A screenshot from StarCraft II. Will the long-awaited sequel — "StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty" — be able to live up to its predecessor?
Right now, around the world, hundreds of thousands of gamers are glued to their computers scratching an itch they haven't been able to scratch for more than a decade.
That is, as of today, the world can finally get its mitts on "StarCraft: Wings of Liberty" — the long, long, long awaited for sequel to "StarCraft" and perhaps the most anticipated PC game of all time.
The thing is, "StarCraft" isn't just a game, it's a phenomenon.
The first incarnation of this sci-fi title for the PC launched back in 1998 and quickly became the real-time-strategy game that all others would be measured against. A chess-like game of resource management and galactic warfare, Blizzard Entertainment's "StarCraft" gave players the chance to not only play through a single-player campaign featuring a dramatic story of conquest, betrayal and sacrifice, but it also allowed players to pit their skills against each other, controlling one of three distinct races — the Protoss with their advanced technology, the swarming, insect-like Zerg and the human Terrans — in a battle for supremacy.
"The story just grabbed me and the multiplayer experience grabbed me," said Ryan Tower, who began playing the game when he was 11 years old and is now the lead administrator for the "StarCraft" fan site StarCraft: Legacy. "I mean, there was just so much life in that game."
Indeed, "StarCraft" was embraced the world over with a stunning zeal. Not only did the first game sell an absurd number of copies — more than 11 million worldwide — it became the foundation for an international spectator sport.
Part of what made the game such a hit was the fact that although "StarCraft" was relatively easy to pick up, it was so deep that after years of playing it, gamers were still discovering tricks and strategies.
Frank Pearce, Blizzard Entertainment co-founder and executive vice president, said he believes the game's stunning popularity is not only because "StarCraft" offered a compelling story, but because it was first game to use the company's Battle.Net platform — an online matchmaking platform that made it easy for players to find and connect with one another and then duke it out in multiplayer games of up to eight people.
But Tower said the thing that really launched the game into the stratosphere was the fact that "StarCraft" gained a reputation for being extremely well-balanced, which meant that players could play any one of the game's three races and feel like they had an equal shot of winning.
"It took a lot of skill to master the game but you couldn't dominate it," Tower said.
"StarCraft" quickly became the go-to game for professional gaming competitions. And it simply exploded in South Korea — a country where, at that time, both broadband and public gaming cafes were suddenly booming.There, professional "StarCraft" competitions began filling stadiums with thousands of spectators excited to cheer on their favorite "StarCraft" players — players paid big bucks to compete.
In South Korea today, there are two cable television stations dedicated to televising "E-Sports" competitions — and the original "StarCraft" remains a staple even after all these years.
"You can walk into a bar in Korea on any given night and very likely see them playing professional 'StarCraft' on TV," Pearce said.
Blizzard has supported its game with gusto, providing patches, fixes and upgrades to the first "StarCraft" for well over a decade. But for years now, fans have been waiting for a sequel.
Why the delay? Well, Blizzard has been a very, very busy company. Pearce said that the team behind "StarCraft" got busy working on another hit — "WarCraft 3." And then there was a little project called "World of Warcraft." You might have heard of it?
And, of course, when you're trying to follow up a hit like "StarCraft," you've got to make sure you do it right.
"'StarCraft II' is really something we've been building from the ground up," Pearce said. "It's an all-new game engine built on an all-new Battle.Net platform. The missions are all very unique and diverse. The story campaign is the most ambitious story campaign for a real-time-strategy game ever for us."
And he said: "Everyone on the development teams knows how well-loved the original 'StarCraft' is and so they want to honor the legacy of that experience. We wanted to make sure we put the appropriate amount of polish into it to meet the standard of quality we have for ourselves and the standards of quality our fans expect of us. The time it took to get it into the fans' hands was what was necessary to hit those standards."
Of course, the question is — will "StarCraft II" be able to fill the shoes of its predecessor? Some expect it to not only fill those shoes, but over fill them.
Analyst Mike Hickey of Janco Partners thinks the game could sell 7 million copies worldwide in 2010, generating sales of more than $350 million. Meanwhile, VGchartz expects the game to sell more like 10 to 12 million copies during this fiscal year alone. And that's something, especially when you consider that the first game sold more than 11 million copies over the course of 12 years.
But will all those hard-core "StarCraft I" gamers approve of "StarCraft II"?
"We want anyone who sits down to play 'StarCraft 2' — if they played the original 'StarCraft' — to immediately feel a sense of familiarity," Pearce said. "But at the same time we want them to feel like it's new and fresh and that there's more things to discover within the 'StarCraft' universe and within the multiplayer gaming experience."
MSNBC.com's games editor Todd Kenreck will be posting his thoughts about "StarCraft II" shortly.
Meanwhile, Tower said that some enthusiasts — those given early access to the game and to its beta runthrough — have had some concerns about some of the changes designed to make the new game more accessible to a wider audience. But he expects Blizzard to do what it's done before — tweak and improve the game over time until it reaches something close to perfection.
Ultimately only time will tell whether the sequel lives up to the original. For his part, Tower said he hopes "StarCraft II" will introduce the gaming phenomenon he loves to a whole new generation of players.
"I just want to see the community grow and I want people to discover for thevemselves what 'StarCraft' is really about," he said.