I play, watch, read, write, and think a lot of StarCraft. Specifically, since StarCraft 2 came out in July 2010, I have played at least 653 games of StarCraft (source: battle.net); watch on average a half hour to an hour of StarCraft a day via online streams like Twitch; read /r/starcraft first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and at least a dozen times in-between; write a StarCraft blog; and think about StarCraft a lot.
Looking at my blog history, I haven’t shared very much about StarCraft at all given how passionate I am about it, and with the upcoming release of Heart of the Swarm, the first expansion to StarCraft 2, I want to share why I think StarCraft is so awesome.
Like with books, video games can engage people in many different ways, depending on both the game and the person*. For me, StarCraft is all about the challenge of making quick, strategic decisions while managing many tasks simultaneously.
StarCraft is like Chess come to life in a sci-fi setting between humans (Terran), bugs (Zerg), and psionic warriors (Protoss). You and an opponent each start with a base and need to mine resources to build an army to destroy each other. The strategy and quick reflexes come in at several different levels, all of which must be maintained simultaneously.
At the lowest level, you control individual army units, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities. With good dexterity, you can guide a flamethrower buggy (a “Hellion”) into your opponents base and kill lots of workers when they aren’t looking. Or maybe you need to split up your clump of Marines when explosive, suicide Banelings waddle up. These require careful attention to individual units to make each of them as effective as possible.
Going a level up, you need control your whole army that may be as many as 200 units. Typically, most of your units are in one main army, and how you position that depends on where your opponent’s main army is and what you think they’re going to do. Your strategy, however, might be to attack in multiple places at the same time, and professional players can control attacks on up to 4 different places simultaneously.
Going up another level, you need to be building your army. Depending on what units your opponent has and what your strategy is, you might want slightly different compositions of units. If your opponent has lots of flying units, you should probably have anti-air units, but if you also get some invisible units, you can force your opponent to build detectors or possibly take a lot of damage. To ensure that your army is at full strength, you must constantly be queuing up more units to be built at various buildings, while controlling your army and individual units in it.
Up one more level, you need to control your economy as a whole. Although you start with one base, you need to build various types of buildings to get access to different units and different technology. Additionally, you can also take more bases around the map to get more resources faster. It can be hard to know which bases are safe to take and when to take them. It’s even harder to figure that out while constantly building up your army, managing your existing army, and all of the units in your army.
At the highest level, you need a game plan. Will you build an army really quickly and try to destroy your opponent before they have defenses ready? Or will you try to take a bunch of bases to mine more resources to build a bigger, stronger army later? Of will you build up defenses and try to develop technology as quickly as possible to get advanced army units very quickly? As the game progresses, you constantly need to readjust your strategy between army, economy, and technology. This strategizing is happening while you’re figuring out how your economy works, training a bigger army, moving your army about the map, and controlling individual units.
So at the highest level, there’s a lot of strategy and little physical work, but as you move down, the focus shifts more and more to reflexes. Different players have different strengths among all of those tasks, but regardless, StarCraft is a constantly demanding, both mental and physical, game. In fact, I think it’s the hardest video game out there. Like chess openings and football plays, StarCraft games start with a plan (known as a “build order”), but soon, the game is alive. Professional players can perform upwards of 300 clicks and key presses per minute to do everything they need to, and they practice as their full-time job (40+ hours a week) to understand the game and learn strategies.
So beyond playing, I also follow professional StarCraft, which is now an eSport. Watching professional StarCraft players is amazing. Many players stream their practice sessions so you can follow your favorite players as they play everyday. They compete in a regular tournaments where commentators talk through all the games played in big brackets. Between the strategic depth of the game, the storylines of individual players, serious mindgames between familiar players, and crazy highlight plays, following and watching tournaments are always engaging. And there’s a vibrant online community to make the game accessible and fun for everyone.
So back to the original prompt for this post: Heart of the Swarm is coming out. Many people only play the story-driven single player, which plays through a sequence of different missions. I often forget about lore and only see the concrete gameplay (it’s kind of like just seeing the green code for the world in The Matrix), but the story alone is a great experience. Take 2 minutes to watch the cinematic trailer for the game. Hopefully you think that part is pretty cool as well.
Okay, the final part of this post is the pitch: please try out StarCraft**. I would love to have more friends to play with (we can play together on a team), and despite focusing on how hard the game is, I think anyone can have fun with it. For example, Julie played few video games beforehand, but I got her playing a bit of StarCraft 2 summers ago, and we’re both hooked. We play every week or 2, but we’re both frequently watching StarCraft, and it comes up almost every time we talk.
So that’s why I think StarCraft is so interesting to follow and play for several years. I hope you give it a shot if you haven’t already.
* We read to learn new skills (technical books), learn (history, science), engage with deep moral questions (philosophy), laugh over something ridiculous (humor), put ourselves in other people’s shoes (fiction, fantasy), figure out what all the hubbub is about (50 Shades of Grey), and more.
We play video games to test our twitch reflexes (shooters), engage in social situations (MMOs), challenge ourselves (puzzles), make us think tactically (strategy games), fill time (many mobile games), experience a story (roleplaying games), and more.
** If you want to skip the $20 for StarCraft 2 and $40 for Heart of the Swarm, you can try the free starter edition first