On the Ball: Out Of Control

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It’s easy to take it for granted that you’re a gamer. Over the years, you’ve probably spent tens of thousands of hours mastering skills that can’t be acquired through any means other than gaming. You’ve honed your reaction time, memorized complex strategies and grown so accustomed to gamepads, mice and keyboards that they feel like an extension of your fingers. But every once in a while, you get a taste of what it’s like to be on the outside, up against opponents who grok the game on a level that you probably never will. For me, that’s what playing StarCraft II is like.

I’ve spent over a month in the beta at this point, and I’ve learned a lot about the game in that time. I even managed to climb to the number two spot in the Copper league, which, as I understand it, is pretty much the short bus of the competitive StarCraft II scene. I know generally what to do in order to win, and I even developed a build order that often led me to overrun my opponent before the 10-minute mark of a match. But knowing, as a famous cartoon character once said, is only half the battle. The other half is execution, where I stumble pretty much every time. And I can trace pretty much every aspect of my dismal reaction time down to the insanely complex controls.

At a base level, StarCraft II‘s inputs are as simple as RTSs have always been: left click to select units, right click to assign them orders, drag boxes to select multiple units, etc. It’s when the keyboard comes into play that I fall to the back of the pack. A solid StarCraft player is meticulous about his keybinds, making sure he can access pretty much any of his units or buildings at a moment’s notice with a keystroke instead of a mouse gesture. And while I remember to do that for my first couple buildings, it falls by the wayside the moment I start feeling the pressure from my opponent. It’s no surprise that I forget this basic control mechanism so quickly, because I never really learned it in the first place.

I imagine a veteran StarCraft player would feel the same thing watching me flail about in Kulas Ravine as I would watching my mom play Modern Warfare 2: a mixture of pity and annoyance. But the truth is, while StarCraft‘s keybind system is partly what allows for pro-level play in the first place, it’s horribly unintuitive to anyone who hasn’t experienced an RTS before. Each time I drag my cursor around a group of units and accidentally send a pair of SCVs into the fray, or missclick and end up ordering my marauders to fire at the Zerg lair rather than the group of Roaches whittling away at me from in front of it, I can’t help but feel the controls are working against me.

So, what’s the alternative? An RTS where your order your troops via semaphore with a pair of Move wands? Or one where you dictate the course of the battle via a Natal-captured interpretive dance? I’d settle for something simpler: an RTS played on a multi-touch screen like Microsoft’s Surface or, hell, even Apple’s iPad. It doesn’t get much simpler than selecting a unit by touching it, or a group by drawing a circle around it. And while it may not allow for the speed and precision that a pro-gamer demands, I’m happy to make that sacrifice if it doesn’t mean I’m kicking myself for some error every match.

I’ve accepted that I’ll probably never be competitive at StarCraft II. And when the game finally comes out, I’ll probably chew through the single-player campaign and then move on to something less humiliating. But in the meantime, I hope designers realize that there’s an opportunity now for RTSs to finally click with a new audience. After all, Copper-leaguers are people, too.

Jordan Deam will probably end up in the Pewter league by the time StarCraft II is actually released.

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