For fear of overstaying my welcome, today I will provide the finale to this series, the cherry on top that will touch on how the concept has affected genres of games beyond the fighting ones.
An Alien, Bug, and Marine Walk into a Bar…
Now, if we are going to talk about RTSes and how they interact with the concept, how better to start than by talking about one of the best? Now, though Starcraft II is a great example when talking about the game as a whole (easy to pick up, hard to become the best at), that feels like common knowledge to me and thus not that interesting to talk about. Instead, I found myself thinking, like with the previous two games, about the “pro scene” or what the metagame looks like for someone who has tried to become a master of it. Of the three races in Starcraft II, I asked myself, is there any one of them that stands out as being easy to start out with, yet still holding strong when things get competitive?
While the fanboys might say that, “Well, all of them are!” I think there is room for nuance. First off, think beyond the mastery level, as most people would agree that it is close to perfectly balanced there. Instead, think about when you were learning the races and taking them into multiplayer for the first time. Let’s start with the Terrans. You would think that a noob could take the stereotypical human race and make them work pretty easily when starting out. But Starcraft is a game that demands a high APM (actions-per-minute) if you want to get better and, if you don’t have that with the Terrans, those fragile human units are gonna fall apart on you and not reach their highest potential. The Zerg are more forgiving in this aspect, as they are designed to be massed so that a few unnecessary casualties don’t matter, but the Zerg construction mechanics are hardest to pick up for a new player. I played through all of the campaign missions and poked around a few multiplayer matches, and I can say that I preferred playing anyone but the Zerg because I didn’t want to bother with the creep expansion, hatchery/larva management, and Queen manipulation.
Plasma Swords Conquer All
That leaves the Protoss, who I think stand as the exemplars of Starcraft‘s “easy to learn, hard to master” race. Think about it. New players like to mass up their armies and fight head to head. They don’t yet have the skills or APM to multi-task. And which race has the best units pound for pound when forced into big battles? The Protoss.
Their mechanics on a base level are easiest to pick up. Unlike the other two races, a Protoss player only needs a single probe to construct every building they want, all by itself. This simplicity passes over to the way their armies function. Take a Terran versus Protoss pitched battle. To do well, the Terran player should ideally be stutter-stepping their marines to maximize their survival and DPS while simultaneously managing the movements of their other mixed units. By contrast, all the Protoss player largely needs to do is decide where to teleport some units and maybe place the occasional psychic storm. A good Zerg player has to carefully dash his small hordes in and out of danger, whereas the Protoss can generally just bull forward with their Immortals, Colossi, Zealots, etc. and take the initiative with much less interactivity. One could also claim that Protoss units being expensive is advantageous to the newer player, as that means less units they have to manage. Producing and warping them in is also a very solid crutch that does not require the effort of a shuttle, dropship or overlord to pull off.
Lessons to Learn
Now, in terms of RTS games, I think that it’s fantastic that new players have a race that is a good starting point for doing well in a multiplayer setting and reaching that mastery (and I won’t talk about what Protoss are like when mastered, because you can watch any Starcraft II pro game and see it for yourself). That said, I do understand where people come from when they say that the races are perfectly balanced. It doesn’t take too much more from the player to reach a solid competency level with the Zerg or the Terran; it is just that the Protoss provide the best example of “easy to learn, hard to master” if one really nitpicks things like I just did.
From the Starcraft II example, we can see that having a limited selection of races/characters/whatever allows the developer to more easily make sure that things are balanced in a way that makes the game both accessible for a noob and capable of shouldering a healthy and diverse E-sport for the hardcore. To briefly reference a different genre, this helps to explain the continuing popularity of games like Team Fortress 2, which has stolidly stuck by its 9 classes since the game’s first iteration over a decade an a half ago. Finding a balance is much easier with a smaller number of choices, a seemingly self-evident truth that unfortunately runs right up against the desires of the average fighting game player. The average fan tends to love having more and more vivid and memorable options, even if they result in gimmicky or “joke” characters.
Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards
Shifting gears, “easy to learn, hard to master” makes a strong appearance in countless RPGs as well. Fundamentally, it’s fascinating to see how, unlike the other genres, for RPGs the concept predates the video games that include them. In Dungeons & Dragons, there has always been the notion of “Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards.” The idea is that warrior characters are easy to learn for a few major reasons. First off, it’s easier to understand what a Shield Bash does compared to a Prismatic Spray. What’s more, warriors are sturdy enough to shrug off a few blows, able to wear armor and get HP levels that wizards can only dream of. By contrast, one critical hit from some dumbass goblin archer can insta-kill a wizard who isn’t paying attention.
The warrior adopts a linear progression, getting consistently stronger every level, but not majorly so. By contrast, the weak mage soon mushrooms out of control, eventually able to go invisible at a whim, bind dragons to their will, and make the sky rain death enough to kill a hundred warriors at once. The wizard thus experiences exponential (or quadratic) growth compared to the warrior, whose biceps get just a teeny bit more muscly every level.
When Things Get Bloody
I bring this up because it ties directly into how warrior and tanky classes in so many RPGs fit this mold of “easy to learn, hard to master.” Look at World of Warcraft, for example. Taking a warrior, paladin, or death knight to maximum level is so effortless that you can do something outside of the game while simultaneously tanking 4 guys at once without thinking too much about it. This holds true in early PVP to a lesser extent. Just like with Dungeons & Dragons, the tanky classes are more effective for quite a while, as the magic classes have yet to get many of their most fearsome spells and are still so fragile that killing them feels like blowing over a matchstick.
But, when it comes to max level PVP in World of Warcraft, shit gets real. Suddenly, that lack of range as a warrior really starts to hurt. The magic users are glass cannons; God help you if you are unable to get the drop on them and get a full salvo of massive crit-meteors in your face instead. Even if you are able to rush at them with a charge skill or two, they now have skills that incapacitate or keep you away, giving them time to prepare their hardest hitting spells. The scariest class in PVP when I was playing? The goddamn warlocks. You’d run around in perpetual fear, endless DOTs stacking on top of you so that, by the time the fear wore off, you had maybe 2 seconds to kick them in the balls before dying anyway. War is hell, but in World of Warcraft PVP, I always thought that the poor tanky classes had it the worst.
Yet every so often you’d still see the occasional colossus, racing around the battlefield in shining full-plate armor and braining warlocks left and right as if they were a bunch of retarded field mice. This would be a warrior who had mastered the timing of his spell-shield, had itemized in such a way that trinkets were ready to override the warlock’s fear, and had so much knowledge of the spell library of other classes that they would always know just what spell they should interrupt. These masters of war would always be on top of the damage and kill charts, seemingly invincible, when really they had just gone out of their way to become the best at what they did. “Easy to learn, hard to master” indeed.
This concept is so deeply rooted in RPGs especially that: 1. You see this “linear warriors, quadratic wizards” situation in almost every one, and 2. I’m not sure I see that ever changing, and I think I’m okay with that. With fighting games, I keep trying to picture a world where “easy to learn, hard to master” becomes normalized for all the characters involved, but maybe I’m just too close to RPGs to even picture how that would work within them. I would be exceptionally curious to hear if anyone thinks that this is a major flaw within RPGs or if the situation of “Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards” is a healthy one that should never change.
So at the end of these posts, we are left with a question that is plaguing every game developer, of fighting games and otherwise. League of Legends is currently the king of video games, played by 27 million people with a company that is making $624 million a year (and the game is free-to-play). Their rise to prominence has basically defined E-sports, causing every developer whose genre is MOBA or similar (like fighting games) to want to do the same. They have dedicated themselves to “champion diversity”, or finding precisely that balance that I keep talking about. And even they haven’t found the answer to the question, though they keep doing their damnedest every patch to get closer and closer to it.
Why not make all the characters/champions/races/classes “easy to learn, hard to master?” From the lessons of Super Smash Bros and Dead or Alive, we can add the question: Why not spend more development time making “easy to learn, worthless to master” characters worth the time of day? Or why not remove them completely? Starcraft II at this point raises its hand to ask, “Why not make character pools smaller in order to solve the problem or otherwise making it easier to manage?” World of Warcraft lies in the corner, half passed out, and lifts its head only to sneer, “We RPGs don’t have to deal with the problem at all.” … Or do they?
I don’t know the answer to all these questions and I’m not sure yet what the Final Solution would be to all this. Maybe I’ll have a follow-up post weeks later after I’ve figured it out. But, if nothing else, it makes for an interesting discussion, and I look forward to hearing peoples’ thoughts on it. Be sure to add them in the comments below or in the forums above!