After several years of teasers and high-profile investments, this month’s Summer Game Fest brought fans a first look at Stormgate: a free-to-play real-time strategy (RTS) game from Frost Giant Studios. Plenty of Stormgate‘s details – including a wild, futuristic future filled with mechs and demons – are eye-catching, but the real promise lies in Frost Giant Studios’ impressive history: some of the biggest developers on Blizzard Entertainment‘s RTS megahit StarCraft 2 have gathered under one roof to bring Stormgate to life.
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Leading this zerg rush of ex-Blizzard developers is Frost Giant CEO and co-founder Tim Morten, who was the production director for StarCraft 2. Speaking to NME, Morten says that although the team at Frost Giant “firmly believe that the RTS genre’s best days are ahead,” it knows Blizzard’s formula – games that balance large-scale macro decisions with smaller micromanagement – is “timeless”.
“Fans of the genre will attest that there’s nothing else quite like it in gaming,” says Morten, who described Stormgate as feeling like “an evolution of Blizzard RTS games” back in 2021. This is a design approach Morten partly attributes to the game’s SnowPlay engine, which he says will offer the “best-in-class pathfinding for hundreds of units”, but there are bigger changes for the genre afoot.
“We also see opportunities for innovation by making RTS more social and more approachable. Real-time strategy games have been largely solitary experiences – you’re typically exploring the story on your own, or locked in 1v1 competition against an opponent,” which Morten says “can be nerve-wracking and a negative experience – getting steamrolled could easily turn someone off from wanting to play the game ever again!”
Morten adds that “team games and cooperative modes like StarCraft 2‘s popular co-op Commanders mode have addressed that to some degree,” but Frost Giant thinks “there’s a lot more room for evolution” in that department.
“For one, we’re looking for ways to make our story missions playable both solo and cooperatively. We’re also very excited about our open-ended three-player vs. AI mode. This mode will feature a variety of playable leader characters, meta progression, and ways for players to customize their armies and discover powerful synergies to take on even more challenging AI opponents […] we’re also working on lowering the skill floor for our game by providing easier ways to take certain actions, such as building our equivalent of a barracks.”
On the topic of making Stormgate easier to learn, Morten compares the approach to manual versus automatic cars: “Automatic is simpler, requires less attention from the driver, and for most people works just fine. Manual gives you more control and greater performance, which is optimal for competitive drivers looking to squeeze out every ounce of performance. Similarly, we’ll have simpler ways to perform certain commands, but you can also do things the old way if that would lead to a more precise or optimal result.”
Making Stormgate more approachable doesn’t just shake the reputation for mountainous learning curves that games like StarCraft 2 have – Morten says that it addresses the reason RTS games haven’t kept up with the public popularity of games like Fortnite and League Of Legends.
“There was never an actual decline [in RTS player numbers], there was just a massive increase in popularity for other genres. What the genre has lacked, compared to FPS, MOBA, and battle royale [genres], is a modern free-to-play game with strong social features that can reach an even greater community. We believe that Stormgate can be that game, that can break down the barriers that have kept some players from discovering the fun of RTS, and bring the RTS genre back into the spotlight where we believe it belongs.”
Although StarCraft 2 may have been the biggest inspiration for Stormgate‘s action, Morten reveals that in terms of the setting – which he summarises as “epic conflicts with kickass mechs fighting space demons” – Frost Giant has drawn from a much wider pool of influence for the game’s setting.
“We play pretty much every RTS out there, and also draw inspiration from other game genres and media. When we were thinking of the setting for our game, we explored all kinds of ideas, from superheroes, to westerns, to sci-fi and fantasy. We were particularly inspired by what the Marvel Cinematic Universe was able to create–that world supports all kinds of stories and characters, so we crafted a science-fantasy world where our designers and writers can have the creative freedom to explore all kinds of unit designs and stories without feeling constrained.”
Morten adds that for many of the developers at Frost Giant, Stormgate is their first opportunity to “work from a clean slate” with a new IP. “We’ve been honoured to work in wonderful worlds and game universes like Starcraft’s Koprulu Sector and Warcraft’s Azeroth, but now we’re building something from scratch and exploring ideas that we could never do within those previous games. That’s really exciting!”
Morten and the team at Frost Giant aren’t the only people excited by Stormgate. The studio has already raised £18.4million in funding, with giants like Riot Games (the developer behind League Of Legends and Valorant) and PUBG publisher Kakao Games chipping in. Morten says these investors believe Stormgate can “bring new players to the RTS genre”, and on a fitting note, explains.
“For many of us, it’s more than just the fun of playing RTS that drew us to this genre–it’s also the community. Many members of the Frost Giant team came from the RTS player community before they were developers, whether that’s as modders or part of the esports scene. Many of us have been connected to the pro players, casters, esports organizers, and players in the RTS community for more than a decade, some for our entire professional careers, and we are here to make something for them to enjoy and that could bring even more of us together for years to come.”
Stormgate is set to begin testing in 2023, and sign-ups are available here.