Quick poll: did you know that there's a free version of StarCraft II? And that it lets you play as any of the game's three races in any non-ranked multiplayer match you want?
Blizzard doesn't do a very good job of advertising that fact — and the poorly-titled SCII Starter Edition can be very confusing — but right now, anyone can download a copy of the game and play unlimited custom multiplayer without any restrictions. The only multiplayer mode you can't access with the Starter Edition is the ranked ladder, where top players battle for placement in various leagues and divisions. In custom, though, you can play whatever you'd like. (The Starter Edition also comes with the first five missions of the Terran campaign.)
So when people suggest that StarCraft II should be free-to-play like some of its biggest competitors, Blizzard bristles. It is already. Kinda.
"It's so interesting to me how Starter Edition isn't as well-known as we would like it to be," said StarCraft II lead producer Tim Morten during an interview at E3 earlier this month. "Because we look at everything that's in there — full multiplayer, through custom games, you can get all the Heart of the Swarm units and play, in custom, today, for free. So few people know that that's there. It's a message that I would love to get out — that a big chunk of Starcraft actually is free."
Message delivered, Tim!
I'd been needling Morten about making StarCraft II multiplayer totally free to compete with the MOBAs — League of Legends, Dota 2, even Blizzard's own Heroes of the Storm — that have been dominating so much of the eSports realm in recent years. Of course, StarCraft II is a totally different game, requiring macro-management and grand strategy that you can't find in games that task you with controlling a single character. But it still feels like the price barrier has limited StarCraft II's potential as a competitive eSport — and the poorly-communicated Starter Edition doesn't seem to be helping.
"I think [the name] 'Starter Edition' might turn some people off, because they think of something that's incomplete," I said.
"Totally," Morten said. "And that's actually really good feedback: we need to think about how to get that message across, and if it comes to changing the name, making the interface better. What are the things we can do to make Starter Edition — or whatever we ultimately call it — more compelling to players? It's so important to players today to be able to try something without having to invest $US60, $US40, whatever the price point is. And we made that, but they don't know it's there."
StarCraft II is in a fascinating place right now. In many ways it feels like two games in one skin. On one side there's the story of Raynor, Kerrigan and crew; on the other side there's ranked competitive multiplayer, with its evolving ladders and regular tournaments. (The next expansion will add automated tournaments to the mix, too.) I asked if they'd ever consider splitting the game into single-player and multiplayer components — maybe sell the single-player campaign and make all of multiplayer free — but Morten dismissed the idea.
As an eSport, StarCraft II feels stagnant, too — when Blizzard put up big bucks for air-time on ESPN2 earlier this year, they went not with their old classic but with Heroes of the Storm, their MOBA. Though there's still a very dedicated StarCraft II community, complete with superstar players and regular cash tournaments, the high entry barrier and complex gameplay have inhibited it from competing with some other, bigger eSports.
Right now, Morten and crew are working on Legacy of the Void, the third and final game in the SCII trilogy. We don't know when it will be out yet, but we do know that it will conclude the story we've been watching for the past two decades. We know it will be standalone, likely for $US40 like the last expansion. We also know that Blizzard is experimenting constantly, using the Legacy beta to test out major resource changes that make the game faster and more fun. One big example: in the beta, you start with 12 workers instead of six, which makes matches start way more quickly.
Archon Mode, another big addition to Legacy, allows two people to control the same army while playing competitively. One experienced player can show a newbie the ropes, or two people can split tasks to make everything more efficient. It's a really cool system that can sway a lot of people to Team StarCraft — assuming it's marketed right.
Blizzard's ultimate hope is that those folks playing League and Dota and Heroes eventually decide that they want something different. Something that might be more challenging. More... RTS.
"I feel like MOBA is potentially a gateway to RTS for those players who have gotten into it," Morten said. "It lacks the base-building aspect, the resource-management aspect, but it gets players used to micro-ing one unit, it gets them used to the camera perspective, how the screen moves, a lot of things that prepare them for RTS. My hope is that some of those players are gonna go, 'As much as I love MOBA, wow, base-building, I wanna try that.' So we'll see how that goes. We've seen Heroes of the Storm spring from the StarCraft engine. Right there you can see there's a lot of complementary overlap."