Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On Music in StarCraft II

Before we begin, it is important to note that the music in StarCraft II is very much not finished. There is only one piece of music for the Protoss, while the Terran and Zerg have 5-6. So naturally, this will change over time.

It is also important to note my general feelings on the music in StarCraft I. To me, it was hit and miss. Most of the Terran music was good, the Protoss music had occasional insight, but the Zerg music was just blah. Except for the Radio Free Zerg song.

As for the StarCraft II music... it is pretty much the same style of music. Indeed, it may be too much of the same, but I'll get to that a bit later.

The SC2 menu piece is very good. It has echoes of the original main menu, but with some of its own character. Although, I have to wonder: why a 7 minute piece for a menu, when the menu for Battle.Net has a different theme? Anyway, the main menu piece seems very much like a StarCraft II Overture. It has echoes of Terran, Zerg, and Protoss themes. The Zerg theme you may have heard in the Zerg reveal video, though here it is done much better. The piece flows into the different movements reasonably well.

The Battle.Net menu music is unintrusive, but not something you're going to actually want to hear.

The in-game music is probably the least changed. Oh, it's recorded with better instruments and sound quality, and they are different compositions. But the style is still very clearly that of StarCraft I.

I would say that the most improved is the Zerg. In SC1, the Zerg music was mostly just noise, devoid of anything resembling a melody or real music. In SC2, they still have some of that quality to it. It uses many of the instrumental sounds of the SC1 Zerg, so it still hearkens back to its roots. Even so, it manages to actually have a point in SC2; the music sounds like something that grows and festers.

The Terran music is probably the least changed, thematically and instrumentally. Indeed, it seems to have somehow become more guitar-y than it was. This leads to certain riffs that sound like they came out of Firefly or something. There are other riffs that are so close to those in SC1 that you'll automatically assume that they will continue directly into one of the Terran pieces. This is not the case.

As previously mentioned, there is only one Protoss piece currently, so it is harder to evaluate it. Even so, it seems similar to the other two: no thematic differences and retaining the same instruments.

There is something missing from these pieces. And that is a definitive statement, a unique signature. See, there is nothing about these pieces that is unique outside from their identity with the original StarCraft music. And that is a problem.

Let me explain by analogy. Take the main-line Mario series of platforming games. Each of them has different music. And while the most iconic is the main level music from Super Mario Bros. 1, there is a clear understanding of what "Mario music" is. The main level music from every Mario game has it, from SMB3's more playful, almost toylike theme to Super Mario 64's energetic directive to seek and find. Each theme has its own identity, but they all have stylistic similarities to one another. Each theme pays homage to what came before, but they also have their own distinctive qualities.

There is none of that here. StarCraft II's battle music has no identity of its own; it is simply a restating of what StarCraft I did. It doesn't even constitute a remix, as that would require putting a different spin on the pieces. SC2's music may have different melodies, but the core of the music is nothing more than StarCraft 1. It has no voice of its own, no soul of its own; it is borrowing the soul of another game.

What the music is saying is that it is music for "StarCraft II", not "StarCraft II."

Friday, March 12, 2010

Rank Fear

StarCraft II's matchmaking scheme is excellent. And the league/division system has an almost MMO quality to it. Progressing up in rank within your division feels like gaining XP.

There is a downside to this: Rank Fear.

See, unlike an MMO (or at least, WoW), you can lose rank. Each game is therefore zero sum of sorts: to gain rank, I must defeat my enemy. And if I fail, I lose rank.

That's all well and good. But improving at playing the game requires experimentation. And experimentation means that you're going to lose.

If you're trying to put together a new build, it's going to fail. A lot. If you're trying to find a good timing to expand, you're going to get caught and killed. A lot.

Back in the days of Battle.Net 1.0, this didn't mean much. Oh, you got a loss on your record, but what did that matter? But in 2.0, with your division rank on the line, are you really going to expand into a rush just so that you can have practice trying to fend it off?

But what happens if you don't? Then your opponent dictates your play. If you don't know how to fast-expand against an early-aggression build, because you've always scouted it and took the safe option, then your skills are going to be behind. You're going to play it safe.

And if there's one thing StarCraft is not about, it's playing it safe.

I have a tendency to be a timid player. This is just my natural inclination; whenever things are going wrong, I tend to fall apart and lose. To counter this, I force myself to play aggressively. I try to force myself to attack, even sometimes when it's not safe or even prudent to. In order to make myself expand faster, I simply say at the start of a match that I'm fast-expanding this game. And I stick to it.

Yes, that means that if I scout early Barracks+Reactor pressure that I'm pretty much hosed. But what if I could fend it off? I'm not that good at any skilled micro (focus-fire is about as good as I get), but what if I was good enough to hold my expansion against early pressure? And what if I could learn to do it consistently? I'd be a better player for it.

Remember: it's just one match. One game. So what if your rank goes down for awhile? In a week, you'll have that rank back plus some, once you've learned how to fast-expand into anything. Alternatively, you may have learned that you can't fast-expand into anything. This is also a valuable lesson; it teaches you to focus on something else where your play is deficient.

My point is this. Experiment. Try things. Try things a lot. Don't be so afraid of losing one match that you're unwilling to improve and expand the tools in your répertoire. Because that's the only way you're going to be good at StarCraft II. Fear is the path to rank stasis.

StarCraft II is not an MMO. Your character doesn't get better simply by winning, because there is no character. There are no stats, no loot. There is only you and your skills. Leveling yourself up requires taking risks, and taking risks means losing.

Do not let your fear of losing now stop you from improving your game.

Monday, March 8, 2010

On Spellcasters, Research and StarCraft II

It's actually quite interesting to take a look at how spellcasters have changed in StarCraft II. One of the most interesting aspects is spell research.

In StarCraft II, there are exactly 6 spells that require research. I don't mean per-race, I mean through the entire game. Some of them aren't really "spells" in the traditional sense. Psi Storm, Hallucination, and Seeker Missile are the traditional spells. Weapon Refit (gives BCs Yamato), Ghost Cloaking, and Banshee Cloaking are the others.

Every other spell, every one doesn't require research.

In SC1, every actual spellcaster only had one native spell, and some like the Arbiter didn't even have that. Beyond that, you had to research. Even spells on non-dedicated spellcasters like Corsairs had to be researched.

So let's explore what effect this has on the game.

What does spell research do? Effectively, it bumps a spell up a half-Tier. To the extent that a game of StarCraft plays out in a series of Tiers, a spell that requires research is much like a unit that requires a new tech building.

This means that Defilers (for example) require a Defiler Mound to build, but they become much more useful once you have produced the equivalent of another tech building. On the plus side, this means that all Defilers you produced while researching something useful immediately get better. On the downside, we have the SC1 Queen.

Queens just aren't worth it. 150/100 for the Nest itself, and 100/100 for each Queen. But a Queen can only cast Parasite (and infesting a Command Center isn't even a spell; it's simply an ability). The Queen is thus almost useless without spending extra money and precious time to research either Ensnare or Spawn Broodling.

If a spellcaster cannot quickly appear on the battlefield and make a difference, then it cannot be used as a defensive counter to some tactic or unit your enemy is using. If Queens are going to require 4 minutes from the time the Drone first starts the Nest to the time when they can actually do something, then they cannot be an effective short-term reactionary unit.

This means that typically, you need to see farther into the future to react to something with spellcasters. You have to know, before starting on your Templar Archives, that your opponent is doing something that a High Templar spell can stop. This effectively means that good researched spells must have general utility.

These spells can't screw around; they have to be seriously powerful. Looking at the popular researched spells in SC1, you see that this is very much the case. Psi Storm, Dark Swarm (admittedly doesn't require research, but Consume is basically required for Defilers, so it counts by proxy), Stasis and Recall: these spells are to be respected and feared. They change games.

But they are less than half of the spells in SC1. Those other spells don't change games, and they require too much effort/time to acquire. So nobody uses them.

And this is the purpose of having fewer researched spells in SC2. It allows you to quickly get something of value into play. It means that spells that have limited functionality or utility can still be used within those limitations. Force Field is not the kind of spell you would bother researching; it has fairly limited utility and is not always devastating to the enemy. But you don't have to research it; Sentries get it for free.

So again, look at the 6 researched spells in SC2. Psi Storm again, Seeker Missile, Hallucination, Weapon Refit, and the two Cloaks. Yamato can make BCs into devastating units against single targets. Psi Storm is obviously strong, even in its current not-as-powerful-as-SC1 state. Hallucination has lots of potential: it can confuse an opponent, create meat-shields for your Stalkers/Immortals, or simply act as scouts that allow you to see up cliffs. Seeker Missile is a semi-dodgeable Psi Storm. The cloaks force your opponent to get detection if they want to deal with the unit in question.

What this also does is allow spellcasters with semi-strong spells to immediately make a different on the battlefield. If you see Immortals coming, you can throw down a Ghost Academy and get Ghosts with EMP. You may not be able to stop the first Immortal strike, but because EMP is standard on all Ghosts, you are able to effectively react with a spellcaster.

Another thing you will note is that they got rid of those silly +50 max energy upgrades for spellcasters. These were replaced with upgrades for +25 starting energy for newly constructed spellcasters.

This shows the difference between how spellcasters were thought to be used by Blizzard and how they were actually used in SC1. It was intended that people would use casters sparingly, husbanding their energy and making due with regular units until a critical point, when actual spells would be brought to bear.

This also fits with the idea of having lots of spell research. If you are keeping your spellcasters around until they get full energy, or even the overfull +50 energy, then the time spent researching additional spells is not that bad. And if you are not building 10 High Templar, you have more gas available to do that research with.

Obviously, that's not how spellcasters were actually used. In the most degenerate case, High Templar are basically walking Psi Storm bombs. They are built, they drop Storm, and they are either killed in battle or become Archons. Arbiters are also semi-disposable, though this is as much due to their cloaking field and their priority targets for EMP as anything else.

Essentially, what this means is that the 50 starting energy for a caster is considered highly valuable. And this makes sense. The construction time for most casters is generally not as slow as the time it takes to gain 50 energy. Thus if you need another Psi Storm, it is generally faster to make a new High Templar than to wait for him to get 75 more energy.

This explains a lot. It explains why Arbiters are more valuable than High Templar: they take longer to produce than it does to regain that 50 energy. Similarly, Defilers are valuable because they take longer to produce than it does for them to Consume a Zergling.

Since the most efficient way to use spellcasters in the game is with this pattern, Blizzard changed the +50 max energy research into +25 starting energy research. For High Templar especially, this is a boon. It allows a newly Warped HT to instantly cast Psi Storm. A new Sentry can cast Guardian Aura immediately. A new Infestor can immediately cast Fungal Growth. And so on.

The game is still in Beta, so it is hard to say how this will work out in practice. One thing that would make the starting energy upgrades more valuable would be to globally reduce the starting energy of all casters and increase the starting energy upgrade respectively. The reasoning for this is as follows.

The time it takes to get 75 energy when starting at 50 is significant, but not huge. In some cases, this may be the travel time to the battle in progress. However, if you start with 25 instead of 50, now you have a pretty long time. The research is much more valuable then; not only can you cast your favorite spell, but it also allows you to cast the other spell from the start.

There is one other thing that is interesting when surveying the SC2 spellcasters: spell energy costs. Of the 3 main spellcasters in use in SC1, two of them were long-duration spellcasters. The mere presence of an Arbiter had an effect, so it didn't rely exclusively on its spells for its effectiveness. And Defilers, once Consume was researched, could quickly and effectively regenerate their energy. In both of these cases, spell cost is not a huge factor.

For all other spellcasters, it is. The SC1 Queen is our best example of this. Spawn Broodling is a spell that is worthy of research due to its power. It instantly kills one unit. It's 150 energy cost compared with the utility of this power is what makes it unworkable. Thinning out the number of Siege Tanks would be valuable, but 8 Mutalisks have more general utility than 4 Queens with Broodling. So as useful as it potentially is to kill even quite a few of a Terran's tank force or even just Medics for their M&M ball, it simply isn't worth the cost.

If Spawn Broodling had instead cost 75 energy, then you might have something of value.

Now, if you look at the spells in SC2, few of them go above 75 energy in cost. The only ones that do are Hallucination and the two Mothership spells. The latter is on a big-ticket item, and both of the spells are very powerful. The former is on an early-game caster that can be built en masse. Mass Hallucinations can be very dangerous, so keeping that to a specific strategy is important.