Starcraft

I’m amazed at my continued interest in Starcraft! I’ve been playing every other night or so with my friend John.

We play Coop vs the AI, 2v2. We started out against Medium – Medium, got to Hard – Hard and now we’re trying to cross to the next level: Very Hard – Hard. I’m playing Protoss and he’s playing Terran. We used to have this strategy where he would protect my fledgling little base from early rushes with his siege tanks, and then I’d mop up in the mid game with carriers, but we’re finding that as the AI get better and better, this is getting harder and harder to do. So, we play, we get wiped, we try again. Eventually we win and call it a night. That’s what amazes me: that I’m OK playing over and over trying to get a little bit better.

I really didn’t expect this to be the case: I figured Starcraft would be yet another impulse purchase that would lie unclicked and unloved a week or two later. And yet… I’m hooked on such a simple way to play: 2vs2, humans vs machines.

My first experience with RTS games was back in Warcraft days. I remember playing on my dad’s LC II. Being a Macintosh gamer back then required a lot of dedication to a small set of studios: the cream of the crop being Bungie and Blizzard. My brother and I played a little, but we only had 1 computer, so we would just watch each other play the computer. When he went off to college and got his own machine, we’d play in the summer when he’d come home from school. Warcraft was fun, but I definitely was not hooked to it the way my other friends were.

My first experience with Starcraft was a few years later in college. It had been out for a while at that point and so I started with Brood War. I learned to play from my friend Adam. He only like playing this island hop map as Protoss. He’d pile up tons of carriers and then slaughter the map. The most hilarious thing about playing Starcraft then was the fact that we were playing on a bnetd server that was living in a cardboard box. You had to hotwire it to boot the machine. Once again, I was pretty bad at Starcraft, but I had no idea how to get better since we would only play the island map and I’d slowly build up my forces and turrets and then BAM carriers would appear on the horizon.

Years later, a new guy joined at work named Levin. Levin presented himself as the sort of guy who thought the rest of us in the office were all geeks for still playing videogames as religiously as we did. When Starcraft II was announced in 2007, a few friends of mine and I decided to get back into Starcraft, just to have some fun. Levin said, “Hey, I used to play a little.” So we all scheduled some game time.

First game. Complete annihilation from Levitron. He had 4 times the amount of resources we had. He easily wiped us off the maps in early rushes, since we were just trying to tech up to carriers. We played a few more and they all went the same way. He switched races. Destruction. We tried ganging up on him and it didn’t matter. He laughed at our puny little attack forces.

From Levin, I actually learned how to play: to always be getting more and more harvesters, to always be hovering near poverty as you build up a gigantic army, to always be upgrading something, anything. The concept of APM. It was a whole new game. And yet, our interest fizzled yet again after a few sessions. He was too good for us and we weren’t getting better quickly enough, and even if we played with him against the AI on the hardest level, it was just him destroying everything.

So, finally, now, what makes Starcraft different for me now? What makes me actually want to get better?

The first is the ready availability of high quality YouTube video commentary from the likes of Day9, Husky, and HD Starcraft. I enjoy watching their casts and learning new strategies. I’m sure these existed for SC1, but there are definitely way more now. I enjoy watching matches, even though the players there are so much better, because it’s in these games that I can see a whole ebb and flow of a game.

The second is the length of games: a good 2v2 win usually takes about 30 min or so. Add to that the few wipes we might get and it’s about 45 minutes per session. It reminds me of Nick Hornby’s book About a Boy, how the protagonist had divided his day into units: bath, TV, etc. 45 minutes is a good amount of time to be frantically clicking on things without triggering my RSI (I did purchase a new chair for Starcraft).

The third is the integrated voice chat. I just got my headset but before that, I was trying to set up Ventrilo on my laptop next to my desktop PC and that was a crazy mess. Integrated voice is awesome for being able to scream “Marauders!” and seeing the little voice indicator light up in the corner and knowing that John heard me.

The fourth is the initial part of the game. I actually really enjoy those first 3-4 minutes of harvesting materials, pumping out probes, chrono boosting my nexus, getting pylons down. It’s a routine and it’s that part that I think is really getting me hooked on the game. Weirdly. It’s relaxing, even though it’s so fiddly. It’s like stretching before the big game. Soon, there will be panic. Soon, there will be explosions and scrambling, and expansions. But for these tiny brief moments, every game is the same, every movement, every action is scripted. There is a right thing to do. So you go do it.

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