With its sleek sci-fi/fantasy aesthetic, monstrous enemies, and mech-clad heroes, you’d be forgiven for mistaking Stormgate for a new Blizzard real-time strategy. And, in a manner of speaking, you’d be right; Stormgate might not be from Blizzard, but it is from some of that company’s brightest minds. These days they’re at Frost Giant, a new studio built from scratch by a collection of ex-Blizzard developers, and they have ambitions of taking some of the best ideas from StarCraft and Warcraft to the next level.
Among those minds is Tim Morten, the softly spoken former production director of StarCraft 2. Today he’s CEO of Frost Giant, still directing the production of a multi-faceted RTS. Stormgate, he tells me, was born at least partially out of a desire to evolve one of StarCraft 2’s most successful modes: co-op.
Co-op play was an “afterthought” for StarCraft 2. “It really wasn’t something that we expected to resonate as much as it did with players,” says Morten. “But in fact it became the most popular mode in the game after we released it with Legacy of the Void. It’s clear from that, that there was an appetite to play more socially.”
‘Social’ is an important word for Frost Giant, and Stormgate is designed with multiplayer in mind. As you’d expect, there are the classic 1v1 competitive clashes, but these are supported by a tournament system directly built into the game. Forget forums, Twitter, or Discord; you’ll be able to create leagues, teams, friends, and rivalries within Stormgate itself.
But co-op isn’t being considered as a casual mode on the side. It will run through everything, so much so that it feels like the game’s flashship idea. Story-driven campaign missions will be playable with a friend, and three players will be able to take on AI foes in the cooperative ‘3vE’ mode. Even competitive multiplayer will have a co-operative offering via 3v3 team battles.
Beyond competitive and cooperative modes, Stormgate will also feature an in-game editor, which Frost Giant hopes will allow a creative community to thrive as it shares new maps and modes. “Literally every part of the game is meant to provide a more social experience,” says Morten.
While Frost Giant is a brand new company and Stormgate is the studio’s debut, the team already comes pre-equipped with reams of valuable research gathered during their previous projects. Work on StarCraft 2’s co-op mode, for instance, provided Frost Giant with a lot of useful information for building a game geared towards cooperative strategy.
“The learning from the cooperative mode in StarCraft 2 was that players preferred building their own bases and their own armies, versus a shared base and a shared army,” explains Morten. “So we are going down a path where players will get to control all their own game pieces. At the same time, we’re building the missions and we’re also designing the heroes for cooperative mode in such a way that it is not an isolated experience. You’re not off in one corner playing one experience, while somebody’s off in another corner playing their own experience.”
Working alongside Morten is Tim Campbell, president of Frost Giant and Stormgate’s game director. Having previously worked on Warcraft 3, he knows a thing or two about crafting a good strategy game. Making that work across two or three armies playing in tandem, though, is an ongoing process.
“We’ve tried to look for opportunities throughout the tech tree, throughout our ability design, throughout the gameplay and the objectives, for closer cooperation,” he explains. “We’re doing a lot of iteration and experimentation on the gameplay right now.”
With all this talk of social play, it may be easy to assume Stormgate is a casual RTS. And you’d be right, to a small extent. Frost Giant wants everyone, regardless of skill level, to find fun in Stormgate.
“We’re really trying to make this core experience that we all know and love about traditional RTS, and find a way to open it up for more people to be able to enjoy,” says Campbell. “We’re offering ways for players to be able to bring their friends in, play together, have this great, positive social experience, regardless of whether they’re at different skill levels, and just try to support that end throughout our game experience .”
Stormgate – Cinematic Trailer Screenshots
Despite that, Campbell says we can expect all of the traditional RTS elements that genre die-hards demand. “From day one it’s been important to us that we’re developing a core RTS experience,” he says. That means resource gathering, base building, troop productions, upgrade trees, and learning how to do all that in tandem.
“But that said, we think that there’s a lot of room for innovation within this space,” Campbell continues. “[We’re] looking at how we design the abilities and how we design the units, and do so in a way that is conducive to team play. We think it has yielded some really great opportunities for it to feel fresh for players.”
Frost Giant’s aspirations of making Stormgate a game for all skill levels means that aspiring esports athletes won’t be ignored. “There is an audience who is very passionate about high skill play, and so 1v1 competitive is very much the mode [where] we put a tremendous amount of effort into balance,” Morten assures.
Despite Frost Giant’s plans for all skill levels, there’s no escaping the fact that RTS is one of the most intimidating genres in the entire video games space. For many, curiosity alone isn’t enough to justify the price tag. But Morten and Campbell have already put plans in place to circumnavigate that barrier: Stormgate will be free-to-play. No firm decisions have been on how it will be monetized, but Stormgate will feature a range of free and paid-for content. This approach has allowed Frost Giant to think differently about how it will approach the post-apocalypse storyline that powers the campaign.
“We want to be able to be sharing stories in this game world for years and years and years to come,” says Campbell. “So, in addition to the stuff that we’re building for launch, we already have the next five years of story arcs already mapped out and ready to go as we move onto them.” It seems as if the likes of Destiny and Fortnite have certainly changed the way developers are thinking about storytelling, regardless of genre.
“We had a chance late in StarCraft 2’s development to experiment with delivering content in smaller bites with the Nova Covert Ops campaign,” Morten explains. “That really did resonate with players, enabled us to tell a little bit of a more personal story in that case. But it allowed us to tell a story over time, and that’s something that we’re really excited to take to the next level with what we’re doing with Stormgate.”
That story begins with the newly-assembled shield that can be seen in Stormgate’s first cinematic trailer, which was revealed at the Summer Games Fest Showcase. “[The shield] has a constellation of locations on it,” reveals Campbell. “It’s effectively a keystone for a map that is used by one of the factions in the game to identify locations that they have to go to retrieve other relics that have been hidden for thousands of years. That actually becomes mission objectives for you part way through the campaign. You’ll go on those missions to retrieve those relics.”
That cinematic trailer may be short, but it communicates a lot. This is an RTS that values world building and story. That hopefully means a campaign with a narrative backbone, something that paved the way for StarCraft 2’s incredibly experimental approach to mission design. Producing a campaign built for co-op only opens up more interesting opportunities in that area, and I hope Stormgate will remind us all that while the RTS genre’s legacy has been esports, its most exciting innovations were found when developers created new ways to challenge us in campaigns.
Warcraft 3 introduced heroes, and StarCraft 2 pushed concept missions to new heights. Will Stormgate add another unforgettable piece of RTS design to that list? We’ll find out when Frost Giant has gathered all of its minerals and the open beta arrives in 2023.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.