Monday, September 20, 2010

Starcraft 2 semantics

A friend gave me a guest pass key that came with his box of Starcraft 2, allowing me to play that game for 7 hours. So I spent part of my weekend battling my way through the human campaign, mostly fighting Zergs. The campaign is well done and entertaining, and Starcraft 2 is a solid RTS game. Too bad I don't really like RTS games.

My problem is that what I would really want to play is a completely different sort of strategy game. And the solid RTS gameplay Starcraft 2 delivers does not fulfil my personal needs. And while I was pondering that what I would want would be a lot slower, and more strategic, it struck me that "RTS" in fact is a mis-nomer: There is no real-time strategy in a RTS game.

Looking at the two parts of the term, the first is "real-time". But what the game delivers is more like "accelerated time". That is most visible in one of the Starcraft 2 missions which has a day/night cycle: A "day" or "night" passes in a few minutes. A RTS game is one of constant action, where the best players stand out by the speed in which they can click. During the Blizzard Invitational 2008 in Paris I had the opportunity to watch a competition of RTS players at the highest level, and it is a flurry of movement with never a second pause. That makes for exciting gameplay, but it isn't "real" time, a real battle or war is a lot slower.

The second part of the term is "strategy", and again RTS games rarely deliver on that term. Or as it says in the Wikipedia page on strategy: "In military usage strategy is distinct from tactics, which are concerned with the conduct of an engagement, while strategy is concerned with how different engagements are linked. How a battle is fought is a matter of tactics: the terms and conditions that it is fought on and whether it should be fought at all is a matter of strategy, which is part of the four levels of warfare: political goals or grand strategy, strategy, operations, and tactics." In a RTS game you very rarely have to take any strategic decision, but the majority of gameplay clearly happens on the tactical level, or at best on the operations level.

So if I wanted to insist on semantics, I'd call Starcraft 2 a "Accelerated Time Tactics" or ATT game, not a RTS game. But that would be no use at all. Most people aren't interested in semantics, they simply know the term real-time strategy or RTS game, and they know what to expect when a game is labeled like that. In fact if you'd offer them a semantically correct "real-time strategy" game in which playing WWII takes 6 years and you only take decisions on the strategic level, they would complain that this isn't a RTS game. They buy RTS games because they *want* fast, tactical decision taking.

And that is something to be aware of: Frequently used terms and acronyms take on a meaning of their own, which might well be detached from a strict semantic interpretation. Thus role-playing game or RPG has come to mean a game in which you play a character or characters with stats which increase during the game. Which has very little to do with "playing a role", and explains why an online RPG needs specifically labeled role-playing servers. Some people complain about that, but frankly, that makes about as much sense as me calling Starcraft 2 an ATT game.

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