you can archive and watch again later.
There are more new replay features coming, too. After launch, Blizzard plans to add mark-up tools to allow commentators to draw on the map like in a football telecast—but unlike those in C&C3, these markings will stick to the map rather than moving around with the camera as you scroll. With these, and presumably a few other tricks Blizzard has up its sleeve, StarCraft II replays could become must-watch events.
Latency and piracy aren't the real problems here
It's one of those things you'd never think to ask: Will StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty have LAN play? Of course it will, any rational person would've said a month ago—every real-time strategy game for the past decade has included the ability to play against another PC on your own network. The original StarCraft in particular is huge among LAN gamers.
And yet…Blizzard recently shocked everybody with the announcement that there would be no LAN support in StarCraft II, citing concerns over piracy due to the popularity of virtual LAN applications like Hamachi and GameRanger that let pirates play multiplayer games with illegitimate copies. Instead, the company plans to direct players to its online matchmaking, stat-tracking and now game-authentication service, Battle.net, for all multiplayer gaming.
How big a deal is this? The outraged boycott threads on that sprung up on messageboards across the internet would have you believe it makes StarCraft II gaming's biggest ripoff. But for most of us, the difference won't be noticeable. If you and a friend each purchase StarCraft II and he plugs his PC into your home network for a LAN game, the experience will be pretty much the same as with StarCraft, except that you'll sign into Battle.net first to set up the match.
But what about all those gamers who don't have broadband? They're a dying breed, according to an April 2009 Pew survey that reports 87 percent of Americans 18 and up who use the internet are connected via broadband. Broadband access is becoming the 21st century's indoor plumbing—it's not available in all rural areas yet, but it's ubiquitous enough that game companies can assume the vast majority of their customers have it.
[MPU]Lag caused by internet latency almost certainly won't be an issue—even though you'll connect to Battle.net online, you'll also be directly connected to your friend sitting next to you, so you'll still enjoy the same smooth speed you did with LAN play once the game starts. (Almost all RTS games use a peer-to-peer multiplayer architecture rather than a client-server setup. Blizzard won't be hosting the games on their servers.) Now, if Battle.net's servers were to go down for any reason, you'd be unable to play multiplayer—but if anyone knows a thing or two about keeping servers up and running 24 hours a day, it's Blizzard.
So what are gamers who weren't planning to pirate StarCraft II really upset about? One of the factors that made StarCraft so popular among LAN gamers is its ability to install multiplayer-only “spawn” copies on multiple PCs, which allowed you play an entire 8-player LAN game with just one purchased copy. For gamers with more than one PC in their homes that they use for multiplayer sessions with family or visiting friends, this was a huge value. They fear that Blizzard isn't planning to allow spawn installs of StarCraft II, forcing them to purchase one copy per player—and that tab could add up quickly.
However, all hope isn't lost on that front yet. Blizzard isn't yet talking about Battle.net's functionality, and wouldn't rule out the possibility of allowing spawn installs when we inquired. With the Battle.net authentication in place to keep an eye on things, there's no reason Blizzard can't still allow multiplayer-only spawn installs—it just depends on how generous Blizzard is feeling.