Every once in a while, I fall into a gaming slump. During these periods, nothing seems to keep me interested in most games I play. They’re either too long or too complex, and I yearn for something a bit simpler to pass the time.
And so, at some point I found custom or “use-map-settings” maps when playing Starcraft. I call them “centigames” – in honor of Wario Ware’s microgames – because they tend to last between a half hour and an hour but still invoke that ADD part of the brain. Through the wonders of Blizzard’s map editor and the “Trigger” system, which allows for unique maps to be programmed, there is a huge amount of games to play – still – for a game more than nine years old.
The campaign itself is simple and entertaining enough, but normal online play can be cut-throat, intimidating, and sometimes repetitive. Custom maps, however, have a huge variety of gameplay types – most of which are entertaining for hours – and a large enough group of followers that you can usually fill up any game.
RPGs make up a large part of the custom maps. Many of them have to jury-rig a leveling system by changing the unit you have during the game; others manage to find a way to upgrade weaponry dozens of times rather than the original three. Custom map RPGs are entertaining enough, but generally not as deep as their console counterparts. They are also usually mind-numbingly easy.
One example of a custom RPG that is particularly good is “A Call for Help”. It manages to combine an intense zombie-filled plot, good balance, and teamwork into one game. I find it’s better than some “professional” games (Beyond the Beyond, I’m looking at you) despite being much shorter.
Another simple custom map is “Matrix Defense”, where you have to defeat enemies passing through your lane. These were usually pretty fun, because so many different strategies can work. Unfortunately, they rely on teamwork; one bad player can ruin the game.
Other strange gameplay styles emerged as well. There are the survival-esque Art of Defense and Starship Troopers, Risk-like Diplomacy and WW2 games, the Madness games, which involve rapidly-spawning units for all players, the RPS games (like normal gameplay with “leveling” required to build better units) and many more.
The beauty of these games is that they are self-contained, easy to pick up, and easy to set down. They’re perfect if you don’t need the depth of a regular game or you can only play every so often.
Starcraft, though, is just the beginning. Warcraft 3 would be released a few years later and build upon what Blizzard achieved in Starcraft.
The campaign editor for Warcraft 3 has a much larger amount of adaptability. Users can import their own sound files, as in Starcraft, and now their own skins. Units can be added or subtracted at will (whereas Starcraft was limited by the number of units and heroes), hero and unit abilities can be modified, and new abilities can be created. Not only that, Warcraft 3’s hero mechanics are ideal for the RPG gameplay type and its offshoots.
Somewhat surprisingly, though, one of the first set of games to become popular were “Tower Defense” style games, variants on the Matrix Defense games using towers. There is a surprising amount of strategy involved in challenging Tower Defense games (placement of towers, or “mazing” in particular), but balanced ones are hard to come by. “Wintermaul” and its “Maul” children, the most popular, are usually beatable with one or two players (and are supposed to have nine). Tower Defense games have become so popular that some Flash and even commercially sold games are inspired by them.
Obviously, there are the usual RPGs, since much of the focus of WC3 is heroes anyway. Some even manage to be several hours long, though I have yet to see any that merit that amount of attention.
More recent, and more popular, is DotA and its offshoots. Though we have covered DotA before, it’s worth mentioning that the main draw is that you can focus on just one character, rather than trying to manage a hero, accompanying army, and resource gathering. Most such games have a large enough set of heroes that mastering all of them would take quite a time investment.
While Warcraft 3’s map editor is not restricted in the amount of unit types (unlike Starcraft’s), few map types actually take advantage of this. Some Tower Defense maps boast hundreds of towers, but many more maps simply focus on heroes and hero development.
In The Frozen Throne, the expansion to Warcraft 3, Blizzard took notice of these maps and decided to create its own variants. A bonus map in the campaign has you building towers to defend against waves of enemies. The entire bonus campaign (in place of the Orc campaign) has you playing an RPG, this one with multiple heroes. There is even a map that vaguely resembles DotA, in which you have to win a sort of tug-of-war.
It’s refreshing to see Blizzard respond to the mapmaking community so well – and it looks like they will continue to do so. On the website for the recently-announced Starcraft 2, they say that players will have access to “the same tools” used to create the campaign. Hopefully, these tools will have the kind of variation that those for Warcraft 3 did.