OP-ED: Why Starcraft II’s Campaign Design Isn’t That Great

So yeah, this post isn’t going to be about writing. This post is one that has been on my backlog for around six months and I just never got around to it because there were other things to write about. Calling this is a “non-issue” is pretty accurate, really. Almost, but we’ll get into that. Starcraft II has been out for almost eleven years at this point, and there aren’t many people picking it up new.

However, because it’s been out for that long, I’ve had enough time to play through the title in question more than once and note the subject of today’s post.

But before I get into that, some quick news updates. First, Starforge. Starforge work continues to be the number one thing I’m working on right now, and I’ve almost finished up another major section. Likely will have by the end of this week/start of next week. Stranded remains a weekend project, as does another project, but once again I’ve been having burnout struggles, mostly because Starforge is a titan of a project that’s a bit all-consuming of my every thought and focus.

Speaking of which, I’ve now had multiple people in the real world notice that I’ve been “off” for a few weeks and tell me I need a vacation. Which … yeah I can’t deny. So I might be taking a week off sometime soon, just for mental health reasons. Though even that’s dicey because I’ve got so much to do …

Yeah … I think they’re all correct that I need a break of some kind. But Starforge! Both the cause and the solution, I think. After this, I’m going to write a few small books to relax.

In other news, speaking of small books, Axtara continues to review well, as do the rest of my books. Sales have hit a bit of a slump lately (someone suggested “summer” and people hoping quarantine was on its way out as possible reasons) but across my work the reviews are staying high. And outside of that? There really isn’t any news. So back to the rest of this post.

Okay, so this is one of those rare posts where I talk about one of my other hobbies, in this case gaming, and I want to talk about Starcraft II today. Now, as I said, this is an old game, but it still gets brought up a lot because it’s one of only a few RTS titles that still manages to have a decent following (the genre being somewhat dead these days).

Now personally, I’m not a huge fan of Starcraft II‘s approach to the genre. It’s a game that takes rock-paper-scissors balance to an extreme conclusion, an edge where a unit will do 250% damage (or more) to a specific unit it’s meant to counter, making army composition a case of “one-upping” the other guy with hyper-specialization (for the record, I prefer Relic’s Dawn of War approach where unit type bonus never exceeds 25% and other factors like accuracy and cover come into play).

But one thing I did enjoy was Starcraft II‘s (SC2) much-lauded campaign. At least … the first few times. But I still see it brought up as a stellar example of RTS single-player achievement whenever people bring up RTS campaigns. On the one hand, that’s good … but then on the other, I worry developers will take the wrong lessons.

Enough beating around the bush. Let’s dive into the meat-and-potatoes of SC2’s campaign and why it’s not as good as everyone remembers.

Okay, so on the surface, why does everyone remember SC2’s campaign so fondly? Well, at least outside of the story, which grew so convoluted that it actually retconned itself in the third installment, fixing a retcon from the first installment of the prior game. But why?

Well, because SC2’s campaign almost never asks a player to do something as simple as just “build army, fight opposing army” like most other RTS games. In the entire first installment, the only time you do just that is the tutorial mission. There’s always some wrinkle going on, whether it’s an advancing wall of death moving across the map, forcing the player to constantly relocate their base, racing a rival army to a macguffin through tiered defenses, leapfrogging across a map by taking out area of effect “destabalizers” that force you to use tanky units, trying to fulfill a mining contract on a world where the lava has tides that rise and fall …

Basically, every mission in SC2 involves some sort of wrinkle of some kind above and beyond the standard “build base, crush opponent.” And yeah, a lot of people like that, myself included. It makes each mission unique. There’s a train robbery mission (which actually ends up sounding cooler in concept than execution, but still, they tried). There’s a mission where you’re planting bombs to flood a network of tubes with lava that plays more like an ARPG than Starcraft II. The game just isn’t content to say “here, new unit.” It has to give you a mission built around learning that unit and using it to solve the “puzzle.”

And that is where things become both memorable … but also break down. Because it was upon playing through these missions again and attempting to play things out a bit differently that I realized that while SC2 had built a fantastically fresh campaign experience … in the process they’d broken a number of fundamental rules about RTS gameplay to do so. Not because they needed to, but presumably because it made the mission easier to program for.

Okay, that sounds a little confusing, so let me step back and explain a staple of RTS mission design in other games. RTS stands for “Real-Time Strategy,” so as you might guess, coming up with a strategy to how you defeat your opponent is pretty key.

In RTS games, this was often pretty free-from to the player. Have mission, have objective, go! As the genre advanced, designers would start building for “options” or “paths” to entice the player, but generally the execution of “how” was up to the player. Being harassed by enemy infantry? Use your limited resources to execute a surgical strike on their barracks, and stop the tide those infantry until your opponent can afford to replace it. Or you make a strike on their ability to do that first, then the barracks.

Basically, old (and modern) RTS missions often tended to be puzzles that let the player decide upon the best strategy of dealing with their opponent. Which quite often became a similar path, but hey, we’re talking older RTS titles. Some games experimented further. For example, Tiberian Sun introduced side missions could be optionally performed before a primary mission, which could lead to things like preventing enemy reinforcement spawns, creating ally reinforcement spawns, or other effects. More pieces to the puzzle, in other words.

The problem that SC2 has, however, is that it doesn’t do any of this. At all. In fact, it doesn’t even allow it. The mission design is so hard-locked to “use the developer’s solution” that even attempting to step out of it becomes an exercise in futility. And not just because the developers didn’t account for it. No, because the game itself does not support it.

Let me give you an example. In multiple campaign missions over the game’s full-length there are missions where you need to reach a destination for some objective while being attacked by one or more enemy bases on the map. The game instructs you to simply defend against the attacks, ignore the bases, and execute a surgical strike to grab the objective. Often, it’ll do things like make it very disadvantageous to do anything but play the way the developers intended, since you’d suffer massive losses to do so.

Except … Well, I’ve played a lot of RTS missions. And the first time I noticed this “break” occurring was in one of these missions where I decided it would be a lot easier to smash and grab if I did some smashing of my own along the way.

So I did. I sent in a strike on one of the multiple bases across the map and wiped out a good chunk of their production for the units they were sending against me. Only for, minutes later, those same units to march out of the base and attack anew.

“Odd,” I thought at the time. “Maybe I missed some. Or they got reinforcements from the other bases.” So I went back. And this time I leveled that base. Which, I note, the AI hadn’t even tried to rebuild. Then, curious since the attacks were coming at regular times, I left my army there to see what would happen.

What happened was spawning. The next attack force appeared out of thing air, popping into existence next to my army and immediately fighting.

The “AI” wasn’t building anything. There never had been any production. Just “spawn these units at this interval and send them at the player.”

I wiped out every base on that map. Every last enemy unit. And you know what?

The attacks never stopped. I could watch them spawn and march to my base every time.

At which point, I realized what SC2’s specialized mission design had lost. So the next time I played through it, I broke everything.

Well, not the missions themselves. They “happened.” But I broke the illusion that there was any sense of real strategy to it. I’d wipe out bases you were never supposed to touch, only to see units spawn in just the same. Realized that there was never an AI I was up against … just spawned waves of attack-move triggers.

Just like that, SC2’s campaign stopped being so great. Because while the missions were fresh the first time, and unique, and clever … that was it. There was only ever that one experience. That one solution. The moment you tried to do something the developers didn’t direct you to, the whole thing fell apart, revealing that there wasn’t any real AI behind what was going on. Just triggers and a bunch of glowing signs that said ‘Please play the mission this way, because there isn’t any other way.”

Now don’t get me wrong, I still like what SC2’s designers set out to do, at least at the surface. They made a bunch of interesting wrinkles for players to experience. The problem was that to do that, they apparently cut every other aspect of what makes an RTS campaign fun. There’s no AI. There’s no “do it your own way.” Just triggers that don’t react to the player unless they do just as the game directs.

At which point, on the second or third playthrough, you realize that everything you’ve done has been a crafted illusion. There’s no substance behind SC2’s campaign. No choice. No freedom to try things another way and see what happens. It’ll either fail, or it’ll break the illusion and lay the backstage bare to see, with the wires and special effects on clear display.

Now, for most this doesn’t matter. Here we are eleven years later, after all, and SC2 is one of the few successful RTS titles in the last decade. However, this also means that it is usually the first recommendation whenever I see someone asking about a “modern” RTS. “Look at SC2’s campaign!” people say. “Look how good it is!” And yes, from one angle, it is pretty good.

However … on a replay it’s not. Not unless you want to do the exact same thing and play just the way the developers intended. There’s no sandbox to it. No choice.

I worry that seasoned developers who likely noticed the exact same thing will see that as something they can get away with when told that SC2’s campaign is one of the best. That they can do away with campaign AI, or the sandbox of letting a player choose how to execute a mission. That they can build setpieces that are never intended to function, compared to the more complex bases, AI, and campaigns of other games where taking out a side base meant that said side base was no longer a problem.

Again, I don’t mind the wrinkles. In fact I think they’re a lot of fun. But there isn’t anything else of substance behind them. Once you’ve “solved” the wrinkle, there’s nothing else to achieve. You can replay the mission the exact same way … or you can break it.

Or you can just not play it altogether. I liked my time with SC2’s campaign when it was new … and it was still pretty fun the second time around. But the third? I actually never finished the epilogue. And trying to muster the energy for a fourth playthrough when I know it’ll just be more of the exact same? Kind of a hard sell.

So there you have it. My issues with SC2’s campaign. Agree? Disagree? There are comments for that!

Eh, it’s an op-ed. Have a good weekend everybody!

3 thoughts on “OP-ED: Why Starcraft II’s Campaign Design Isn’t That Great

  1. It’s funny, the things you talk about in SCII that supposedly is the important thing everyone loves is, in fact, not at all what I loved about it. I adored the Starcraft franchise, having owned all the games for it that ever came out. I was one of those people who was pumped when I saw the first SCII trailer. But it wasn’t because of the gameplay, as much fun as I had with it.

    I enjoyed Arcturus as a villain. I loved Kerrigan and her quest for revenge. I liked the relationship she shared with Rayner, both before and after her transformation. I found the aesthetic of the entire game entertaining. I still vividly recall Arcuturus Mengsk’s coronation speech; Fenix’s first fall to a Hydralisk; Kerrigan rescuing Jim from a prison ship; the betrayal of Tarsonis.

    The gameplay was fun, but it was only a means to get to what I really cared about.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love the setting as well, though I feel the game isn’t the best vehicle for it, and I felt the story in II didn’t always have the writing chops it needed for full impact, while still being fun. Part of that is how much extra there was from the first game in the manuals to back up the missions and dialogue and make it a more amazing setting, even if the lines could be corny at times. The cutscenes are awesome and visually stunning, and it is a fun adventure … if a little cliche and heavy-handed with its retcons (and the retcon of a retcon, which I personally found hilarious).

      But it is a fun setting, I 100% agree with you there. It’s a shame we’re never going to get a third installment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Don’t burn yourself out, Max! We need you! Take a break from sailing headfirst into the wind, some time off, and come back on top of it – Starforge isn’t going to be as mind-blowingly awesome if you work yourself into the ground to do it. You’re only one guy, and there are only 24 hours in a day, after all. You don’t have to go at max speed the whole time (awful pun fully intended).

    Liked by 3 people

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