Critical-Gaming Pikmin Course: Week 4
Wednesday, May 27, 2009 at 4:02PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Genre, Pikmin, RTS

One student who wasn't here last week, showed up this week with a strange, slightly embarrassed look on his face. He mumbled something about how he was cursed by week 3s of gaming courses.

Today, all the chairs were clumped together at the front and center of the "classroom." Some students automatically began spacing out the seats, but Professor K told us not to. Apparently, today's lesson was all about miromanagmenet or micro and the large impact of small decisions/actions. I guess the professor thought it would be interesting if he forced us to sit awkwardly close together.

 

MICRO

For a strategy game like StarCraft, perfect micromanagement is when you control your units so that "as many of your units as possible deal damage for as long as possible" (sirlin.net). Pro.K explained that micro in StarCraft may involve deftly moving units around so that they avoid incoming attacks and fire whenever possible back on the enemy (Vulture Bikes). It may involve making sure your units can all attack at once on the same target (Reavers/S.Tanks). Or it may involve spreading out all your attacks over a wide number of enemies (S.Storm). 

The point is by carefully using your units and giving them extra attention, you can achieve a significant advantage in battle over a player who let's the computer AI fight his/her battles. The reason micro is possible is because StarCraft is a real time game and there's a significant slippery slope design to its battle dynamics. When group A attacks group B, for each unit that is lost in A group's the overall ability for A to do damage is lessened. This gives group B a firepower advantage that, like a snow ball rolling down hill, gains momentum and effectiveness as time goes on.

Hearing this in class made me think about Advance Wars and how it doesn't have micro because it's a turn based strategy game. With grid based movement and attack ranges in addition to very limited actions each unit can make per turn, there's really nothing you can do to give your units extra attention beyond normal play. Without a computer AI to take over the continual actions of your units, micro and simply playing become one. But Advance Wars does have a slippery slope design that mimics the battle dynamics of StarCraft. If you turn on the animations, it's clear that the unit that attacks first gets the first shot on the opposing forces. After their volley, whatever is left of the opposing forces gets to fire back (typically). Visually, each unit is represented by a group of units (for the most part). So when you take out 3 of the enemies 5 guys and they fire back with 2 against your 5, it's clear to see that whoever strikes first gets the advantage. Doing any damage to a unit weakens the ability for that unit to do damage back.

Pro.K explained how Pikmin is very different from StarCraft and Advance Wars for that matter. Though Pikmin is played in real time, because it's not a war game (he continues to stress this point) the intricacies of Pikmin vs. Pikmin combat are paltry compared to other strategy games. In StarCraft, players can have all of their units attack a single opposing unit to reduce the opponent's overall attacking power as quickly as possible. This tactic is called focus attacking. Not only does Pikmin only have 1 primary attacking unit at the player's control, but these units can't even focus attack enemy Pikmin. Instead of ganging up on each other to combine their attack power, Pikmin tend to fight in a series of 1v1 battles (how very honorable of them).

What's even stranger is that Pikmin don't have any HP stats displayed anywhere. Because Pikmin are such small and plentiful units, all that data on each individual Pikmin is kept off the screen and inside the computer to reduce the clutter of info in the game. (If you want to see an RTS like console game that's cramped and cluttered by data/HUD look here). In fact, Pikmin restore 100% of their HP shortly after eliminating their singular Pikmin foe in battle. Unless another Pikmin is right there ready to pick up where their fallen comrade leaves off, the victorious Pikmin will be as good as new.

So, the professor continued, if Pikmin is more about exploration, coexisting in a nature like environment, and carrying around objects than it is about battling the other player's Pikmin forces, then this idea of micromanagement needs to be adjusted to include non-combat objectives. For Pikmin micromanagement involves using units most effectively/efficiently for as long as possible (fighting, digging, dodging). For example:

Another point the professor stressed is that the Ultra-Spicy/Bitter sprays are the most powerful resource and tide turners in Pikmin. Their main limitation is that they can only come from the Avatar units. In fact, nearly all of the micro maneuvers come from the Avatar unit's commands because the Avatar unit is the conduit through which all of the player's commands flow. In this way, the Avatar unit and a player's micromanagement are linked. So, whenever your opponent's Avatar is not around some of their Pikmin forces, you have the advantage of micro that you need to press.

 

FLUX

Flux, in how it applies to StarCraft, is the ratio of your attacking units to all the units you have in battle. The more time your units spend moving into position to attack or moving around allied units, the more time goes by when they're being attacked. Because of the slippery slope battle dynamic in StarCraft, having poor micro and low flux can have devastating effects.

Pro.K explained that the Flux in StarCraft is intricate because of the different unit types. Between air and ground positions, long, mid, and close range attacks, large and small units, different speeds of movement, and different sight ranges, there are a myriad of ways you can arrange your units so that most of them can attack as soon as they're able thus maximizing your flux. This is not even mentioning how your formations can be influenced by the terrain and specific enemy unit types/formations. It's good that StarCraft has such a complex and variable flux game because it's a war game centered around how the different types of units clash.

On that note, I'll add that Advance Wars has an equally interesting flux game. Like in StarCraft, each unit has different attack strengths/types/ranges, movement types/speeds, and other factors that mix up the flux possibilities. In this game, bridges can create easy blocks because they only allow ground units to confront each other in a straight line. That limits approaches to utilizing 1 out of the 4 direct attacking possibilities. For this reason, even weak units can effectively clog up a bridge. When stronger units attack weaker units, if they can't 1 hit KO them (which is rare) then the attacking unit become inactive thus blocking any other ground unit from getting in. This is why long range, sea, and air units are perfect for breaking up bridge blocks. For an example see the tactic "battery" here.  Really, just about every type of terrain in AW can encourage some flux formations and discourage others. And because everything is quantified according to the grid squares and because the game is turn based, understanding the flux of Advance Wars is about as simple as counting the squares.

In a Pikmin v. Pikmin battle, the professor explained, understanding flux is as simple as understanding how Pikmin fight. When two Pikmin engage, they enter a sort of slap fest until one of them dies. During this slap fest, there's a chance that one of the Pikmin will fall over. Unlike in Street Fighter, Pikmin simply wail on their opponent when knocked down. When they do this, their chances of victory significantly increase. (On a side note, if you see one of your Pikmin get knocked down in battle, if you can call them back and out of harm, you'll most likely save that Pikmin). The key about Pikmin flux is having a Pikmin ready to jump in and finish the job if/when your Pikmin falls in battle. If too much time passes after one of your Pikmin are killed, then the enemy Pikmin will reset its health. This is why Pikmin perform so well fighting in a tight ball formation in Pikmin v. Pikmin battle. Have you ever wondered why Pikmin clump together into a ball when you dismiss them, the professor asked the class. Apparently, Pikmin know what's best for their survival... at least against other Pikmin.

So, during large scale Pikmin v. Pikmin battles, you want as many Pikmin on their feet as possible and as many Pikmin to fight as close as possible. If you don't observe the shape of the battle and position your Pikmin well, you could have a lot of Pikmin standing around idly by while their comrades fight to the death. You don't want any unused Pikmin on the battle field.

Aside from micromanagement techniques like luring enemy Pikmin away from battle, the Ultra-bitter spray can be used to control Flux. By planting the opposing forces in the ground temporarily, you have an opportunity to position you Pikmin however you want. It's like pausing the battle for a bit so you can fix a few things.  

 

POPULATION DYNAMICS

When it comes down to it, understanding the math behind the population dynamics of a Pikmin v Pikmin (PvP) battle doesn't require any upper level math like calculus. In fact, it's really more like counting or addition (see image above).  If your numbers equal or are close to their numbers, the match outcome will be fairly even.

To compensate for the low level micro and flux potential in a PvP battle, Pikmin features an interplay loop system. In this system...

 

SLIPPERY SLOPE

The last topic for today's lecture covered an idea that is common to many strategy games. David Sirlin has done a great job coining the term "slippery slope" so that's the term I use as well. I've talked about it lightly here. Basically, once you slip up a little, you'll fall further and further behind like slipping dangerously down a mountain.

In Sirlin's article, he talked about how games with "full-on slippery slopes" are usually bad because little mistakes at the beginning/middle of the game can be enough to effectively decide the victor long before the actual match ends. Sirlin considered a RTS system that could limit the extreme effect of full-on slippery slopes on gameplay by giving both players the same amount of resources and refunding them for units lost in battle. He figured that a delay in timing for this refund and the time it takes to build units again with the re-funds would still create enough of a disadvantage for the player so that the game works.

The way Pro.K detailed the slippery slope in Pikmin involved a combination of its folded level design (discussed in week 3) and the Pikmin refund system. Just like how Sirlin proposed, in Pikmin you are refunded 1 Pikmin unit for every Pikmin that is lost in a PvP battle. For every Pikmin that is refunded, a seed in planted at your base. If you think this is not a significant enough penalty for losing in battle (in a game that's not about battling mind you [because the professor kept reminding us]) consider the following:

Losing time, control of the field, and having to travel long distances across the space are the biggest penalties involved with the Pikmin refund system. However, if you're already in your base or plan on heading back anyway, taking risky attacks against the opponent isn't such a bad idea.

That was it for the fourth week's lecture. I must say though that Pikmin hasn't won over my friend Chang. He's still disappointed that we couldn't get into the StarCraft class. So far he says that he's only learned how Pikmin doesn't have as much going on as StarCraft math wise, unit variety wise, or battling wise. Despite everything we've gone over, he still thinks Pikmin is too simple of a game. I told him to hang in there and give it at least one more week. I had a feeling that things were about to get really complicated.

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (http://critical-gaming.com/).
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