Bethesda's epic sci-fi RPG is here, and it's a big one. From shipbuilding to exploring the surface of Mars, our thoughts so far.
Starfield Review... In Progress
The first trailer for Grand Theft Auto 6 is finally here.
Grand Theft Auto 6 Trailer
We take an in-depth look at Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora and tell you why it should be heavily on your radar!
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora - a Deep-Dive into its Potential
Range-wise, the ROG Rapture GT6 is phenomenal, and it's ideal for all gaming and non-gaming-related tasks.
ASUS ROG Rapture GT6 WiFi 6 Mesh System Review
Why Ditching Macro Mechanics is the Right Move for StarCraft 2
Post by Junglist @ 12:14pm 25/09/15 | Comments
Resident StarCraft II expert Junglist takes a closer look at why abandoning macro mechanics in StarCraft II is a good thing.

In StarCraft II, factions are locked in brutal combat – but I’m not referring to the jumbo shoulder pads of the Terrans or the electro-dreads of the Protoss. In the beta leading up to Legacy of the Void’s release, Blizzard has been toying with one of the most polarising changes in its history: removing, or at least dialling down, its macro mechanics.

All I can say is... Hell. It’s about damn time.

For the uninitiated, one of the StarCraft sequel’s additions was a race-specific ‘macro mechanic’ to boost your economy. Terrans could call down MULEs that mine crystals at three times the normal rate, Protoss could Chrono Boost their buildings to speed up production, and Zerg could spit on their hive to make more larvae, as well as dropping Creep Tumours to spread creep throughout the map.

On paper, these seem like good ideas that both allow for strategic choice and mechanical mastery. In reality, it’s arbitrary PvE that drains a player’s focus.

It’s Just Not Fun
Deep in the heart of every RTS player is the Ender’s Game fantasy, where you’ve proven yourself such a damn good commander that the armed forces want to use your brilliance. But the armed forces have to deal with all that boring stuff, like logistics. In your fantasy, you shouldn’t have to deal with the mundane. Just imagine.

You sit in a big red velvet chair, surrounded by Minority Report screens. “This is your command console”, says General Buzzcut, who copped some pushback for this but he believed in you, dammit. “And every thirty seconds, you’ll have to push this red button.” Wait, what? Why? “Push it so our supply chains are at maximum efficiency,” says the good General. “As our operation grows, you’ll need that orange button, too. And if it comes to it – may God help us – there’s the polka-dot button.”

“But wait, General,” you say, “Aren’t there, like… People for that? Or can’t we automate it?”

Well, la-di-frickin-da, Ender. Twenty seconds in the chair, and already delegating.

The Illusion of Strategy
Sid Meier, of Civilization fame, is quoted as saying, “A game is a series of interesting choices.”

The definition of a ‘game’ has broadened in the last decade, yet Meier’s quote persists as a succinct truism. In fact, designers have expanded on it with hard science – we now know how many choices a player should be making at any given time. It’s roughly four.

There are exceptions, of course, and no choices are made in a vacuum. Slow-paced or turn-based games like Civ will naturally give you many options to consider. But within each decision, as its own entity, there should be a certain number of viable options to make it interesting. Too many viable options, and the choice becomes meaningless. Too few, and players always choose the dominant path.

We can define a fun number of options because our brains can only handle so much. Too many fires to put out, and it seems impenetrably hard and stressful. Too few, and it’s boring. It’s part of what designers call “flow”. StarCraft II’s macro mechanics slowly ramp up as the game goes on, and only the best players rein in their military from biting off more than their economy can chew.

Except, for this magic number to work, the choices need to be viable – and StarCraft II's macro choices are mostly rendered obsolete by the meta, meaning they only add to the game mechanically, not strategically.

Let’s take a closer look. Supply depots are best forgotten – wasting energy on a supply depot is a sign that you didn’t plan properly. That leaves a somewhat strategic choice between MULEs and scanning. Spitting on a hive is the equivalent of saying, “Do you want more things?” To which the answer is, “Yes, I’ll have that every time it’s available, cheers.”

And then there’s the Chrono Boost, which is pretty much exclusively used for probes. At higher levels of play you’ll see Chrono used for tech research or gateways in the mid-game and beyond. As Technical Designer Aron Kirkpatrick pointed out to me, this does have some value.

“I think Chrono Boost gets sold short a little bit,” he told me. “I think because you see where it is, it has a big impact on scouting. If someone comes in and sees the Chrono Boost on the Cybernetics Core, they have a pretty big idea that there’s going to be units coming. If they see a Chrono Boost on a forge, they’ll think you’re probably heading a bit more for the late game. So those sorts of things I think add a lot to the game, and I think inject could stand to be more like that.”

I’ll concede that point, though it’s mostly applicable to high level play. And no matter what your actions per minute (APM), early game Chrono Boost should only be used for probes. Which brings up an important question...

If a game is a series of interesting choices, how valuable is a mechanic with only one viable choice?

Different Factions Emerge
At the core of the disagreement is whether or not you think it’s fair to build a dependence on a particular skill set for one release and one expansion, only to make it irrelevant for the final sprint. It’s an extremely polarising issue.

“The data is very split,” said StarCraft II's Design Producer Tim Ismay. “We see positives and negatives in either direction. The community is very split on it. And also, internally, I think that’s an area we’re very split on right now.”

Show me an eSport, and I’ll show you its fringe of vocal nerds who can’t see the big picture. Take the switch from Counter-Strike to Call of Duty, when competitive gamers were handed an amazing new game and promptly modded it to be exactly like Counter-Strike. I love my eSports brothers and sisters, but we suffer from a juvenile mob mentality in which every change has to be derided before it has a chance at acceptance. Even then, some have to be dragged kicking and screaming (Pro Mod, anyone?).

These macro loyalists – much like those against StarCraft II’s pathfinding improvements or high ground vision advantage before them – would have you believe the mechanics should be kept because they’re “skill differentiators”.

I’ve always found this to be a bit of a non-argument.

Not all “skill differentiators” are good. We could pop a tyre on every F1 car and it’d be a “skill differentiator”. We could tell Ronda Rousey her next fight would have to be performed while juggling three balls, and that’s a “skill differentiator”. But these are arbitrary additions that don’t contribute to the sport.

Similarly, remembering to hit an arbitrary button every 20 seconds has no place in an RTS unless there’s some kind of meaningful decision to be made with that mechanic. And as excited as I’d be to see the new MMA JuggleDome, I think the fans would get why non-PvP task management doesn’t belong.

That’s assuming you get further than, “But Ronda, it’s a skill differentia-” *whack*

Listen to the Best
Funnily enough, it’s those who stand to lose the most who are the most pro-change:

“Opinions are incredibly different, by region, by skill level...” said Ismay. “For example, the Korean pros were very adamant that the game should become much, much easier. The game is actually too hard. They were saying the macro mechanics are a very difficult thing and they felt like it just took away from a lot of the spectators. People don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. Why does this even exist?”

As odd as it seems to have someone dedicate their life to something they’d criticise the very core of, those at the top of a system are the best positioned to do it. Even Bobby Fischer criticised chess after becoming the world champion for being “just a lot of book and memorisation”.

The fact that the Korean pros would advocate the removal of arguably their biggest strength shows that this is more than a tribal issue about who will be better at the expansion on release. It comes down to what kind of game you want to play, and arguably just as important, what kind of game you want to watch. If you thought pressing General Buzzcut’s big red button every 20 seconds was an odd way to spend your time, imagine watching someone else do it.

There will always be a StarCraft II scene, but it’s losing the long game against MOBA. Many pros have eschewed commanding an army for commanding one unit with four abilities. Barcraft has become MOBAR. As early as 2013, Tasteless could be seen in the League of Legends commentary booth.

In the words of Artosis, MOBA is ahead – and it’s getting more ahead.

That means big moves are needed to bring people back, and accessibility could help achieve that with both players and viewers. Making a game accessible isn’t the same as making it hard. Cutting macro mechanics and increasing strategic choices just makes it a different game – one without a strategically shallow barrier preventing lower skill levels from enjoying the finer points of the game.

I’m not opposed to the idea of attention as a resource, but this is the illusion of strategy. It’d be fine if the activities taking up your attention have some strategic value. I think that’s a fair request, in the context of the real-time strategy genre.

Really, it’s just making StarCraft more like StarCraft. I don’t want to change the magic. It had reached a sublime stage of balance, beauty in its simplicity, and suitability for competitive play. There were lulls at just the right moments for Tastosis to talk meta. There was just enough room for innovation so the likes of Min Chul could dazzle us with new strategies he saved just for a grand final.

But with two expansions comes two additions to units and tactical options. There’s more to keep our brains occupied now, and it’s a good time to ditch the arbitrary PvE Diner Dash multitasking.

“I look at it as, I like to find a way to get the best of both worlds,” Kirkpatrick told me. “I pull back and say, ‘Well, how can we make this more interesting? Instead of this meaningless thing, how about we make something that’s more appreciable by viewers, or a more interesting strategic decision?’ so it’s not just a task you’re always going to perform. But, at the same time, you’re still dividing your focus one way or another. And I haven’t been very successful so far (laughs).”

I hope you figure it out, Kirkpatrick. Because there are some of us who would prefer watching a marauder drop over a split push any day.