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Cinematics are still the best storytelling option for RTS games, says Blizzard
Cinematics are still the best storytelling option for RTS games, says Blizzard
August 19, 2013 | By Mike Rose

August 19, 2013 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Design, GDC Europe

Although the game industry as a whole has been steadily moving away from cinematic-style cutscenes, Blizzard believes that they are still the best way to humanize the story in a real-time strategy game.

Cinematics are expensive, slow, and difficult to alter later into a game's development, reasoned Blizzard leader writer Brian Kindregan at GDC Europe today. They can break immersion, and generally there are plenty of reasons not to tell a video game story through cinematics.

Yet despite all this, Kindregan and his team decided that cinematics would work for the best for StarCraft 2 and its expansions -- and the reason for this is that it's the best method for pulling players into the story of an RTS.

Using cinematics in an RTS game allows the developer to bring the action down to eye-level, he explained, and allows the players to become more engaged in the characters and the story.

If a studio decides to instead tell the story through gameplay in an RTS game, you simply end up with tiny pixel characters on the screen, and it's far more difficult to feel anything for them.

As an example, Kindregan described a cutscene in which three large ships storm out of the darkness and launch a large-scale attack on a building.

While you can really feel the action and intensity in a cinematic version of this scene, you wouldn't get any of this at all from the gameplay point of view -- instead, you'd see three small ships roll in and shoot at a tiny building.

Pacing is key

When it comes to building your cinematic, Kindregan noted that it is incredibly important to know what your central idea is, and make sure never to move away from that, no matter how many iterations the video goes through.

The StarCraft 2 writer showed multiple versions of the opening cinematic for Heart of the Swarm, noting that he and his team rewrote the script 13 or 14 times, simply to cut the length down and make sure the story was snappy. They also had to make sure to keep the balance of power between characters that they were looking for.

In particular, Kindregan noted that "when a cinematic starts, a timer starts [in the player's head], and when it reaches zero, the player will hit the Escape key to play the game." And once a player has escaped one cinematic, they'll most likely escape them all.

Hence, making sure that your cinematic keeps its momentum and doesn't dawdle is completely essential to keeping the player invested in your game's story throughout.

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Dave Hoskins
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I can't agree that the industry has been moving away from cut scenes. It increasingly moving towards towards them, as many AAA games take control of the camera and movements of the player. Using in-game graphics has the same result as using video, and most people wouldn't know the difference anyway.

Maria Jayne
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I don't mind cinematics as game introductions or during important plot points. They help set the mood and atmosphere which video games don't always capture in engine. Although I admit with regular game visuals now far beyond the original quality of cinematic cgi, there is increasingly less use for them in modern games.

I still remember when a cinematic showed a 3d depiction of what was essentially a bunch of sprites, pixels or polygons. Back then, it helped to create more association between that and what they were supposed to represent to the player.

I figure the very best CGI is still better than the very best video game engine cut scenes. For that reason alone, if I'm going to have control taken away to watch something, may as well be worth watching at its best possible quality level.

Christiaan Moleman
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The use of "live action" to refer to in-game is really confusing.

I think cinematics can work well to evoke atmosphere or introduce a setting, as a break or reward, and sometimes to show something that doesn't fit the core gameplay... but more often than not cinematics leave me thinking: I wanted to DO that, not watch it.

Any time I've worked on cutscenes I could never shake the nagging feeling that meanwhile nobody is working on improving the in-game animation, while this cutscene will be seen once, then skipped.

That said, RTS games and Blizzard games in particular do tend to avoid most of the pitfalls of badly placed cinematics. You don't complain that you didn't get to fly that space ship in Starcraft or personally clobber those orcs in Warcraft... I always liked the parallel storytelling of Starcraft. It was less "wait while we show you what your character is doing" and more "meanwhile, this is happening".

Kris Graft
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The use of "live action" was an error. Updated the story!