So I mentioned last time that my usual thing with RTS games is to get annoyed with them and stop playing after level 5 or 6. Well I’m here to tell you that I’ve gotten annoyed with it. Sadly, StarCraft doesn’t number its missions, but I think I’ve done about five or six of them from its single player campaign. I think it’s mostly the length of the missions; each one now takes me about 60 minutes to slog through, and I’m just really bored of it by the end.
However, I’m still somewhat intrigued by the game design, and by the multiplayer. Now, I’m not very good at the game (though I’ve somehow managed to win three of my six multiplayer practice matches), but I’ve played enough of the game to start to see the fabric underlying it.
The first thing that I find interesting is that structurally, StarCraft is actually a lot like World of WarCraft — both games are built around numeric optimisation problems. WoW tries to hide it from the casual players, but its whole end-game content is built around this optimisation.
WoW uses the numeric optimisation to drive its addictive play (play as long as you want, and the longer you play, the better the gear you can get). By contrast, StarCraft applies time pressure; your time is extremely finite, but you can get whatever units and gear you want within the time that you have. It had just better be at least as good as the ones that your opponents are getting. If you look on the forums (which I don’t recommend you do, incidentally), you can see that a lot of people really get into the number-crunching. It’s interesting that both WoW and StarCraft fully expose their numbers, to enable those players who like optimisation problems to work on them. Most games hide their numbers as much as possible, but these two don’t.
I also find it really fascinating that StarCraft II basically has two different game layers running at the same time, with the results of each feeding into the other. It’s extremely rare, these days, for games to have such separate layers both playable at once.
If you read about StarCraft strategy, you’ll see people referring to these two different game layers as “macro” and “micro”. The common wisdom is that if you’re not very good at one of them, you can make up for it by being good at the other.
For the uninitiated, “micro” is short for “micromanagement”, and is about micromanaging your units to get an advantage in combat, either from formation, placement, using special abilities, or engaging in other tactics. “Macro”, on the other hand (and they’ll never tell you this) is also short for “micromanagement”. “Macro” is about micromanaging the production going on in your base; building things at exactly the right moment, making sure your workers aren’t harvesting a resource you don’t need, choosing when to build new tech and when to expand, etc.
Your “macro” determines how many combat units you have available for your “micro”, and one of the major goals of your “micro” is to gather information which can inform the goals you should be aiming for with your “macro” game (“Gosh, my opponent is making lots of tanks. Which of my units would be good at destroying tanks?”).
Both the “micro” and the “macro” games are effectively “Diner Dash”; time-management games, as I mentioned in a previous article. But “micro” (moving units during a fast combat) is a Diner Dash that’s focused on clicking rapidly and accurately, while “macro” (managing your production) is a Diner Dash that’s focused on judgement and precise timing, often with lengthy delays between clicks. So if you’re experienced, you can do a click in the “macro” side of the game, then run off to do some micro for a little while, as long as you remember to come back in time for the next click you need to make on the macro side.
Since both sides of the game are about speed and optimising, players are often compared in terms of “APM”, which stands for “Actions Per Minute”. My average APM is usually between 45 and 50. This is a fair deal higher than most of the folks I’ve played against so far, who seem to usually be nearer to 30 APM. But despite my 50% more APM, they still regularly steamroll over me. Proof that how fast you can click doesn’t really matter, when you don’t know what you’re doing. If only I had a clue (ie: was able to recognise the units and buildings my opponents have been building), I’d be a real force to be reckoned with. ;)
Anyhow. I can’t imagine ever making a game like StarCraft, myself (or even wanting to). But the “two-layers-simultaneously” design is a really interesting one, which it’s totally worth thinking about some more. And exposing the numbers is also interesting, since it lets number-crunching players get involved with the game at a deeper level.
Mm. Plenty of stuff to think about.
Last comment: Just wanted to mention how refreshing it is to play a mainstream multiplayer game where everyone thinks that manners are important, where everyone wishes people good luck before the matches, and says “good game” at the end. Is the eternal september finally ending, almost two decades later? :)