Games of skill and games of story, and how Starcraft II blends the concepts
The more I've been thinking about gameplay mechanics and how gamers interact with a variety of games, the more I've narrowed down video games into two overarching categories: games of skill and games of story. Regardless of genre, games of skill focus more on mastery of a game engine and its trappings, while story-focused games worry more about plot progression and crafting narrative. Naturally, I would place most first- and third-person shooters, most sports games, racing games, and fighting games into the "skill" category, while RPGs and adventure games dominate the "story" zone. Sure, a game like Mass Effect 2 may have wonderful shooting mechanics, but the game's focus isn't on a combat engine that's balanced for multiplayer, where time investment and development of skill is rewarded. Instead, it focuses on advancing a captivating story with action scenes designed to make the player feel empowered. While it may help engage the player in the conflict, it's not the same as the combat in a balanced, multiplayer-focused shooter like Halo or Call of Duty. Even the incredibly tight combat engine in a modern Zelda title is focused on a single-player experience, as its traditional "get this new tool and make use of it in the dungeon" gameplay is designed to act as a ramp to climb throughout the duration of Link's quest.
Conversely, your classic Street Fighter, Soul Calibur, or other fighting game may have a story mode, but it's secondary fluff on top of the fighting engine, learning characters' move sets, and how to become a better fighter. Racing games are the same way; simulation games like Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo are about the feeling of driving, improving yourself as a driver and mastering the physics engine at the heart of the game, not a narrative. And, of course, shooters like Halo and Call of Duty have engines that lend themselves to a level playing field for truly competitive multiplayer.
Using these different lenses, then, it's interesting to view the changes Blizzard is making within Starcraft II to play to each of these strengths. While the multiplayer modes (as previewed during the beta period and available now with the retail release of Wings of Liberty) seemed like a graphical and game-engine evolution of the original Starcraft, the company has taken a different tack with single player. Of course multiplayer has been updated in many ways, but single player no longer contains all of the same details as multi. Some units are only available in the campaign, as is the ability to make customization choices through a branching path in the single-player mode.
While these sort of branching changes would inevitably break multiplayer — having to balance all the possibilities could be impossible, even for a company with resources like Blizzard — they help make the single-player experience a more robust and individualized process. I've heard on different podcasts a variety of laments for taking one upgrade choice over another: in the same way that the branching paths in the game open up unique experiences, so does having that permanent branching upgrade tree. Blizzard introduced more Terran options into the single player campaign, and once you make a decision, you have to live with it.
It may not be an analogous situation, but the new Medal of Honor game from EA is following a slightly similar tack — at the very least, the single-player and multi-player modes are being handled by two different companies within the EA hivemind; EA's Danger Close Games in Los Angeles is crafting the single-player mode, while Battlefield series developer DICE is handling the multiplayer. This outsourced style of development may be the future of AAA games: the first Bioshock famously had segments of the game outsourced throughout the 2K studios worldwide.
However, separating the development of single-player components from multiplayer — and the admission that they take different approaches to make work — is a fascinating evolution in the history of creating video games. It's an admission that there are different goals regarding crafting a single-player experience and a finely tuned multiplayer game that allows for competitive play. Moreover, for super-large AAA-quality games in the future where gamers demand both an engaging single-player campaign and competitive multiplayer, dividing the creation duties could become the standard development strategy.