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Zerg Rush on PC, Mac TO

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By Doug Thompson

Last week will go down in gaming history as the week “Starcraft II” premiered.

No, I don’t own it. I get to write about games I haven’t played because these columns aren’t reviews. I make observations on the gaming business.

I have to admit a bias for Blizzard, the company that makes “Starcraft” and “World of Warcraft.” Nobody’s done more to keep PC gaming alive. I’d argue Macintosh gaming largely wouldn’t exist without Blizzard, either. Blizzard has a big Mac fan base that they haven’t abandoned, unlike almost every other game company in the world.

There is no console version of “Starcraft II.” That has not stopped it from selling 1 million copies on its first day and 1.5 million in its first 48 hours.

The biggest figure, however, is that only 620,000 of those sales are in North America, according to Joystiq.com. The game has already sold more units in this first week in the United Kingdom, for instance, than its predecessor sold in that country since its release in 1998.

That matters. As readers of this column know, I love “Mass Effect 2.” However, a relative lack of international sales didn’t help its overall success. It’s still a success but not a blockbuster. Critically, ME2’s a darling, but my guess is it isn’t going to be a “game of the year” for critics because critics grew up playing the original “Starcraft.”

For a brief, shining — and extremely rare — moment, PC and even Mac players have their hands on a sensation while Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 player can only hear the noise.

I’m not writing this column about bragging rights, however. PC gaming is being pushed out of retail game stores. Part of that is because of the increasing popularity of digital download from outlets such as Steam. Another part of it is that a fully effective computer for web browsing and home office functions costs less than $400 — new. But it can’t play games. Check out PC Magazine’s latest “Editor’s Choice.” It’s the eMachines Mini-e ER1402-05. The suggested retail price is $320.

A good PC gaming rig costs $2,000 unless you put it together yourself and know what you’re doing.

Savvy use of the Internet has largely saved PC gaming.

“Starcraft,” by the way, is a game where a repressed group of human colonists in deep space have to struggle against both alien invaders and tyrannical long-distance government from earth. The game’s getting some criticism for not being all that innovative, being too faithful to the first version.

Well, folks, as “Doom” fans were wont to say: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The innovation in the game, as far as I can tell, comes from the game’s interface with the Internet and social networking. For instance, there are “achievements” you can earn for successfully completing missions. Achieve something and the game will automatically update your Facebook page. That settles any arguments between rivals about who achieved something first.

Game reviews are stellar. Out of 38 reviews on Metacritic.com, only two are less than 90 out of 100 and even the lowest one is 78, calling the game “a remedy for nostalgia.” Sales belie that criticism, however. As mentioned, more people have already bought the game in Britain than ever owned the original. It appears the older players have nostalgia while the newer players have at least a somewhat up-to-date version of a truly great game.

It’s the gameplay that matters, to repeat one of my favorite mantras.

The game industry suffers badly from getting into a rut and producing sequels. What the companies seem to have discovered, though, is that improving a game with a sequel increases both direct sales and rewards the fan base.

You always have some purists who will deplore any change. They stage sit-ins at forums on their old favorites and post endlessly about how good things used to be. But the truth remains that a better sequel is a better game, that innovation and risk-taking is encouraged when you can start from a solid base.

Blizzard gets it. Bioware, the makers of ME2, gets it. They’re not the only ones.

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