One of the major differentiators with StarCraft — and the sequel — was the amount of mechanics and repetition required to manage and maintain the production of your army. Blizzard indicated massive changes were on the way. Now they're here, and fans are deeply divided.
Blizzard has been wanting to change up the StarCraft 2 formula for a while. Blizzcon attendees got a taste of that last year when they were surprised by the radical changes and the developer has continued the trend, hoping to streamline the game into something more palatable for today's market.
The problem is that trend runs directly counter to the macro mechanics that make StarCraft, well, StarCraft. But the required speed and focus on minutia turns off a lot of players from spending more time with the game, particularly in an environment where MOBAs have filled the multiplayer void that RTS games used to occupy, albeit with far less management and repetitive strain injuries.
The Legacy of the Void beta offers Blizzard the last chance they'll have to revive the StarCraft 2 glory days, and they're planning on taking advantage with some sizeable changes. One of those, introduced late last week, was the removal of the chrono boost and MULEs, while larva injects were reduced by half (but able to be auto-cast).
It's possibly the largest change made in the history of the SC2 franchise to date, since these three mechanics — the ability for Protoss to accelerate their speed of production, Terran's ability to accelerate their economy and the ability for Zerg to quickly spread their creep across their map, vastly increasing the speed of their units and reconnaissance — are arguably the three silent pillars that form the foundation for the majority of all strategy in SC2.
Be under no illusion: without these three mechanics, the way SC2 is played is radically different. Terran build orders aren't the same if you don't have the massive influx of minerals MULEs can mine. Protoss rushes and defences — against Zerg in particular — are massively different without the use of chrono boost. And the way Zerg responds to everything, in every match-up, changes massively when their ability to spread creep is crimped.
By removing the more repetitive macro elements, Blizzard hopes to open the doors to deeper strategy to those who feel left out, either through flagging flexibility in their fingers or an inability to maintain a constant physical rhythm.
Unfortunately, that never-ending 1a2a3a beat is considered part and parcel of StarCraft; for some, it's the very fabric of StarCraft's soul. So understandably, people are a little upset — and angry — about the game's future.
"The problem is that macro is the gateway to the rest of the game. Without good macro, you can’t experience a substantial part of what Starcraft offers," Kevin 'qxc' Riley, a StarCraft 2 veteran, wrote in defence of Blizzard's changes.
"I want StarCraft to be a game that is more about strategy, micro, map control and positioning rather than about performing the same repetitive actions perfectly in order to eke out the biggest army possible. The interesting part of macro in StarCraft is the decision of what to make, not the execution of actually making it."
One could argue that Blizzard held the same view when they implemented multi-building select in StarCraft 2, against the cries of Brood War fans, patriots, and a bevy of professional players. And that sentiment still runs true in the current debate about macro mechanics.
"Most importantly, all the macro mechanics create a baseline of multitasking in the game. This means that a player must make decisions and prioritise them," a Team Liquid feature writer, espousing the counter-view to Riley, said recently.
"A player must judge and evaluate the benefits of microing a fight compared to injecting larvae or making a depot or chrono boosting upgrades. All of a sudden the macro-management of your base and economics is now also a tactical decision that impacts your overall strategy."
In short, the deepening of macro-management creates layers of strategy that players will be able to appreciate by forcing them to make more tactical decisions about what would ordinarily be routine, mechanical inputs.
It also increases the levels of concentration required to be effective, as players are constantly forced to divert and prioritise their attention. But these elements are almost certainly lost on the viewer — oversights are almost always viewed as a mistake, rather than a forced error borne out of the pressure successfully applied by their opponent — and the player experience, especially at lower levels, is one of pure frustration.
Players like Riley want the physical experience of SC2 to reflect the cerebral affair that it truly is. Others worry that Blizzard is walking down a path where the greatness of giants is dulled through the neutering of execution.
The mastery of that execution, after all, is what made players like Flash, MMA and more recently, soO, so revered. It's what made the Brood War professionals so fearsome when they finally transitioned into StarCraft 2; their ability to prioritise and maintain their rhythm under the most strenuous of conditions.
But Blizzard are determined to scrap the status quo, to the point where they were happy to trial automated building of units in an internal patch. David Kim revealed that the idea was scrapped because it created more problems than it solved: players couldn't save up enough funds to expand, because money was always being spent, and the game became so fast that it felt alien even to the designers.
Legacy of the Void, which is due out later this year, is scheduled to be the finale in the StarCraft 2 saga.
Some fear it could also spell the end of StarCraft — at least as fans know it.