For hundreds of thousands of people StarCraft 2 is an ultra hardcore competitive multiplayer game built for eSports and little else. For them playing and hopefully winning ranked matches is all that matters.
But, according to Blizzard, just as many fans of the real-time strategy game suffer from what it dubs "ladder anxiety" - that is, they want to play competitively against other players online but are intimidated by the prospect and so don't. It is this "ladder anxiety" that the gargantuan PC developer hopes Heart of the Swarm, the first expansion for StarCraft 2, will combat.
"One of the biggest challenges with StarCraft 2 for us has been, we designed it to be viable as an eSport, but you can interpret that, if you see a lot of eSports headlines, as 'it is only an eSports game'," StarCraft production director Chris Sigaty told Eurogamer. "That is not the case.
"Thinking back to how I experienced these games, even going back before StarCraft, of just playing against the AI, or you and a buddy playing in this way, gets lost sometimes because there's so much of this eSports news and coverage around."
He continued: "Ladder anxiety is something that's come from the community. They say, 'every time I go into the game I'm so nervous about whether I'm going to go up or down in bronze or silver or gold.' That's not the goal out of this.
"The real fun in StarCraft 2 is realising it's a game about personal self-improvement. If you look back to where you were, when you didn't even know how to block off the ramp to your base or get enough workers to get you enough income to build, to you progressing past that, that doesn't have to happen on a ladder with everyone seeing your ranking."
To combat this Blizzard has introduced a raft of new features designed to encourage players to give ranked a shot. Chief among them is the new training mode, the first option under the matchmaking button. Training is divided up into multiple stages for each race, each harder than the last, that task players with performing actions essential to successful online play. Stage one, for example, focuses on getting the player resourcing in the right way. If you're playing terran it will tell you to start building SUVs, then give players small, easy-to-accomplish goals, so that you have the optimum 24 units gathering resources.
"It starts out pretty basic," Sigaty explained. "If you play stage one terran or whatever and you just do what it says - if you've never played before it'll be an interesting challenge for you, but you can play it over and over again until you've got that part down. Then it speeds up slightly, giving you some more technical advice at stage two. And then at stage three you're ready to go out and play against players who are at the beginning of the ladder system, if you so choose. Or you're ready to go out and play against the AI and not be caught up with, 'what do I do?'"
Training mode leads neatly into the new AI Challenge mode, which finds an AI opponent at the player's skill level to fight. There are now nine varieties of AI difficulty to choose from, and you can tweak the AI behaviour. You can set it to rush, for example, or play with a more general style. You can play with an AI partner and give it direct orders, or play with a friend.
From AI Challenge the next step is the new Unranked Play mode, which lets you play against other human players free from the fear of the ladder system. Layered on top of all this is a new levelling system that players climb throughout the entire experience, including Training and AI Challenge.
These new modes and features will, Blizzard hopes, give those who previously avoided multiplayer a little push in the direction of competitive play.
"What we've found - and I have some examples of this on our team of people who've played training - is players start to think, 'I can do this.'" Sigaty said. "That attitude starts to come out. They say, 'okay, I'm getting it. I just beat the AI.' That, combined with the new levelling system, means it's much more inviting to catch the bug, the excitement of, 'wow, I really did better that time.'
"That's what I think is the most fun part of StarCraft. It's that incremental improvement. I don't need the world to know what particular ladder ranking I have. So it is a lot more about, 'wow, I'm starting to be able to pull off this build or use these units more effectively.' I feel like that system's going to do a pretty job of helping people realise that and get it."
Sigaty added: "We're definitely trying to overcome what could be a perception for some people and also let people realise it is something more than just an eSports game, which those headlines tend to get people thinking."
The real fun in StarCraft 2 is realising it's a game about personal self-improvementStarCraft 2 production director Chris Sigaty
None of this touches on the campaign, which Sigaty insists is just as important as the multiplayer when it comes to the StarCraft player base and the development resources Blizzard allocates to it.
Sigaty said there is a 50-50 split of players who are described as hardcore multi or hardcore campaign, with some crossover between them. Some campaign players never touch multiplayer. They're in it for the story, the ongoing space opera involving rebel revolutionary Jim Raynor and former zerg queen Sarah Kerrigan.
Heart of the Swarm picks up where Wings of Liberty left off. Kerrigan, free of the zerg influence, is hell bent on gaining revenge against evildoer Emperor Mengsk. To do that she travels the galaxy seeking out zerg to add to her brood. The campaign includes 20 new missions, new planets, new environments and new characters.
As you play missions you level up Kerrigan, who is a controllable hero unit in almost all missions in the expansion, unlocking powerful new abilities on her way to level 60.
The Leviathan, a giant zerg ship, acts as a hub. Inside the Evolution Pit lets you upgrade units. Your zerglings, for example, can be upgraded with one of three boosts: hardened carapace, adrenal overload or metabolic boost. You can also embark upon side missions that, once completed, allow you to evolve your units in one of two ways. Taking the zergling as an example again, you can choose to add the Raptor strain (leap over obstacles and do increased damage) or add the Swarmling strain (spawns in groups of three and morphs almost instantly).
When you combine Wings of Liberty with Heart of the Swarm you've got close to 50 to 60 hours just in the campaign
Sigaty was keen to stress the importance of the Heart of the Swarm campaign and how integral it is to the ongoing StarCraft 2 offering.
"We do have this long campaign, especially compared to games these days," he said. "When you take Wings of Liberty combined with Heart of the Swarm you've got close to 50-60 hours just in the campaign gameplay time if you don't replay it."
When StarCraft 2 was announced as a three-part game, that is, a main game with the terran campaign and the full multiplayer experience to be boosted by the release of an expansion each for the zerg and protoss campaigns at a later date, some accused Blizzard of milking the experience.
Much of the protest focused on the perceived value of StarCraft 2 - an issue Sigaty believes Blizzard has now overcome.
"When we made that announcement we heard the feedback, but the alternative - to water it down to cover every race - was horrible," he said. "We just felt we had something in the core gameplay and even in the campaign that was great.
"One of the goals we had internally was to give a different way of playing; the meta game if you will, the story mode aspects, to be different when you're playing these different aspects of the story. It was just not achievable in any sort of remotely realistic timeline. We take our time on our games and iterate at lot. We wanted to have that vision.
"We did a lot of different and cool things in Heart of the Swarm that differ from Wings of Liberty. We would not have had any of that without [the expansion model]. That stuff would not have been achievable."
Sigaty admitted for those whose favourite race is zerg or protoss the wait is frustrating, "but ultimately, when this is all said and done, we are ensuring each one of these is as high value as possible in all aspects and the sum total of all this will be beyond the actual paid cost for players."
Heart of the Swarm costs around £30 in the UK, but you can buy both Wings of Liberty and the expansion for £45 direct from Blizzard.
"We try our best to cater to every player type out there and deliver a great package, especially considering the cost of this," Sigaty said. "These are really the same cost as we were doing back with Warcraft 3, but with more bells and whistles. And it's 10 years later.
"It's working out great. It's allowing us to consider the story more and make sure the second expansion and final chapter is super epic and ends on a great note."
This article is based on a press trip to Blizzard's offices in Paris. Blizzard paid for travel and accommodation.
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