StarCraft: Remastered—how to polish a classic

Blizzard has just released StarCraft: Remastered, a fresh edition of the classic 1998 RTS with widescreen 4K graphics, improved audio, matchmaking and Battle.net integration. StarCraft is a classic in its own right, deserving of a remaster even before you take into account the competitive community that surrounds Brood War. 

Catering to that scene meant Blizzard had to move carefully. The old assets had to be painstakingly updated, but the core game had to remain untouched to preserve the foibles that dedicated StarCraft players have become accustomed to. I chatted to senior engineer on the project, Grant Davies, to get his perspective on that balancing act, and the wider infrastructure implications of bringing StarCraft back into Blizzard's current ecosystem.

PC Gamer: Why update the game now, after all this time?

Grant Davies: StarCraft as you probably know, is getting a bit long in the tooth and modern operating systems weren't very compatible with it, you had to run it in admin mode. We realised in order to keep this game going, because there is still a vibrant community, we needed to do some maintenance on this title.

It kind of grew out of that, really. Starting off with baby steps, and then people started pitching more and more ambitious ideas and no-one ever said 'stop', it just turned into something from that.

So it's as much about putting pillars under that community as a nostalgia exercise?

Yeah, absolutely. There is still a very vibrant community there, a very passionate community playing StarCraft. It is still quite vibrant in esports as you say. What started as maintenance turned into something much bigger and I'm really happy we decided to do that.

Is it your hope that the esports community picks up the Remastered version rather than using the version they do at the moment?

On a personal level I would say absolutely. I can't see any reason not to. When you look at the 4K graphics it's a much better presentation for the user, a much better user experience for the people watching at home. I watch ASL and GSL and just from a player's perspective, I would I hope that they're using it.

Did you have to rebuild the game significantly to support the improvements, or was it a matter of adding to the existing code?

So one of the tenants we had with StarCraft was not to change the gameplay. This is gameplay that's been there for 20 years. Even things you might look at and say 'that's a bug', the community has come to understand that as not a bug anymore, and they're using that to get ahead in the game. StarCraft after 20 years is this very finely balanced meta that we didn't really want to get involved with and change. We didn't want to upset the apple cart with the community and the pro players. So we haven't touched gameplay, that code is still there, it's still the code that's been running for the last 20 years. What we tried to do was work around the edges and put a fresh coat of paint on top of the existing game, so all these features that we've added have all been around the outside, and as much as possible we've kept out of that core gameplay code.

The move up to 4K means you can fill in details in the game that weren't previously visible.

I remember at the launch of it they zoomed in in observer mode into the guy on the missile turret and you can actually see the guy in the missile turret. For the last 20 years it's just been a collection of pixels. That's an example of where there was obviously an original vision for there to be a guy in the missile turret, but I don't think anyone knew for sure whether there was or there wasn't. Now we've been able to realise that 20 years later because we have so many pixels to work with. It's pretty cool to be able to zoom in and see the features of some of these units. 2K lets us do a lot of stuff.

How did you go about creating that new art for the game, did you go back to the original artists or did you have to interpret their intentions?

One of the very lucky things about Blizzard is that we have colleagues that have stayed for such a long time. We actually work with people on the team who were on the original team. For example the art director on StarCraft: Remastered was an artist on the original StarCraft, and heavily involved in that. We didn't have to go far I guess to figure out what the original vision was. And of course we're able to talk with a number of people who were involved with the original game, so that was really useful in realising their original vision.

What does StarCraft 1 have to offer new players who are perhaps used to StarCraft 2 and other modern RTS games?

I think StarCraft and StarCraft 2 are distinct games, and they have their own feel. As I said before I'm a fan of both games. I think they have their own identity. I've been playing StarCraft for 20 years. I'm terrible at it but I've been enjoying it for 20 years. For me, I think matchmaking is a great opportunity for new players to explore StarCraft. Now they've got the remastered campaign which is going to be much more accessible than it was 20 years ago. It's all in 4K. On top of that they've got matchmaking on the multiplayer side so you can find someone of your skill level. 

I think that it will be a way for people to gently introduce themselves into the StarCraft universe. In particular in Korea you meet parents who have been playing this game since they were teenagers. They bond over it. This is an opportunity now for those kids to come back and experience what their parents experienced for the first time. That was the sort of thing that really brought meaning to the project.

Do you worry that upgrading the way the game looks might change the way the game is played, even though the core rules of the game are intact?

That's something that we're very careful about. For example there's the option to have more animation angles now than there ever was before, but for all these things we've made it an option, so if you find out that that throws off the game having all these animation angles, if you're relying on certain visual cues to perform an action, if you're that good at the game, you have the option to turn that off. For all these things we've made it so that people always have the option to go back to the original, if that's what they want. We're pretty confident and we've always had pros invovled in the process from the very beginning, and they've always given us feedback, so there's nothing we've found in the game now that I think would be more information than what anyone else has.

What sort of feedback and direction have you received from pros during development?

On the esports side we've had a lot of direction on the observer mode in particular, as you might imagine, telling us what they like, what they don't like in general about observer mode. That's definitely helped us move forward in that direction. One thing that was curious I guess is they don't necessarily want information or statistical overload in observer mode because part of the broadcast, part of the excitement of the broadcast is not knowing everything that's going on. That was a bit of an eye-opener for me, but I can understand where they're coming from. That was something we were able to take on board and make sure we delivered what they wanted.

Do you have any favourite units or buildings that you think really shine after receiving the remaster treatment?

Oh man, that's a tough question to choose a favourite. Like I said I've been a long-time fan of StarCraft and even after working on this game for so many months I'm working on the game every day and that involves to some extent playing the game every day, and I still love the 4K graphics and I still find myself very occasionally—I'm not sure I should admit this—every now and then I'm working on a bug that involves me going in the game and playing some of the game, and I find myself playing the game and I've completely forgotten about the bug I should be working on. 

It's tough to choose a favourite but as a long-time Terran fan I'd probably say the battle cruiser looks pretty awesome. 

I guess the Remaster must be a good way to bring those StarCraft fans into the current iteration of Battle.net and the wider Blizzard infrastructure as well.

Yeah this is something I'm really excited about because traditionally to log into the old Battle.net, the 1998 Battle.net you have to enter your username and password. A lot of players have numerous characters and profiles across different gateways. If they want to switch they have to back out and enter new credentials, back out and constantly enter new credentials. With the Blizzard app now people will be able to log in and be able to link their toons to the Blizzard App account and from then on it's just one click. Once you've entered your credentials into the Blizzard App you're good, it's a one off thing, and then you click StarCraft and you can choose any of your profiles on any of the gateways.

I think streamlining that experience for people to get into the game get in to the chat and the things you actually want to be doing, I'm really excited about that. The other aspect of that is being able to bring all of the StarCraft community onto the modern Blizzard networking infrastructure. When you look at what Blizzard has in terms of network infrastructure it's staggering, and StarCraft has kind of been on the outer of that for a while, so to be able to bring that in and provide better service for the user, that's going to be awesome.

Are you planning any other classic remasters in the future?

At the moment as you might have seen we're patching WarCraft 3, we're patching Diablo 2. That's all the work we have to announce on those games at this time.

Thanks for your time.