Legacy of the Void has brought us countless memorable games these five years. Although it is largely considered the best expansion of StarCraft II, the economy changes have unintended effects on the game. This article discusses the impact of moving from six starting workers to twelve in Legacy of the Void.
The community was critical of the state of the game at the end of 2019. While the balance patches and maps receive much attention, the influence of starting worker count to the game is largely overlooked. Players used to start with six workers in Wings of Liberty (WoL) and Heart of the Swarm (HotS), but the number of starting workers doubled in Legacy of the Void (LotV). This article does not discuss balance per se but focuses on the negative products of doubling the starting worker count.
I will first refresh your memory of the economy changes implemented in LotV. Next, I will lay out three outcomes of the worker change, and then I will discuss how these three factors interact to produce a series of negative products. Lastly, I will discuss how different stakeholders are affected.
A new economy system was introduced along with the announcement of Legacy of the Void at the end of 2014. The two main changes are, and I quote:
- Resource tweaks
“In order to encourage aggression, we intend to create more places to attack. To do this, we’re incentivizing faster expansions by decreasing the resources on Mineral Fields and Vespene Geysers by 33%. Combined with our unit changes for each race, this should make mid-game aggression much more potent and viable.
Mineral Fields now hold 1,000 Minerals instead of 1,500
Vespene Geysers now hold 1,700 Vespene Gas instead of 2,500”
- Starting worker count
“In order to generally reduce the passive time-periods in the game, we’re increasing the starting worker count from 6 workers to 12 workers. The supply granted by the Command Center, Nexus, and Hatchery are being increased to account for this.”
These changes are intended to create “a more action packed experience”, which is in line with the seven design goals Blizzard had for LotV. These seven goals are:
- More action
- More harassment options
- Incentives to go on the offense
- Micro opportunities on both sides
- Army vs Army Micro
- Differentiate player skill better
- Improve weaker design units/abilities
Put it simply, in comparison to HotS, LotV encourages players to expand their influence on the map which would in turn create actions at multiple places. This design goal is well justified because deathball and turtling were considered as negative design outcomes of HotS. However, while the new economy system has improved the game in the intended ways, there are negative byproducts that affect the quality of StarCraft II as a real-time strategy game. This article focuses on the negative byproducts of increasing the number of starting workers from six to twelve.
Consequences of the starting worker change
In this section, I am going to describe three consequences of increasing starting worker count that are easily observable. They lay down the groundwork for my arguments of negative byproducts in the next section.
Shortened early game
Making StarCraft II more exciting by increasing the pace is one of the main changes Blizzard wanted to implement in LotV. In line with this goal, doubling the starting worker count increases the resource gathering rate at the start, and this allows players to access their desired buildings, units, and upgrades quicker. One consequence of having quicker access to certain units and upgrades is the shortening of early game.
The shift from early game to mid game is usually triggered by a change in relative goal. For example, Terran normally first stay defensive in TvP then push out when Stim is ready, and Zerg would also focus on not taking damage before their flock of Mutalisks spawned. Thus, having earlier access to strategic goal defining upgrades (e.g., Stim) or units (e.g., Mutalisk) shortens the early game and hastens the arrival of the mid game.
Resource ratio at the start
While doubling the starting worker count increases mining rate at the start, the increase in mineral gathering is higher than the increase in gas gathering. This is because several factors were kept unchanged even though the number of workers was doubled:
- Mining rate per worker for both mineral and gas
- Building time of Refinery/ Extractor/Assimilator
- Number of workers can effectively mine a geyser
There are more workers mining mineral in LotV than in hots during the construction time of Refinery/ Extractor/Assimilator, so the amount of mineral mined in LotV is higher than in HotS. When the Refinery/ Extractor/Assimilator is completed, you are still limited to three workers mining one geyser. Hence, the increase in starting workers does not increase the gas gathering rate under the same circumstances. Therefore, in spite of having more workers at the start, you essentially are given a big boost in mineral but not in gas.
Of course, the additional mineral gathered early on in LotV allows us to build a second Refinery/ Extractor/Assimilator earlier than in HotS. Nevertheless, the limit of having three workers mining from each geyser still kept the gas mining rate constant, while the mineral mining rate continues to increase with the increasing number of workers. This results in players taking the second geyser a lot quicker in LotV than in HotS as a way to balance the mineral gas collection ratio.
Faster worker saturation
The increased number of starting workers allows us to reach worker saturation earlier. We generally stop worker production once we have reached our perceived optimum worker number, and the number is usually around 70 for a standard macro game. We can now reach our desired worker count quicker with the additional six workers at the start. However, importantly, the difference in time to reach the optimum number is not simply the time required to produce six workers (i.e., the difference between six and twelve at the start). The additional workers at the start allow us to have a second expansion earlier, so we can double our worker production at an earlier time. This in turn exponentially increases the resource gathering rate to get the third base quicker, and this leads us to reach worker saturation faster.
Negative byproducts of the consequences
The three consequences I listed above interact with each other to produce a series of negative byproducts that decreases the quality of StarCraft II as a real-time strategy game.
Lower opportunity cost of strategic decisions
A good strategy game allows players to make choices that are meaningfully different from each other. In StarCraft II, a player can choose to prioritise economy, tech, or army. If you want economy, you should save up sufficient mineral to expand. Alternatively, if you want units, you put down multiple Barracks and build units with the same amount of resources (using Terran as an example). You cannot, with the same amount of resources, do both at the same time.
This opportunity cost in strategic decision making is nicely illustrated in the builds in HotS. If you build two proxy Barracks and continue Marine production, you cannot practically expand or tech. In contrast, building two proxy Barracks in LotV is an opening that applies early pressure and later transition to a standard macro set up comfortably. Using the two recent vods below as examples, Maru built two proxy Barracks to apply pressure with Marines, and at the same time he is putting down a Factory (and Starport; i.e., tech) and a Command Centre (i.e., economy) in his base. Hence, the additional workers in LotV allow players to get units, tech, and economy simultaneously. One may argue that the proxy two Barracks of HotS is more comparable to proxy four Barracks than proxy two Barracks of LotV. While this is correct, such argument shifts away from the difference in opportunity cost for build choices. There is no build in HotS to the best of my knowledge that allows players to get units, tech, and economy simultaneously.
Is it bad that players are able to get units, tech, and economy simultaneously? In my opinion, yes, because this leads to less consequential and less distinctive choices. This brings us to the next point.
Less discriminating early game choices
The increased number of starting workers result in less discriminating openings and builds. Before I go further, it is important to clarify the terminologies I use. An opening is the set of precise notation you use at the very start of the game (e.g., 16 Refinery Reaper expand or Command Centre first), and the opening choice is decided before the game starts (i.e., independent to what opponent does). A build is a broad description of the strategic choice (e.g., Combat Shield timing attack). Keeping “openings” and “builds” conceptually distinct allows us to understand build orders and their implications better.
Less distinctive openings
Although the concept of build order blocks emphasises that different openings can proceed to the same build, the openings used in HotS are more meaningfully distinct than those in LotV. A Refinery before Barracks opening in HotS is a tech emphasized opening, and the Command Centre is delayed due to the commitment to tech. Using TaeJa’s Refinery first Widow Mine drop as an example, Terran tech up to 1-1-1 with one Refinery and delay the expansion. The goal is to deal early damage and transition to a macro game, and the strategy hinges on the outcome of the early attack. This strategy is very different to a one Barracks expand opening then a 1-1-1 with Widow Mine drop. With the standard expansion opening, the Widow Mine drop is merely a harassment (and scouting) tool, and the success of the strategy is not heavily dependent on the result of the harassment.
Such strategic distinction due to opening choices in HotS is minimised in LotV. The two most commonly used Terran openings in LotV are 15 Refinery Reaper expand (i.e., Refinery before Barracks) and 16 Refinery Reaper expand (i.e., Barracks before Refinery). The former has 50 more gas but less mineral than the latter when the Barracks is completed. This resource difference affects some early game details. However, unlike the examples I gave for HotS, these two common openings in LotV do not have deeper strategic differences. The underlying reason could be traced back to the difference in resource ratio at the start, whereby the twelve workers start gives you enough mineral to expand early even when you take an early gas geyser. Therefore, openings in LotV are less distinctive and have lower relevance to strategy choices than openings in HotS.
Quicker build convergence
Now, let’s move from openings to builds. According to the concept of convergent points, no matter what builds you use, they all converge to the standard convergent points. Although the key convergent points are the same for HotS and LotV (e.g., 3-1-1 for Terran), the accelerated economy in LotV results in builds converging to the convergent points quicker. This attenuates the differences between various strategic options.
Let me use a common convergent point of Protoss in PvT as an example. Protoss’ non-Stargate builds against Terran usually converge to two Nexus, three Gateways, one Robotic Facility, and one Twilight Council. Protoss players have to choose between Robotic Facility and Twilight Council for their first tech building after they expanded off one Gateway. Whichever tech choice they pick, they would later add the other tech building to reach the convergent point. In HotS, Protoss has to stay on the first tech choice longer before the second tech choice is placed, so the players are confined to the first tech commitment for a considerable period of time. This difference in the time when Protoss stays on just one of the two tech paths affects how meaningful it is to choose one tech over the other.
The same issue is extended to the later part of the game. For instance, Terran often reaches a convergent point of 3-1-1 on two bases, and the player has to decide whether to put down two more Barracks or a third Command Centre first (assuming it is not a two base all-in). The former gives you a bigger army for the time being, while the latter sets you up for the late game with a better economy. The accelerated economy in LotV decreases the impact of this decision in two ways. First, similar to the above Protoss tech example, the decreased difference in the time you put down the two sets of buildings makes the decision less discriminating. Second, the faster worker saturation in LotV decreases the value of an earlier third Command Centre. Putting down an earlier third Command Centre supposedly boosts your economy by increasing your worker production by one per production cycle. But given that we reach worker saturation quicker in LotV, we stop producing workers from the third Command Centre sooner too. Thus, the supposedly benefit of a build decision is dampened by the accelerated economy, so the decision is less consequential.
Shallower strategic interactions
As counter-intuitive as it may sound, the strategic interactions in LotV become shallower as players have access to more choices quicker. Generally, more options increases skill differentiation because better players pick the good options more often than the inferior players. That is, more options should increase the depth of a game. However, the access to many options could in fact have a negative impact on a game of imperfect information like StarCraft II. Dustin Browder, who was the lead designer of StarCraft II, discussed this at the Game Developers Conference 2011. He said that (see vod below):
“Too many units means the pros are guessing… StarCraft is a game about scouting. It is about trying to figure out what your opponent can do [and] the ability to hide some of your cards. So they can’t see what you are doing if you are very clever. If there are too many possibilities… the pros would have no idea what to do next. And part of the fun of StarCraft is not only building the right counters to what your opponent is doing, but guessing what he’s going to do next and building the appropriate counter before you’ve seen any proof of it…”
His comment foreshadows the two points I’m discussing next.
Less meaningful scouting
Scouting information is meaningful when you can narrow down your opponent’s plausible options through deduction. However, as I have discussed earlier, the increased number of starting workers reduces the opportunity cost of strategic decisions and allows players to do previously mutually exclusive options simultaneously. Consequently, one has to account for a wider range of plausible moves from the opponent. A good example is scouting 1-1-1 and attempt to deduce what exactly Terran wants to do. Knowing Terran has a 1-1-1 set up carries little meaning in LotV, as that is what Terran players do almost every game in every match up. In HotS TvZ, a 1-1-1 after expanding is a unique tech path, as it is meaningfully different from other options (e.g., early third Command Centre, Hellbat attack, two base bio timing). Therefore, scouting a 1-1-1 partial out a good number of options Terran could plausibly do.
When were the gas geysers taken was key to scouting in HotS, but this aspect is drastically simplified in LotV. With a standard worker scout in LotV, you normally look for the following:
- Is there an expansion?
- Is the second geyser taken?
- Is the production building in base (e.g., Barracks and Gateway)?
That is it. The key takeaway you get from the information is whether the opponent is doing anything “non-standard”. In contrast, in HotS, we went beyond that and paid attention to when the first geyser was taken. There was so much depth to whether the first Refinery was taken at 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, or 18 supply. These are essentially different openings, and they are meaningfully distinctive enough that you can deduce the plausible builds. For example, in TvZ, a 12 Barracks 12 Refinery Reaper expand usually has two Reapers, and the ratio of mineral and gas makes it smoother to go for a Reactor Hellion and early third Command Centre with two more Barracks follow up. But a 11 Barracks 11 Refinery Reaper expand usually has three Reapers, and the resource ratio smoothly goes into a Reactor Hellion and early third Command Centre with defensive Banshee. Knowledgeable players would scout for these minor differences to further deduce what the opponent could do and planned accordingly.
To demonstrate that this is not an anecdotal example, let me give more examples of how the timing of the first gas geyser allows deduction of builds and even composition. The TvT Hellbat drop at the start of HotS uses a unique 16 Refinery opening, and no other build at that time uses a 16 Refinery opening efficiently. Hence, knowing the opponent took a 16 Refinery allows you to narrow down the subsequent builds. The timing of the first gas geyser was so important that pros refined the gas first Reaper opening for mech by simply moving the Refinery from 12 to 11, and I wrote an article just to discuss this seemingly minor difference. A 12 Refinery 13 Barracks opening was a common gas first opening, and it could lead to a wide range of options back then (e.g., Cloak Banshee, Auto Turrets doom drop). But the resource ratio of 11 Refinery and 13 Barracks makes it awkward to go into these options, so an 11 Refinery does not only tell you it is that specific gas first Reaper opening but also tells you the opponent is likely going for mech.
The comparison does not stop at the first gas geyser, as taking the second geyser or not allows you to deduce the plausible builds in HotS. For example, with a 12 Refinery 13 Barracks opening in TvT, Terran can go for Cloak Banshee only if the second Refinery is taken. Conversely, Terran can go for Marine and Hellion drop only if the second Refinery is not taken. I even wrote a guide about which geyser to take first to better hide whether you took a second geyser in the different match ups. The additional starting workers in LotV shifts the mineral and gas ratio, so players almost certainly have to take the second geyser early for almost every build to balance the ratio as mentioned earlier. Therefore, I find basic worker scouting in LotV is much shallower than in HotS.
Less dedicated build interactions
The details of reaction toward specific build are more dedicated in HotS than in LotV. Using proxy multiple Barracks Reaper in LotV TvT as an example, you put down Bunkers when you use a one Refinery opening but build Marines and Hellions when you use a two Refineries opening. In contrast, one had to know different dedicated reactions based on the opening and build used to defend proxy Stargate Oracle in HotS, as you needed to have a specific counter ready before a specific time (e.g., 6 Marines or a Missile Turret by 5:05). The difference in complexity of reacting to opponent’s build is obvious.
To sum up this section, I argue that the increased starting workers from six to twelve in LotV led to:
- Lower opportunity cost of strategic decisions;
- Less discriminating early game choices because of (1) less distinctive openings and (2) quicker build convergence; and
- Shallower strategic interaction because of (1) less meaningful scouting and (2) less dedicated build interactions.
Influence on stakeholders
Blizzard did a good job in making StarCraft II more exciting by increasing the pace. But as I argued in this article, faster does not equate to better. The change to the number of starting workers essentially increases the mechanics ceiling and dampens the strategic complexity. This shift in focus affects all stakeholders of the game.
Casual players, who already have relatively poor mechanics, find StarCraft II even less pleasant with the transition to LotV. I asked a number of friends who casually enjoy StarCraft II which expansion do they like to play the most. No one said LotV. They do not like LotV, because:
- The one or two builds they knew could no longer be used (e.g., one base three Barracks, six pool);
- The speed of the start overwhelms them; and
- Many games they watched look the same.
The first reason is perhaps something Blizzard regretted. I remember reading game designers of other games saying they avoid redesigning the existing heroes, cards, and whatnot, because they want returning players to easily pick up the game again. The second and third reasons echo my criticism. I believe there is a fourth one, and that is they cannot copy their favourite proplayers like they did in HotS. People like to imitate their favourite players one way or another, and every marketer understands this. In NBA for example, Stephen Curry is one of the most marketable players, because his key skill sets of shooting, handling, and passing do not require him to be big, fast, and strong. Children can pull off Curry’s three point shots on the court, but they cannot dunk like LeBron James. The heightened emphasis on mechanics in LotV creates an unbridgeable skill gap between fans and pros.
The emphasis on mechanics over strategy could also affect the pro players. Research shows that StarCraft players’ cognitive motor performance starts to go downhill at 24 years of age, so age matters in professional performance. That means, players’ mechanics would only get worse as they age. Older players could remain competitive by compensating their deteriorating mechanics with superior strategies. Understanding and planning should improve with experience, but these qualities are less valuable in LotV than in HotS. Thus, an emphasis on mechanics could result in shorter careers.
As a content creator, I feel the impact too. The last part of the previous section shows there are more details to discuss in HotS builds than in LotV builds. I often struggle to find interesting topics to write in LotV, as players just use very comparable builds over and over again. For example, Terran players often use Reaper expand into 1-1-1, should I consider getting a Liberator versus a Viking for the first Starport unit as different builds? I can talk about the implications on the metagame, but the complexity and depth cannot be compared to pre-LotV. I am tempted to write the same build orders for consecutive entries of Metagame Build Orders, because there are best builds that do not get rotated out by newer strategies. The competition between players places much weight on the execution of the “standard” builds, and there is little room for the development of distinctive builds.
Mapmakers say they get affected too (see tweet below). My mapmaking knowledge is extremely limited, so I have little to say about how the increased number of starting workers affects mapmaking. But judging from what negativezero said, it seems like Zerg could take advantage of the worker difference better than the other two races, and the responsibility is placed on mapmakers to balance the game.
Blizzard balance team should no doubt be affected too. One good example is the TvP proxy era in the later half of 2018. The strategy involves building multiple production buildings outside of the base, so Protoss players do not know which tech choice they are up against. This strategy is only possible in LotV as a six starting workers economy does not allow Terran players to have access to that many options so early on. In an update of the annual balance revamp 2018, Blizzard stated that:
“there are concerns that early-game Terran strategies, especially for proxies, have become almost too varied for opponents to handle.”
The emphasis is mine. Now, go back to what I highlighted from Dustin Browder’s talk in 2011: “If there are too many possibilities… the pros would have no idea what to do next.” Isn’t it ironic? Blizzard’s answer to this proxy strategy issue is simply re-designing Cyclone. Without the old Cyclone, none of the plausible tech options in this proxy strategy requires immediate reaction, so the strategy got patched out of the metagame. I was quite critical about Blizzard’s way to address the identified issue, as it tackles the symptom but not the cause.
I spent many months on this article. I strongly believe this is an important topic that warrants a serious discussion in the community. As evident in the two tweets below, this is a controversial topic. My stance is perhaps closer to the mud leaguers’ side, as I argue the increased number of starting workers in LotV is the root of many design and balance issues. In fact, I believe StarCraft II could be a much better game if we keep everything the same but revert the starting worker number to six (and revert the number of supply a town hall provides to be consistent with the number of starting workers). We would still enjoy the other benefits of LotV. The mineral would still run out quicker than before to promote expansions, and this continues to promote constant battles at multiple locations as both sides extend their influence on the map.
I acknowledge my limited understanding of the game, so I invited several respectable StarCraft figures to write commentaries to this article. Each has specialised knowledge that can surely make the discussion more constructive and interesting. I stole this idea from some academic journals, whereby several scholars springboard from a focal article to discuss a specific topic. Importantly, I had explicitly told these contributors to disagree with me wherever they see fit, and I do not edit their articles to ensure we could have the best discussion possible by presenting multiple perspectives.
The commentary articles will be posted here on TerranCraft next week. The first one will be up on Monday, 27 January. You will know who they are when their articles are posted, so stay tuned!
This article sparked discussions in the community on:
- Reddit: r/starcraft, r/starcraft2, r/allthingsprotoss, r/allthingsterran, r/allthingszerg
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