LifeForce is a fan-made campaign for Starcraft II. It features 4 maps currently, but more to is expected to be added soon. I’ve been quite impressed by the quality and thought I would pick the creator’s brain about why he decided to make something like that, his motivations and what he has planned for the future.
So, Bilxor, tell me a bit about yourself. What’s your background and how did you get into Starcraft II modding?
Sure! I’ve been into map editing since Warcraft II. There were no triggers or alterations you could make with such a primitive tool, you could only build a terrain and place units (with default stats) on it. So it was really nothing more than setting up scenario maps versus the AI.
I later got into the Brood War editor, which was a little more powerful, but not by much. I remember being frustrated that there just wasn’t enough versatility.
I played WC3 extensively but never got into the editor. I tried multiple times but ended up getting frustrated and giving up.
Fast forward to 2011, playing SC2. My first project was a fairly lacklustre RPG called “Firebat’s Tale,” and in retrospect, it was really more of a learning experience. Anyone who starts learning the editor can’t expect to make something impressive without putting their time, and it’s never perfect the first go-around. I probably spent 500 hours grinding on that first map, trying to learn everything I could along the way and not compromising on doing what was easier versus what would be perfect. That’s how real learning happens.
That’s my interaction with “mapping” as it relates to Blizzard products, but this all speaks to the creativity that I think has always been a part of my personality. I have been a writer for as long as I could remember, and my 4th grade fiction story won a state-wide award. From the ages of about 6-20 I was addicted to JRPGs like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy and these were huge sources of inspiration for me. I love the idea of creating a world with a story and a string of diversely powerful heroes that function in it.
When I was about 10 years old I scotch taped roughly 20 pieces of white printer paper together into a huge drawing surface 9 feet across. I laid it across the kitchen floor and started drawing on it. It was a huge fantasy continent, with magical forests, poison swamps, mage towers, gleaming castles, the whole “RPG” thing. It would stay on the kitchen floor for years, constantly getting added to and refined. An RPG played out in my head of the adventures that would unfold there. This spark of creating adventure has never left me.
It’s interesting to me that you became frustrated with the editor for Warcraft III, but not Starcraft II’s. My experience has been the reverse; World Edit (Warcraft III’s editor) was quite easy for me to learn, but Galaxy Editor (Starcraft II’s editor) stymied me at almost every turn, especially the data editor. What was it particularly that got in your way when you compare your experience of the two programs?
Good question. I guess with Warcraft I just didn’t try as hard and just wasn’t as driven for whatever reason. I also didn’t have much of a vision of what I wanted to do, and with Firebat’s Tale I did
Do you think that your motivation might have been affected by the fact that one was fantasy and the other science-fiction?
Hmmm not really. I think it was just being a little older and more patient. And the sc2mapster community was very strong at the time I got into it.
I see. So what has been your inspiration for LifeForce?
I always love Blizzard’s campaigns and can’t help but binge-play them whenever a new one is released. But then as soon as I see the credits roll, I just want more. As a result, I remember searching out other campaigns online and finding a very wide range of quality. Nobody was really coming close to Blizzard quality, even though I knew the editor was incredibly, almost infinitely, powerful. I saw a “hole in the market,” if you will, and decided to build the campaign that I had wished I had found.
I get raw joy out of the creation process. It never feels like a chore to create and refine. It has to be perfect. I’m meticulous with detail. Having something imperfect is like walking around with a pebble in my shoe. I think that’s what they call “passion.”
While I haven’t played as many campaigns as I feel I should have, I get the feeling that most of these custom creations, despite having an interesting story, tend to eschew things like custom units and mechanics. This was thankfully not the case in LifeForce. What was your decision to make a custom Terran race for LifeForce instead of using the default one?
I wanted a true “custom” campaign in every sense of the word that felt indistinguishable from a Blizzard-made one. I noticed that part of the magic of Blizzard’s campaigns is the new types of units that get trickled into your army every mission. You get to toy with them and learn new strategies – it makes the player feel smart and it’s rewarding to learn and execute like this. I think this is a psychological driver of what “fun” really is in gaming. I saw other campaigns trying to do this, but trickling the same old default units back in, and it felt sort of redundant. The magic was gone with those units, it felt like a rehash. I wanted to bring back that new-game feeling, and the only way to do that was with all-new units and abilities.
I chose Terran specifically because I feel their mechanics as a race best fit into a campaign (defensive playstyle, interesting unit synergy). I also think Terrans (or more broadly, the humans of Starcraft) have the most character as a race, with their gritty demeanour, internal turmoil and relatable struggles.
Terrans also fit the personality of the story I was trying to tell. Notice how LifeForce as a mercenary entity is very morally grey. Sometimes you’re good, sometimes you’re bad, sometimes your sort of in the middle and you have to decide for yourself. That sort of ethical struggle just felt most innately Terran to me.
How long did it take you to make LifeForce? I understand that there’s more yet to come?
Calendar-wise, I first broke ground on LifeForce in May of 2015. I would say roughly as much time in front of the editor as I did in front of a pad of paper, brainstorming ideas, sketching out maps, jotting storyline arcs and new abilities. As far as an hour investment, oh god, I almost don’t want to know. Somewhere in the range of 600-800 hours I want to say. The silver lining is that I’m getting much faster at creating content. The first map in the series took me 6 months and was the most straightforward, programming wise. The last map of the 4 only took me about 6 weeks.
And yes, 4 missions are currently released and 4 more are coming in 2017.
What has been the reception from the Starcraft II community to LifeForce so far?
Overwhelmingly positive, I’ve even gotten a fair amount of donations and some have even offered their voice acting skills! (On a side note, listening to people try to capture Decker’s voice is hilarious and entertaining.)
And I truly do enjoy getting the criticisms as well as the accolades because it gives me a chance to see the campaign from a new perspective. In fact, I specifically sought out the meanest, most critical person on sc2mapster.com (the “mapping community” of SC2) and asked him what he thought. It wasn’t nice, but it was informative. If you’re willing to hear your biggest critics, you’re ready to improve.
Starcraft II’s Galaxy Editor is notoriously hard for newcomers. Many fans have lamented it’s extreme learning curve and seemingly absurd complexity. How was your initial experience with it, and what can you recommend to those who want to become modders themselves?
Ugh, yes the learning curve is very steep. I have two pieces of advice for people looking to learn. First, create an account on sc2mapster.com and start asking questions. People there are extremely knowledgeable; some are much, much more so than me. If you look at my account history on that site, you can see a time period where I was asking mundane questions almost every day about what would be considered trivial stuff. Be ready to eat your pride and learn from zero. That’s how I did it. And if this is the route you go, please do ask me anything, I’m happy to help.
Second, the Blizzard-created assets are your best friend. Once you understand the language of the data editor (how different types of effects are built into a hierarchy into abilities and units) you can model any and all custom stuff off of existing assets. I would say 90% of everything in LifeForce is a Blizzard asset I stole, dismembered and repurposed. You don’t have to be an electrician to use a light switch.
From your website, you say that you would love if the creation of custom games and mods could become a full-time job, and not just a hobby. Do you think that is a viable career path?
The only way to leverage the Galaxy Editor skillset into a steady career is to publish a piece of work so impressive that it gets noticed by a game company who then wants to hire you, so it indirectly pays off in that way. This avenue has shown promise for me so far and I’m excited to see what develops.
Do you have anything else planned after LifeForce?
Ah, yes, I’m never short on ideas. When LifeForce was still in alpha, it was a much different game. It played more like a Sim City, where the objective was to create a colony, feed your civilians, build a military, manage resources, and prosper. The number of buildings you could build was exponentially higher (roughly about 50 total, with high-rises, power plants and research stations) and the game was separated into 3 different strata you had to balance (Civic, Science and Military). Fun fact: This is where I original came up with the name for the Civics Hub, it just never got changed during development. I am still thinking about creating this sort of Sim City, Colony-Building game.
Another idea I have is a first-person-style survival horror that is based on being highly atmospheric and immersive. Something like Silent Hill meets Myst.
And yet another idea is making an online Arcade game that focuses on many diverse mini-games and interesting mechanics. (Think “Mario Party.”)
As a final question, can you comment or give any predictions on how Starcraft II’s modding community will evolve in the future?
Interesting question. A fair comparison to Starcraft II’s custom scene is the Warcraft III community, which paradoxically seemed to pick up steam as Blizzard shifted their focus away from it. There are STILL people making custom Warcraft III campaigns and a very well-done one was released not even a month ago. Seeing as SC2’s editor is even more powerful than Warcraft’s, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the same thing happening. However, Starcraft’s high focus as a highly competitive ladder game might outshine its custom movement potential.
Blizzard as a company seems weirdly unenthused about the custom scene and has made it pretty difficult to promote campaigns. The Arcade has no save/load feature and there is no way to set up map linking to make a contiguous campaign. Also, the “bookmarked” folder on battle.net has been broken since 2012. It’s clear the community wants to play DLC campaigns (like the Nova missions) so it would be nice if Blizzard at least puts out blurbs about user-made campaigns like LifeForce on the battle.net launcher screen alongside its other news about tournaments, balance and fan art.
The reason I made my own site for my campaign (link below) is just to have a hub where people could come to in order to play it; sort of a central promotional marker I can easily post to Reddit or wherever to build buzz. After all, if nobody plays it, why even publish it? I just want to get this free campaign in front of anyone who likes this sort of thing. I like to think there’s younger version of myself out there, hungry after completing Blizzard’s campaigns and looking for polished new content, who I might be able to provide people with a fun afternoon. Glhf, young me!
You can find LifeForce at its official website or on it’s own project page on sc2mapster. If you wish to learn more about Starcraft II modding, head on over to www.sc2mapster.com and start trying out some tutorials or participating in the forum conversation.