Any player who appeared in the '90s or earlier remembers StarCraft. Even if you did not, you have never heard of it. That's because Blizzard Entertainment's groundbreaking real-time strategy game Sci-Fi has forever changed the landscape of online and competitive gaming.
This year, StarCraft turned 20, and Blizzard commemorated Blizzard last April, releasing a reworked version of the game that meticulously mimicked it – weird quirks and exploits – for HD screens and modern operating systems.
If you're a competitive online player worth your money, you've got a lot to thank for this game, whether you played it that day, with so many of today's online multiplayer games on the shoulders of this title rest.
We talked to Robert Bridenbecker, vice president of technology strategy at Blizzard Entertainment, about the original StarCraft. In particular, we recalled the beginnings of Battle.net and discussed the enormous impact it had on online games.
Since there were just too many revealing conversations during our 30-minute conversation, there follows a direct transcript that has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Trustedreviews: Well, StarCraft was not the first Blizzard game with Battle.net – I think that was Diablo – and what the team learned back then with the first application of the service it used to build StarCrafts Battle.net ?
Robert Bridenbecker: When we did Diablo, not many people remembered it, but the very first public beta of a Blizzard game we did was actually a Battle.net beta. The CD we delivered was titled "Battle.net Beta Version" and was included in the Battle.net beta version with Diablo 1. The whole reason why we did that was not that we were looking for one after countless feedback against Diablo as a game, but we actually wanted feedback on whether or not Battle.net as a service is a viable one at all.
I do not know how much you remember the mid-90s internet, but there would be a lot of people with modems, and ISDN [Integrated Services Digital Network], like 2, was hot if you had one. But it was definitely a different era in terms of connectivity, so at first Diablo really shared our opinion: "Okay, let's even find out if this is a real thing." We were young and mirrored some of that What we've seen I've seen on IRC [Internet Relay Chat] and other services, like Kali and so on, to inform how we want players to interact with each other.
In essence, it was all about how to drive social engagement, such as the chat channels and people's ability to engage – this reflection of IRC functionality. It was a good and a bad thing.
The good thing was that it was very easy for you to go online and connect. You've just entered your display name, and that's & # 39; s. There was no similar account – it was just "that's who I am" and that was super awesome. Apart from the fact that this led to such a Thunderdome environment of chat channels. If people forbid you as if we had Mod or a few of our guys in the background, and we would say, "Hey, this guy's an idiot" or what-you-have, and we'll kick him out of the channel. They could disconnect and reconnect under a different name, and we could not do much about it.
With StarCraft, we said, "You know, we want to improve the game." That's how we introduced a degree of perseverance – I do not want to call it accountability – but just like that: "That's me and my online personality," and we had one for the whole world. That was one of those things we just learn by trying.
StarCraft has just come up so big in Korea that we've had trouble keeping the databases in sync all over the world where you have a lot of Korean data that is there. We would actually have to send it to Asia via the Internet cables and it would cause huge delays. The servers only connect to each other, so there are chat channels that want to interpenetrate each other.
So you're in general chat, and you can actually be in two different copies of the general chat. It would seem like a mistake to you, and from then on we said, "Well, we do not know how to fix the Internet in the mid-'90s, and it's not good." We could only approach each other by separating these distinct, separate regions.
So we ended up in a situation where this classic service had connected us with East Asia, Europe [US East and US West]. All this happened because the connectivity between these areas was not very good, but our population in these areas was extremely good.
TR: To remind our readers about the state of the Internet and online games in the late '90s, what were some of the most challenging aspects to getting StarCrafts Battle.net off the ground?
RB: Even in the late '90s, we had a lot of dial-up connections, so the call waited for Mama to pick up the phone. Just the fact that you press bits over the average speed [which was 28.8 kilobytes per second].
When people think about Internet-facing activities, such as being able to stream the worst-performing YouTube clip on your favorite day at 28.8 kbps, without simply having an aneurysm. So we have up to eight people here, all banding together in a StarCraft game, and we're pushing parts back and forth in a peer-to-peer or round-robin format, trying to keep it all basically copper cable. That in and of itself was one of the biggest challenges in my opinion.
TR: Can you remember critical moments or tell stories when you launch Battle.net or Day Zero stories?
RB: I think for us, the war stories were just a kind of insight that you add that perseverance and see people come in and really own their online personality and do it while they play along. It was a bit relieved because we were still saying, "Oh, we were a bit ahead of time."
I mean, you think AOL had a little bit of what it was about a dial-up service, and a bit of what in online chat rooms, and so on. But there was not much going on in the gaming area. [I remember the] months before the start, when some sleepless nights with a very small team took place – we're talking about a few nearby people who work on it. Basically all the knowledge in the minds of a few people caught, and then to see how it goes live and people talk to each other to get the games.
I'll tell you something, when Korea really lit up, we did not plan that. This was happening in the Internet cafes in Korea and exploded – and the eSports scene exploded on us. We think about what the hell is going on in Korea. Where do all these people come from? And, wait a minute, they have LAN [Local Area Network] parties to turn them into businesses. "
Basically, you know that they went from zero to 20,000 PC cafés where people came in and you had machines, fifty to a room where you would pay five dollars to play StarCraft. [We were] just humble about this love and passion for the game, and you know that for me this has always been the key moment for what has been like many years of hard work for us – we've brought people together.
TR: What do you think was an average or even maximum number of concurrent players compared to those numbers in SC2 in the early days of StarCraft Battle.net?
RB: I'd like to say that we were north of hundreds of thousands of people who were from a certain region at some point. Compared to today, we measure it in millions upon millions of daily newspapers. At that time, we asked ourselves: "How big can we really be?" And to believe that 10 to 15 years later we would add a few extra zeros to these numbers was just unbelievable.
You know what was true then, we have now found out, but it took a while for it to hiccup on the internet. Suppose an Internet Service Provider [ISP] would shut down all its players – you have fifty or sixty thousand people excluded in one of the Korean ISPs. 50,000 people would suddenly fall and then they would all want to go online again and they would all want to do it at the same time.
Those were the minutes of the day you go, "Oh, really? OK ", because this problem of a cold start, where everyone has to get up to speed quickly, is difficult to solve. In today's world, that's just one kind expected. We are dealing with millions and millions of players who can appear online at any time. In those early days, we did not plan to see hundreds of thousands or millions of players go online – but they did.
TR: In the early days of Battle.net, were there any unique ways in which StarCraft matches work compared to today? For example, it is known that some online FPS and action multiplayer games are confused with the timing of player actions relative to one another as displayed on the screens of these players.
RB: I mean, it was a peer-to-peer peer-to-peer game, and so we ended up basically having all the packets from one machine for everyone else and actually reflecting it. From a gameplay point of view, we would just have to deal with the raw common-law latency, and we would adjust the turn rate to basically say, "Hey, we'll wait one hit while Bob sends off his package and Joe sends in his package. "
The longer we actually wait, the slower the game gets, and what people ultimately want is for them to want a super fast turn rate. Where that worked really well was in the advanced internet countries, where the latency is super low. What does not work today is when you try to go beyond a few hundred milliseconds because you are just constantly waiting for other players. We've found that players are well aware that their patience index is declining very quickly. Therefore, players of games are booted very quickly if they are the ones who wait for the players, even so. We used data transmission technology back then.
Basically, you use my internet connection to make file transfers. In fact, we had one of the earliest peer-to-peer file exchange programs that existed, but unlike random data, everything about our data has been greatly streamlined.
TR: What were the most popular types of matches in the early days of StarCraft compared to today's sequel or today's SC? I remember Comp-Stomps being my favorite as a less than great player.
RB: Players who create their own custom maps and then create them were just a novel way for us to connect with the community. We did not know how big that would be, but it turned out we explored it further with Warcraft 3 and StarCraft 2.
I was not very good at StarCraft either, but I've found a niche. That was cool about StarCraft: there was something for everyone. For the people who were particularly good at it and got into the muscle memory of keyboard shortcuts and units, they could really turn it into something we've never seen before, which was nice.
TR: Honestly, at this point in time, it's almost like a whole language in itself.
RB: When we started StarCraft Remastered it was so important for us to improve the existing gameplay, as the first rule was that we could not break StarCraft. This brought some parameters to the point of how far we could go in remastering.
One example was that raw APM [Actions Per Minute] was so important, and the way the players learned to bypass some of the engine's workings was bizarre. The professional players have actually shaken the mouse to increase the refresh rate. The reason for this was that they wanted to increase the speed of the game early, but the drag cycles were tied to the spot where the cursor was located.
We would basically redraw the entire screen because that's how you did the game back then, and when we changed that and added the hardware cursor, the game started to feel a little different. The pro players were the first to say, "Well, wait, something is broken," and we did not experience it here on any of our tests, because we do not have many people reaching more than 200 to 250 APM. The professional players reach either 300 or 400.
All the stuff over 20 years was just great to see how it developed until it became its own language, as if it was this game, this sport, which is something we are very sensitive with. We want to make sure that we continue to preserve it and make it available to future generations. At the same time, we have to make sure that the generations that had the game today continue to recognize it as the same game as today.
TR: What do you or the team on these old days of Battle.net miss and what is something you definitely do not?
RB: The thing with the old days is that for many of us it was the first time we did that. And when you do something for the first time, it's exciting, it's a joy, there's this novel: "Wow, what's going to happen? We do not really know – it has never been done. "
And so there was a lot of creativity and founder mentality, a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of dedication and passion from the engineers – and from the community as well. That was just exciting: what we were infecting was the whole idea of bridging external social communication channels like IRC or AOL and integrating them directly into the game, so that players have the opportunity to just be very easy to find themselves and Chat and then jump into a game and enjoy your day. It was great to be part of it, but there was no manual, there was nothing to see and say, "Well, you know, maybe we can get some inspiration for a few others."
There were very few other vendors back then that we could actually get some information from, and the people who did it – like us – were all very secretive. Nobody wanted to talk about anyone else, because that was their thing there. Nowadays it's a different problem, and so you have a lot of the same kind of start-up mentality and only cool issues to solve, but they are very different problems, I think. They are scaling problems, but they are just different.
Personally, 20 years ago, I thought, "Okay, how can I meet my basic needs?" You know, I was in my early twenties, so these sleepless nights were cathartic and great. Twenty years later, I said, "OK, that worked, but now we have tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people around the world we talk to and who really talk to each other.
So there is some pressure to make sure everything is working fine, and I just think it's cool to be a part of it.
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First published June 2018
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