On the Ball

On the Ball: A Shoddy (Star)Craftsman

Jordan Deam | 24 Feb 2010 21:07
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"Hi. My name is Jordan, and I'm a recovering Command & Conquer player."

That's how I'd introduce myself to each of my StarCraft II opponents if it didn't inevitably become obvious within the first few minutes of the match that I had no clue what I was doing. Too few resource-gathering SCVs? Always. No defense against rush tactics? Guilty. Zero understanding of enemy units and how to counter them? Yep, I've got that going for me, too. In fact, if it wasn't for a certain coworker taking pity on me, I might have lost all 33 of my matches rather than achieve what I consider a near-miraculous record of 11 and 22.

I came into this beta at a pretty huge disadvantage. My previous RTS experience consisted of null modem matches of Westwood Studios' Command & Conquer and its prequel, Red Alert, with my older brother when I was between the ages of 11 and 13. I had no concept of what the terms "build order," "hotkeys" or even "micro" meant; instead, I played the game like a combination of SimCity and Lemmings. The goal wasn't so much to out-think my opponent as it was to outlast him - most of our matches ended with one player walking away from his computer out of sheer boredom.

Flash forward 14-odd years (and completely past the failed experiment that was Halo Wars), and it's become clear that I picked the wrong side in the mid-'90s RTS Wars. StarCraft became perhaps the first widely accepted e-sport, overtaking an entire nation and setting the bar for RTS gameplay so high that no title since has been able to rise to meet it. Meanwhile, the Command & Conquer series descended into kitsch, amping up the most unintentionally hilarious aspects of the early C&C games and relying on a mix of nostalgia and name recognition to move units.

So when I installed the beta on Sunday night and dropped into my first match, I wasn't just a few days late to the party - I had about a decade's worth of making up to do. StarCraft's mechanics are both so refined and so ingrained into its player base's collective consciousness that my meager non-StarCraft RTS experience was effectively worthless. All those years I had been playing checkers while my opponents were playing chess.

I didn't fully understand my predicament until after my first few brutal beatings, when I was soundly defeated with almost no idea of what transpired. StarCraft II helpfully breaks down each match for you, scoring both you and your opponents in terms of resources collected and spent, number of units constructed, etc., but these numbers were meaningless to me. Even watching the replays was confusing - I could see that my opponents were growing faster than I was, but I had no concept of how or why. Still, the joy of watching my base briefly spread outward before getting leveled at roughly the 10-minute mark was enough to keep me interested.

But I'm a proud person, and I can only lose so much before giving up. And with the game's tutorial disabled in beta, I had little choice but to ask for a veteran player's help. Eventually, I enlisted the aid of Associate Video Producer Justin Clouse, who agreed to walk me through a Terran match. Within minutes, he had isolated my main mistakes: I wasn't building enough SCVs, and I wasn't spending resources as fast as they came in. These are pretty fundamental principles of RTS gameplay, but they were practically nonexistent by the time I stopped playing RTSs.

Since that game, I've learned a single effective strategy that has allowed me to win roughly half of my matches: Build as many marines as you can, then send wave after wave at the enemy's base until it's gone. It's a tactic more befitting of the hive-minded Zerg than the more individualistic Terran, but I'm not going to concern myself with the philosophical implications of my wars of attrition when it's the only way I've been able to win.

When the beta comes to a close and the game sees official release, it's less likely that new players will be up against the same obscene learning curve that I was. They'll have an entire single-player campaign to hone their skills, not to mention a multiplayer tutorial and enough difficulty levels of enemy AI to get plenty of practice before their first human opponents. But it bodes well that even when I lost horribly - and constantly - StarCraft II was (and is) a blast to play.

Jordan Deam is working on doubling his effective Terran strategies (from one to two).

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