There’s a new kid on the block going for the crown of RTS esports. Its name is Stormgate, a new free-to-play real-time strategy game.
It’s a “spiritual successor to the Warcraft and StarCraft RTS games that we loved and that many of us also worked on in our previous roles,” Tim Morten, CEO and Production Director of developer Frost Giant Studios, told Esports Insider.
“We feel that the time has come for a new game to be made in that tradition, so we’re preserving the tried-and-true gameplay of those classic games while innovating and moving the genre forward where it makes sense.”
From a narrative standpoint, Stormgate is set in an original science-fantasy universe where humanity survived being brought to the brink of extinction by demonic alien invaders known as the Infernal Host. The game will also feature at least three unique asymmetric factions, a hallmark of Blizzard-style RTS games, and the gameplay will centre on four main ways to play that the devs call the “four Cs” — Campaign, Co-operative, Competitive, and Custom Games.
After a substantial period of alpha testing, the game is now in closed beta and has just had its first esports event called Stormgate Showdown at Dreamhack Atlanta. There, world class RTS professionals TLO, MaNa and Moon battled it out in front of a live audience and, despite the early stages of development, there were no hiccups or problems, just old style fun.
“We were humbled by the positive response we received from the RTS community. It was a testament to the hard work of the team and ongoing input from the community that the games went smoothly and we were able to see a showcase of player skill in this early version of Stormgate.”
Great RTS games age like fine wine–which is why games like StarCraft: Brood War, Warcraft III, and StarCraft II are still played and loved so many years after their initial release. Players have been enjoying those games for decades and will continue to do so for decades to come.
“At the same time,” Morten adds, “we believe that many RTS fans are hungry for a new game in that tradition. We’ve set out to make that game, a new Blizzard-style RTS featuring a new story, new campaign missions, new factions, new characters, and new ways to play.”
Meanwhile, an esports scene is very much in the works at Frost Giant Studios — but with an innovative approach that is increasingly popular among developers.
“We want to start with a community-driven approach to esports for Stormgate. Since the earliest days of the Stormgate closed pre-alpha, community members have come together to organise tournaments out of a love for competition, and we see ourselves in the role of supporting the community in their efforts. We don’t want to dictate what our esport will look like out of the gate. Instead we want to focus on making a great game and supporting grassroots efforts that will open up Stormgate competition to players of all skill levels.”
This is because, according to the CEO of Frost Giant Studios, RTS is considered a ‘hardcore PC gamer’ genre by many with an intimidating reputation, reinforced by the popularity of RTS esports competitions. The plan for Stormgate is to make it friendlier and more approachable with a variety of cooperative modes and interface innovations that will make the game easier and less taxing to play for the average or newer player — “all without sacrificing the limitless skill ceiling at the highest levels of competition,” he said.
So far the devs have been tight lipped about the business model they are going to adopt. The community first approach, however, suggests a more laissez faire approach like Valve’s rather than a strict one a la Riot Games. There’s still no talk about revenue share to attract players, teams or tournament organisers — an important topic for the health and longevity of a would-be esport in a period where almost all sectors are struggling.
One thing, however, is already in the works: there’s been a partnership with tournament organiser conglomerate ESL FACEIT Group brewing in the background since last September for when the scene is ready, and the results from the Dreamhack Atlanta are very promising. “We are very grateful to ESL for partnering with us”, Morten said, “we learned a lot from the production and have key takeaways for how to improve our game’s watchability from an esports spectator standpoint, which is going to pay huge dividends as we continue to support Stormgate competition at future events. We already plan to have a Beta Champions tournament ahead of our Early Access launch in the summer of 2024, which should be very exciting. Any RTS pros or aspiring pros who want to compete should get in touch with us!”
Would-be Stormgate Pros, however, will not have to wait this long to earn their first prizes. From February 10th-17th, the very first Stormgate EgC Open will be held online with a prize pool of $10,000. This will come during the first open beta of the game for the Steam Next Fest that will be held from February 5th-12th. To participate in the tournament, which is open to the public, players need to win through the first weekend of competition — after which they’ll receive beta access for the remainder of the beta testing phases so that they can compete in the second weekend.*
One of the most appealing factors of Stormgate, for both casual and professional players, is the fact that the developers are not trying to reinvent the wheel. The design philosophy of this game is simply to give players more of what they love, while capitalising on opportunities to make this style of game more social and approachable. “We’re building Stormgate with 3 player co-op vs. AI as a primary mode, for example. We learned that co-op was one of the most popular ways to play RTS after the success of StarCraft II’s co-op commanders, so we plan to evolve that mode and help it reach even greater heights in Stormgate”.
The fact that the game is already competitive at such an early stage is quite the achievement and hints that the developers know what they are doing with the project. Faction balance in RTS games is a moving target and achieving relative parity can be the result of months or even years of testing.
With a free-to-play live service model that, after the early access period, will periodically release new content for all modes of the game, including “one the most advanced RTS editor’s yet” (custom games are a huge part of why those classic Blizzard RTS games have stayed relevant and exciting for all these years), Stormgate promises to be an esport to keep an eye on as it looks to inject new life into a genre that for years has been considered inaccessible due to being perceived as complicated and difficult to master.
*UPDATE 22/01/2024 11:30pm: This article originally stated that the Stormgate Open was only open to Kickstart backers, whereas it is actually open to the public. The article has been updated to correct this.