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The real reason Blizzard canceled the StarCraft FPS game

March 31, 1998 saw the release of the first game in the StarCraft series, a title that helped put developer Blizzard Entertainment on the radar of every player in the world. As a huge figure in the real-time strategy genre, StarCraft made an immediate impact on the PC gaming sector, as well as competitive multiplayer and LAN play. The first title found success using a modified Warcraft 2 engine as well as near film-quality cinematics, something that actually brought the company's film department to fruition.

20-plus years later, Blizzard's baby has had its share of growing pains — strong expansions followed by declines in popularity, resurgences by canceled titles. Nothing's more evident of those pains than the recent cancellation of a StarCraft first-person shooter, codenamed Ares. Just a couple years in development, the Dustin Browder-led venture hit a wall, so Blizzard shelved it in favor of other franchises. It was a disappointing turn of events, but one that's certainly not out of the ordinary for the long-time developer. Let's take a look at the reasons why Blizzard canceled this StarCraft shooter.

High-profile layoffs changed Blizzard's outlook

Things didn't change too much for Blizzard when the acclaimed developer merged with publishing juggernaut Activision back in late 2007. That is, until recently, when the media reported that Activision had taken a more hands-on role when it came to management. Even before that report came out via Kotaku, the momentum shift was evident. In October 2018, Blizzard's CEO and co-founder Mike Morhaime left. He had been an integral part of the studio's growth since the beginning, so his loss had a huge impact on the developer. Months later, in January 2019, CFO Amrita Ahuja followed suit, leaving the company. And in a shocking, maddening move that came alongside reports of record revenue in 2018, Activision Blizzard laid off over 800 people back in February.

The last 12 months haven't been kind to those involved with the giant company, and that likely led to some shifts in actual game development. Perhaps, after taking a step back to reassess internal teams, the developer decided that the StarCraft FPS simply wasn't the right move for the future.

Has Dustin Browder lost his mojo?

No doubt Activision Blizzard wanted to change up management, so a potential reassignment for Dustin Browder certainly isn't out the realm of possibility at this point. Browder, the director of 2015's Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard's MOBA, hasn't had the best of luck with his recent projects. HotS never reached the status of a Dota or League of Legends, which likely had bearing on his 2016 shift to a new project — the StarCraft shooter.

Frankly, the game just didn't live up to expectations. While it has a loyal following, it hasn't reached the heights of Blizzard's other larger-than-life franchises. In fact, December 2018 saw the end of its official esports structure and a shift of multiple dev team members to other projects. With Browder already on to StarCraftHotS faltered, and unfortunately, the new FPS then suffered an even worse fate. Now, there's no telling what Browder will end up working on.

Overwatch 2 is coming, and it's going to be different

It should come as a surprise to no one that Blizzard's working on a sequel to the popular team-based shooter Overwatch. According to a June report from Kotaku, a publication that clearly has some reliable sources at the developer, Overwatch 2 is in active development and the team will likely reveal it at BlizzCon 2019. While these are just rumors for now, there's surely some truth to this. With how much the first game impacted the multiplayer gaming world, a sequel makes perfect sense.

What's even more interesting is that this report claims the new title will feature a PvE mode that has a similar feel to the zombie shooter Left 4 Dead. With that said, it's likely Overwatch 2 won't just be a carbon copy of the first game, which means the company needs to devote a great deal of assets to the project, including seasoned developers that were working on Ares. The sequel rumor makes the StarCraft FPS cancellation seem like a smart decision, albeit one that likely disappointed the series' fanbase.

Blizzard's also working on Diablo 4

If you want to spark joy among video game fans, announce a brand-new Diablo game. Just make sure it's a mainline series entry and not some mobile spinoff. With Diablo Immortal in the works, the gaming world will have its appetite for dungeon crawling satiated in, presumably, the near future. People will have to wait a while longer to see a true sequel to the series, but rest assured that it's in the works and already being shown off internally.

According to a report from French newspaper Le Monde, members of the team's Versailles, France office have seen a build of the game very recently, and things are looking promising. Based on this information, there's a good chance that fans could get a look at the game at 2019's BlizzCon. With the team hard at work on this new project, no doubt they needed some extra hands on deck — yet another reason to cancel StarCraft and shift focus to a game that people are pining for.

The developer couldn't have another BlizzCon like 2018

Sure, a StarCraft shooter had the chance to be a hit for Activision Blizzard. The series has a loyal fanbase and a strong history to back it up, but it certainly wouldn't be at the top of most people's list for announcements they'd want at BlizzCon 2019. And after its mediocre showing in 2018, the developer simply can't afford another frustratingly poor effort this year. Simply put, eager fans hoping for a Diablo 4 reveal were angry when they had the rug pulled out from under them, instead receiving a lackluster announcement for the series' mobile entry.

With that in the rearview, 2019 has to be about the major franchises like mainline Diablo, Overwatch, and whatever the future holds for World of Warcraft. Public impressions of the company haven't exactly been great this year, so the team has to knock its convention out of the park.

It started as simply an experiment

Ask any engineer: many experiments fail and never result in a functioning product. They're often used to test hypotheses, new equipment, or complex theories that almost no one understands. What you often don't hear is the fact that experiments happen in game development as well, and that's actually how the StarCraft first-person shooter began. In 2017, a small team commenced work on a new project to see how a StarCraft experience would work on the Overwatch engine. The company hoped to increase development efficiency by shifting as many franchises as possible to the same tech.

Within two years, Blizzard had a concept complete with prototypes featuring a playable Terran marine gunning down Zerg aliens. Unfortunately, fans didn't learn much else during the initial cancellation report and who knows if more information about the project will ever get out. Frankly, it's not all that common to get the details we received about this game. It's a reminder that there's so much about game development that the general public never gets a chance to hear about, see, or play.

StarCraft may not be suited for the shooter genre

Being a series rooted in the real-time strategy genre, it's not out of the realm of possibility that StarCraft isn't suited for a first-person shooter experience. Sure, it has the right elements for an interesting action-shooter — sci-fi backdrop, futuristic weapons, alien enemies — but code name Ares must not have impressed the higher-ups enough to remain on the development schedule. And if you know your gaming history, you'll recall that this isn't even the first canceled StarCraft shooter that Blizzard worked on.

Back in 2002, Blizzard announced StarCraft: Ghost, a stealth-based third-person shooter for the GameCube, Xbox, and PlayStation 2. After years of development struggles and a change in lead developer, Blizzard shelved the game in 2006 to focus on exploring development on the next-gen platforms. However, behind the scenes, a lack of direction, tension, and conflict between publisher and dev team likely led to its eventual cancellation. Despite some promising ideas including stealth mechanics like a cloaking device, as well as a diverse arsenal of weapons, the game just never came together.

Many game franchises work so well because they're designed for a specific genre. StarCraft seems like it might be one of those.

Slow progress may have killed the project

In a year filled with massive layoffs, canceling a project often results in dedicated people losing their jobs. Thankfully, the shelving of the StarCraft FPS wasn't accompanied by any trips to the unemployment office. Instead, the team working on the game simply shifted to other games like Overwatch and Diablo. Still, there's a lot of work left on the metaphorical table, as Ares sounded like it was off to a good start. Unfortunately, that good start may have been too slow for the top-level executives at Activision Blizzard.

A source cited in Jason Schreier's Kotaku report mentioned that "development progress was slow." With Blizzard already notorious for lengthy development cycles — Diablo 3 was famously in the works for a decade — the company has put a recent focus on streamlining its work. That's why Ares began, as a way to test and see if more games could shift to the same game tech. Two years down the line, the new StarCraft just didn't carry enough cache to stay in active development, and slow progress may have played a part in that.

The shooter space is saturated

Market saturation is something that publishers have to take into consideration with new projects. There are prime examples of interesting concepts that don't perform well from a sales standpoint due to a long list of competitors. Take a game like LawBreakers, for example. With a high-profile name like Cliff Bleszinski attached to it, one could assume that the game was due for a lengthy lifecycle and a prime position in the multiplayer shooter genre. Yet merely 13 months after launch, the game's server shut off due to poor sales. Up against games like Overwatch, it didn't seem to have a chance.

The FPS genre remains saturated as well, with franchises like Wolfenstein, Ghost Recon, and Battlefield releasing projects or content updates yearly. Battle royales have also carved out a niche in the shooter space, which means there's that much less room for new titles to find success. The landscape has so many shooters at this point that there was no guarantee StarCraft's FPS would have hit the lofty sales goals of a Blizzard title. That's not necessarily fatal on its own, but it certainly didn't help the game's case in executives' eyes.

Perhaps the Battlefield-meets-StarCraft pitch didn't sit well

Blizzard crafted a clever, easy-to-follow pitch for Ares: "Battlefield in the StarCraft universe." Dev teams often boil down game ideas to these quick elevator pitches because people outside of the project can immediately get the gist. With "Battlefield meets StarCraft," you got an understanding of what the game would be: a first-person shooter with a science-fiction backdrop. While a good idea, it may have turned off Activision Blizzard execs after the poor sales and horrid technical issues surrounding EA's Battlefield 5.

In February 2019, EA told investors that its new entry in the long-standing series hadn't hit its sales expectations, partly due to its delay to a congested November and partly due to its gameplay issues during launch. After selling nearly a million less copies than projected during Q3, Battlefield continued to struggle with performance and poor communication from developer DICE. All that said, Activision Blizzard likely looked at these problems closely when re-assessing its stance on the StarCraft FPS. Sometimes, comparing a new project to an existing game doesn't work out as well as hoped.