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The modern eSports media environment has evolved at an unprecedented pace. Gamers now consume media provided directly from players via streaming services like Twitch.tv or Own3d.tv, and tournaments are now more accessible than ever. Popular YouTube casters accumulate tens of thousands of views for every video posted. They promote themselves, players, specific games, and a culture of interest for hobbyists and professionals alike. Over the past three years, global eSports has skyrocketed. Thanks, internet.
This environment has also changed the world for game developers, bringing unprecedented access to publicly-released materials while they’re still in development. Case in point, Blizzard’s Heart of the Swarm expansion beta. Recently, there’s been a flurry of activity throughout the online SC2 communities ranging from TL, to Reddit, to Twitter and back about the desperate need for players and pro’s to come together and “#SaveHOTS”. Comments have ranged from highly specific, well-researched observations to hyperbolic, arm-chair criticism of Blizzard’s work ethic.
The truth is that many of those saying that Heart of the Swarm needs saving are correct. The game has considerable flaws that will need to be addressed. Equally true, however, is that this is NOT an unusual circumstance for a Blizzard beta. Rather, it’s par for the course. What separates HOTS from past betas isn’t the quality of the game, it’s the widespread scrutiny of the online audience and a larger Western Pro-Scene than ever before.
Let’s look at some history:
Before the official “beta” of Starcraft, it’s widely known that the game was a jumbled revamp of Warcraft II. After a considerable gutting, the game was reborn with a unique engine that allowed its designers to implement far more sophisticated abilities (like unit burrowing and interceptor launching, etc.). However, the game had a long way to go before it became the artfully balanced ballet we all look back on so fondly.
When the vanilla game entered it’s official beta, there was a litany of mechanics, units, and abilities that would all require drastic changes. Marines were called “Marauders” and had a grenade launching ability. Wraith air to air missiles could hit ground. Every Zerg building produced its own larva (for its specific units). Goliaths had flamethrowers and could shoot missiles at ground units. Valkyries were in the game. High Templars had a ranged attack. The list goes on. Even at its peak, the original Starcraft was viewed as an imbalanced game (according to Artosis). It took a long, long time for Blizzard to get to a place where the game could be considered balanced for competitive play.
While Brood War had a significantly less tumultuous beta (there were a few changes to the new units), the game evolved more significantly after its launch. Take a look at the patch history, specifically starting around 1.04. There are over 60 balance tweaks in that patch alone, including a substantial overhaul to the Carrier. At the time, Brood War was also a considerably slower game with a much more volatile skill ceiling. Blizzard didn’t have the data pool they do now from players ranging from bronze to GM to pro-level. Making adjustments to the game was a more straightforward process and it still took a considerable amount of time to polish.
The original Warcraft III is so drastically different from the latest version of the Frozen Throne that I have trouble considering them part of the same evolutionary lineage. Hero stats functioned completely differently (as in, 1 agility then was not the same as 1 agility now). Armor and damage levels were practically inverse. Items were a jumbled mess. Creeping was a lottery with random drops that were immensely powerful. The sort of play we eventually saw between Grubby, with his Blademaster and Wolf Riders, and Moon, with his Demon Hunter and Druids of the Talon, was nowhere to be found. Take a look at the compiled patch history.
In the old days of vanilla, Human players could use brilliance aura to maintain virtually unlimited mana (the ability was a % modification instead of a numeric bonus, allowing from much greater amplification). Undead necromancers could virtually FILL the screen with skeletons thanks to an insanely low cooldown. All siege weapons locked on to their specific unit targets instead of points on the map. Mostly, Battle.net was a race to see who could figure out the latest OP exploit to create an unstoppable killing machine. It was kind of great, in its own special way. Could it have worked in the modern eSports environment? Absolutely not.
In the TFT beta, Spellbreakers underwent some pretty drastic changes (initially they were pretty broken, too strong). The defensive capabilities of the Mountain Giant took it from super-tank, to over-nerfed, to just right over the course of several months. Every single ability of each new hero also underwent several smaller tweaks before creating a satisfyingly competitive gaming experience. Take a look at all of the changes in the launch patch. Blizzard used the beta to experiment pretty wildly, then made heavy modifications in time for the full release.
Most of us probably remember the early days of WoL, when professional-level Zerg could lose to a single reaper in a bunker and Void Rays stuck terror into the hearts of players everywhere. You can view all of the beta patch notes here. Let’s talk about the Roach, though.
In the beta, the Roach started with 2 armor and cost 1 supply, meaning you could build an absolutely crap ton of them and marines could barely tickle them. It was ridiculous. Blizzard realized the error of this and appropriately nerfed the unit in time for release. Of course, it later became apparent that Roaches had become underpowered for its role, so they subsequently patched in a range increase. Siege Tanks, similarly, showed themselves to be too dominant against all ground forces and a damage tweak in a post-launch patch. Who could also forget the long, storied history of fungal growth? An ability that is now the hallmark of any Zerg late game composition, but was initially twice the duration with different damage mechanics. Maps also played a pivotal role in the path toward a more balanced game, as Destiny points out in this fantastic blog post.
Bottom line, the game was wildly different at ALL skill levels ~30 months ago. Getting it where it is today was a result of evolution, not revolution.
So why is this worth pointing out? Should people be complacent when Blizzard delivers unrefined gameplay that hampers their enjoyment? Should professionals not subject what they see in HOTS to, well, professional scrutiny? No. It’s perfectly reasonable to debate and discuss the relative merits of Heart of the Swarm, or any new game. Hell, if you keep in mind it doesn’t have a release date yet, go to town.
What you should NOT do is assume that all hope is lost, that the game you once knew and loved is spiraling down the (Archon) toilet, or that Blizzard can’t pull off a great game after several months of wild experimentation.
Just remember, they’ve got a pretty solid track record.