tisdag 2 juni 2009

Is StarCraft really balanced?


With the StarCraft II beta imminent, now would be a good time to examine the original game. StarCraft with its expansion Broodwars is considered to be one of the most balanced games of all time, a testimony to this fact is that the game enjoys a thriving community of professional gaming a good ten years after its release. But is StarCraft really as balanced as the general consensus will lead us to believe? And what do we mean when when we claim it to be balanced?

The biggest problem when assessing whether or not StarCraft is balanced is how profoundly map design affects game balance. Compared to a game like Street Fighter, where every arena is pretty much the same and thus balance between characters is easier to single out, Starcraft's balance relies much on the balance of the maps. So much so that certain map features easily can turn the balance of the map on its head. (The map Medusa which featured non-buildable terrain in the middle of the map had Protoss winning almost 70 percent vs Terran until some of the non-buildable terrain was changed to normal terrain in Neo Medusa, resulting in a PvT win percentage of 40 percent).

With map balance having such a huge impact on balance, singling out whether something is balanced is exceptionally hard. With no norm, no "standard map" against which balance can be measured could anyone really claim StarCraft to be balanced? The answer is yes, yes you could claim that. But the balance is not the sole result of the balancing geniuses over at Blizzard Entertainment, the makers of the game, but the result of that balance in combination with the maps created by a dedicated community of map makers.

It is the map makers that make or break the balance of StarCraft. They are the ones who shape the arenas on which the battles take place. They are the ones that introduce and expose imbalances, who play tests, corrects and refines. They have no tools to tweak balance on a micro level. With each change only affecting the balance of a certain map, they run no risk of introducing imbalances in other parts of the game and can thus act and react much faster than Blizzard.

But map makers can only shift the balance so much. They can fine tune the balance the way you fine tune the signal to your radio, but they cannot change station. Blizzard's role in balancing the game should therefore not be neglected. They are the ones who decide which station we are going to listen to and they have to make sure that the game plays well for most maps.

Blizzard has managed to tune in StarCraft to a pretty good station, the balance is crisp and the game-play is deep. On top of this, map makers have managed to elevate the game to another level. They have managed to keep the game fresh and interesting by changing things up, forcing players to figure out new strategies and keeping the meta game from getting stale.

As the StarCraft II beta draws closer I am sure the Blizzard is aware of their role. They must make sure they are laying a good foundation upon which a community can thrive. With the introduction of an Automated Match Making (AMM) it will become easier to find games against appropriately matched opponent on Battle.net. But given the importance of map balance, one would hope that Blizzard is fast enough to update the map pool on their ladder to make sure that their ladder stays relevant.