How do you update a beloved 20-year-old video game, seen as the grandfather of modern esports, to make it relevant and fresh while not abandoning the players who fell in love with the game years ago?
Answer: Don't mess it up.
That was the mantra Blizzard's developers had when they decided over a year ago to remaster the 1998 hit StarCraft: Brood War. Based on input from past pros, current players and the community, the leave-it-alone theme was a consistent drum.
"The first thing we did was we talked to a lot of influencers and stakeholders and people that really love Brood War," Blizzard Entertainment co-founder and president Mike Morhaime told ESPN. "And everyone told us, 'Don't mess with the gameplay. Don't fix pathing bugs. Really don't change anything. Don't change the UI. We think the game is perfect the way it is, we just would love to see better graphics.'"
So when StarCraft: Remastered debuts on a stage in Busan, South Korea, this weekend and releases on computers worldwide on Aug. 14, everything about the gameplay will feel familiar. Only the graphics, matchmaking, leaderboards and other peripherals will be different to bring the game up to speed with today's audience expectations. You can even switch between HD and SD graphics with a press of a button in-game without slowing down the game at all.
"Our first order of business was 'don't screw up what the community already loves and what it has,'" said Pete Stillwell, producer of classic games at Blizzard.
That core dedication to balance is what made StarCraft: Brood War one of the most beloved real-time strategy games in history. It's still seen as arguably the best balanced game that has ever been played professionally.
StarCraft, and its first expansion Brood War, came to existence on the back of the wildly successful Warcraft II and brought science fiction and interstellar maps into the Blizzard lore. Morhaime said the fantasy card game Magic: The Gathering directly influenced the development of StarCraft. While Warcraft pitted two races with similar qualities against each other, StarCraft created three very different races that were not similar at all, inspired by Magic's varying colors, decks and strategies all with complementary strengths and weaknesses.
"We thought we could apply that same philosophy to real-time strategy," Morhaime said.
It wasn't long before a vibrant professional scene grew from the game in the early 2000s. Brood War, and its next incarnate StarCraft II, has made household names of Lee "Flash" Young Ho and Lee "Jaedong" Jae Dong in their home country of South Korea. The two were the most prolific players in a long line of StarCraft pro gamers and anchors of their South Korean professional leagues. StarCraft wasn't infallible, though. South Korea's KeSPA StarCraft ProLeague closed its doors in 2016 off of dwindling viewership, and the perception rose that StarCraft as a viable esport was doomed in a burgeoning esports ecosystem.
"We've been supporting StarCraft for a long time, and I don't think it's dependent on ProLeague or not," Morhaime said. "The [South] Korea StarCraft scene had been struggling for a long time, so it really wasn't a surprise to most of the folks that were paying attention that KeSPA would eventually decide to shut down ProLeague. You had all the best players and a ton of money in South Korea, but most of the viewership outside of Korea. ... [The closing of Pro League] was very disappointing. It was a very difficult situation for the StarCraft II community. But actually it kind of needed to happen at some point. It was kind of inevitable."
Morhaime said Brood War in its current form is still a top-10 game in South Korea and is the most popular real-time strategy game in the country. So while its shinier sister StarCraft II declined in interest, the old-school Brood War kept its reputation and audience. A remastered Brood War has the potential to reinvigorate nostalgic fans of old and bring in a new crop of players who may have been too young to see Brood War in its heyday.
"The game is going on 20 years old and we haven't had a major update on it for a very long time," Morhaime said. "The game isn't supported by our modern networking technology, it's not playable on sort of new Battle Net, and so all of those players are kind of disconnected from the Blizzard community. And we want people to be able to play this game for a very long time and we thought we could give the game a graphical overhaul and make the game beautiful while still preserving all the original gameplay that people love."
This weekend Brood War Remastered will get a grand re-entrance in Busan, near where some of the most iconic moments in esports history took place. If Blizzard has its way, this remaster will delight pros and amateurs for generations to come.
"Long-term success is someone playing and competing on this game 20 years from now and not relegated to a museum as an example of a great RTS," Stillwell said. "It should still be alive many years from now and we'll know we have succeeded."