Welcome back for a second round of Starcraft – Then and Now. As with my previous article, the focus here will be on comparing the Starcraft 2 beta with Brood War at its different stages of development. However, whereas the previous article was occupied with the overall feel and development of the games, I will, from now on, focus on specific aspects of the games: similarities, differences, flaws that need to be corrected, flaws that we forgot were part of Brood War, and some common misconceptions about Brood War and Starcraft 2.
Let me start off by giving you guys a mini history lesson: One of the most interesting articles I read during the first year of Brood War was an article written by one of the terribly old-school players from the IN-clan (it might have been Lameking). I've been trying to find it as a reference, but it’s been a good 10 years since I read this, and unfortunately I am unable to give the proper props where they are due.
This article dealt with the different phases Brood War had undergone at the time. Essentially, it dealt with how certain strategies and build orders had particular momentum at certain periods – and how you could often secure a win by going back two phases at a time because it allowed you to exploit predictable tendencies. Terran vs Zerg was specifically a matchup where, for the first 4-5-6 years, Zerg players always had to think about what strategy had momentum before they placed any buildings: if gameplay was at a stage where BBS was particularly common, Zerg wanted to pool before hatch, if it was at a stage where tech builds experienced particular fruition, Zerg players wanted to expand first. To add to this, it was not only limited to the first few buildings – if a Zerg scouted a walled off Terran, he’d then have to make an educated guess, largely dependent on what was the current trend was, as to whether the Terran was going wraiths, a fast drop (m&m or cliffed tanks), 3 rax rine with +1, or whatever.
This was, to differing degrees, the case for all matchups for a long time, until players became competent enough to comfortably fast expand with a build that could survive everything, every game. Some liked thinking of the opening as some sort of coin flip or rock-paper-scissors mechanic; I personally preferred thinking of it as a game of “levels” (to borrow a poker term), where you’d be thinking “I know he knows I know what he’s gonna do so therefore he’s not gonna do what I know he’s doing. Or maybe..” and well, it was terribly exciting.
I stopped playing Brood War for a couple years at around 2004. After I became a top player again, one of the key differences I noticed, in addition to not being allowed to pick random anymore (something which might be connected), was that the "levels" aspect of the game was much less important, especially for the matchups I ended up playing. What surprised me about the change was that I thoroughly enjoyed it. Brood War became a better game when the guessing was diminished. This is not to say that making educated guesses was not still a big part of the game, it was, but you were unlikely to lose the game instantly if you made a bad guess.
The development of Starcraft 2, as with everything else, is much faster than that of Brood War. The early phases of Brood War that I mentioned at the beginning of the article each lasted for months at a time. In the Starcraft 2 beta, it seems like all matchups have already gone through multiple stages, and while some of it is due to patching, most of it is due to a generally higher level of player and much more interaction between players.
With this said, and this is the key point I would like to make, I am not sure that Starcraft 2 can achieve the same dynamic that Brood War had in its best 4 matchups during the last couple of years. This is a lofty goal and hardly one I feel justified in demanding, but there are a couple aspects of sc2 that makes me believe reaching the same dynamic will be difficult - and these are topics that will be visited shortly. Read on ahead as we talk about scouting and the lessened viability of defensive play.
Scouting is Everything
In Brood War, Protoss vs Zerg used to be plagued by Protoss players not having a good way to scout. In fact, for a long period of time, a lot of Protoss players rushed for corsairs from one gas because getting a corsair out was the only way to keep them from playing completely blind. Interestingly, this strategy became completely useless with time, and only after fast expand builds were popularized years later did it became good again.
I see you!
In Starcraft 2, multiple methods of recon were added, but they all come with a severe penalty. You want to scan your opponent? Well you are paying close to 250 minerals for it each time. You can’t scout much early game PvZ unless you open with zealots, because a probe gets killed by two zerglings without speed. A situation where Protoss is forced to open with zealots is not necessarily a bad thing, so there might be hope for PvZ. Even if Protoss ends up being forced to go fast robo for observers in PvZ, this will not necessarily break the matchup – Protoss has had to go fast obs against Terran ever since wall-ins were created.
With regards to scouting, ZvZ is the worst by far. In Brood War, ZvZ was referred to as the rock-paper-scissor matchup because of build-order determined luck. This occurred even though it had the longest uninterrupted period of scouting, because the initial build orders had to be chosen before scouting could be done. In Starcraft 2, while the early game build orders seem to be of less importance (in particular because zerglings are less dangerous in small numbers), there is a long window where no scouting whatsoever can be undertaken, which forces both players to make pretty blind guesses with regard to economy. Now, in Zerg vs Zerg the strategy isn't much of an issue at all - both players will build roaches. If they both establish expansions, one or both players might also add hydralisks to his force. But the economy is of extreme importance, and this was sort of, the saving grace of ZvZ in BW: You always knew how many drones your opponent had, thus it was always possible to make the correct adjustments. In SC2, you don't even know if the guy has 16 or 24 drones, meaning that you will be playing blind with regards to whether expanding, attempting an all out attack or making slightly more drones than him is the correct choice. The current problem where you can only build roaches, and eventually hydralisks, is significantly less of a concern than the lack of scouting, and in fact, if more strategies become viable, then it becomes even more important to fix the scouting problem. If we compare it to Brood War, we can see that the zvz matchup doesn't require more than two buildable units to work out (unless we actually have higher demands for sc2 than we do for bw - personally I'm quite content with an equally good game. ). Of course, I also hope they make non-roach builds a viable option, and it seems like has Blizzard tried to do this with their previous patch, but it is secondary to the problem of early game scouting.
TvT is currently the matchup where I have had the most success beating players better than me. The main reason is that I have done the same thing as them, I just haven’t scouted, and the extra 200+ minerals I get from not using a comsat has shown itself valuable enough to allow me to win. ZvZ is a matchup where there’s no viable way of scouting your opponent between his pool going up and your lair having been around for a while – that’s actually going to be even more problematic if the roach opening isn’t something used by default. PvZ seems to have a similar problem, although not more than it did for the majority of Brood War.
This is naturally a more apparent issue for mirror matchups than it is for the other matchups, as mirrors are often decided by very slight differences in builds. In a Zerg vs Terran game, it isn’t obvious that the Terran lost because he lacked 5 marines in one key battle because he scanned once instead of using a mule, you can always point to a multitude of other reasons for why he lost: better unit combinations, delayed upgrades, etc... But in a Zerg vs Zerg game you most definitely can tell if one player has three roaches more when the armies clash, and you can see why it happened (because that player built 3 drones more at an earlier stage).
The balancing is not even close to done yet, not by Blizzard and not by the players, and we have gotten so far already. Some units seemed completely imbalanced initially, but people have either devised clever ways of countering them, or they've just gotten the timings down. Either way, unit balance is happening, and will continue to happen as long as players continue to play the beta. Complaining about balance at the moment is useful, us complaining about balance is in fact part of why there is a beta and why we are not instead playing the released game at the moment. Expecting the game to be balanced at this stage is just not realistic at all. There are however aspects that really need to be in place for the evolution of balance and possible strategies to fully take place, and scouting is one of these aspects.
Defence Should Be Crucial
Now, as I have stated, scouting itself is not necessarily in worse shape than it was in BW. Zergs would often have to make the decision as to whether they wanted to sacrifice an overlord to find out which route terran was taking. Protoss players would often hide probes pretty early so they'd be able to scout zerg after the zergling containment made it impossible to leave his natural - causing quite the loss of mining time. In for example PvT, I have certainly not felt like I was playing blind. The real problem arises when the problematic scouting is combined with a real sc2 problem, and one aspect where the game needs to be more like its precursor: Defense is weakened.
There have been a multitude of threads and articles dedicated to discussing whether the high ground advantage needs to be reinstated, and I am not going to revisit that topic . (Other than to state that I agree with the point of view that having units randomly miss either 25% or 33% when firing at units on higher ground seems like the best way of going about it.) The lack of a real high ground advantage is far from the only example of defense being weakened though... Units in Sc2 generally deal more damage faster than they did in BW. Additionally, it is in most matchups easier to get many units fast than what the case is for BW. Units also generally have slightly more hit-points. Yet static defense remains quite unchanged, it certainly has not been buffed significantly, and several buildings, like the defensively important supply depots, in fact have less HP than they did in bw.
"We cannot hold!" would happen a lot less if static defence was slightly stronger.
In addition, there are multiple ways of jumping across cliffs, walking distances are generally shorter (although this is also map dependant), and protoss in particular is capable of reinforcing right before they attack. This aspect of the game can also be defended - wanting a game with higher pace, awarding attacking, wanting to avoid the eventual development of TvP in BW where terrans could play games without attacking until they reached supply limit. But when defense is worsened, attacking becomes better and scouting becomes harder, you practically ensure that certain matchups will evolve into different semi-cheesy build orders. In TvP in BW, it was quite common to see protoss try to do some sort of semi-allin, be it two proxy gates to break the choke, dt drops, proxy reaver, attacking with 5-8 goons and a shuttle with zealots. Terran would generally be easily able to defend either of these if they committed to defending them and they'd generally lose instantly if they ignored it completely (especially the case with DT drops), and very often you got closely fought battles where one part arrived barely on top. This was exciting.
However when you add warpgates into this equation and shuttles become able to constantly reinforce, high ground stops giving an advantage and static defense (apart from the massive planetary fortress) is comparably crappy, this won't be possible. In SC2, both players need to constantly have enough units to defend against an attack at any given moment, because no units are much better at defense than attack, terrain bonuses are significantly smaller, and even the time-advantage the defender enjoyed in BW is partially removed. This promotes a style of play where players want to build enough units to attack at a particular moment, rather than in BW, where players could also opt for defending for a certain period of time to allow themselves to either reach a level of tech or economy that would grant them a huge advantage at a later point.
To reiterate the point from my previous article: Brood War and the balance we enjoyed in it did not happen overnight, it was a fluid process of constant adjustment based on any number of different changes in gameplay. What Blizzard has given us to work with is a far more complete product than we were given 12 years ago. However, certain aspects need to be in place for a successful competitive game to grow. One of these essential aspects is that there has to be a decent amount of viable strategies to avoid staleness and award creativity, and just as important as viable strategies is that there are enough potential reconnaissance options to allow a player to counter the myriad of possible strategies. Forcing players to guess, and most likely to guess incorrectly, leads to players blindly countering each other in ways that make for a thoroughly unentertaining game. This is exactly why the dynamic that eventually evolved in Starcraft was so great – a worse player could certainly win games by exploiting holes in his opponents scouting, but it was impossible to consistently do this: To consistently win games, you had to be the more complete player.
In most ways, I feel that Starcraft 2 is on the right track, the only matchup which is broken scouting-wise at the moment is Zerg vs Zerg. But scouting has to be considered consciously in the following patches; there are goals that are more important than making all races win equally such as windows without recon not being open for too long, and not scouting being too attractive an option. In addition, defense desperately needs to be strenghened. If neither scouting is made easier nor defense becomes more viable, it is inevitable that all-in-strategies will become the dominant form of play, rather than them being useful but occasional tools to keep an opponent honest, and this would significantly reduce Starcraft 2's chances at being a competitive game with a longevity rivalling BW.
This post was made by the Team Liquid Starcraft 2 Coverage Team. For more of TL's coverage, please visit the Team Liquid Starcraft 2 Beta Page.