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May 11, 2021

Transmission 08 - Attention and macro

Attention and macro
Transmission 08
Attention and macro

The post will touch on player attention spent on army control, and the topic of macro (economy, base management). As these two, army control and macro, are the biggest competitors for player's attention. This is by no means an exhaustive post about this topic – only a few thoughts I wanted to share. It's shorter compared to the previous long and in-depth post about team games. Writing that one was a lot of fun, but this should easier to digest.

Attention spent on army

I wanted to explore how players distribute their attention in-game, and how that changes across skill levels. My hypothesis was that players in lower leagues spend less time on their army, which turned out to be true. In the following chart for Terran, attention spent on army went from 16.8% in the bronze league to 38.8% for professional players (2.3x increase).


Data were obtained from 5194s 1v1 replays from ladder and tournaments (professional category). The code uses a re-purposed version of this repository by ZephyrBlu. It tracks which units are selected, and then divide them into predefined categories:

  • Economy – comprised of workers and command structures (e.g., Nexus)
  • Infrastructure – all other buildings
  • Creep Spread (Zerg only)
  • Queens (Zerg only)
  • Army

For reference, here is ZephyrBlu's post with charts showing how player attention changes during games for individual players. It's only an estimate of player's attention, but the absolute values don't have to be completely accurate for us to observe relative trends across player skill levels. My code repository is here.

Unit selections are only counted for the first 15 real-time minutes. This is to keep games more comparable to each other, as there is a dependency on game length. Longer games will have a higher share of army focus (+2-3% without a limit), and shorter games will have higher economy focus (3-5% lower army focus when limited to the first 10 minutes). 15 real-time minutes is roughly a typical StarCraft II game length.

The trend is present for all races (StarCraft II)


There is a significant decrease in the time spent on army control as we go to lower leagues. Professional players spend around 2.3x more time on their army compared to bronze-league players.

I find it unlikely that players in lower leagues enjoy macro that much more. Instead, they might be overwhelmed by the macro requirements leaving them little time for army control, scared of pushing on the map, or not seeing the point in interacting with the opponent throughout the game.

I don't think this is an ideal situation. StarCraft II is very focused on action and army control, and if players in lower leagues interact with this part of the game significantly less, the game will be likely less fun for them. Players could get the impression that the game is too macro-heavy. A player might also watch a streamer, form expectations, but the actual gameplay will be very different and the player disappointed.

★ ★ ★

Let's see some approaches addressing this. StarCraft II Co-op has reduced macro requirements by having only one expansion and bases that will usually not mine out. This fits well with its more casual audience, and a game mode that's not focused on economic harassment and base denial. Moreover, highly scripted missions force players into being active from the start of the game.

An upcoming RTS Immortal: Gates of Pyre has its solutions to these issues:

  1. Significantly easier macro compared to that in StarCraft II
  2. Encouraging players to be more active on the map through:
    • Pyre camps (creeping spots rewarding the third resource)
    • Towers providing vision and safe spots to fall back on
    • Making sure that players aren't punished too much for moving at the wrong time in the early game (the ability to retreat). This can change as the game progresses to later stages.

is Macro fun?

In both previous examples the macro was simplified, which is a valid approach, but is it the only way? I don't believe so, and I would even say that for professionals macro could be more difficult – somewhere between StarCraft II and Brood War. However, as I mentioned before, for new players or those in lower leagues, it should be easier to reach the baseline macro efficiency – get the production going, and let them focus on action and engage with the strategy layer.

Ideally, as players get better, they can decide to focus more on either economy or army control like we saw in Brood War – leading to more player expression and a more distinct player fingerprint (as described by CatZ on his podcast).

★ ★ ★

I enjoy macro and multitasking. But do I like it because it's an enjoyable part of RTS games in general? or is it because if I didn't enjoy it, I would have moved to play other genres as many players have? Is there a survivorship bias at play? and how strong? That's a relevant question when targeting a broader player audience outside of core RTS players.

Survivorship bias –These are recorded bullet holes on airplanes. Would you add more armor to areas with the most recorded bullet holes? or to places without any of them? Airplanes hit there might not have returned and the bullet hole positions weren't recorded.

Answering this question for macro is particularly difficult. The most popular RTS games (StarCraft I & II, Age of Empires II) lean heavily on the macro part of the game. We can throw in here games like Supreme Commander or They are Billions as well. However, there are games light on macro and still very popular – Warcraft III or Company of Heroes 2 – and of course the whole MOBA genre. One could easily argue either way whether higher or lower macro focus correlates with success positively. And there are many other factors that influenced the success of each RTS game – muddying the waters further.

From new games, Immortal is going for a more streamlined macro, while Age of Empires IV might be closer to Age of Empires II, but we will have to see about that. Overall, it's safe to say that a significant part of the core RTS audience enjoys macro, but it's not so clear when it comes to the broader player audience.

★ ★ ★

I love that in StarCraft II or Age of Empires II, a player can spend 100+ APM on macro alone. However, whether to have such a high skill ceiling for macro is a design decision and there is no right answer to it. But there are two things that I think are important:

  1. Lower skill floor for macro – easier to get basic macro going, and let players engage with army control and strategy layer sooner (compared to StarCraft II)
  2. Inherently enjoyable

As for macro being enjoyable, a good benchmark is if the game is fun to play even without any opponent. If the base-building is satisfying by itself, then we are on a good path. Visuals, audio, feedback, responsiveness, intuitiveness, fantasy, enjoyable gameplay loops (macro cycles) – all these help to make macro more enjoyable.

Apart from adding depth to the game, macro is primarily about player expression – to build something of your own. There are likely things to learn from the sim genre such as city-builder games, or optimization games like Factorio.

Building a beautiful city is rewarding in itself (Age of Empires II)

Base-building in Age of Empires II is supported by its familiar and bright setting. It matters less that macro is more demanding when managing the city is fun in itself. Also, most mechanics don't feel artificial – cutting down trees, building houses, assigning villagers to new jobs – it's all part of the fantasy and intuitive. Defensive structures support this fantasy as well, and I wouldn't mind also seeing more mechanics from the Stronghold series.

Among other things, having four resources adds more depth to the economy, and increases the skill ceiling for players naturally through balancing the economy with moving villagers between resources nodes according to player's needs or using the market. I don't think the skill floor is increased too much with how intuitive these resources are (food, wood, stone, gold). As for the roles of resources, I found these two videos interesting – food, stone, and gold (by HarvestBuildDestroy).

Even cleaning can be fun if done right (Viscera Cleanup Detail)

For me, Zerg macro and especially creep spread is quite enjoyable. The creep spread has several good qualities:

  • It's not strictly necessary, and you get some for free. This is good for lower leagues.
  • There are several ways of spreading it (Queens, Creep tumors, Overlords, Nydus worms, Overlords dropping Queens).
  • It facilitates interaction with the opponent, particularly in TvZ.
  • Players and spectators can easily see how the creep spread is going.
Spread creep with Overlord drop and Queen (StarCraft II)

Larva Inject is another Queen's ability, but it feels very artificial and like a chore. I can see why it was added, and that it has a role, but from all macro-mechanics in StarCraft II, this one might be lacking the most.

★ ★ ★

Few more notes on macro:

  • One consequence of deeper macro is that it can open more distinct strategies (eco, tech, rush). Brownbear touched on it in this article.
  • Here is an interesting topic and especially discussion in comments related to player attention Makro: Chores vs. Decisions (r/FrostGiant)
  • I'm a fan of Brood War. It's fascinating how many things it managed to do right – sometimes despite its archaic limitations, and other times because of them. Creating something similar in a modern game would be certainly difficult, but at the very least there are a lot of things to learn from the game.
  • How players split their attention is an important design decision. And we have seen here some data for 1v1 in StarCraft II. But how often players switch their attention is another important factor. A game can feel more overwhelming when players have to shift their attention rapidly.

    And the other way around, an even more mechanically demanding game could feel slower if attention isn't switched as often. For example, one could argue that Brood War has more demanding tasks after each screen switch, which makes intervals between attention switches longer, and that leads to the game feeling less overwhelming despite such high APM requirements.
  • I have provided few arguments for mechanical tasks without strategic decisions associated with them, and that interleaving mechanical and strategical tasks can be lead to a better experience. However, this can be difficult to design for. One player can complete a sequence of tasks quickly and without thinking, while another player will take five times longer, and has to think about them. That's another thing that makes designing enjoyable macro experience across skill levels hard.


Thank you for checking out this post. I believe there should be a healthy balance in attention spent between army and macro, and we should monitor this balance across skill levels. I'm also of the opinion that macro can be enjoyable in itself, and particularly great for player expression.

For discussion check this thread on r/FrostGiant.

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