Nobody expects (or expected) the StarCraft inquisition. At the 1996’s E3 game conference, the game’s alpha version has been irreverently hailed as „orcs in space” and lost the players’ hearts to much better (seemingly) Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3, StarCraft’s main rival in the space race. It was just a sham – we don’t need to tell anybody which one of these games came on top, after all. Let’s take a look and analyze the first title of the iconic RTS series. Before we dig into the music, though – a brief history lesson. We need the contexts!

Let’s take a look and analyze the first title of the iconic RTS series.

Going back to February of 1998, it had already been a year since Total Annihilation’s premiere (and according to Metacritic’s 86%, 250 000 copies sold and Jeremy Soule’s music, you really couldn’t have gone wrong here). One year and a half before that, Command & Conquer: Red Alert came out, musically – a love letter to acid techno, and generally – still one of the best instalments in the series. Now Blizzard, having already done the first and amazing second WarCraft games, is releasing a strategy game, which has been pitifully deemed as „orcs in space”. Its rival, the aforementioned Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3, much to anybody’s surprise years later, turned out to be one of StarCraft’s greatest benefactors. When it was discovered that the material shown on E3 was pre-rendered and directed before, there wasn’t much to do on the release day. Dominion turned out to be… well, a disaster. But if not for its isometric view, StarCraft would have never become what millions of fans all over the world fell in love with.

The history of the ground-breaking game is as interesting as the players’ expectation rollercoaster anticipating the release. This is what Samwise Didier, Blizzard’s art director, says about the process of making StarCraft: “There wasn’t a lot of thought process,” […] “It was more of ‘Let’s put this in, and boom. That’s our Siege Tank. That’s our Battlecruiser.’ There was no going back, no ‘Hey, can we redo this?’ There was no desire for that. It was cool, just as it was.” Why am I writing about all of this? Because nobody at Blizzard Entertainment ever expected that StarCraft would define one of the most popular pastimes of contemporary gamers. And if nobody expected such overwhelming success – neither did the composers, probably.

The musketeers were three: Glenn Stafford (also responsible for sound design), Jason Hayes and Derek Duke. The official soundtrack release spoils us with nine battle themes in total – three for every race (Terran, Zerg and Protoss). Because it’s those tracks that shelter the esport formula, this is what we are going to focus on. Also important for us will be three lobby tracks and after-match tracks. Needless to say, we also are going to assume that professional gamers haven’t at all muted in-game music.

There are so many things going on, and such complex structure of the piece, combined with such original sound palette results in a very heavily engaging.

The iconic first Terran theme (who doesn’t know it?) introduces us to up until now unknown musical territory. We’ve got quite a mix here going on: effects-drenched country guitar preset, firm and heavy, perhaps even metal drum beat, space disco strings, creative use of human voice, cross-stick drumming technique which brings bossa nova to mind (1:39), chiptune (4:03)… There are so many things going on, and such complex structure of the piece, combined with such original sound palette results in a very heavily engaging (narrative-speaking) theme. It’s worth to notice two things. One is the tempo of the piece: 135 BPM (Beats Per Minute), which means that Terran One is faster than most of C & C:Red Alert’s, the first Age of Empires’ or Total Annihilation’s music (which players got already used to by the time StarCraft came out). Second: the tonal key of the piece. First, it’s a-minor, then, all the while keeping the melodical structure, it transitions into b-minor (old trick intensifying the emotions) and up until the very end, it fluctuates between related keys.

All those changes in key, style, handing out melodic lines into different rhythmical structures, all this gives us something that strategy games’ fans couldn’t previously experience – complex musical narrative not only present during pre-programmed fragments of the game, but also during regular, PvP (or PvAI) skirmishes. Just listen to how rhythmically different consecutive melodies in this track are! This musical narrative, although not interactive, still tells the battlefield story which is much closer to what the player is doing, than if the system only used a simple responsive system (in which the music is triggered by, for example, contact with enemy player’s units; such is the case with StarCraft 2). Take a listen: it starts slow, but firmly. Then we hear the full offense (expanding our base, making our first units), then a little bit of room to breathe, and then – full of emotions, anthem-like strings.

The history of the ground-breaking game is as interesting as the players’ expectation rollercoaster anticipating the release.

Space disco, which I’ve mentioned two paragraphs ago, is really brought alive in  Terran Two. A little slower than the first theme (126 BPM) and as much picky about choosing the tonal centre, the second track also hits our ears with the richness of the texture – funky slap bass, electric guitar, French horn, Hammond organ. Once again, we can hear a very complex palette, in which tastefully distributed tension perfectly sketches out what’s happening on screen. Same with the third theme (a little less emotionally engaging, but still a close relative of Terran One) and the fourth one (from the game’s expansion set Brood War; probably the most ‘military’ of all those). And although that last one isn’t as fast-paced as the previous tracks, its style perfectly matches marching Marines, flying Medevacs and setting up Siege Tanks.

In reference to the clou of this article, the Terran themes serve as proof that Blizzard’s game was never thought about as the esport messiah. Those tracks, ironically, do not contribute to StarCraft’s esport success at all (at least not directly), but „just” to the game’s overall well-being. A little more potential in this aspect show Protoss musical themes – full of satisfying chord progressions, slow, mostly calm monuments of the ancient race. But what Protoss defeat Terran at, is being taken back by emotionally engaging string passages, present in practically every one of their battle tracks. Here is when we need to ask a question: which of those signals would be more destructive for a focused mind: simple, clear stimuli (most of Terran’s music material) or emotions (Protoss). Music-lover’s attention span would probably take a worse beating from the Protoss’ string cadences, but before the emotional connection to them could be formed, Terran music’s stimuli would’ve probably wreaked more havoc.

But there is in the first StarCraft game a race that has music, although the most difficult to listen to of all three races, that sketches out the esport music thought perfectly. A lot of the success could be because of the race’s concept and game design itself, but the composers have provided us with some great stylistically-tailored quasi-ambient, which stimulates the player in all the right ways. And the race is…

Zerg. Putting aside the interesting and innovative concept of imitating the collective ‘hive-mind’, their ‘hollow’ soundscape brings to the listener the exact right amount of engaging, catchy melodic phrases. In the theme above, we can hear the smart use of palm-muted electric guitar pulse (expressive, but not overly absorbing), stable hi-hat giving the battle a certain tempo… and the BPM count of 76 – from my observations it shows that this tempo fits well with the „building” phase of the game. For us, the most important thing is the presence of a bass pulse, and in Zerg Two – the firm accents of synthesizer spiccatos. It is because of the fact that the engaging parts of the track have been isolated to the lower frequencies only (and that the non-invasive high frequencies of the second theme), the Zerg music has so many stimuli – but are not a threat to the player’s focus. Thus, of all the three races, Zerg music is the best fitting for the esport scenario. A certain question is in place: are those tracks the precursors of esport music?

I was only able to find out that some of them do listen to music during their trainings, but we don’t know if it’s the in-game soundtrack).

Interestingly enough, professional gamers ranking by earned money seems to agree with the thesis – out of the first ten players, races are pretty equally distributed into four Terran players and three Protoss and Zergs. Out of the top hundred earners, though, the majority are Zergs – 39%. Although there are so many of them (pun intended!), there aren’t too many, and it’s unknown to us how exposed to the in-game music our pro-gamers are. I was only able to find out that some of them do listen to music during their trainings, but we don’t know if it’s the in-game soundtrack). This lead will come back in the next part of this series, this time about StarCraft 2.

Executive Editor

Marek Domagała

Electric guitar, cinema and as much Rocket League as possible. Loves synthesizers and wouldn't mind some good black metal either. Taking the first steps as a video game composer.