The Downsides of Cheesing

Hey folks,

I’m brownbear. Today I’d like to discuss the downsides of cheesing. This is in response to a couple tweets from Liquid_MaNa, a professional Protoss player:

(If you’re interested in the upsides of cheesing, I previously wrote about them here).

The Goal of Computer Games

Games are an experiential medium. Their success or failure hinges on whether they successfully convey the intended experience to the intended target audience. How a game feels is just as important as what a game is.

Here’s a few examples. The Order: 1886 was technically brilliant and heavily promoted, but nonetheless failed spectacularly because of how it felt to play. Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts was an incredible game, but generated lots of backlash by delivering an experience far different from what fans expected of the franchise. Dark Souls 3 was an all-around brilliant title, but its place as the fifth iteration in the series left fans wanting for the “magic” of a first or second Souls playthrough.

A good development team can produce a good game with a good business plan, but these things only matter if players enjoy the delivered experience. Anytime I start a new playthrough of Dark Souls, I pencil in a couple hours just to get DSFix and other fix-up mods working properly – a tedious process I’m willing to do for exactly zero other games. But because the Dark Souls experience is so good, myself and three million other people put up with it – sometimes we even defend it.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s really important to distinguish what a game is in theory – the merits of its engineering, the reach of its marketing, and so on – and what a game is in practice – how it feels to actually play it. Cheesing is a really good example. Like I mentioned earlier, cheesing is a common sense inclusion from the perspective of strategic theorycrafting. It prevents greedy play and enables genuine creativity and diversity in the mid-game. But practically speaking, it can feel really crappy to get cheesed, making it something of a necessary evil.

The StarCraft II Experience

Playing competitive StarCraft means doing two things – figuring out what to do (strategy) and executing it well (real-time). The better you get, the more fine-grained your choices and responses tend to be. A professional like MaNa will scout for specific kinds of information – hatch timings, gas collected, army movements, etc – and respond with precision – build this unit, cancel that expansion, construct this building.

Lower-level players are not so exact. They think of the game in terms of “more” and “less”:

“Ah, I scouted an earlier-than-expected expansion. Let me build more military to put on some pressure.”

“Ah, his army composition contains lots of Zerglings early in the game. Let me build fewer workers so that I have resources to build a big army.”

Understanding the game in this general way is part of the reason lower-level players reside in the lower-leagues. And that’s perfectly OK, in fact it’s great. It’s a big part of why playing and improving at the game is so satisfying. It feels really damn good to react properly to a build that used to give you trouble, or to learn about the different subtleties within one’s build order. The improvement process is marginal, it’s incremental, it’s well-paced, and it’s satisfying.

Except when it comes to cheeses. There’s no element of “more military” or “less economy” when it comes to responding to a cannon rush. Either you respond to it correctly, or you die. All-ins interrupt the ladder experience with sudden, inexplicable massacres. You can play macro games against the same opponent and learn something new with every game. But facing a cannon rush? Either you realize what you need to do, or you don’t, and you die. In fact I’d argue that it’s probably better to stop playing so that you don’t acquire any bad habits (or an anxiety disorder), and simply ask for help. This holds true for the dozens of other random cheeses that every player eventually needs to learn how to deal with.

To a player like MaNa, all of StarCraft works this way. The precision of a cannon rush response is no less sharp than the response to a 1-1-1 into 3rd CC. At the professional level, there is simply no room for thinking in terms of “more” or “less”, you need to be exact. But that’s just not how most players currently or will ever experience StarCraft, and it’s why they find cheeses so frustrating.

Cheesers often respond by noting that executing a cheese requires just as much precision as defending it. This is a good pointer to another aspect of the gaming experience. Players prefer to do things rather than respond to things. This is because players (and people in general) like having agency. A cannon rusher drives the flow and pace of a game, so players will enjoy practicing that kind of rush and learning how to do it optimally. But practicing the response inherently involves less agency, because it requires the player to assume they will be forced to play a different kind of game than they originally wanted to. Players don’t like that.

Reconciliation and Final Thoughts

Too often, debates over game design in StarCraft come down to a group of folks that care about what the game is and a group of folks that care about how the game feels. The disagreement centers not around correctness, but rather a difference in perspective. I wrote up this article to show that cheeses are a great example of this. They are theoretically sound (and necessary), but experientially punishing and often un-fun.

Professionals like MaNa can play an important role in this discussion by using their platform as a high-level player to bridge the gap – to empathize with players frustrated by cheeses and use that as an opportunity to show them how these strategies are nonetheless a big part of why StarCraft is so good. Merely understanding something can make it far less bothersome and easier to accept. Furthermore, recognizing the pros and cons of a feature can make it easier to round off its rough edges – for instance, I critiqued the three-rax reaper strategy by pointing out how it lacked the benefits of other all-ins.

MaNa is completely correct in saying that cheeses are just strategies like any other. My humble suggestion is to take that sentiment and apply it in a way that makes StarCraft more fun for everyone.

Alrighty, that’s everything I had for today. Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this piece, I’d love it if you followed me on Twitter and Facebook and checked out my game-design focused YouTube and Twitch channels. All the best and see you next time.

Additional References

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