Mar 262010
 

My desktop on the fateful night the download began! And yep, I’ve had a rotating SCII backdrop for many months since they released the artwork, that was nothing new 😉

Yes! The other week I was lucky enough to get on the StarCraft II beta test. As you’ll know if you’ve been reading a while, I’m rather excited about StarCraft II. Here’s my top 10 bits of commentary on the beta, concentrating on things you might not hear elsewhere, in no particular order of importance:

1. This isn’t StarCraft in space! No wait… ! StarCraft II in all respects is very much a ‘true’ sequel to StarCraft. There have been no Warcraft III-like huge changes, and certainly no immediate sense of any World of Warcrappiness, thank goodness! It seems they are determined to keep this game ‘pure’ – as expected considering the legacy and still-current following StarCraft 1 has. But this does mean that some people may find it too familiar and almost ‘old’. From the flavour of the races to the music, to the interface, everything feels like this is StarCraft 2010 as opposed to being a completely new game in some ways. I love it for this, but of course, your mileage may vary.

2. The replay functionality is almost as much fun as playing. Indeed, watching yourself play StarCraft II is fascinating in itself, and because of how well it’s done it’s also an incredible learning tool. What I like best about it is being able to see why I lost (or even sometimes, why I won). It gives you so many more tools to see what’s going on than any other game so far, it’s absolutely wonderful.

3. I discovered to my excitement there is in fact a fourth race in StarCraft II: Random. RANDOM FACTOR LIKE A TRACTOR in fact. 😉 What I mean by this is; on the pre-battle screen after you pick a race, your opponent gets to see what race you picked. However if you go random, neither you nor your opponent will know what race you are playing as until you have scouted. This is exactly how it should be done in my opinion, and it’s a great way to do it. I used to play random all the time in StarCraft 1 to hide this information from my opponents and also because I found it an enjoyable challenge – but then I only really played slow casual free-for-all (FFA) matches.

4. Battlenet is now going to be region locked, as they confirmed here:

Q. Will we be able to play with our friends on other continents like we could in StarCraft’s Battle.net?
A. Currently we do not have plans to integrate friends between regions for launch. In the long run that’s definitely something we’ll be looking at.

This is a terrible mistake on Blozzard’s part. I believe this some stupid holdover from World of Warcrap; and it really threatens to spoil SCII for a lot of players. Video gaming in almost all other games, especially the RTS genre, and even StarCraft 1, is worldwide, and whilst I can understand them wanting to get the majority of players into games with good connections, this is simply not a reasonable way to do it. Waiting for ‘the long run’ really isn’t good enough; it’s already driving some players away and antagonising others. We all know Blizzard can ‘get away with it’ but what I really wonder is why would they want to? It doesn’t appear to make any sense. It doesn’t help to keep same language people together (especially in Europe), it doesn’t get the best connections for many people – again, especially in Europe, where the UK generally has better connections to east-coast USA than to most of Europe. Even if it did make sense for the leagues, matchmaking or connections and such, it doesn’t make any sense to block online friends from playing casual games together, which will be the case at launch. Here‘s a great thread to voice your complaints if you are also on the beta in Europe.

StarCraft II Keyboard with built-in Macro keys

StarCraft II Keyboard with built-in Macro keys

5. How will they deal with macro keyboards etc? Well, your answer is here. Blozzard are endorsing and completely allowing any form of macro-style shortcuts in this game. So basically, you’d better get yourself a macro keyboard if you really want to compete. I wonder what Korean pro leagues and such will make of this – perhaps macro keyboards are the standard there already? If you know more about this, please comment and let me know. Once again controllers become part of the game in a big way.

6. Game Speed. Hmm. This is a more complex issue to discuss. I am fully aware of what I am getting into in an “RTS” and that ‘real-time’ element is a huge part of it. Whilst I might prefer the strategy and tactics side of it to take a greater role, they don’t necessarily and shouldn’t necessarily in this kind of game; I understand this is supposed to be some kind of speed chess, not chess. StarCraft 1 played at the fastest speed was, and is, feverishly fast. Yet I never actually played it at that speed; I personally always played it at just a notch above the ‘Normal’ speed setting. One of the reasons I never got into playing it competitively online very much was that everyone created games set on the very fastest speed, and if you created games that were set on any slower level, people would not join or would leave when they realised. So, much to my dismay, StarCraft II has indeed standardised it’s online play to that same super-fast speed that online competitors played StarCraft 1 on. What’s interesting to me is wondering why did StarCraft 1 ever develop into ‘Fastest possible’ being the de-facto speed? One theory is because most people were on dial up internet connections and so did not want long games as they were paying by the minute and they could not afford them. Another idea is that early on there is so little to do in StarCraft, and so people wanted to get that initial ‘build phase’ out of the way as quickly as possible as it became dull and repetitive; note that I don’t think this is true as there are actually a ton of decisions to be made very early on into games, I’m just guessing at a possible perception here. Perhaps people just preferred the intense APM (actions-per-minute) required to play games at such a high speed; where matches were determined more by a players keyboard and mouse skills than any level of strategy? More games in less time equals more fun?

There’s a good discussion about the current situation here and whether you need a ‘standard’ online game speed or not. The proposal in that thread is that it could be a preferential setting – much like map selection is. Hence you could find a variety of games of different speed settings and different maps, and the game would be testing your ability to play at a whole host of different speeds then – if that was what players wanted. I can see some reasons why they would want to keep it at a standard speed however; just simply to keep it at a standard for players to learn to play & to compete on a level speed playing field. But my question then is, why even have the other speed settings, or why, at least not call the current ‘Fastest’ speed setting “normal”, if that is, indeed the normal speed they expect you to play on. The ‘Fastest’ speed standard ought to be in place across all modes of the game by default, but I suspect it won’t be; I suspect ‘Normal” speed will be how new players are introduced to the game, meaning there is an even steeper learning curve wall for them to clamber onto to get into the online competitive game. This isn’t a good idea for a game that is trying to become far more inclusive in its competitive style of gameplay.

What really troubles me further is that the fastest speed setting is  one of the things that makes the competitive game so execution exclusive. An APM of 100+ is supposedly an experienced player, and indeed, many say that an APM of 80 is required to even begin to compete sensibly at the game. My own APM – which I can now monitor thanks to SCII’s replay feature – is between 20-50, and I average 35 at my usual level of play, I can get up to 50 when I am at my peak of concentration and alertness. So you can see why I struggle to play StarCraft II very well! But what’s a shame for me is that I’d enjoy a slower pace of game more, where my low APM wouldn’t hurt me so much. I’m generally aware of what I should be clicking and doing in StarCraft II, I’m simply not able to do it all fast enough, at least, not yet. I’m still learning how to play, still learning shortcuts and hotkeys and such, and whilst with more training and practice I may be able to get up to a decent APM (and/or utilise my limited APM better) that would allow me to compete on the fastest speed and actually do all the tasks I’m aware of in my head, again, it’s a shame that the game insists on this huge exclusive execution wall for me to begin really playing it. It’s very similar to fighting game execution in this regard. And here’s a fantastic post about it from this thread on the beta forum:

“Unless you have a high degree of physical proficiency to manipulate the game as well as quick reactions, you can’t win at Starcraft. These factors are not present in speed chess, which only has strategy plus constant time pressure.

In Starcraft you can’t even develop sound strategic and tactical thought in-game before you have pretty solid mechanics, because every step of the interaction and timing depends on the mechanics, whereas you can always play ordinary chess and bring all the strategic ability derived from it to bear on speed chess.

OP is wrong, of course – matches are largely not decided by a flip of the coin, but a combination of physical skill and strategy. He obviously lacks the physical skill for the strategy to enter into the game. (As do I, for the most part.) There are “flip the coin” matches even on pro level SC:BW – sometimes one pro does an all-in and the opponent just happens to scout in the wrong direction at random, resulting in a build order victory – but even those are not 50-50 flips, the percentages are heavily dependent on player skill.” – Vihtori.vih

At the moment I notice I tend to win or lose games purely on my ability to manipulate the interface to do what I want to well or not – it’s very much a ‘single player’ game at the moment for in that regard, the opponent is just a (slightly random) difficulty setting for me. Now whilst the good skill based matchmaking helps a lot, it’s still not quite the same as changing the speed class of the game to allow me to do proper ‘micro’ for example. Right now my tactics (and most likely the tactics of any lower speed competitors I get against) are very much warped by my inability to do many of the basic things within the game. Units and tactics that require excessive ‘micro’ seem weak; other units seem stronger purely because they are easier to use. I also know that APM isn’t necessarily useful APM; and that ‘speed’ at the game has more components to it than that. For example I could get high APM just by doing excessive micro on a small group of units; however I’d be unable to manage my bases and economy at the same time, so it might actually make my overall ‘speed’ of play worse.

Overall what’s the most frustrating thing is that I think StarCraft II on “Normal” speed, would be a better and more inclusive game, one that was better able to test and measure a different skill set that I’d find more interesting; and would also allow more players to compete. High APM & overall ‘speed’ would still have it’s place, and still be an advantage, but a much smaller one. Another solution might be to allow me to matchmake against APM rather than ‘overall skill’. I’d be quite happy losing to a slower, but excellent decision-making player, as it would be a far more interesting game to me than just losing because I couldn’t keep up with the clicking.

I’m fully aware of course that I’ll be able to play as many casual games as I like on “Normal” speed, or indeed any speed I choose, once StarCraft II is actually available and my friends are playing it, but the trouble is, I have to lose all their wonderful matchmaking and competitive play options to do this! And yet there are many easy ways to give players both. I chatted to one of my friends who used to play StarCraft 1 with me, and he thought that your speed class ought to be considered like your ‘weight class’ in boxing. There’s still a whole load of differently skilled boxers at each weight class, but it’s something that’s pretty much impossible for many different people of naturally different weights to compete on.

7. Battlenet’s chat options and general Friends List abilities are fairly limited, whilst it’s decent for enabling chat with existing friends, it’s rather hard to chat with anyone else. One of my friends I did play with was really impressed with the slickness of battlenet; however whilst it’s nice to me, it’s still a small step backwards from XBox Live right now (I suspect my friend was so impressed simply because he’s never used XBox Live!). It does look like there’s a lot more on the way in this regard though, thankfully:

“Q. Hi. So many people are complaining about this on the forum… is it true that there will be no chat channels? I hope not!
A. We do have plans for chat channels. Specifically, we want to organize chat channels around users’ interests so you know what types of conversations you are going to get into when you join a channel. This feature is not something that will be in for beta. Currently we plan to do this feature in a patch after the game launches.”

8. There’s a lot of fun videos showing off people’s games from StarCraft II, however the most fun ones I’ve found so far, and the ones that closest mirror some of my own experiences are here –

Although thankfully I’m not quite that bad! Thanks to the decent matchmaking, I think I’m winning around 40% of my matches, which is pretty good as matchmaking goes. In fact, whilst the beta comes with warnings that they are prioritising speed of matching over skill-based matching, due to the small amount of players, it’s still doing a very good job. After my 5 practice games and 10 placement matches, I was placed into the bottom Copper league; which I guess shows how high the standard of players on the beta are if I’m at the bottom! However the 40% win rate is even better than it sounds, because I do often get matched against far better players, and I usually do lose to them – but I take only tiny drops to my rating when I do, yet when I win I tend to gaining large amounts, so it’s a fair bet the system hasn’t quite found my true skill. Another impressive part is that I think I’ve rarely, if ever, lost when their matchmaking actually thought I was favoured. So all of this shows me it’s doing a really good job, and just needs a bigger playerbase to work even better.

9. Maphacks have already been identified. How well Blizzard manages to deal with this, or any other forms of cheating during the beta test will be interesting. They are intending to add more XBox Live-like reporting complaints of abusive players; maybe this will help them track offenders. This is the greatest strength of their tying everything to a single battlenet account and requiring you to be online to play. If you get banned for cheating; it’s going to cost you at least another copy of the game. I’ve not yet discovered what “plug pulling” and other game resets do to people’s win-loss records. At least quit = loss is built into the game by default. In fact, in a game with such high slippery slope, it’s common and indeed sensible to quit early, as far as 1v1 matches go.

10. Race-based skill ranking is needed; this is a bit of a no-brainer really! It’s exactly the same as character-based matchmaking I talked about here.

Uncle Reports to the Battlefield

* And finally, a bonus battle report! This was far from my best game of StarCraft II, however it was one of my most amusing. I was in my first 10 ‘placement matches’ and was playing on Random race; not because I was that expert (as sometimes people messaged me to ask) it was just that was how I’d always played SC1, and also, since I was equally bad with all the races at that point, it didn’t really hurt me at all. I’d got (random) Terran vs a Protoss player. I think this was only my first or second time playing Terran, and I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was was at least trying some SC1 basic stuff and seeing how it did.

I tried to mass Marines and send them in – but without medics they died to his huge amount of photon cannons. He already seemed to have expanded really fast, not only to his ‘natural’  but even onto a gold crystal expansion that was in the middle of the map! I assumed he’d expanded around the whole map already, and was 3-1 on economy for a while and then 3-2 ahead of me once I got to my natural, but it turns out he’d done a weird gold crystal expand rush, so it was more like 2.5-2. Even so, his economy was way ahead of mine. I did discover he hadn’t taken his ‘natural’ a little later in the game as I managed to scout with a Viking, and then did something of a Reaper harrass on it (if only I’d realised how good they were against buildings at this point!). I tried to do a Siege Tank & Marine push against his gold expansion, thinking this was a good way to kill static defences; but he already had out Warp Rays, Immortals and Stalkers and he killed me easily. In fact I was so bad at micro’ing Siege Tanks still, I even managed to siege them too close; an embarrassing loss of a Siege Tank that didn’t even fire a shot. Still, I kept on attacking, as I realised I was behind in economy, I had to do some damage somehow.

So I massed everything I could muster into a Marines & Vikings and & Siege Tank army, and sent them into his main – I even caught some of his Zealots on a Move order going past me and killed them all for free on the way in.. but then he caught my attacking force with all of his guys – now including a bunch of Carriers. Oh my. My forces were decimated easily, and he even posted me a slightly unkind “lol” message (that I missed at the time, so intense was my struggle to even figure out how to build my economy and manage units!). During this attack though, I’d done my own cheeky almost completely undefended “gold expand” of my own, since I noticed he really wasn’t scouting the whole map or attacking me at all. I got away with this easily.

Still, I felt like I was miles behind, I’d lost my entire army 3 times over and seemed to have done minimal damage to him. Looking at the replay, I actually saw that our unit losses were reasonably even – I was being visually misled due to the sheer cost of Protoss units and the fact he had so much more than me; but I had actually been killing my fair share of Carriers, Cannons and Zealots at least.

As always at games when I feel like I am losing badly and I can’t win in a straight fight, it was time to do something daft! Maybe just maybe it would result in a moments confusion I could take advantage of. I remembered one of my favourite tactics from many a casual FFA game of StarCraft 1; I had no idea if it would work or not in StarCraft II though. I pulled everything back I had left to my main base – a tiny bunch of Marines, and then built a token missile turret and wall-in defence to attempt to drive off any scouts for a while, and hunkered down, teched like crazy, built 3 Starports and proceeded to pump out Battlecruisers as fast as I could! “Uncle is reporting” came the familiar voice refrain as my first Battlecruiser was built, still the same quote from StarCraft 1 which brought a grin to my face. (Other people might imagine he’s actually saying “All crews reporting” – however such people are clearly wrong, and possibly mad).

My economy was actually pretty good at this point, and so unharrassed I kept on building Uncles as fast as I could, even upgrading their armour and weapons and buying every upgrade I could get (Yamato Cannons and extra energy). I even backed them with an air-force of Viking support and the new Science Vessel (a Raven) or two on follow orders to the Cruiser mass, just because I was worried about whatever kind of cloaked units he might have. I counted my Uncles.. wow! I think I had nine or ten by this point. That was amazing. Seven Uncles used to be the ‘lucky’ threshold of a very powerful mass that could fend off even a huge number of Zerg Scourge for example.

It was at this point my opponent decided to come in with everything he had to attack my main base – unbeknownst to me, this was because he’d reached his population cap on his whole army. A massive Protoss army descended upon me – a full force of Carriers, Stalkers, Immortals and Colossi. Here was our army counts before:

Blue is me, Red is my opponent

And yet here’s what it looked like after the epic battle had ended…

How did that happen? Well, exactly like this! (Unfortunately sped up to x3 speed since I could only capture 30 seconds of video with my trial software):

Of course my fully intact army of Uncles proceeded to go immediately to his main and destroy all his Stargates and most of his Warpgates to take out almost any chance he had to rebuild his army (although he did manage to take out a bunch of Battlecruisers with his High Templars’ Feedback ability later – it was too little too late). Thanks to the power of the Uncles, and my opponent’s lack of scouting and aggression, I’d gone from a game I where had absolutely no chance to win, and had even contemplating quitting a few times, to an overwhelming victory.

So just remember what happens when Uncle Reports… or in other words: lol back at ya!

If anyone is reading this and is lucky enough to be on the beta and you’d like to play with or against me, feel free to add me, my beta name at the moment is Remy.beta (although it’s likely to change when Blizzard does their planned big ‘reset’ of the beta environment).

  4 Responses to “Uncle’s Report: My Top 10 Thoughts on the Starcraft II Beta”

  1. A great thread on the beta that deserves an extra reference is here:

    http://forums.battle.net/thread.html?topicId=23425636662&sid=5010&pageNo=1

    “For the internal game clock to be identical to the normal time one has to play normal. On slower 1 second is 0.6 ingame, slow 0.8, fast 1.2, faster 1.4, fasterx3 4.2, fasterx6 8.4. You may have seen that everybody is playing on faster, this is for two reasons or rather one with a few side-effects: Everything goes faster, meaning more games/gametime per real time, which means more fun in less time, the key to a better life ^^. Side-effects include less time spend in the boring start-up phase and stressing out players with less APM (leading to mistakes, leading to easier victories).”

  2. ..aaand now they’ve done the reset so my beta user is now called: Myuncleworks.forblozzard 😉

  3. A little clarification on this that came over from the beta battlenet forum discussion:

    Stilgar.naib “I favour just a little bit of speed reduction to allow for more micro in battles. Right now I believe even the best players have hard time clicking on individual fast units and the units die too fast so it is hard to save them so it makes trying to save them almost pointless. You’d better invest your time in something else like production or moving larger armies.”

    Yep I completely agree with all of this, and it’s the same point I’m making that lower speed would actually allow me to control my units properly – which actually means ‘more’ micro in a way.

    I don’t literally mean the current “Normal” speed setting should necessarily be the one that’s used, 10-15% reduction does sound good to me too. What I mean by ‘Normal’ is that whatever they call “Normal” speed in the main game, had better be the ACTUAL Normal speed. Otherwise you’re just creating another barrier to entry to new players- there’s not the shock that suddenly you go online and everything’s 1.5x faster than you ever played it. That’s pretty much what I’m experiencing right now.

  4. A hugely important thread regarding macro keyboards and mice on TL:
    http://www.teamliquid.net/forum/viewmessage.php?topic_id=126782

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