Meet the Swedish waiter who built a better 'StarCraft'
Most nights, Bjorn Lindgren works as a waiter in Sweden. He takes orders and carries plates, navigating a maze of chairs and tables to bring "beer to unhappy people," as he puts it.
For the last two years, Lindgren has also been pouring himself into a side project, along with the help of a few people he only knows from the Internet. It doesn't pay, but that's alright. Lindgren just wants to make his favorite computer game better, with something called a mod—basically a reworking of a game's code.
Then one night in mid-January, he staggers home exhausted at the end of his shift. It's 4am when his friend calls.
“Dude, TotalBiscuit is streaming your mod! INnoVation is playing it!”
That's when everything changes.
Lindgren was studying to to be an elementary school teacher when he first played StarCraft 2 in late 2011. Made by developer Blizzard, the game was the latest incarnation of StarCraft. The first in the series, released nearly 14 years ago, is widely considered a definitive cornerstone of the real-time strategy genre: easy to pick up but also elegantly, immeasurably complex.
As StarCraft 2 lead producer Chris Sigaty has observed, the game was “the truly unmasterable game in some sense”—a characteristic that makes it particularly well-suited to competitive gaming. StarCraft did more than help shape a genre; it took over esports on an unprecedented level.
In South Korea, StarCraft: Brood War—an expansion pack to the original—reached new heights of popularity entirely, leading to nationally televised broadcasts of major tournaments. The best StarCraft pro gamers harvested both mainstream adulation and six-figure salaries, celebrities comparable to the most famous athletes or movie stars elsewhere in the world.
StarCraft and Brood War naturally left big shoes to fill. Lindgren, like many others before him, found StarCraft 2 lacking. He missed the deeper focus on positional play and map control and the need for pitch-perfect micromanagement.
Lindberg only held a minimal grasp of computers at the time. “I know how to browse the Internet," he told the Daily Dot. "But I know nothing else, nothing about Facebook or anything all cool kids do." But he still wanted to improve the sequel to his favorite game. So Lindgren began teaching himself how to use the StarCraft 2 editor, a set of development tools Blizzard provided which has allowed fans to design everything from passing diversions like Fatty Fight, where players use comically rotund aliens to fight one another, to sprawling productions like the MMO-inspired Starcraft Universe.
He proved a natural with the editor, and soon a game began taking form. He called it Starbow. It wasn’t a complete reimagining of the Starcraft 2 universe. Instead, it married the best of both StarCraft 2 and Brood War, reintroducing ideas and units from the latter into the sequel’s sleeker engine. For example, Lindgren appropriated Brood War’s movement philosophy for Starbow: Units are kept spread out, forcing players to be aware of their presence. He also made resources scarcer, forcing players to maintain hyper-awareness of their units and to spread across the map in their rush to achieve economic superiority.
The project was in "super-early alpha” when Lindgren released it to public scrutiny on Jan. 21, 2012. Lindgren's venue for the release was Team Liquid, an influential esports news site which sees more than 700,000 viewers a day. Starbow immediately drew attention and a handful of curious followers. Even in the earliest stages of development, the mod represented a promise—a chance to see what many regard as one of Blizzard’s best multiplayer games brought back to life in a more contemporary form. Spurred by the positive reception, Lindgren pushed on.
The first half-year was spent in experimentation. Lindgren, who explained he “was not so serious” during this interval, toyed with the limits of the editor, making new units and spells along the way. But as Starbow grew and others, armed with fresh nuances and ideas for the project, became involved, the development process became more intense and streamlined. The nascent team soon found itself entangled in deep discussions about design and balance.
"The two-year long process of development has mostly been us trying a ton of units," Lindgren said. "Will the game be more fun if Blink Stalkers replace Dragoons? How will that affect balance? Lots of endless theoretical discussions."
"The more I worked on the project, the more I realized how much I had to learn! Especially about Brood War, game design, what makes a game fun, why is this unit more fun to play with than that unit? And lots of other things. It was like as if I threw myself into a car, and needed to learn how to drive it while I was driving."
Lindgren confessed that it often felt as if the game lacked direction. Starbow's then-small player pool made it difficult to accurately determine what worked and what didn't. Moments of self-doubt abounded too: How would the team know if their work was any good?
Then, in the last half of 2013, everything began coming together.
"We added a ton of Brood War balance into it," Lindgren said.
"Exact values from Brood War. Because we knew that would kinda work, since that balance worked in BW. Then we looked at areas of the gameplay to improve and what StarCraft 2 units or new units could fit into that context. And we tried even more units! What fits? What does not?"
But nothing prepared Lindgren or his team for what would happen in 2014. Though Starbow's thread on Team Liquid has been viewed more than 500,000 times, the mod’s popularity suddenly skyrocketed when esports mega-personality and YouTube streamer TotalBiscuit broadcast his game.
If you're not a gamer or much into online gaming culture, you've probably never heard of TotalBiscuit. But he has a tremendous fan following, with a YouTube subscriber base of more than 1 million people. The guy playing in the broadcast was no slouch either—Lee "INnoVation" Shin Hyung is a well-known Korean pro StarCraft player who has earned over $100,000 in prizes over his career.
Hence the excited 4am phone call from Lindgren's friend.
"l never expected this," Lindgren said. "I thought: Maybe, 100 people would like it and play it?"
A few days later, someone named Julia Hiltscher contacted him. Hiltscher is the vice director of community management for the Electronic Sports League (ESL), one of the the oldest and largest international esports organizations in the world. It has more than 2.6 million registered members and runs, among other things, the international Starcraft 2 tournament series Intel Extreme Masters. ESL was interested in hosting a Starbow tournament, Hiltscher explained.
"I said, 'yeah!'" Lindgren recalled.
Hiltscher said Starbow first came to her attention after seeing so many of ESL's developers playing it. But soon she was reading about the game on Web communities too, like Reddit's r/starcraft and the ESL's own forums.
"So, I stayed longer one night and had it explained to me by the devs and played it a little bit with them," she said.
"When I saw that it was very interesting for both [StarCraft 2] and Brood War players and that our community was craving for a ladder for this, I started the cup series and it took is only 24 hours to kick it off."
The community that brought the game to Hiltscher also helped in making the tournament a success, working with her to draft a rule set. Soon 120-odd people signed up as players, with 20 applying to work as commenters. When it was over, the event had brought in 23,000 viewers. That's a pittance compared to the numbers enjoyed by major tournaments, but certainly more than anything Lindgren expected. More importantly, ESL's involvement is indicative of just how much of a success story Starbow has become.
Despite the flurry of attention, Lindgren remains modest. When asked if he thinks Starbow might become the next Defense of the Ancients, a Warcraft 2 mod which later transitioned into one of the world's biggest competitive games, Lindgren was quick to point out that DotA, unlike Starbow, created an entirely new genre.
"I kinda feel like I have only taken StarCraft, rearranged the pieces, and made it into another version of the same game," Lindgren said. "It's basically the same type of game, only with modifications."
What will come next for Starbow? Good things, most likely. If you own the StarCraft 2 Starter Edition, the free-to-play version of StarCraft 2 which limited features, you can now able to access the Arcade, a repository for custom games like Starbow, for free. That should help increase Starbow's visibility.
And Lindgren and his team aren’t done with Starbow yet. It's easy to forget that Lindgren’s two-year magnum opus is still in beta. That means it's still growing and still being molded to better fit the demands of both its creators and its growing fanbase.
Whether this sudden explosion of popularity will lead Starbow to a place in the annals of competitive gaming history or merely inscribe it in the footnotes of StarCraft 2 is still unknown. Esports itself, rapidly changing and constantly hungry for the next big thing, is a mercurial mistress. But whatever the case, Starbow’s moment in the sun is a glorious reminder that sometimes, incredible things can happen to anyone.