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.
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.