This balancing isn't just for the benefit of the high level pros, quibbling over milliseconds and build orders. The revamp to Battle.net inherent in StarCraft II is a core reason for its lengthy delays, but it's offering a wideopen window to new players, one previously held shut by the twin arms of ignorance and fear of the hardcore. With online communities now the norm in games rather than the exception, Chris reckons we'll all take to the competitive side much more: “Battle.net was a place you went to, and it had this perception I think that it was a hardcore place, and you only went there if you were really into the game. But now the online experience is integrated, you're always online, your friends are always there, so it's not a scary thing.”
The lessons of Challenge mode will be reinforced through video tutorials and match replays, Chris says. “Our intention with Star Craft II is to save them up to the network and let people download and watch them, paying attention to the pro and platinum leagues and what players do so they can learn.”
Battle.net's ubiquity extends beyond hosting games and replays. Its robust friends and matchmaking systems is to be complemented by support for modders tinkering with the code. Blizzard understand the importance of modders and mapmakers in extending their games beyond their typical span of influence. “Our hope is that there's going to be entirely new styles of games coming out of StarCraft II. Warcraft III's tower defence maps were a phenomenon, and we want people creating things like that.”
With time pressing before the game needs to be rubberstamped and shipped, Chris outlines how his team is trying to squeeze in as much useful content for those with the knowledge and nous to fiddle with the base game. “We're trying to also include examples of things that people can look to as roadmaps for games they can make, things like tower defence maps or (another Warcraft III hero-on-hero RTS) Defence of the Ancients maps.”
The end result will be these industrious types uploading maps, or tweaks, or even entire game modes to Battle.net, and letting others download them and add to their legacy.
“We've seen some amazing stuff without a centralised download location, so we think sky's the limit once we're able to bring in something like that online.”
Chris is taking his community seriously – when we checked up with him during the interview, he was up to speed on all recent strategies, namechecking obscure tactics like the planetary fortress rush (fly your moveable Terran fortress outside an enemy's base, set it down, build massive cannon on it, win) and even picking out areas he thinks the community will expand into next.
“We're totally paying attention. We have community teams in every region and we're reading through our forums constantly.” By the time you read this, Blizzard will have added a feature suggested loudly by the beta crew – the ability to refocus the camera on a specific spot of the map you're interested in, and call it up with a keystroke. You don't get this kind of player/developer interaction from many other game makers.
StarCraft II is described by Blizzard as a 'new game for old players'. The ease with which the very best can slip back into the competitive multiplayer has been proven by their dominance in the upper reaches of the beta tables, but the steps taken to allow, even enforce participation in those who would stare blankly at a Baneling are impressive.
“There's a lot of people who have no idea what it's about,” Chris says, “so we've done a ton of things to enhance it for them, to make it easier and accessible.” Regardless of the enticing singleplayer mode or home-schooling Challenge missions, StarCraft II will be defined by its balance. At this stage in its development, the see-saw – zergling newbies at one end, battlecruiser masters at the other – is nearly stable. A few more additions from Chris and Blizzard will make it rock solid. Let's just hope that one teeny tweak doesn't bring the whole playground crashing down.