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?