Why do we play?
If you ask ten different gamers what their favorite games of all time are, chances are you’ll get ten different answers. If you ask those very same gamers if they’d played StarCraft before, they would unanimously respond, “Yeah, I love that game”. In this review, I will seek to analyze the elements of StarCraft that contribute to an unprecedented decade of play, and why it still remains one of the most beloved games in the hearts of gamers everywhere.
This is the most important aspect of any game, but it is still even more important than you think! StarCraft has three races, the Terran, Zerg, and Protoss. Each of these races is meticulously balanced. In fact, StarCraft is considered to be the most balanced RTS in existence by many gamers. What separates StarCraft from the rest of the pack, however, is that its balance transcends the concrete aspects of the game. The balance between mental and physical is why StarCraft remains one of the most frantically fun games to play.
There are two general aspects of StarCraft: mental and physical, better generalized as grand strategy and mechanics. Grand strategy (path to winning) as a generalized category can be separated into two subcategories: strategy (decision making) and tactics (the art of engagement). Mechanics also can be separated into two subcategories: macro (resource management) and micro (unit control). Mechanics are a way to execute your grand strategy. Even at its most fundamental level, you can see what makes StarCraft, StarCraft. The yin and yang, the give and take – the balance. You can be the world's greatest tactician but in StarCraft that means nothing if you cannot execute your tactics; likewise, you can be the world’s greatest strategist and it will mean nothing if you cannot carry out your strategies.
Before we get confused here let me explain what strategy and tactics are. Tactics is the simpler of the two, it is the art of engagement – or how you seek to break your opponent by physically overpowering him. Strategy is much harder to define because it is a much more abstract concept.
- Consider this example: You are playing a straight up player. You know that when he plays straight up he is a solid player, so you decide to play more unconventionally by relying on drops and harassment to slowly wither him down.
In this case, your decision to play a certain style would be what is considered a strategy, because you know it will give you an inherent advantage. The style of play, however, would be considered a tactic. Strategy is the reasoning behind every move you make; tactics are a way to achieve the move.
Now, here's the hard part, let's explain macro and micro. Micro is the simpler of the two, which means, in essence, the ability to make your units do what you want them to – physically outplay your opponent. Macro, in this case, is the more abstract concept.
- Consider this example: You've just won a small but important battle by flanking your opponent, and instead of making taking an expansion and playing for a longer game you decide to upgrade to prepare for a timing push.
In this case, the action of upgrading instead of expanding to prepare for a timing push is a strategic macro decision and winning the battle by flanking was a tactical micro victory. There's a reason I mirrored these paragraphs, it's because, as you can see, macro is intertwined with strategy and micro with tactics.
Now that I've discussed how the mental and physical coexist on a more abstract level. Let's bring it down to what we can consider tangible: unit production. Unit production is the most important aspect of both macro and micro, but because we physically see it as resource management, we simplify it to macro. For clarification purposes, I will refer to it as unit production, macro will be referred to as resource management. Unit production is the knot that ties strategy together with tactics, and macro together with micro.
- Consider this example: As a Protoss you are playing a Zerg that is well known for a strong three hatchery mutalisk opening. In an effort to nullify his advantage over your weaker standard play, you open with two stargates after fast expanding and proceed to lay down two well timed robotics bays and begin to break down your opponent with harassment.
Your decision of opening with a certain play style that will give you an advantage is the strategy, the unit combination and use is the tactic. The action(s) of going fast expand, two stargate corsair, two robotics to gain an advantage is the macro, physically using these units to break down your opponent is the micro.
As you can see, without unit production, strategy cannot translate into tactics and macro cannot translate to micro – there is no connection. Even still there is a much more tangible level of understanding to this. Unit production is a both a tactical strategy and a micro of macro. Again, I must point to the give and take that is so very important in BW. In each and every single game we play – tens, maybe hundreds of times a game – we make a decision whether to expand / produce units / upgrade or micro. Expanding or upgrading is done relatively few times during a game, but unit production is done thoroughly without, and is therefore the majority of strategic macro. Microing takes strategy, tactics, and speed. Macro takes strategy, tactics, and speed. You must be prepared to master both in order to be a successful player.
Understanding Your Race
I don’t think that in any other game you will find players with stronger opinions of race than in StarCraft. There is very strong reasoning behind this because although the game is balanced, it really is balanced on a razor’s edge. Even the most minor change to the game could turn it upside down. As a result, StarCraft is able to maintain a great degree of balance and distinctiveness between its three races.
Terran is considered the most mechanically heavy race, mostly due to the fact that its many strategies require copious amounts of speed to execute. The Terran race is not a very flexible one, I don’t know whether is it the mechanical look of Terran units, or the movement of their units, but playing Terran is almost like being a robot. If the Terran race were a computer it would understand two things: macro and timing push, in general this is what I consider the Terran binary. Before we get confused here, let me explain what a timing push is. You see, throughout StarCraft games there are times when your opponents strategy leaves him vulnerable to attack a timing push takes advantage of this timing window to heavily damage your opponent or even win outright.
- Consider this example: As a Terran player you siege expand and scout the Protoss double expanding as a counter. You finish building up your economy and promptly put down five factories and prepare for a timing push on his third base.
- Consider another example: As a Terran player you see a Zerg going three hatchery mutalisk while being at a fairly close expansion. You cut worker production add a barracks and begin producing units for a sunken break.
Note: In the previous examples and the examples below let us understand not only what the player is doing given a certain situation, but why.
The Protoss strategy of out-expanding you is sound, but his tactic of double expanding leaves a small window of opportunity in which he must stop making units in order to expand a second time. In the second situation, the Zerg greedily leaves himself open by powering drones while teching to mutalisks, leaving you with a timing window to break his sunken wall with a relatively large number of medic, marines, and firebats. In both these situations you as a Terran player are looking to push because you now hold a strong unit advantage. By timing your unit production you can maximize both your economy and the amount of units you have to strengthen your attack. These are very specific examples but they happen very often. The Terran reliance on such inflexible timing windows forces a player to be nothing short of perfect with his timing push. Though other situations and matchups vary, it is this type of play in addition to the extreme cost-effectiveness of Terran units that make up the Terran race.
Afterthought: The reason Terran is so seemingly inflexible and reliant on timing pushes is because in every Terran matchup it is the Terran that decides when he wants to be aggressive. The Terran player must be proactive in stopping expansions and worker production, therefore, it is the Terran player that must force the action. Another thing to consider is the need for Terran to keep their units alive. Since Terran mobility is much more limited than the other two races, you must exploit the cost-effectiveness of your units to their fullest. This high speed requirement for both unit production and unit management make Terran a difficult race for slower beginning players.
Zerg is thoroughly considered the hardest race for beginning players (so don’t get discouraged!). Why? Zerg, in contrast to Terran, is extremely flexible. It is, in fact, the most flexible race in the game. Now you may by thinking “Isn’t this better for beginning player?” It sure isn’t. First and foremost, Zerg macro is not as mechanically intensive as Terran but is definitely more strategically taxing due to the fact that Zerg only has one production building, the Hatchery. This constantly forces the Zerg to choose between attacking units and workers, and as an economically driven race, this can present large problems for newer players. Secondly, the extreme flexibility of Zerg play leaves newer players at a loss because you will almost never see the same situation twice as a Zerg player. Although, this is true for Terran as well, it affects Zerg play much, much more because Zerg play is much like waves in the ocean – it ebbs and flows – building momentum for a huge crash. Any change in that rhythm can throw inexperienced players off.
- Consider this example: You are a Zerg who is currently producing attacking units. You are no longer powering drones but are cranking out attacking units. You see a red dot in the corner of your minimap and find out it’s a reaver drop. You quickly run your drones and kill both shuttle and reaver. You proceed to stay passive while cutting production on attacking units and expand while powering more drones.
- Consider another example: You are a Zerg who is currently producing attacking units. You are no longer powering drones but are cranking out attacking units. You see a red dot in the corner of your minimap and find out it’s a reaver drop. You run your drones but not quickly enough, so you lose a majority of your drones for that expansion but do not manage to kill the shuttle nor reaver. You proceed to remain actively passive searching for another reaver drop while delaying unit production in order to replace lost drones.
These examples are just two of many ways in which a ten second situation can play out within a twenty minute game. The flexibility of Zerg allows for polarizing reactions to the same situation, passive or aggressive, as well as a gray area including everything in between. Every single aspect of that single reaver drop will affect how you play out the rest of the game. It might kill tons of drones forcing you to counter, it might kill some drones forcing you to delay an attack, or it might kill no drones allowing you to expand or counter. Whether or not the shuttle and reaver survive introduce an even more headache-inducing tree of options because the single goal of the shuttle reaver strategy is to keep the Zerg occupied and in his base, basically forcing the Zerg to be stagnant for as long as possible – of course additional drone kills always help. Zerg play is deeply rooted in experience because as you can see, the smallest things will affect a Zerg player. This reactionary and flexible play leads me to consider it the race of hippies (it’s ok, I play Zerg!!).
Afterthought: One of the few upsides of being a beginning Zerg player is that you are playing the most mobile race in the game. This makes scouting and unit movement much easier, it is not uncommon for a Zerg to have vision of nearly the entire map late-game. Also, remember that Zerg is a reactionary race and that if you are not being attacked you should be expanding.
Protoss is considered the easiest race for beginners to pick up, the reasons are fairly obvious. They require slower mechanics to play “decently” and the matchups are fairly straight forward. This has actually become the source of backlash for many frustrated lower level players of other races who consider Protoss easy. This is very wrong. Protoss is almost the in between race when it comes to mechanics and strategy. Not as much mechanics is required as Terran and strategic decisions are not employed as often as Zerg. If the Protoss shine at one thing, however, that one thing would be unit management. Due to their stronger but fewer units, average unit speed, and need to limit map control in each matchup, Protoss are a very tactical race.
- Consider this example: As a Protoss you are constantly moving your units around the map due to the nature of “stronger but fewer” Protoss units. You scout the Terran coming out of his base to push but also see he is sending a handful of vultures through an alternate route to your expansion. You proceed to wall off your expansion preventing vultures from enter while waiting for your next round of units to complete to fend them off, all the while delaying the Terran push with your main army.
- Consider another example: As a Protoss you are constantly moving your units around the map due to the nature of “stronger but fewer” Protoss units. You scout the Terran coming out of his base to push but also see he is sending a handful of vultures to an alternate route to your base. You pull a handful of units back that will arrive just in time to meet the vultures at your expansion while pulling back your main army and giving the Terran some ground before you begin delaying his push while you handle the harassing vultures.
This situation happens very often, and as a Protoss player you must be able to handle it correctly. One mistake with your scarce Protoss army and you could end up with your army on one side of the map and the Terran army killing your expansion on the other. Newer player do not experience these situations too much, as the margin of error in lower levels of play are much more generous. At higher levels, however, where timing pushes, micro, and macro are practiced to near perfection. A strong Protoss player must know precisely how to manage his small but very powerful army to maintain the game flow in his favor. The margin of error for the Protoss tactician is very thin, and as the attacks become more and more complex so will your options to react.
Afterthought: It is interesting that Protoss plays both the aggressor in PvZ and the reactionary in PvT, though recently it has not been as clear cut. Also remember that even though Protoss will have a relatively low units count, you must always seek to limit map control. If your army cannot be everywhere at once, you should make sure your opponents army cannot either.
Though above I have compared and contrasted the three races, I have exaggerated many of their strong points to emphasize the distinctions between them. Each of them shares similar difficulties and strategic roadblocks. There is no hardest or easiest race, nor is there the most tactical or most strategic. You can only choose the race that is right for you!
Why do we play, again?
Is there not enough to choose from? Replayability, balance, distinctiveness, and extremely deep strategic thought. Though all these aside, the thing that makes StarCraft so special is because each game is not so much you against someone else, but you against yourself. What else could keep hundreds of thousands of players interested after a decade of StarCraft? The road to being a great StarCraft player is long and arduous, but many enjoy the journey whether or not they reach their destination.
Basically, what I’m saying is, we play because it’s fun!
Interesting Note: I actually wrote this (well part of it I reused) for a Blizzard intern application and I didn't want to post it up in case they read TL and thought I plagiarized it or something. The process is over (no I didn't get it), so no sense in keeping this to myself now!