Monday, February 13, 2012

Decisions, Skill and Flow in StarCraft

Game Design and Production - INFR 2330

So I just finished listening to this week's audio lecture on decisions, skill, luck and fun in games. I found the lecture pretty interesting since as I was listening to it I was thinking about how certain attributes are found in games. The biggest game I kept thinking about was StarCraft. If you know me, you know that I'm a huge fan of StarCraft; I even reference it a lot in my blogs. Unfortunately due to school and such I don't watch or play it as much anymore, but I still love it a lot.

The game of StarCraft for those who don't know about it (Get out.) is pretty straightforward. You are essentially in control of a military army and it's up to you to build up your base and army to destroy your opponent. It's a pretty straightforward game to play and everyone can play it, however most people are terrible at it. Relatively speaking of course.

This man thinks you're terrible all the time. (EG)

StarCraft is a really interesting game, because like I mentioned in a previous blog post, it really has became a sport. People play this game for a living, people pay money to watch professional players player, and people just straight up play the game for fun. I feel that StarCraft embodies a lot of the concepts discussed in the audio lecture really well and that's why it has seen so much success in a genre that is generally not as popular among the masses.

Honestly, StarCraft is Real-Time-Strategy. Whenever someone says RTS, I think StarCraft. Aside from maybe WarCraft, no other game comes even close to challenging StarCraft to the throne. It requires so much strategy to play and it requires strategies to be thought out and executed insanely fast. As a result there are many, many decisions made in every single game of StarCraft and they are all meaningful. There are games that are decided by the smallest mistakes that are just compounded as the game goes on, ultimately deciding a loser or a winner.

However this guy just doesn't lose. (Team Liquid)

From the very absolute beginning you have to make choices that will affect the flow of the game. What build will I use? Which army composition will I make? When should I scout? How should I react? There are so many questions that are thrown at you and as the player you must make the best decision in order to swing the tide of the game into your favor. Playing on a map that favors economic play? Maybe I should 6 pool to attempt to catch my opponent off guard if he or she decided to play too greedy.

Theres so many decisions to be made and they have to be made quick. The game is played at an incredibly high pace, hundreds of actions being made per second. See a bunch of marines stim in to ward of your mutalisk harass? You literally have a split second to decide whether to fight or flee. If you decide to fight and you misjudge your decision, you lose all your mutas. You decide to flee just a split second too slow? You lose a few mutas for free.

Mutalisks so good. (StarCraft Wikia)

The sheer amount of decisions that need to be made in the game inevitably leads to a high skill discrepancy between the high level players and the low level players. Some players just straight up make bad decisions. I'm by no means a good player, but I'm not terrible either, but sometimes I watch lower level players play and I'm just confused as to why they would make a certain decision or decide to build a certain unit, it just doesn't make sense.

StarCraft skill is more than just theory based though, theres actually a huge physical component involved in StarCraft as well, which sounds silly at first, but StarCraft is an incredibly mechanically taxing game. Lets take StarCraft: Brood War as an example. Brood War is notorious for being an incredibly hard game to play. You can control an army with like a hundred units, but you can only control twelve units at a time. Not only that, but you can't select multiple buildings at the same time, your workers have to be manually set to mine, and the AI is terrible.

That's three marines being controlled one at a time. (Youtube)

Like I don't know how impressive that looks to people that don't play StarCraft. But let me tell you, that is damn impressive. For comparison this is how it looks when you don't see those Lurkers, and don't micro.

I wish Lurkers were in SC2 just because of this video. (Youtube)

Blizzard made StarCraft II easier to play, but it still retains many of the characteristics inherent in Brood War that made the StarCraft series so popular. So between the sheer amount of skill involved in playing StarCraft and the number of decisions that need to be made really quickly, StarCraft is a really hard game to get good at.

It's been compared to games like chess a lot actually, where everyone could play it. But in order to get good at it, you have to spend a lot of time exploring every possible outcome, planning every move many turns ahead of time, and just thinking a lot. Except in StarCraft you're doing all that in a matter of seconds, not turns. This difficulty curve leads into the topic of psychological flow that was mentioned in the audio lecture.

According to Wikipedia, flow is "the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.". StarCraft gets you into that state for sure. Like I can't physically hold a conversation or notice anything else when I play StarCraft. Weird things happen when I try.

This is essentially what I sound like. Essentially. (Youtube)

I get so immersed in the game with all the thinking and the strategy that I zone everything out. I get into the flow and just focus entirely on the game. All I think about is what my current economic, army and technological options are, and based on what I know about my opponent, figure out my course of action and figure out a way to crush him. All I hear is the background music playing softly through my headset. All I feel is the rythmn of my fingers going through the almost automatic motions of 5sd5sd5sd5sd1a click 2a click 3a click 55 click v click 11 5sd1a click 2a click 3a click.

All I focus on is the game. Nothing else. When I win a game, I feel immense joy and satisfaction; when I lose a game I feel frustrated and defeated. Knowing that I beat my opponent because I out though, out played, out maneuvered him is the greatest feeling ever. Not many other games do that to me. StarCraft is just such a technical game that's so complex that requires so much skill that it pushes me to always strive to play better, just because unless if you're the absolute best, there's always someone better than you.

There's so much I could talk about when it comes to StarCraft, but I wont go any further since it'll make me want to play again, but I have programming to do.

<3 (Kotaku)

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