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Article A Sales Story | E07 | Starcraft II

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“HELL, IT’S ABOUT TIME”

A tagline coined by the reveal trailer could not be more fitting for a sequel that released more than a decade after its predecessor.

StarCraft 2, being heir to an esports empire, launching into a time of big changes in the gaming industry, while also facing competition that it did not foresee, is a sales story of creative ambition vs corporate control and human limits.

CONTEXT

Blizzard rode the high of StarCraft and invested its resources into another RTS project that would once again turnout a huge success. WarCraft 3 sold over 1M in its first month and once again received a similarly successful expansion pack in The Frozen Throne.
Their acquisition Blizzard North and it’s IP Diablo has been another big hit with an even bigger sequel. Blizzard just went from one success to the next without stopping.

So they decided to drop all pretense and simply started printing money.
This printer, also known as “World of Warcraft”, was released in 2004 as a result of the company trying to diversify into other genres with it’s Ips.
WarCraft 3 already brought RPG elements into their formula and also included once again an improved Battle.net service for online play.

Blizzard at this point was used to big hits, but WoW completely smashed all upper expectations. As MMORPG the game needed constant updates and expansions so the company went into internal restructuring and formed multiple development teams. Team 1 was the RTS team that started work on StarCraft 2. Team 2 was responsible for updating and expanding World of Warcraft, while Blizzard North handled the Diablo franchise by itself.

STARCRAFT 2

Development on SC2 started shortly after Warcraft 3 released in 2003, but got put on hold to support the development of World of Warcraft. So it took until 2005 to really progress on the project.
But in the same year there were more internal issues. Blizzard North, who were working on Diablo 3, had been bleeding away employees due to conflicts with the companies owner Vivendi and as a result the office got closed in August of 2005. The remaining B-North employees got integrated into the main company Blizzard Entertainment and Team 3 was created and tasked with restarting the development of D3.

The plans for the project StarCraft 2 were immense. It was going to be started from zero. Instead of reusing/re-purposing the WC3 engine a completely new framework was to be developed with the goal of enabling developers and later also players to create their own fully realized RTS missions/games. Bigger and better cinematics were planned, while also trying to get in-game cut-scenes up to cinematic levels.
Thanks to the esports success of the predecessor and WC3, competitive multiplayer also became a big focus and in the advent of Web 2.0 a completely new Battle.net was planned to be part of the game.

BLIZZARDS EXPANSION PACK

As Team 1 was at work with SC2 the company itself went through a lot of change. While Blizzard Entertainment had been a very profitable and growing company World of Warcraft increased the magnitude of it by a lot.
The game entered into the realm of never-ending development as the huge player-base had to be managed while the next expansion packs “Burning Crusade” and “Wrath of the Lich King” were put into production.

Diablo 3 would undergo three design revisions after its restarted development.
In 2004 Blizzard Entertainment opened their offices in France.
Blizzards headcount would quadruple in the span of only two years from 400 in 2004 to 1600 in 2006 which also necessitated a relocation of their headquarter to support the additional staff.
Thanks to the success of WoW they also started their own fan convention “BlizzCon” which made its debut in 2005 and since then became an annual event to announce games, expansions and content for their IPs.

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WINGS OF LIBERTY (WoL)

Blizzard made the decision to split the campaign of SC2 into a trilogy, releasing it via big expansion packs. Each pack will focus on the story of one of the three factions in the Starcraft universe. The Terran campaign called “Wings of Liberty” was the first part and would represent the base game with the Zerg focused “Heart of the Swarm” being the first expansion and the Protoss themed “Legacy of the Void” would conclude the story. The campaign of each single part was planned to rival the full campaign of StarCraft in length and content.

To manage the immense amount of workload the development of the expansions was only to be started once the previous part was in its finishing stages.

Unsurprisingly Blizzard announced the active development of SC2 in Korea. At their self-organized Tournament they unveiled a cinematic which coined the phrase at the start of this story. And this time they even had synced lip movement to the spoken Korean voice. A stark contrast to the Broodwar situation all those years ago. Excitement was big but Blizzard did not mention a release date.


(SC2 Announcement at Blizzard Worldwide Invitational 2007)

As 2007 and 2008 went by more and more information about the game came out but release was still not in sight. The controversial decision was made to not include LAN support in the game meaning all matches even custom games just for fun, have to be played on Blizzards own servers, which were also region locked.

The company planned the first beta of the game in 2009 and started multiple avenues where one could register for or win a beta-key. But 2009 came and went and no beta was happening. It was instead pushed to the following year and finally started in February of 2010. It got numerous patches and lasted until July of the same year with full release finally happening only a week later on July 27th 2010 to much critical acclaim and high sales.

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HEART OF THE SWARM (HotS)

Like it’s predecessor the development for SC2 was not finished without expansion packs. While providing balance updates and bug-fixes for the freshly released base-game the first expansion went into full production. It focused on the Zerg and their leader Kerrigan while introducing new characters and plot-points to the story. It also showed the flexibility of the SC2 engine as the game featured Kerrigan as stand-out hero-unit like Warcraft 3 with bossfights that resembled Diablo 3.

Multiplayer beta for the first expansion started in September of 2012 and the full release hit on March 12th 2013.

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LEGACY OF THE VOID (LotV)

Still not done, Team 1 of Blizzard started work on the second and supposedly last expansion of SC2 and again provided support for the already existing game. Development started in 2013 and made rapid progress in content (writing, voice acting, cinematics) but mission design and mechanics held it back for a bit. In a surprising twist Blizzard announced at Blizzcon 2014 that the expansion would not require the original game and instead be stand-alone while also announcing additional game play modes “Archon”, where two players control the same base, and “Allied Commanders” a Co-Op mission based PvE experience.

And if that was not enough in June 2015 Blizzard announced a small prologue called “Whispers of Oblivion” that bridges the events between HotS and LotV.

Once more the scope of the game expanded and it took until March of 2015 for the beta to start with the release set for November 10th 2015. At this point the RTS development team had been working on SC2 for a decade.

SALES


We finally get to the sales section of this monumental project that is SC2.

Wings of Liberty got off to a flying start with over 1M units sold within one day of release and over 1.5M after two days making it already the best-selling PC game of the year

In its first month the game already reached 3M sold and by December of 2010 it had sold nearly 4.5M units

Here it can also be mentioned that according to Torrentfreak the game got 2.3M illegal downloads in its first few months

The last public number we got for Wings of Liberty was more than 6M in 2012 as the launch of HotS came closer

Heart of the Swarm continued in similar fashion with 1.1M sold-through in its first two days on the market and becoming the best-selling PC game in the first quarter of 2013 but sadly no further update since.

Legacy of the Void is in a similar position with only one number given: Over 1M copies sold-through withing 24 hours

Sadly we never got a newer number and at this point it is never going to happen because the story of SC2 is still far from over.

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POST-RELEASE

It likely was not intended that way but StarCraft 2 became something of an GAAS. Updates continued after LotV and the game has already gotten a systematic rework to allow for a DLC shop ingame.

Another campaign got announced but this time smaller in scale. Nova Covert Ops, set some time after the conclusion of SC2 was focused around the titular character Nova, who got introduced back in 2002 for the canceled project Starcraft: Ghost. It released in 3 waves with the last one, and another major patch to the game releasing in November of 2016.

Meanwhile new Co-Op (renamed from Allied Commanders) missions (free) and commanders (as DLC) got added and additional DLC got implemented into the game such as skins and announcers.

The reason why sales updates for SC2 will not be a thing anymore happened on November 14th 2017 where StarCraft 2 went free-to-play.

This was also the start of the “WarChest” which is basically a paid battle-pass where players could earn more skins as they leveled up. That battle-pass got a total of 6 different seasons.

In July of 2020 one last bombshell dropped. StarCraft 2 hit Patch 5.0 which brought the last new content into the game as well as a complete overhaul of the StarCraft 2 map editor which made it even more powerful and possible to implement WarCraft 3 into it with all its unique quirks. Since 2015 the editor already came with updated WC3 assets included.
Since then the game went on minimal life support and that finally concludes the story of SC2 after over 15 years of development.

TEAM 1

Blizzards RTS team was always hard at work ever since the creation of the SC2 engine. But it was also not their only project during that time. The game came with an Arcade section that hosted Blizzard and fan-made custom maps and as part of it they announced a map called “Blizzard DOTA”.

Defense of the Ancients (DotA) was the most popular community-made custom map in WarCraft 3 which grew every passing year and was part of what made WC3 so successful. Blizzard intended to take that popular concept and make it their own. Meanwhile Valve had announced their own game in that style and even named it as official successor “Dota 2” in 2010 and made it public in August of 2011.
Project “Blizzard DOTA” got a reboot before a release and after a lost legal battle with Valve for the Dota trademark it got renamed to “Blizzard All-Stars”. With League of Legends from Riot Games Blizzard faced even more very strong competition in the genre now called Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA)

Around 2013 the game got its current name “Heroes of the Storm” which was developed by Team 1 until 2019 when the game got put on life support by Blizzard.

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(HotS "Heroes of the Storm" in this case, took a lot of ressources while SC2 development was still going.)

In 2015 Blizzard established the Classic Games Team which brought updates to the old classics and in 2016 it got some resources allocated from Team 1 to make StarCraft: Remastered which released in 2017.

After that Team 1 was in charge of WarCraft III: Reforged and was also scheduled to develop Diablo II: Resurrected but after the poor reception of W3:R the Diablo project was moved to another team.

In October of 2020 Blizzard informed Team 1 that it will get reorganized and team members get opportunities to interview for jobs elsewhere within Blizzard or getting laid off. This caused a big exodus of developers going into other independent studios such as Frost Giant Studios or DreamHaven. In the end it wasn’t a reorganization but full closure of the RTS branch and the end of Team 1.

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

By now pretty much everybody knows about the horrible working conditions at Blizzard in the post-WoW era. With completely unacceptable and downright criminal treatment of women and minorities in its workspace.

Blizzard became the very definition of a rock-star developer. As pointed out multiple times they were met with success after success, with each one getting bigger and bigger.

It is safe to assume that they got used to that situation and expected success for everything they do especially after WoWs launch. As long as Blizzard keeps the key targets for their games in mind it mattered little to them how they got to those. This mentality also gets adapted by the developers themselves who start to see themselves as god among men. Additionally game development is a male dominated field. The International Game Developers Association reported that the percentage of women was at 11.5% in 2009 and rose to 22% in 2014. And Blizzard was likely even bringing that average down as in a Kotaku article the number of 21% is confirmed for 2017 and their diversity data of 2021 stated the percentage of woman at Blizzard at 22%. So you have way too many men with overinflated egos thinking they can do no wrong and a few isolated woman in between. From unconfirmed reports HR at Blizzard was for one heavily understaffed all the time and the main abusers had great connections with them which is why it took so long for this to get to the public.

I did a lot of digging but so far it seems that most of the stuff happened in the WoW team and Blizzard upper management and couldn’t really find stuff about accused members of Team 1 but that does not give them absolution as sexism was corporate culture at the whole company.

Blizzards streak to success was a recipe for disaster and everyone was happy to count the money and accolades they got and look away from the problems.

LEGACY

Which brings us back to SC2 but first we have to roll back to 2010.
Back when WoL first launched and Blizzard was still on top of the world.
And the game was another smashing success despite some of the controversial decisions.

Third party companies already started organizing tournaments while the game was in its beta. Having collected quite a lot of experience in managing the esport scene from Broodwar and Warcraft 3, Blizzard left organization of events to those third parties but did require a license for bigger tournaments.
In the meantime something completely new emerged. With stronger PCs and internet connections worldwide players started streaming their gameplay on site like own3d.tv, justin.tv and others. SC2 became one of the most popular games in the early days on streaming and mostly migrated to justin.tv which is now better known as Twitch.

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(SC2 up there back in the early days of Twitch)

Starcraft 1 made esports a thing in Korea and StarCraft 2 was a huge boost for esports in the rest of the world with hundreds of professional players in hundreds of tournaments.
But the esports space was about to get more competitive. First was Valve with Dota 2 who shocked everyone with the announcement of their own big tournament with a prize pool of a staggering 1.6M at the time. And Riot games quickly followed suit with their own League of Legends World Championship 2012 with a prize pool of 2M.

The esports landscape changed rapidly with publishers pumping huge amounts of money into it to use their professional scene as marketing for the game. Blizzard was hesitant at first but joined the party with their World Championship Series (WCS) for SC2 in 2012 which got a big offline final at the Shanghai Expo, together with WoW, as Blizzard had big ambitions in the Chinese market.
However Blizzard was not satisfied with the system and brought a complete overhaul in 2013 with a league based format for each of the 3 main regions of the game (EU / US / Korea) and a global final as a result at Blizzcon.

2013 also brought the complete switch of the esports scene to HotS which already started with its beta as WoL became stale thanks to balance issues that Blizzard refused to fix. In general there was a lot of criticism with Blizzards handling of everything SC2 related at the time. They were fixated solely with win percentages between the races no matter how the games actually turned out and rarely wanted to change things up. This soured a lot of players as Dota 2 was the complete opposite with sweeping changes in its patches while LoL was somewhere in the middle to keep the game fresh.
HotS brought a lot of freshness but only for a limited amount of time. It also brought new issues with units that slowed the pace of a game down to a crawl. This would again become more and more of an issue and only be fixed with the next iteration of LotV.
While HotS was the current iteration of the game the viewership and playerbase of SC2 went into a decline. Blizzards new WCS format also had the issue of oversaturation with important games happening basically every weekend, drowning out interest for 3rd party tournaments which had been carrying the game in its infancy.

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(2016 WCS Winner sOs. The trophy carries the names of all winners)

Blizzard reworked its esports system slightly in 2014 and 2015 before creating its final iteration in 2016 which would stay until its last season of 2019.
This also coincided with the release of LotV and once again the whole scene migrated to the new expansion. Legacy of the Void was a complete shakeup. The pace got sped up massively, the game more hectic then ever but those changes were mostly well received and in some cases even demanded by the players. It also brought in PvE Co-Op which would quickly became the games most played gamemode.
SC2 would go into a mostly stable situation regarding its viewership online, tournament scene and playerbase but at that point got eclipsed by former rivals Dota 2 and LoL while many new games pushed into the competitive scene with CS:GO, Blizzards own Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm and later Overwatch and the later arrival of Fortnite among others would cement SC2 in its now only niche position of the esports market.

Blizzard at this point was all-in on esports as each and everyone of their games had a tournament scene subsidized by the company. Which is also what brought them into trouble as they quickly started to burn more money than it got them marketing for the games. After a few years they were forced to pull the plug on some of it and fired a lot of their esport staff and infamously axed the system for Heroes of the Storm basically killing the professional scene in the process.

For SC2 things mostly stayed the same from 2016-2020. Free 2 play and WarChest brought in revenue which financed the tournament cycle. But the company came into more and more trouble of not hitting its revenue targets which caused further cuts. That lead to ultimately no new content/WarChest for the game and in 2020 Blizzard licensed the management of the esports circuit to ESL, who have been managing big tournaments ever since the WoL beta.

LEGACY IN KOREA

Starcraft is a big enough topic that its history in South Korea deserves its own section.
The decisions Blizzard made to force the usage of a Battle.net Account and the Arcade being only available on Blizzard hosted servers put SC2 immediately on the back foot.
A lot of Broodwars popularity based on UMS the acronym for “Use Map Settings” which was how funmaps were enjoyed by casual players.

Additionally Broodwar was still doing well and the regulatory body of KeSPA refused to make a hard switch to the new game. This in turn angered Blizzard as they were fed up with not having much say in the running of StarCrafts esport so far while they also had issues with organizers making tournaments without getting licensed first.
So Blizzard got their own broadcasting and esport partner in Gretech and gave them the license and sued MBCPlus Media for holding unauthorized tournaments.
Blizzard at that time started to talk about a co-existence of both games but in the background were working still on getting the Broodwar scene to switch.
After enough pressure on KeSPA Blizzard got what they wanted and so the biggest teamleague in Broodwar started a hybrid seasons with both StarCrafts in 2011-2012 and transitioned in the next season completely to SC2.

Professional SC2 started already with beta and launch of WoL most notably the Global StarCraft II League (GSL) which is still going on to this day, but it was often the bench players of Broodwar teams that made the switch first and so found success in global StarCraft 2 competition. Korean teams had already a developed infrastructure and with that a big competitive advantage. The situation in both Starcraft games was that players not from Korea were all titled as “foreigners” such was the discrepancy between the regions.

Thanks to their advantage Korean players also increasingly went overseas to perform strongly in their big tournaments.

But public interest in SC2 was always lagging behind its predecessor and many games were more popular in PC Bangs, most notably League of Legends which had risen to the top spot.
The forceful switch from Broodwar to SC2 made things much worse. The tournament infrastructure and viewership just was not present to support so many SC2 players all of a sudden.

So the new Proleague stood on shaky legs and only managed 4 more seasons until ending completely. More and more big name tournament sponsors dropped out and with it the doors of the team-houses closed as well. In the end SC2 lost all of the teams that came over from Broodwar.

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(The GSL studio of the past few years)

Today GSL is still going and most of the strongest players in the world are still Korean. But SC2 never came close to the heights of Broodwar and Blizzards decisions were a big part of it. SC2 was more expensive, more restrictive and never fostered such a casual community.

CONCLUSION

This has been a long and sometimes jumpy read but the story of SC2 is so extensive I was struggling to cut it down even more. Technically it is also still going on. The game has not run its course yet, big tournaments are still happening this year.

But its future is uncertain as the contract that Blizzard has with the ESL is running out in March of 2023 and I don’t know if current Blizzard is interested in continued support of their RTS segment after closing down its development team.
In the end Blizzard was caught in its spiral of ever more money and prestige and SC2 could not deliver that. Attempts of matching LoL by going F2P were misguided and pushing Korea off Broodwar was short-sighted. Same goes for a much more restrictive ecosystem and the plan to give a $60 game two $40 expansions was optimistic at best.
The game had a rocky path and Blizzards management was often questionable but beneath that there was a team that gave their everything to make it what it is today putting 20 years of work into the title. It is a shame that the team got dissolved after all that.

SC2 is nevertheless a milestone of RTS. The last giant of the genre for many years and arguably to this day unreached. Even new games like Age of Empires 4 were unable to match the responsiveness, fine-tuning and amount of content that SC2 managed to achieve.
Maybe the new studios that bloomed from the exodus of Blizzards RTS team will carry that torch one day but that is a story for a distant future.

Article A Sales Story | E06 | Starcraft

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StarCraft is a legendary franchise that defined it’s genre. It is also a founding father of esports. A monster of an IP with a three-part sequel, multiple books and merch en masse.
It was a sign of things to come in the industry although way ahead of its time.

But how did we get to that point? Time to make a journey back over 20 years ago and follow the makings of a small company hitting it big multiple times in a row to become a juggernaut of the industry.

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CONTEXT

“Blizzard Entertainment” emerged in 1994 after a multi-year struggle rebranding and aquiring naming rights for the development team originally called “Silicon & Synapse”. Known for many decent but not exceptional multi-platform games they managed to secure financial backing through an acquisition and wanted to make use of that money by taking the risk of not only switching into a new genre but also wanting to publish that new title by themselves.

The risk, now known as “Warcraft: Orcs & Humans” released in November 1994, paid off surprisingly well selling over 100k units in it’s first year.
Blizzard took something important from Warcrafts success as stated in a later post by founder Frank Pearce:

"It wasn't the numbers we sold that made us realize we had done something special with Warcraft. I think it was the play experience. Warcraft was really fun to play. It had a different look and feel from the other games out there. It was more like a cartoon. I hadn't seen anything like it before. It was amazing and just so damn fun."

And with that the hunt to improve on that fun begun and resulted in the even bigger hit sequel "Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness" in December of 1995, which became Blizzards first million-selling title, doing so in its first year, with a total of 3M sold in its lifetime.

In the span of only two years Blizzard went from minor partner of several publishers to one of the biggest names in the RTS genre. But with that there also immediately came the pressure of “how are you going to follow this up?”

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STARCRAFT

Unsurprisingly Blizzard started work on that next RTS title right away and, using the WC2 engine, quickly created a prototype to be shown at E3 1996. Instead of another sequel they wanted to create a new universe in a new setting, switching from Fantasy to Sciene-fiction.

However reception for that prototype was less than stellar with the game being criticized as just a “Warcraft in space”

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(Screenshot of the original E3 1996 demo)

Taking that feedback to heart Blizzard decided to completely overhaul the project. The engine got heavily modified, the art-style reworked, camera perspective changed. The changes were many and caused further technical problems, which cause the games release to get pushed back again and again.
It also became the debut of Blizzards film department producing high-quality cinematics and evolved into the biggest and longest project Blizzard had ever done.

This was a stark change to the sometimes only half-year development cycles that Blizzard has had previously. But the team was chasing the fun and quality that had defined their last two games and was willing to take the time needed to achieve it. Soon™

It took Blizzard over 2 years of development but on March 31st 1998 they were finally able to ship the much anticipated StarCraft to the world.

But at this point we can’t go into the sales and legacy section just yet because the development journey of StarCraft is not quite finished.
Soon after release Blizzard announced three expansion packs, two outsourced and one made by their own studio as they had done previously with WarCraft 2.

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STARCRAFT: BROOD WAR

Development of the expansion pack went very smooth as it was an evolution of the basis they had built. The same team that developed the base game managed to get the expansion out in the same year on December 18th 1998. While the outsourced expansion packs were only met with mediocre reviews, Broodwar was the polish on the rough diamond that Blizzard managed to create.

It doubled the campaign missions, upgraded the scripting for those missions and added essential new units that fixed balance problems and brought new dynamics into the war of the three factions Protoss, Terran and Zerg.

The outsourced expansion packs (Insurrection and Retribution) are mostly a forgotten part in history, while Broodwar became so integral that when nowadays people talk about StarCraft they almost certainly mean StarCraft: Brood War.

SALES & LEGACY

StarCraft (without Broodwar) became another smash hit right away. Shipping 1M for launch (600k of that in the USA), getting widespread praise and earning multiple awards. The game lived up to the hype that had been building for the past years. It further increased in sales becoming the best-selling PC game of 1998 with more than 1.5 million copies sold worldwide.

But there was also something brewing that would turn out bigger than Blizzard could have ever expected. Far away from their biggest market, the United States, in a country only 1/6th of the population StarCraft quickly rose in popularity.

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STARCRAFT IN SOUTH KOREA

South Korea suffered in the 1997 Asian financial crisis. International funding and restructuring were unavoidable for the country. Most households income reduced as a result, unemployment rose.
The restructuring slashed funding of community centers and in their place a culture of internet cafès, known as “PC Bang” started to form. Helped by a government project in the early 1990s where South Korea made investments to develop broadband internet throughout the country.

In those locations people were able get cheap access to a PC with internet connection that also opened the possibility of online gaming.
StarCraft released at an opportune time and, as popular game in the US, found its way into the PC Bangs despite having no Korean localization.
The game also came with a map editor that allowed for the creation of all kinds of custom game modes and maps as well as Battle.net online features which made it easy to find and challenge players that were online in other PC Bangs throughout the country.
As a social gathering spot StarCraft became an integral part of youth culture and this also accelerated the competitive scene in SK.

It was a perfect storm of people looking for a business opportunity had the possiblity of opening a PC Bang. Young people and people out of work could meet up with their friends and play for pretty cheap and Starcraft as a fun and challenging game fit right in there.

The number of PC Bangs exploded, same with StarCraft sales in South Korea.

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(PC Bang)

Tournaments got organized and viewed at first locally but it then spread to more and more people throughout the country. Soon sponsors got involved which led to the creation of professional players, teams and leagues. The Korea e-Sports Association (KeSPA) got established by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in 2000. The subsequent rise of StarCraft as an esport in South Korea was meteoric and led to TV broadcasts of big name tournaments with hundreds of thousands of dollars in available prize money.


(The scale of competetive StarCraft in South Korea)

The game was a major player in South Korean entertainment for a decade, being part of the programming of three TV channels that covered professional gaming. It stayed popular after it’s sequel StarCraft 2 released, but suffered after a Match-fixing scandal became public in 2010 and the release of other newer esports games, most notably League of Legends, pushed it more into the background.

There still is a very dedicated professional StarCraft scene in South Korea that enjoyed a bit of a renaissance after Blizzard released “StarCraft: Remastered” in 2017 which basically only updated the visuals, sounds and online functionality because the fan-base was strictly against any gameplay changes. (Remastered also got an official cartoon overhaul in 2019)
Professional tournaments run to this day but in a smaller scope than its peak around 2007.

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It has to be mentioned while the game is beloved in South Korea, Blizzard itself had a much harder time with that market. Many disputes over piracy and broadcasting rights were had over the years and the situation got more intense with the sequel.

The last known figure for StarCraft is more than 11M copies sold by February of 2009 with over 4.5M of those sold in South Korea (since 2007 where SC WW was at 9.5M). It created a hugely successful IP, that got a dozen novel adaptations, merchandise, a board game, action figures, model kits and of course a multi-part sequel. It is one of the parts of the RTS golden age in the early 2000s.

It was the right decision by Blizzard to not be content with making WarCraft space and taking the time needed to make a truly unique and amazing experience. But they also got very lucky and stumbled into becoming a pioneer of esports, something that nobody would have predicted at the time. Which is something the game was not designed for. It was a competitive game for sure but never envisioned for professional levels of play.
It is close to impossible that we will ever see such a specific set of events happen again. For StarCrafts massive successs in South Korea there were just too many factors that came together.
While PC Bangs can still make games popular it will likely be a much more an effect of smart marketing. StarCraft just kinda stumbled into that all.

In the span of a few years Blizzard became immensly famous, beloved by fans and also quite rich. They were already able to afford the extended development time of StarCraft, acquired the company Condor and their IP Diablo and named them Blizzard North. The company was on a golden streak pumping out one success bigger than the previous. Which makes it harder to learn the right lessons for your next ventures. Which is where I leave this part of Sales Story as I will also be making another for StarCraft II and it’s success but also much more troubled legacy.

Article A Sales Story | E05 | Xenoblade Chronicles 2

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XENOBLADE CHRONICLES 2 - Its sales and why they are relevant

2007 - The Acquisition
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It's 2007 and the Nintendo Wii is rocking the videogame world with its novelty/gimmick, but also thanks to its huge sales numbers. Among all the news, there is something that somehow goes undernoticed, at least in terms of mass market appeal. Nintendo acquired Monolith Soft. - a Bandai-Nacmo owned JRPG team. The relationship between Kyoto-based company and Takahashi team was already pretty close and positive, thanks to a couple of exclusive products developed by Monolith Soft. for the previous Nintendo home console (specifically, Baten Kaitos and Baten Kaitos Origins), as testified also by the fact that the team was already developing a Nintendo owned IP (as second party), with Disaster - Day of Crisis, a weird action game published in 2008 as Wii esclusive. But Nintendo gola wasn't to transform Monolith Soft. into a westernized action oriented team: on the contrary, the idea was to focus them exaclty on what they were well know for: classic but very ambitious JRPG.

2010 - The Beginning
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Monolith Soft. was responsible for the classic and belowed Xeno-saga, a very deep role-playing-game saga, and Nintendo back in the days wanted to exploit their expertise to fill a possible void in their lineup, with them focusing their know-how on this kind of production. The actual proof for this goal is that in 2010 they published the first episode of a new saga, still keeping the "Xeno" word in the title: Xeboblade Chronicles (previously known as Monado: Beginning of the World), named after Takahashi's team love for the Xeno-saga products developed under Namco ownership (also to commercially exploit the already beloved IP). This game put Monolith Soft. on the map, among Nintendo fans and worldwide critic, with an ambitious open world (even more impressive considering the limit of the Wii hardware, compared to the existing competitor consoles), a deep storytelling and an amazing OST, that lead a critically acclaimed Metacritic score of 92/100. But, at the same time, something went wrong about it, commercially: despite the huge install base, due to a problematic distribution west-side and due to a declining phase of Wii's performances (that affected negatively also bigger games marketing-wise like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword) the game was unable to sell at least 1 million copies and in fact its actual LT sales numbers are still a mistery (not being reported by Nintendo in none of their financial report, exactly because it was unable to break that milestone). Ambitious game, critically acclaimed, but commercially problematic. Was the partnership already in danger? Was the saga already buried among better-selling Nintendo owned IPs?

2015 - Monolith flexes its muscles
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Was Monolith soft. parntership with Nintendo jeopardized? Takahashi: "Hold my beer" - exactly when the misunderstanding around the release of the first game and its tepid mass market response could have generated issues, Nintendo decided to invest in Monolith Soft. programming abilities and funded two projects, both released in 2015, to testify the potential of their hardwares: Xenoblade Chronicles X was a graphical and technical showcase for the Wii U HD capabilities, with an even bigger and completely free-to-explore (even flying!) open world, that for some is still unmatched nowadays, while Xenoblade Chronicles 3D (a remake of the first Wii episode) was chosen to push the portable device revision: only the improved processor and bigger RAM of the New 3DS was able to properly sustain Takahashi's vision for his own game (with the help by Monster Games, being the main tam at Monolith hard at work for Xenoblade X). Unfortunately, despite being technically impressive, due especially to the struggles of the Wii U and the limited install base of the 3DS hardware revision, none of these projects were able to cross that (in)famous million mark.

2017 - Time to shine!
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January 2017, the official Nintendo Switch presentation event. For the first time ever for the franchise, a good portion of the unveil of a brand new Nintendo hardware features a good spot light for Monolith Soft. efforts. Among the games presented, there is also Xenoblade Chronicles 2, new episode of the franchise, planned for the end of the year. The game actually launched in December of the same year, as planned and its pace in terms of sales is on another level. Within the end of the year (so in just three weeks) it crosses the million mark (1.06 million distributed worldwide), beating what its predecessors weren't able to reach in a "life-time" time lapse. Even better: the game continues to sell in a steady way (something not so common among JRPG) and its official numbers at the end of 2020 are around 2,17 millions copies distributed worldwide. Now, since then 1 year and a half has passed and from InstallBase own experts, this number will surely increased when, in 1/2 months from today, we will get access to CESA White Paper 2022, with updated numbers at the end of 2021. What we can anticipate now is that, in any case, the game didn't stop selling; on the contrary! In 2021 at retail in the Japanese market (official numbers tracked MediaCreate agency) it sold another 30k copies; it ranked 27th in the eshop digital chart for the first half on that year, in that market; it has been capable almost every week of this year 2022 to stay within the top 50 of the most downloaded game on the Japanese eshop; it was able to chart in the Famitsu retail week 23 chart, with another 1k copies sold physically. With it being within the voucher program (a deal particularly good for the Japanese market) and with its protagonist Pyra/Mythra added to the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate roster, its popularity even increased somehow and (even without giving a proper estimate) it's pretty safe to imagine that its LtD global copies shipped worldwide are even significantly higher than the official 2020 figures.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 success: why?!
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Many are the reasons behind this explosion in success, compared to previous entries. Opinions can vary, so we are not going ahead to make a chart, but simply listing different topics that as a matter of fact helped the game is gaining market share/mind share among the mass market, improving Xenoblade brand awareness.
1) The Switch-effect: it is clear how popular the Switch is, and how massive its software sales are, even compared to the most succesfull Nintendo console of the past. So, for Xenoblade 2 being available on the Switch was a competitive advantage compared to Xenoblade 1 (released on the Wii, a very sucessfull console but during its declining phase), Xenoblade X (available as a Wii U exclusive, the least appealing Nintendo console ever, for the mass market) and Xenoblade 3D (available only on the hardware upgrade of the 3DS).
2) Fully promoted: unlike Xenoblade 1 (the only game of this group that could have had the potential of selling well) that was badly promoted (it was not present during that year E3 presentation, but unveiled right after, with just a simple "PR", separated by the main event; it was not distributed by NoA as a total market product for the NA market), Xenoblade 2 was in the center of the spotlight of the most important Nintendo Switch presentation ever (the very first one in January 2017, where they actually presented the console, the price, the launch-window lineup and so on), getting TONS of attention from everyone; it was also distributed as one of the main exclusives for the Holiday period (December 2017), as one of the main selling point of the console, during its first Holiday spending time.
3) Anime-style at its best/worst: this topic has been discussed to death, with many people complaining againts it and its oversexualized approach; this is not the right place where to discuss it, but for the blade design many anime/manga Japanese artists have been involved (the most famous one being Nomura, probably) and the result has been a rich cast of side-characters, alongside the main protagonists of course; this has generated tons of fan made activities spread all over the social media channels (Twitter and so on) that contributed to some sort of viral marketing campaign, that helped in increasing mind share about the product itself. The "anime-manga" style, in the meantime, found a very solid resonance on a global scale, with projects like Persona 5 (2016; Atlus-Sega; more than 5 milllions sold with the "P5R" revised version), Nier Automata (2017; Square-Enix; 6.5 millions), Fire Emblem Three Houses (2019; Nintendo; 3.4 millions at the end of 2020), all the best selling episodes in their franchise history.
4) Gatcha-like system: another mixed topic, considering how for many this unlocking-system was tedious at best, damaging at worst, but it is possible/likely that for the Japanese market at least this somehow helped in generating buzz around the product, especially among content creators
5) Content and promotional continued support by Monolith Soft. and Nintendo: Xenoblade life cycle has been sustained in a very strong way by the developers, thanks to a very meaty post launch support; new heroes, new quests, even an entire new story arch (so meaningful that has been also distributed separately, on cart, as a standalone game). This surely helped the game legs in the mid-long term, alongside Nintendo's decision to continue supporting the Voucher program in both EU and Japan markets; in Japan especially, this digital promotion program is very valuable for pricy games like Xenoblade 2 is in that country (for example, it will be soon possible to buy Xenoblade 2 and Xenoblade 3 together for ¥9.980 instead of ¥17.556, in Japan).
6) Smash Bros effect: among Nintendo continue support to the game and the franchise there is also the decision to include both Pyra/Mythra (protagonists of Xenoblade 2) as playable characters in one of their most successfull games ever (28,17 million at March 2022), dedicating also two still-to-be-released amiibo to them. A very good way of increasing the visibility of the cast and consequently of the franchise (it is well-known for example how Sakurai love for the Fire Emblem franchise and its consequent inclusion "en masse" in his fighting games helped the SRPG brand in increasing its awareness among the mass market)

Of course, it being a very good, solid, long, and rich game helped too! (83% on Metacritic)

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 success: consequences
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Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has been a success, this is obvious. But what does it imply for Monolith Soft and the Xenoblade franchise? Well, surely good things. We have already seen at least a couple of actual facts, that can testify the positive effect of Xeno2 sales.
1) Increased brand awareness for the Xenoblade brand: this is easy to check. In 2020 Nintendo published Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition; this was the third version of the original first episode of the series, after the Wii version and the N3DS one (not counting the downloadable Wii version on the Wii U eShop). Despite it being a "remaster" (not a full remake, at least) of an old game, already sold in many occasions, it was able to achieve a significant market response: at March 31st, 2021 its updated number of distributed copies worldwide was 1.52 millions, way better than any previous iteration of this episode. Its legs slowed down, unlike Xenoblade 2, but the result was already more than satisfying, cementing Xenoblade as a "million seller" franchise among Nintendo IPs portfolio
2) Increased investments into Monolith Soft team by Nintendo: this is undoubtedly a matter of fact; since 2017 (the year when Xenoblade 2 was released) the number of Monolith Soft staff continue to increase; the official number of employees was 150 and, at the end of 2021 it was up to 273. For a company like Nintendo, usually averse to acquisition and unctontrolled increase in internal work force, surely Monolith Soft has been a nice exception. More employees mean the ability to improve their output, or keeping it constant despite the general increase in developing/programming leadtimes, and testifies Nintendo HQ confidence in Takahashi's team efforts

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 - The future (connected?)
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Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is almost here: it is clear how its sales potential changed compared to the beginning of this gen, thanks to all the reasons listed and the clear commercial success of Xenoblade 2. The goal? 3 millions mark, minimum.
Unlike 2010, after the struggles of Xenoblade 1 on the market and 2015, when the fate of such "smaller" sellers could have seen them disappear due to Nintendo general struggles during the Wii U - late 3DS era, nowadays it seems clear that Xenoblade is among those series among Nintendo IP portfolio that can be seen as pillars of their software offer (or at least a Monolith Soft. JRPG ambitious project, if they will decide to drop the franchise and try the path of new IP: but if Xenoblade 3 will push the brand into the 3 millions mark territory, it will be hard for them to not develop ALSO a new Xenoblade game, for the next Nintendo console!)

XENOBLADE SERIES: its sales so far
  • Xenoblade Chronicles 2: 2.17 mil (31/12/2020)
  • Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition: 1.52 mil (31/03/2021)
  • Xenoblade Chronicles: < 1 mil
  • Xenoblade Chronicles 3D: < 1 mil
  • Xenoblade Chronicles X: < 1 mil

XENOBLADE CHRONICLES 2: its legs
  • December2017 - 1.06m
  • March 2018 - 1.31m (+250k)
  • June 2018 - 1.42m (+110k)
  • September 2018 - 1.53m (+110k)
  • December 2018 - 1.65m (+120k)
  • March2019 - 1.73m (+80k)
  • December 2019 - 1.92m (+190k in 9 months)
  • June 2020 - 2.05m (+130k in 6 months)
  • December 2020 - 2.17m (+120k in 6 months)

Article A Sales Story | E04 | Fire Emblem: Awakening

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"The Emblem series isn't making the numbers, so this is going to be the last one."

Looking at the sales numbers and popularity of the Fire Emblem series today, it might be hard to believe the series was on the verge of death a little over ten years ago. The latest release, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, has 3.4 million total sales as of December 2020. During the Game Awards of 2019 there was a 100% fan-voted award where users would decide their favorite game of the year out of 30 selected titles in a competitive vote; Fire Emblem: Three Houses was the winner of the first Player's Voice award. In 2021 around 50,000 Japanese citizens voted for their favorite TV videogame software throughout the years, Fire Emblem: Three Houses receiving an impressive 23rd place of the top 100 games revealed. Clearly, across the world there is appeal and a sizable following for Fire Emblem games currently. Looking back there’s one factor that altered the course of this franchise into its growing popularity- and its name is Fire Emblem Awakening.

Context

With the GameCube, the Fire Emblem series had made its triumphant return to home consoles after three GBA titles. Path of Radiance had required more time and money to develop compared to the portable games, and unfortunately hadn’t sold better despite the increased cost. It sold 100,357 copies in its first week in Japan. That game would receive a sequel Radiant Dawn which was developed for Wii hardware instead. When producing a sequel game, one would assume that development and production cost would be reduced due to returning characters, reusing assets, maps and mechanics, etc. However developing for the Wii had required the developers at Intelligent Systems to scale up, doubling its staff, just to produce the title. Despite the increased effort Radiant Dawn released on Wii to first week sales of 73,337 in Japan.

The next two Fire Emblem games had smaller budgets and moved back to portable systems, with Fire Emblems 11 and 12 being Shadow Dragon and New Mystery of the Emblem. These were remakes of the 1st and 3rd FE games, with the original Mystery of the Emblem being the bestselling FE of the franchise before the series was localized. These remakes were also released on the Nintendo DS, a gaming system flying off the shelves worldwide. Despite these boons, Japan’s first week sales of both titles was 147,704 for Shadow Dragon and 147,045 for New Mystery of the Emblem. Overseas Nintendo didn’t bother translating the 12th FE game, New Mystery of the Emblem.

After seeing the sales trend of the recent FE games Shinji Hatano, the former head of Nintendo’s sales department, gave the development staff at Intelligent Systems his verdict. "The Emblem series isn't making the numbers, so this is going to be the last one."

If the thirteenth title of the Fire Emblem franchise did not sell at least 250,000 units, the series would come to an end.

Awakening

With their backs against the wall, the developers at Intelligent Systems discussed at length various ideas of what a final Fire Emblem should be. When looking at the number of copies sold for the Radiant FEs and the recent DS titles, they all sold similarly despite being on different systems with very different budgets. From this, one can concur that IS was able to capture and sell to the core FE fanbase who bought and supported each title in the series. But what could the developers do to improve Fire Emblem's selling power and capture a new, larger audience?

One direction was to move away from the old look of Fire Emblem, an example shared by staff was to set the next FE on Mars instead of being in medieval times. Moving away from the look of Fire Emblem games of the past also could be interpreted as utilizing an art direction for this final title that separated it from its predecessors and had the potential to bring in a new audience to Fire Emblem. The team at IS had a difficult time deciding what road to take but ultimately the idea that landed was to make a culmination of the series’ best features. After all, if this was the very last Fire Emblem game, the developers wanted to include their favorite features from the series’ long history.

Some notable inclusions and the Fire Emblem game its from:
  • Casual Mode (where there is no permanent death of units) -FE12
  • Character Creation -FE12
  • Marriage and Child Units -FE4
  • Skill System -FE4
  • Traversable world map -FE2
  • Multiple promotion options -FE2
  • Support conversations -FE6
  • Weapon forging system -FE9

Wanting to have a fresh start to the franchise, the team went with Awakening as the name. To have Awakening’s art direction be distinct from previous Fire Emblem titles the staff brought Toshiyuki Kusakihara as art director and Kozaki Yusuke in as character designer and illustrator, two people who had little to no involvement with Fire Emblem before Awakening. Additionally, there was a stronger focus on the characters in Fire Emblem Awakening through the new Pair Up mechanic easily forming bonds between units with quirkier personalities.

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By combining beloved strategic features from past games which would satisfy longtime FE fans with a new, more contemporary art style with endearing characters that should capture a wider audience's interest into the Fire Emblem series, the developers at IS laid every chip on the table- bet everything and used all they had- to make Awakening.

Reception, Release, and Legacy

Fire Emblem Awakening was announced in September at Nintendo's 2011 3DS Conference with the first trailer shown at Tokyo Game Show that year.



The critical reception to Awakening was filled with high praise. Many critics were grateful for the inclusion of Casual Mode which lowered the entry bar of difficulty, while others commended the game for its story and characters. Overall, the title was recognized for its high production values while retaining strategic challenges and accommodations for people new to strategy games. Awakening is still the highest rated Fire Emblem title on Metacritic with a 92 metascore.

When the game released in April of 2012 in Japan the initial sale figures were staggering- Awakening was the fastest selling Fire Emblem in the series history, selling 81% of its initial shipment. With first week sales of 242k units it was fair to say the development team had ensured that the Fire Emblem series would not be canceled. Sales numbers overseas matched the fervor in Japan for Fire Emblem Awakening. In North America the game sold 180,000 units in the first month, which was the best first month sales for the franchise in NA.
As of December of 2020 Fire Emblem Awakening has reached total sale numbers of 2.33 million units, the first title in the series to surpass 1 million units sold.
The success of the game led to a revival of interest in the series and green-lit two games immediately; Awakening's successor game, Fire Emblem Fates, and an enhanced remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden, eventually being named Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. Additionally when DeNA and Nintendo partnered to create mobile games, Fire Emblem was chosen as the 2nd Nintendo property to be represented on mobile. Fire Emblem Heroes is the top-grossing mobile gaming title owned by Nintendo, generating close to $1 billion in revenue in 5 years since launch.

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To restate the beginning statement, it can be difficult to believe that in 2010 this franchise could have been shelved for good due to low sales numbers.

The work Intelligent Systems put into Awakening was the turning point of the series, by taking a risk through changing the art direction of Fire Emblem and placing their focus on the characters, as well as providing easier options to play the game, the bar of entry was lowered significantly and the scope of consumers increased as well. The success of Awakening may have saved its franchise’s future, but it also provided an example of a SRPG that sold well in Japan and overseas. Without Fire Emblem Awakening and future FE games sparking consumer interest in the genre, new SRPG titles like Team Asano’s Triangle Strategy and Square Enix’s The Diofield Chronicle may not have been greenlit for production. As videogames get more expensive to develop it makes logical sense for larger publishers to create fewer titles that appeal to the widest variety of people, like funding an open world RPG instead of a game from a less popular genre.
The fact that Fire Emblem Awakening was a game so successful that it revitalized not only its franchise but a dying genre makes its Sales Story one to be remembered.

If you're still interested in learning more about Fire Emblem Awakening, I would recommend reading through the Iwata Asks for FE Awakening and Fates found here. The First Week numbers used in the Context Section was sourced from the Game Data Library, linked below as well. A table organizing the sale figures of all the Fire Emblem titles is in the fourth link, and a comment and link below that about FE's history:
There's a fantastic summary of the Fire Emblem series history by StardustTraveler just a few posts below this one (Post #104 of the thread). Highly recommend those who are curious about the FE franchise to read through it, Fire Emblem has quite an interesting past and this Sales Story only focused on a small piece of it!

How much units will the Switch end up selling in Japan ?

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  • 40m+

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