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Thursday
Jan292009

UC Berkeley Starcraft Class, Week 1

A screenshot of how StarCraft looked early in development.Tonight I attended the much-talked-about StarCraft class at UC Berkeley as an observer. (Insert StarCraft joke about Observers.)

The main lecturer is the young Alan Feng. Mr. Feng is a physics student who says he's been playing StarCraft "for 2.5 years, 6 months on the pro level." He also had help leading the class from a guy named Yosh (I forget his real name, but I call people by their chosen names anyway), and a third guy who I only remember as Mumbling Guy. I would call Feng by his gaming name too, but I forgot what it was because he only said it once.

Feng and Yosh are an interesting contrast. Feng is endearingly highfalutin while Yosh is an old-timer (StarCraft-wise) who tells the young-uns how it used to be. Feng began the class this way:

There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.

There are not more than five primary colors, yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.

There are not more than five cardinal tastes, yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted.

In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack: the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of maneuvers.

--Sun Tzu

And he added:

In Starcraft, there are only three races, but more gameplay remaining than can be explored.

There was then a long stretch of administrative debris about notecards we were to turn in, about what percentage of the final grade the homework is worth, and other such banalities. Notably though, 40% of the final grade comes from the final project where students must attempt to make a new contribution to the StarCraft community in the form of an analysis of some part of the game. These final papers will be public and subject to peer review--no doubt incredibly merciless peer review, given the tone of most gaming communities.

Feng then gave us a short history lesson about the release of StarCraft. It was announced in 1995, though it didn't release until 1997. Feng showed us graphs and stats of how many people had computers back then, what power they were, how many had internet access, and so on. His point was that StarCraft had a dramatically larger chance for success in 1997 than it did in 1995, so their delay was fortuitous.

As an aside, I'll point out that this involved Microsoft Powerpoint slides. One student asked if the slides would be available and Feng said no, that the slides don't contain anything useful except pictures anyway. That's an interesting statement and he's right. I hope presenters will learn that Powerpoint slides are a generally terrible way of conveying information. Especially if they have terrible typography and blocky graphs as these did. (Apple Keynote can at least look nice.) But whatever, let's move on.

Yosh then gave us 20 or 25 minutes of reminiscing about the history of the best StarCraft players. Almost everyone he mentioned is Korean, of course. I felt I had something in common with Yosh as he told us he's been playing and following his game for 10 years now, competing in tournaments and trying to improve.

He explained how various players evolved or changed the game. Boxer's initial dominance gave hope for Terran players in the early days. In fact, when asked who in the room is a Terran player because of Boxer, several students raised their hands. (Nerdy joke: is Boxer overpowered in every game?) Apparently Boxer went to the army for 2 years, and although he didn't get to play as much there, he still did play and the army cadets created a special army StarCraft team, just so he could keep playing. When he returned to the game, he made up for his generally weaker game by becoming much more bold, and pulling off insane strategies that no one else would use, like a fake base in the middle of the map.

Yosh told us about the personalities of several players. One of them he said never smiles or frowns or makes any expression at all...except for the one in the picture he showed us. Another has bravado, another was extremely effeminate. Some were known for their micro-management skills, others for their creativity, others for their consistency. One top player is called "cheater Terran" because he always seems to have more units than you'd think he'd be able to at any given time. It seems that "every gaming community is a weird mirror image of every other gaming community."

After this walk down memory lane of Korean Starcraft champions, Yosh let Feng take over for the last leg of the lecture. Feng talked about the different kinds of resources in the game. There are raw resources, which he defines as those that the Starcraft game construct knows about. Minerals, gas, population limit, creep/pylon fields, energy (for casting psionic storm, etc). There are also physical resources, which he defines as things outside the game that exist in the physical world (perhaps a misnomer?). These are things like attention (arguably the most important one in StarCraft), APM: actions per minute (arguably the one that a supposed strategy game should NOT focus on at all), physical endurance, state of mind, knowledge of the game, analysis, etc. I asked him to add yomi to the list, the ability to read the opponent's mind. He did not know the term, but I had earlier given him my book, so I'm sure he will soon. Yes he said, ability to read the opponent is another resource to draw on that exists outside the game construct.

Then there are what Feng calls transformational resources. These are things you convert raw or physical resources into other resources. The most common one is simply your "army." You use your APM (clicking speed skills) along with minerals and gas and time, and you convert all that into units that compose your army. That army is capable of taking over territory or killing enemy units or defending a new expansions, etc.

Feng's point here is a good one. He's trying to get the students to think of the game as a big collection of resources and your decisions are about how to shift those resources around. It's easy to overlook how many resources are really involved in a decision, and if you overlook some, you aren't understanding the real implications of your decision. For example, if your population limit is 131/131, what do you do? As it stands, you cannot build more units. Should you build pylons? That means spending minerals and time. Should you attack with units you already have? That means spending units and possibly more of your attention resource. How long will it take the units to attack and trade with the enemy units? Did you scout enough to know what you'll be up against and what important thing you could attack?

Another example he gave was using raw resources to cover for a lack of physical resources. If you have very bad reaction time and you know this, then you are aware that in a surprise attack on your peons (resource gatherers), you might lose more than you really should. It might be worth it to spend minerals to build some cannons back there so that less depends on your slower reaction time. It's a tradeoff that might be worth it depending on your particular play skills.

The last example he gave was that of defending a choke point. If you control a choke point and put some cannons near it, but the enemy does not attack there, what have you spent and what have you gained? You spent time and minerals of course, but Feng was saying we shouldn't be so hasty in saying that we gained nothing. We did gain some resources here. If there is a pylon there, we increased our population limit. We also have vision to that part of the map. That means we have slightly better overall information about where the enemy is (or isn't, in this case). We prevented the enemy from scouting here, so the enemy has a slightly worse mental picture of the map. We control some territory that might not otherwise control (whatever is behind the choke point). So really there are a lot of resources to consider here, even in this very simple example where no one even attacked anyone.

And that was it for week one. A class about StarCraft at UC Berkeley.

--Sirlin

 

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Reader Comments (238)

Thanks for sharing this with us^^. The idea of shifting resources was something that I have been thinking about for a while, but in the realm of fighting games. I guess it is one big factor that many beginners don't fully grasp and that many advanced player have problems to but in words (even that for Fighting Games I find the word "advantages" more fitting, since the only real in game resource is your super meter and life). The idea of resources that lie out of the game and depend on the player is an idea that we have already been presented in your book anyway^^ (like concentration and mental fatigue).

Still considering the adding Yomi to the list thing..
You gave him your book, but I'm not sure if the definition you gave there will convince him:

According to your book on page 115, Yomi is the ability to guess right, a mysteries right brain function that is inheritable hard to explain. Something that goes beyond educated guessing (p. 115) and seems to be more than studying the details of the opponent (p. 74). Furthermore you more or less imply that you don't need to be good with game theory if you have this kind of skill on page 74 and a little later you state that Yomi should be the single most important factor if you judge the strategic depth of a game (p. 75).

So actually you did not really give a definition and I must confess I'm not too happy with it myself even that I love your book for the most part.

btw.: Yomi is actually an western term, not a Japanese one. Yomi standalone means reading and is seldom used in reference to Fighting Games. The common word seems to be Yomiai which seems to basically describe the same thing as the western term “mindgame” (at least that is what I've been told by some players who played in Japan for a year).

January 30, 2009 | Unregistered Commentershoto

I think Yomi is primarily from the Fighting Game genre. Until I read your book I never heard of it either though "Mind games" and "metagames" are quite common terms to me as an RTS player. I'm really glad you made a write up on the class and kinda hope you do one for every week :P. I really like the concept of the class, not so much a class about starcraft but more of the level of detail they explore the game. Looking over some of the homeworks it seems like they're really going to get into the minute details of calculating benefits and odds.

January 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLogo

Sounds very interesting. I too harbor a secret grudge against APM, but I was explaining the Starcraft community to a friend and when he heard about those high APM numbers he said, "Now I might be convinced it's a sport."

January 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRobyrt

Super Smash Brothers Melee Theory and Practice 0-1 Credit
Brian Mazur, Mike Blejer and Quentin Jones EXCO-845
This course will teach students the basic, intermediate and advanced combat techniques in the video game Super Smash Brothers Melee for the Nintendo Gamecube. This course will also provide in depth lectures and discussions involving many controversial issues concerning video games in our society today such as censorship, stereotyped characters, addiction, and gaming as an evolving art form. Gamecubes, televisions and controllers will be provided by the instructors. Gamers and non-gamers are welcome and encouraged to take this course. Classes will meet for two and a half hours each week-one and a half hours during regularly scheduled discussion and class time, and one hour outside regular class time as a practicum to practice and refine skills.

http://www.cracked.com/article_16558_smash-bros-theory-6-absurd-classes-taught-at-actual-colleges.html

I believe the first course offered in regards to a video game and how it is played (versus how it is designed/how to make a video game).

January 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlphaZealot

IloveOOV aka Cheater Terran is a really interesting case imo. At one hand you could certainly call him a turtle. But on the other hand he took expansions at times when the meta-game dictated that it would be unsafe to do so. He was aggressive, just not in the conventional way.

January 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterFwmeh

Nice article, will there be more? I'm very curious about this class.
"I think Yomi is primarily from the Fighting Game genre."
I think knowing your opponent can apply to any game/competitive sport =P

January 30, 2009 | Unregistered Commentervei

"[b]Apparently Boxer went to the army for 2 years, and although he didn't get to play as much there, he still did play and the army cadets created a special army StarCraft team, just so he could keep playing. [/b]"
-Slight correction here, he went to the air force not the army.

"[b]When he returned to the game, he made up for his generally weaker game by becoming much more bold, and pulling off insane strategies that no one else would use, like a fake base in the middle of the map.[/b]"
-He hasn't exactly been doing great since getting back, which wasn't that long ago.

"[b]For example, if your population limit is 131/131, what do you do? As it stands, you cannot build more units. Should you build pylons? That means spending minerals and time. Should you attack with units you already have? That means spending units and possibly more of your attention resource. How long will it take the units to attack and trade with the enemy units? Did you scout enough to know what you'll be up against and what important thing you could attack?[/b]"
-Unless the whole map is completely mined out, you build pylons. It's not even a question. Was that his example or yours?

Btw as a big fan of starcraft I'm excited to see you covering this :D

Edited by Sirlin: "Army" vs "Air Force": I was quoting what was said in the class. Boxer's return: I was quoting what was said in the class. The example about pylons: I was quoting what was said in the class. Also, your statement that you should obviously build a pylon misses the point entirely. The point is that there is a decision to be made that involves a lot more different kinds of resources than you might think at first inspection. The point was NOT to decide whether building the pylon is the right choice or not.

January 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterE C

"[b]Sounds very interesting. I too harbor a secret grudge against APM, but I was explaining the Starcraft community to a friend and when he heard about those high APM numbers he said, "Now I might be convinced it's a sport.[/b]"

APM is not overrated. Here's how it goes: Some group of people start touting apm as the most important aspect of starcraft. This is a slight exaggeration. A big other group of people gets annoyed by all this and rebuts "APM is so overrated, it doesn't matter. You should just focus on playing and who cares about apm, it's whatever." Thus drastically understating the value of apm. In fact, it is a very important skill/stat, but it's not the most important thing in the world.

January 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterE C

StarCraft was released in 2008, so either you're misremembering the lecture or you have something about which to correct the teacher in next week's class. :)

January 30, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterforty

@Vei

Sorry my writing as a little ambiguous. I mean the term "Yomi". RTS players, as far as I've ever heard, call it the meta-game or mind-games.

January 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLogo

Nonsense. Starcraft is an amazingly fun RTS game but it is a very arcade-like and simple RTS - the game's limited resolution and scope rewards quick hands rather than quick minds. Any serious RTS gamer would be playing something like Total Annihilation, a game that demands chess-like decision making but on a much larger scale.

These people are looking for deeper meaning where it does not exist. They're delusional. And Berkeley should be ashamed for offering such a silly, silly course. Even an sociological examination of the MMO world would be much more academic than this. Just because a bunch of bored Koreans have elevated a tired game to a national sport does not make it worthy of a university course.

Shameful

January 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAzNPersuAzn

When James Marshall found gold in California, what happened?
People went to California.

When Bisu revolutionized PvZ, what happened?
Everyone used corsairs and dark templars.

When UC Berkeley starts a starcraft class, what will happen?
________________________ <- Please, God. Please.

January 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRoie

Did I really write "2008" up there? Jesus. I meant 1998.

January 30, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterforty

@Azn
Common misconception as far as I'm concerned and a rather vanilla arguement against many RTS games. The point of SC/WC3/etc. is to require the mind to be quick while constantly divided. Playing at 100+, 200+, or 300+ APM while also make decisions no less important is a lot harder than simply making important decisions at 50-100 APM.

It's the same reason that Fighting games have complex move inputs that require you to divide your attention between properly executing moves and choosing the correct movement, spacing, etc. If this division didn't exist players would be able to devote almost all of their attention resources towards the decisions making them a lot easier to master.

Your yells against Starcraft reek of a "My game takes more skill" attitude to make you feel better about yourself. More often than not hard coding in mechanics in RTS games tends to simply replace one aspect of depth with another.

January 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLogo

Although Azn's first paragraph might be flawed slightly, I completely agree with his second.

January 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStaples

Sorry Logo, that thinking is not really correct. The dexterity demands in fighting games are NOT needed to make them deeper. They only lock out players who don't have those dexterity skills or they act as a tax that everyone must pay to develop extra dexterity skills (beyond what the game actually needs in the first place) in order to compete. They don't add depth. I set out to demonstrate this by making many things easier to execute in Street Fighter HD Remix. Based on the game's reception, it looks like it worked. More people are able to experience the actual game now and no depth was lost. In fact, more depth was probably gained, but that's from the balance changes rather than making moves easier to input.

This would be just as true in the RTS genre if designed properly. Yes I can think of ways to reduce APM that would be bad for the game, so those ways are not what I'm talking about. There should be plenty of places to reduce APM that just gets rid of the needless tax, so to speak. There are lots of clicks in Starcraft that aren't even about decisions, they are just required because the game's interface decided make you do everything yourself, even things you obviously want to do every time.

If you think that there isn't enough decision making in StarCraft or enough strategy once we remove all the clicks that just exist to force high APM, then you have a mysteriously low opinion of the game. StarCraft hooked directly into your brain without a bunch of extra clicks would be a deep game of strategy, yet you seem to believe there would be no game left at all.

It's unfortunate to see hardcore StarCraft players latch onto APM, and *needing* the game to reward it so highly. The same thing happened initially when I announced that Street Fighter would have an easier interface. What Street Fighter players learned, and what StarCraft players would learn if Blizzard went this way (but they won't...) is that lowering the dexterity tax just lets more people play the STRATEGY part of the game. Hardcore players who are threatened by this SHOULD be threatened by it. If they end up losing to players with lower APM but better strategy, then they are supposed to lose. The universe would be set right by them losing, in fact. It's supposed to be a real-time strategy game, so getting rid of the dexterity barrier and rewarding strategy over APM is the right state of affairs.

A final note to those who use what I say to create a straw-man argument (this always happens). I'm not talking about removing all dexterity from either genre, that would be insane and impossible. Even when moves in Street Fighter are easier to do, you still have to have precise spacing, 1/60th of a second timing, and know many nuances of exactly what counters what. Street Fighter inherently requires dexterity. That inherent dexterity is not what I'm talking about removing, it's all the extra pointless dexterity piled on top of that. Likewise in an RTS like StarCraft, I don't mean to say that StarCraft 2 should require no dexterity and an APM of like 2 or something, because that's impossible. Again, I'm talking about cutting out the excess APM that only servers as a barrier to keep many players out of the actual strategy.

The old guard (aka "status quo apologists") have a hard time imaging a game that focus more on strategy gives less value to their clicking speed though, so this is a very hard pill for hardcore players to swallow. I offer Street Fighter HD Remix as exhibit A that my concept here is correct.

January 30, 2009 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I'd say that sirlin's stance isn't "my game takes more skill, therefore better" but rather, "my game takes LESS skill, therefore better."
I mean, hell, "If this division didn't exist players would be able to devote almost all of their attention resources towards the decisions making them a lot easier to master."
Doesn't that sound like a good thing? Sounds like a good thing to me.

January 30, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphil

sirlin meant that if we remove such barriers in sheer execution of moves (or simply lower them), more players will be able to move past that and get into the actual "meat" of the game.

January 30, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermoriz

I agree wholeheartedly about HDR and the underlying design philosophy. However, despite HDR's success, people still don't seem to agree. There was a recent thread in srk's sf4 forum which asked why they hadn't changed commands as you did in HDR. It quickly turned into a tidal wave of derision for even suggesting such a thing. I honestly think it's a matter of taste, with no right or wrong answer. Some people literally consider the dexterity as important as the strategy. Clearly folks like us disagree.

Completely off-topic by now, but I believe that sf4 would enjoy even greater success and longevity if they had tried to make commands easier when possible. Smash is fairly definitive proof that a fighting game can be very deep and competitive with simple controls, and I would bet my soul that if Smash had originally had sf-style commands, it would be less successful. I hate Smash personally, but one would have to be pretty foolish to discount what it's accomplished.

January 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBen-Ra

"Also, your statement that you should obviously build a pylon misses the point entirely. The point is that there is a decision to be made that involves a lot more different kinds of resources than you might think at first inspection. The point was NOT to decide whether building the pylon is the right choice or not."

-I understand the point, I just found it kind of funny that the lecturer would use such a poor example because unless the map is entirely mined out, you're always going to build pylons in that scenario; it's not much of a decision at all.

"It's unfortunate to see hardcore StarCraft players latch onto APM, and *needing* the game to reward it so highly. The same thing happened initially when I announced that Street Fighter would have an easier interface. What Street Fighter players learned, and what StarCraft players would learn if Blizzard went this way (but they won't...) is that lowering the dexterity tax just lets more people play the STRATEGY part of the game. Hardcore players who are threatened by this SHOULD be threatened by it. If they end up losing to players with lower APM but better strategy, then they are supposed to lose. The universe would be set right by them losing, in fact. It's supposed to be a real-time strategy game, so getting rid of the dexterity barrier and rewarding strategy over APM is the right state of affairs."

-I don't think there's a right or wrong answer in terms of how much APM should or shouldn't be a factor. I think starcraft is immensely fun as an apm-intensive game, and I think it could be just as fun if it was less apm intensive as well (in SOME areas... can't get rid of micro). SC2 is going to be much less focused on apm.

But I think part of the fun about sc is how it combines strategy and dexterity. It sometimes allows players to use strategies that shouldn't work on paper but can be successful if the player is skilled enough. Of course this must be considered by both players as well so in a way the dexterity required adds another level of strategy.

January 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterE C
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