StarCraft is Not Dark Souls

Hey folks,

Today I’ll be discussing why the difficulty of the Souls series is a poor analogue for competitive StarCraft. As a fan of the Souls series with about twenty playthroughs between the five games, this is a topic that I’m particularly interested in.

This piece will contain spoilers for some of the boss encounters in Dark Souls.

The Dark Souls of Electronic Sports

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Every now and again, a commentator will argue that StarCraft should embrace the label of a “hardcore” game, similar to how Dark Souls has marketed itself as particularly hard. I’ve seen this type of argument several of times, so I don’t intend to single anyone out – I’d just like to provide some context to give an idea of what it’s about. Here’s one example from an article discussing StarCraft II’s map pool:

I think map pools should be changed. One of the key factors that is holding SC2 back is that they don’t want to add on another layer of complexity to an already very complex game to the casual player. In my view, it is time to give this attitude up.

SC2 is already known to be one of the hardest 1v1 competitive games in the world. It is time we embraced that hardcore aspect, like how Dark Souls markets itself. I don’t think it’s wrong to try to appeal to more casuals and bring them into the game, but the subtleties of the map pool and how they play into strategy is at the very end of the road.

I chose this particular example because it best captures the two trains of thought that I’d like to address in this post:

  • the grouping of StarCraft with hard games, such as Dark Souls
  • an antipathy toward watering down the competitive experience in order to appease casual players

I’m sympathetic to the latter point, but in order to tackle it we need to first discuss the former.

What is difficulty?

A game’s difficulty can generally be broken down into two distinct concepts. The first is entry cost – how difficult it is to start playing, learn the mechanics, begin making reasonable progress, etc. The second is exit cost – how difficult it is to clear the game, beat the end boss, reach the credits, etc. More generally, exit cost is the cost associated with experiencing whatever it is the developers hoped to achieve with their game.

Note the cost nomenclature. Difficulty does not provide value in and of itself – it’s a price that players pay in order to get something better in return, such as a sense of accomplishment, a feeling of personal improvement, a common activity to focus on as a social experience, or even simple engagement with a game’s mechanics in order to drive interest in the narrative.

One of the first things we notice is that real time strategy games don’t have an exit cost – simply because there is no exit. Real time strategy games have, for decades, provided a multitude of game modes that players jump in and out of depending on their preferences. No single mode is more “real” of an experience than any other – players get what they want out of a title and then stop playing it. The exit is decided by them, a sandbox-esque approach that’s just the nature of the genre. Even the campaign is only one part of a much larger package that includes playing against the AI, playing custom scenarios, playing the competitive ladder, and so on.

Many of these game modes, particularly the campaign and custom scenarios, benefit very little from being difficult. They often exist to drive an interesting narrative, immerse the player in compelling scenario design, or showcase massive-scale battles. Difficulty is designed in a bottom-up fashion (minimal difficulty to maintain engagement) rather than top-down (maximum difficulty before it’s not reasonably achievable). Since difficulty isn’t necessarily a value-add, it’s not included by default – it’s not inherent to the game, since many of the game’s modes don’t benefit from its existence.

A comparison with Dark Souls helps clarify this point. Here’s Hidetaka Miyazaki, the director of four out of the five Souls games, answering a question about the series’ difficulty:

WIRED: As far back as 2009’s Demon’s Souls, your games have been renowned for their difficulty. What compels you to make such challenging experiences?

Hidetaka Miyazaki: I have no intention to make the game more difficult than other titles on purpose! It’s just something required to make this style of game. Ever since Demon’s Souls, I’ve really been pursuing making games that give players a sense of accomplishment by overcoming tremendous odds. We’ve added new items and weapons over the course of the series, and having a certain level of difficulty adds value to those because they incentivise players to experiment more with character builds and weapon load-outs.

(emphasis mine)

Difficulty is built-in to the Souls games because it’s a key driver of the game’s goal, a sense of accomplishment from overcoming tremendous odds. It provides real value, so it’s a core component of the gameplay experience.

One of the ways this is done is by imposing an exit cost. Dark Souls has a fairly straightforward plot (the lore is more complicated) that is resolved by clearing the game and rolling the credits. In order to make this happen, players need to defeat a variety of difficult bosses, traverse a diverse set of challenging environments, and even solve a puzzle or two. Each obstacle that players overcome delivers a sense of genuine accomplishment thanks to the title’s punishing difficulty.

This also applies in reverse – players that fail to overcome the challenges don’t get to experience what the game was intended to give them.

Real time strategy games work differently. They deliver different experiences to different players depending on what game mode(s) they prefer. No experience is more valid than any other. The joy of clearing the campaign and progressing a franchise’s story is vastly different from the satisfaction of reaching number one on the Grandmaster ladder. Part of the beauty of the genre is that both experiences are achievable within the same game – a player that likes to mass Battlecruisers against the easy AI can still watch and enjoy ByuN win the World Championship Series. Professional players can play arcade maps when they want to relax. And so on and so on.

The entirety of StarCraft’s experience seeks to achieve many things, and difficulty is not a critical component of many of those goals. As a result, it’s really not accurate to call StarCraft a difficult game, particularly not in the intrinsic, this-is-part-of-the-game’s-philosophy way it applies to Dark Souls.

What about competitive StarCraft?

Is StarCraft difficult when played competitively?

No. Nothing about the competitive ladder is difficult in the sense that the game requires you to do something to achieve the game’s desired result. Players are free to do as they like and focus on what they find enjoyable (or easy). The matchmaking system is designed to ensure that they’ll eventually find opponents of a similar skill level; there’s no requirement to improve in order to win games.

What makes competitive play difficult is not the game itself – instead, it’s the skill and experience that the player’s opponent is bringing to the table in combination with the player’s desire to rank up. The strength of the game’s competitive design is that it provides a right-sized sandbox – enough sufficiently-balanced material to showcase player creativity, individual skill, and personal playstyles while simultaneously getting out of the way whenever possible to avoid forcing players into a single direction.

The player’s perception of difficulty thus has little to do with the actual game. The game is just the arena, the environment, the facilitator – the difficulty stems from other players.

Another comparison with Dark Souls helps clarify this. Clearing the game means beating Gwyn, a relatively tough opponent who’s quite agile and hits very hard. Players need to pay some sort of price in order to win this fight and feel a sense of accomplishment – perhaps the price of thoroughly learning the game’s mechanics, or perhaps the price of grinding lower-level enemies in order to reach a high level, or maybe even the price of extensive exploration in order to find the best equipment.

No matter what, players must pay some price in order to get what the game is designed to offer. No matter how many attempts are made, Gwyn never becomes easier – it’s up to players to overcome this challenge. In this way, Dark Souls is both the arena and the opponent. The game itself is what’s difficult, in stark contrast with a real time strategy game’s competitive mode. The ladder is designed to give players a roughly 50% win rate, regardless of their skill level and how much (or how little) effort they’re putting into improving.

What makes StarCraft unique is the combination of a high skill ceiling and a large, dedicated player base – this means the skill difference between the absolute best players and the absolute worst players is gigantic, probably more than most other games. Improving one’s way to the top is a long and arduous road. But there is no implicit or explicit requirement for players to go down this road in order to play its competitive mode – there is no “Gwyn” of StarCraft.

Difficulty as a marketing tool

Let’s now think about difficulty as a marketing tool or brand identity. It’s perfectly reasonable for a game to take one of its features and focus on it exclusively in its marketing – in other words, StarCraft isn’t a difficult game in general, but maybe it’s a good idea to market it primarily on its competitive 1v1 ladder and focus on how that’s a difficult and hardcore gameplay experience.

Let’s look at the numbers. Blizzard has gone on record stating that about 80% of the player base clears the campaign and never moves on to competitive multiplayer.

If the game’s marketing implies that it’s not a good experience for 80% of its likely players, then it’s probably not a very good marketing campaign.

Readers may argue that it works for Dark Souls, but it’s important to remember that the Souls series is very niche. Demon’s Souls was exclusive to the Playstation 3 and universally critically acclaimed, but it barely cracks the top twenty five best-selling PS3 games. The total combined sales of Dark Souls and Dark Souls II are less than 40% of Skyrim’s, a far more mainstream title that’s now one of the best selling games ever. The sales of Wings of Liberty by itself more than double the sales of Dark Souls II, arguably the first truly “mainstream” Souls game and available on five different platforms.

In other words, the Souls series was already niche – its marketing was intended to engage and saturate its already small potential audience, not to force the games into the mainstream. There’s no good reason to use the difficulty of competitive play to force the same niche mindset onto StarCraft, an otherwise very mainstream game. To this day, more players play the relatively more casual co-operative mode than do the ranked ladder, six years after the game’s release.

Avoiding trade-offs

Up until now, we’ve focused on difficulty (or lack thereof) in real time strategy games, and how it doesn’t make sense to group them together with games like Dark Souls. We still haven’t tackled the second component, arguably the reason this grouping is suggested in the first place – the perceived watering down of the competitive experience in order to appease casual players who might feel intimidated by its complexity. If we embrace the game’s hardcore aspect, so the argument goes, it will free us to build the right competitive experience.

As we’ve discussed at length, the hardcore aspect of a real time strategy title can happily co-exist with its casual aspects. The competitive ladder is already free to create its own rule set and build the experience that works best for that particular game mode.

The reason StarCraft II struggles to do this, in my view, is a lack of a clear vision for the different game modes – who the target audience is for each different way of playing the game. The title does a poor job explaining what the different modes are and why a player might find them appealing, causing too many players to incorrectly select the ranked ladder as their method of enjoying the game. This leads to unnecessary compromises when making design choices.

It would be best from the get-go to concretely define what players should expect out of each experience and, by extension, what they need to bring to the table (if anything). With this in place, it’s much easier to envision what changes are needed to make any particular game mode more successful. It allows players to create a working mental model of how a game works and what they’re most likely to find compelling, critical to building stickiness to the game.

If we go back to the original source for the quote at the top of this article, the suggestion was to add some complexity to the maps and the way the map pool is rotated. This is a straightforward thing to do if we assume that all competitive players are committed to a highly complex gameplay experience. How can we communicate this vision effectively?

One of the first changes I’d recommend is a re-design of the user interface. The more players a feature is likely to appeal to, the more prominent it should be made and the easier it should be to use. Accessing the ranked ladder – a relatively niche feature – should require some explicit intent so that players don’t accidentally stumble into an experience that they probably won’t enjoy. It’s perfectly fine if they’d like to play it casually, but they should understand what they’re getting into before they do so.

I’d also recommend concrete messaging for the competitive experience specifically. It’s very different from other ways of playing the game and that should be made clear to players. The primary goal of playing the ladder – achieving the satisfaction of improving and winning as a result of long-term work – is fundamentally different from the other modes, and dissimilar to why most people play games generally. That’s OK – in fact, making its intent more explicit would help sell it to people who might not otherwise be interested, much the same way that the Souls games have drawn in folks who feel that modern games treat them with kid gloves.

Finally, the casual modes themselves should be fleshed out substantially. For instance, it’s odd that so many units were implemented specifically for the campaign, yet players are never able to use them when playing simple skirmishes against the AI or with friends. How come? Age of Empires II featured a gigantic rule set that enabled a near endless variety of fun for casual players. There’s no good reason the same shouldn’t be brought over to StarCraft II.

These suggestions have something in common – they address the title’s entry cost, better know as its accessibility. The title should actively seek to match players with the game modes they’ll likely prefer rather than encouraging them to do something they probably won’t enjoy or understand. Part of that means standing firm on and openly articulating its vision for the competitive experience. If the developers themselves can’t say with confidence why the competitive mode exists, then we can’t expect players to understand and respect that vision, either.

We can build the right competitive experience by providing clarity as to the vision of each game mode, messaging this effectively to players, and sticking with it throughout a game’s lifecycle. We shouldn’t need to further limit the size of the game’s audience and turn StarCraft into a niche game like Dark Souls in order to achieve this.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on Twitter or Facebook to receive regular content updates, or checking out my game-design videos on YouTube and Twitch. All the best and see you next time.

For what it’s worth, even the difficulty of Dark Souls is often exaggerated. Its standout quality – and a key similarity with competitive StarCraft – is that it assumes its players are competent and intelligent.

Additional Reading

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