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Appraising the Art of Combat pt.8

To be quite reductive, I could make the argument that all challenges (interactivity) for competitive video games are merely an exercise in maximizing skill and optimizing every strategy. For all real time games stressing all the DKART skills, the exact proportion of which skills are stressed when is moot. Considering that the skill spectrum is continuous and flexible, all of these gameplay experiences are the same. This argument takes things too far.

To be less reductive, I could make the argument that gameplay dynamics/rules generally influence the emergent gamplay in the same ways. Given enough time and data, I could show you how the 2D top down dynamic of space makes the movement in Halo, Pac-man, Geometry Wars, and Zelda almost identical. Therefore I could certainly draw a very precise comparison between for two games within the same genre (or that have many core design features in common). 

Using our new combat terms established in this article series, we can finally get to the bottom of the age old question; how similar is StarCraft 2's multiplayer combat to the multiplayer combat of DigiDrive (DSi)? 

I'm sure you've realized this is not an age old question. After all, StarCraft 2 only came out last year. The question is still important. You may already have an opinion on which game you think is deeper/takes more skill/challenging/engaging, but if you can't articulate exactly what elements of a game shape the emergent combat in what ways, then consider that your opinion may be incomplete. Furthermore, if you know nothing about both games, then it would be hard for you to compare them. Considering how popular StarCraft 2 is and how unfamiliar DigiDrive is, this article should be quite illuminating. (By the way, this isn't the first time I've compared StarCraft to the unplayed multiplayer modes of obscure Nintendo games).

DigiDrive features no bases, no clicking, no units, and no tech trees. Being an puzzle-action game, DigiDrive challenges players to play on their toes (adaptation). But the game mostly stresses knowledges skills. After all, the basic action of directing colored cars into 1 of 4 lanes is about all there is to the player mechanics. The rest of the gameplay is a matter of reading the ever changing field, judging the risk-reward situation, and pulling off timing maneuvers. Read my full analysis on DigiDrive here (at least watch the tutorial video)

If you think about it, the way I described DigiDrive in my analysis is pretty analogous to StarCraft. Being a real time strategy game, knowledge of unit, building, and race limitations is very important. High level StarCraft players often spend most of their time building and managing many aspects of their expanding army. This big picture or macro style focus is punctuated with intense moments where players control the individual actions of individual units for tactical advantages (micro). The balance between macro and micro managing is at the heart of the RTS. Understanding this balance gives us a platform to compare StarCraft to DigiDrive. 


Slippery Slopes

  • StarCraft has a very simple economic system. To build any building or unit you need the appropriate funds. Minerals are used the for everything while more specialized units require gas. Each race can build special worker units, which are the only units that can gather resources. They literally move over to the mineral patch (or gas refinery), gather some up, and move to the nearest head quarters building to deposit the goods. The more workers you have, the higher your income. There are limiting factors so that the economy curve isn't too extreme. 
  • The most powerful attack you can land on your opponent in StarCraft that doesn't destroy them outright is an attack on their economy. Then attacking buildings. Then army units. Think about it this way, if you attack an opponent's workers, they suffer losses in money that ripples forward in time. The longer the match goes, the more money the lost worker(s) would have brought in. And so, StarCraft is a game with a slippery slope because everything (attacking/defending) is tied to the economy system. 
  • DigiDrive's "economy" is very similar. Matches start of slow as players start with no stored fuel. Because the colored cars are released at the same rate by the computer, both players have fair conditions to work with. Comboing and chaining your fuel creates the analogous slippery slope effect where the rich get richer. In other words, the more fuel you have the faster you can gain more fuel. 


Phases of Combat and General Strategies

  • StarCraft matches start out slow, giving players a chance to customize how they'll build up their bases/armies from scratch. With more money, players have access to more powerful units. And so combat can be divided into 3 main phases. Each phase has strategies that are only viable for that phase, and units accessible for that stage and beyond. Examples include cheese/rush strategies for the early game.
  • DigiDrive can be divided into 3 main phases too. An early phase where players build up fuel and where item rush strategies are viable. A mid game phase where players typically macro up by storing lots of fuel.  And a late game where all the trigger cars for each players are used up forcing both players into an odd survival mode.
  • Like in StarCraft players can macro up in DigiDrive by focusing entirely on building fuel. Or players can sacrifice fuel to launch attacks, which is analogous to how building attacking units costs resources in StarCraft. The biggest difference between StarCraft and DigiDive multiplayer combat is that attacking and defending is simplified to pushing the core back and forth tug-of-war style. Furthermore, all micro is focused and simplified on micro managing the randomly spawned cars (ie. normal DigiDrive gameplay).  


Fog of War and Limited Information

  • Fog of War (Fow) in StarCraft limits a player's view to only what is within the vision range of all of their units/buildings. StarCraft is designed around FoW from the ground up. By adding this layer of blindness new strategies emerge including sneak attacks, hiding key units or development buildings, and sacrificing units to gain vision. The entire game becomes a sort of dynamic double blind skirmish. 
  • The analog in DigiDrive is that the opponent's screen is never revealed to the player nor what item they hold. All the information on your opponent's situation must be interpreted from a few HUD elements that tell you roughly how much fuel the opponent has, if he/she is holding an item (but not which item), and if he/she is in overdrive mode. Be careful, attention is a resource. 


Interplay and Hard Counters

  • There's a lot of nuance to using units in StarCraft. However, games designed with the dynamic of space and hitboxes for attacks tend to have a lot of nuance. Puji is a perfect example of a seemingly simple game with nuances that take competition to the next-level. Nuances aside, the matchups between StarCraft units is balanced around counters. Marines counter some air units because they're cheap and can shoot air from a distance. Voidrays counter Roaches or Broodlords because they can't attack the air. There are also damage bonuses that give certain units the edge over other types of units/buildings. These matchups are referred to as hard counters. 
  • DigiDrive doesn't have any units, but the items give players one more way to combat opponents. Though some gamers can't cope with random elements in their games, many Nintendo games are known for their random items that add a layer of variation and interplay on top of a solid gameplay system. Igniting fuel (attacking) in DigiDrive gives the attacking player a random item. The shield item is an absolute counter that prevents either side from taking "damage" from attacks or acquiring items. The half stock items cuts your opponent's fuel stock in half for a potentially powerful economic blow. If you see that the opponent's is holding onto an item (maybe for some devious plan) you can use the steal item to take it. The list goes on. 
  • Without items (which are optional) DigiDrive is more of a race where both players try to build and burn as much fuel as quickly as possible. In other words, the itemless DigiDrive multiplayer lacks interplay (depth) and plays much less like StarCraft. 


So what does it all mean? What's the real difference between StarCraft2 and DigiDrive? Focusing the discussion on combat (the emergent end result of mechanics, complexities (game rules), and gameplay dynamics) is an inherently reductive method. Looking only at combat bypasses considering fictional elements and complexities, which build a game on a unique foundation even if the emergent result isn't as unique. So in essence, we ignored everything about Queen walking speed, Nexus build times, and Siege Tank ranges to focus on how these elements are used to achieve a measurable goal or advantage. 

A key take away from comparing StarCraft 2 with DigiDrive is that it's interplay that makes a game deep, but it's the dynamics that really give a game its feel and richness. So if you want a StarCraft like gameplay experience with similar tactics and strategies, then DigiDrive can provide that experience. The best part is, DigiDrive has a much smaller learning curve, much fewer complexities, and therefore requires considerably less practice to play at a high level. 

You have to wonder if all the complexities of StarCraft are necessary. I say, of course they are. In order to wage a war in space you need buildings, units, space (2D or 3D), terrain, weapons, etc. The Protoss wouldn't be as interesting (to me at least) without the Mothership, Voidrays, Stalkers, all of their sound effects and voices, Pylons, Warp Prisms and every other detail. Though I'm a stickler for gameplay, there's great value in complexity for complexity's sake. Furthermore, because of its greater complexity StarCraft 2 has more potential for variation than DigiDrive especially considering the mod tools, the thriving online community, and the capacity for more than 1v1 multiplayer.  

It's important when making any kind of comparison to be flexible enough to focus in on specific aspects and to zoom out to reflect on the big picture. 

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