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October 27, 2020

Unit Design

Look at some unit design in StarCraft

Intro

The goal of this post is to look at few unit designs and unit mechanics that aren't working perfectly and learn from them. This is not meant to be a critique. We can learn a lot from StarCraft II, whether it is from its successes or failures. The ability to directly compare to Brood War, which shares a lot of characteristics, is very valuable as well.

StarCraft II isn't perfect. There is design baggage carrier over from Brood War, and not all new things worked out perfectly. That said, StarCraft II development team did a lot of great work to improve things since Wings of Liberty was released, leading to arguably the best game state StarCraft II has ever been in.

Force Fields, while originally very problematic, are in a good state today. Death-balling has been greatly reduced compared to Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm due to economy changes and good unit design. Similar thing has been done to the strength of air unit compositions. The economy model received improvements in Legacy of the Void, even if it's still in some ways inferior compared to certain double harvest models and Brood War economy model.

I'm including these units not because their design is bad altogether. I'm including them because despite some parts of their design aren't good, these units work surprisingly well in other aspects, and often lead to good interactions and fun game dynamics. This contrast makes them more interesting. I'm mentioning only units I found particularly interesting.

Widow Mine

Widow Mines are great when micro is involved. Splitting, target firing, target switching, Stalker Blink micro, Mutalisk micro, all those are fun to execute as a player or watch as a viewer. I would even say the randomness tied to Widow Mines is good for spectating. "4M vs Muta-Ling-Bling" is one of the best parts of StarCraft II.

However, especially in TvZ you often see the most impactful damage to be done when neither player is paying attention or microing with or against Widow Mines. Nobody wants a potentially game deciding thing to be a random Widow Mine that one player didn't see and the other forgot about. This is likely even more frustrating for casual players that will not micro and forget detection.

Another thing is that the most execution burden falls on the defending player. That's not inherently a bad thing, and it's good that there are counterplay options. But if the execution is mostly on the defending player, the mechanic will feel more punishing and kills by Widow Mines will seem more undeserved. Note that I'm not saying they are undeserved, only that it will seem more that way.

If the execution is more on the player using a unit, the result will feel more deserved. However, there still should be some counterplay through skill on the defending side. It's all about the right balance. In this case execution a bit too focused on the defending player, and randomness a bit too high.

Nukes

From today's perspective and general recognition of the importance of accessibility in games, adding a game mechanic that is based around looking for a red dot somewhere on the map would sound a bit crazy. But seeing it as a legacy mechanic from Brood War makes it at least understandable. If you aimed to make nukes more mainstream, you would have to make changes this mechanic.

It's even worse if we consider color blindness, which affects roughly 8% of men. As you can see the red dot is significantly less visible, and that's placed against a dark background. Putting the dot directly on the Nexus would make it close to invisible. StarCraft II has built-in color-blind mode, but its effect is very limited.

Images simulated here

Cloak and burrow mechanic are in a similar situation. Units should be either visible or not. Whether you will spot a cloaked or burrowed unit is too reliant on your vision and game settings. Neither of them should be a deciding factor in a competitive setting.

Swarm host

People often complain about "free units", but difficulties with Swarm Hosts will apply to any unit that can deal almost guaranteed damage while being safe. If you as player are taking damage and can't do anything about it, it will always feel frustrating even if the game is balanced.

Moreover, the balancing itself will be more difficult with units like these as a situation can snowball very quickly. With Swarm Hosts often the first two waves are the most important.

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From the historical perspective the Swarm Host redesign patch was quite interesting. It came very late to Hearth of the Swarm when Legacy of the Void beta has already started. Previously Swarm Hosts served as a core unit that enabled Zerg to fight Terran and Protoss lategame armies. And while many players didn't enjoy games with Swarm Hosts, game balance was decided by individual maps.

The patch changed this core unit into a harass unit with a high supply cost. They do fit into Legacy of the Void now, but at that time this change left a gaping hole in the design of Zerg race. However, one could argue that given the already running beta of Legacy of the Void, and how close the release was, making such change was reasonable, and the meta didn't have a time to reach a degenerate state.

Battlecruiser

Battlecruiser might be the most interesting unit to look at. There are design issues with the unit and its abilities. However, it's also arguably the most interesting capital ship in StarCraft II and closest to its Brood War counterpart. Let's first look at the abilities.

Tactical Jump

71s cooldown / 4s casting time

The main issue with Tactical Jump was the lack of counterplay. Fortunately, this was significantly improved after Battlecruisers had become more used, and the casting time was increased. Before that a professional player should have never lost a Battlecruiser on the opponents side of the map with Tactical Jump off cooldown.

Other than this delay only Infestors with Neural Parasite or Fungal Growth can help to stop Battlecruisers from escaping. I wouldn't consider this ability a big issue anymore, but it's tied with high front-loaded damage of Yamato Cannon, which puts this closer to the Swarm Host issue where the damage is guaranteed and comes with a minimal risk.

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Yamato Cannon

71s cooldown / 240 damage / 2s casting time / 10 initial casting range

This ability has again very limited counterplay and doesn't have high skill ceiling. In MOBAs we see a lot of skill shots as they provide much better opportunity on both sides to show off skill. Guaranteed damage and minimal risk doesn't help in this case. However, this is again understandable as design baggage carrier over from Brood War, and as an intention to preserve this iconic ability.

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So why do Battlecruisers still work well in StarCraft II? There are few reasons for it. Even if there are issues with those abilities, they still provide higher skill ceiling and options for making decisions than for example Carriers have. Those abilities also enable Battlecruisers to be effective early and in few numbers, and not just as a part of death-balls.

This is closer to Brood War, where for example in TvZ few Battlecruisers are used to put the Zerg off balance. The Zerg player has to balance anti-air and anti-ground more, and is likely to take worse fights because of that. This is similar to early game Battlecruisers in StarCraft II's TvZ which again test the Zerg player in balancing proper response against both air and ground threats.

Queen

I'm including the Queen here mainly to show the contrast between local design issues and global ones. With Battlecruisers the local design of its abilities has issues, but the unit fits well into the global game design.

Here we have a Queen, a unit which many players will argue is too well-rounded for defense. However, it's not due to any design of the Queen, instead the unit was slowly forced into this role over the years by the lack of other Zerg units that could come early enough and defend against enemy threats. So the problem is not directly with Queens, and solutions would have to come from looking at other Zerg units and tech progression.

Carrier

There is nothing inherently bad about Carrier's design but nothing great either. The unit had difficult time finding its place in the grand scheme of things despite it being such iconic Protoss unit.

This is partly because of lacking micro potential compared to Brood War's Carrier, partly because of Protoss tendency to death-ball in StarCraft II, and partly because of lacking interactions it had with Brood War's Goliath.

As with Battlecruisers, Carriers in Brood War forced the opponent in PvT to carefully balance its anti-air and anti-ground. Plus their main counter being a ground unit added more depth to the game as they had to take advantage of terrain. StarCraft II moved a lot of anti-air to air units (Vikings, Corruptors, Void Rays, Tempest, Battlecruisers, Liberators) and this dance between air and ground units is less common. And so Carriers in StarCraft II were left in a position with fewer interesting interactions, and a place that's more difficult to balance.

Conclusion

StarCraft II isn't perfect, and we should learn from it.

  • Widow Mines show the effect of execution on how the result is perceived.
  • Nukes remind us that accessibility shouldn't be overlooked.
  • Swarm Hosts present the difficulties of units with close to guaranteed damage and minimal risk.
  • Battlecruisers highlight the importance of counterplay, and that despite local design issues the unit can still work well.
  • Queen is an example of how global design can affect one unit.
  • Carrier is a unit seeking its place after having lost its interesting interaction.

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