August 2010

I’m sure you want to know if StarCraft II is as good as the first, and if the multiplayer is balanced, and if the campaign is like, cool and everything, and if the game is wholly new. The answer to all of those things is a strictly technical yes. 

Hype and anticipation are inseparable from certain games, though, and the way StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty turned out is a fantastic microcosm of the how video games are different today from ten or even five years ago.

Reports on the multiplayer have been around a while because of the beta, so the first order of business is the campaign. The simple linear progression of Mission 1 to Mission 10 is a thing long-gone. The first StarCraft had a plot that, for its day, actually had you interested in the characters and the events. You were the accompanying commander/cerebrate/judicator guy whose job was simply to be awesome at mobilizing units and follow orders. You watched passively as the people you served made tragic choices, cut off alliances, backstabbed, politicked, and swore oaths of vengeance like it was a sci-fi version of a Greek tragedy. Many characters had zippy one-liners (“Clearly Tassadar has failed us…you must not,” “He’s our snake now”).

That’s all different now. You follow Jim Raynor as he attempts to overthrow Arcturus Mengsk, running into various friends and hostiles along the way. In between missions there are newscasts to watch, a jukebox to play with, and characters to talk to. Those characters are very generic and archetypal, and they fill the campaign with  predictable plot twists. Achievements (in multiplayer also), easter eggs, and mission order choice are all part of the mix too. Completing levels and finding hidden items give you access to upgrades and new units. The campaign will feel a little more like a quest this way compared to the first Stacraft’s, which felt like a multiplayer tutorial and movie.

The curious thing about the game as a whole is the divergence between the single player and multiplayer. For one thing, StarCraft II will have three parts. The campaign here is all Terran, all 26 missions, and we won’t even see the next campaign, the zerg, for about two years. The campaign will only teach you about one of the three races (a lot of players in multiplayer pick terran), and even there some of the upgrades and units don’t exist in multiplayer. The fact that the firebat and medic return for the campaign yet don’t in the multiplayer is a curious choice. Was the balancing not complete, or did they keep them just for nostalgia’s sake?

Regardless, the missions are creative and the objectives interesting enough that it won’t feel like a grind of base-stomping just to get to the next audio file, and for that the campaign is to be commended. Polish and volume of content were the main goals in mind. The graphics of the missions are more varied and intense here too. 12 years is a long time, and the sounds and graphics are appropriately new, though in the case of the the graphics not remarkable–that’s fine though, as scenery is not what strategy games are about.

For most, the multiplayer will be the most important part as that is where the majority of the time will be spent. The graphics here are actually a little simpler, presumably to keep the competition friendly. The game is the same–workers on minerals and gas, build order, base expansion, map knowledge, the whole formula is unchanged. Warcraft III was a very experimental game. StarCraft II takes no chances.

Most people didn’t want it to, either. But here are changes that are large, subtle, and more telling: it’s easier to add a friend by Facebook than it is by username. An Internet connection is absolutely required for single player, as is an email address connected to a account. There are no channels to go to like in StarCraft or any of the Warcraft games. Custom games requires lots of uncomfortable hoops (though there are already some admirable tower defense creations in place) and the ladders are split up into tiny groups, none of which can be seen online anywhere, the way it can in World of Warcraft or Warcraft III. You can see the stats of 100 players at a time, all about your skill level, randomly assigned.

It’s cold and anonymous and encouraging you to play with your real friends. People do this anyway. Some people want the online culture, and it’s gone. The balance is fine and the looks are fine and the changes are nice but the channels and visible ladders are gone. What gives? 

Ultimately, StarCraft II gets perfect technical marks and worthy artistic ones. I won’t kid anyone: we all want to see and play this game, and if there is disappointment, it’s not enough to warrant a regret in purchasing it. The real question is whether the story or the culture makes you feel the way the first did, whether the consolized style of is going to matter to you. 


Editor’s note: Brad Talton is an independent game designer and developer. What kind of games? Video games? Board games? Card games? Well, yes. His company, Level 99 Games, creates all kinds of geekiness. In a series of columns here at SBG, Brad shares insights into the game creation process. In this installment, he talks about starting his latest project: a 2-player iPad action game.

The game I’m currently developing for the iPad is called Super Psychic Chibi Fighters 3. Yes, it’s really called that.

Let me explain.


It occurred to me that it might be fun to do another video game. After the recent success of some other, more practical products, I had a little money to spare, as well as an idea that I had been mulling over for some time. Gradually, the idea took shape, and seemed like a viable option. 

My first thought was about the delivery medium of the game. I thought it would be fun to do a two player, frantic action game on the iPad. The device is big enough to support two people playing on either side of it while still seeing whatever catastrophic action was happening in the middle. 

As long as the action doesn’t require hands to cross over the middle of the game surface, that is. So I needed a game where the players are interacting with each other at a distance. Maybe blasting bullets or shots at one another? I was reminded of two games–one I had played and one I had made.

In high school, I was a fan of Psychic Force 2012 for the Dreamcast, as well as the anime X1999, and wanted to make something similar. In these, combatants fly through the air, blasting enemies with massive bolts of elemental magic. So, in C++ on Windows 2000 using DirectX as my graphics source, I developed my first game, Super Psychic Chibi Fighters 2

Yes, 2.

It was one of those zany, tongue-in-cheek titles. In SPCF2, the players tossed blasts of magic at one another while trying to dodge out of the way of other blasts. It was a simple but feature-filled game, with 4 play modes, as well as 20 characters with unique campaigns. It only had a production run of about 5, but the gameplay and idea were there.

I was also intrigued by the Touhou series–a series of fan-made games most haven’t played. When I was living in Japan, I was introduced by a friend to this series and the danmaku (or “bullet hell”) style of space shooters. In danmaku games, the goal may be to shoot up the enemy ships, but that’s not the challenge. Danmaku enemies and bosses can fill up the screen with thousands of slow-moving bullets that form a deadly, shifting maze for your character to navigate. 

I knew what I should make Super Psychic Chibi Fighters 3: a humorous, frantic, head-to-head game for the iPad that combined the original’s chaotic gameplay with modern special effects and a new battle system that focused more on evasion.


The first thing to do was find out if it was actually any fun. It’s easy to come up with game concepts, but how well do those work in the real world? Unfortunately, I’ve developed enough time-consuming, highly polished games that just weren’t fun that I’ve come to understand the value of prototyping. Determining whether an idea works must be the top concern– until you know it works, a game concept is just a shot in the dark against a faraway moving target.

In order to test, I decided to develop a quick and simple prototype of my idea that gathered together the most basic elements of gameplay. So I fired up XCode and created a Cocos2d game for the iPad using the Chipmunk physics engine. These engines are both open source, so my base prototype didn’t cost a dime to create. (Of course, I already had the iPad and an Apple developer subscription. Those cost $700.) It took about 4 hours to put together the basic game, which looked like this:

I didn’t bother with life bars, fancy graphics or even putting up walls; I just wanted to see if flinging blasts at your opponent was any fun. So the player targets are the two “mage” characters (recycled graphics from a previous project), and the little red pucks took only a minute to create. The interface background is just a suggestion–none of the walls or boundary lines are enforced in the prototype.

You make some surprising discoveries by prototyping. In the first game, you flicked the projectiles at your opponent, sliding them forward and releasing them like air hockey pucks. However, Lynda (my fianceé and playtest guinea pig) and I found that we kept smashing hands together and blocking the screen. So I changed the puck release mechanism. Now, players touch a puck and pull back, releasing to fire it off like a slingshot. This made the game much easier to play. Moving your characters to dodge was a reasonable challenge as well, since without fingers blocking the way, it was easy to see what was coming.

The frantic action was there. Before long, we were both laughing as our characters got blasted by exploding hockey pucks and spiraled out of control off the sides of the screen. The skill factor was there: it was possible to line up combos that would follow the path of a character blasted by an explosion and keep pressure on them. The strategy was there: I could dodge a blast, or block it with my own. We could use trick shots off of the walls or backs of the arena to surprise foes. It was actually a lot of fun, as simple as it was. 

So now that I had a working concept, it was time to move to the next step.

In the next installment, Brad will talk about his experiences contracting artists, gathering resources and developing a budget.

Character art by Victoria Parker for Level 99 Games.

The Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos is a fertile ground for game themes, although Unspeakable Words may be one of the oddest adaptations. Given that it was designed by Cheapass Games impresario James Ernest and former TSR/Hasbro (Avalon Hill) lead Mike Selinker, this may not be a complete surprise. 

At its heart, UW is a Scrabble-like word forming game, using cards instead of tiles and a board. Each player — the game supports up to 6 out of the box, with more theoretically easy to add — is dealt seven cards, each with one letter on it. On your turn, use the cards in your hand to make a word of at least three letters, then draw back up to seven cards. No word can be used twice in a game (so it’s useful to keep track), and the usual restrictions on proper names, abbreviations, contractions, and the rest apply. If you can’t make a word you must discard your hand and draw a new one, passing your turn.

Seems simple enough, but then it gets strange. As in Scrabble, each letter is worth a number of points; however, this score is based on how many angles are in the letter, not on its frequency in the English language (which instead determines their frequency in the deck). So round letters like O and U are worth zero, while fellow yet more angular vowels E and I are worth four and the very triangular A is a whopping five (the highest value, shared with its neighbor B). The object is to be the first to score 100 points… and stay sane.

Like most Cthulhu-inspired games, UW has a sanity mechanic. Every time you score a word, you roll a d20. If you roll equal to or higher than your word’s score, you’re safe (for now); fail and you lose one of your five starting Cthulhu pawns (or if you prefer a more thematic mechanic, you gain one). Fail five times and you become a gibbering mess and are eliminated. Rolling a  20 will earn success no matter how high your word’s score is, so there’s always a chance to survive. Fortunately you still score for the word even if it cracks your sanity — unless you fail the “sanity check” on the word that gets you to 100, in which case you not only get close to insanity, but you also score zero points on that particular word! 

There are a few variants included in the rules to keep games fresh, but the game is fast enough (and wacky enough) to never really outstay its welcome. Since it’s really more of a filler game there isn’t a ton of strategy other than when to press your luck with a huge-scoring word, but with word games like this the real fun comes from exercising your vocabulary. The cards are high-quality and shouldn’t need sleeving even with frequent play, and the Cthulhu pawns are cute in their own little twisted fashion. You can pick up Unspeakable Words, published by Playroom Entertainment, for $18.90 at Amazon and less than $25 at most gaming stores.