Saturday, September 22, 2012

Catch up mechanics in Starcraft: Part 1

Rohan mentioned about catch-up mechanics in his recent blog, and it kind of got me thinking about how you could use the same principle in Starcraft 2 as well.

This idea has previously been mentioned in a post in the Team Liquid forums, but it has been buried under a ton of newer posts. (I kinda have to go dig for it, but I do recall that the post is easily 2 years old.)

Let us first define a catch-up mechanic. A Catch-up mechanic is a game-play mechanic that allows a losing player to match a winning player's resources. This can either be done in 2 ways:

A.) Temporarily or permanently reducing the winning player's resources.
B.) Temporarily or permanently increasing the losing player's resources.

 The definition of resources are defined by the game genre itself. In the context of a Real-time Strategy game, this would be the credits that are used by the player to make an army, and the army that the player controls. In Starcraft, the resources would then be the player units, minerals and vespene gas.

Now, previously in Starcraft: Broodwar, there were various units that possessed abilties which would qualify as a Catch-up mechanic. Both methods were employed, and they were skilfully distributed between the 3 different races. I will elaborate further on what the various races possess.

The Terran race was characterized by it's mechanical forces. It was slow and steady, with relatively strong defensive capabilities compared to the other 2 races. In terms of catch up mechanics, the designers gave them abilities that allowed them to disable or debilitate strong units ( EMP, Irridate, Lockdown) and temporary measures that could bolster their own forces. For instance, Wraiths which were known as one of the weakest air units in Starcraft, had the ability to cloak, which gave them a slight edge against other air armies which did not possess detection. Science vessels could also use Defensive matrix to protect expensive units like Battlecruisers allowing them to absorb more damage.

The Protoss race was characterized by it's tough but expensive units. Generally, most protoss forces were relatively smaller compared to the cheap Terran and Zerg units. However they could take a relatively tough beating, and trade quite cost efficiently as well. Protoss forces were given abilities that would support their expensive units. They could bolster their forces with free units (through Mind control or Hallucinations) or remove entire sections of the opposing army via Stasis. They could even destroy large sections of an opposing army via Psionic storm. Carriers had also the ability to generate large amount of cheap flying units that would confuse the opposing army.

The Zerg race was characterized by it's moniker, "The Swarm". They could deploy large armies filled with cheap units. While the other races had strong AOE options, the zerg players had ways to bolster their own forces and debilitate their enemies. Plague could help easily wipe out armies, while dark swarm provided a cover that their units could use to get close to the ranged units of other 2 races.  Queens could use spawn broodlings to remove important land units and parasite expensive air units so that player would have constant intelligence on where his opponents most powerful units are.

All the various catch-up mechanics that I have listed above, helped made the game extremely entertaining to watch. Any player could come from an early setback to win the game in a convincing fashion by using some of the catch-up mechanics that I have listed. Without such mechanics, the game would be extremely boring, as a losing player will never be able to match a winning player once he has a resource advantage. Catch-up mechanics help make the playing field level and provide uncertainty about the eventual outcome of the game. I feel that such mechanics are important in multi-player games as they help make them more interesting. You always feel compelled to sit till the end to watch who would win the game because anything could happen. A good strategy play is made more thrilling by the fact that a player could overturn a setback, or he could avoid a cunning trap that was made by his opponent. I would say that such well-tuned catch-up mechanics in Starcraft helped to increase it's longevity, making it still one of the most popular games in Korea.

In my next post, I'll analyze Starcraft 2 and highlight the lack of such well defined catch-up mechanics.


  1. Great analysis! I've always been a big fan of Brood War, and loved it's carefully crafted balance.

    I like how the balance comes not from the perfect matching of equivalent or inherently weak (rock/paper/scissors) units, but also from the 'catch-up' abilities of those units.

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