StarCraft 2: Beating The Rush

By Quintin Smith on September 3rd, 2010 at 4:52 pm.


I’ve figured out why I’m playing StarCraft 2 online. It’s for the rush.

Not the Abrupt-Wave-Of-Units kind of rush. What I mean is that a match of StarCraft 2 will have my heart performing drum solos, and it’ll pluck my taut nerves like violin strings. The game’s been designed for this. What’s forgotten in the talk of how StarCraft pros perform 300 actions per minute is that lesser players simply have to move as fast as they can, and think as fast as they can, in an environment where so much can go wrong at any moment. I’m playing StarCraft 2 because it’s been years since a game has managed to get me quite this excited, and so consistently.

It’s not just that I like giving my heart a rough time, although that is part of it (what’s my heart ever done for me, eh?). Really, the appeal here is that in making a multiplayer game that’s this frenetic and this dependant on timing, Blizzard add an emotional dimension to the competitive experience. You have to play the game, but you also have to deal with your own panic. And that’s a beautiful bit of game design that I don’t feel is getting enough discussion.

I tweeted about the most obvious symptom of this panic the other day. Total tactical inflexibility. For most beginner players, you have your build queue in your head. You build that build queue. There is no thought as to whether it’ll work, and, more worryingly, there often still isn’t any thought even when you launch your attack and it doesn’t work. It’s bizarre. Let’s say you’re building Mutalisks, and your first wave of them is shot down when it turns out your opponent was building some unit with anti air. Because of the panic, it’s difficult to then stop building Mutalisks and build something else. Stop? There can be no stopping! Your Mutalisks will block out the sun! Your strategy becomes a pair of iron rails, and your game is a runaway train.

No matter how much you might need it, there’s never time for chin stroking in StarCraft 2. Physically your hands are on the mouse and keyboard, and mentally the panic has you fogged up. Instead, you have to yank on cerebral levers that’ll divert your game-train from one set of rails to another, usually with a screeching sound and a few sparks. It’s immensely satisfying when you manage it.


Another pitfall of running on adrenaline as opposed to common sense is simply doing stupid stuff. It’s partially the smaller-scale equivalent of the inflexibility mentioned above (dashing rushes against enemy defences simply because you took those troops across the map to attack), but also overreacting to stimulus. Pulling all your workers off the resources because you get spooked by a single harassing aircraft, or meeting an attacking force in the middle of the map because you can, when in reality you didn’t know if they were heading straight for your base.

Then there’s the big kahuna, the one that only surfaces in really long matches. Total loss of faith. All of your zest, speed and fight falling out of your shoes and onto the floor. I must have surrendered in at least 3 or 4 matches for no other reason than I was tired, I wasn’t quite winning and didn’t like my chances, when what I really needed was to spit on the metaphorical floor and redouble myself. Though even if you’re winning and aren’t in danger of giving up, you still stand a chance of getting incredibly sloppy for the same reason. You realise you’re in a good place, and then before you know it you’ve got 1,000 unspent minerals in the bank and no infrastructure for dumping them.

I suppose it’s interesting because adrenaline is traditionally found in action games, where it serves a purpose. Or does it? Does adrenaline actually heighten reaction times? Anyway, in strategy game it’s only ever a tripwire for you to fall over. Dealing with your own panic; being able to view yourself and the game from a distance and decide on new tactics, and to do this quickly and easily, is a skill that must be learned, and I’m really enjoying getting better at it.

But then, I would. What first hooked me about Red Orchestra was the pure panic of differentiating Russian troops from German before taking your shot. I adore last-man-standing gametypes and games which give you very little ammunition. I love tense, desperate fights that leave me shaking. What weirded me out most about realising I was playing StarCraft 2 for the rush was the subsequent realisation that I wasn’t getting that rush from shooters anymore. I suspect it’s because it’s just been so long since I played an RTS competitively.

What are your favourite experiences with panic in multiplayer games, readers? Or do you hate the panic?

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137 Comments »

  1. Starky says:

    Indeed you can, the term is pizzicato.

  2. Plopsworth says:

    Improvised solo (counter-)guerilla warfare in online shooty-games does it for me. Solo counter-camping or counter-sniping duels in FPS games, or performing important tasks with an unsuitable weapon set works every time. You’re constantly forced to improvise and commit to split-second decisions.

    Especially in Red Orchestra, when you’re closing in on an apartment with a completely inappropriate weapon, trying to locate that pesky marksman who is pinning my team down on the approach to the objective. It always feels creepy trying to cross open spaces with a CQB-favouring submachinegun, or the opposite of having to clear indoor spaces with a bolt-action rifle. There’s a beehive of abandoned apartment flats and stairwells. You’re constantly trying to judge your target: Is he smart and displaces after a handful of kills? Is he listening for my approach? Is he smart enough not to fire from the windowsill, firing instead from within the room, steadying his weapon against a piece of furniture? Do I attach my bayonet and make myself more visible by ~15cm when turning corners?

    And then when I find my target: Silent but risky bayonet charge-stab in case there are other occupants? Shoot (aimed or hip-shot as quickly as possible)? It’s also terrifically exciting to run out of primary LMG ammo and defend my position with my handgun. Also: doing a Dirty Harry and losing count of your fired shots, finding your weapon empty, charging up and impaling your opponent who miraculously misses at point-blank range or also bolts an empty chamber.

    This also works to a certain extent in less linear multiple-approach singleplayer action games when “things go wrong” and you’re forced to quickly re-evaluate and improvise. GTA IV, Far Cry 2, Crysis Thief, and Deus Ex come to mind when you’re forced in to action far earlier than you would have wished, with a less than optimal kit equipment for the situation.

  3. Andy says:

    Come on then Quinns, what is your build order?

  4. Leon Del Aros says:

    I played Company of Heroes and liked it alot. Then I play sc2. I thought about the two games and came to the conlusion that sc2 is a game of economics. You basically have to scout your opponent and build better stuff than him and a bigger blob and BAM, you win. In CoH you have to make do with what you have and apply better tactics on the battlefield. But that’s my 2 cent.

  5. Kakrafoon says:

    I dislike that StarCraft 2 uses “fastest” or whatever as a default speed for competitive multiplayer matches. I only play custom games on slow, with my buddies because of this.

  6. Leon Del Aros says:

    I don’t mind the faster speed. It’s just that there’s little tactics. When you face of with your opponents blob you know you either win of loose. There’s not tactics to consider. It’s all about eco, what you build prior to the big blob face off.

    • Thants says:

      That’s not true though. I mean, it can be, but if you watch the really good players they don’t just attack-move at the enemy’s army. They’re constantly feinting and jockeying for position. Putting pressure on the enemy’s weak spots. It’s not the same as something like CoH but there’s more to it than just how many units you build.

  7. Tony M says:

    A game doesn’t need speed to get that feeling, it just needs tension. My hands are shaking after tense game of chess.

    Tony

  8. Jools says:

    For me, at least recently, it’s Starcraft II as well. No doubt. I’ve played Company of Heroes for probably as long as the game has been out. I love it and I think it’s a fantastic game. I never really enjoyed Starcraft either and I was always one of the first people to step up in CoH’s defense when people would say it wasn’t as deep or interesting as Starcraft. You know what? I was fucking wrong.

    The complaint that games like this are too twitchy or not strategic enough is absolute bull. They are twitchy, and that’s exactly what makes them unbelievably strategic and tactically deep. You don’t get a bonus for flanking or sitting behind cover – you do it because it makes strategic sense to do so. Flanking means your hellion’s flamethrowers will make their way over a line of enemy units or that the other player’s units are forced to face one way while they get chewed up from behind. Sitting on a ridge lets you shoot down and prevents the other person from seeing up. You have to make these kind of decisions on the fly and you have to make them FAST. You have to decide immediately if you’re in a position to counter-attack after a failed assault on your base, and then you have to decide if you’re capable of hitting your opponent’s main or striking an expansion. You have to do this while building more units at home and shoring up your own defenses in case your attack fails. Did I mention that now might be a good time to expand too?

    Being forced to juggle so many important decisions so quickly is incredibly fun, even when you fail. It’s legitimately exciting in a way that doesn’t rely on scripting or fancy graphics or amazing cutscenes. It’s exciting because the game is challenging you to think faster than you normally would and act on your decisions without leaving you any time for second guessing. And the best part is that this is all happening pretty much from the instant the game starts. Four minutes in and you’re already questioning your build order based on scouting. Truth be told, I’ve put more hours into Starcraft over the last month than I have into video games in general over the last year. It’s done something to restore my faith in them.

    As an aside, I also think it’s also pretty good evidence that gameplay doesn’t get “outdated” in the way a lot of people suggest. Some gameplay formulas are just good. Full stop. It doesn’t matter that they’re a decade and a half old and it won’t matter that they’re five times that forty years in the future.

    • MD says:

      Great post. This is why I’m freaking tempted to try SC2. I just don’t think I’ve got it in me to get decent enough to truly appreciate it.

    • luckystriker says:

      @MD
      Don’t sell yourself short, friend. I’ve found that most people who say this game is “too hard” have probably never even stepped into the multiplayer arena. The fear of losing is just too great. But trust me, once you’ve lost 10-20 games losing isn’t just that big a deal anymore.

      Contrary to what you may have heard, having a solid strategic sense and understanding what units counter what trumps clicking speed every time. Any thinking gamer can get to that level of enjoyment.

    • MD says:

      Thanks for the encouragement. It’s not so much a fear of losing, though; I love fast-paced FPS games, and the way to get better at those is to lose heavily and repeatedly. Progressing from absolute newbie to semi-competent low-to-mid-range dueller in Warsow was some of the most fun I’ve had playing games. It’s only when I stop improving that I get disheartened, and I don’t really care about losing until I start facing people that I ‘should’ beat. (Well, also when I’m playing against someone who is an openly horrible person.)

      It’s also not the speed vs. strategy thing that bothers me. I actually have massive respect for the way Starcraft works, it’s just… honestly, I don’t know whether I count as a ‘thinking gamer’. I’m fucking terrible at strategy games, and I don’t find them satisfying unless I genuinely understand them.

    • MD says:

      Also, I left out the crucial fact that I’m a bit of a tightarse, and SC2 is expensive. If it was free I would have tried it straight away, and if it’s massively discounted any time soon I’ll probably grab it :)

  9. Jaxley says:

    It’s strange, I’m more hesitant diving into SC2 ladder matches than when I was diving into EVE’s lowsec.

    Yet the rush I get from SC2 won’t ever compare to EVE’s. Nowhere else have I experienced this intense mix of tunnel vision, focus and shakes that come with stalking, shooting and looting internet spaceships on my own.

    It’s more or less indescribable. Safe to say, I have problems walking in a straight line and using my hands after a great fight.

  10. wcaypahwat says:

    I only smoke outside.

    So I get the ‘one more mission/match/level/quest before I go for one’

    its good for getting a few minutes away from the screen to calm a little, clear my head.

  11. Durns says:

    As a kid playing my monk in Everquest, finally seeing Raster of Guk pop and getting the epic quest piece left me shaking. Had to log off and go for a walk following that just to calm down.

    I was pretty addicted to that game and eventually had to go cold turkey to stop from failing out of life.

    The fear of falling back into that pattern has led me to actively avoid any game which gives me the same rush. I get into a new game, start enjoying myself, then get too intense and start feeling the emotional high connection – then feel disgusted by myself, put the game down and don’t touch it again.

    Its funny how I still find myself thinking about Everquest and feeling a vague sense of loss or longing. The feeling is like being on the edge of a cliff – I could fall off at any moment and go back into those bad old days. Its not going to happen, but its still scary.

  12. bill says:

    Sounds like everything I’ve always hated about RTS games.

    But possibly that’s a symptom of being not good at them, or not being able to be calm and react flexibly to events at the same time as clicking and monitoring 100 things per minute.

    I guess this probably DOES mean that starcraft is close to a real sport, as it needs endurance, speed, a calm head and tactical thought under pressure – like many real sports. So maybe i’d be bad at real sports if i ever tried them too.

    The problem is i don’t have the interest to practice to get to a level where I could manage all those things, as it’s horribly repetitive and frustrating.

    • Jools says:

      I think it’s easier to get past the pure frustration phase than a lot of people think. The new matchmaking system is specifically designed to keep most players at a 50-50 win loss, which means that as you lose games it’ll narrow your skill level down and you’ll end up playing people you can actually conceivably beat. It also means that most people who are placed “correctly” will still lose about half the games they play, though, so you have to be willing to just outright lose a lot of games. The up-side is that, at least in the lower leagues, you’ll usually be losing against people who are relatively close to your own skill level and you’ll probably improve your game in the process.

      That said, it’s obviously not worth playing something you don’t enjoy, but I feel like a lot of people are missing out on a really unbelievably fantastic game for the same reasons that I used to avoid Starcraft I. It’s just really important not to look at playing games as “practicing” so you get better. Play the game because it’s a really good, solidly made, incredibly fun game and you’ll naturally improve along the way. It’s so worth the little bit of frustration that crops up here and there.

  13. Antares says:

    Curiously enough, I don’t even notice this rush while inside the actual game – I’m constantly busy managing stuff (Zerg is great fun but whoever designed the inject larvae mechanic needs to go DIAF) and there’s always something to be done, but I don’t actually get the shakes until it’s done.

    But getting there man, that’s the hard part. I’ve only managed to muster the courage to click that accursed “Find match” button six times this week, and it’s not even like I’m that bad at the game, seeing how I’ve landed in gold after my placement matches and have managed to score a few convincing victories since. Maybe it’ll come with time.

    Also, i’d like to echo Jool’s sentiments above. I used to be pretty relunctant to even trying SC2 after having played Relic’s offerings – it seemed like a huge step back in RTS design. I was dead wrong. I lack the words to describe why or how, but anyone with even a passing interest in RTSes really owes him/herself to try it out.

  14. Vinraith says:

    What are your favourite experiences with panic in multiplayer games, readers?

    Three little words: Cross Planet Attack. Anyone unfamiliar with it badly needs to play some AI War.

  15. Rakysh says:

    Jumping off a building as a scout in TF2 right in the path of a Natascha heavy, knowing that if he even lays a bullet on you you’re dead, no questions asked, and managing to jump around like a madman while still remaining focused enough to lay four meatshots on him. Terrifying. (And even when you manage it, inevitably some god-forsaken sniper will bodyshot you to hell and back just as you think you’re safe.

    I got all shivery just thinking about it

  16. Ishy says:

    I guess I’m dead inside like the boyfriend says, or maybe I just don’t like the genre (at least games of SC2′s fast-paced type) but I don’t get a rush at all. I just get annoyed. Since I’m near the bottom of my group in the Bronze division, I suppose I could also be considered “terrible.”

    Fortunately, SC2′s purchase is still worthwhile due to the custom games.

  17. ylw says:

    This is exactly why I play Starcraft 2. I haven’t had this kind of rush since duelling in Quake 3. All these team based multiplayer games just do not have the same effect.

    • MD says:

      Yeah, it’s the kind of thing that keeps pulling me back to Quake Live despite frequently swearing off it & telling myself it’s not worth the aggravation. I’m pretty bad, but there’s a competetive beast inside me that won’t be silenced. It’s a pretty pathetic, underfed beast, but it’s a survivor.

      Also, it’s great to have an RPS writer providing this sort of perspective. Quinns complements the original hivemind nicely, I think.

  18. loGi says:

    Good read. I, personally am really intimidated by the Starcraft 2 multiplayer although I’m not that terrible. The panic causes anxiety.

  19. Terr says:

    Hi, my name is Terr and I’m afraid to play 1v1, until I read all your comments.

    I really enjoy playing SC2 team matches with friends while Skyping, to be able to get or give advice, vent frustation and share the victory or defeat. But without that support, I get too tense and make mistakes, or freeze up if I don’t know what to do.

    It’s very good to read that I’m not the only one and that with time, even I might enjoy the rush.

    Anyone up for some 1v1 matches? :P

  20. EtsSpets says:

    SC2 is a pretty good tactics game but its too illogical and has too little strategy to suite me.

  21. Dworgi says:

    I tend to chase this rush in the online games I play. Battlefield 1942 clan matches definitely had this quality at the best of times (eg. trying to find the last surviving enemy player before the time ran out.

    Duels in UT2004 were also a rush like this – especially after getting a kill, being low on health and needing to shut down the enemy before he got properly geared up. Because of its shield gun, chases in UT were also exciting, because it was possible to evade the enemy for a long time, get a proper gun, then get a cheeky kill and get back in the game.

    Now, I’m finding that EVE gives me that same rush when you jump into a bad situation or tackle something and wait for your fleet to land, trying not to die. Afterwards, you either swear or take a little walk to get rid of the shakes.

  22. Sunjammer says:

    I have a real love/hate thing with Starcraft’s “rush”. My favorite genre of video games is bullet hell shmups, which is an odd realization since i mostly play adventure/rpg games. Danmaku shooters induce a state where speed and precision is all you care about. Played right it shuts out the rest of the world entirely. It’s just you and buttons and sensing patterns in chaos.

    In Starcraft 2 I have to admit the “rush” isn’t entertaining to me. It is entertaining in something like Dawn of war 2, because that game puts your focus squarely on the immediacy of what it is you are looking at. SC2′s main challenge, to me, is simply multitasking strategy, tactics and economy. It’s not intense because it’s hard, it’s intense because it’s literally too much, and reading interviews with SC players that state again and again that speed is all just makes me deeply tired.

    I don’t really go to games to get tired. I go for transcendence.

    • bill says:

      This.

      I always feel like i’m fighting the limitations of the interface (multitasking, controling precisely at speed, seeing the whole situation) rather than the battle.

      I never tried Endwar (and I heard it wasn’t great) but I always felt that an RTS with decent voice controls might be the answer. Viewing the whole battlefield and commanding units to the best positions – rather than scrolling around and trying to quickly select the right units.

    • pkt-zer0 says:

      Speed isn’t all, far from it. Sure, that lets you do more stuff at the same time, but if your strategy is flawed, that’s not going to help a lot. It’s not as if units are a thousand times more effective when microed or something.

      As for there being too much to do in the game at any given time: that’s kind of the point. You don’t get infinite time units in X-COM, either.

  23. bill says:

    Maybe I’m approaching RTS games the wrong way, as I always just play the singleplayer campaign – which quickly gets frustrating and repetitive. Maybe the only way it’s rewarding is playing against another human player – in the same way that tennis against another person beats a ball machine.

  24. bill says:

    I think i’d enjoy RTS games a lot more without any “fog of war” effect. It sounds great in theory, but in principle it’s like playing chess when you can only see one square from your pieces – and it means everything is speed and reaction, rather than planning.

    • pkt-zer0 says:

      Having incomplete information about the state of the battlefield doesn’t mean you can’t have a plan. Simply that you have to expend extra effort (scout) before you can make a choice that’s geared towards specific situations. Hell, you can’t even do that much on reaction, because constructing buildings and units takes time. If you see mutas pop into your undefended main, that means you should’ve built an engineering bay two minutes ago, so you could get some turrets in time.

  25. Spacegirl says:

    CS was tense as balls sometimes.

    Being the last alive, sitting at the hostages….just waiting….You know they are coming. You know you’ll have half a second tops to react. pretty tense.

    1v1 RTS’ are pretty crazy, tho. The isolation is kinda terrifying. Just knowing that somewhere out there, some1 is planning…something and you are alone against it. It kind of reminds me of this scene in the japanese horror movie One Missed Call where this guy is just staring into the blackness of a dark elevator. I guess the Unknown In the Dark is like a pretty common fear, and SC2 combines that WITH the fact that you have to be super on top of like 4 different things at all times every second, AND YEH IT’S PRETTY TENSE AND CRAZY SHIT.

    I just play team games cause it’s more relaxed :)

  26. Shakermaker says:

    Late reply, but since the adrenalin and endorfins are still pumping as we speak … I love the rush. Just beat two zerg opponents in a row, playing as zerg. They both went 6pool and I both pwnd them by going 8pool and out-spam them. The distance between our bases made up for the difference in production time. An added spine crawler shooed them back to their base to recuperate. At that time I was already spawning my Spire and with Mutas I then proceeded to mop up what was left of the resistance. GG. Both games only took 12 or 14 minutes but they felt timeless in a sense. You’re in a different zone, not picking up most of the things happening ‘outside’. When you click to the score screen, the chemicals set in and the resulting comedown can be very nice.

  27. Butler` says:

    I only play for these thrills these days

    Back in the day it was Diablo2 hardcore mode and 5v5 CS matches
    then it was WC3 1v1s and fighting for for rank1 on wow arena

    SC2 matches have obviously inhereted the former’s charm

  28. Anfhann says:

    Exactly this. I never have enough energy to play these adrenaline games!

  29. Harry says:

    A friend and I used to guild scam* people on UO. Our guild was called the Cult of Remmacs (read it backwards), and the house which we locked the unsuspecting guildmember in was Macs House (again). The moments building up to the great scams had my hands shaking and we used to be on an adrenaline high for a good while afterwards.
    The best scam was when noobs bought tonnes of items on ebay and didn’t have them insured (aka lootable). We once scammed this poor chap who had 30million gp worth of artifacts. Then we logged in with different characters and convinced the local townsfolk that this guy was having them on. A good reign of terror that was.

    *When a player accepts the invitation to join a guild they can be attacked. So one can also loot them. The noobier the player the easier the scam. More experienced players need to first be pursuaded with a cunning tongue, then overwhelmed and killed quickly before they can react.

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