Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Starcraft 2 semantics

A friend gave me a guest pass key that came with his box of Starcraft 2, allowing me to play that game for 7 hours. So I spent part of my weekend battling my way through the human campaign, mostly fighting Zergs. The campaign is well done and entertaining, and Starcraft 2 is a solid RTS game. Too bad I don't really like RTS games.

My problem is that what I would really want to play is a completely different sort of strategy game. And the solid RTS gameplay Starcraft 2 delivers does not fulfil my personal needs. And while I was pondering that what I would want would be a lot slower, and more strategic, it struck me that "RTS" in fact is a mis-nomer: There is no real-time strategy in a RTS game.

Looking at the two parts of the term, the first is "real-time". But what the game delivers is more like "accelerated time". That is most visible in one of the Starcraft 2 missions which has a day/night cycle: A "day" or "night" passes in a few minutes. A RTS game is one of constant action, where the best players stand out by the speed in which they can click. During the Blizzard Invitational 2008 in Paris I had the opportunity to watch a competition of RTS players at the highest level, and it is a flurry of movement with never a second pause. That makes for exciting gameplay, but it isn't "real" time, a real battle or war is a lot slower.

The second part of the term is "strategy", and again RTS games rarely deliver on that term. Or as it says in the Wikipedia page on strategy: "In military usage strategy is distinct from tactics, which are concerned with the conduct of an engagement, while strategy is concerned with how different engagements are linked. How a battle is fought is a matter of tactics: the terms and conditions that it is fought on and whether it should be fought at all is a matter of strategy, which is part of the four levels of warfare: political goals or grand strategy, strategy, operations, and tactics." In a RTS game you very rarely have to take any strategic decision, but the majority of gameplay clearly happens on the tactical level, or at best on the operations level.

So if I wanted to insist on semantics, I'd call Starcraft 2 a "Accelerated Time Tactics" or ATT game, not a RTS game. But that would be no use at all. Most people aren't interested in semantics, they simply know the term real-time strategy or RTS game, and they know what to expect when a game is labeled like that. In fact if you'd offer them a semantically correct "real-time strategy" game in which playing WWII takes 6 years and you only take decisions on the strategic level, they would complain that this isn't a RTS game. They buy RTS games because they *want* fast, tactical decision taking.

And that is something to be aware of: Frequently used terms and acronyms take on a meaning of their own, which might well be detached from a strict semantic interpretation. Thus role-playing game or RPG has come to mean a game in which you play a character or characters with stats which increase during the game. Which has very little to do with "playing a role", and explains why an online RPG needs specifically labeled role-playing servers. Some people complain about that, but frankly, that makes about as much sense as me calling Starcraft 2 an ATT game.
I recently bought Empire at War. It uses RTS-style combat of tactical decisions for individual space and land battles, bu the galactic war is more strategic, with each planet offering different benefits and income. I love it because I can focus on fighting or production/strategy, rather than needing to maintain production and reinforcements while micromanaging the actual battle. It might be worth checking out.
"Real time" just means "not turn based", doesn't it?
Carson 63000,

I think you're right. It's not "real time", it's "real-time", and therein (I suppose) lies the difference.

Also, whether you describe it as strategy or tactics is, at best, semantic. :) Almost all computer-based strategy games adhere to the classic four X-es: explore, expand, exploit and exterminate. That's exactly what you do in Starcraft (or any other RTS, for that matter). That the units depicted appear to be single individuals rather than entire battalions or divisions in a "grand scale" encounter does not the difference make. IMHO.
I think the term fits a lot better if you make it "real time strategy implementing" game. In most RTS games, you will decide on a strategy before the game, and try to implement it in real time during the game.

A big part of this is skill level. At the lower skill levels, there isn't much strategy more than "build units and smash the other guy." When you play the game, you are simply trying not to fail at that, with no room for mid-game decisions.

At high skill levels, you will have multiple strategies you can pursue, and can change strategy mid-game based on what your opponent is doing.

If you want to play it as a strategy game, you could always lower the game speed. At slow speeds, you have time to consider and make meaningful decisions. At normal speeds with most RTS games, any time spent considering is more harmful than either decision would be.

Btw, the original Starcraft is known as the most twitch based RTS game there is. Player skill is measured in "clicks per minute." A player who can click more times per minute is better, regardless of strategy. Typical competitive Starcraft players were over 300 clicks per minute (5+ clicks per second), the guys who won tournaments were around 500 clicks per minute (8+ clicks per second).
Just want to point out in this case "Strategy" is applicable.

Tactics would be how you use a unit vs another unit or little tricks like using a transport to drop units in the back of an enemy base.

Strategy is the choice of where to expand, how many works you need vs how many fighting units, when and where you hit your target and so on.

As game definitions go, Tactics games are usually about the individual battles, while Strategy games are about building out the map.

What I'm saying is, that in Starcraft, you build your bases, and form a plan of attack (recon, build, attack). The choices of where to fight, and how to attack is what you do. Sometimes you micromanage a set of units. You are issuing general orders, and on a much higher level than what tactics games operate on.

I think in that sense, it is a Strategy game (just because there is no diplomacy option doesn't negate it as strategy). While the Political Goals are dictated by the game, you are playing on the strategic level.

Your actions within the map, are a set of operations, and the way your units fight are their tactics.

That's my opinion at least.
"Strategy is the choice of where to expand, how many works you need vs how many fighting units, when and where you hit your target and so on."


Strategies I've tend to consist of:

1. Zerg
2. Turtle
3. Expand
4. Tech

Before the match starts, you will need to have a general plan and then modify your tactics to respond to the enemy.

But I'm surprised that Tobold's only view is that the genre is a misnomer.
But "real-time" doesn't mean "it takes as long as it would if the events of this game were happening in real life". It means that the units instantly respond to your commands (as opposed to a turn-based game, as someone mentioned above). Makes perfect sense.

Likewise, your definition of "strategy" is very narrow, more commonly it's just used as a synonym for plans, method etc.

I think the genre is aptly named.
No offense Tobold, but the "semantics" here are entirely yours. You force your view of what a product OUGHT to be like on to existing products that already have a clear identity. Real-time does not mean an accurate representation of the passage of time - it means that it is not turn-based. Starcraft 2 makes abundant use of both tactics and strategy: you engage in a sequence of skirmishes with the intent of winning the battle or the match.
A similar, but worse, semantic error is that the game features 'marines' who have nothing to do with the sea.

Also, 'tanks' which are not containers for liquid, 'vikings' who have no axes, and 'zergs' who are really weak at making fast rush attacks.
Well, if we insist on semantics we'll have to talk about your blog's title: "Tobold's MMORPG Blog".

"Tobold's" means that it's your blog. But that's not entirely true since we commenter's add something to it. Yes, you have the administration and domain privileges.

Also, MMORPG is wrong. For example, Starcraft isn't a MMORPG. And you've talked about many other subjects in the past.

At last, the blog part is correct. This is a blog.

So, to be correct, you should call it "Mostly Tobold's MMORPG (mostly) and other subjects (mostly about gaming) Blog".

But who cars?
If you want a slower-paced strategy game that actually focuses on strategy, you should try RUSE.

RUSE is one of the slowest-paced RTSes around, but it uses that feature to great effect. Rarely do you have to take rapid action--occasionally you will want to time moving a unit forward or retreating it, but that doesn't happen much. I'm fairly good at the game and I only make roughly 7 actions per minute. There's no frenzied clicking--your pace of thought and coming up with new strategies is usually needs to be as fast or faster than the rate at which you issue orders.

A great part about RUSE is that it actively encourages a few set means of deception. You get "RUSE" cards once every few minutes that let you perform one special ability on an area of the map (pre-defined "sectors"). RUSE effects include stealthing units that the enemy doesn't have line-of-sight on, building decoy units, changing the appearance of units, and putting up decoy buildings.

RUSE's tech tree is quite flat, and the game has a number of hard counters. This discourages structured build orders beyond the first three or four buildings you put up. Once you make contact with the enemy, you have to adapt to what they're doing or be crushed. This leads to an emphasis on strategy in action--managing when your units go into battle and putting the right combined arms unit groups together for the right maneuvers and attacks.
As people have stated, "real-time" means not turn based. Your actions are issued to your units/buildings in real-time as opposed to in turns. Has nothing to do with comparison to events in out of game time cycles (day/night) or any other out of game metric.
When I think of "real time strategy", I don't think of it as a referral to actual times of day. I think of it as reacting to changes as they occur (in real-time). I'm not a big RTS fan, but the graphics in this are nice and I'm considering using one of my hubby's passes.

As for RPG, what you see as "complaining" may just be an observation of how the genre has changed over the years. I'm referring to the post over at Raging Monkeys, but you may have seen another one that is less observational and more inflammatory.

But, even though I love LotRO, I realize it's not an RPG by the exact definition. In a "true" RPG your destiny would unfold and in LotRO, it's already been written... by Tolkien no less! I think RPG is just an umbrella term, but some games have more RP involved while some have less. It's called "marketing".

By grouping all games by just a few genre's, you make sure to expose the product to people interested in that genre even if it's strays from it in some ways. Marketing is why games are tagged with certain labels.
While it is not Realistic Time I is still real time as opposed to spending turns of arbitrary length deciding what to do next. Considering that these games have much of their roots in turn based strategy games, the distinction is a reasonable one. It is real time because the game continues to move at a particular pace even while you are making your decisions.

It is strategic in that it is concerned with resources and logistics. Even though the engagements are at the level of tactics much of the "game" that is played is played at the level of strategy. Do I build a gun turret for defense or can I get away with building one more mine first so I can increase my resource production. How defensive should my camp be verses offensive. Turtling vs Zerging. While it is not grand strategy it is still strategy and it is the strategic decisions that most often decide the game.

Real time strategy is a reasonable turn for these games.
Nice summation of why I also dislike 'RTS' games.
Yeah, being old enough to know when games were Turn-based by default (technology limitations), it was a big deal when newer games started touting themselves as real-time. It was simply the fact that time was in less of a stasis bubble than it had been.
One might argue the semantics of strategy by limiting the frames of reference to the battle you are participating in, in which case strategy does come into play. Your strategy to win becomes your plan: turtle, Zerg rush, guerilla harassment... The term is valid because although one might consider these tactics, they are strategy in that they influence your choice of technology upgrades, resource goals and timeline as opposed to the tactical considerations of terrain, unit composition and specific logistics. The fact is that if your strategy isn't working out, you can change it... But you can also change your tactics without changing your strategy.
To succeed in Starcraft, one has to have both "tactics" and "execution". Let's say you can to drop Siege Tanks on a nearby cliff to harass an opponents natural. It may be a good plan, but you may not have the multitasking skills to execute such an manuever. Or you may overextend yourself, pushing the tanks too far into the enemy line.

Although people tend to measure their "skill" in APM (Actions per minute), usually APM arises from a "need" to do certain things, and usually comes from being able to multitask really effectively. Speed is crucial in any match, and the reason why high-level matches are so hard is why Starcraft has been considered an e-sport.

Tricking your opponent and staying mentally calm is also a big part of any match. Your multitasking can only take you so far. You need to have some innovation in order to make plays in a spur of the moment. Also smaller things like when to power an economy and when to build fighting units (I play Zerg, so this is more applicable to me).

Starcraft may not be your type of game. Might I suggest trying out R.U.S.E? I haven't check it out yet, but it seems to be more of your kind of style.
Hearts of Iron III is your almost definition of Real Time Strategy, Tobold.
You do need a strategy. It's where you start. "This game I'll go ahead and go for a mutalisk/zergling/baneling build". From there on it's indeed mostly tactics.

And yes, modern RTS games like starcraft do require great micromanagement skills while still having to keep up your macromanagement. You're doing a two sided attack while still defending your own base and creating more units at your base. To do that all combined, you do need over 3 clicks per second to be a great player.

There's just so much you need to decide in a split second. In a turn based game you can just think it all out. Both genres are fun. I enjoy both playing starcraft or a game of civilization. I always hate it when people "don't like a genre". I've played great games in every kind of genre.
Umm, no offense, but . . . welcome to 20 years ago? Strategy gamers were debating these terms a long long time ago :)

"RTS" is now, and always has been, a complete misnomer, being neither "real time" nor "strategy".

Uh, are you kidding me? It is almost impossible to make a game that *doesn't* involve 'strategy' of some kind. Even FPSs involve SOME strategy.

And even though every 2nd post explains it, you still fail to grasp that "real-time" in this context doesn't refer to the actual speed that time passes, but the fact that the game *isn't* turn-based.

Asinine comment.
Semantic gripes aside, I agree with your sentiment on SC2. It's certainly a well designed game, I just don't love the quick responsey, micro-managementy aspects.

Civ V is out now - probably more to your tastes, Tobold (I know it is to mine!)
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