Remembering StarCraft’s – the service that sparked an online gaming revolution

(Image credit: Activision Blizzard)

Any gamer who came up in the ‘90s or earlier remembers StarCraft. Even you didn’t, there’s no way you haven’t heard of it. That’s because Blizzard Entertainment’s seminal sci-fi, real-time strategy game changed the landscape of online and competitive gaming forever.

This year, StarCraft turned 20 years old, and to commemorate Blizzard released a remastered version of the game this past April that painstakingly recreated it – weird quirks and exploits and all – for HD screens and modern operating systems.

If you’re a competitive online gamer worth your salt, you owe quite a bit a to this game regardless of whether you played it back in the day, as so many of today’s online multiplayer games rest on this one title’s massive shoulders.

We chatted with Blizzard Entertainment Vice President of Technology Strategy Robert Bridenbecker all about the original StarCraft. In particular, we reminisced about the early days of and discussed the massive impact it had on online gaming writ large.

Because there was simply too much enlightening conversation during our 30-minute conversation, what follows is a direct transcript that’s been edited for brevity and clarity.

TechRadar: Now, StarCraft wasn’t the first Blizzard game with – I believe that was Diablo – so what did the team learn back then with the first application of the service that it then took advantage of in making StarCraft’s

Robert Bridenbecker: Back actually when we did Diablo, not a lot of folks remember this, but the very first public beta of a Blizzard game that we did was actually a beta. And so, the CD that we had shipped out was labeled ‘ Beta Version,’ and included on the beta version was Diablo 1. The whole reason we did that wasn't because we were necessarily looking to get a ton of feedback against Diablo as a game, but we were actually looking to get feedback on whether or not as a service was even a viable thing.

I don't know how much you remember of the the mid-’90s internet, but it would have a bunch of people on modems, and ISDN [Integrated Services Digital Network], like, 2 was hot shit if you had one. But, it definitely was a very different time in terms of connectivity, and so that initial Diablo was really our, “OK, let's even find out whether this is a real thing.” We were young, and we had mirrored some of what we saw in IRC [Internet Relay Chat] as well as even other services, like Kali and so forth, just to help like inform how we would want players to interact with one another. 

In its core, it really was about just driving like social engagement, like the chat channels and the ability for people to hop in – that mirroring of IRC functionality. It was a good thing and a bad thing. 

The good thing was it was super easy for you to get online and connect, because what you do is you go in, click that and, boom, you're on the service. You've just put in your display name, and that's it. There was no like account – it was just “this is who I am,” and that was super awesome. Except, well, it led to this sort of Thunderdome environment of chat channels. When people would ban you, like we'd have mod or a couple of our guys in the back, and we'd we go “hey, this guy's kind of being a jerk” or what-have-you, and we would kick him out of the channel. They could disconnect and come back on just under a different screen name, and and we couldn't do a whole lot about it. 

With StarCraft we said, “you know, we actually want to up the game some,” and so we said let's get some accounting to this. By doing that, we introduced some persistence, some level of – I don't want to say accountability – but just like: “this is who I am and my online persona,” and we had one of those for the entire world. That was one of these things where we're just sort of learning it by trying.

StarCraft just popped so big over in Korea, we actually ended up having issues around keeping the databases around the world in sync, where you'd have a bunch of Korean data that would be there. We'd actually have to push it across the internet cables over into Asia, and it would create tremendous amounts of lag. Servers would just connect to one another, so you'd have chat channels that would actually like fork through one another.

So, you'd be in general chat, and you could actually be in two different copies of general chat. To you it would look like a bug, and what happened from there was we said, “well, we don't know how to fix the internet in the mid ‘90s, and it's not good.” So, we kind of took the only approach we could, which was to separate out these different, disconnected regions.

So, that's how we we ended up in a situation where that classic service had left us with East Asia, Europe [US East and US West]. That was all done because the connectivity between those those areas wasn't super great but our populations in those areas was super great.

TR: Just to remind our readers of the state of the internet and therefore online gaming in even the late ‘90s, what were some of the most challenging aspects of getting StarCraft’s off the ground?

RB: Even in the late ‘90s, we were still dealing with ton of dial ups, so the call waiting, mom picking up the phone. Just the fact that you're pushing bits over basically the average speed, [which] was like 28.8 kilobytes a second.

When people think about internet-connected activities, like, you couldn't stream the worst quality YouTube clip on your best day at 28.8Kbps without just wanting to sort of have an aneurysm. And, so here we've got up to eight people all connecting in a game of StarCraft, and we're pushing bits back and forth in a peer-to-peer or round-robin format and trying to keep all that going across basically copper wires. That in and of itself, I think, was one of the biggest challenges.

TR: Can you recall or tell any stories of critical moments in launching or Day Zero stories?

RB:  I think for us, the war stories were just kind of this realization that adding in that persistence and seeing people come in and really own their online persona and doing it while they're gaming along. It was a bit of a relief, because we were still like, “Oh we were a bit ahead of the time.” 

I mean, you think about, like, AOL had its bit where they were a dial-up service and had a little bit in online chat rooms and so forth But, there wasn't a whole lot going on in the in the gaming space. [I remember the] months leading up to the launch the number of sleepless nights with a very small staff – we're talking about a couple of people nearby working on it. To basically have all that knowledge trapped up in a couple of people's heads, and then to see it go live and have people connecting up chatting on getting the games.

I'll tell you what, when Korea really lit up, we didn't we didn't plan for that. That just happened in the the internet cafes over in Korea and just absolutely exploded – and the eSports scene exploded on us. We're looking at [this] going, “what the hell is happening over in Korea? Where are all these people coming from? And, wait a second, they've got LAN [local area network] parties that they turn into businesses over there.”

Basically, you know they went from zero to 20,000 PC cafes, where people would walk in and you'd have machines, fifty to a room, where you'd pay five bucks to be able to play StarCraft. [We were] just humbled by that love and passion for the game, so you know that that to me is has always been the defining moment of what, for us, was like just a lot of years of hard work – we brought people together.

TR: What do you figure was an average or even peak amount of concurrent players during the early days of StarCraft versus those same numbers today in, say, SC2?

RB: I want to say we were north of hundreds of thousands of people playing from any given region at any given time. Compared to today, we measure it in the millions and millions of dailies. Back then, we're going, “how big can we really get with this?” And, to think that 10 to 15 years later we'd be adding a couple extra zeros on top of those numbers just was unbelievable.

You know, what was true then I think we've we figured out now, but it took us some time, is that when there would be a hiccup in the internet. Let's say an ISP [Internet Service Provider] would drop all their players – you dropped fifty or sixty thousand people in let's say one of the Korean ISPs. Fifty thousand people would suddenly drop and then they'd all want to get back online, and they’d all want to do it the exact same moment.

Those were the minutes of the day where you go, “Oh, really? OK,” because that cold start sort of problem, where everybody has to ramp back on quickly, is a hard thing to solve for. In today's world, that's just sort of expected. We have to deal with millions upon millions of players that, at any point can pop online. In those early days, we weren't planning for hundreds of thousands or millions of players to come online – but they did.

TR: Were there unique ways in which StarCraft matches worked in the early days of versus today? For example, it’s known that some online FPS and action multiplayer games screw with the timing of players’ actions in relation to one another as they’re displayed on those players’ screens.

RB: I mean, it was a peer-to-peer-peer-to-peer game, and so with that what we ended up with was that basically all the packets from one machine would actually have to be reflected out to everybody else and so. From a gameplay standpoint, what we'd have to deal with is just the raw latency at the lowest common denominator, and we would adjust the the turn rate such that we're basically saying, “Hey, we're going to wait for a beat while Bob sends over his packet, and Joe sends in his packet.” 

The longer that we actually wait, the slower that the game becomes, and so what ultimately folks want is they want super quick turn rate. Where that worked really well was in the highly developed internet countries, where latency is super low. What doesn't work at all even today is when you're trying to go out over a couple hundred milliseconds, because you're just constantly waiting for other players. We found out that, real early on, players are known for their patience index to tend to drop off real real quick, and so people get booted from games super fast if they're the one that's causing waiting for players, even the way that we did data passing technology back then.

Basically, you're using my internet connection to do file transfers. In effect, we had one of the earliest sort of peer-to-peer file exchange programs that was out there,but it was all highly optimized around our data as opposed to random data.

TR: What were the most popular types of matches in the early days of StarCraft versus those of the sequel today or contemporary SC? I remember comp stomps being my favorite as a less than amazing player.

RB: Players creating their own sort of custom maps and then about making those things was just a novel way for us to engage with the community. We didn't know how big that would get, but it turned out to be something that we explored even further with Warcraft 3 and with StarCraft 2. 

I wasn't particularly great at StarCraft either, but I absolutely found a niche. That’s what was cool about StarCraft: there was something that spoke to everybody. For the the people that were particularly great at it and gotten down into the muscle memory of hotkeys and unit groupings, they were able to really just turn it into something we've never seen before, which was nice.

TR: Honestly, at this point it really is almost like an entire language unto itself.

RB: When we launched StarCraft remastered, it was so key to us to serve the existing gameplay, because first rule of making it was that we couldn't break StarCraft. That put some parameters around just how far we could go in terms of remastering it.

An example of that was that raw APM [Actions Per Minute] was so key, and the way in which players had learned to sort of circumvent some of the the way the engine worked back in the day was bizarre. The pro players would actually shake the mouse to increase the refresh rate, and the reason that they do that is early on they wanted to actually [crank] up the speed of the game, but the draw cycles were linked back to where the cursor was located. 

We would basically redraw the entire screen, because that's just how you made the game back in the day, and when we changed over that and put in hardware cursor, the game started to feel a little different. The pro players were the first ones that would say, “Well, hold on, something's broken,” and we never experienced it in any of our testing here because we don't have a ton of folks that are hitting above 200 to 250 APM. The pro players reach either 300 or 400.

All this stuff over 20 years has just been awesome to see developing, to your point of it being its own language, like it it has become this game, this sport that is something that we're very delicate with. We want to make sure that we continue to preserve it and have it available for generations to come. But, at the same time, we need to make sure that the generations that had the game like this today continue to recognize it as the same game to this today.

TR: What is something you or the team misses about those old days of, and what is something that you definitely don’t?

RB: The thing about the old days is that, for a lot of us, this was the first time we were doing something like this. And, the first time you're doing something there's an excitement, there's a joy, there's this novel, “Wow, what's going to happen? We don't really know – it's not been done before.”

And, so there was a lot of sort of creativity and startup mentality, a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of dedication and passion from the engineers – and equally from the community. That just was exciting: what we were plugging in, the whole notion of actually bridging external social communication channels from back in the day, like IRC or AOL, and integrating it directly with the game, so that players have the ability to just very easily find one another and chat, and then hop into a game and enjoy their day. That was all awesome being a part of, but it was also that there was no manual, there wasn't anything to look at and say, “Well, you know maybe we can get some inspiration for some other folks.” 

There were very few other providers from back in the day where we could actually glean some some information, and the people that did it – just like us – everybody was super secretive of it. No one wanted to talk of anybody else, because that was there their thing. Today, it's a different problem set, and so you have a lot of the the same sort of start-up mentality and just cool problems to solve, but they are very different problems, I think. They're scaling problems, but they're just different. 

Personally, 20 years ago I was thinking, “OK how do I make my basic ends meet?” You know, I was still in my early twenties, and so these sleepless nights were cathartic and awesome. Twenty years later, I've gone, “OK, that worked out OK, but now we've got tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people around the world that we’re speaking to and who really are speaking to one another. 

So, there's a numbers pressure in some sense of making sure that it all just sort of works right, and I think it's just cool to be a part of it.

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First published June 2018

Joe Osborne

Joe Osborne is the Senior Technology Editor at Insider Inc. His role is to leads the technology coverage team for the Business Insider Shopping team, facilitating expert reviews, comprehensive buying guides, snap deals news and more. Previously, Joe was TechRadar's US computing editor, leading reviews of everything from gaming PCs to internal components and accessories. In his spare time, Joe is a renowned Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master – and arguably the nicest man in tech.