More on SC2 and BW: A Follow-up To My Conversation With Thorin

Hey folks,

I was recently fortunate enough to appear on Thorin’s Platform and discuss topics related to an article I wrote last year, StarCraft II and Brood War Belong to Different Genres. I found this discussion to be very interesting and I wanted to revisit some of its topics to expand on my thinking.

On Mechanical Differentiation

Thorin brought up an interesting point that the streamlining of basic macro- and micromanagement mechanics culled the number of viable playstyles at a professional level. He cited NaNiwa as an example, noting that his micro-oriented playstyle struggled because he would fall behind in macromanagement.

The context here is that, in more classic real time strategy games, basic micro- and macromanagement were more difficult than in StarCraft II. This meant harder trade-offs in attention: focusing on micro meant floating thousands of minerals, while focusing on macro meant that your dumb units would accomplish little to nothing. The key result was that, because players couldn’t do everything optimally, each area of focus was proportionally rewarded. A micro-oriented player could somewhat fall behind on his macro because the rewards of micro-ing better would make up for it – his opponent’s relative lack of focus on unit control would lead his units to be effectively useless. If I recall correctly, the example Thorin cited here was Bisu’s Dragoon control.

In my response, I noted that StarCraft II’s design seeks to change the method of skill differentiation from basic mechanics to higher-level strategy. In other words, rather than having micro- or macro-focused styles, players distinguish themselves in how they use their units and the tactics that they apply. The number of viable playstyles hasn’t necessarily gone down, it’s just different.

I’d like to expand a bit on each of these three statements. The first, from a design intent perspective, is well-established from numerous developer interviews: a desire not to overcomplicate the economy, a shift towards abilities over basic move-and-shoot, a push towards mobility, and encouraging players to either defend or attack, essentially eliminating the economic playstyle.

The best description of this shift is that Brood War is a mechanical game with strategy, whereas StarCraft II is a strategy game with mechanics. Both games – like all good competitive real time strategy games – have both design features, but the relative emphasis is not the same.

The second statement – that the method of skill differentiation has shifted from mechanics to higher-level strategy – is probably the most controversial. Let me start with a post from Liquid`Ret. In his comparison of the two games, he noted that Brood War gives him a strong strategic feeling:

I’ve heard all these people say that, StarCraft 2 is a strategic game, and BW is a mechanical game. I strongly disagree. I feel StarCraft 2 might be a strategic game, but very little of that strategizing happens while you are actually inside the game. Games are so fast paced, and being on top of scouting everything is nearly impossible that you have to decide on most strategies before the game. You might change your path slightly if you get different tells, but most of your responses are pre-programmed and you try to execute as good as possible. Of course there is strategic variance, you play differently vs different unit compositions, but it’s not the same kind of strategy I’ve experienced in brood war.

In brood war, I feel like players have oceans of time. Once both players have their mechanics on an adequate level, there is so much time to dedicate to thinking about the game, where to place your units, how to setup engagements, which bases to take and which key locations to defend. Alongside the high ground mechanic, defensive positions are much stronger in brood war and this gives the game a much more strategic feeling to me.

In sc2, I feel like I’m racing with tunnel vision to a timing or a unit comp based timing in the game where my chances are highest to win (differentiating slightly depending on what opponent is doing) – but in brood war my eyes are wide open trying to observe and take everything in, then pondering about how to proceed and best trap my enemy into the claws of my lurkers, dark swarm, plague, and 100 zerglings which are impossible to control.

First, I’ll point out that Ret is responding to the idea that StarCraft II is a strategic game whereas Brood War is a mechanical game. I don’t agree with that either – both games are mechanical and strategic, it’s the relative emphasis that I’d argue is different.

What I focus on in Ret’s post is the gating mechanism: in other words, a player’s optimal choice versus what they’re capable of doing. In StarCraft II, the optimal tactical decision is rarely gated behind mechanics, meaning players generally choose it if they can (the “racing with tunnel vision” point). In older games, it was impossible to do even one or two things optimally, meaning players had to pick and choose what they thought was important and focus their attention on that. Because the mechanical overhead prevented the game from moving too quickly, and because the games themselves were slower, this created more space for in-the-moment thinking.

In other words, I don’t actually disagree with Ret, but I see the role of mechanics differently. Players in StarCraft II overwhelmingly seek out the strategically optimal choice because it’s rarely gated behind an insurmountable mechanical barrier. The meta thus develops rapidly and players are rewarded for experimenting and identifying the right strategic approach to any given situation. As Thorin and I discussed, one of the downsides of this approach is that if the game settles into a very one-dimensional state, it’s very difficult to move it elsewhere without developer intervention: players are unable to use their mechanics to improve their way out of the situation. Brood Lord / Infestor and 3-Rax Reaper in TvZ are good examples of this.

From my perspective, the designers have solved this staleness problem in Legacy. Two big parts of the solution are attention-asymmetrical mechanics and unpredictable change.

For the former, with each expansion the designers introduced mechanics that require less attention than what’s required to defend them. By now, there are so many of these that even the best players in the world forget that they exist or get overwhelmed when they see them – burrowed banelings and shift-clicked liberators are two good examples. Rogue’s combination of Nydus Worms and Swarm Hosts against Neeb also come to mind, although this should be asterisked as a counter-build. The sheer number of game-changing plays in combination with how relatively easy they are to execute means that the game struggles to settle into something predictable.

With respect to the latter, the designers change the game on a regular cadence: the meta is never completely understood at any given time. Regular patching and big changes to the map pool create space for players to try lots of different strategies. The regularly rotating map pool is a notably substantial departure from older real time strategy games – for instance, Arabia has been a common competitive map in Age of Empires II for nearly twenty years. It’s also a more powerful lever in Legacy now that the designers have shown willingness to play around with features like basic resources or experimental terrain.

Nothing is ever truly gated behind mechanics thanks to the streamlining of basic macro- and micromanagement. But because mechanics are still an important skill differentiator, players can squeeze power out of a lot of different playstyles before they finally get culled out of the meta. By the time that happens, both the balance and the map pool have already radically changed.

On Strategic Mechanics

Somewhat orthogonally to Ret’s post, I also wanted to discuss the nature of each title’s mechanics. I’d argue StarCraft II has consistently tried to shift emphasis from “raw mechanics” to “strategic mechanics”; the most recent design patch tacitly acknowledged this by tapering it back for Protoss, where it had arguably gone too far. “Strategic mechanics” is usually achieved by favoring the tactical and precise use of abilities over basic move-and-shoot unit control. This philosophy has been in place since the very beginning: see Dustin Browder’s long-form response here, where he specifically makes a qualitative judgment that micro is “better” in StarCraft II. I don’t have an opinion on that, but it’s good evidence that it’s at least different:

Q: Apart from balance, the situation where one unit counters another unit is quite serious. This makes it very hard to stage a comeback in games. In Starcraft 1, players could make comebacks through the use of various strategies or through some other means. However, it is very difficult to do make combacks in Starcraft 2. What do you think about this issue?

(T/N : I have no idea how one unit type countering another unit type makes staging comebacks hard, but that’s what it seems to say in the article. Perhaps someone could explain it, or look at the original article and see what it really is talking about and translate it better than me.)

Dustin : That is actually not the case. This situation where one unit counters another unit is not as serious as it was in Starcraft 1. Let’s say we have a templar fighting a zergling, and the templar always loses. That’s a situation where we really see one unit countering another unit. As of now, the balance between unit-counters and micro is better than in Starcraft 1.

I’ve watched quite a number of tournaments. We have lots of situations where player A wins the first game, and player B comes back to win the second game. Within the games themselves, we also see the advantage keep swinging from one player to another. This shows that the state of Starcraft 2 is not that one sided. Perhaps, the situation in these tournaments are not completely accurate, but from what I see now in the top tournaments, unit counters are actually quite relative.

(T/N : I have a feeling this paragraph was translated pretty badly, but I translated it to the best of my abilities. If anyone can do a better job with this question, please don’t be shy to contribute.)

For example, let’s look at a situation where we have banelings fighting against marines. If they were to just clash against each other without any micro, the banelings will definitely kill off a lot of marines. However, if the marines have stim, I believe you can use micro to come out ahead in the engagement. Let’s look at another situation, where we have banshees against marines. In a straight up fight, the marines will definitely win the fight. Yet, if the banshee has cloak, the situation would be different. Let’s look at yet another situation, marauders against stalkers. If both sides a-move, clearly the marauder will win. However, if the stalker has blink, and uses blink well, the situation might turn out different as well.

What I find interesting about Ret’s post as well as my discussion with Thorin is that three people can look at the same set of facts and draw three substantially different conclusions about the user experience. That’s partly the nature of computer games, and partly a result of focus: I place a lot more weight on Legacy, whereas I think Ret and Thorin focus more on Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm, or at least weigh the three expansions equally.

Another thing to consider here is the point I made in my old mechanics post, where I noted that downplaying mechanics can sometimes make them the only deciding factor. I think this is what Ret is referring to when he talks about pre-programmed responses, and also what INnoVation means when he says he only needs mechanics to win in SC2. However, I’d argue Legacy and the slew of balance and design patches has mostly solved this problem.

On Player Fingerprints

Thorin mentioned a number of legendary Brood War players and noted how much they varied in playstyle. I responded that StarCraft II’s method of skill differentiation also produces a wide variety in playstyle, just not at the basic mechanical level of older games. I cited GuMiho as an example here, and used his series against soO to show how variations in playstyle are viable at the highest level of play.

I’d like to expand on this a bit and go through the playstyles of the participants at Blizzcon 2017, and see if each shows a unique fingerprint in playstyle. I’ll define fingerprint as, if you covered up the names of players and asked me to guess who’s playing, by knowing each player’s fingerprint I could guess accurately most of the time. If this is doable, then this is good evidence that StarCraft II produces substantial playstyle variance at the highest level.

Player Race Fingerprint
TY Terran Highly technical + strong in supreme late game
INnoVation Terran Flawless mechanics + repeats “tried and true” builds
GuMiho Terran Unique and often mech-oriented builds
SpeCial Terran Previously highly unique, transitioned to more standard style
Kelazhur Terran ?
herO Protoss Aggressive micro
Stats Protoss Defensive macro
Neeb Protoss ? / Stargate play, especially in the late game
Rogue Zerg Technical counter-builds + strong in supreme late game
Dark Zerg ? / Roach timings into macro builds
soO Zerg ?
Elazer Zerg ?
Nerchio Zerg ? / Emphasis on consistency
Serral Zerg ? / Ling run-bys
Snute Zerg ? / Mass queens
TRUE Zerg Strong emphasis on ling/bane

As you can see I don’t pay much attention to professional-level Zerg, but generally each player has a standout characteristic that differentiates them from the rest of the pack. In any single game it might be hard to draw a distinction between, say, TY and INnoVation, but after a few series in each match-up I think it would become clear as to who’s who. (To be fair, this assertion is very difficult to test.)

One interesting player to note here is SpeCial; last June I wrote a long-form piece highlighting his unique playstyle, but by Blizzcon he had transitioned into a much more standard Terran style. This could be used as a data point indicating the limits of “doing your own thing”.

On Casualizing the Genre

A topic we touched on briefly was whether StarCraft II sought to “casualize” the genre. Thorin makes a pretty convincing argument here that compromises made to benefit newer players will often negatively affect higher-level players – he noted Multiple Building Select and I noted unit pathing. In my response, I noted that StarCraft II’s gameplay design largely caters to higher-level players. I then discussed a somewhat related point that it fails lower-level players in its product design, and that’s where the focus should be in developing a game for both casual and hardcore audiences.

I want to talk a little bit more about StarCraft II’s product design, specifically how it’s evolved over the game’s lifecycle. I think StarCraft II’s original designers wanted to reach both casual and competitive audiences simultaneously – they wanted to design a game that was truly “easy to learn, hard to master”, and have this experience work for all players. There was no explicit desire to compromise the competitive scene – rather, the game attempted to pull casual players into the competitive scene. When discussing his vision for the game, Dustin Browder indicates a desire to both replicate the legacy of Brood War while still opening things up for new players:

Well, what we’re trying to do is create a game that hearkens back to the legacy of the original. We felt the original was such a strong game that we didn’t want to run off and abandon it and do whatever. We wanted it to feel like you were coming home to a game that you knew and loved. At the same time, we’re trying to create all-new gameplay elements, trying to create a gameplay experience that still has as much learning for you as the original StarCraft and the original Brood War did. You feel like you have to expand your mind, try new stuff; you get a chance to be creative, [and] you might be able to discover something no one’s ever seen before…

The subtext of my conversation with Thorin is that it’s not really possible to cater to both audiences simultaneously, and I think StarCraft II’s evolution to Legacy is a culmination of that realization. Legacy explicitly caters to casual players through alternate game modes like co-op and a revamped arcade. It also shows willingness to be less friendly to casual competitive players by opening up more variations in map design, pushing players to expand faster and adding a plethora of easier-to-attack-than-defend mechanics. To me, this is all evidence that the designers no longer prioritize the ranked ladder as StarCraft II’s primary multiplayer mode; rather, it’s one of many choices that players should select from.

On Comparing Brood War and StarCraft II

As I discussed with Thorin, my original article was motivated by a desire to better understand the quasi-religious war between fans of Brood War and StarCraft II. After a lot of research and playtime, I concluded that the two games featured substantially different user experiences, but that the latter game went to great lengths to try and mimic its predecessor. This was bound to create conflict, and it’s not an isolated problem to StarCraft: one of my most-watched videos ever discusses this problem in the context of Age of Empires 4, Banjo-Kazooie and Dark Souls.

It’s OK to simply dislike one iteration of the series but find the other to be the best thing since sliced bread. The notion that “it’s all StarCraft” is, from my perspective, the root of the conflict to begin with. In other words, comparisons like the original article, my discussion with Thorin, or this follow-up piece should be seen as a desire to better understand and appreciate each game rather than make a qualitative judgment as to which one is better.

However, one follow-up that I neglected to mention is the practical utility of doing such comparisons. As Thorin pointed out, this is a bit of an arcane and niche topic – why examine it so deeply?

There’s value in good design understanding, proven by StarCraft II’s evolution from Wings to Legacy. The implications of an RTS focused on mobility, the difficulty in convincing players to attack one another, and creating a meta-game that is genuinely fresh and diverse are all hard design problems that StarCraft II struggled with. All games get better after release, but few face obstacles with unknown solutions. How do you build a competitive real time strategy game on top of an engine and user interface streamlined for maximum accessibility? As I discussed in my original article, many games tried and failed to make this formula work.

StarCraft II was a revolution in the genre partly because it genuinely attempted to solve these problems, and in many cases succeeded after years of painstaking design revisions. Those hard-learned lessons are worth understanding, at the very least so future real time strategy games can avoid the same pitfalls. I won’t criticize anyone specifically here, but the genre’s graveyard of failed releases indicate that the fundamental lessons of good competitive RTS design are still not well-understood, even by those attempting to build these games.

Final Thoughts

This was a great discussion, and Thorin brought up a ton of good points and interesting things to think about. I’m not a great live speaker, so I hope folks enjoyed my end of the conversation as well. Thanks again to Thorin for having me on.

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.

P.S. If you are interested in my upcoming content, you can see my plans for 2018 here.

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