Matt Chat 36: Starcraft and the RTS Genre

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In this week's episode, I review Blizzard's 1998 masterpiece Starcraft, widely considered the best real-time strategy game ever made.

I imagined a few people might respond to my claims that most people online are jerks, but all I can say is that's my perceived experience. In reality, there are probably mostly good people online, but they tend to get overshadowed by the cretins, and if a "good guy" is just standing around as jerkwads trash the noobs--how "good" is he, anyway? I've never had much patience for either behavior, and that's probably why I don't last long in online games.

As I mentioned in the video, I was easily able to meet a friendly player who gave me lots of tips and talked to me about why he liked the game. However, the first time I played, it was with a group of jerks. They kept calling me "noob" and one of my own teammates attacked and killed me while the others encouraged him. I was having trouble figuring out how to use the chat function, but it's probably a blessing I didn't communicate with them. If that had been my first and only experience, I wouldn't have played it again. In general, though, I just haven't been at all, and I mean *at all*, impressed with the maturity and pleasantness of online gaming. It feels like most of the time I'm playing with very badly behaved kids. I suspect a lot of my impatience might stem from my job as a professor; if you had to deal with that kind of behavior on a daily basis, you sure as hell wouldn't want to throw yourself into it during your free time.

Only very rarely do I find the sort of folks I'd like to hang out with in real life when I'm playing online games. That's another reason I'm sad that we've never been able to assemble any kind of online group here at AA; I'm sure I'd like that much better than playing with random strangers. I remember a few weeks ago someone here had made a comment about how we should be lucky AA is as small and intimate as it is--at first I thought, nah, I'd still rather have a few hundred more members and a lot more participation. But if that "participation" amounted to the kind of trash I see in online games, then I should be careful what I wish for. I would 1000 times rather have a forum with 5-6 good folks than 500-600 kids who couldn't write a coherent sentence (in any language, mind you) and whose "mommies" had never so much as raised their voice (except to apologize that the grocery store ran out of their favorite juice box). Heheh...Yeah, I'm becoming an old fogey before my time.

I apologize for the boring still shot for this video. I still haven't mastered the art of timing the video in such a way as to get decent still shots for the video links, and all three were just like this. Grrr...It's definitely one of Youtube's big limitations (other services I've used will let you choose from a much wider series of thumbnails or upload your own!).

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Catatonic
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My Mom still plays the Hoyle

My Mom still plays the Hoyle card games I bought for her some years ago... It works on Windows XP but I think it sucks 100% of the CPU.

She also plays crosswords online - the only reason she has Java installed - and the damn thing needs an update every month.

Matt Barton
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To my mind, chess is a game

To my mind, chess is a game that has suffered from too much access to strategies, guides, etc. I guess there have always been books and such around to help you play the game, but it seems easier than ever now to simply go online and memorize patterns from the best. That way you can easily trounce anybody else who *hasn't* done this. The only way you're challenged after that is to go against someone else who is also into the patterns, and then I imagine it's pretty even until you're up against someone who knows more patterns. I doubt that any normal strategist would stand a chance unless he had not only memorized thousands of patterns and had some knack, tactical thinking, or intuition that went beyond that. My basic point is that it's much, much, MUCH too easy to draw upon a huge pool of experience that's not your own. As warped and twisted as I may be, I'd prefer to play against other folks who were thinking for themselves rather than just copying what other people have done. For me, it's a pretty hollow victory if the only way you "won" was by imitating, move by move, somebody else.

In short, anyone could become an "excellent" chess player just by memorizing a few hundred different patterns (if he moves here, I move here, etc.) It's more about memorization than strategy, unless of course you count choosing a particular pattern as a strategy.

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Bill Loguidice
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I agree 100% Matt. I tend

I agree 100% Matt. I tend to strategize on the fly and believe I enjoy myself more for it. Great Chess players however memorize patterns, can react to patterns with other patterns, etc., just as you say. Ultimately, it's a different way to play, and if that brings them enjoyment on their own level, so be it. With that said, I suppose if that particular quirk of great Chess playing is bothersome, there are other board games where that particular element is minimized. I suppose also that this element of Chess is what makes it such a nice target for computers--there are distinctive patterns and sets of reactions that favor computational and storage power over any particular form of innovative thought.

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.
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Mark Vergeer
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Selling chess-players short here...?
Matt Barton wrote:

In short, anyone could become an "excellent" chess player just by memorizing a few hundred different patterns (if he moves here, I move here, etc.) It's more about memorization than strategy, unless of course you count choosing a particular pattern as a strategy.

I tend to disagree here, but it holds true that good chess players are often people with an excellent visual memory. Still not everyone is gifted with such a memory nor the ability to make the right choices and predict the outcomes of certain moves. That takes years of practice and dedication - that's why it takes such a long time to become good at the game.

I think you may be rubbing a lot of chess-players completely the wrong way here mr Barton ;)

PS3: MarkVergeer | Xbox 360: Lactobacillus P | Wii: 8151 3435 8469 3138
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Matt Barton
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Difficulty Levels and Sameness

Just to elaborate a bit on what I was saying earlier, there seems to be a point where the difficulty level forces you to play according to a single or very limited set of strategies. If you don't, you lose. One great advantage of a lower difficulty level is that you have more freedom to try many different strategies according to your personal preference.

Compare it to fishing for fun vs. fishing for survival. If you're out there for fun, you will probably enjoy trying lots of different lures, different spots, different casts, etc. Perhaps you are not catching many fish at all, but you're having lots of fun and fishing the way you want to. If, on the other hand, you must catch X number of fish in an hour or terrible things will happen to you, the experimentation ends and you switch to using the "tried and true" (if you have one) or, more likely, do exactly what a pro fisherman does. You can't afford at that point "to mess around," but most place efficiency above all else.

I basically see this division happening between single-player and multiplayer games. In a single player game, the difficulty is usually enough to tolerate many "bad" strategies--but nevertheless, fun strategies that you enjoy using. As you ratchet up the difficulty (or go online), you will more than likely find that only a very small set (or perhaps only one!) strategy has a chance at success, so you must very carefully stick to it.

Examples of this abound. To pull from WoW, there are always many ways to play a particular class. A mage, for instance, can specialize in fire, frost, or arcane. I know many folks enjoy fire the most. However, at least when I was actively playing, arcane was the only sensible option for raiding. If you tried anything else, you would be decried as a hopeless noob (again, when I was playing it was statistically difficult or impossible to do more damage with fire than you could with the arcane spec). Not only that, but you had to spec your character exactly according to a guide. Then you had to move about and cast your spells in exactly the right order, with the same timing. It was like synchronized swimming, for god's sake. So, in short, as you ratcheted up the difficulty or whatever you want to call it, individuality and creativity went out the window and it became about imitation and routine. At that point I lost interest.

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Bill Loguidice
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WoW
Matt Barton wrote:

Examples of this abound. To pull from WoW, there are always many ways to play a particular class. A mage, for instance, can specialize in fire, frost, or arcane. I know many folks enjoy fire the most. However, at least when I was actively playing, arcane was the only sensible option for raiding. If you tried anything else, you would be decried as a hopeless noob (again, when I was playing it was statistically difficult or impossible to do more damage with fire than you could with the arcane spec). Not only that, but you had to spec your character exactly according to a guide. Then you had to move about and cast your spells in exactly the right order, with the same timing. It was like synchronized swimming, for god's sake. So, in short, as you ratcheted up the difficulty or whatever you want to call it, individuality and creativity went out the window and it became about imitation and routine. At that point I lost interest.

Sounds like a flawed game design, but it obviously doesn't seem to bother enough people. I can see the need for a well organized strategy to succeed, but not something quite so specific. The ideal game design is always the one with many ways to achieve the same objective(s).

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Mark Vergeer
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the killing fields of WOW...
Bill Loguidice wrote:
Matt Barton wrote:

Examples of this abound. To pull from WoW, there are always many ways to play a particular class. A mage, for instance, can specialize in fire, frost, or arcane. I know many folks enjoy fire the most. However, at least when I was actively playing, arcane was the only sensible option for raiding. If you tried anything else, you would be decried as a hopeless noob (again, when I was playing it was statistically difficult or impossible to do more damage with fire than you could with the arcane spec). Not only that, but you had to spec your character exactly according to a guide. Then you had to move about and cast your spells in exactly the right order, with the same timing. It was like synchronized swimming, for god's sake. So, in short, as you ratcheted up the difficulty or whatever you want to call it, individuality and creativity went out the window and it became about imitation and routine. At that point I lost interest.

Sounds like a flawed game design, but it obviously doesn't seem to bother enough people. I can see the need for a well organized strategy to succeed, but not something quite so specific. The ideal game design is always the one with many ways to achieve the same objective(s).

Grinding like that is indeed a flawed game design. Having to do this repetitive stuff whilst being immersed in a beautiful gaming environment is just killing for my interest....
Or having to perform very specific things that you can only come up with by cheating an going for a guide....

This is not only the case with MMORPGs but also with games like the 7th Guest where the ' Sly Gypsy ...tryst...' will just never ever be something that could spring from my non-native-English-brain :(
I really had to swallow hard and fight loosing interest when I came across this type of puzzle in this otherwise excellent game.

PS3: MarkVergeer | Xbox 360: Lactobacillus P | Wii: 8151 3435 8469 3138
Armchair arcade Editor | Pixellator | www.markvergeer.nl

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Cody Reimer
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Playing to Win, or Not
Matt Barton wrote:

Compare it to fishing for fun vs. fishing for survival. If you're out there for fun, you will probably enjoy trying lots of different lures, different spots, different casts, etc. Perhaps you are not catching many fish at all, but you're having lots of fun and fishing the way you want to. If, on the other hand, you must catch X number of fish in an hour or terrible things will happen to you, the experimentation ends and you switch to using the "tried and true" (if you have one) or, more likely, do exactly what a pro fisherman does. You can't afford at that point "to mess around," but most place efficiency above all else.

This reminds me of an article by Sirlin about Research and Design in gaming. He explains that in order to find new levels of play within a game, participants have to not play to win. This is contrary to his coined mantra "play to win." See his website for a more detailed explanation:

http://www.sirlin.net/articles/playing-to-win-part-3-not-playing-to-win....

To tie this all back to WoW, I believe you need to look at the game from an alternate perspective. Raids and instances encourage players to utilize spreadsheets to maximize efficiency. Because the encounter is scripted (dissected into boss abilities, phases, enrage timer, etc.) there is a need to plan around the preset circumstances. We must do X damage before the boss does Y, otherwise the raid wipes. The players become mechanical (or must mirror mechanical play as much as possible) to overcome mechanical battles.

In the Player vs Player (PvP) portion of the game, however, everything changes. New and innovative specs, strategies, group compositions, etc. all dynamically impact the game landscape. There are, to an extent, "tried and true" strategies, compositions, specs in PvP (what a vet would call "flavor of the month"), but the action shifts because the opponent is no longer mechanical. Players no longer can allocate their talent points and character customization for scripted encounters; they don't know what type of encounter they're facing in PvP. In short, PvP is more akin to the strategies involved in competitive chess or sport fishing than PvE is.

Cody Reimer
Freshman Composition TA
St. Cloud State University

Matt Barton
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A few quick notes-- One,

A few quick notes--

One, certainly didn't mean to offend chess masters. I specifically said "excellent chess players" to try to distinguish between them and the true masters, who, as you say, spend years perfecting their art. I doubt very seriously a grandmaster would recognize someone as a "grandmaster" simply because he or she had memorized a bunch of patterns. I'm talking about that great mass between the brilliant self-taught folks and the grandmasters. Specifically, those folks who have learned how to play chess by studying websites, patterns, and so on--simply applying them rather than the customary thinking ahead several moves and such. If we were talking about hacking, I'd call them "script kiddies." :P

Also, on the subject of WoW again--let me stress that I'm talking about raiding and instance grinding here. Usually Blizzard sets up the raids so that you can afford at least a few "noobs," but not at the most difficult levels (and especially when you're intentionally or unintentionally playing with fewer people than the game allows.) I have gotten all the way from level 1 to 80 with either never joining a party or just briefly joining them for a diversion. I know I've hammered on this before, but I tend to avoid doing any dungeons or instances before maxing out my level, because the folks doing them (at least 99% of the time) are only grinding them, usually towing after a maxed out character who kills all the monsters for them. That to me is no fun at all, so I don't do it. Once you get to the level 80 instances and dungeons, that isn't an issue, and you actually get challenged. The only problem is that you can't get the best equipment in the "normal" 80 instances, but have to go to "heroic difficulty" and then "raids." It's a bit of a catch 22 there, because to survive a heroic instance or raid you must have really nice equipment--the kind you get in heroics and raids. Typically, the raiding guilds will work on one guild member at the time, grinding a raid to get them decent equipment. One you're equipped, you're expected to help everyone else out in the same way (which means doing the same raids over, and over, and over, and over again). That can get very boring (not to say time consuming), especially considering that after you're equipped, you've got nothing to look forward to.

I've begun to notice that several of my current students are in WoW guilds with their buddies from high school or college. That to me would have been awesome! I'm almost certain that the fun factor of these games ratchets up substantially when you're in there with your real friends instead of random people.

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Matt Barton
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Interesting points, Cody,

Interesting points, Cody, but I'd qualify it a bit by specifying the type of PVP as individuals doing their own thing rather than an organized group. I saw this countless times in battlegrounds. If one of the sides is a "pre-made," or people who have worked out a common strategy and have unified communication, they almost always win (I've never seen what happens when both sides are pre-mades).

I would also add that in way of analogy, professional militaries have known about the power of mechanization for thousands of years. At some point, you could have weak soldiers, but just the virtues of being tightly trained and organized trumps the individual prowess of the opposite's warriors.

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