StarCraft as soulcraft: Lessons from a classic computer game
Religion & Liberty Online

StarCraft as soulcraft: Lessons from a classic computer game

The video game developer Blizzard Entertainment, best-known today for its massively popular World of Warcraft (2004), first released a lesser-known classic in 1998: StarCraft. The science fiction warfare and strategy game was the best-selling PC game of the year, and it sold nearly 10 million copies over the next decade. Professional competitions drew crowds of over 100,000 people in South Korea, where the game was so popular that three separate television stations regularly broadcasted matches. Blizzard released a sequel, StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty, in 2010 and a remake of the original, StarCraft: Remastered, in August 2017. For its time and platform, StarCraft was Wonder Woman and fidget spinners combined, but its success almost never happened. From the right perspective, the checkered story of its creation offers lessons that extend far beyond the sphere of computer games and coding into our social and spiritual lives.

Coming off the heels of its success with the first two Warcraft games (precursors to World of Warcraft) in 1994 and 1995, Blizzard wanted to continue pumping out the hits every year. For those not old enough to remember, keep in mind that this was the time of CD-ROMs and dial-up internet. The online world we take for granted and carry with us in our pockets today was in its infancy. Producing software far below our contemporary standards often took just as much, if not much more, work. Blizzard had high ambitions, to put it lightly.

Patrick Wyatt, one of the lead game developers for StarCraft, told the story at length in 2012 on his blog Code of Honor: “Given a short timeframe and limited staff, the StarCraft team’s goal was to implement a modest game – something that could best be described as ‘Orcs in space.’” One need not know anything about coding to share in the lessons Wyatt and his team learned along the way.

Despite Blizzard’s initial enthusiasm, this Lord of the Rings-with-lasers project was quickly side-tracked. Another project (Diablo) from a newly acquired company (Condor, renamed Blizzard North) sucked away resources from StarCraft:

As Diablo grew in scope eventually everyone at Blizzard HQ – artists, programmers, designers, sound engineers, testers – worked on the game until StarCraft had no one left working on the project. Even the project lead was co-opted to finish the game installer that I had half-written but was too busy to complete.

He continues, “After the launch of Diablo at the end of 1996” – the original planned release date for StarCraft – “StarCraft development was restarted, and everyone got a chance to see where the game was headed, and it wasn’t pretty. The game was dated, and not even remotely impressive.” Wyatt summarizes the problem: “The massive success of Diablo reset expectations about what Blizzard should strive for: StarCraft became the game that defined Blizzard’s strategy of not releasing games until they were ready. But a lot of pain had to occur along the way to prove out this strategy.”

Expectations, which were already unreasonably high, had been raised. The pressure was on, and the original deadline for release had already passed. The gaming software market continues to be one of the most open and free in our economy, and StarCraft wouldn’t have been what it was without it. Wyatt describes how the growing market for real-time strategy (RTS) games like StarCraft meant greater competition, and how that competition pushed them to produce a better product: “At the time of the StarCraft reboot … there were over eighty (80!!) RTS games in development. With so many competitors on our heels, including Westwood Studios, the company that originated the modern RTS play-style, we needed to make something that kicked ass.”

The Sacrifice Trap

The unrealistic production schedule led to a cascade of problems: “every programmer was coding like mad to meet goals, with no time for reviews, code-audits, or training,” Wyatt said. Personnel suffered from lack of experience at all levels, from junior coders to project leaders. StarCraft ran the risk of succumbing to what the economist Kenneth Boulding called the “sacrifice trap,” where people continue to support a failed cause or relationship because they are too committed to its success. “The team was incredibly invested in the project, and put in unheard of efforts to complete the project while sacrificing personal health and family life. I’ve never been on a project where every member worked so fiercely,” recounted Wyatt.

Since Wyatt left the project to work on Diablo, the few programmers who remained to work on StarCraft in the meantime had scrapped much of the foundations he had built upon Blizzard’s older Warcraft series:

The Warcraft [software] engine had taken months of programming effort to get right, and while it needed rework for new gameplay features, a fresh programming team was now going to spend a great deal of time relearning lessons about how and why the engine was architected the way it was in the first place.

There is a wonderful parallel here to statecraft: When a state is dysfunctional, one must be wary of radical, revolutionary proposals. As the Russian philosopher S. L. Frank put it, “The leaders of the French Revolution desired to attain liberty, equality, fraternity, and the kingdom of truth and reason, but they actually created a bourgeois order. And this is the way it usually is in history.” Similarly, Wyatt and the other programmers now had to start over by rebuilding the essential foundations of their software. Fortunately for them, the final result involved far fewer beheaded royalty.

After having to start over and rebuild, the programmers found themselves with a long to-do list and only two months left in their production schedule. Wyatt claims that although “it was inconceivable that the game actually could ship in that time … the programming team continually worked towards shipping in only two months for the next fourteen months!” According to him, “everyone was putting in massive, ridiculous hours,” including frequent all-nighters.

Soul and Body

As it turns out, human beings need sleep by design. “Working these long hours made people groggy,” recounts Wyatt, “and that’s bad when trying to accomplish knowledge-based tasks requiring an excess of creativity, so there should have been no surprises about the number of mistakes, misfeatures and outright bugs.” We are soul and body (see Genesis 2:7), and we need to care for both to be healthy and whole. There was, of course, something commendable about the impulse. As Wyatt notes, “These sorts of crazy hours weren’t mandated – it was just the kind of stuff we did because we wanted to make great games.” Coders volunteered to work overtime out of their love for their craft. However, “It was foolish – we could have done better work with more reasonable efforts.”

The biggest problem, the way they handled “linked lists,” according to Wyatt, was completely preventable. If the team hadn’t tried to start from scratch, they would have avoided a lot of strain and unnecessary labor. After fixing this recurring problem over and over again, Wyatt argued for returning to “Storm,” an earlier, more effective way of handling the issue, but to no avail:

I didn’t win that argument. Since we were only “two months” from shipping, making changes to the engine for the better was regularly passed over for band-aiding existing but sub-optimal solutions, which led to many months of suffering, so much that it affected my approach to coding (for the better) ever since….

Here we see again a lesson that reaches far beyond the world of computer programming. Congress, for example, loves “band-aiding existing but sub-optimal solutions” to issues like health care, Social Security, and so on. But this is more than just a political lesson.

For one thing, Wyatt notes how the “many months of suffering” led him to improve his craft of coding for the better. So we may also note the ascetic benefit of enduring trials. St. James even encouraged Christians in his day to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials” because “the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:2-3).

There is something more here, however. As Wyatt implies, what the team needed to honestly stare their problem in the face, set aside the urgency of their self-imposed deadline, and build on a more stable foundation. As Jesus put it, “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). Taking the time to calm one’s anxieties before acting leads to wiser and more effective (not to mention virtuous) actions.

According to the Gospel, the proper foundation for our lives is the teachings of Jesus Christ. As he put it, “whoever hears these sayings of mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock” (Matthew 7:24-25). All the band-aides in the world can’t hold a house together through a storm. It stands or falls depending upon its overall foundation and design.

That issue aside, despite all the setbacks and missteps, StarCraft still managed to build upon a solid gaming foundation. Thanks to the hard work of all those who worked on the game (Wyatt credits his coworker Brian Fitzgerald for being a crucially “stellar programmer”), and despite whatever mistakes they made along the way, the game turned out to be really fun—exactly what games are meant to be. And because it was so fun, it could outshine its competitors and become the historic success that it was. Viewed from the lens of a spirituality of everyday life, even something ordinarily thought to be a great distance from religion, economics, and philosophy – computer games and coding – may contain gems of social and spiritual wisdom, if only we have eyes to see them.

(Featured Image: By Marco Verch from Cologne, Germany (Showmatch Starcraft von Blizzard) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)


Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.