Browsing the blog archives for May, 2008

Real-Time Hair-Splitting

No Comments

For the last week or two, before the whole fiasco with Electronic Arts revealing that it was deciding to install crapware and spyware on its customers’ computers, Shamus was delving into “Real Time Strategy” games with posts on Starcraft and Sins of a Solar Empire. In this post, Shamus begins by bringing attention to the observation that “Real Time Strategy” is a bit of a misnomer for RTS games, positing “Real Time Tactical” instead.

Many years ago I actually made the same observation. Real-Time Strategy games don’t really have much to do with large scale strategy, just with immediate engagements. That’s tactics, after all, not strategy – right? Not exactly.

I made a comment about this on Shamus’ blog:

It seems a little silly to try and keep defining down RTS games into narrower and narrower niches. Yes, RTS may be a bit of a misnomer, but trying to deride the genre as being “not strategic” or “not even tactical” is just wrong. You might as well say “Chess isn’t a strategic game, it’s a tactics game” — Which on some level might be true, but it also belies inexperience with the game. Strategy bubbles up inevitably, it’s simply a matter of being well-versed enough in the game (whether Starcraft or Chess) to see it.

What’s the deal here, is it armchair generals too attached to the word strategy to even admit that something they may not be good at (rapid, fine motor skills coupled with high speed decision making) also contains strategy?

Later it was observed that tactics and strategy are two sides of the same coin, or just positions on the same continuum. I can get behind that. It’s pretty common sense, after all, that the large-scale strategy of a war is integrally related to the small scale tactics (and vice versa). It’s only an unnatural preoccupation with terminology that leads elsewhere.

A couple of the commenters continue on, intent on dismissing Real Time Strategy games as not pure enough Strategy for them. The funny thing is, pretty much all of the complaints are just simply invalid. It’s claimed that winning at Starcraft is just a matter of massing units and clicking attack-move into your opponent’s base. No. It’s also claimed that winning at Starcraft is a matter of studying build orders. Again, no.

I’m not good at Real Time Strategy games. I just don’t care for the click-heavy gameplay and rapid fire micromanagement of bases, troops, and control groups to bother seriously trying to improve. But even being only slightly above average, at best, it’s obvious that Starcraft is not won through clicking attack move, and it isn’t won through memorizing build orders. It’s pretty much like claiming that dribbling wins you basketball games. Yes, in the sense that if you can’t dribble the ball, then you’re a pretty limited player. You never learned the essentials of the game, so chances are you’ll get demolished by someone who has learned the essentials.

I don’t care for it either, which is why I don’t put in the effort it would take to do so. But even being mediocre, when you watch high level play in Starcraft or Warcraft, the game is actually quite exciting and highly sophisticated. Yes, the first minute or so of the game are always going to be mining and scouting. But there’s a lot of nuance there — Does a player go immediately on the offensive? Does he harass? Does he focus on upgrading his tech, hoping to out-tech his opponent? Does he try to expand early and secure an economic advantage? And these are just basic decisions that are made every game. What about the map features, the opponent’s race, the opponent’s decisions as revealed through scouting (you did scout, right)?

This may not be a great example, but I’ve actually been kind of engrossed in BladeofAiur‘s videos lately (for the past couple of weeks – before these Starcraft tangents even began, oddly enough). Here’s a video of a rather cool game. Probably not the best example of demonstrating strategy and tactics in Starcraft, but good and entertaining nonetheless.

And the second half …

If you liked that game, do check out some of BladeofAiur‘s other videos. He does good commentary that helps you understand the stakes and the strategies in the matches. There’s a heck of a lot of good viewing material to go through if you’re interested in watching competitive level Starcraft.