Commentary by negativezero on “Faster is not better”

This is the third commentary on the Faster is not better article I published recently. It is prepared by negativezero.

negativezero is an accomplished mapmaker in the StarCraft scene. He is the creator of Simulacrum (6th place of TLMC 13), Ephemeron (2nd place of TLMC 12), World of Sleepers (8th place of TLMC 12), Blueshift (2nd place of TLMC 10), Redshift, Abiogenesis, Catalyst (2nd place of TLMC 9), Interloper, Sequencer (5th place of TLMC 8), Apotheosis (2nd place of TLMC 7), and Terraform (winner of TLMC 6). You definitely have played his maps before.

This is the last commentary article. The next post will be a wrap up article, where I will discuss a few important points brought up by the community and disclose some behind the scene tidbits.


To start out with, this analysis is based on “Faster is Not Better – The Effects of Increasing Starter Worker Count” and is written with the assumption you’ve already read it – so if you haven’t, either go do that or stop reading, whichever you prefer.  To start off, I agree with basically all of the original article’s conclusions – I think LotV’s economic goals were generally good, but the implementation was flawed, and the economy does need to be slowed back down somewhat.  However, I don’t think the best fix is as simple as reverting to a 6 worker start.

I’ll also add the disclaimer that I’m not at all a high level player, and that my opinions have been heavily influenced by many discussions with many other mapmakers, some of whom have probably put a lot more effort into thinking about these situations than I have – so make of that what you will.

Spectator’s Perspective

This is purely subjective so I’ll keep it short – the ultra-late game is interesting to watch, but it loses something of its specialness when players are expected to reach it so commonly.  In WoL there was genuine excitement when a player managed to put together that ultimate tier 3 air army – nowadays it’s commonplace.  Of course, going back to the days where 90% of games were decided by 1-2 base timings would be even worse, but there’s a healthy middle ground somewhere in there.

Asymmetrical Effect on Asymmetrical Races

The original article so kindly declined to go into depth on balance issues, but I’ll say it outright – I think Zerg has benefited the most from the 12 worker start, due to their unique economic mechanics compared to the other two races.

As you probably already know, Zerg’s economy grows more exponentially than the others, and it is up to the opponent to keep it in check, whether via harassment or by threatening an attack to force unit production.  However, in LotV, the faster expansion and faster worker saturation enabled by the 12 worker start drastically reduce the time and opportunities available to pressure a Zerg before they reach their optimal late-game economy.  I won’t list specific builds, but the fact that Zergs often take their fourth base in LotV at around the same time they were only taking their third in HotS shows how much this window of time has shrunk.  Protoss and Terran benefit from the accelerated start too, but while their harassment units come out faster, they’re still bound by the same movement and attack speeds they’ve always had, up against a faster growing drone count and base count.

It’s certainly possible to “balance the game” and stabilize win rates by simply buffing and nerfing individual units, as Blizzard is currently attempting to do.  But regardless of how the balance is skewed, Zerg’s early-mid game may still be more volatile.  A smaller timing window to do damage makes each action, and each mistake, become more significant, which tends towards more coin-flippy games.  Slowing the economy back down a little would make for a more comprehensive solution.

Impact on Map Design

An earlier TerranCraft article detailed how as the game evolved, map design became more heavily restricted as the early game became more figured out.  Taking an easy nat became an expected part of the game, and nat chokes were standardized to a single entrance.  Gameplay focus turned to the third base, and the distance was standardized to 2 creep tumors from the nat, an unwritten rule still in place today.  Now consider the effects of LotV’s accelerated economy, causing 5 or 6 base games to become increasingly commonplace, and it’s no surprise that these restrictions have continued to expand.

Several TL map contests ago, mappers suddenly noticed that judges and organizers were requesting that all maps had two viable third bases: one to each side of the nat, making expanding in either direction equally easy.  Multiple well-designed maps were seemingly disqualified based on this new, unwritten requirement.  While it seems to have been eased up a little since then, the desire for almost every new base to be taken just as easily as the previous one seems to have stuck.  While older maps often had late game bases that were deliberately placed in awkward or vulnerable locations, your average modern map (Lost and Found, for instance) has an expansion pattern consisting of a straight line of bases along the edge of the map, almost equidistant from each other, designed to be taken one after another.  14 bases is the new standard – 12 base maps, which were normal in WoL and still commonplace in HotS, have mostly disappeared, and 10 base maps are unheard of.  Minimum map sizes have stayed roughly the same since HotS, but the ease of expansion has gone up drastically.

On the other hand, to help mitigate the out-of-control economy scaling discussed previously, maximum map sizes and base counts have gotten smaller.  HotS monstrosities such as Alterzim Stronghold or Deadwing would be unthinkable in the current meta, as would early LotV maps like Dusk Towers or Ruins of Seras.  The later trend of huge 2-player macro maps has also faded, going from massive battlegrounds like Odyssey and Ascension to Aiur in 2017 to modern maps like Acropolis and Disco Bloodbath, which are still quite macro-heavy but more compact.  …And the current pro-level feedback is that it still isn’t enough!  Future seasons will see map sizes continue to decrease and the lines between “standard” and “macro” maps continue to blur, as the TL map contest guidelines for macro maps have recently been lowered from 40-50s rush and >20000 playable tiles to only 38-43s rush and a maximum of 18000 playable tiles.

4 player maps have completely fallen out of favor, as builds have been sped up while scout times have not, meaning certain rushes now hit too early to be detected in time if the scout happens to go the wrong way.  They’re also simply too macro-heavy, as alluded to previously – when a 144×144 map is currently deemed “too big”, what would players think about an old-school 4p map like the 160×160 Whirlwind?

Innovation in map design has also decreased in general.  In June 2018 the rush and experimental categories were both eliminated from the TL map contest, replaced with new challenge categories that allow the use of custom mechanics such as slow zones and hostile turrets, but often exist merely as gimmicks within more standard map layouts with a typical expansion pattern.

The result is that 90% of modern SC2 maps are 2 player, 14-16 bases, roughly 130-140 tiles per side (give or take a few) and have one of only 4-5 possible third base configurations, with a linear expansion pattern extending outwards.  There’s still plenty of room for creativity in the central features and the connecting areas, but the formula is still there.

How many of these restrictions have been caused directly by the LotV economic changes and how many are simply due to the game’s age, how much it’s been “figured out”, and players’ comfort with familiar builds?  It’s hard to tell, but the former is almost certainly responsible for part of it.

I would speculate that the increase in guesswork involved in the early-mid game has also contributed to this standardization of maps.  The original article went into detail on how the 12 worker start made scouting less meaningful, as openings have become more similar while the amount of branching strategies available from each opening has increased.  High level players may desire more familiar map layouts to keep some sense of consistency in order to better deduce what’s going on.

Economy Design

Here’s where I’ll go beyond the original article, which supported reverting the 12 worker start while preserving the other LotV economic change, the reduction of 4 mineral patches at each base.  To quite a few of the older mapmakers and SC2 strategists, both of these changes were a disappointment because they were basically surface-level solutions to deeper problems that the community had already done a better job of solving on their own.

Before LotV, one of the most contentious issues in SC2 was the idea of the “3 base cap”.  To summarize: the rate of mining per worker, the configuration of resources at each base, and the supply cap all worked in conjunction to dictate that 3 fully saturated bases provided all the income you needed to maintain a maxed out army with full tech and upgrades.  Any further expansions were counterproductive as the workers’ supply cost would detract from your late-game fighting strength.  The effect this had was that throughout the entire game players would never need to defend more than 3 separate locations at once, leading to feelings that gameplay was less engaging and that economy management had been simplified compared to BW.

Ever since WoL, mapmakers and strategists have been debating possible solutions to this issue, trying to create a system that would promote taking additional expansions and make it more difficult to reach that optimal late-game army without some extra multitasking.

The first major movement to improve the economy coalesced around Barrin’s “Breadth of Gameplay in SC2” article in early 2012.  His solution was simple – reduce the amount of resources per base to 6 mineral patches and 1 high-yield geyser, or 75% of the original values.  The idea was not only to increase the optimal base cap, but also to lengthen the early-mid game and slow down unit production, making each decision and micro interaction more important.  While it garnered a good amount of interest, testing was limited and inconclusive (was a 4 base cap really that much better than a 3 base cap?), and with no acknowledgement from Blizzard, the concept eventually died out.

The second, even larger effort came two years later with the TL strategy team’s “Treatise on the Economy of SCII”.  Inspired by the behavior of BW mineral lines and based on demos by Uvantak and other mapmakers, this was a far more detailed delve into mining efficiency.  The premise of this article is that because two workers can mine from a single mineral patch just as efficiently as one, there is no reward for expanding until the soft cap of 16 workers is reached.  If the second worker on a mineral patch mined slightly less efficiently, players would be rewarded for expanding to a new base with as few as 8 workers, enabling someone to out-macro their opponent by taking extra expansions without the cost of also having to build more workers – thus breaking the base cap for good.  On the other hand, going up to the full 16 workers would allow a player on fewer bases to still remain competitive, enabling a variety of strategies.

The solution tested here, the “double harvesting model”, was to increase the amount of time each worker spent at the mineral patch by causing it to mine two sets of 5 minerals before depositing them back at the town hall.  A second worker trying to mine from the same mineral patch would have to either wait for the first one to finish both cycles or take time moving to a different patch, reducing its efficiency.  While not the most elegant solution, it achieved its goals, creating an efficiency curve that gradually started to level off after 8 workers instead of remaining linear until 16.

At this point, it’s important to note that these theories in general have more to do with the 4 half-patch change rather than the 12 worker start – they are focused on mining rates throughout the game as opposed to just the initial value.  However, the double harvesting model addresses both issues at once.  Due to the need to return to the town hall being halved, workers’ initial mining rate is increased, creating that desired boost at the beginning of the game and removing the need to increase the starting worker amount at all.  But the diminishing returns as a base is saturated could prevent income from scaling uncontrollably, bringing back a true mid-game.

Coming into LotV, Blizzard was clearly aware of people’s concerns with the economy and the 3 base cap.  However, their solution borrowed more from the simpler “fewer resources per base” model, with no attention paid to mining rates or efficiency.  By having four mineral patches run out early, they did seem to want to reduce the overall number of workers per base, but the income disadvantage caused by losing half your base’s mining has the effect of punishing players for not expanding, rather than rewarding them for expanding.  The 12 worker start only serves to exacerbate this issue by fast forwarding to the point where your main is already almost saturated and you’re able to build an expansion, turning that into more or less the only viable option.  Thus, in my opinion, the lack of strategic options in LotV actually comes from both of these economic changes working together.

Now, the double harvesting model is itself kind of a workaround solution given the SC2 editor’s limitations, and the efficiency curve isn’t perfect, but it proves that better economic models are indeed possible.  By modifying worker behavior on a level unavailable to hobbyists tinkering in the editor, Blizzard could probably create a model with an even better efficiency curve and a more exciting early game – which is why it’s disappointing that they stuck with a simpler solution which addresses some of the symptoms of the economy scaling issues without looking at their root causes more thoroughly.

In other words, I think the game probably would be better if the 12 worker start was reverted and that’s it… but why stop there?

Twitter: artngvirmreb


Update

This article sparked discussions in the community on r/StarCraft.

This article is translated and posted on goodgame.ru by Izzard.


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5 thoughts on “Commentary by negativezero on “Faster is not better”

  1. I like this mapmaker perspective, very insightful thanks a lot negativezero (and Max for (creating the condition that allow) gathering all those perspectives)

  2. Good piece. Rifkin seems to be thinking of organizing a 6-worker start tournament. Maybe we can all support that idea for now in order to see how the game would change. Mapmakers can even try to pitch which map they think would work best with the 6-worker start.

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