Today I’ll be talking about why StarCraft II feels difficult to play. I’ll be focusing on the design of the game’s mechanics and why they lead the game to feel hard. This is a spiritual follow-up to an earlier post on mechanics; if you missed it, I recommend checking it out first prior to reading this one.
How Players Experience Real Time Strategy Games
Let’s start by discussing the thought process most people employ when playing real time strategy games. In general, players:
- Play the game as fast as they comfortably can
- Execute tasks in priority order
Playing faster is better than playing slower. There’s always things that need to be done in a real time strategy game. Completing tasks is valuable in and of itself because it exercises the core mechanics of the game, something that RTS players inherently enjoy – similar to how players who play shooters enjoy the mechanics of shooting. Furthermore, completing tasks increases the player’s odds of winning – whether by controlling their army better, producing more units, or building more production facilities. Players are therefore incentivized to play games as fast as they can, with their physical speed and personal comfort threshold acting as the ceiling.
In addition to executing tasks quickly, players also prioritize the set of work in front of them. There’s always more to do than can reasonably be accomplished at once, even for the fastest professionals. Players are incentivized to do important work before unimportant work because it increases their chances of winning. A well-designed title will reinforce this by ensuring the most common, important tasks have strong inherent rewards as well – think of the smooth animation and satisfying plop of dropping a mule on a mineral line.
Putting these two things together, players tend to execute tasks quickly and they tend to order these tasks based on what they think is most important.
StarCraft II’s Design Decisions
Let’s think about how this thought process interacts with some of the core design decisions in StarCraft II. StarCraft II differs from older RTS titles in its streamlining of many basic tasks common to most real time strategy games. On the macromanagement side, multiple building select, rally points, and tabbing through production buildings reduces much of the work that used to be required to build and maintain a large army. On the micromanagement side, unlimited unit selection, smarter AI, and strong pathing reduce much of the hassle in getting units to do the right thing. Basic tasks like moving and attacking that previously required lots of hand-holding are now automatically handled by the game engine.
The design instead emphasizes more complex and technical execution. This is partly a natural result of reducing the time and attention required to complete basic tasks. For instance, consistent execution of efficient build orders has always been a consideration in real time strategy games. StarCraft II places more emphasis on it because players have more time to think about and perfect it, resulting in a near endless number of sharp timing attacks. This emphasis on complex tasks is also partly intentional, such as the deliberate shift in micromanagement focus toward abilities.
The result is that many rote, mechanical tasks have been replaced by complex, strategic ones. Players frequently cite the mechanical difficulty and emphasis on rote tasks as one of StarCraft’s downsides; this shift in focus toward more complex and strategic tasks should theoretically solve that problem and deliver a more satisfying gameplay experience.
In practice, this design approach has a number of unintended consequences, and they’re related to the thought process players employ when playing real time strategy games – playing as fast they comfortably can and executing on tasks in priority order.
One is that hard tasks feel harder than easy tasks. Easy tasks – like going back to your base, clicking on each building one by one, and queuing up a new unit – may be mechanically challenging at a high level. But they’re cognitively straightforward and deliver incremental benefits as the player improves. Hard tasks – like having enough game sense to accurately scout and predict your opponent’s unit composition – are cognitively complex and deliver their benefits discretely rather than incrementally.
Here’s a couple graphs that illustrate the difference:
Dropping mules consistently has a high mechanical skill ceiling, especially for a macro player. It’s an easy task – cognitively straightforward and with incremental benefits. Injects, spreading creep, and maintaining constant production are all examples of easy tasks.
Game sense and scouting have a relatively low mechanical skill ceiling. Waypointing a hallucination doesn’t require very much APM. However, making sense of what you see and choosing the correct response is neither cognitively straightforward nor does it offer incremental benefits. The player needs lots of experience to accurately understand the state of the game; even as the player’s skill increases, the benefits don’t necessarily accrue because the player doesn’t know enough to accurately choose a good response.
Hard tasks like scouting also typically lack an element of visceral enjoyment. Good game sense doesn’t deliver the same kind of satisfying, immediate reward as watching a creep tumor jump across the map.
Easy tasks feel good. They’re intrinsically enjoyable to exercise, players receive immediate benefits from any rise in skill level, and they lack an element of cognitive confusion of wondering whether they’re worthwhile to execute on. Meanwhile, hard tasks often lack an intrinsic physical element, deliver their benefits in a delayed and discrete fashion, and require relatively more thinking to determine whether they’ve been done correctly.
Remember, players tend to play as fast they comfortably can. They don’t suddenly play faster in a more mechanically demanding game like Brood War, much like Brood War players don’t suddenly take more coffee breaks in the middle of their Legacy games. Players fill in the time freed up from streamlining basic tasks by focusing on other things. The result is that, proportionally, players in StarCraft II are spending relatively more time executing on hard tasks than they were previously. This makes the game feel hard, or at least relatively harder than it would feel in the absence of this design approach.
The second consequence of this design approach is that it increases the number of punishing interactions in the game. The limitations on player time and attention are a core design feature in real time strategy games. Players respond to this by prioritizing the set of tasks in front of them. When basic, important tasks are streamlined, they become less costly to execute, which naturally makes them feel more punishing to play against.
Consider harassment in StarCraft II. Older real time strategy titles featured a trade-off – units in poorly controlled harassment would likely do almost no damage, for instance by pathing to god-knows-where instead of attacking workers. A well-controlled army would get more done, but soak up enough of a player’s time and attention to distract them from completing other tasks.
StarCraft II’s design approach lessens this trade-off by introducing a number of micromanagement niceties – waypoints, smartcasting, dropping while moving, intelligent AI, strong pathing, etc – that make basic unit control relatively straight-forward. The consequence is that harassment, even when poorly controlled, can rapidly do significant damage. Properly controlled harassment can clear a mineral line in seconds, and macromanagement niceties like multiple building select ensure this doesn’t have a proportional trade-off in the player’s production.
Miss a drop by a few seconds and a player can sustain game-ending damage while knowing that it didn’t cost their opponent very much in time or attention. Lalush describes this perfectly by characterizing certain kinds of harassment as disruptive – the yawning gap between the attention required to execute the attack and the attention require to defend it feels disruptive (i.e. painful) rather than feeling like a standard engagement. This is frustrating and punishing to play against.
The combination of these two consequences – a shift in focus toward harder tasks and a stronger sense of punishment from going up against basic moves by your opponent – create a game experience that is relatively more difficult and more frustrating than it would be in the absence of this design approach.
Case Study: Protoss
Protoss is an excellent example of this design approach in practice. For average players (Gold – Diamond), it features fewer basic mechanical tasks than the other two races.
- Production occurs in bursts through warp-gate rather than waves, and Protoss armies tend to feature smaller numbers of sturdier units. This means Protoss players don’t need to constantly produce new units to the same mechanical degree as their opponents.
- The core macro mechanic, Chrono Boost, is a toggle rather than an ability that needs to be constantly exercised like Inject or the Mule.
- Base defense, especially in the early game and against multi-pronged harass, requires less mechanical moving of units thanks to the single-click Pylon overcharge of the Mothership Core.
Protoss is not, of course, in general easier to play than Zerg or Terran at casual levels. It has a stronger need for game sense, such as its inherent difficulty in countering mutalisks without proper preparation. Its production buildings, especially the Robotics Facility, may produce fewer units in absolute terms, but the cost of leaving them idle is also much greater. Chrono Boost may cost fewer actions than Injects or Mules, but it also requires more thinking in where it’s used and when.
(This discussion also excludes professional players, who employ a whole suite of skills that most players never touch. The mechanical differences, when considered in the context of all these skill sets and the impossibility of executing them all perfectly, do not exist at this level.)
StarCraft II’s design approach streamlines rote, mechanical tasks in favor of more strategic ones, likely under the assumption that this is more interesting and enjoyable for players. Player race data, especially at the average level, provides a clue that this is not, in fact, how most players experience real time strategy games.
Let’s compare Zerg and Protoss. Zerg has lots of simple, high priority tasks – injects, spreading creep, moving overlords around, and maintaining constant production. I call the most important of these “power mechanics” – basic tasks that need to be exercised constantly and deliver a measurable, substantial boost to the player each time they’re employed. Injects and spreading creep are examples of what I’d consider “power mechanics”.
Protoss doesn’t have very many power mechanics – things players can do constantly to put themselves in a better position. The game’s design instead calls for the average Protoss player to focus on more complex tasks, such as careful placement of structures, appropriate game sense and scouting of the opponent’s composition, ensuring a unit is on hold position within their simcity, etc.
The mutalisk transition is a great example of how punishing this can be. If a Protoss player’s game sense and scouting doesn’t lead them to prepare the correct response to mutalisks, they’ll probably just die – or, blindly build phoenixes in every game, even in situations where they don’t make sense. There’s very few “power mechanics” that Protoss players can fall back on to reliably and consistently improve their level of play in this situation, or at least feel good about what they just executed on; they either get it right or they don’t. The skill of having good game sense delivers benefits in a delayed and discrete fashion, and the time gap between developing new skills and reaping the rewards can feel confusing, if not outright frustrating.
The Mothership Core is another good example – either it’s in position or it’s not, either the player built their Pylons in appropriate positions or they didn’t, with little room for incremental improvement.
“Power mechanics” get a bad rap because they’re mechanically challenging, but players often forget that they’re also very empowering. Spreading creep or injecting slightly better delivers slightly better results. They also feel easy, have an immediate sense of reward and can be incrementally improved with each game. Average Terran and Zerg players can spend endless hours working on the mechanics of their macromanagement. Each of these hours will feel relatively better and more satisfying than the Protoss player spending their time wondering whether they’re Chrono’ing the right structure.
While there are likely many reasons for the race disparity cited above, I’d argue that this is one of the strongest – the inherent lack of satisfaction in playing Protoss at average levels relative to the two other races leads players to do something else.
Takeaways For RTS Game Design
One of the takeaways of this discussion is that “quality of life features” that make basic tasks easier are not a free win for the gameplay experience – they’re not even necessarily a win at all, and can actually detract from a player’s enjoyment of the game.
Players may note that this runs counter to one of the most common complaints about StarCraft II – that it is, already, too mechanically challenging. Personally, I interpret this as a truth that is misdirected. Dealing with a widow mine drop at the same time as a big attack may feel mechanically frustrating in the moment, but the lasting frustration with the overall gameplay comes from the knowledge that this devastating attack didn’t cost as much time and attention as it “should”, at least relative to its benefits.
Difficult mechanics feel difficult to execute. Easy mechanics feel easy to execute. Mechanically challenging games may be hard in aggregate, but the moment-to-moment mechanics feel easy and enjoyable. StarCraft II’s relative emphasis on difficult mechanics makes it feel harder than it necessarily has to be, while simultaneously making the game more punishing to play.
There’s nothing wrong with real time strategy games feeling hard, punishing, or even frustrating. Real time strategy is not for everybody, much the same way that no genre is for everybody. The problem occurs when there’s lasting frustration, even for people who generally enjoy these kinds of games – a sense that the game isn’t enjoyable long after the execution of the mechanics has ended. Power mechanics convey a sense of incremental improvement, a feeling that players can improve with every single game they play, even when they lose. Discrete, difficult tasks too often leave players with a sense of resignation or doubt.
It’s worth noting that this is an area ripe for innovation. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to thinking purely in terms of existing real time strategy games. I think it’s perfectly valid to think that a modern real time strategy game must feature multiple building select to avoid feeling outdated (for what it’s worth, I would disagree). However, from a design perspective, it’s important that when basic power mechanics are streamlined by these kinds of “quality of life features”, they are generally replaced by other power mechanics – this maintains the moment-to-moment pleasure of playing the game and mitigates its punishing nature. It’s perfectly valid to want more emphasis on complex tasks, but the implementation needs to be thought-through carefully to avoid frustrating the player and creating too many areas where the benefits of skill improvement are delayed and non-obvious.
What these “other power mechanics” and “well designed complex tasks” look like is an open question. I have some ideas, but I’d like to flesh them out a bit before discussing them in detail. I’d love to hear your thoughts – like I said, this is an area ripe for new ideas and creative thinking.
That’s everything I wanted to talk about today. If you enjoyed this blog post, I humbly recommend you follow me on Twitter and check out my game-design focused YouTube channel. Thanks for reading and see you next time.