Git Gud: StarCraft II and CS:GO’s Matchmaking Systems

Hey folks,

Today I’ll be comparing the matchmaking systems in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and StarCraft II. These games feature very different types of competitive play – 1v1 for StarCraft and team-based 5v5 for Counter-Strike. Despite this structural difference, both games feature ranked ladders with ostensibly similar goals. Let’s take a closer look.

2017-04-19_sc2GrandMasterLadder.png

The Ranked Ladder

The existence of a competitive mode – i.e. a fixed set of rules considered to be ideal for competitive play – is itself an interesting thing to think about. Our understanding of the optimum competitive rules has changed dramatically over the years. For instance, many people consider 1v1 to be the default competitive experience in traditional real time strategy games. But it was only the early 2000s when the World Cyber Games included team competition in Brood War and Age of Empires II. Similarly, modern Counter-Strike’s convergence on MR15 in competitive play stands in contrast to the popularity of Chargers Only back in the beta days.

(For more on that, I recommend this wonderful video on the Chargers rule set and its history.)

The focus today is on each game’s ranked ladder, so I’ll emphasize that my point isn’t related to professional play. The reason I cite tournaments is only as evidence that rule sets have evolved and continue to do so.

What do these rule sets – in other words, competitive modes – accomplish? At a high-level, I’d argue the following: to provide competitive players with good games. I’d characterize a competitive player as someone who values winning in an environment that they find compelling. People have a tendency to interpret this very negatively, but this is misguided. It’s not just about winning – it’s about winning in a particularly compelling environment.

For instance, I believe that human beings intrinsically enjoy personal growth and improvement. Competitive games offer that experience in a predictable and enjoyable way – by striving to win in a title that gives you the opportunity to visibly grow and advance, you can satisfy a fundamental human need. In addition, the lessons that you learn while doing so are often applicable to things outside of the game itself, like the realization that hard work is quietly satisfying and enjoyable, not painful.

Incidentally – and not coincidentally – traditional sports offer similar experiences. In both cases, a game’s success hinges on whether it establishes the right environment – if it feels fair, if it’s enjoyable enough to continue playing after a string of losses, if it accurately reflects differences in work and commitment to personal improvement, and so on.

Example: Fairness in Practice

The path from the theory of competition to the nuts and bolts of how matchmaking systems are implemented is the crux of this article, so let’s sink our teeth into a concrete example. One way that we could define a matchmaker as fair is to say that it always creates matches between teams with a 50% chance of winning. As much as possible, neither side is favored to win. This enables the emergence of small mismatches in skill to become interesting points of contention. For everyone involved, the game feels winnable but not trivial; challenging but not overwhelming.

Is this ideal? Not necessarily. Here’s Rob Pardo, the lead designer on Brood War and Warcraft III, discussing the idea in an interview prior to the release of StarCraft II:

“If your matchmaking is really good, it means that for every single game, you’re kind of [on] the edge of your seat… After you play an hour or two of games like that, you’re kind of exhausted. So we’re actually talking about, ‘Is that the right matchmaking approach?’ You might want to add a little sloppiness to the matchmaking. Maybe that means sometimes you get stomped, but sometimes you have easier games. And sometimes you have the really competitive games. It’s got better pacing.”

Whether this is actually how the ladder was implemented in StarCraft II is anyone’s guess. A 2011 balance snapshot mentions skewing effects in the matchmaker but doesn’t go into detail. In any case, my larger point is that even this “sacred cow” of the system – whether or not it should strive to create games that are as even in outcome as possible – isn’t a known optimum.

Skill and Outcome

Predicting outcomes is something that matchmaking systems do very well. This is how they fairly allocate points to winners and take them away from losers. Valve even trusts their system enough to enable promotions on tie games:

2017-04-19_promoFromTie.png

But can we go a step further? Can we claim that equality in outcome – two teams having exactly a 50% chance of winning a game – signifies equality in skill?

Philosophically, you could make a practical and utilitarian argument that skill and outcome are identical – what is skill if not the ability to win? Do marine micro or proper smoke setups have a context outside of their respective games?

Counter-Strike provides an interesting test case for this question. One of the first things I noticed as I ranked up the ladder were the immense skill differences between players of the same rank. At first I assumed it was smurfing, but the pattern was durable long after my entrance into Prime Matchmaking. At times I would observe a teammate and witness play similar or better to mine – other times, I’d be shocked by misplays, misjudgments and horrific aim.

Some of this is attributable to gaming the system or having a bad day – but not all, and the problem lay in my definition of skill. I focused almost exclusively on basic moving and shooting. Over time, I started to realize that this was inaccurate, and that there were lots of different ways to contribute to a win.

For instance, I play at the Gold Nova Master level, where a lot of players don’t know any smoke setups. I’ve won more than a few games thanks to someone who knew how to land important smokes without getting picked. What surprised me was that their individual performance, good or bad, was not always relevant. It was easily dwarfed by the immense contribution they made to me and my teammates’ ability to safely enter and secure a bombsite.

I’ve had similar experiences with strong in-game leaders, particularly friendly teammates, and players who focused on support (at my level, that means baiting, giving up weapons to top scorers and taking a pistol for themselves, etc). On the flip side, I’ve seen players with relatively stronger aim and game understanding fail to translate it into wins, often times due to character flaws (e.g. alienating teammates to the point where no one will drop them a gun).

It’s undeniable that long-term outcomes for these different skill sets will diverge. A great fragger who alienates their entire team can still carry a match by themselves, whereas a good teamplayer depends heavily on having strong teammates. Does that difference in outcome also imply a difference in skill?

Theoretically, no. Outcome is contrived – the relative value of fragging is determined solely by the ruleset. We can independently change outcomes without changing anyone’s skill set. Imagine a hypothetical scenario where landing a specific smoke setup would automatically win a round.

Practically speaking, however, the difference in skill is very real. The outcomes defined by the designer ultimately determine what’s considered skillful on the competitive ladder – a player in Global Elite or Grandmaster is better than a player in Silver, period. That said, a properly designed matchmaking system within a properly designed game will ideally align the two concepts – in other words, a player’s theoretical notion of skill (things like aim and team work in Counter-Strike, micro and macro in StarCraft II) will be fully encapsulated by the outcomes in the game (i.e. becoming more skillful will lead to winning more and climbing the ladder).

How can we achieve that?

Skill-Outcome Convergence

StarCraft and Counter-Strike take different approaches to this question. StarCraft arguably has an easier problem to solve because it’s 1v1. Every skill gap will inevitably be punished because there are no teammates to compensate for it. This forces players to develop genuine breadth – good outcomes must, eventually, pair with real skill. As I argued in my video on Brood War and StarCraft II, misunderstanding this can be genuinely frustrating – cheesing your way up the ladder will only cause you to lose every macro game you play, which will make the game feel arbitrary and coin-flippy rather than fun.

While StarCraft benefits from being a 1v1 game, that isn’t enough. For instance, if it were badly balanced, it would drive players to exploit the current meta rather than deeply study the game in its entirety. Balancing properly is a separate and very hard problem, but it needs to be done right in order to achieve skill-outcome convergence. I won’t go into that topic in detail in this article, but I’ve written about it at length.

The details of Counter-Strike’s system are not as transparent as StarCraft’s, but we can still learn things from external observation. There’s evidence indicating that individual performance matters in a player’s ranking. A couple posters on Reddit discovered it actually matters quite a lot, at least in placement games. They bought brand new copies of Global Offensive and played all of their placements together, with one player playing normally and the other merely acting as support. By the end, the normal player ranked a full two ranks higher than his supporting counterpart.

How Counter-Strike measures individual performance is anyone’s guess, but it’s a good jumping off point to discuss the game’s points system. Points are obtained by getting kills, getting assists, planting and defusing bombs, and a few other things. That might not seem like a lot, but it’s substantially more granular than simply winning or losing. Rewarding players for playing well is a good thing for the player experience, and it makes losing a lot less painful. That all being said, it would be pure speculation to say that points are related to rating – furthermore, there’s no evidence that a player can get demoted off of a win or promoted off a loss, meaning there’s a limit to how much individual performance matters to begin with.

I mention points because of their potential to create a spectrum of outcomes beyond the fixed win-lose paradigm. Now don’t get me wrong, a competitive game benefits from the concept of winning. But what I appreciate about Counter-Strike is the way it makes every game enjoyable, not just the victories – no matter how tough the match, you always get in a lot of great shots, a few good rounds, maybe even a clutch or an ace. The rule set is designed such that losing doesn’t necessarily make playing feel like a waste of time.

I think you could theoretically expand this to the matchmaking system by enabling points-based victories. You could imagine a real time strategy game decided by the winner of the most key encounters over the course of a game rather than just the player who won in the end. This would be such a massive shift in design philosophy that it would likely need to be built into a game from the ground-up – I mention it simply because it’s interesting to think about.

Convergence in Team-Based Play

If Counter-Strike limits how much influence individual performance has on a player’s rating, how can it have any hope of generating accurate ratings?

There are a couple of interesting factors here. One is that individual performance has a surprisingly substantial impact on the overall team’s outcome. About a month or two ago I began recording the results of my Global Offensive matches and my rank within each game. Here were the results:

My Score Ranking (End of Game) Proportion of Games Won
1st 57%
2nd 60%
3rd 64%
4th 36%
5th 41%

If I was at the top of the score board – i.e. contributing significantly – my team tended to win. If I was at the bottom – i.e. not pulling my weight – my team tended to lose. It’s true that the sample size is small (~100 games) and rank is not necessarily the same as contribution, but the point is nonetheless the same. I was rewarded for playing well and punished for playing poorly.

A larger conclusion I reached from this experience is that for every game lost due to bad teammates, there was a game that was won due to good teammates. I did not deserve to win many of the games where I ranked 5th, much the same way I carried worse players when I was the top scorer (both based on my own subjective evaluation, of course). Teammates’ impact on your rating evens out. The only variable that changes in the long-run is you.

(Here’s another nice video on the overemphasis that’s placed on bad teammates.)

Is this simply the nature of team games? I don’t think so, much the same way it’s not the nature of 1on1 games. For one, Counter-Strike’s design equalizes the five players on a team far more than many other games. A defensive lineman in American Football simply isn’t going to score as many points as a wide receiver – and if that’s what his team needs, his ability to change the outcome of a game will be limited.

For another, Counter-Strike empowers players to perform individually by facilitating creativity. I previously wrote about this at length.

Hidden Ratings

The opacity of the Global Offensive system is itself interesting to think about. Counter-Strike doesn’t provide players with their exact rating, choosing a league-based system instead. It also doesn’t reveal many details of how these leagues are calculated. By contrast, StarCraft II revamped its ladder in 2016 and cited increased transparency as one of its primary goals. This resulted in publicly visible matchmaking ratings, more fine-grained leagues and greater transparency around Grandmaster placement.

Which way is better? Speaking personally, I always considered StarCraft’s hidden ratings to be a mistake. Skills development and healthy competition are huge driving factors in competitive play. Hiding skill ratings detracts from that and makes it hard to know how you’re doing and what your trajectory is. It may be anxiety-inducing to see a number change after every game, but that’s not better than losing a game and misunderstanding your likelihood to have won in the first place. In any case, folks who stress over lost ladder points will stress regardless of whether or not they knew how many points there were to begin with.

I still believe in those ideas when it comes to StarCraft, but whether they can be applied to Counter-Strike depends on how much the game factors in individual performance. If it does, then hiding ratings prevents players from gaming the system. It’d be difficult to make a team game immune to this problem, so opacity is a simple but effective band-aid to avoid it altogether.

I think in the future we’ll see advancement in this area as computing power becomes cheaper and easier to leverage. For instance, Valve could use machine learning to identify common situations – say, a CT attempting a retake of the B bombsite on Inferno after a rotation through CT spawn. A player who loses could then be shown a replay of a professional player executing the exact same retake to identify where the player went wrong. A sufficiently advanced implementation could even identify quote-unquote “perfect” moves from professionals, and reward ladder points depending on how close players get to the ideal.

This is all speculation. The implementation of such a system would not be trivial. Furthermore, we’d never want to place emphasis on process over outcome. If a player retakes a site then they retake a site, it doesn’t matter whether they theoretically should have gone about it differently. I mention this mostly because I think it’s cool.

Leagues and Demotions

Even though Counter-Strike hides its ratings, it doesn’t spare its players’ feelings – it demotes them in real-time. StarCraft does this on a season-by-season basis.

The existence of promotions and demotions assumes a league system, which both games have. We should first convince ourselves that this is a good thing; for instance, does StarCraft benefit from a league system now that matchmaking ratings are public?

I think the answer is a clear yes. Back when I played competitive Age of Empires, the only thing you had was a public ELO rating. That didn’t prevent the creation of leagues. Rather than the official ladder providing them, they were informally specified by the community. Ratings ranged from 1400 and 1500 all the way to the mid-2000s, and players tended to discuss skill level as a function of the hundreds digit – for instance, by stating they were a 1900+ player.

The problem is that ELO ratings are difficult to compare across different eras. When a game is popular and lots of new players are laddering, they feed their points upward and inflate the ratings of the best players. When a game is declining and new players are improving faster than other new players are feeding, they take points away from the top and deflate the ratings of the best. Ratings at any given time become a function of the ladder population than a true measurement of player skill.

(For a more in-depth look at rating inflation and deflation, I recommend the Wikipedia entry.)

This happened most clearly in Age of Mythology, whose competitive scene dwindled after the release of Age of Titans and a multi-year hiatus from the World Cyber Games. The best AoM players had a rating of 2400, whereas by the end of Titans the top of the ladder was 2100. It would be inaccurate to compare these numbers directly, especially since there were players who were at the top of both games. They didn’t get 300 points worse – their rating just deflated along with everyone else’s.

Leagues fix this problem by formalizing skill ranges. StarCraft explicitly uses a percentile-based system. Counter-Strike appears to leverage a bell curve based on publicly available data, although how it’s actually implemented is once again anyone’s guess. In both cases, ranks are directly comparable across eras and thereby provide a more accurate notion of player performance (modulo changes to the ladder system itself). You can implicitly understand what someone means when they say they were a Diamond player in Heart of the Swarm – you simply couldn’t do the same by comparing MMR.

Leagues have lots of other benefits, too. They’re a visible and easy-to-remember categorization of player skill. If players take pride in working hard and climbing up the ladder – as they well should – leagues are a bit like a badge of honor. It feels a lot better to stake membership in a league than it does to claim a raw rating, or even a percentile.

If we assume that leagues are a good thing for a matchmaking system, then we concede that we have to demote players eventually. Otherwise, the league system becomes meaningless. When’s the right time?

At the very least, there needs to be some sort of buffer. It would be jarring to sit on the border of two leagues and get promoted or demoted after every game. I think this would eliminate one of the core benefits of the league system, the visible and easy-to-remember categorization.

On the flip side, I think the season-by-season approach of StarCraft is too delayed. This is likely just personal preference, but it’s a bummer to know that a derank is coming. I’d rather just have it happen mid-season than wait a month or two. If it were up to me, I’d like to see StarCraft demote faster and promote slower – perhaps wait until players are two tiers away from their current rank, in either direction, before changing their league status.

That said, there are plenty of merits to a season-based system – I just don’t think alignment with demotions is one of them. The lack of a season system in Counter-Strike is noticeable. Seasons enable developers to organize gameplay updates around predictable dates, which can make engaging with the game feel more stable. It avoids things like this:

2017-04-19_dust2RemovedFromLadder
The removal of dust2 from the competitive ladder hit some players hard.

League Distribution and Top-Tier Players

If we’re going to build a leagues system, how many of them should we have? What’s the ideal division of players into leagues?

To start, it makes sense for the league system to reflect how players would organically self-categorize – after all, this is partially why it exists. In this light, the original StarCraft II implementation featured too few leagues, and it’s unsurprising that the number of leagues has risen over time. The existence of concepts like “High Diamond” was an indication that the league system wasn’t accurately labeling players. The ladder revamp fixed this by splitting each league into three tiers, creating 19 distinct leagues per region.

On the surface, this seems similar to Counter-Strike’s system, which features 18 leagues. There is, however, a crucial difference in how players are distributed. StarCraft allocates four leagues for the top 4% of its player base – Master’s 3, Master’s 2, Master’s 1, and Grandmaster. You could also conceivably argue that the Contender Ladder is its own League, a sort of high Master’s 1.

According to publicly available data, the top 4% of Counter-Strike’s matchmaking playerbase is distributed across the top three leagues – one (arguably two) fewer than StarCraft.

This might seem like a minor point, but it’s actually a big deal. The reason why relates to how skill distribution works in these games. Let’s examine the very highest tier in StarCraft II, Grandmaster. This league contains only the top 0.3% of players. To keep things simple, we’ll only look at the Korean region, although this analysis can also be applied to EU and NA.

The best player on the Korean ladder as of this writing is a Korean professional, INnoVation. He has a matchmaking rating of 6994. The player at the very bottom of the Grandmaster ladder (#200) is an anonymous barcode. He has a matchmaking rating of 5473.

For reference, a 315 MMR difference translates to a 75% win rate for the higher-rated player. By contrast, what we have here is a 1521 point difference.

That’s massive.

Skill distribution just works differently at the very top than it does for everyone else. The difference between a below-average and an above-average player – say, between Gold 1 and Diamond 3 in StarCraft, or Gold Nova I and Distinguished Master Guardian in CS:GO – isn’t all that much. It’d be reasonable to practice every day and expect oneself to improve quickly and climb up the leagues in a matter of a few months.

(That said, even though the difference isn’t a lot, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to overcome. If you’re a casual competitive player, it’s probably because you’re a more serious doer-of-something-else, meaning you can’t just add an extra hour of daily esports practice to your schedule willy-nilly.)

By contrast, the difference between the very best casual competitive players and the very best professionals is a yawning chasm. A low Grandmaster player might get off work everyday and grind out a few hours of StarCraft, whereas a professional will play the game for six or eight or ten hours a day, everyday. Solar claimed to have played 70 games a day in preparation for the SSL finals he later won – at ten minutes a game (a conservative estimate), that’s more than eleven hours.

StarCraft’s matchmaking system illustrates these differences by ranking the very best players by exact rating. It also features a fine-grained breakdown of the pretty good players – three leagues of Master’s in addition to Contender, if you count that.

Counter-Strike, by comparison, provides almost no visibility whatsoever. Its highest league, Global Elite, comprises the top 1% of players – three times larger than StarCraft II’s Grandmaster. If you assume that skill disparities in Counter-Strike follow the same pattern as StarCraft – and there’s little reason not to, given that the skill ceiling is unreachable and lots of players grind the game everyday – then the Global Elite label becomes almost meaningless. For a “casual competitive player”, reaching Global Elite is the beginning, not the end, of a journey on Counter-Strike’s competitive ladder.

I’d argue that an ideal matchmaking system would feature just as many leagues for its very best players as it does for the other 99%. Theoretically, StarCraft already achieves this through precise Grandmaster rankings.

Counter-Strike is way behind in this regard. Some players may argue against this by claiming that once players reach Global Elite, they’ve effectively outgrown the competitive ladder – it’s time for them to move to ESEA and start grinding toward A+ and Rank S (if not outright join a team and participate in full-fledged leagues). But this is a failure on the part of the matchmaking system. It’s one thing for a third-party service to focus on solving a problem that’s not important to the core gameplay experience. It’s another to essentially replace the core gameplay experience because the existing system doesn’t do the job at higher levels.

Alternatively, readers might argue that the matchmaking system shouldn’t try to solve this problem in the first place. After all, Counter-Strike is a team game. Players at the highest levels should be practicing with their teams. But twelve years ago people would have said precisely the same thing for anyone above CAL-O – the notion of a solo queue would have been laughable (as anyone who spammed “looking for pug” in mIRC can remember). Before we assume that matchmaking is unworkable for the top 1% or that a third party system is inherently required, we should at least try to make the default system work.

Placements

We’ve discussed the top of the ladder at length – but how about the bottom? Both Counter-Strike and StarCraft require players to play a minimum number of ranked games before providing them with a league placement (and, in StarCraft’s case, their exact rating).

Placements reflect the matchmaker’s uncertainty about a new player’s rating. This enables the matchmaker to pad ratings adjustments and place players faster and more accurately. This is a huge step forward from previous systems. In Age of Empires, the original Dawn of War and early days WarCraft III, top players on new accounts would play dozens upon dozens of games to climb up to their expected rating.

StarCraft has practically perfected this. Its modified TrueSkill system requires only five placement games, and it’s extremely accurate. Just today, the top account in Korea’s Contender League has only played 17 games.

Counter-Strike, by contrast, requires ten competitive wins before placement. Not merely ten games – ten wins. Assuming a 50-50 win rate, that’s twenty competitive matches. At forty five minutes a match, that’s 15 hours of competitive play before your rating is visible.

That requires some serious dedication. I don’t have any data on this, but my belief is that the more placements a player needs to complete, the more likely it is they’ll get discouraged by the process. Having a visible rank and knowing what you’re working toward are powerful motivators to keep grinding the ladder. It’d be better to place players much faster than today.

Folks might argue that Counter-Strike is solving a harder problem because it’s a team game. But I’d argue that’s just an excuse. Like I mentioned above, the whole notion of a solo queue would have been considered impossible more than a decade ago and sparked replies of “only a paid service like ESEA can pull that off”. Yet Global Offensive managed to solve that problem.

In fact, Global Offensive has pushed the medium forward in a lot of ways. An experience system, the in-game economy, automated queuing, bots out-of-the-box – all features that build player engagement and add to the Counter-Strike experience. Like I mentioned before, there are lots of ideas with potential merit for more accurately evaluating skill, even some science-fiction level solutions. Imagine, say, a “time-to-kill” metric that was calculated using replays and computer vision that determined, on average, how quickly a player killed an opponent once they appeared on their screen.

I’m not arguing that’s the best idea – or even a good idea. My point is that there’s still so much that we could be doing better. We shouldn’t write off problems as impossible until we’re fully convinced of it.

Final Thoughts

There’s a few other minor things I wanted to touch on, but we’ve already gone pretty long today. I think this is a good time to wrap-up.

The most surprising conclusion from this exercise was how similar these two games’ matchmaking systems are. Despite their structural differences, the goal of enabling competitive play remains the same. There’s a lot that each game can learn from the other, like making losses less painful in StarCraft or fixing the higher-level leagues and placements in Counter-Strike. Furthermore, there’s a lot that other games can learn from studying these two masterpieces.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this piece, please consider following me on Twitter and Facebook and checking out my game-design focused YouTube and Twitch channels. All the best and see you next time.

Additional References

Facilitating Creativity (CS:GO / SC2 / Esports Game Design)

Hey folks,

Today’s piece focuses on player creativity in esports and how game designers can encourage (or discourage) it.

What is Creativity?

2017-03-27_titleCard.png

To kick things off, let’s define our terminology:

creativity – the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work. synonyms: inventiveness, imagination, innovation, innovativeness, originality, individuality (Google)

Creativity is originality – the expression of novel ideas or the creation of unique works. It is not merely repeating what’s been done before. The relationship with individuality is also interesting, and reasonable when you think about it. If uniqueness is an integral part to creativity, then it’s likely a contributing factor to it will be the the indivisible uniqueness of the individual.

Player creativity in a game, then, is an individual player’s novel ways of thinking or doing while playing. This means that, at a minimum, a game needs to allow novelty in the first place. We shouldn’t assume that this is an essential component of game design. Plenty of brilliant games neuter or outright prevent individual playstyles. I’m currently in the process of an in-depth commentary on Banjo-Kazooie, an absolutely incredible title that limits creative player action in almost every way. Playthroughs of the game by different players will be almost identical, modulo differences in ability that prevent the collection of harder late-game items.

When I discuss creativity in this piece, I’ll be focusing specifically on creative action or creative works – in other words, excluding merely thinking creatively. For instance, a player in StarCraft can use their imagination to see a ladder game as a literal acting-out of the game’s plot, and perhaps the game encourages or discourages that line of thinking. This piece won’t worry about that – here, we’re focused on creative works.

Creative works are both novel (unique, individual, etc) and useful. I pull this definition from the Creativity Achievement Questionnaire, which itself pulls it from a 1955 study on advertising. The idea is that it’s not enough for something to be novel, it must also provide some value… it “must be both original and functional or adapted in some pragmatic way to reality”. Otherwise, any random action in the infiniteness of the human condition could be described as creative.

Utility is a useful concept in esports because esports emphasize competition, improvement, and winning. While they are certainly intrinsically enjoyable to play, they also encourage players to play better. It’s not merely enough to express your individuality to win at an esport. Your expression must provide you with value, whatever that may be.

For example, a creative player might leverage their high individual ability with banelings, burrow, and multi-tasking to effectively use Baneling bombs to win games. I’d describe this as a creative work because it’s both novel and useful.

Another player might creatively design a new build order – ebay first, three CC into first supply depot. This is novel – but not useful.

Why Facilitate Creativity?

I think there are a lot of good reasons for game designers to facilitate (i.e. encourage and make possible) player creativity in games. For one, I think injecting one’s individual playstyle into the structure of a game and seeing how it plays out is inherently fun. I’d say that’s a big appeal of the Souls series. For another, it can enable replayability by allowing players to experience the same game multiple times, but in different ways depending on how they choose to play the game.

When it comes to esports specifically, I think there are specific, compelling motivations for enabling individual creativity separate from traditional games. Here are two I consider to be important:

Content-driven vs. Player-driven

In game design, the designer typically views their role as enabling players to have a specific experience. Here’s Jesse Schell describing the concept in The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses:

… And this is the paradox of experiences. On one level, they are shadowy and nebulous, and on another, they are all we know. But as tricky as experiences can be, creating them is all a game designer really cares about.

There isn’t necessarily one “perfect” way of accomplishing this. I’d argue esports share a common way of going about it that’s distinct from traditional games – they’re player-driven rather than content-driven.

In a traditional game, a designer creates a number of gameplay systems and mechanics that work in concert to convey a specific player experience. The designer drives the player to engage with these mechanics using content – obstacles, challenges, worlds to explore, dialogue to discover, a plot to unravel, and so on. The two pieces work together such that if a designer has done their job, by the end of the game the player has gotten whatever experience the designer intended to convey.

Mass Effect (the original) is a great example of a traditional, content-driven game. The designers created a whole suite of mechanics, from the large and interesting universe to compelling characters to enjoyable gunplay. They then build a bunch of content, from the initial descent to Eden Prime all the way to the hard choices of Virmire, that exercise those mechanics in a way that’s intended to convey an experience.

(Note that you could also view this in reverse and argue that mechanics are sometimes built to exercise content rather than the other way around. You could also note the interdependency between mechanics and content, and ask where the line is drawn. Both very interesting and, for the purposes of this discussion, not important. Another time.)

For instance, choice is a big part of Mass Effect, and also one of its most criticized features. Many folks, including the creative director of the latest Mass Effect: Andomeda, noted that players tended to pick ways of playing (either Paragon or Renegade) rather than genuinely engaging with the dialogue.

I’d argue that these criticisms miss the point, and help explain why Andromeda’s new arbitrary tonal dialogue system has been poorly received by players. The mechanic BioWare adopted in the original Mass Effect was choice, but the experience was a lot more than that. It was about the ability to interactively live as the hero – or a renegade of chaos, depending on your preferences. The core story arc of the first game has more in common with Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, or C.S. Lewis than it does with anything in science fiction – except this time, you get to be the paragon of moral virtue rather than just reading about it.

The point of this long tangent is two-fold, and brings us back to our original point. Like many traditional games, Mass Effects attempts to 1) convey a specific experience by 2) driving that experience with content.

I’d argue esports work differently. Relative to traditional games, they feature less content. Despite this, esports also expect players to invest more hours than traditional, content-heavy games.

Take Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. There are only eight or so active competitive maps at any given time, and each is small enough to walk across in about a minute. But play any amount of matchmaking and observe how players measure playtime by the hundreds of hours. It’s rare for a traditional game to engross players with so little content for so long.

Esports do this by enabling players to generate value in their own experiences rather than building content to do it for them. A symptom of this approach is that esports tend to feature simpler graphical styles than other games.

Take CS:GO (an esport) and Battlefield 1 (a traditional multiplayer shooter). Counter-Strike’s worlds are unusually bright and clutter-free relative to other large multiplayer shooters, a comparison I examined in-depth in my video on player-driven design. By contrast, here’s a quote from a Senior Concept Artist at DICE explaining how the company thinks about Battlefield, a game that I would classify as featuring traditional game design:

“…Battlefield is also about the epicness of it, the vastness, and so it’s key we get that into each level. We also cater to a good variation with everything – the idea is that no battle is ever the same. In level design a big factor is our dynamic events, and the destruction this time is more intuitive, it’s more natural. We can reshape the environment around you when you play, but also things like the dynamic weather comes in to give a sort of fresh unpredictability to levels. You can have clear rain suddenly turn to thick fog or heavy rain, and in the case of Sinai Desert there’s a sandstorm – making sure that it’s never the same experience twice – you always have a new one.” – Robert Sammelin, Senior Concept Artist at DICE

The content within the game itself – in this case, the weather and the multitude of graphical effects that accompany it – drives the player’s experience.

2016-02-05_baseImage_markup11.png

Counter-Strike is different, intentionally. The game’s designers want to get out of the player’s way. The game is an environment, an arena, a facilitator – it provides enough structure and content for players to drive and construct their own compelling experiences.

2017-02-05_baseImage_markup3.png

How a player in Counter-Strike approaches a situation depends more on them than it does on anything specified in the game – their sense of where the game is, their belief in their ability to use the weapon they have, their effectiveness in collaborating with their teammates, what they personally enjoy doing, and so on.

A player in competitive Counter-Strike might defend a particular bombsite or rush down a particular hallway thousands upon thousands of times. The value in doing so isn’t content within the game – it doesn’t suddenly start raining in Dust2, the visibility in Mirage’s palace doesn’t randomly change from round to round. The game doesn’t proactively try to make itself more interesting. Instead, the player drives the experience based on their individual style, skill, and what they find enjoyable.

And this brings us back full circle. Esports, because they are relatively less content-driven than traditional games, benefit more from design that facilitates player creativity and individual playstyles. The more a designer can enable a player to play a game “their own way”, the more likely it is that a player will enjoy their experience.

Watchability

In today’s edition of “what a time to be alive”, how a game comes across on an online video platform like YouTube is a reasonable consideration to take into account when building it. This is true even for very traditional, very content-driven games: here’s an example from the very wonderful Overcooked.

2017-03-27_overcookedCaptureAnything.png

Esports are often even more concerned with this than traditional games. Many esports are also spectator sports, with massive tournaments, professional players, even live television broadcasts. The professional scene builds engagement with the title and helps drive revenue – it’s win-win. As a result, it’s part of an esports game designer’s job to care about how their game comes across on the big screen.

I’d argue that facilitating creativity and individual playstyles goes a long way in improving the watchability of an esport. One way that it does this is by enabling professional players to stand out from their peers and showcase unique styles. This allows these players to build fan bases and attract people to events by name alone. Tournament organizers can build on this by promoting specific storylines. For instance, I really enjoy watching TRUE play StarCraft II, because his ability to single-mindedly focus on ling/bane and still play at a Code S level is incredibly fun to watch.

Individuality can also counterbalance weaknesses in the meta-game. If the moment-to-moment gameplay in professional competition becomes too predictable, it will also become boring. This will drive spectators away from the sport. The ability for players to make plays and showcase creativity can offset this and keep things interesting.

Game Systems

Next, I’d like to talk about a couple game systems that I think are interesting to think about through the lens of facilitating player creativity. By thinking about how these systems work and what their advantages and disadvantages are, we might be able to tease out some good, general ideas for facilitating creativity in esports.

Game System #1: Weapon Viability in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is different from other modern shooters in that its competitive mode emphasizes the use of a very small number of weapons. Most weapons are difficult or outright inadvisable to use in professional matches – at the very highest level, weapons like the AK-47 are simply better than almost everything else a player can purchase while on the T-side.

I’m not sure how intentional this design was. Counter-Strike was originally a mod for Half-Life, whose online Deathmatch emphasized the use of a small fraction of its total offering of weapons. The developers of Counter-Strike at least made some effort to balance out the guns (remember the original G5?). Regardless of what the intent was, the result by 1.6 was an even stronger version of what’s described above. Hardly anything was viable in competitive play, and entire matches would go by where the only weapons that were purchased were the M4, AK-47, AWP, and Deagle.

I’d argue that this has a positive impact on player creativity and individual play style, in a few respects. Before I do that, I’ll first differentiate between “generally viable” and “situationally viable”.

A weapon that’s generally viable in competitive play is one that can be purchased in most, if not all, situations. The game’s Assault Rifles fall into this category.

It’s not really possible to make multiple weapons of the same class “generally viable”. If two weapons can be used in most or all situations, then one of two things is true: either they’re identical or they’re not. If they’re identical, then we haven’t accomplished our goal of making different weapons viable. If they’re not identical, then one will be generally better than the other, and players will always choose that one.

By contrast, a weapon that’s situationally viable is the ideal weapon for a player in a limited number of situations. For instance, sub-machine guns in Global Offensive are situationally viable. They’re only the optimal choice some of the time; however, in those situations they’re arguably better than rifles because they net the player a larger monetary reward for getting a kill. This can make it easier to fund an AWP purchase a round or two later.

Thus, it is possible to make more weapons situationally viable, but not generally viable. General viability is a zero-sum game. Trying to increase the number of situationally viable weapons creates a bunch of different problems, and I’ll discuss the ones related to facilitating creativity.

On a practical level, I think a smaller number of viable weapons reduces designer interference and allows the meta-game to develop organically. To state this in reverse, if a designer makes more weapons situationally viable, then a player’s actions in those situations will by definition be less creative. The designer has injected themselves into the situation and proclaimed that a particular set of behaviors – in this case, using a particular weapon – should be prioritized over what the player individually thinks is best.

There’s also another practical issue with respect to game balance. Esports are complicated not just by design but in practice – they’re played at a professional level, which means that there’s a constant race to identify new nuggets of information and find new depth within the gameplay. If there’s a balance or design flaw within the game, a professional player will eventually find it. Its use in a professional game will then spread awareness to the rest of the world all but instantly.

Each additional gameplay feature, like another weapon that’s intended to be situationally viable at a professional level, makes the job of balancing the game exponentially more difficult. All the different situations the designer needs to keep track of suddenly have a new dimension worth thinking about. It’s inevitable that this will create pathological problems; it’s inevitable that these pathological problems will become widely known; and in the end, every single one will limit creative thinking. Players are encouraged to do whatever the meta prescribes in this “broken” situation rather than doing what they individually think is best.

This demands a response from the designer, who issues a balance patch. But the problem was created by designer interference in the first place, meaning that another patch risks creating more problems. This can turn into something of an infinite loop.

That’s compelling, but we’re still not done making our argument. Twice now I’ve made this statement – “doing what the player individually thinks is best” – and cited it as a benefit of facilitating creativity. Surely there are readers who have experienced the wonder that is queueing up for matchmaking and witnessing a teammate buy pump shotguns every round. Perhaps we don’t want players to individually determine what’s “best”?

It’s definitely true that there lots of “wrong” responses to particular situations. But the solution to this is not for the designer to prescribe a specific approach to every situation; it’s not like that’s going to convince the guy who doesn’t see the merits of buying Kevlar.

Rather, what I appreciate about the lack of weapon viability in Counter-Strike is the way it enables a spectrum of correct choices. What it lacks in viable weapons it makes up for it in depth. As I discussed previously:

Spray patterns, interactions between accuracy and movement, optimal movement across a map, playing your opponent’s positions, coordinating effectively with teammates and so on are deep, complex, and fine-grained skills that can never really be mastered, only improved upon. Because the skill ceiling is unreachable, a player who works hard to develop skill in a particular playstyle will beat a player who works less hard on a theoretically more optimal way of playing the game. The high skill ceiling removes the concept of diminishing returns and the harder-working player wins out.

This is pure facilitation of creativity – whatever it is that needs to be done, the game isn’t giving you any more tools. This is great, because it means the player doesn’t have to think about what the designer wanted them to do. They can just buy an AK and practice. As in the pump shotgun example above, this is not perfect. There will always be lots of wrong ways of playing the game, where wrong is defined as a decision that all but certainly reduces your probability of winning a game. But this does not mean that there should only be one right decision – there can be lots, and it’s very player-dependent and situational. Not only is this fun to play, it’s extremely fun to watch as well.

A counter-intuitive takeaway from this is that there is such a thing as too much choice. The limitation in the number of viable weapons actually increases the number of real player choices because the depth in the handful of weapons that the player does use enables the player to choose many different correct responses to a situation. They can play aggressively or passively, close or far, and so on. The outcome depends on their skill level rather than what the designer has prescribed, creating genuine choices.

I think there’s a larger principle at work here relating to structure and its impact on creativity. I don’t think we’ve really “nailed it”, but I do think we’re onto something. More on this in the future.

Game System #2: All-in Rushes in StarCraft II

StarCraft II features a large number of early game cheeses and all-in rushes. Coming from an Age of Empires background, this was initially quite frustrating. After the wide prevalance of feudal age rushing in Age of Empires 2, Ensemble substantially buffed early game defenses and reigned in the sprawling nature of the economy, dealing a death blow to most rush strategies. As a result, the competitive meta typically featured longer games that ended in the mid-to-late game.

Over time, I came to appreciate this difference in design philosophy and now consider StarCraft’s approach to be superior. I’d argue that cheesing facilitates creativity and individual playstyles in the larger meta-game.

It does this by preventing players from defaulting to the greediest possible openers. Aside from the first thirty seconds or so of gameplay, openers begin to diverge depending on how safe or greedy a player wants to play. The right decision depends on a lot of factors, including the map, the match-up, what they think their opponent is going to do, the scouting information they have, and, importantly, how they individually like to play.

This leads into a huge variety of mid-game compositions. This is important because, going back to our Counter-Strike example, the outcome in any given situation often depends on what a player has practiced and what they’re comfortable doing rather than a prescription from the designer. Enabling variety in the mid-game means that a lot of different players are going to get good at a lot of different things. This helps contribute to strategic diversity in the competitive scene.

For instance, watch professional level games and ask yourself how often a player could have opened in the most greedy way possible. The answer is “most of the time” – so why don’t they? Because they know that they could get cheesed, so they play some variation of a safe opener and scout to see how greedy they can be. This makes things a lot more interesting and creates a huge variety in games instead of the same thing over and over.

You can see additional evidence of this by reading a retrospective on some of the top players in StarCraft II. The number of different referenced playstyles is stunning. The best players were often famous for the way they played the game particularly well, for their individual styles and what they liked to focus on. I’d argue that cheesing was part of why this was possible – by creating genuine strategic diversity in the mid-game.

All that said, what’s interesting about cheesing is the way its balance sits on a knife’s edge: there are instances where it hampers creativity, too. Three-rax reaper in TvZ and TvT prior to the Cyclone buff and grenade nerf, particularly on certain reaper-friendly maps like Orbital Shipyard and Galactic Process, created a huge number of one-dimensional games. TvT especially became more and more one-dimensional until the Cyclone buff in Patch 3.8, with many top players adopting the standard reaper-helion opening in virtually every game.

Why didn’t three-rax reaper facilitate creativity? I’d argue the problem was its lack of depth. With most cheeses, there’s a spectrum of all-in-ness and a spectrum of safety. There’s a ton of compelling decision making where players need to decide how much to commit and what to do next. Scouting and using game sense to make decisions with incomplete information come into play. A lot of a player’s success hinges on their individual ability to control their units and macro effectively under pressure.

Three-rax reaper diverged from this in two important ways. One is how early it hit – in TvT, if a player did a standard fast expand opener against three-rax reaper, they would take game-ending damage before their factory was complete. This negated even the “standard safe” openers, effectively forcing players to open reaper-helion.

That might not sound so bad, but there’s a big difference between openers diverging at the thirty second and three minute marks – the latter has already stripped away a huge amount of strategic variety from the mid-game.

On top of this, reapers’ grenades and health regeneration create a snowball effect in which the strategy actually gets stronger in the early-mid game instead of weaker, in contrast with most other cheeses. This meant the defending player needed to assume the cheese was continuing longer than they would for other cheeses.

These two assumptions culled the spectrum of creative responses – it limited the number of viable openers and limited the number of mid-game “forks in the road” for players to choose from. This created a more one-dimensional playing experience.

The takeaway, for me, is that cheeses need to find the right balance between preventing overly greedy play while also not forcing overly safe play. They need to facilitate a complex and deep mid-game rather than forcing it in one particular direction. When this is done well – as I’d argue it generally is in StarCraft II – it enables lots of creativity from players and makes the game a whole lot more fun to watch to boot.

Before I go further, I do want to address a common counter-argument to the existence of cheeses. Many folks argue (correctly) that they are a pain point for players. Many players would rather play macro games without worrying about the huge variety in early game rushes.

I completely understand this perspective; I don’t think cheeses are a free win, from a design perspective, by any means. But I also think that addressing this pain point is more complicated than simply preventing rushes. Without the threat of a cheese, a lot of depth gets taken away from the mid-game because players all open the same way. This ironically takes away a lot of the fun of the macro games we were trying to encourage in the first place.

Final Thoughts

Creativity in games is a huge topic, deserving way more coverage than what’s written here. I hope I’ve at least managed to do it some proper justice with this piece. I’d argue esports benefit greatly from facilitating player creativity, and we can learn a lot from existing games as to how to do that effectively.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this article, please consider following me on Twitter or Facebook and checking out my game-design-focused YouTube and Twitch channels. All the best and see you next time.

Mindset, Work, and Results

Hey folks,

Today I’ll be discussing player mindset and its importance to achievement in real time strategy games.

Mindset

2016-01-29_leaguePlacementScreen.png

“Our thoughts shape us. We become our obsessions. Our thoughts can enslave us or save us.” – Kilroy J. Oldster, Dead Toad Scrolls

Mindset is the mental approach that a player adopts in their real time strategy career. This means things like self-awareness, positive or negative outlook, and locus of control. In this piece, I’ll argue that mindset is critically important to achievement in real time strategy games. To do this, I’ll leverage the idea to re-frame the relationship between hard work and results.

Hard Work and Results

Let’s start by crisply defining hard work and results.

Hard work usually refers to time-consuming work that involves some form of sacrifice. When people think of this concept, they imagine someone slaving away at a difficult or tedious task for hours on end, using discipline to stay focused and avoid getting distracted. The time invested and the personal sacrifice are what make hard work hard. Playing a few ladder games isn’t enough – when people talk about hard working competitors, they’re referring to players grinding out thousands of games a season, day in and day out.

Results refers to the goals that someone is trying to achieve.

The relationship between work and results is typically framed as cause-and-effect – in order to achieve some result, a person needs to work at it. Particularly difficult goals – like winning a prestigious event – are framed as the result of especially hard work. Different people may place different emphasis on the importance of circumstances, good fortune, natural talent, and so on, but no one could reasonably argue that a great deal of work is somehow optional to winning a major StarCraft tournament – the importance of muscle memory alone puts that argument to rest.

The Problem With Hard Work

That player is only in GM because they play all day. I would be in GM if I played that much, too.” – Players Who Suck

This cause-and-effect relationship misrepresents the role of hard work, or at least frames it in a misleading way.

The issue is that cause-and-effect often subtly implies that the cause is spontaneous – do this and that will happen. Do this exercise and that muscle growth will happen. Take this medicine and that disease will be cured. Study this text and you will pass that test.

But anybody who’s worked as a personal trainer, prescribed medicine or handed out a test knows that it’s just not that simple. People will search for any excuse possible to avoid exercise, willfully ignore doctor’s orders to their own peril, and procrastinate studying for important exams until the very last minute.

What’s the gap? Between knowing what to do and doing it is a space: a space that we’ll call mindset. Mindset determines whether you think exercise is important, whether doctors are worth listening to, and whether tests are worth thoroughly studying for. In this way, doing something is not really a cause so much as it is an effect – an effect of a proper mindset.

Readers may argue that it’s both – mindset causes work, and work causes results. What’s important to remember is that we don’t care about work, we care about necessary work – the work that’s required to achieve a specific result. There’s a whole bunch of work out there that we don’t care about, and only the right mindset is what causes us to do the right work, the necessary work.

Case Study: Dirty, Dirty Cheesers

Let’s bring this back to real time strategy with an example. One particularly tricky situation for players is defending cheeses, particularly very all-in cheeses. These are challenging because they require responses that are starkly different from standard play. Simply making small adjustments to a typical build order is rarely enough to stop a baneling bust or a cannon rush.

As a result, even if you’re some kind of real time strategy savante, odds are that you’ll lose the first few times you face a new kind of all-in cheese. Our goal is to improve our play and win future games – so what’s the right response? Here’s a few ideas:

  1. Watch the replay. We’ll identify our key mistakes and correct them in future games.
  2. We’ll practice against the AI to perfect what we think is an optimal counter-build.
  3. We’ll ask a friend to execute this strategy against us over and over until we feel confident we can beat it.
  4. We’ll post the replay to a public forum and solicit others’ feedback.

There are probably a bunch of other good responses, but for the sake of argument let’s assume the right answer is captured by the above list. Now that we know what we need to do, we just need to do it.

So what makes that hard?

How Fast Do We Act?

Our first obstacle is choosing one of the good choices over one of the many bad ones.

For instance, let’s say we prefer to play a defensive macro style. We consider “real StarCraft II” to begin once both players have at least three bases.

We just lost to a cannon rush. We didn’t get to play the kind of game that we enjoy, and that makes us frustrated. What are some bad responses to this feeling?

  • We can externalize our locus of control and blame our situation on Blizzard and their game design decisions.
  • We can choose a negative outlook and dwell on how our next ladder game probably won’t be “real StarCraft” either because we’re playing a “dead game”.
  • We can vent and exaggerate our negative emotions by lashing out at people with a “Protoss” flair on Reddit.

The important thing to realize is that while none of these responses gets us closer to our goal of winning, they are all remarkably easy to choose. They appeal to our basest instincts and provide an illusion of making us feel better. Many people lack sufficient self-awareness to realize when they’re tilting hard and need to deal with that before doing something else. And even the most mentally strong have moments of weakness.

Why is this important? Because in a competitive real time strategy game like StarCraft, the skill ceiling is unreachable. Every player can always substantially improve. Every moment that they waste writing up an angry Battle.net post is a moment that they didn’t spend practicing. Sitting down to play a few ladder games and stopping after fifteen minutes due to frustration with the game’s design is a lot of lost time – multiply this by days or weeks or even years and the effect on a player’s skill level is devastating.

This is one of the reasons working on our mindset is so important. If we can get to a place where we can handle difficult situations without feeling frustrated or tilted – or at least process these emotions faster than other players – we earn ourselves many additional hours of practice time relative to our competitors. We’re less likely to burn out and more likely to know what we need mentally to keep trucking along.

To use another example, let’s say we’re playing a nail-biter of a TvZ. Our opponent’s been complaining that Terran is too strong all game long. Right as we think we’ve clinched it, we miscontrol our bio forces – we trade horribly against a group of banelings and effectively throw the game. Our opponent mocks us for our mistake as we leave the game.

What we need to do is work on our army control. Anyone trying to compete seriously will eventually do this – the only question is when. It could be soon, where we take a quick break from a tough game, reset ourselves mentally and then get back into it. Or it could be awhile, as we trade insults with our opponent, rage at Blizzard for the micromanagement burden of playing bio, and consider quitting this “dead game”. It could be hours or even days until we start to feel better and focus on what we need to do.

From my perspective, this is one of the clearest advantages of the Korean practice environment. The ability to pluck young people from their homes and place them in a strong training environment at a very early age prevents bad habits from sinking in. Working hard at StarCraft becomes a way of life rather than a decision that needs to be made consciously. There’s no conflict of wills with a voice in your head telling you to rant on a public forum or assume balance problems are the source of your career woes – the thought occurs to you, a coach slaps it down, and you move on.

How Correct Is Our Choice?

Choosing optimally is better than just choosing well. Mindset determines how likely we are to choose optimally, assuming that we know what the optimal choice is.

For instance, as noted previously, effectively defending a cheese means a tailored, specific response. Small changes to a standard macro build order are rarely enough to beat something like a cannon rush. Learning the right response efficiently means intentional practice, ideally with a partner who can execute the strategy against us over and over.

But that’s not easy, is it? Finding a partner might mean reaching out to others on public forums or joining a StarCraft community in order to build contacts. What if the person we practice with turns out to be a jerk? And even if we avoid that, asking someone to help us also obligates us to help them out in the future, which might be inconvenient. Wouldn’t it be easier to just practice the theoretical counter-build against the AI a couple times and keep queuing on the ladder, hoping we see the strategy enough times?

Learning build orders is another good example in and of itself. Copying and learning a professional build order might take thirty of forty minutes, but it’ll save endless frustration and lost practice hours of losing due to inefficient builds that deliver key units or technology seconds too late. Yet players are so unwilling to do this crucial work that an entire in-game UI was built to make it easier for them.

Here we can see the difference between hard work and necessary work. It’s often easier to sink hours of time into something familiar than it is to do something that’s uncomfortable, even if it’s technically easier. What’s required of us is not hard in physical terms, but in mental terms – we need to grow as people and become more comfortable doing something that’s outside of our comfort zone.

In fairness, when it comes to real time strategy games I think this concept might be too abstract for some people. The truth is, making sure you’re doing the right thing in addition to just working hard is largely the purview of high levels of play. What most lower-tier players need is really just more practice time on the ladder – i.e. “classic” hard work.

Perhaps a better way of illustrating this idea of necessary vs. hard work is language learning. Like real time strategy, developing high skill in a second language requires a large time commitment of grinding out the hours – learning vocabulary, absorbing new grammatical forms, practicing pronunciation, etc.

However, there’s a lot of things a prospective bilingual student can’t get from a textbook. The spoken form of many languages is more informal than the written form. Spoken language also includes lots of slang, idioms and metaphors that students may not come across in their learning materials. Finally, understanding tone and developing social skills in a new culture is something that can’t be obtained from a textbook at all.

Learning this stuff requires a completely different set of skills than studying something in a class. It requires the learner to be comfortable embarrassing themselves in front of strangers and asking dumb questions. No matter your skill level, the range of vocabulary and phrasing in the real world will always be more varied than the pre-arranged content found in textbooks – without the right mindset, practicing a new language out in public can deliver crushing blows to your confidence.

There was once a time when I could use Mandarin to have reasonable conversations about technology or economics, yet have no idea how to tell a taxi driver to go straight. It took me a lot of time and reflection to realize that it was a mindset rather than work ethic issue – I just needed to become more comfortable not knowing how to say things and asking people. After a shift in perspective, it wasn’t long before my speaking, reading, and writing levels were all on par with each other.

My point here is that for many of us, sometimes working hard is a lot easier than doing what’s necessary because it’s familiar and more comfortable. If we really want to achieve our goals, the real hard work that we need to do is in changing our mindset – otherwise, we’ll be left choosing good choices instead of the best choices.

Mindset Work

If your best friend were to ask how she could live a better life, you would probably find many useful things to say, and yet you might not live that way yourself. On one level, wisdom is nothing more profound than an ability to follow one’s own advice.” – Sam Harris, Waking Up

Mindset has a huge impact on whether we make good decisions, how quickly we make them and how optimal those choices end up being. As a result, I would reframe our relationship between work-and-results to view both items as results of good mindset.

Here we run into the same problem we had before, where viewing mindset as a cause subtly implies that it can be changed spontaneously. The truth is that mindset work – sometimes referred to by names like character development, leadership development, personal development, and so on – can itself be very hard and time-consuming.

To finish our case study of cheesing, quickly choosing the optimal response to dirty all-ins requires different work for different people. Those who view it as a less honorable or less “real” approach to the game need to re-assess how they think about strategy games. Those who don’t want to learn new build orders need to address their narrow mindedness and avoidance of new skills. And so on and so on.

Let’s think about another example – imagine our goal was to win the GSL. What are some mindset roadblocks that we might run into?

  • Dealing with the unavoidable anger and frustration that comes from playing a highly competitive 1v1 game. Fail to handle this thoughtfully and maturely and we’ll never reach our full potential, constantly weighed down by negative emotions. In the worst case, we’ll burn out and quit the game completely.
  • Dodging the mindset of comparison, so worried about our peers that we lose focus on ourselves. Get our priorities straight early, or else our schedule – how much we practice, whether we take breaks, and so on – will become tied to other people’s needs instead of our own, preventing us from maximizing our own abilities.
  • Effectively internalizing our locus of control, realizing that while we probably have strong opinions on game or balance design, thinking about such things and blaming Blizzard for our circumstances does nothing to help us.

These are just examples – anyone who’s played StarCraft knows that there are innumerable mental obstacles standing between them and their goals.

Personally, this is why I find ByuN’s wins at the GSL and Blizzcon so extraordinary. It’s not the practice time or work ethic that’s impressive – plenty of people work very hard. What most haven’t done is endure the psychological pressure of endlessly practicing one of the most mentally demanding activities in the world, day in and day out for years without any meaningful payoff until the very end – alone. It’s a truly amazing mental feat and honestly something that everyone can learn something from, even if they don’t play StarCraft.

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

P.S. As part of my research for another project, I discovered this interview with paszaBiceps, a professional Counter-Strike player. It provides excellent insight into an esports professional’s mindset. I recommend it.

Analysis of Originality in Content Creation

Hey folks,

Today I’ll be talking about originality in content creation and an instance where I believe plagiarism occurred. This article isn’t related to game design. However, as a content creator who dedicates the small amount of free time that I have to make videos and write articles – purely out of passion for computer games and for zero compensation – this topic is important to me.

Disclosure: The writer whose work I believe was plagiarized, Cyan, is a friend of mine. I’m a fan of his work.

Important: Do not witch hunt. Do not go after individuals related to The Score Esports piece or The Score Esports site itself. Do not take any action as a result of this post aside from supporting Cyan’s work. Be kind and respectful to everybody. Etc, etc.

Motivation

Plagiarism sucks. It makes it hard for content creators to build an audience. Furthermore, it’s demotivating to work really hard on something and have someone else take credit for it.

At the same time, it’s not uncommon for content creators to reach the same conclusions or otherwise create similar-sounding content about the same topic. I don’t think people should be prevented from covering something just because someone else already did. As a result, I always bias toward assuming a new piece of work is transformative and new unless someone provides compelling evidence that this is not the case.

I think it’s critical for someone to sit down and thoughtfully and thoroughly argue that plagiarism has occurred when stating this publicly – otherwise, it creates a needless chilling effect on new content.

In this instance, we’ll be examining whether or not an article by Cyan was plagiarized.

  • The original article by Cyan can be found here.
  • The Score Esports (hereafter often abbreviated as TSE) article can be found here.
    • Note that the TSE version was changed since its original publication. Here’s the earliest archive I could find.

You can watch Cyan’s thoughts on this situation here.

(I don’t like using archives but the decision by TSE to change their article without notifying the reader means it’s necessary here.)

What is plagiarism?

Let’s define this term crisply:

“Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgement. All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form, is covered under this definition. Plagiarism may be intentional or reckless, or unintentional.” – University of Oxford

The Society of Professional Journalists is very clear on the issue of plagiarism:

“Never plagiarize.” – SPJ Position Paper on Plagiarism

We need to answer two questions: was The Score Esports article presented as the author’s own work? If so, was it actually the author’s own work?

Was The Score Esports article presented as the author’s own work?

Yes. Look at the way Cyan’s original article is sourced in an archive of the original:

“In the early days it was more about what you liked playing than about business,” Jason Lake, CEO of compLexity Gaming, told Esports Heaven’s cyanesports. “I started complexity because I loved Counter-Strike and saw a future for it.” – Archive from yesterday

This is in paragraph four. No other references to Cyan or his work are made. This paragraph reads like the TSE author did original research to write this piece, and one piece of original research just happens to be a quote from an interview Cyan conducted.

Notice that this was silently changed: compare the reference to Cyan above with the article today:

“Esports is no longer the small-scale enterprise it once was. In 2016, esports were valued at approximately $892.8 million and are expected to skyrocket above $1 billion in 2017, according to a market report by SuperData. Esports Heaven’s cyanesports spoke to senior members of three esports organizations to get their take on the numbers, and the business side of the industry.” – Archive from today

The reference to Cyan has moved from the fourth paragraph to the first. This quote makes it clearer that the original research was done by Cyan, not The Score Esports author.

Why change the story without noting that it was changed? The Score Esports is capable of updating stories after new facts have come to light: they did so just a couple weeks ago. The edit is substantial – it changes the reader’s perception as to the source of the story. That’s a pretty big deal: it’s the integrity difference between presenting the information as the author’s original work or Cyan’s original work. It’s also the difference between becoming part of TSE’s audience and becoming part of Cyan’s audience.

Aside from those things, what are some other reasons we care about the original source? Well, one is that it affects how much we trust the information that’s presented to us.

For instance, Jason Lake was one of Cyan’s interviewees. I’m a huge fan of Mr. Lake because when I watched him on the Championship Gaming Series I thought he was a great leader. I don’t recall exactly what happened but in the second season he re-drafted some players despite their poor performance in season one. That made an impact on me and taught me the importance of investing in people.

Here we have Mr. Lake talking about leadership in an esports organization – you can bet I’m going to pay attention to that. I want to know that what he had to say wasn’t taken out of context or misrepresented, and the only way I can do that is by trusting the person who did the research. Misrepresenting who did the research makes that impossible.

Was The Score Esports article the author’s original work?

Let’s take a look and see.

First, the quotes. Cyan’s original piece contains about twenty-five sentences worth of direct quotes. Out of those twenty-five, only nine were not used in The Score Esports piece:

“The first challenge has traditionally been financial (but in today’s investor funded ecosystem it’s less relevant to some).” – Jason Lake

“This isn’t necessarily rocket science,” – Jason Lake

“We’re still evaluating a few titles for 2017 but nothing I’d like to discuss at this time” – Jason Lake

“When they emerge, it’s about opportunity cost;” – Catz

“Kind of self-limiting on that front,” said Catz, “We’re always exploring and looking for opportunities regardless, but that is a second priority for me.” – Catz

“We were looking at SC2 for about six months but never saw the right player for us. The large release of top teir players in Korea opened the rare opportunity to hand pick the player you want who has the right personality, skill and fit for your org”.” – LazerChicken

“don’t have any specific plans for expansion this year, but who knows what the future holds.”” – LazerChicken

Of the quotes used by The Score Esports, zero come from a place aside from Cyan’s article. In other words, every single quote was taken from Cyan’s article.

The Score Esports article took about 64% of the original quotes from Cyan’s article and added zero. The Score Esports article is about 45% quotes (ten out of twenty-two paragraphs).

So, at least 45% of the TSE article is not the author’s original work.

Aside from quotes, what else does the piece add?

  • Background data about the size of the Esports market and the number of unique viewers.
  • Interpretation and analysis of the quotes’ meaning.

The first point looks like original research and covers 9% of the article – two out of twenty-two paragraphs.

I’m going go into detail why the second point is a problem.

Quotes are a great source of data – for instance, I can argue that Nintendo games usually feature a gently increasing difficulty curve, and then I can use a quote to provide evidence that it’s intentional game design and not an accident.

One issue with quotes, however, is that they’re really easy to take out of context if you’re not the original interviewer. That’s because you can’t ask follow-up questions, clarify ambiguous statements, consider the tone and tenor of the speaker, understand where the quote falls in the context of the overall conversation, and so forth. All you have is the literal quote.

The problem, then, with writing an article that is heavily quote-based (in this case, 45%) when you’re not the interviewer is that it’s easy to misrepresent the interviewee. For instance, read these three paragraphs from Cyan’s original piece on Esports Heaven:

“Complexity predates the creation of Twitch, or even JustinTV, Twitch’s predecessor and former parent company. For many esports fans, its nearly impossible to envision a competitive gaming landscape that doesn’t include livestreaming. As someone who has been in the industry through this transition, Lake is a great example of someone who entered esports through passion, and who now combines that passion with statistics.

Jason spoke to this change within the industry when I asked him about the challenges faced in transitioning into a new game.

“The first challenge has traditionally been financial (but in today’s investor funded ecosystem it’s less relevant to some).’ He continued on to say ‘to field top tier teams you need competitive player salaries, coaches, managers and quite often a team house. It’s important to surround the players with knowledgeable support staff and those costs can grow quite quickly.”” – Cyan’s original piece

Now read how this quote is used in The Score Esports piece:

“If Vizcarra has been able to find ‘Beta Allstars’ but lost them as they excelled, how does Lake keep his star players flying the coL banner?

“To field top tier teams you need competitive player salaries, coaches, managers and quite often a team house,” Lake believes. “It’s important to surround the players with knowledgeable support staff and those costs can grow quite quickly.”” – Archive of The Score Esports version

Notice how The Score Esports article supplies intent: specifically, it implies that Mr. Lake’s desire to provide support staff comes from a retention perspective. The original piece doesn’t state this. Instead, it frames the quote as simple background information about funding a new game.

Does Mr. Lake believe that providing a support staff is important for retention? Probably. But Cyan interviewed him and didn’t draw that conclusion, or at least didn’t write about it. I didn’t interview him so I can’t reach that conclusion. In fact, nobody can reach that conclusion except Mr. Lake. Yet if you were only to read the The Score Esports piece, that’s the conclusion you would take away – and you would probably believe it, since it’s supported by a quote – even though there’s no basis for it.

Summary

To sum up:

  • All of the quotes in the TSE article are taken from Cyan’s article. The TSE article is about 45% quotes (10/22 paragraphs).
  • The analysis in the TSE article either restates the content of the quotes or tries to interpret them. The latter is hard to believe because the author didn’t actually conduct the interviews. At least one piece of analysis is provably wrong.
  • Only about 9% of the TSE article is original research (2/22 paragraphs).

9% is not enough content to be considered original work.

Furthermore, the rewording of the article to make it clearer that Cyan is the original source is not sufficient. The content of the article is still essentially lifted from Cyan’s work, as shown above.

Is The Score Esports simply restating news?

If one news organization publishes news and another news organization publishes the same content and cites the original, it’s typically not considered plagiarism. Facts are facts.

This isn’t the case here. Cyan’s original piece is not simple news: it’s an analysis piece based on research that he did. He picked a topic, researched its background, interviewed relevant people, and assembled it into an article.

That’s more than just simply stating facts – it’s original work.

Final Thoughts

I agree with Cyan that we shouldn’t start a witch hunt and for that reason have not mentioned the author, their previous work, or anything like that. Do not take any action from this article aside from supporting Cyan’s work.

I’ve left all of my usual links to social media, YouTube, Twitch etc out of this post. I wrote this article because plagiarism accusations have a chilling effect on content creation. On the same token, so does actual plagiarism. I believe potential instances of plagiarism should be discussed thoroughly and thoughtfully. I’m not interested in chasing controversy for views and follows.

Thanks for reading and all the best.

– brownbear

Update 1/31: I’m amazed I forgot to include a conclusion. 9% is not enough to be considered original work – the TSE article is a clear example of plagiarism. It should be retracted and TSE should apologize to Cyan. My apologies. I hope this was clear from the rest of the piece, which I’ve left unaltered.

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

2016-12-29_youDied.png

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

StarCraft Broadcasting and the Excellence of Nation Wars

Hey folks,

Today I’ll be talking about the Nation Wars StarCraft II tournament and discussing some of the ways it stands out from other tournaments in the scene. I’ll then use this as a jumping off point to analyze StarCraft broadcasting more generally.

Any critical examples in this piece are used only to illustrate my points, not as negative feedback toward anyone involved. I have nothing but respect and admiration for creators in the StarCraft community.

Nation Wars

nationwars-zgfunka
FunKa and ZombieGrub (source)

Nation Wars is an annual StarCraft II tournament organized by OGamingTV. Fans vote for their favorite top players from different countries – the top three vote-receiving players from each participating nation form that country’s team (with an optional fourth acting as a substitute). The tournament then runs in a fairly standard fashion, leveraging an all-kill format, a single revive, GSL-style group stages, and so on.

It’s a great program – its viewership numbers are comparable to the recent IEM Gyeonggi. The novelty and hype of an annual Olympics-style event notwithstanding, Nation Wars’ real excellence lies in its broadcasting fundamentals – in other words, “the boring stuff”.

Consistent Tone

Here’s Red Letter Media describing the concept of tone in feature films:

Tone is how a movie feels. Movies are either, like, comedies, or dramas, or action movies, or thrillers. If they waver on the tone, then you don’t know what it is and your brain starts to hurt.

I’d argue that the same general principle applies to effective broadcasts. Shoutcraft Kings sets a dramatic tone – it’s brutal, invents dramatic storylines at every opportunity, and offers rewards for every single game. The GSL focuses on the relentless drive to be a champion – it features detailed statistics prior to every match, showcases fan dedication with its camera cutaways, and plays music about fighting and being the best during its breaks.

When the tone is inconsistent, it interferes with the viewer’s ability to enjoy and become immersed in a cast. I’ll illustrate this with an example from the SSL, where I routinely observed this issue with the camera work.

Put yourself in the shoes of a viewer watching the SSL finals. The stacked bracket has at last culminated in this final match- two of the very best players in the world, fighting it out over a huge prize pool. Game 1 is just getting started. How would you expect this to be broadcast?

Take a look at about thirty seconds of this clip and see for yourself. The casters are building up tension, analyzing historical data, and getting the viewer excited – exactly what you’d expect. Yet suddenly, the camera cuts to a completely inconsistent shot – three people sitting quietly, in the dark, awkwardly waving a sign around. The shift in emotional tone is jarring. Maybe it makes sense in the context of the Korean cast, but I doubt it – even the audience members themselves seem surprised that the cameras chose this moment to focus on them. When the GSL does camera cutaways during tournament finals, it typically highlights people who are hyped and visibly emotional, maintaining a consistent tone with the rest of the broadcast.

Those times when you subconsciously reach for your phone, those times you’re introducing a friend to a new program and suddenly need to explain what’s going on, those times you find your attention has shifted to something else – I’d wager that oftentimes these things happen because the emotional tone of what you’re watching suddenly changes and your brain doesn’t understand what’s going on, which shatters your immersion.

Nation Wars is consistent and relentless in its tone of light-hearted hype and national pride. The best example is the detailed historical data that FunKa regularly provides. FunKa takes his analysis – something that most tournaments would automatically turn into a graphical overlay without really thinking about it – and blends it into the conversation and banter with other casters, because that aligns with the tone of the event better than tables or graphs. The handful of statistics that are shown on-screen are rarely explicitly discussed, because that kind of analysis is not part of what the tournament is trying to accomplish.

Another subtle detail is the way the desk is shot. Between Counter-Strike and StarCraft, the most common approach I’ve seen to shooting an analysis desk is what I’ll call a flat shot: the only thing that stands out is the analysts while everything else remains static. This is great for detailed analysis because the viewer has little to distract their attention and can focus on what’s being said. For instance, the sound levels in the former example allow just enough crowd noise to maintain consistent hype without interfering with the analysts.

Other approaches, like the wide shot that was routinely used at Blizzcon, have different goals and therefore do things differently. The Blizzcon approach allowed viewers to see the big stage and catch glimpses of the crowd, important for maintaining hype and shifting focus toward storylines over deep analysis.

(These aren’t formal categorizations by any means.)

The flat shot doesn’t work when the casters are simply discussing something casually or passing time until the next game, things which don’t benefit from and are usually hurt by an analytical mindset (it’s best not to think too hard about memes). In other words, the camera angle encourages a mindset that is inconsistent with the emotional tone of the broadcast. Since Nation Wars doesn’t focus on deep analysis, it adds a simple graphical animation behind the casters and leverages a polished, modern studio with a non-StarCraft related color scheme to make the shot more vivid and less boring:

2016-01-08_rottiTod_annotated2.jpg
Minor adjustments to the shot go a long way in keeping the viewer engaged. (photo source)

Contrast the above shot with this one from IEM – the difference is night and day.

I could talk about the tone of this tournament for days, so I’ll just focus on my core point: the consistency of the tone, more than just the tone itself, creates an enjoyable viewing experience. It helps the viewer settle into a comfortable mental state and understand and appreciate the program from that angle. Viewers enjoy deep analysis, viewers enjoy banter, viewers enjoy inside jokes and funny stories, viewers enjoy high-level gameplay, viewers enjoy drama – but viewers don’t want all of those things at once, or even worse haphazardly sprinkled randomly throughout an entire broadcast.

Casting is Consistent with Gameplay

Different moments in a game call for different tones from broadcasters. Here’s ReDeYe discussing the concept of over-projection in his book on broadcasting in electronic sports:

Over projecting – a common issue for new commentators as they often try to inject an almost false level of excitement by being loud at the wrong moments. Focus on bringing as honest coverage as you can provide and over time you’ll understand when to project and at what points they are valuable.

Personally, I would broaden this idea to inconsistent tone more generally, in that the content of a game’s cast generally needs to align to some degree with the underlying gameplay. Light-hearted banter produces one kind of emotion while a battle between two maxed out armies produces another. Put these on top of one another and the viewer has a hard time engaging with the experience, because their brain can’t reconcile what they’re seeing with what they’re hearing.

StarCraft is difficult to cast in this respect because games flow in a very unpredictable manner – high-action to low-action to moments of brilliance to weird mistakes can all happen in a matter of minutes. It can be difficult for casters to keep up, which produces what I call “sudden breaks” – the decision by a caster to abruptly shift the emotional tone of the broadcast in order to align with the underlying gameplay. This usually happens, in my experience, because a passive moment accompanied by a caster’s personal story intensified faster than the story could end, so there wasn’t enough time for a proper transition. Here’s one example.

A comparison with Counter-Strike is helpful here. Rounds flow in a tonally more predictable way, allowing casters to consistently make a smooth connection between passive and active moments. The tension of a team moving on a site rolls neatly into the high-energy shouting of a big play. “Sudden breaks” are uncommon.

(I don’t think sudden breaks are always bad – sometimes they’re a good way to inject excitement and drama into a program. However, too many of them and a cast begins to feel erratic.)

The ability to transition smoothly, in my view, is one of the biggest differentiators between casters, and I think it’s one of the key reasons for the success of Artosis and Tasteless. They intuitively understand how to blend gameplay with their broadcast. One of the ways they stand out is how they handle sudden and unexpected shifts in emotional tone – for instance, if a play they were building hype for ends up flopping. This will lead to a minute or two of passivity in the game: the casters use a quick joke to transition into a personal story, or a quick analysis of what went wrong to transition into a general strategic discussion.

Here’s a typical example of the duo handling a sudden, unexpected increase in action:

  1. One caster moderately steps up the emotional tone by remarking about a “big play”.
  2. The other caster steps up the tone further as the attack continues and a lot of things are happening at once.
  3. As the attack ends, the first caster steps down the tone by remarking about his disbelief that the attack took place.
  4. As the attack is fully cleaned up, the second caster steps the tone down completely and jumps into calm strategic discussion.

The result is that the viewer doesn’t notice that the tone of the game is constantly and somewhat erratically shifting because the casters are smoothly bringing them along for the ride. It feels exciting and fun instead of random and all over the place.

In my view, doing this requires at least two things: strong interpersonal rapport so that the casters synergize with each other and meld the tone in the same direction, and deep insight into the game to understand what kind of tones to prepare for in the next few moments.

Nation Wars enables this by relying on a relatively small group of English-language casters – only four. It’s easier for a smaller broadcasting team to build a rapport with one another and synergize effectively. By comparison, here are the numbers for the WCS 2016 Circuit Championships:

Event # of Casters (English Broadcast)
2016 WCS Winter Circuit Championship 6
2016 WCS Spring Circuit Championship 6
2016 WCS Summer Circuit Championship 7

(Blizzcon, on the high end of the spectrum, had at least nine.)

Readers may argue that smaller events typically have fewer casters than the championships mentioned above, but that seems backward to me. A small, tight-knit casting team is the ideal setup – it’s what tournaments should strive for when putting together a major event. If anything is going to be heavily staffed, it should be smaller events – there’s less at stake if something goes wrong, meaning they’re a good opportunity to bring in more people and allow newer casters to get more experience.

Nation Wars’ casting team is also well-considered: ToD and Rotterdam have long been casting international tournaments together, and their rapport is augmented by their shared background in WarCraft 3. FunKa is well-versed in the history of Nation Wars and has an intuitive insight into game flow from his experience working as an observer. ZombieGrub has cast thousands of different players on a huge skill range at BaseTradeTV, giving her much broader knowledge of the game’s top players and their styles than most casters, as well as plenty of experience in casting people who are completely unknown – critical to a tournament that features many participants who have either retired or are not professionals.

In other words, ignore logistical concerns and try to imagine the ideal four-person casting team for this tournament – you’d probably end up with the same people who were actually hired.

Storylines

Here’s ReDeYe again, this time discussing the importance of storylines:

Storylines are ultra-important to an esports broadcaster – they add more intrigue and interest to matches and tournaments, and are often easy to find if you know where to look.

A storyline acts as an anchor for viewers – it’s a lens to view a broadcast through, a concrete idea to focus on throughout the program.

Tournaments that lack storylines rely on consistent, high-quality gameplay in order to keep viewers engaged. This can be pretty difficult to execute: competitive 1v1 games are very sensitive to differences in individual skill, so even minor skill gaps between two players will produce lackluster blowouts. A good storyline, melded into the underlying tone of the broadcast, can effectively offset this.

Nation Wars structures itself such that storylines are built into every single game – countries compete to defend their honor, national pride is on the line. This is combined with Twitter banter and historical data to give viewers something to follow along with. Viewers are invested into each and every match because they have a storyline to focus on, even if the underlying gameplay doesn’t always hold up.

Readers may argue that this is inherent to an Olympics-style event and not the result of any concerted effort by the OGaming team. I’d disagree with this:

  • Engagement and storylines were established early on by opting for a fan vote instead of formal qualifiers.
  • On-going hashtag votes are periodically raised throughout the broadcast.
  • Casters are encouraged to be biased, giving them a reason to bring their own excitement into the broadcast and organically raise the most compelling storylines as part of their banter.
  • On-screen tweets are not chosen randomly: they’re used to reinforce the storyline presented in the program, not only maintaining a consistent tone but also allowing viewers to tune into the show at any time and understand what’s going on immediately.

My point is that the original good decision to found a tournament around storylines is helped along by a consistent trend toward strengthening and reinforcing those same storylines. There is a pattern to how the production is constructed that makes it easier for the viewer to engage with the storylines, far beyond the basic premise of what the tournament is.

Final Thoughts

Nation Wars is an excellent tournament, not only because of its unique premise but also because it gets the fundamentals right – it understands how to put together a solid broadcast. It thinks through what it’s trying to accomplish and who it’s trying to reach. The result is that a production put together by a relatively small company competes in both quality and viewership with some of the largest professional tournaments in the game, and acts as an example to others as to how to do StarCraft broadcasting well.

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.

Exploring Map Design with AVEX

Hey folks,

Today, we have a special guest. Noted by David Kim as “one of the top mapmakers in the world”, AVEX joins us to offer his in-depth thoughts on map design in real time strategy games.

This interview is a pleasure to read front to back. However, readers who prefer to jump around will find that the questions and responses generally still make sense when standalone. A Table of Contents is provided below for your convenience.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Balance by Maps
  3. Map Making Process
  4. Tenets
  5. Vision
  6. Gameplay and Map Design
  7. Third Base
  8. Influence on the Meta-game
  9. Game Direction
  10. Game Lifecycle
  11. Different Skill Levels
  12. Performance
  13. Interaction with the Engine
  14. Map Vetoes
  15. Player Feedback
  16. Developer Criteria
  17. Tournament Map Pool
  18. Procedural Generation
  19. Evolving Maps
  20. Map Identity
  21. Map Making Tools
  22. Drive to Make Maps
  23. Community Outreach
  24. In-Depth Walkthrough

Let’s start with an introduction. Tell us about yourself – where did you start with StarCraft, and how did you end up where you are now?

Sure. I started off making a bunch of really detailed and complicated UMS maps in War3 and SCBW, primarily aesthetically-heavy maps such as RPGs. I then joined the Starbow team in 2015 after reaching Masters in HotS due to boredom in the Swarm Host meta, and from then on it was trial-and-error learning how to make competitive one-versus-one maps (which I will refer to as melee maps in these responses). I was very fortunate to have the help of the developers at Starbow, where I began to really gravitate toward the concepts and “unwritten rules” of proportions between buildings and base sizes, the issues of chokes and open areas, and was introduced to the ideas of dos and do-nots in melee work. This would all buildup until the release of LotV, where I spent hours amongst other streamers asking for feedback on maps.

Eventually, I began to publish weekly work on the StarCraft Reddit, to which one map caught the attention of BaseTradeTV’s Graham ‘Rifkin’ Rogers. This map was called Purified Forge, something I was very proud of after hours of back-and-forth criticism between myself and ex-StarCraft streamer Fenn3r. The map’s vision was based off my concepts towards a “proper” Ulrena. Creating a map based purely upon aggression without giving up the necessity of bases in LotV was the main struggle against Ulrena. A few months later, a more successful and progressive (in my skills, not meta) map called Detox would replace Purified Forge. Detox would not be based off Ulrena, but rather a more standard, large, 2 player macro map, or one that favors economic playability over early-game aggression. The map had sound success, being featured in BaseTradeTV’s first Ting Open, seeing play from many high level players such as ROOT.Hydra, MVP.Ryung and Liquid.Snute.

wnjcmvz
Purified Forge

I would then work on the map which would become known as Invader. The map was chosen by Blizzard after a map submission request posted sometime in February of 2016. It would later be added in the following season, Season 2. It had some interesting games, most famously the double-draw series between Polt and Strange, where the map was played three times. Both in tournament and ladder play, it saw extreme dislike from Terran and Protoss players, and quickly left the pool as the season ended. Months later, I saw further success in the 7th Team Liquid Map Contest, as three pieces of work were chosen for the finalists. I ended in 5th, 6th and 14th place, but was relatively pleased with my results, and left with a $100 prize. These results would then bless me towards an invitation to the 2016 Blizzard Community Summit. Beyond this period of fortune, I have spent my popularity from Reddit and Twitch chat trying my best to improve the map scene. That’s really how I went from nobody to “somebody” in 2 years. Lots of hard work, and amazing people helping me along the way.

I think Brood War is a great example of the importance of map makers. Historically, it was balanced on its map pool. For those who never played Brood War, can you explain what this means? How can a mapmaker balance an entire game?

I’m definitely not the best person to ask about this, I think there are a few others who could give more detailed explanations, such as NegativeZero, but I’ll try my best. Don’t hurt me Negative, but feel free to correct me (you likely will).

StarCraft 1 and Brood War, like any other RTS at that time, had what I call a “shallow water” design philosophy. Hard counter by design, not by stats – while keeping asymmetry. Blizzard learned from WarCraft 2 that literal symmetrical balance is, for one boring, but two just not the best way to go about creating a future for a single strategy game. Each race had identity in their units, and their mechanics, right? We all know that. An important note for Brood War as well, is that it featured very little aid from Blizzard after a short period of time post-release. I believe the last balance patch was around 2000. SC2, obviously, has seen the heavy hand of Blizzard influencing it since conception, and remains that way today.

I think the best way to think about this contrast, is imagine you have a decent looking car. This car will do what it’s supposed to do, drive, but the wheels are a bit janky when on the road, the steering wheel will occasionally lock up, and you have two gears. You have a hammer and a screwdriver with you, and you spend sixteen years smacking things, and sometimes you accidentally fix the tires from flinging around, you master the use of the steering wheel, and you somehow discover another gear or two by.. Who knows. Now, this car is limited in what it can do, but pretend you are also this all-seeing government that can shape the roads and highways to perfectly fit your car. That’s what BW map design was like. Except you had a hundred different cars that all handled completely differently, were better at one thing than the other. One kind of car protected you from dying, another completely blocked highway ramps, and another was really fast but a little clunky and fragile.

… the balance of [Brood War] was the cooperation of players, organizations and mapmakers.

I think it’s unfair or inaccurate to ask “how can a mapmaker balance an entire game” – because when Fighting Spirit got released, I’m fairly positive it had a decent amount of flaws. I could be mis-remembering, but I think I heard Artosis say the map was disliked initially, as were most new pieces of work. The balance of BW was the cooperation of players, organizations and mapmakers. I could be wrong, because I was too young to truly understand and experience the early mapmaking of melee Brood War, but I believe mapmakers at the time spent more time worrying about the harsh imbalance of Brood War, rather than having interesting ideas to abuse or play with metas until years later. There are exceptions to this, as there are some very odd pieces of work from Brood War, such as neutral Disruption Webs (for non-BW players, imagine very large Blinding Clouds covering chokes), pre-placed creep,  and using buildings to create reverse islands (such as the map Troy). There were also maps that strove for a nice middle ground, and one such map that comes to mind would be Heartbreak Ridge, a map I ported to Starbow shortly after joining. Heartbreak Ridge had multiple long ridges for interesting highground and lowground interactions, as well as many stacked temples to act as a backdoor to a highground behind the natural base, or as a safer route to a far away third base.

At a high-level, how would you describe your process for building and designing a new map? Is there a “right way” of going about it – say, a brainstorming phase, a planning phase, an execution phase, and a testing phase – or is it more free-flowing, like making a piece of art?

This might surprise some people, but I treat mapmaking as a piece of artwork, like a painting, or writing a script, or a piece of sheet music for a piano. Sometimes, I get a nice idea, a melody or a color palette, or a setting, and sometimes it works. Sometimes, oftentimes, it doesn’t.

I’ve fallen to writer’s block recently, with much of my work feeling mediocre, so I don’t have any recent examples. Most often, I’ll think of nature and certain beautiful places or concepts that I think StarCraft could use, and honestly, nature blogs on Tumblr really help. I also take to video games for reference (Vjun Junkyard, an unreleased map of mine, is named after a planet in a favorite childhood game of mine, Star Wars: Jedi Knight 3, and some concepts based off of World of WarCraft, such as my Hellfire Peninsula map), or maybe someone’s hair on instagram, or recent releases, such as the Nova DLC. Aesthetic concepts are most often my inspiration for new work, which explains my shoddy layouts (though I’ve improved heavily recently), and beyond that it’s me just messing around with angles.

For those who don’t know, most of us mappers have unwritten rules on how bases feel, how they look, their distances and the positioning of mineral lines, ramps, etc. So most often it’s just experimenting in the basic sense, such as “What if I put the main ramp father away, but hug the natural close to the main, very defensively?” or “What if I have a map with the least ramps possible, and how does that work out?” Both of those would answer to “probably a terrible idea” after execution, but you get the idea. That’s really the most basic example. This will vary heavily depending on the mapmaker. I know for sure Fatam has much more experimental maps, compared to say IeZaeL or Kantuva. Oh, that’s one more thing, sometimes you see another mapper do something you feel could be better, and try yourself (I’ve had multiple Dasan Station 2.0s, for example).

There is no “right” way, aside from following the unwritten rules that you learn over time. There might be a more efficient way, but that’s not for me.

What are some tenets that you follow while making a new map? For instance, a tenet might be “it should be hard to end the game in less than five minutes on this map”.

Mmm, this is more of a subconscious thing than anything. There are assumptions one makes – which are tenets technically – when deciding on layouts. For example, I have a piece called Installation Zero, which was my attempt at a less stale Dusk Towers. The map has an inbase natural, and a very close third base, and due to the rush distance, you have this subconscious tenet of “it’s unlikely you’ll die to X”. I don’t think I have too much else to say here.

When you’re putting together a map’s design, how do you divide your priorities between developer vision (e.g. Blizzard’s desire for more action and more harassment in Legacy), gameplay necessity (e.g. avoiding too much dead space for liberators), and individual creativity and vision?

I do not factor developer vision into account, sorry David and everybody :/

As much as I respect the vision of the developers, and they choose the map pool, most of us mappers will only make maps that we know the players will enjoy (to an extent), will be standard enough to be chosen in the first place, and good enough to last longer than one ladder season. Blizzard could message me on discord or skype saying “Hey, can you tell the mappers we want a bunch of maps that just encourage one base all-ins”, and I don’t think many of us would really jump on that opportunity, especially if the current meta or an upcoming meta is heavily disfavoring that progressive intent. I often map for the current meta, but there have been instances where I look forward. I know for sure have a few pieces of work that would only be okay if tankivac/medanks didn’t exist from half a year ago.

2016-01-04_tankivac.png
Medivacs rescuing endangered tanks prior to Patch 3.8

In any map that you even have hopes for being glanced at by any high level player, one must always prioritize the gameplay and feel of a map. Aesthetics is the first thing most players see (“Oh it’s so pretty!), and directly after that you will hear balance and design concerns, (“The natural mineral line has no room for spores, liberator range is broken here, forcefield is really good for this, drops are really broken on this map, etc.) In terms of design, as I mentioned before, the creative vision from myself comes first, but if it fails, I don’t take it much further to get close to addressing player and developer concerns.

Speaking of gameplay necessity, what kinds of gameplay design characteristics generally make it easier to design competitive maps, and what kinds make it harder? For instance, I would imagine asymmetrical base taking – one race needs to be one base ahead – makes it harder to design a fair map.

Hm, I’m not actually too sure here. I think asymmetry isn’t a problem as long as the designs of each race allow each race to successfully achieve goals within similar margins. For example, I think it’s a failure (as you and I have discussed before) that Protoss struggles so heavily beyond achieving two bases. I know people are gonna say “Yeah but, KR”, and my response is “I want you to play below masters games and count how many go beyond 2 base before the main is completely mined out.” Maybe it’s anecdotal evidence, but most of my PvT or PvZs are strong 2 base timings, with maybe a safety third. I do not see a macro game where a third is “safely” taken. But this isn’t really my most qualified field, just my opinion.

…it amazes me how the game worked out to be as balanced as it is now. I can make large ramps without it favoring one race, I can spam Line of Sight (LOS) blockers without worry, mess around with the orientation of mineral lines and gas geysers without too much worry. It’s amazing how fluid the balance feels at that stage. But, once you push that third 5-10 cells, you start seeing the cracks.

I wasn’t around for the first 3 and a half years of StarCraft II’s competitive scene, but it amazes me how the game worked out to be as balanced as it is now. I can make large ramps without it favoring one race, I can spam Line of Sight (LOS) blockers without worry, mess around with the orientation of mineral lines and gas geysers without too much worry. It’s amazing how fluid the balance feels at that stage. But, once you push that third 5-10 cells, you start seeing the cracks. Like I said, I wasn’t around before this stuff was settled, so I hope someone else could provide better insight from earlier eras with less popular maps with large balance issues (perhaps like Waystation, Kulas Ravine or Desert Oasis).

Though, I’m curious how partial asymmetry in AOE2 factored into this with seeded maps. I never played AOE2, RON or SWBGrounds competitively, just scenario maps.

Can you expand further on your comments above about the frequency with which players take a third base on the lower end of the ladder?

The first part is my belief that Protoss is uniquely vulnerable to encountering problems when design changes occur in the game, followed by the inevitability that some will argue South Korean players and leagues to counter many of my points. South Korean pro players are such a tiny minority of extremely talented players. These players will create builds specifically designed for sniping the opposing player, especially in the case of the now absent ProLeague. My counterpoint, is that said behavior is nearly non-existent to the majority of ladder players, and thus cannot realistically apply to map design. Perhaps maps like Rak’Shir, Sky Shield and Judgement which were made specifically for GSL could keep those in mind, but not a map that I make for the general audience of SC2.

The current meta and balance tilt of Protoss leads them to two-base all-ining half the time (or more recently, turtling to Carriers and pushing out with a safe third/fourth).

It’s not really the maps that have the effect, it’s the meta and the circumstances that are being argued here.

How about the day-to-day gameplay – how important do you think it is to consider the current meta-game when designing a map? Do you try to drive the meta-game in a certain direction with a map, or do you try to create a blank slate?

I touched on this a few questions ago, but I find this very important. Not taking meta into account can make a strong build completely broken. And you have to be careful with this sort of stuff, because a persistent presence of imbalanced map design can lead to balance changes from the developer side, that could actually harm map design in the future. Imagine if very early WoL had design changes that allowed for wider ramps into the main, rather than wrapping it around a forcefield. Weird example, but I think you get my point.

A majority of the discussion you will see on mapmaking, this article included, will focus primarily on what makes a map work in design and balance. I think it would be nice to touch upon the consequences of imbalanced maps and designs that make it to the public platform, or in this case the StarCraft II Competitive 1v1 Ladder. I’ll use my own work as an example.

Invader LE, conceptually, was a four player map designed with a very simple idea in mind, that there would be a unique kind of back door. This back door would circle around the natural wall, but be immediately intercepted by the reinforcing main ramp. Note that this back door did not grant access beyond the wall-off of the main ramp, but rather lead you straight to it beyond the defences of the natural wall. I thought this was a very unique idea, as I and many others dislike the idea of an immediate backdoor into the main base, which can pull apart players and be incredibly frustrating to play against. The other part of its design was to provide a quicker access route to the third base, which was placed slightly farther than the ideal distance.

cacocrp
Invader LE

Unfortunately, the execution I had made was not the best. The pathway that lead to the back door didn’t realistically shave any time for a worker to expand to the third. So races that need a close third base, such as Terran and Protoss, suffered horrendously from this flaw and were forced into two-base builds. However, the map was very large as well, so with many of these timings their Zerg opponents were already prepared by the time they reached their base. Because of this concept’s poor execution, it further hurt the taste of back doors amongst players, even if I still think the idea I had was unique and could work in the future.

Outside of my example, but keeping with back door rocks, I think this attitude can be observed after the final seasons of Heart of the Swarm, a map pool that introduced maps with a varying assortment of rocks. Bridgehead had a rock back door into the natural base, Moonlight Madness with large diagonal rocks as well as a back door third base, and finally Expedition Lost having a back door directly into the main, out of sight from the natural wall.

So, these maps don’t necessarily harm designs in the future, but push mapmakers away from features we think would be interesting if executed correctly and chosen by Blizzard. I think the only designs that have been harmed recently are horizontally symmetrical maps such as Ulrena, Ruins of Endion and Horizontal Spawns (or close-by-air spawns) on four player maps like Invader LE.

As a map-maker, what kind of insight can you offer into the direction StarCraft II is going in based on the evolution of its map pool? For instance, I noticed that after the original Legacy map pool, we haven’t seen anything similar to Ulrena – do you feel like Blizzard is trying to move away from this type of “rush-heavy” design?

I disagree with the Ulrena part, we just had a map called Dasan Station that shared the main interest in Ulrena, that being a narrow path shared between the player mains, and short air distance. And honestly, I think I have a decent influence with Blizzard and the mapping community, as the four maps entering the map pool next month were technically picked by my hand. I expressed concern for the cold shoulder we received in favor of the dream pool, citing that we have work that share some design principles with the maps chosen (at that time). I then posted a large list of maps that could be seen as replacements for maps like Ulrena, Whirlwind, Habitation, Overgrowth, Dusk Towers, etc. The four maps that they selected, Abyssal Reef, Proxima Station, Paladino Terminal and Honorgrounds, were all on my list. No one else, as far as I know, ever mentioned those maps.

So, I think we’re going to see, next month, a bit more of the same of what we’re seeing now (I mean, I don’t have all-seeing-vision when it comes to the balance team), but more tuned for LotV. I also don’t know what three maps will be staying after this season, which can have influence. I do know that Proxima Station has a less traditional expansion structure (akin more to how BW worked – nonaggressive expanding), Paladino Terminal will see many 1-2 base allins in all matchups, such as 3 rax reaper, adept allins, speed/bane allins, ravager allins. Abyssal Reef will probably create some of the more interesting and traditional games (with entertainment, featuring the low gravity), and Honorgrounds will likely showcase the lategame of current LOTV, be it Battlecruisers, Swarmhosts, Lurkers, Carriers or Ravens.

With these maps in mind, I think Blizzard wants to experiment with Macro maps and what actually defines standard. I hope, personally, we can find a place where you can be standard, and aggressive at the same time, but we won’t know until, I think, late next year. I am very excited for the upcoming TLMC, as we’ll be given the free reigns to mineral/gas layouts (aside from standard 8m 2g)

Do you feel like different eras in a game’s lifecycle – for instance, right after a new expansion or content update – call for different pools of maps than more “stable” states of the meta-game?

Hard to say. LOTV had very very different games compared to HotS. Often, Zerg will see favorability in early expansion/balance releases since Zerg never really changes with their timings. You will still get a pool, gas and hatch at the same times (reactively), you will get your lair at a certain point, your larva still come at the same rate, etc. So, I think it’s okay that Blizzard takes a tight hold on maps after massive changes, but I do think if Blizzard communicated more to us directly, we could mold maps for them that suits what they think a new expansion needs.

However, aggressive maps don’t have to be early all-in maps. I can push Overgrowth together at the horizontal axis by like 25 cells, and it’s suddenly a much more aggressive map.

If Blizzard wanted LotV to be more about aggression, then it makes sense that they’d want more aggressive maps. However, aggressive maps don’t have to be early all-in maps. I can push Overgrowth together at the horizontal axis by like 25 cells, and it’s suddenly a much more aggressive map. The map doesn’t need to have close-by-air, or have a small bridge connecting the mains for it to be an interesting aggressive map.

When it comes to designing a map pool, I think developers should keep in mind the image that they want the game to give to players, both new and old. I have concerns with using old maps aside from design issues, primarily that if an older player with less than favorable views of the game for whatever reason tunes into a stream and sees Frost or Habitation Station on the screen, they might think that the map scene is dead or the meta has gone stale, or Blizz gave up. I’ve seen this numerous times since the dream pool and I don’t think it’s a pretty picture. Similarly, I don’t think it’s very fun if all the maps are frosty/ice, or all of them are dark and metal, or all shiny protoss textures, or at the worst, brown. There are numerous map styles that embrace vivid colors, lighting and textures that would really make the map pool just much more appealing to viewers (Blizzcon viewership for Carbot alone shot up, not just because it’s Carbot and Cartoony, but it’s very bright and vivid!)

What about different skill levels – do you feel like maps work better at certain skill levels than others? Do you agree with stuchiu’s assertion that the ladder should actually use two different map pools – one for lower leagues and one for higher leagues?

I think it’s safe to say after being Masters, and now stuck in Diamond again, that there’s a very wavy line of where one can draw “low” and “high” levels of play. I’m fairly confident that the map pool has very little effect amongst players below the bottom of Platinum league. There are going to be players who want to mimic the high levels, but if they’re clumping a bunch of marines or hydras into a tank line or disruptor shots, it often won’t have much to do with the map pool. The map pool doesn’t really feature maps that are heavily choked.

I think what’s important with sharing the same pool amongst all leagues is that a low level player will not feel lesser by being bad at the game. If they watch a game on Lerilak Crest, where there’s a lot of marines, tanks, and mines versus a bunch of zerglings, banelings and roaches, they can feel like they’re playing that game. Are they? No. Will they? Probably not. But the fact that the player can load up the ladder and play on that same map, with that same-ish unit composition, and feel like they can get to that point is super important.

2016-01-04_tvz

Now, that doesn’t mean the very very new players couldn’t do with some different maps. I think we could feature some map variations for newer players, such as less gas geysers on the map, less mineral fields, to slow the game down without really losing too much of the core gameplay – the other alternative being slower game speed, or the like. I’m hopeful for the improvement in AI, as that might be one of the best ways to help new players adapt. I don’t think too much of map design in regards to base distances, ramp sizes, etc, will ever have much effect at this point, perhaps it did in WoL, but not now.

Do you put any thought into performance when building a map? Do you feel like it’s the role of the developer to ensure any map built with their tools will perform well?

Ideally, I would love to. There are some components that I do consciously think of – such as the use of reflections in water, or density of high poly models in a small area. But most of the time, us mappers are in the dark when it comes to how Blizzard will “rip apart” the work and optimize it for older systems. I’ve expressed my concern to the CMs about this, so that we can do the QA ourselves and minimize the hair-pulling that can come out of the map being changed (I recall controversy regarding Terraform, Echo, and most recently Galactic Process).

For reference, there was public frustration from the author of Terraform regarding the change in ground texture work from the TLMC version to the version used for ladder and tournaments. Echo, which can be viewed at this time on the ladder, has some cliff issues for the bottom right spawning player, where it changes from manmade to natural (obviously unintentionally). Galactic Process had a fiery explosion from its author after mineral line, destructible rock and art changes on the lowest level. I don’t think it’d be fair to bring this up in detail out of respect for the author, but it did not resonate well with the mapping scene.

Performing well is really hard to address, as the engine itself just doesn’t perform well in high intensity scenarios with the processor. So mapping really… wouldn’t have TOO much effect for it.

How do you feel about map components that mess with the game’s engine? For example, New Gettysburg’s airblockers slowed players down partly because air units couldn’t path by them without manual intervention.

The New Gettysburg thing was pretty disappointing to me, as air pathing in general is in my opinion. Air pathing is really wonky in the editor, as everything is based around soft and hard cylinders, when everything else is based around triangles, and yet units don’t even count the pathing in their movement, even if it’s clearly blocked. I took some pictures to clarify this point, with comments attached to each image. You can view that here.

I thought after Gettysburg won TLMC7 we were going to see improvements in that pathing, but unfortunately we didn’t. I think it’s cool that maps have features where you should pay attention to the map (like the Shoutcraft map Fallen Dreams), but it does end up punishing lower level players – since high level players already constantly check their armies.

What do you think about the map veto system? Do you think it creates the wrong incentives for players in terms of trying to maximize the number of maps where their race is favored? Do you pay attention to the player behavior around who is vetoing your maps and who is not?

I don’t think the veto system would be problematic if you could veto based off matchups, for example, I didn’t like TvT in Vaani Research Station because of the vulnerable in-base natural, but I like it in TvP, because I can pull Protoss apart between three bases.

I’d also love if every game was a bo3 by default, which would make vetoing 3 maps actually have some sense. But, many players just like the idea of one game after another, different people, refresh/reset mindsets, so that’s probably a bad idea. My concern with vetoes is less with player win rates, but more that people will avoid change with the veto, and that’s not something I really have an answer to. Expansion of the map pool size seems like the only reasonable response.

2016-01-04_mapVetos.png
Map vetoes on the competitive ladder.

I do listen to criticism, but a veto is not criticism most of the time, it’s avoidance.

It’s inevitable that some players will veto your maps or have negative feedback about them. How do you go about processing and responding to this? Do you feel like, at a certain point, it’s impossible to please everyone?

I don’t concern myself with the loud voices, I never really did. I know for a fact that Feardragon loves Dasan Station, I know that MCanning loved Invader and had a great winrate on it. So, honestly I’m no longer concerned with vetoes on my work (even though I haven’t had to worry about it in half a year), as long as I end up happy with the execution of the map’s vision, and I know some players understand and use it to their liking, the vetoes are fine for me.

The official ladder map pool tries to follow certain criteria set by Blizzard – for instance, bases must have two Vespene geysers. Do you feel like that limits your creativity, or would you end up following such criteria anyway because it’s the only way to build a balanced map?

Initially this was a large reason I started with Starbow when it came to SC2 mapping. In Starbow I liked the idea of non-aggressive expansions, literal advantages with ramps and expansion distances or mineral compositions. As I mentioned earlier, I have been told multiple times from different people at Blizz that they would like to look into allowing us change the mineral and gas layouts of bases in the upcoming TLMC. Otherwise, it does sort-of limit me, because I might want a really tight natural, but the geysers and mineral counts just make it impossible (ontop of design concerns, like liberators).

The official pool is also generally what’s used for major tournaments. Do you like this approach, or would you rather that individual tournaments picked their own map pools – or even requested specific types of maps from map makers for use in specific tournaments?

I hinted at this earlier in regards to lower level players, but I think if the pros play the same thing as the low level players, it gives the lower level players inspiration. It’s like playing on the same basketball court as Lebron James, or the same baseball field as Babe Ruth. But, sometimes organizations should take a stance against a map pool they, perhaps heavily dislike. Or one map. If it weren’t for BaseTrade accepting Purified Forge and Detox out of dislike for Lerilak Crest and Central Protocol, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

I could submit the next Daybreak to a major organization that is really balanced, decently aesthetically pleasing, but someone else could submit an unbalanced but very pretty map and get chosen. It’s a fair concern, and one that I faced heavily over the past year due to how I handle(d) the design process.

I know a bunch of people would love it, if we were personally asked to work for tournaments. I know GSL did that with Rak’Shir, Judgement, New Gettysburg, and Sky Shield with Jacky_, Enekh and the other talented KR mappers/map teams, and it would be interesting to see it applied in a larger scale. Concerns would be if the organizers really have an idea of what makes a map good – which was also expressed in the submission “contest” which chose Invader and Korhal Carnage Knockout. I could submit the next Daybreak to a major organization that is really balanced, decently aesthetically pleasing, but someone else could submit an unbalanced but very pretty map and get chosen. It’s a fair concern, and one that I faced heavily over the past year due to how I handle(d) the design process.

Older RTS games sometimes featured procedurally generated rather than static maps. Do you think this approach could ever work in a game like StarCraft II?

Ah, I should’ve known you’d ask me this again after we spoke for the first time :P!

I think a procedurally generated map that took into account every balance and design concern whilst remaining unique and interesting would be either impossible or run out of options within a month (assuming it was constantly generating). Surely even in AOE2 there were some seeds that were just bad compared to others. Were this system to exist for SC2, it would basically only employ artists as mapmakers, not designers, so I don’t think the system would really be desired by us. If Brood War were better balanced and had a more fluid engine, perhaps it could? But I don’t think SC2 can.

Last time we spoke about this, I mentioned that a key reason this can’t exist in SC2 was the concept of map identity. I’ll talk about that a bit later.

Some of those older games even changed the map’s characteristics as the player progressed – for instance, Rise of Nations revealed oil deposits to the player once they had sufficiently teched up. How do you feel about this kind of design?

I really loved that about Rise of Nations, actually. I wish there was more evolution of resources, if I had to be honest, I wish there was more of that. In the expansion for RoN, you get to choose governments, and I think it’d be really cool if the government choices you make molded the resources that were revealed to you, or maybe had more relationship with rare resources (like Uranium, Diamonds, Platinum, Sugar, etc).

2016-01-04_oilDeposit.png
Oil deposits in Rise of Nations appear on the map in the mid-to-late game.

I have actually considered this in SC2 maps before. I’d love to talk about it, but I’m keeping it a secret for now, as I may use it in the near future. The idea of concealing or revealing resources isn’t new, but I always liked the idea of raw resources in less-than-normal positions along the map.

Speaking broadly about older RTS games, which one do you think had the best maps? Which one do you think had the worst?

Oof, hard to say. I loved Blitz X in Brood War, because I’ve seen a few TvTs that ended in BC vs BC on it. I liked seeing experimental maps like Gladiator more recently, or Troy with the assimilator “reverse walls” at your main entrance. Total Annihilation has some decent maps, as does Supreme Commander, but names don’t come to mind. In AOE, RON and SW: Galactic Battlegrounds, I often liked island maps with shallow/marsh pathways in between the islands. Also, have to shout out Big Game Hunters for being a great SC1 map. I don’t think any had “bad” maps. Aside from BW and SC2, I never played the others competitively to understand a bad map from good, really. I just remembered Ogres being horrifically broken in WC2 no matter what map you played.

I wanted to take this moment to talk about map identity in all games. I alluded to this a few questions ago, but felt it was more appropriate to go into depth since you are literally asking me to recall the identity of maps in previous RTS.

I know a few casters who thoroughly enjoyed Ulrena and Dasan Station, and found games on more standard maps like Deadwing or Overgrowth to be less memorable, even if more balanced and fair. It’s an interesting issue to consider when designing a map, where you might find that your map will be fun to watch, but horrific to play.

As I said when we initially talked on your Age of Empires / SC2 compare and contrast video, one of the stark differences between seeding a map and creating one by hand is that you have literal personal attachment to the maps you play when you load up a seeded map. In StarCraft 2’s lifetime, we have had a number of maps with different identities attached to them, some are good and some are bad. For example, most people have a positive reaction when you say maps like Daybreak, Bel’Shir Vestige, Bel’Shir Beach, Overgrowth, Neo Planet S, Cloud Kingdom and Whirlwind. Other maps can harbor strong negative reactions, such as Inferno Pools, Ulrena, Secret Spring, Desert Oasis, Slag Pits, and Dash & Terminal. The interesting thing to wonder is how much of this is based off of personal play versus tournament viewing. I know a few casters who thoroughly enjoyed Ulrena and Dasan Station, and found games on more standard maps like Deadwing or Overgrowth to be less memorable, even if more balanced and fair. It’s an interesting issue to consider when designing a map, where you might find that your map will be fun to watch, but horrific to play (something I discovered with Invader and Namaste).

When you have randomly generated maps, you really only feel identity to map preferences, such as Highland, Ghost Lake or Coastal in AOE2. This would be akin to a StarCraft 2 player saying “I like Standard maps”, or perhaps more accurately, “I like StarCraft maps where your third is slightly farther than normal, and there’s abyss/unpathable terrain in the middle to split the map into two lanes (ala Orbital Shipyard, Dusk Towers, Star Station, and Expedition Lost).” You become attached to characteristics of maps, rather than a map itself. Map aesthetics play heavily into this, such as the overwhelming love for Ohana, Bel’shir Vestige for the sake of “Beach Maps” despite any curbs on balance and fun gameplay.

For AOE2, Rise of Nations and Galactic Battlegrounds, which use these seed systems, the land type can be changed amongst the seed should the preferences allow it. For example, I can have a map with a massive hole in the center, and that center could be space/abyss, or water, and the land surrounding it could be a forest, asteroid, or beach. Because the maps in StarCraft are static, you will feel a sense of return to familiar whenever the map loads on your screen. Aesthetics aside, there are also some other characteristics that more well versed players will come to appreciate. For example, Overgrowth LE has four mineral patches that are physically the closest they can possibly be to the main command structure. Back in Heart of the Swarm, if you micromanaged your workers to pair effectively with these patches against a player who let them automine, you would have a stark early advantage against them. This was especially useful in some early game builds, like the 8/8/8 Terran Reaper play, as you always had the most efficient mining possible with the workers given.

…if StarCraft 2 were to take this approach with map design, would we not just see clones of Overgrowth, Nimbus, Cloud Kingdom and Daybreak every season? They would all nearly be the exact same maps aside from aesthetic/tileset randomization. Would it create a balanced game? Maybe it would, but I personally don’t think that’s the route to go.

The mapmaker themselves will feel attached to their work, as an artist would with their painting, when it comes to the judgment of said work. If a map fails to last past one season, there’s likely some issues that were glaring enough to Blizzard and/or the player base to warrant its removal (like Invader, for me). One downfall to this, is that we fear experimentation on interesting characteristics that would make for entertaining games (ask how many people would want a variation on Dasan Station, or Ulrena right now and you’ll see what I mean). But, one could argue that this was an even worse problem with randomly generated maps in AOE2. In your video, you spoke of the different map types that were selected for high level play. If one could use this as evidence, and if StarCraft 2 were to take this approach with map design, would we not just see clones of Overgrowth, Nimbus, Cloud Kingdom and Daybreak every season? They would all nearly be the exact same maps aside from aesthetic/tileset randomization. Would it create a balanced game? Maybe it would, but I personally don’t think that’s the route to go.

I’ve spent many a twitter rants going off about how I’d rather a game be fun to play with asymmetrical imbalances, large variance in the maps of the map pool and spectator “sparkle and shine” to keep the game interesting. I love me some Brood War, but I got bored of seeing every game on Circuit Breaker and Fighting Spirit when I tuned in half the time. I love ASL now, getting to watch some of the standard but different maps like Overwatch, some of the ridiculous games on Taebaek Mountains and an interesting return to Eye of the Storm. These aren’t the most ridiculous maps Brood War has seen, but I think you understand my point. Variation in map pool is very important in keeping the game fresh, especially since Blizzard is looking to reach a point where the game is balanced enough to where this philosophy can be applied, where maps and metas change without screaming for design and balance changes. This could be far fetched, or in the near-ish future, but I agree with this design choice and welcome it fully.

Coming from an older RTS game myself, I was amazed by the depth of map making tools available in StarCraft II. How do you feel about the toolset that’s available? What tools do you wish you had to make it easier to develop new maps? (For instance, I think it would be cool if you could select a ramp and get an automatic calculation as to how easy / hard it is for a Protoss to wall it off with a one-unit-wide hole).

The StarCraft II editor is a beast of a machine, it will get the job done, but it could definitely use some tune-ups, mainly in the data module. In data, which we have the luxury of using for custom tilesets, textures, and doodads, many fields are unexplained, or very messy in organization to the untrained user. I don’t think I was ever comfortable with the editor until a few months ago, and I still don’t know quite a hefty amount.

When it comes to map design, the only tools I actually use from the editor are the placement grid, (ctrl+shift+h, and shift+h if it you have pathing disabled), pathing mesh (shows you connected near vertices and exact footprints for buildings, needed for walls), and measure distance (just the distance formula between two points on the map). Your ramp suggestion is interesting, but not all walls are the same amongst players. Sometimes the walls I create are good, but a player will find a much better version for less cost without losing strength in defense. I think the only major tool improvement I’d ask for is a legitimate air unit plane to create proper pathing for them, as I expressed my concern earlier with New Gettysburg.

Speaking about RTS games more generally, do you see yourself as a map maker, or a StarCraft II map maker? Let’s say Warcraft 4 came out tomorrow and it was the “next big RTS” – would you switch to making maps for that?

I see myself as someone who loves to design worlds and landscapes for people to enjoy. My long term aspiration would be to create large vast pieces of land for players to explore in any game, as a level designer. I love using models to create new things, new set pieces, new unique locations. I have for a long, long time. Unfortunately, the schools for that put me in debt for the next lifetime, so I’m doing what I love right now, which happens to be StarCraft II. I don’t doubt I’ll change focus down the road, to different games, different engines, different styles. Hell, if I wasn’t stupid and deleted my save, I would be working on Brood War right now with a Unit Tester in the style of the one we have for SC2, with really pretty landscapes.

If WarCraft 4 came out tomorrow you can bet your ass I’d be ripping that editor apart and making stuff.

How do you feel about Blizzard’s engagement with the map making community? Again, coming from an older RTS player, I am consistently amazed at how much effort they put into community outreach. Where would you like to see them do more?

The community outreach as a whole is good, much better than it ever has been. Blizzard is a large, and sectored corporation. The WoW team, the Overwatch team, the Diablo, StarCraft, Heroes, and Hearthstone teams are all separate from each other, and do their own jobs very well. Some are better than others, that’s just how it’ll always be, only the names change. StarCraft’s team has vastly improved since the LotV beta, but I still personally feel they have a long way to go. My concern, and many others, is that the Blizz team and the Community Managers will talk to us for a little bit, make us feel like we’re in the spotlight with the rest of the community, and then we become irrelevant once the discussion comes to a close. I know this isn’t StarCraft, but this is very apparent in the WarCraft scene, where the private server Nostalrius caused a large uproar, had a response, and then nothing but silence after the meeting. If it weren’t for me, or other mapmakers being very active and remaining very prominent in the scene, I don’t think there’d be a community map scene at all anymore. I’m sure there will be a few professional players who share this as well, I recall a select few being concerned regarding some skype group a while back, same with the casters. And maybe it’s that there aren’t enough people to talk to all of us, and that’s fine, that happens. Chris (Rackle) and Andrew (Kibbelz), do a great job handling the abundance of information and opinions thrown at them, and I’m sure everyone else at Blizz does too. But I would really like if there were direct communications to specific teams at the campus. I, for one, would love to be able to directly ask any quick question to the engine devs, as I recently needed for a secret project, rather than having to go through CMs, but I understand if policy gets in the way.

There was also great concern amongst the previous Team Liquid Map Contests regarding Blizzard’s vision. It was just before my time, but I have been told from multiple corners that there was a great deal of controversy behind Blizzard’s invisible hand in TLMC..5? 6? I can’t remember. Perhaps the other mapmakers will be able to shine better light on that. And there was some in 7 as well, as Blizzard publically sponsored New Gettysburg, as did KeSPA before the voting even happened, and it made the rest of us finalists feel like absolute shit. There was a quick response regarding this concern. We also, for a long period of time prior to S2 2016, had no idea what Blizzard really wanted with LOTV maps, and we had no means of communication. Since then, I have received more open communication between the Community Managers, but I still hold some concerns towards the next TLMC.

So, they do a great job, all of them, but they still can do much better in many departments. Tried my best to remain as constructive as I could.

Finally, walk us through the design and production process for your maps. What are the key decisions that you make? How do you usually discover and resolve mistakes?

As I mentioned before, it generally starts with an aesthetic idea. For most of us, it starts with choosing a basic tileset and a flexible boundary size. I often explore and experiment with tilesets early on so I have a clear vision with what I want the map to look like before I start on the layout. The size is often quickly changed towards the beginning to create a general shape, often rectangular as opposed to square. Symmetry is chosen between Rotational (which most maps use) or Rectangular (which maps like Ulrena, Vaani Research, and Habitation use). Bounds will again be altered one or two more times but in much smaller amounts, we’re talking at most 16 cells added or removed.

After that, you start shaping the main, which will in turn affect the rest of the map completely. From the main, you decide if you use a maximum of two or three cliff levels in your entire piece. You will also decide your cliff styles, maybe you want round curves, or straight 90 degree angles, or you don’t care at all. This also ties to your map aesthetic. Nature in general appears random, so you don’t want straight lines or hard angles, but too circular looks very alien and terraformed by man. You decide where your main ramp goes, place your main mineral line, check the size of the main to see if it’s too small for P and T (I told you I learned from Invader).

You then shape the natural, decide where the mineral line is in relation to the ramp from the main, how close does the nexus/cc/hatchery hug the ramp? This would affect walling, as would the decision to have a flat natural choke (Overgrowth, Foxtrot Labs, Cloud Kingdom), or a ramp to wall off (Expedition Lost, Nimbus, Ohana). Now you decide, are you going to have your third base on the same level as the natural, thus requiring another ramp? Or perhaps on the lowground? Is the third “far”? Or very close? What about an inbase third? Inbase natural? And then the process sort of repeats until you get something either horrible or relatively standard/not-so-unique, or you’re Fatam with really wild map concepts and you break rules but make sick maps anyway. I’ve actually been inspired by him recently with how he handles his high ground “waves” as I refer to them, his mineral lines and base layouts. All during, I’ll often find little pockets around or inside the bases that look ripe for aesthetic detail. I’ll often stop designing the layout to complete this first, which can lead the rest of the map to suffer. It’s not a very good thing, but I like it.

Most of my maps have their mistakes solved during the mapping process – before I publicly release them. Once released they rarely see large changes (Namaste and Caldeum Plateau being two sole exceptions for various reasons, but mainly because I hated both their layouts). But in terms of discovery, most mistakes happen early on in the mapping process, and can unfortunately cause permanent damage to your design. It’s not uncommon for me to look at a newer mapmaker and tell them that there are so many problems, that they would have to start over to have a better map. The most common problem here would be distances between expansions, ramps, and how they all mix together. Back to Invader, the main base was really small, and the natural was tucked back. To my ignorant perspective and improper view of proportions, this made it okay to push the third a bit farther. As this continued, bases got farther, and at each quadrant of the symmetry, vital expansions were too close. It was a mess, and unfortunately meant the map needed a redesign rather than quick fixes. I made an Invader II to address concerns, but it still had too many flaws.

Vivid colors, bloom, high specular lighting and HDR manipulation made for gorgeous pictures, but horrendous in game.

Other mistakes can be aesthetic, and as I mentioned previously, aesthetics are often what we see first. I thought the lava in Moonlight Madness was disgusting, it looked like melted cheese under a blue plateau installation. That’s an easy fix. But another map, which is very beautiful, called Kill the Watchers is extremely bright and hard on the eyes. Vivid colors, bloom, high specular lighting and HDR manipulation made for gorgeous pictures, but horrendous in game. These kind of mistakes are much harder to change, which is a reason I spend so much time experimenting with aesthetics than layouts. A layout early on can have its issues fixed relatively easily. However, aesthetic themes can appear well to you, while horrific to others and cause your map to flop. Finally, you have the small mistakes such as missing pathing, obstructing doodads or minor layout issues, such as the lack of a reaper cliff or a lack of space behind main and natural mineral lines for drops, buildings, static defense and liberators.

Oh and, you asked about testing at one point. I don’t really test that often, I know people come to me and others offering that they’re available to test but.. It’s not the same when you’re testing in a controlled environment to that of a tournament or ladder. I appreciate the offers, and I’m sure the others do as well, but surely you understand that we’d rather learn from mistakes and subconsciously make an effort to not repeat said mistakes and map around them.

It’s been a pleasure talking to you these past few months, and I hope most of my points were coherent enough for you and your audience. I look forward to seeing the other mappers’ perspectives, as we all see things pretty differently in philosophy and execution.


Thank you so much to AVEX for generously volunteering his time to answer my questions in-depth. I highly recommend that you follow him on Twitter and check out his live mapping on Twitch.

Finally, if you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on Twitter or Facebook, or checking out my game-design focused content on YouTube and Twitch. Thank you for reading and see you next time.