Is Blizzard Creating an Already Outdated Game in an Evolving Genre?

The real time strategy (RTS) genre is on somewhat of a decline. It doesn't get the same level of media and consumer interest that it got a decade ago. In the past few years, the only series that has held the RTS torch high is the Command and Conquer series.

Sure, there have been a couple of Supreme Commander games, but they appeal to a niche audience and the average gamer is overwhelmed by the ridiculous amount of unit combination's. The Command and Conquer games still follow the exact same formula set by Dune 2 that was released 17 years ago.

Supreme Commander, for all its complexity, is simply an expanded and upgraded Total Annihilation, a game that was released 15 years ago. The fundamental problem with the RTS genre is that it's horribly stagnant. It has the same rock-paper-scissors units, base building and resource management that it had in the early nineties.

However, Relic Entertainment swooped in to save the day with the Dawn of War (DoW) series in late 2004. DoW was almost a complete rethink of how an RTS should be played. It focused on the physical battles more than base-building for example.

Resource collection was made simpler, and the emphasis was put on the fun part of an RTS: killing the other guy in the most vicious manner possible. Relic expanded this concept into World War II games with Company of Heroes, which managed to mix the fun of DoW with the tactics of a WW2 game.

Usually, WW2 games are complex and you need the patience of a Zen master to understand the games intricacies, which put the average gamer off completely. Company of Heroes managed to dodge the bullet with its simple cover system and the general application of logical solutions to complex problems. It was a phenomenal game and you should feel ashamed of yourself for not playing it.

Five years on, Dawn of War 2 came out and managed to redefine the RTS genre again by changing the nature of the single player campaign, and focusing on single groups of units and their abilities. You can upgrade individual squads, and take them through the story instead of producing a mass of nameless soldiers like you do in every other RTS. Relic is the new genre-leader, and DoW2 is breaking new ground in the pursuit of a new gaming experience. It has been a commercial and critical success and I, as an avid RTS fan, am very grateful for Relic's continued innovation.

This brings me neatly back to Blizzard. Their contribution to the RTS genre has been rock-solid engines, excellent narratives and balanced gameplay. StarCraft was their masterpiece that appealed to competitive gamers and people like me who think gaming should always be fun. It was, in all honesty, a fluke that the South Korean market latched onto it as much as it did. Eleven years on, it is still being competitively played.

WarCraft 3 is arguably a better game, yet that has fallen by the wayside. DotA, a custom map for WarCraft 3, is the only thing that is keeping it relevant. If the South Koreans didn't fall over themselves to play and watch StarCraft, would it have been as successful and significant in gaming culture that it is today? I'm willing to say no, especially in light of WarCraft 3's failure on the competitive gaming circuit.

Now we are on the cusp of their masterpiece's sequel, and the hype could not be any greater. People are buying the beta invites handed out at BlizzCon 2008 from eBay for about $200 a piece. Yet, I think StarCraft 2, in the state that we have seen it, does little to take StarCraft to the next level. Yes, it is gorgeous and there are a few new units and abilities and whatnot, but where is the true evolution? If anything, StarCraft 2 is shaping up to be StarCraft 1.5. If it was an expansion pack of sorts, I would be very pleased with it.

Wrath of the Lich King was a stellar expansion pack for World of WarCraft (WoW) and it did for WoW what StarCraft 2 is doing for StarCraft 1 - Better graphics, bits and pieces of cool new stuff, and a general evolution that keeps the game fresh and interesting. StarCraft is 11 years old; its sequel needs more than bits and pieces of new stuff to reaffirm its position as possibly the greatest RTS of all time. Dawn of War 2 has set the bar very high and I don't think StarCraft 2 will reach it. The single player campaign has yet to be unveiled, so perhaps that could be the real evolution that I am looking for. The narrative could be mind-blowing and the campaign structure could be innovative and fresh. However Blizzard refuses to tell us anything about it. Until they do, I have my doubts.

To give you an indication of Relics rise as the market leader, The Escapist magazine had a poll where readers were asked to vote between Relic and Blizzard in an epic showdown. After accusations of cheating (it's a forum poll, why would people cheat?), and a draw, the poll went into overtime. Relic won it by 0.1 of a percent. The victory could not have been any narrower, but they toppled a giant.