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Behind the Scenes of StarCraft's Earliest Days

StarCraft lead Bob Fitch looks back on the days of "orcs in space," Reaver Drops, and competition with Total Annihilation.

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

It's the 20th anniversary of StarCraft! In honor of this classic game, we're republishing our look back on its earliest days with StarCraft lead programmer Bob Fitch.

StarCraft has endured for nearly 20 years for a reason: It's one of the greatest examples of competitive gaming design ever. Its equisite balance has won it millions of fans around the world, many of whom recently returned to celebrate their favorite game with yesterday's release of StarCraft Remastered.

But before it took over South Korea and became the first true eSport, StarCraft was just another RTS. It was trapped in the shadows of WarCraft II and derided by some as "orcs in space." When it finally came out in 1998 after an extended beta, more than a few reviewers dismissed it in favor of Total Annihilation, which boasted downloadable units and cutting edge 3D graphics.

This is a look at those early days, the period during StarCraft's development and subsequent launch when Blizzard was still building it into what it is now. Joining me are StarCraft's lead programmer Bob Fitch and former reviewer and current Blizzard PR rep Bob Colayco, the latter whom was heavily involved in the StarCraft community in its initial phaseses. This is where it all began.

The first iteration of StarCraft.

Orcs in Space

Bob Fitch: There was just eleven of us in a very small office making... I think we were doing conversions of other games and I was working on Rock n' Roll Racing. We had a real young guys that don't entirely know what they're doing but they're having a lot of fun. All eleven of us would go to lunch at the same place every single day. That was an adventure, a lot of comradery, and just doing whatever it took to get the games made kind of thing, thinking, "I wonder if this will be successful. Eh, who cares? Let's just make a game that we love to play." It was a lot of fun back then. No idea that it would ever turn into something this huge, of course.

I get asked that a lot. "What was it like thinking about what it might be one day?" We weren't thinking about what it might be one day. Then they say, "Now that it's huge, what is it like for you to look back on how small it was?" I'm still in shock. Twenty-five years later, I'm in shock that it has gotten so big. Even looking at the crowds when we have them all out in the courtyard and doing champagne toasts for the launch of a game or something, and seeing how many people there are, it's hard to imagine how it all started even today.

My understanding is that Warcraft's genesis was that Blizzard wanted a contract to do a Warhammer game with Games Workshop. Is that true?

BF: That is completely not true. I didn't even know that Games Workshop existed because I wasn't into their gameplay, their tabletop miniatures and stuff. I didn't even know about Games Workshop and their games until years after we had already shipped. I was the lead on it. You would think that if anyone's going to have been involved in those conversations, it would've been me. No, there was nothing like that. We came up with the idea based on thinking, "Hey, we like this RTS genre, and we just did Vikings, and we like Lemmings. Why don't we do a game that is sort of like that where you have a bunch of Vikings that are going around and they can fight in a sort of RTS way?" That just evolved over time.

It was originally based on Lost Vikings meets RTS. I know that for a fact. We liked the Lemmings game. We just went, "Oh it's so cool when you see lots of Lemmings all over the place. Why don't we have lots of Vikings all over and then the Vikings can fight each other, and then it'll be an RTS game instead of like the Lemmings," which was a completely different genre. That's where it came from. It was Vikings meets RTS, and then it evolved into fantasy from there.

Warcraft 2 was very successful. You and Westwood were owning the nascent real-time strategy genre in the mid '90s. Your follow-up was a little game called StarCraft.

BF: [laughs] Yeah, little game.

A little game which people were derisively referring to as "orcs in space." What was the first time you heard the word StarCraft? How was it pitched to you?

BF: When did I first hear it? Well, I think we were all just throwing various game ideas out there in a big meeting or something. At the time we had this one office where there was a huge room that everybody could fit into. We were just throwing ideas out. "Hey why don't we do this? Why don't we do that? What about doing doing a sequel to Warcraft, but this time we could set it in space?" I don't know exactly when the name came up for it, whether it was early or after the idea the game was already set, because it probably was fairly early. It sort of makes sense.

If you're gonna have "star" and tie it back to Warcraft, StarCraft just makes a lot of sense. I think I remember that name just falling into place very easily. I don't remember exactly when we came up with the concept though. I knew we had to do something next. What's our next game going to be? It felt like it was fairly easy to come to that decision, but I can't put my finger on when.

When did you guys decide that you were going to do three races? Was this from the start?

BF: We knew that we were going to do more than two. I think that it didn't settle down on exactly three right away. I think we were looking at possibly five, but that wasn't for very long. Really it's just, "Hey, how many races do we want to do?" "Well I know we want to do more than two." "Okay, well that's at least three." "Alright, do we want to do three, four, five?" "Well what different ideas do you have?" Then we threw ideas out on the table. Obviously we wanted to do something that was creepy aliens, something that was something more intelligent aliens, something that was human, and then there just wasn't really anything else after that. It settled into three fairly quickly.

Warcraft II was warmly received, but one of the major knocks against it was that the races were basically mirrored. I assume that when you started to make StarCraft, it was a pillar to be like, "Alright this time around, they're all different."

BF: Yeah, that was for me. I was one of the people that when I looked back at Warcraft and thought, "It's awesome. I love the game, but it is a bit like chess. The two sides are very similar. This side has this unit, this side has this unit. They match up one to one." I was pushing very strongly for three completely unique races, so yes. We early on knew that we wanted to go three completely distinct ones. I was pushing hard for it just as a game player and as the AI programmer, knowing that it would make it more interesting to have the three sides play differently when you played against them.

Okay, so you have your concept. You know you're gonna do three races, they're gonna all be very different, but StarCraft started out looking very different. What was up with that original look? Take me a little bit about the earliest days in the very beginning and the reaction to it.

BF: At the very beginning we tried to take the Warcraft engine and just put in new art that would be more sci-fi looking. By not changing the engine at all, it was just reskinning really. That caused everything to look exactly like Warcraft, but with new art.

It looked exactly like what you would expect if you just took an engine and reskinned it. We went to CES and showed it off way too soon. The public reacted to it going, "Oh yeah, I've played Warcraft. I recognize this. It looks just like Warcraft. Is this the sequel to Warcraft? Oh, is it going to be orcs in space?" That's where that whole "orcs in space" thing came from. It's because they figured if it looked the same then it must be a sequel. That was our kick in the butt, the inspiration to completely change the engine, program it a whole new way, change all the art to spruce that up, make that look better.

Fortunately, at the time, I guess in hindsight it was fortunate, Diablo was trying to ship. They were getting into crunch time, and so all of the members of our team, one by one, had to help Diablo get out the door, until I was the last one. Because I was the only one working on the project, that gave me a couple months to work on a new game engine for it. When everybody came back from Diablo they were able to start doing all the things that we really wanted to do to make it come up to speed in terms of the visual fidelity.

Some of the histories I've read suggested that the transition from the Warcraft 2 engine to a brand new StarCraft engine was a challenging one. Sounds like from your standpoint everything actually went pretty smoothly?

BF: I've done a lot of games here and I don't remember that one standing out in any unusual way. I'm not clear on what you've read, but it was normal. We worked harder than we worked today but it was the same work. We just did more of it per day when we were young and we could handle that kind of thing. I'm older now. I can't do 18 hours a day, but when I was young I could, but otherwise it was the same. It was the same work.

Getting back to the AI really quickly, that reminds me that at that time AI on real-time strategy was so bad. In particular, Warcraft 2, it was known for like, you would get a transport full of three grunts coming to attack your base, and that was pretty much the extent of it. I'm going to go on a limb and say that probably AI was a huge focus for you guys, especially pathfinding, right?

BF: Pathfinding is definitely an area that can really break a game. Yeah, we focused a lot on pathfinding. The AI was just whatever it took to make it play well. I wouldn't say we focused on it. I didn't really work on it until toward the end of the project when most of the rest of the game was done anyway. Yeah, pathfinding for sure was a big focus to make sure that in multiplayer games ... But I don't consider pathfinding AI, just for the record. That's just a search algorithm where it applies to human units too. Not humans in the game, like Terran, but people. People controlling their units want their units to get where they told them to go and do it in an intelligent way without them bumping into each other too much.

We knew that we needed to make that really strong so that it wouldn't get in the way of the multiplayer part of the game. If I'm fighting against the other bub's units, I don't want my units stomping over each other and not actually participating in the fight because of pathfinding, so yes, pathfinding for sure. Regular artificial intelligence of the computers controlling the units, I just did what I had been doing on Warcraft. I took it to the next step. Every game had been an evolution. Warcraft, it was a particular way. I got as much as I could get in before we had to ship. Warcraft 2, I got to spend more time on it so it got a little better. StarCraft got a little better. Brood War got a little better. StarCraft 2 got a little better. It just kept getting better every time.

When the Queen Could Attack

So you're making this game with the three races. Each one had totally different mechanics, obviously. You had the Terrans, they were the more traditional ones. But then you had the Zerg with the hatching multiple units, and the Protoss with their beaming in stuff. Which one was the hardest to design?

BF: The Terran were easy to design. I'll say that it was either the Zerg or the Protoss. I'm going to go with the Protoss, but that's just my personal opinion. I think they were a little tougher because they were more unique to us. They didn't really have a strong analogue to anything else that existed in popular culture. Typically popular culture has your intelligent aliens as being the little frail gray men with the big black eyes kind of thing. We went a totally different way obviously. That one probably had the most challenge because they needed a whole new sort of lore and all of their game mechanics were unusual. Yeah, so I'll pick Protoss.

Can you recall any units that underwent drastic changes over the course of development?

Bob Colayco: The Queen. I remember, at least from beta...

BF: Her spells changed.

BC: The Queen's spells changed but she also used to have the Mutalisk's attack.

BF: Yeah. The Queen had an attack, and then we changed them to not have an attack.

BC: Yeah, because I remember you used to be able to just rush all queens. And I know you used to be able to shoot spider mines out, because on the Vultures, now you just drop them and then they burrow in and they activate. Before you could actually fire them forward from the Vulture.

BF: Yeah. You could choose the target. I think it's just every unit went through lots of little changes and we're remembering some of them now, but every unit went through anywhere from very minor to somewhat significant changes. The Vultures, they could target where they wanted the mines to burrow rather than burrowing right next to where the vulture was. Instead of it being an instant button it was a targeted button. That was why you could fire them, because you could choose a target where you wanted it to burrow and have that target be ahead underneath enemy units, and so the mines would skitter forward and immediately see enemy units and go, "Oh, I'm a mine. I'm supposed to blow up," and so they blow up.

BC: I remember that's how BlackLizard got to number one on the beta ladder.

BF: Yeah, and then there were things like every single unit's cooldown for its attack would start the moment it last attacked, and then no matter what else it did after that, even getting picked up into a shuttle, its cooldown was still going. You could have a scarab fire out of a Reaver and then the cooldown started on that. Then you pick it up into the shuttle, it let it's cooldown expire in the shuttle, then drop it from the shuttle and it'll fire again. There was a guy-we actually hired him and he became a Blizzard employee-but there was this guy. At the time, he was in the beta. He could do that so fast that we couldn't actually render a frame of the Reaver existing in the world. That ended up making it look like the shuttles were shooting the Reaver scarabs.

I had to patch that. Yeah, because I remember patching it and I think it was after it shipped maybe. I remember what the patch was. I modified it so that cooldowns for firing began immediately after they were released from whatever bunker, or cargo container, or whatever. If you jumped out of a bunker as a marine or if you jumped out of a shuttle as a Reaver, then your attack cooldown started as if you had just fired. That was my solution to fix that. It was a fairly simple fix once I came up with how to do it. But yeah, until then we had some really interesting gameplay there.

The Reaver Drop in action.

Were there any units that you had considered but ultimately cut? Or units that you pushed to Brood War?

BF: Yeah. Actually that's true. I think the idea of the Medic was an idea that we had for StarCraft and we just didn't do that one then. Even though if we had the ideas and they went into Brood War, they changed so much. The unit names changed, the mechanics change, and sometimes you're not even sure if it's the same unit when you're done with it. The thing with the unit names has always been pretty interesting. A unit will go through three, or even four different versions of a name. A lot of times the data will reflect that.

You'll have some data that has one name, and then some other data with another, and then in the code we reference a unit and it uses a third name, but then it actually ships with a fourth name. It can get really confusing. The Observer, for example, throughout all the code of StarCraft it's actually referred to as the Witness. You have to know when you're reading the code that if you're seeing something called a Witness, that's actually the Observer.

A thing that people tend to forget also is that at that time Total Annihilation also came out in '97. It was in 3D and everybody was like, "This is amazing. This is the new hot thing and StarCraft looks old." What was your take on it back then? How are you feeling about that criticism, I suppose?

BF: It didn't actually bother me at all. I do remember that. I remember people saying, "Oh look, it's new. It's better." My first thought was, "Well, if that's true, that's how life works. Every new version of something is in some way better than something in the past. My new phone is better than my old phone and graphics keeps getting better," so I'm like, "Yeah. I could believe that their graphics are maybe better. Gameplay, I don't know. I'll have to give it a try." So I went and I gave it a try. It was a completely different kind of game. It wasn't at all like StarCraft, so I thought, "Oh, this doesn't bother me. It's almost a different genre. And so yeah, good for them. It's like, "Great. More people that come into the genre is just more people that can like our game too."

Moving on to How did that change things from your perspective, and how much of a challenge was that?

BF: I remember it definitely being a lot more challenging, needing to deal with so many people all wanting to play at the same time, lots of games going. It was a lot easier for people to play the game so that meant they were getting a lot better at the game really fast. I remember that it made it hard for me to play because I couldn't keep my skills at the same level of the skill that other people were. I remember it starting to build a bigger community of players because all the names that were in that... What do I want to call it? I don't want to call it "realm", but well, in the community.

The names in the community were starting to be more well-known to us. People who were really good at it, you could see them in the ladder. Then the forums followed from there, so once everybody knew who all the big players were then they were talking about them all the time. It just exploded the community from my point of view.

How did the community then differ from the community now?

BF: Smaller. It's bigger now. I think the fans are all still the same really.

BC: Yeah, I mean I remember there being like, just by the nature of the way the chat rooms were, there'd be little cliques, right, like whichever chat rooms you happened to hang out in. Since you got stars for wins and stuff, the more prestigious players were at the top of the list with more stars. Then you could go back and check their ladder ranking.

BF: I had my favorite chat, I remember now. I had my favorite room. We spelled StarCraft backward and then created that as a chat room. I got to know maybe 20 to 30 different people who frequented there a lot, who I actually still contact some of them today. They have my email and every now and then they're like, "Hey, how's it going? What's the next beta that I can get into?" But yeah, I still know people from then. But the fans, there's just more of them now. They're still the same.

BC: It's just that more of maybe the discussion or whatever's just migrated to Reddit or those other places like Team Liquid as opposed to just hanging out in a chat room or whatever.

When StarCraft actually came out, what were some of the initial challenges? The Terrans were known for being pretty unbalanced at that time. You were working with entirely new technology essentially, having your own online network. There must have been quite a few challenges going on.

BC: The Terran balance, I thought they were actually weaker until Medics came in.

BF: I think you're right, yeah. We didn't have every single unit in that we wanted in order to make it a really balanced experience. We were sort of playing around with the ones that were already there and then thinking about what could we add that would shore up the holes in the different sides. That's essentially why the different units that came into Brood War, why they exist, is they were essentially completing the game in terms of the balance. So Medics, for example, and the other units that came in at that point. Sure, yeah, there was some balance stuff that needed to be fixed, although I feel like every single game ever made has balance problems.

So slightly different question, one of the first things that came out of StarCraft strategy was the Zerg Rush. What were your thoughts on it at the time from a balance standpoing?

BF: None of us saw it as a problem. We definitely thought, "Okay, we can't leave it exactly like this because then it's just not fun for the person who's getting rushed. What's important is it be okay to do the rush as long as there's a way to counter it." Then we just thought, "Okay, how can we balance things to help counter this problem, like putting in changes to the bunkers?" That's even if bunkers existed at the point when the rush started. I'm wondering if we even had that unit yet.

BC: Unless you knew it was coming, you wouldn't have a bunker up.

BF: Yeah, but you could scout ahead of time and then see it coming. What was important to us was making sure that people had the tools in their hands to counter whatever strategy your opponent might have. If that means you needed to scout your enemy to see that it was about to happen, and then build it a bunker to defend against it, or start your barracks a little earlier than you normally would, that's okay. That's a strategy that you can take. If you don't scout your opponent and you get Zerg Rushed because you didn't see it coming, that's part of the strategy.


StarCraft's Secret Weapon: The Map Editor

Can you tell me a little bit about the genesis of the map editor? Tell me about the impact it had on the culture of StarCraft.

BF: Let's see, so we had an editor in Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. We just didn't release it. Right? I don't think we released it, like ever.

BC: I don't know. I made WarCraft II maps, but I didn't make Warcraft 1 maps.

BF: Okay, so we had an editor. We used it internally and when it came time for WarCraft II, we said, "Alright, we already have this editor. If we made it more of an actual product that was fully debugged and had all good user interface," which at the time it was definitely an internal only kind of product. That's why it didn't ship with Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. We said, "Hey, if we fix it up, spruce it up a little so that it can be presentable, we could actually ship this and then people could make their own maps," so we did that, and they could make their own maps in WarCraft II.

It was the reception of that that really spurred all the future map editor development. We saw how people loved making new maps, and there were new maps coming out all the time that fans would promote through whatever means they had of promoting things at the time. I actually don't remember. Were we doing forums? Was it just chat rooms? I don't recall. They were making them and we saw they loved it, so we said, "Alright, we definitely need to do a real, full-fledged, from the ground up, map editor on StarCraft."

We completely rewrote that as well, just like we did the game. We started from scratch on an editor knowing that we were going to make it for the fans. We had lots of extra stuff in there to do things like triggers that allowed them to essentially make their own campaigns, to make custom maps that played in particular ways. After that, it was just evolution. We knew at that point we were definitely a map editor making company too, so every time we made a new RTS, we beefed up the editor too.

Then players immediately went out and made stuff like Big Game Hunters.

BF: That's one of the biggest maps ever. That is an iconic map now. I think if we hadn't gotten Big Game Hunters that would be a tragedy.

BC: Yeah, that would. There'd be a lot less people playing StarCraft without Big Game Hunters.

BF: Yeah, no kidding. Yeah, all the trigger map type stuff too, I think, things where we got tower defense as a whole genre coming out of the fact that we did that. I mean, I think that's awesome.

The Dark Archon was one of the units meant to "complete" StarCraft's balance in Brood War.

It seems like you guys decided pretty early on that you were going to make the Brood War expansion. Was that something you decided on during the development of the main game?

BF: I think the game was not out yet, and we were already thinking what our expansion would be because we already had expansions for Warcraft II. It was this basic way of thinking about game development at that point. It was, "Alright, here's what we're gonna do for our first game, and then we're gonna do two or three expansions." You would think at the time, "What do we want for our first expansion to be?" Yeah, we were thinking of Brood War before it was out for sure.

What was your first inkling that StarCraft was really blowing up in South Korea?

BF: I remember getting anecdotal reports from people around the office talking about how we had a huge number of sales in South Korea. I asked, "What do you mean huge number of sales? You mean just total numbers sold, the number per capita, like what do you mean?" "As many in South Korea as there were in North America." Like, "Wait, North America's pretty huge and South Korea's lower population. That's a lot of copies. Wow." At the time I didn't know why that was. I do now, but at the time I didn't know. I don't think any of us really understood what that meant.

BC: One interesting thing to note also is that the game was never localized in Korean.

BF: Right, yeah. They were playing in English.

Looking back on StarCraft, especially the early days, I get this real sense that you guys caught lightning in a bottle. I'm just really curious, what is it about StarCraft that you think really just struck a chord with people, and just made it such an enduringly popular game?

BF: I think it's because it's similar to chess in that it's really easy to pick up. Anybody could play it. My kids were playing it when they were four and five years old, so it was really easy for people to just pick up and get into. But when you look at the skill difference between, "Oh yeah, I play that game," all the way up to the pros, the gap is huge. It's like chess where anyone can play, the moves are simple, but the strategy can get so deep. The tactics that you need to employ make it where the grandmasters are just miles ahead. It creates a lot of things. It's easy to learn, difficult to master.

You get a bunch of people who are the pros that have these recognizable names that give people inspiration, sort of like how regular sports teams have the big names on all the different teams and kids look up to them as role models. Well, they were looking up to StarCraft pro players as role models. It created communities where people just felt like they could fit into that community, like at school having various clubs. I was in the French club. This was just another club that people could be in, this community of StarCraft players.

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