This is not an MMO: the massive misunderstandings fueling the StarCraft Universe mod
“Any press is good press,” is the phrase Ryan Winzen repeats again and again as he talks about the history of his massive mod project, StarCraft Universe. The project has been plagued by misunderstandings for the past three years. Namely, that StarCraft Universe is an MMORPG.
It’s an easy mistake to make, considering the name itself creates vague associations with World of Warcraft. But it's actually an MORPG, multiplayer online role-playing game. Players get together in groups to tackle instanced missions in a style of game that Winzen says is more like Diablo than World of Warcraft.
“I think it was back in 2010, I released the first trailer,” said Winzen. “I don’t think I called it an MMO…I might have called it an MMO when it was in a conceptual stage. But I was illustrating its MMO-style gameplay, and I think just because of the user interface layout, a lot of people confused it to be an MMO.”
But while misconceptions like this could sink many other indie projects, this misunderstanding in particular has boosted StarCraft Universe to fame and, the team hopes: fortune as well.
Not an MMO
So if it’s not an MMORPG, then what is it? It’s occasionally hard to tell because Winzen is fond of using the term “MMO” to describe its systems and style… while being adamant that it’s not an MMO.
StarCraft Universe is an action game with combat and progression that is similar to what you might expect from an MMO. Players use a range of skills from their task bar to blow up zerglings and all types of StarCraft enemies while collecting gear and leveling a character. There is also support for a range of vehicles for players to pilot.
Since it’s a mod, StarCraft Universe has every 3D model and animation within StarCraft 2 to work with. The game itself may be wildly different from the gameplay of StarCraft 2, but for the developers its still essentially about rearranging the furniture in clever new ways to give the game a different feel.
Winzen said that the core of StarCraft Universe isn’t very different from StarCraft 2, but in technical terms you just need to attach a full-range camera to a single unit (as opposed to the locked, overhead view of SC2) hide the StarCraft 2 user interface, and create a new one.
Not an MMO
It was actually in large part because of the MMO misconception that Winzen decided to stick with the project, and continue working for three years and counting. While his other mod projects fell by the wayside, a Star Fox-alike and a Final Fantasy-style battle game, this is the one that stuck.
“As soon as I released my trailer, my proof-of-concept gameplay trailer, it exploded,” he said. “I thought 'this is an idea that has a lot of interest.' I thought this is what I want to do with my life.’ I’ve wanted to make games since I was a kid.”
So Winzen quit college, took up a job as a construction laborer building basements, and started building StarCraft Universe on the side.
But, after three years, perception has completely run away from Winzen and the team, and they now have to deal with the reality that many of their users and most of the gaming press think that StarCraft Universe is planned to be an MMORPG.
“We get slammed when people go and play it,” he said. “The demo is single-player right now, and people are like, ‘this is not an MMO!’”
But at the same time, it’s worth noting that this is a mod project. The mere fact that a mod project is being covered in the gaming press at all is a good signal that the MMO tag, even if it's being misused, has boosted the project to notoriety and cajoled the press into covering it.
“Any press is good press as far as I’m concerned as a modder,” he said. “I definitely think that has enticed the media to advertise it more than if they would have if I said it’s an action RPG. Honestly, it has helped as far as getting the word out. Is it accurate? No. But we don’t have a PR group that can go out and correct 800 stories. We just kind of sit back, shake our heads, and keep working.”
Not an MMO
It almost spelled disaster for the project right from the beginning as the massive amount of attention StarCraft Universe received also attracted the attention of lawyers from Blizzard Entertainment. So the mod project began as many ambitious projects based on established IPs do: with a cease and desist.
“Back in 2011, they took our video off YouTube because they thought I was developing StarCraft Universe outside of their engine. They just didn’t understand that I was doing it inside StarCraft 2. Within two or three days of that happening I was contacted by Blizzard’s Chief Deputy Council legal guy.”
Fortunately, Winzen was able to clear up the confusion with Blizzard’s legal team, and Blizzard even flew him out to Blizzcon 2011 as a mea culpa. But once again, extra attention was given to StarCraft Universe because of an incorrect assumption. Winzen said that once the confusion was cleared up he was able to use the notoriety from that small scandal to put together a larger team to work on the game, and to get extra exposure in the press.
It’s a mammoth project that has taken years get this far, and still has a significant amount of time left before it can be shipped. Winzen seems undaunted, even excited, and willing to use whatever tool he can get to vault his work into the limelight.
“There’s something about this project that I feel is really special, and I’ve got a lot of really talented guys who have invested a lot into it,” Winzen said. “So, y’know…go big or go home.”
StarCraft Universe is currently seeking funding for continuing development on Kickstarter, and has achieved about half of its $80,000 goal.
A slice of the game is playable in the StarCraft 2 Arcade mod store within the game client.