Real-time strategy games were the first modern esports titles. But in recent years, the genre has developed a reputation as the domain of die-hard superfans and notorious for a high barrier to entry. In an era of competitive gaming dominated by multiplayer online battle arena titles like “League of Legends” and first-person shooters like “CS:GO,” more complex RTS games like “StarCraft II” have seen a relative decline in both viewership and player numbers.
The formation of Frost Giant Studios comes at a significant moment for fans of real-time strategy. On October 15, Blizzard published a blog post informing “StarCraft II” players that the company would no longer be producing new content for the 10-year-old RTS title. “We will continue doing season rolls and necessary balance fixes moving forward,” wrote executive producer Robert Bridenbecker.
In other words, future StarCraft updates will focus on competitive balance changes rather than new narrative or single-player content — another development that threatens to alienate inexperienced users in favor of the hardcore playerbase. Though the persistent rumors of StarCraft’s death have proven to be greatly exaggerated over the years, the blog post left many in the scene with a bad taste.
“The worst part about the post was the post itself,” said Joseph “Future” Stanish, a top American “StarCraft II” player representing Alpha X. “It gives this negative image about the game and the state of the game. But I think, realistically, this was pretty expected. I don’t think it changes anything about the sustainability of StarCraft.”
Indeed, despite the doom and gloom surrounding Blizzard’s announcement, the StarCraft scene is very much alive. In South Korea, StarCraft remains the de facto national pastime; elsewhere, prominent esports organizations such as Team Liquid and ENCE continue to field “StarCraft II” squads. Last year, Blizzard’s StarCraft World Championship Series doled out over $2,000,000 in prizes.
“There are a lot of really young StarCraft players,” Stanish said. “There’s actually a lot of new blood coming into the scene, especially within Europe.”
Still, Blizzard has not been forthcoming about its plans for the next entry in the StarCraft series, though Stanish is confident the company will support the competitive scene for at least two more years in the form of a new circuit administered by ESL and DreamHack. On the other hand, Frost Giant Studios is transparent about its next endeavor: to build a prototype of its next-generation real-time strategy game for gameplay testing and consumer research.
Based in Orange County, California, Frost Giant is backed by $4.7 million in seed funding from a group of investors that is led by BITKRAFT Ventures and includes prominent industry players such as Riot Games. So far, the studio has hired eight full-time employees, seven of whom came directly from the “StarCraft II” team. “Technically, all of us had worked on ‘StarCraft II,’” Morten said. “But we think of Tim more as a ‘Warcraft III’ guy.”
The crux of Frost Giant’s development strategy is Morten and Campbell’s willingness to take feedback from everyone involved in the RTS scene — pro players, casters, and casuals alike — as they try to bridge the gap between new players and the RTS enthusiasts who have embraced the genre since the 1990s.
“We’re not setting out to water down or dilute the experience of playing real-time strategy. But at the same time, for a new player coming in, it can feel very unfamiliar. Most other game genres, you control a single character, and you see that character in the center of your screen when you start the game,” Morten said. “For an RTS, you launch in from a completely unfamiliar camera perspective. You have to figure out a tech tree, you have to figure out a strategy. To us, the big area of focus is thinking about that on-ramp, thinking about how we provide an onboarding experience that makes players feel more comfortable and less intimidated.”
Morten is also interested in updating the tone and aesthetic of real-time strategy to match the preferences of the modern gamer. A self-described StarCraft fan, Morten enjoys the comic-book-like visual style developed by Blizzard art director Sam Didier. “But at the same time, we’re definitely looking at trends,” Morten said. “You know, the popularity of ‘Fortnite,’ or ‘Among Us’ or ‘Fall Guys,’ for sure.”
The fortunes of real-time strategy have risen and fallen numerous times since the 1992 release of “Dune II,” and the genre has persisted doggedly through it all. Though Blizzard is no longer releasing new content for “StarCraft II,” the beloved RTS title and others like it are still enjoyed by millions of players across the globe. But the worldwide population of video game players has grown exponentially over the last few years, and the popularity of real-time strategy has not expanded accordingly. By adopting a user-friendly attitude while retaining the complexity and technicality that form the genre’s core, Frost Giant’s new RTS title might be the first step toward bringing real-time strategy to a new generation of gamers and esports fans.
“There’s an opportunity for us to think deliberately about what we want the play experience to be at the highest levels of the game versus the lower levels of the game,” Morten said. “I think there are a lot of things that we can do better.”
Alexander Lee is an editor and freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Nation, the New York Daily News, and many other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @alexleewastaken.