The StarCraft community has been debating ways Blizzard could fix the ladder ever since the beginning of the beta for Wings of Liberty. With Legacy of the Void due out on November 10, that talk has ramped up a notch.
Some are even suggesting that Blizzard split the ranked and unranked ladders with separate map pools to help break the ladder anxiety that prevents so many players from playing online StarCraft. But there's a better way.
Playing online ladder can be a daunting task, whether you're new to the game, an existing player or a returning one. I've written about it before; many players have complained about it before.
Blizzard's solution with Legacy of the Void, so far, is to accelerate the pace of play. And there's a lot of merit to it. Ramping up the starting worker count and removing repetitive macro mechanics certainly is making the game more fun than what Heart of the Swarm has evolved into, at least on a rudimentary level.
But it doesn't resolve ladder anxiety. It doesn't get around the fact that the primary way to play StarCraft is the ranked ladder. Blizzard needs something else. The community is calling out for something else.
Fortunately, there's a solution.
It was called Boneyards, the massive server cluster Cavedog Entertainment used as their centralised online service for Total Annihilation. It wasn't initially available for TA but its launch in April 1999 meant it was available for the fantasy follow-up, Total Annihilation: Kingdoms.
It was a plan to provide a more organised, lively multiplayer offering. Players could use the matchmaking service to find 1v1, 2v2 or 3v3 games -- not unlike the services offered today, although more rudimentary -- or they could compete in the server-wide Galactic War. (Those playing Cavedog's fantasy RTS, which had five playable factions when TA:K's expansion was included, had the Darien Crusades.)
Galactic War had a simple hook. The Arm and Core -- TA's two factions -- were pitched in a life-or-death battle. So rather than having a simple ladder or rankings for online multiplayer, why not have an entire universe where players can contribute to the success or failure of their race on a galactic scale?
Instead of matches determining a player's ranking, matches would contribute to a faction's dominance of a particular planet. The better the player, the higher their rank in their faction's "army".
"Each day at 1am PST, Boneyards will tally up the wins and losses for both sides with the ultimate goal being the complete control of an enemy's sector and homeworld," GameSpot reported back in 1998. "After a a side conquers a certain percentage of the opposing side's territory or its capitol, the Galactic Map becomes the victor's map. After this Victory Day is declared, a new map is given to players, and the uphill battle begins once more."
It was the kind of service that built a context beyond the individual. Your wins mattered, not because wins or losses mattered to you personally, but because they had meaning in a grander war.
That grand war, that vision of forces battling for their very survival, is at the heart of what makes the StarCraft universe so enticing. It's central to the plot in the original game and its expansion, Brood War, where Tassadar gives up his life to fend off the Swarm and the relentless assault of the Overmind.
It's that kind of vision Blizzard could build into Legacy of the Void; something that could be billed as a separate offering to the standard ranked ladder.
After all, the Battle.net centralised service is more powerful and capable than anything Cavedog had access to over 15 years ago. It manages more players, more regions, more games and infinitely more features, with the rollout of automated tournaments in the beta evidence of the service's robustness.
StarCraft as a whole has come an awfully long way. But Blizzard has never given people a reason to play in some meaningful fashion without having to interact with the intensity of ranked play. Unranked play isn't meaningful. The offerings on the Arcade, varied as they may be, aren't representative of StarCraft.
Introducing a Galactic War-esque mode, something that hooks into the dramatic nature of the storyline without fundamentally changing the way people interact with multiplayer, could close that loophole. I can't imagine it would be easy to code. How many worlds do you let players contest over? Do the different server regions compete as a block or separate universes? Is the fate of a world calculated in real-time or only during weekly server maintenance? And how long should a server-wide battle run for?
Whatever those answers may be, it's a path down a road that's infinitely more interesting than the current model. The world of StarCraft is begging for the ladder to change; a Galactic War might just be the tonic everyone needs.