Why StarCraft rules (and killed) the RTS genre

Blizzard released StarCraft on March 31st, 1998, just over 19 years ago. At the time no one could have predicted just how much of an impact the game would have on the real-time strategy genre and the gaming industry as a whole. StarCraft and its expansion Brood War were huge commercial successes, with StarCraft selling over 10 million copies over the next decade. To put this in some perspective, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time only sold around 7.6 million copies during its lifetime.

RTS games weren’t particularly plentiful before StarCraft, and to this day they still aren’t. The major competitor to StarCraft was Blizzard’s own Warcraft franchise, but that gameplay was at a much slower pace. Nothing quite matched the fast-action sci-fi entertainment that StarCraft brought to the table, and the only game able to displace the title was its own sequel. 

Since that fateful day in 1998 Blizzard has totally controlled the RTS genre. Sure, others have tried breaking into the scene, and some have even enjoyed limited success from time to time, but not one has been able to hold a candle to the dominance StarCraft and StarCraft 2 have over the RTS genre and the critical RTS e-sports scene.

But why? What's the explanation for this unprecedented genre domination?

Blizzard Entertainment

Blizzard is the best in the industry at capitalizing on trends and creating games that come to rule their respective genres. Hearthstone and Overwatch come to mind of course, but the best example is World of Warcraft. Despite an initial release that was plagued with problems – like low supply, laggy servers, and seemingly endless bots – the game soon dominated the market, and still does to this day, to an extent. Sure the numbers aren't as high as they were during Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm, but Legion is  doing a good job of bringing some players back. Even back during the dregs of Warlords of Draenor, when the game only had around five million subscribers, it was still pulling in numbers that other MMOs could only dream of. Dozens of "WoW killers" have come and gone in the years since World of Warcraft released, and Blizzard's titan has continued rolling. 

As popular as WoW has been, Blizzard's dominance of the RTS genre has been even more impressive. Take a moment and try to think of how many successful RTS titles have released since 1998, and how long these competitors stuck around. Command and Conquer (pick your iteration) is probably the best example, and has been a staple of the RTS genre for decades, but it never quite picked up the popularity that StarCraft or StarCraft 2 acquired, and hasn't had anywhere near the same level of longevity. Halo Wars is a recent RTS rival but, again, it's not nearly as popular, even if it did capitalize on the popular Halo brand.

So what’s preventing a company from coming out with a game that can compete with StarCraft 2? More than anything, it’s because of Blizzard. No, Blizzard isn’t some malevolent overlord spying and sabatoging other game developers. Blizzard simply has the knowledge and money required to support an RTS game in this day and age, and that makes the genre a risky investment for other companies. 

Korea

StarCraft had been around for a long time when the first announcement of StarCraft 2 hit the web. Tychus Findlay being suited up inside a Barracks was enough to send ripples around the world. 

The first teaser trailer for StarCraft 2 was released about ten years after StarCraft came out. That is a long time for a game to hold dominance over a genre, and fans were considerably skeptical. I personally wasn’t concerned, but I wasn’t part of the fan base that Blizzard had to really worry about.

Korea is the real issue. There is no other country that embraces RTS games like Korea does. It's a part of the culture in the same way football and baseball are in the U.S. The pro players were – and still are, to an extent – celebrities adored by fans, with rabid fan clubs. There’s a reason Koreans are the best at StarCraft and StarCraft 2; while the rest of the world simply played the game, they fully embraced it.

Without the Korean scene, RTS e-sports might not even exist. It isn’t until the last few years that we’ve seen a real emergence of foreign players challenging the Korean dominance in StarCraft 2. And even then, we’re seeing some very mixed results.

If you take a look at the current WCS point distribution (as of March 15), you can see what I mean. In the Korean circuit, the top eight players are at 1900 points or more, while in the WCS circuit Serral is in the #1 spot with just 900 points. But the differences don’t stop there; there are only two players in the WCS circuit with more than 150 points, whereas in the Korean circuit we have 32 players with more than 150 points.

Korea's central place in the RTS e-sports world, and the central nature of StarCraft to that Korean RTS scene, presents a seemingly impossible obstacle for new games in the genre. An RTS game needs a multiplayer scene to thrive, and carving out a multiplayer RTS scene involves disrupting an established culture and big financial incentives. 

Money solves everything

So if the foreigners aren’t skilled enough to bolster an RTS games by themselves, then how does one get a new RTS game going?

Throw money at it. Pour money into a new game that may be doomed to failure from the very start. 

StarCraft 2 prize pools are large and fairly consistent. While the GSL still only pays out $35,000 for first place, the IEM tournaments can pay out up to $100,000 for first place. Plus, there are numerous community-supported tournaments where pros can pick up a few hundred or thousand dollars in a matter of hours. And don’t forget that the Global Finals championship was worth $200,000 last year. Even second place took home $100,000. That's not quite in The International range, but it's massive compared to anything else in the RTS world (and usually doesn't need to be split with multiple teammates). 

But the money to support a new RTS game doesn’t stop at just the prize pools. There are arena rentals, casters, presenters, equipment, testers, and everything else you need to keep a game, and a competition, going. There is very little chance that a new company, or even an established one, will want to throw that much money at a game just for the chance to compete with Blizzard and StarCraft 2.

Create, not copy

The last pillar of the RTS problem is how to make a unique game that can compete. Blizzard has been working in the RTS genre for so long that people think an RTS game has to be like StarCraft and StarCraft 2. A generation of gamers have grown up thinking the StarCraft formula is the only way do to things.  Maybe it’s not fair, but that’s how the world works.

If a new RTS game came out this year, it would inevitably be compared to StarCraft 2. The reviews would go one of two ways. One – this game is too much like StarCraft 2, why can’t the developers come up with something new? Or two – this game isn’t enough like StarCraft 2, why didn’t the developers copy more of what Blizzard has done? Again, it’s not really fair, but it’s what a new developer would have to deal with when Blizzard has been setting the tone for games every decade or so. 

Developing, balancing, and marketing a new game is a gigantic task for any small studio that would be bold enough with their vision to take on the challenge. Supposing that a game company was able to come up with a brand new RTS game. We’ll assume it’s well-balanced, creative, and overall fun to play. There’s still the market share problem.

RTS games need a strong multiplayer scene. If people switch over to a new game there may be an initial surge of players, but as time goes on, many will revert back to what they know and love, and to what has stood the test of time. This is something you can see with all the MMOs that were released between 2005-2012, where everyone eventually went back to World of Warcraft.

You solve this problem by going after a different market, like Blizzard did with Heroes of the Storm. With Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard decided to go after a market that Riot didn’t have with League of Legends – the collegiate market. But there isn’t a huge equivalent for the RTS genre. Players start RTS games far too early for there to be two different age brackets to the game. Cho “Maru” Seong Ju had his first televised win at the age of 13, and many other players are winning tournaments before they hit 18. Some of this can be attributed to the Korean military service requirement, but not all of it. There is still the problem of reaction times becoming slower as players age, which is a serious detriment in a game as fast, and as intensive, as StarCraft 2.

So when we take it all in, there may never will be another RTS game on the same level as StarCraft or StarCraft 2. It’s a shame, but one I think I can live with. Blizzard has something special with StarCraft 2; they have developers and a company who love it with a passion. The game may be losing money, though we’ll never really know, but it doesn’t matter to the folks over at Blizzard HQ. It’s transcended the bottom line, and I am thankful for that. The only way I see StarCraft2 dying in the near future is if Blizzard decides to pull the plug themselves. But as long as there are people at Blizzard who love the game, and people in the community who feel the same, I doubt StarCraft 2 fans have anything to worry about.