Everything old is new again.
If you want to see how much has changed in StarCraft between the game's launch in 1998 and the current remaster in 2017, try pressing F5 while playing. The default key for switching between the classic graphics version and the remaster, shows how much attention has gone into making the StarCraft remake feel like it belongs on your HD monitor.
But what was it like bringing this game back to life? And what about a console or mobile version? Robert Bridenbecker, whose official title is VP of technology strategy & planning at Blizzard, and who's been with the company since 1995, answered our questions about the game in a phone interview. And he even gamely responded to our queries about when we're going to get that Warcraft 3 remaster (spoiler: it's not something he can actually talk about).
GameSpot: Could you briefly talk about part in the Remaster, and what kind of role you had in the original development of the game?
Robert Bridenbecker: I run the classic games group, but it's kind of been with me since the beginning. With the original game, at that time we were really so small that we all did a whole bunch of different things. One of my big focuses was rolling Battle.Net out into all parts of the known world. We were hot off the heels of Diablo, and we needed to expand the infrastructure--bring it into Europe and bring it into Asia. I was working on it back in the day as well.
We've gotten other classic Blizzard games, or we've gotten access to them online. But why was StarCraft the first one that you guys wanted to fully remaster?
There were a handful of things we looked at with some of our classic titles. It's been almost 20 years now for StarCraft; while the game ran fantastic back in 1998, in 2017 we were just running into some real obvious hurdles. Not getting it to install, it’s buggy on modern operating systems, and you get palette glitches; just all the inconveniences of running something that is 19 years old on today's hardware.
We said, "That doesn't feel like a quality Blizzard experience." And as we started really looking at what would be involved in bringing it forward, we also asked ourselves, "Could we do a little bit more? Where would we take this?" That was the genesis behind how we arrived at coming up with a remaster for StarCraft.
And this version lives directly in Battle.net.
That's actually the other piece of the tapestry of why we did it. Back in the early 2000s, we moved to a newer role of Battle.net, if you will, where a lot of our infrastructure had to be modernized and updated. We had some of these classic titles that were on the original Battle.net that started in 1996, and we had this artificial divide between these classic titles and our modern titles. We asked ourselves, "If we were to go through and get it working on all these modern systems and update some graphics, we should also bring it on to today's modern Battle.net so that we have one Blizzard ecosystem where all of our players can connect together."
It just feels like a natural extension of where we wanted to go with it the remaster.
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Thinking about Blizzard, having that one cohesive place for you to get access to all your Blizzard titles just feels like it makes sense.
In fact, that's kind of tried and true for why we started with Battle.net to begin with. Go back to the original Warcraft 1, Warcraft 2, we saw these online services cropping up, but they were all outside of the game. So we wanted to bring that experience into the game and make it fully integrated. It was just an obvious extension of how people wanted to connect and play with one another.
When we had this old versus new Battle.net, bringing them together and crystallizing that one ecosystem, it really is the fulfillment of why we started doing these online games in the first place.
Blizzard has such a history of creating these iconic games, but making them something that for a modern audience has to be kind challenging. You want to preserve the integrity of that original experience, but you also want it to be something that a modern audience can fully appreciate.
Exactly. That was part of the early conversations when we started talking about art style and how far we would go. We knew that we had this phenomenal game, but it was a phenomenal game artistically when it got presented on 4:3 CRT monitors back in 1996 at 640x480 resolution.
But when you bring that forward onto today's monitors where you've got 1080p or even 4K monitors, and you put that 640x480 image up on the screen, you notice all of the pixelation. That certainly speaks to some of the nostalgia. I certainly enjoy looking at the original art style. But then we said, "How cool would it be if, at the press of a button, it morphs into that same iconic StarCraft art style, but brought forward and represents all of its glory in 1080p and 4K resolutions?"
Tim Schafer and the team at Double Fine has done a lot of classic game remasters recently, and one thing that came up was around the workarounds, artistically, they sometimes had to make. In some cases they'd have to go back to the original art assets just to figure out what they'd actually created in the first place, or what exactly a sign used to say, because It was unreadable in the classic version of the game.
For the StarCraft remaster, was there any time where the team wasn't quite sure what a building or creature was supposed to look like? Did you have to go back to any concep art to figure out exactly what something was supposed to represent?
It's funny you say that because we're blessed in that we've got folks that are still with us and that worked on all of our different games, including the original StarCraft, from an art standpoint. Early on we knew one of the things we had to do was bring somebody over that really understood the original art style and they needed to be that lead. So we brought Brian Sousa over who worked on the original StarCraft, and then he worked with some of the other guys on ensuring that the character in the missile turret is actually represented in the remaster, because it was always intended that there's a guy in the missile turret.
Or the SUV. In some of the original concept drawings for it, it was actually more of a transformer, where it would turn into a jet or what have you. So when you look at the remastered art, you'll actually see some of that really pop for you, whereas if you look at the original art, we just didn't have enough pixels to be able to fully represent that. Having these guys that worked on it back then being able to say, "Hey, this is really what we wanted to showcase." They're able to then plug it into today's version of the remaster.
It's interesting that you mention Tim and the guys over there at Double Fine because some of the stuff that they're doing is right around the same time period. I remember playing Grim; I remember playing Full Throttle. Taking a look at what they're doing and bringing some of these palettes forward, as a player, I absolutely love it. I think it's super cool. It's fun to be able to go back and work on some of these titles that we built way back when and bring them forward for these modern generations to be able to enjoy.
I know my kids are able to sit down now and go through and play the game and not get distracted by some of the noise of that pixelation or get distracted by "How come it's such a pain in the butt to install on Windows 10? Why isn't it connected over so I can talk to my buddies playing Overwatch?" We've solved a lot of those issues by bringing this stuff forward.
Looking at some other studios that have done remasters over the last few years, they've tended to go with outside developers. You guys have big teams and a lot of resources, but what drove that decision to handle this internally instead of going with an outside developer, someone who has experience specifically with remasters?
There's a lot of passion around the things that we do, but there's also a lot of internal knowledge, tribal knowledge if you will. You mentioned earlier the art styling, things like that guy in the turret, was he supposed to be there or not? As soon as you start to put that outside of the walls of the people that built it, I think you lose some of that. But equally I think you are re-engaging people that helped to build these things and re-invigorating them in a way that they go, "Looking back after 20 years, how amazing is it that these games that built a lot of the foundation for who we are as Blizzard today, how great is it that we're able to continue to bring this stuff forward and introduce it to newer generations?"
As soon as you a remaster, you also always get that part of the audience who ask, "Why are you spending time on this when you could be spending time on something like StarCraft 3? Why are you dedicating resources to something old instead of building something new?"
Another blessing is the reality that, as an organization, we've been able to grow and scale such that we are able to do more than one thing at any given time. The amount of energy that is involved in working on some of these remaster titles, is going to be different than working on something like, let's say a StarCraft 3 or some other future title.
We want to be able to continue to speak to our players, to engage with them, and we want to be able to give them the games that they want to be able to play. With StarCraft, we've got these audiences around the world that continue to love and be engaged with the game. We're looking at the future, but we're also looking at what has gotten us to where we are. And we're making sure that there's one Blizzard community that's out there. If we do something that fractures it, that's on us. We actually have to address it. So that's a lot of where we come back and say, "There's a balance, right? How much energy are we going to spend against it?" But spending zero energy was a non-starter for us.
Was there any thought given to bringing over to StarCraft 1, some of those quality of life improvements that made StarCraft 2 a little bit more friendly to new players?
Yeah, there was a lot of conversation around how far we would go in terms of what we change and what we don't change. For quality of life stuff, take hotkeys for example. We introduced hotkeys, and the initial thought was, "This is actually a really nice quality of life improvement. Maybe you want to have it tuned in a bit of a different way." We started to introduce that change; we put it out there, and then we heard the feedback from the community. We went, 'Oh, this is actually something where we really need to be cautious about how it gets introduced, because it has the potential of changing some of the formula behind what made the game great."
That was always at the forefront of our mind in terms of what we did and didn't change. Is it going to change that formula? If it does, it has to be a conscious decision where we feel like it's an interactive dialogue between us and the players such that we're not breaking the game of StarCraft.
Internally, we've said the first rule of StarCraft is, "Don't break StarCraft." That's where you go into the game engine, and basically it's a big black box for our client engineers. They'll talk about the AI. There's all kinds of things we could do to improve pathing and AI, but as soon as we start tugging at one of those threads, the entire tapestry of what makes up StarCraft starts to wiggle loose. So we just said, "Let's not change any of it." We know that this is a great game. We know that this is a game that is beloved by multiple generations. We need to tread cautiously.
There are other quality of life improvements though that we have added in that deal more with how players engage with that core game mechanic. Things like matchmaking; that's something that really brings to light the way in which players are gonna engage with one another in the game. Previously, you had to go into chat channels and kind of converse with everybody there and say, "Hey, who wants to play a match against me?" You didn't know whether or not you were going to get your ass handed to you or not. Whereas with matchmaking, we at least are able to say, from a skill level, we're able to put two players against one another such that you may not win, but if you lose, it's at least gonna be a good quality game.
If we're doing the matchmaking right, you're gonna win games, you're gonna lose games, but either way your skill level is going to continue to get ratcheted up. So that's one of those quality of life improvements that we were able to say, "That's something we want to bring over into StarCraft where it really makes it more accessible to players in the future."
Thinking about where people play their games, Blizzard is not one who has ignored those console audiences but it feels like for these RTS's we haven't really seen those on consoles for a long time. But it's kind of funny because StarCraft was a Nintendo 64 game back in the day. It just so happens that there's an excellent console out now for touch controls [laughs]. Did you guys give any thought to what would this be like on Nintendo Switch?
[Laughs] It's funny because when you mention StarCraft 64, that was one of those titles that in the early days of Blizzard we decided to do. After we did it, we said, "It is a good game but we didn't build the game with that kind of control scheme in mind."
Actually that was something that for decades after, we have carried through as one of our mantras; from the start, we have to be looking at these titles on where are their endpoints? What platforms do we want to develop them for such that we're not trying to shoehorn something onto a platform that it wasn't originally designed for.
While the industry has evolved and you've got tablets and you've got hybrid consoles where you've got touch screens attached to those consoles, there's definitely a lot of areas that we could be looking at. But then we also start having to go back to that other statement I was making where the first rule of StarCraft is you don't break StarCraft. And if you try to take StarCraft over to something that it wasn't originally designed to be on, it's no longer the original StarCraft. Maybe it's something different. Whether or not something different is something we'd explore, well that's for us to figure out in the future.
Did that rule come about because of StarCraft on N64?
No, because that was not the only time where we tried out different platforms for the titles that we have. But certainly it was an example where we walked away and said, "You know what? It felt good. It was a good game but here are all the reasons why we felt it could have been better by bringing it over to a console."
Really, it's just a great rule of thumb that if you talk to a lot of designers in the company, that's one of the number one things that they'll come back with when you say, 'Hey it would be great if we took X game and we put it on Y platform." They can go, "Well, it wasn't originally designed for that platform, and here's a host of reasons why it starts to fall apart if it goes on that platform."
I know you get this question probably in every interview about these kinds of things, but I would be remiss in not asking. And I know you can't answer directly so...Since you take charge of the classic games division, how excited should I be for Blizzcon and any potential news coming out of that as a classic games fan?
You know what, right now where we all should be really excited is just around StarCraft, the remaster, and what we're doing. This is for us something that we've been on now coming on two years really since the inception of the whole group. We got the idea and really built it from scratch and kind of ran with it. Our primary focus has really been StarCraft. Are there other things that we could do? Time will tell on that front. I know I'm really excited about what we're working on right now and I'm really excited about all of the games that Blizzard has built over the past 25 years. So we'll see where it goes.
[Laughs] I'll just take that as confirmation of Diablo 2: Remastered.
[laughs] I remember working on Diablo 2, and on the server infrastructure for Diablo 2 and all of the item dupes, and all of the characters, and, believe me, there's a part of my brain that goes, "There's so many things that we can be doing." I should mention that whether we remaster something, don't remaster something, Blizzard's here to support these games and we are supporting them already. We've done some patches around Warcraft 3. We continue to actively combat dupes in Diablo 2 and actively combat server crashes in Diablo 2. So while we haven't announced anything beyond StarCraft: Remastered, we are continuing to engage with the current Warcraft 3 community and the Diablo 2 community. So I can't confirm anything today, other than we're committed to making sure that these titles are great.
Is there anything else you really wanted to share with the community about the remaster?
We couldn't do this without our community. They have been a vital part of our dialogue. We've been engaged with members of the community now for the better part of two years. It has really been exciting for the team and for Blizzard just to continue to engage at the passion level around all these different titles.
From Blizzard, I just want to say thank you to that StarCraft community that's out there. We hope you guys enjoy this game.