Nov 14, 2010

Crafting Stars

I've been playing a fair bit of Blizzard's smash hit RTS StarCraft II over the past couple of weeks, primarily the competitive multi-player component. And more than just playing, I've spent quite a bit of time watching podcasts and learning strategies, especially through Day[9]'s excellent daily podcast (between 2pm and 3pm Sydney time, Monday to Friday – old episodes located here).

I'm not calling this a review, because there's a whole lot more that would need to be said about this behemoth of a game. In short, though, I think it's a good game if you like other Blizzard RTS games, and a poor game if you hate them. StarCraft II won't change your mind on this count. This is just a rant about my experience with the multi-player portion of the game, and especially my thoughts on that dreaded phenomena known to the community as "cheese."

If you don't know about StarCraft and StarCraft II, you've probably been living under a rock if you're not a gamer (as one of the more successful gaming franchises of all time, and something that's appeared in the news more than once) or living under a rock in a cave under the sea if you have even a casual interest in games.

So, why is StarCraft II so successful. From my experience with the game I honestly can't tell you. But I can try and make a guess.

StarCraft II is about as far from intuitive as a game can get. Not just in the sense that initially learning the game takes time (and I don't think I've ever had to put in as much effort to become passably decent at a game as I have with StarCraft II) but in the sense that trying out new strategies or tactics almosst always requires a whole lot of trial and error, including for very minor variations – it's a very hard game to theorycraft (that is, it's difficult to hammer out something on paper and know with reasonable certainty that it will hold up in game). It's necessary to test a new strategy dozens of times with numerous adaptions in a wide variety of situations in order to ascertain it's merit.

So we know that critical and commercial success isn't coming from the game being intuitive, as it sometimes can (especially this is the case when it comes to commercial success – highly intuitive games attract a wide audience).

I think what it comes down to is the fact that once you learn the game, and can play it relatively well, and things begin coming together, it can at times be a very, very satisfying experience. Hairline victories as well as stomping all over the enemy feel fantastic, and provided both sides play well, even losing can be satisfying. More often it's a little maddening – this game induces a whole lot more rage than most I've played, and it's not just me. You can see it in the community in general. There are few reasons for this, and one of them is a result of a serious problem I have with the game.

To me, a competitive game (and StarCraft II no doubt belongs in this category) needs a few thing in order to be successful. It needs a high skill ceiling – a big gap between the players at the bottom of the rankings and those at the top in terms of ability in the game. There's no doubt that StarCraft II has this. It needs to reward more difficult styles of playing with better results (to a certain extent – there's a difference between a play that's hard to execute and a play that's needlessly complicated). It needs to have some way of tracking your progress comparative to other gamers. There are others, but I want to focus a bit on the second point I made there about rewarding difficult styles of play.

This is the part where a big portion of the community reflexively call me a stupid noob, but bear with me. I'm not going to claim that so-called “cheese” strategies are the best ways to win, and are more effective than playing in other ways even if you play well. All I want to say about them is that they're much more effective than they have any right to be. This will require some elaboration.

A cheese strategy is basically this – it's a strategy in the game which focuses all your resources on one (usually early-game) attack, with nothing to fall back on if you do not win the game with this attack, and no way real of defending yourself against legitimate early aggression (which does give you something to transition into for the mid-to-late game) if your cheese of choice involves your attack coming at a later stage in the game. These strategies are some of the easiest in the game to execute.

I've reached a level of play where I'll rarely lose to cheese. The effectiveness of cheese attacks depend largely on your opponent failing to scout correctly, or failing to know how to respond correctly once they know what you're doing. That said, a player who executes their cheese very well can still eliminate me from a game.

The problem I have with it is that, although cheese will rarely be successful at very high levels of play, it WILL allow you to win a majority of game against around 70% of players. I also feel like this was an intentional design decision on the part of Blizzard. The dreaded Zerg rush is alive an well in StarCraft II, when Blizzard had every opportunity to find ways to make this particular strategy less effective.

“But that's part of the StarCraft feel. The fans like that.” is probably a valid argument. My counter argument would be that the fans are wrong. If you're making a competitive game, you don't want it to only really be interesting at the highest tiers of play. You want it to be interesting even for middling and low-level players. And that's my biggest complaint about cheese. It's boring. I've done it, and executing it was even duller that receiving it. I can't understand what enjoyment people derive from playing that way (presumably the thrill of winning, even if they didn't win through any intelligent or interesting play).

If you're receiving cheese, one of two things tends to happen. You lose immediately, and get to sit and wait for the matchmaking system again, or you hold off their attacking and then win with no tangible challenge. Neither of these options are interesting. StarCraft II is the most fun when you have to think to outplay your opponent, as well as execute your strategy flawlessly. When you get into a game between players who try to win through thoughtful or unorthodox strategies executed well, it makes for a very engaging experience. Cheese essentially means the wasting of a game, whatever the outcome, and it's just a pain. Which is probably why it incites so much rage.

I know people are going to interpret THIS post as nerd rage, but it's really not coming from a place of anger, frustration, or butt-hurt. It's coming from a place of trying to look at the game objectively and make an analysis of it's success.

I've never really been a fan of Blizzard's games anyway. Despite some players' insistence of defending them to death, I generally find them to be illogical, poorly balanced, or just plain boring. But despite it's issues, there's something really engaging about StarCraft II. I think in a lot of ways we can look at World of Warcraft as the epitome of a Blizzard game – reasonably engaging, but ultimately repetitive and deeply flawed, with a focus on gameplay that sells primarily through some kind of strange, near-magical (but very calculated) powers of addiction - and apply the reasoning for World of Warcraft's success to this title almost entirely.

No comments:

Post a Comment