Attention as Another Dimension of Mechanics

When we discuss about mechanics, macro and micro are the two things that come to mind. In this post, I suggest that attention should be considered as one of the dimensions of mechanics.

What is mechanics

Players of all levels talk about the importance of mechanics. Even though we keep talking about mechanics and sort of know what it is, it is difficult to actually define it. The best analogy I can draw on is intelligence, which is perhaps the most defining concept in social science when we talk about latent variables. We can have a consensus that a person is intelligent, but we may actually have a different definition of intelligence itself. If you look at the description on Wikipedia, it basically explains intelligence as something that is consisted of many things that reflect the level of intelligence, but it does not even attempt to give a clear cut definition. This is perhaps the same with mechanics in Starcraft. Nevertheless, Liquipedia gives a pretty good description of what mechanics is. It basically refers mechanics as one’s ability to do what one thinks in the game.

… represent the degree to which you have bridged the divide between mind and game – that is, your ability, as a player, to do what you want to do.

It seems more appropriate to label mechanics as a formative construct instead of a reflective one like intelligence. I think it is necessary to highlight this point when I suggest that attention should be considered as another dimension of mechanics. To put it simply, as a formative construct, mechanics is the sum of macro and micro (and attention). More importantly, this also suggests that attention, macro, and micro are independent, albeit correlated. When I suggest that attention should be considered as another dimension of mechanics along with macro and micro, I am essentially changing the meaning of mechanics as a composite variable.

Instead of just looking at mechanics as one’s ability to do what one thinks in the game, it can be seen as

The ability to translate what one’s thinking into action in the game at the right place and time.

The addition of “at the right place and time” is meant to take attention into account. This is different to the general thinking that mechanics is consisted of only macro and micro, and attention is something external of mechanics. For example, a TeamLiquid article that discusses about mechanics mentions that,

At the pro level of play there is a base level of mechanics that you need in order to compete. After that it is up to the player to determine where he dedicates his APM and attention.

Given that Blizzard had made it clear in their design philosophy of Legacy of the Void that players are given tools and are encouraged to have actions at multiple locations in order to create interesting games. The players are required to allocate their attention accordingly and decide where they think is important. After watching more Legacy of the Void games, it gets me wondering if attention should be considered as part of mechanics, which is considered fundamental for a player to play the game. I will explain what I think attention is, and how it affects what we do in the game.

Attention as a dimension of mechanics

Just to be very clear, by attention, I don’t mean it literally in the cognitive science sense. Things get fuzzy when related concepts like consciousness and awareness get into the discussion. The key point is one’s attention is a selective process, and it is a Starcraft player’s ability to know where to look at that I want to discuss here.

No matter how quick a player is, you cannot be looking at more than one location simultaneously. It is simply because a high level player “cut the screen” so quickly and issues commands at multiple locations that gives the illusion s/he is looking at several places at the same time. Clearly, a player with a higher action per minute (apm) will generally be able to do this better by “cutting” through different locations quicker, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they look at the right location at the right time. While apm plays an important part, the ability to have the attention at the right place separate good and bad players.

This is quite similar to macro and micro. All else equal, a high apm obviously allows you to macro and micro better than a low apm, but apm alone doesn’t let you macro and micro well. I will use micro as an example. A player can have more than three hundred apm, but s/he may not micro the Marines better than MarineKing playing with only mouse (he actually did it against fans many years ago in a GomTV show). There is more depth to macro and micro than simply spamming keys, and it is these differences that separate good and bad players. When you look at these similarities between attention and macro and micro, it seems convincing to me that we should talk about them in the same breath when we mention mechanics.

Just to further highlight this point, you can compare casted games between high level casuals and progamers. The games played by progamers should appear as if the observer is looking at the same place as the players throughout the game. In contrast, in casted games of high level casual players, sometimes it feels like the players are not looking at where the observer is looking. Assuming the observer has a decent level of experience, s/he should be looking at the most important places most of the time (if not all the time), since s/he has full information of the game. If a drop is going to happen, the observer will be showing that to the audience. In other words, if the attention of the player is in sync with the observer (based on the movement of units at that location), that player is showing high skill level in attention in the mechanics sense. Therefore, it is rare to hear casters say “he isn’t even looking!” in a professional game.

Applying it in game

So far I have only stated my view on attention and mechanics, I want to discuss how attention as a concept can have important practical implications in the actual game.

I will use the famous Widow Mine drop in Heart of the Swarm TvP as an example. Before the first Medivac reaches Protoss’ base, Terran will attempt to force Protoss to use Photon Overcharge first to set up the drop. This is done by luring the Stalkers and Mothership Core to the main base with a Reaper, before attacking with six Marines at the natural. The attention of Protoss is in the main base with the Reaper, and hence, the Marines are left to do whatever they want. Against unprepared or lower level Protoss players, it is very obvious that they aren’t paying attention at the right place which is the natural. This forces the Protoss player to use Photon Overcharge to push those Marines away.

As you can see from the above vod, the Protoss player lost a Stalker at the natural because he wasn’t paying attention at the right place at that time. The Reaper was relatively less threatening, and you can have a Stalker or Mothership Core to A-move towards it while you have your attention at the natural. In the vod below, the Protoss player was having his attention at the natural, and the result was obviously better.

While the difference in where to look at the timing is obvious in these two games, there is another detail worth discussing. If you scrutinize how the Terran player executed it in the two different games, you can tell there was actually an important difference. The Reaper was shown before the Marines to the Protoss player in the first game, and it is the other way round in the second. This suggests that a player usually pays more attention to the first interaction than the second one. Thus, it is wise to show the decoy first, then attack with your real threat. For example, if you tend to do a two-pronged drop with five loaded Medivac in opponent’s main, and one loaded Medivac in opponent’s third. It is a good idea to drop at the third first to draw away opponent’s attention, before moving the five Medivac into the main.

Of course, knowing where to pay your attention comes with game knowledge and experience, as this is shown in the vod below. Judging from the unit control, it is obvious that the Protoss player knew the trick before the Marines even arrived.

The three vods I have shown above showcase how the results can be different in the same situation when the player places attention at different locations. The difference of skill in attention mechanics between the players can be magnified in longer games, whereby the player’s ability to look at the right place at the right time over the course of game is tested more often. You may have heard of people saying that they plan to play a macro game against the opponent because they think they are better than the opponent in macro mechanics, and the length of the game is in their favor. The same logic is applicable when you see attention as another dimension of mechanics.

Ending words

I am suggesting a different perspective to look at mechanics and attention. It does not mean that this is correct, other perspectives are wrong. Some people even consider macro as the only dimension of mechanics, and I won’t say it’s wrong even though I disagree.

Perhaps some may disagree with the way I conceptualise it when I suggest attention as another dimension of mechanics, because they think that attention is something that is happening concurrently with macro and micro. This is certainly up for debate.

One thing for sure is that the ability to know where to pay your attention to is an important skill in Starcraft, and some players are head and shoulder above others in this less discussed skill. Moreover, some players are very smart in forcing opponent to choose where to focus their attention on, and I will talk about this in the next post.

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