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  • StarCraft Fan Craft:Game Mods, Ownership, and Totally Incomplete Conversions
  • Derek Johnson

StarCraft—a real-time strategy game in which players command one of three space-faring races in a struggle to secure natural resources, develop technological infrastructure, build military units, and achieve martial victory over the competition—has proven to be one of the greatest video game success stories of all time. Though the game was released in March 1998, publisher Blizzard Entertainment continues to distribute this PC software, and despite the hardware and software advances of the last decade, hit-driven mass retailers in the United States like Best Buy still stock this relatively ancient game. According to Blizzard, StarCraft sold more than 1.5 million copies to become the best-selling PC game of 1998 and has since sold 8 million more worldwide, thanks largely to phenomenal success in South Korea ("10 Years"). In 2006 StarCraft remained the best-selling game in South Korea, having sold 3.5 million copies. Annually, between 600,000 and 700,000 South Koreans attend professional StarCraft tournaments where celebrity players are sponsored by corporate giants like Samsung (Cho). In addition to commercial success and cultural impact, the game won critical acclaim. In 2007 Edge Magazine declared StarCraft the thirty-seventh "greatest game of all time," while Game Pro called it the nineteenth "most important," and GameSpot UK deemed it in 2003 "The Standard by Which All Real Time Strategy Games Are Judged" (Edge Staff; Boba Fatt; GameSpot). This commercial, critical, and cultural success continued with the Brood War expansion pack in 1998 and is expected to extend to StarCraft 2 in 2009. In a market dependent on built-in obsolescence and newness, StarCraft perseveres.

A contributing factor to that longevity has been a continual stream of user-generated content to keep the game fresh. The StarCraft software included a Campaign Editor that allowed players to design their own maps, tweak the properties of buildable units, and program scenarios for gameplay. In addition to these simpler modifications (or "mods"), players expanded the game in more ambitious projects called "total conversions" (TCs), in which the StarCraft engine (the code underneath surface-level graphics) would be put to entirely different purposes. The Terran, Protoss, and Zerg races of the original game could be tweaked but also replaced entirely in total conversions. As Hector Postigo argues, fan-programmed works contribute to a "content pool" that extends the life of games by prolonging the time they remain "a subject of active involvement with the consumer base" ("Of Mods" 302). StarCraft has prospered for a decade thanks in part to fan mods.

Yet while mods fed the success of StarCraft, many of these projects can ultimately be considered failures themselves. In particular, most of the total conversions of the late 1990s, while helping to prolong the cultural relevance of StarCraft, struggled to realize the goals of fan-programmers and remained incomplete into the twenty-first century. Fan-programmers abandoned once-promising projects like Star Wars: Open Rebellion (which sought to transform the default StarCraft races into Rebel and Imperial armies from the Star Wars films), despite several years of development work. Similar TCs like StarCraft to Star Trek, Aliens vs. Predator: Retribution, Neo Tech, and Yoshicraft that once had significant online followings in their attempts to put the StarCraft engine to new uses have disappeared from the Internet. This failure is evinced by descriptions of these projects on the Web site Real Time Strategic Carnage: "Unfortunately, it never went anywhere"; "Unfortunately development of this mod seems to have dried up and all its old links have long since expired"; "[T]his mod jumped ship to become a WarCraft III TC"; and so on (Fleay). Even Stuart Ng, creator of the highly regarded Gundam Century, eventually surrendered. Though he maintains a Web site to "chronicle the remains" of the project, the developer [End Page 50] explains that his TC was "never completed due to an inability to create what I had initially intended game design wise, as well as a lack of time" (Ng). While TCs helped to sustain interest in StarCraft, they did not individually share its longevity.

This essay argues that in addition to the...


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