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protoss proton charge editorial
 
Proton Charge - The Potentially Game-Breaking Mechanic
By: DemolitionSquid
 

starcraft 2

Index:

I. Introduction
--1. Disclaimer
--2. Definitions: Micro and Macro
--3. What is Proton Charge?
--4. Why is it Flawed?
--5. A Note on Spawn Larva
II. Known Attributes
--1. Concrete Data
--2. Inferences
III. Problems
--1. Variable Mechanics
----A. Unequal Worker Levels
----B. Discrepancy Over Time
----C. Saturation Influence
----D. Low Saturation
----E. Expansions
----F. Differing Interpretations
------I. Additive Sequence
------II. Mandatory Usage
------III. Possibility Of Failure
----G. Racial Diversity
--2. Mass Effect
--3. APM Sinks
--4. Single Target Mechanics
--5. No Ability Competition
IV. Solutions
--1. Limit the Area Of Effect
--2. Diversify Targets
--3. Increase Relative Cost
--4. Meaningful Choices
V. What Won't Work, & Why
--1. A Single Change
--2. Changing Material Costs
--3. Mobile Obelisk
--4. Casting Within Pylon Power
--5. Put Proton Charge on the Nexus
V. Conclusion
--1. What is Game-breaking?

 

starcraft 2

Introduction


Disclaimer


This editorial does require the reader to have a basic knowledge of StarCraft, its economic structure, and both the races and units represented within. It involves algebraic math, and much of this editorial is theory grounded in this math and what limited concrete data there is. This editorial may become void if the mechanic analyzed within is removed from StarCraft II or altered in any significant way before this editorial is completed or exhibited. Finally, the editorial's conclusions may simply be wrong due to unforeseen, unexamined factors. The editorial nor its author will make no apologies for the theory contained herein based on the information they have been given.

Definitions: Micro and Macro

"Micro" in a real-time strategy game is defined as a series of actions centered on a single unit or group of units to maximize their potential. Micro is the efficient utilization of resources. A prevalent example is the micro usage of the relatively weak Terran Vulture unit in StarCraft I, using its speed and the nature of its attack to the players advantage. Skilled players can control the Vulture's movement to make it almost attack on the move, and dodge enemy attacks.

"Macro" is generally defined as a series of actions centered around one's economy and base, however it also encompasses the make-up and control of one's entire army. Macro is the culmination of micro actions. Macro is the efficient accumulation of resources, either money, units, or technology.

StarCraft is praised for its balance between micro and macro, where a player who is skilled in controlling lower-tier or weaker units has the same chance of winning as a player skilled in nurturing his economy and producing more or higher tier units but not using them as effectively.

What is Proton Charge?

Proton Charge is a new "macro mechanic" implemented for the Protoss race in Blizzard Entertainment's upcoming video game, StarCraft II. A macro mechanic is a mechanic of the game focused on letting the player maximize the efficiency of the players' base and economy through strategic actions. Proton Charge is a mirror to the Zerg faction's mechanic, Spawn Larva, and the Terran faction's mechanic, Calldown MULE. In the game, the Protoss use workers known as Probes to mine mineral resources that are then used to construct all of the Protoss' units and buildings so they can fight. Proton Charge causes all Probes caught within its area of effect to mine more minerals than usual. The focus of this editorial is to provide evidence that Proton Charge is imbalanced by its nature, either underpowered or overpowered at any given time, and that it negatively impacts StarCraft II for multiple reasons. It is not to state that Proton Charge is the overall most powerful of the three mechanics.

Why is it Flawed?

I believe Proton Charge is imbalanced and flawed in its core design, and if left in its current state, could be game-breaking. There are five main contributing factors to my belief.

1. It is a variable power mechanic, meaning that it has potential for gains disproportional to its cost in either energy, resources or skill. The other races' mechanics are additive and provide equal gains for equal effort invested.

2. Being that Proton Charge has variable power, and creates what is known as "mass effect." Mass effect causes a unit or ability to be underpowered at some times, and overpowered at other times - this can be balanced and offset using various methods, but, as will be explained, Proton Charge has no such counters.

3. Mass effect makes an ability either never used, because its profit-margin is too low to be worth the effort, or always used because its impact cannot be ignored. An ability that must always be used to gain an advantage provides no strategy in its use, and becomes what is referred to as an "APM sink." APM sinks are generally unfavorable because they promote tedious repetition instead of strategy and skill.

4. Proton Charge serves only one function in only one situation (making Probes collect more minerals), making it strategically void. This is more proof that Proton Charge is an "APM Sink."

5. Proton Charge is cast from the Protoss Obelisk structure. Because it is quite easy to produce multiple Obelisks, Proton Charge does not compete with the Obelisk's other abilities, Argus Link and Shield Recharge, for the Obelisk's energy. Terran MULES directly compete with the Orbital Command's Scanner Sweep and Calldown Supplies abilities, and all Larva created from Spawn Larva compete with themselves over becoming Drones to help boost the income rate, or other units to expand the Zerg's army.

Throughout the course of this editorial, I will elaborate on all aspects of the mechanic, including those five major factors that I believe form Proton Charge into an imbalanced mechanic which offers very little to the game. I will also list several solutions that may work to resolve the factors at hand, along with several suggested solutions that will not work, and why they will not work.

A Note on Spawn Larva

StarCraft is a constant balance of economy and army. The proper allocation of resources to maintaining one's base and economy, and to creating a fighting force, is crucial. A player with superior economy can create more units and overwhelm an opponent, and a player can also use a smaller army more effectively to achieve victory as well. Throughout this article one must stay constantly aware of how the economic boost received by the Terran and Protoss through MULES and Proton Charge is compared to the increase in army potential of the Zerg through Spawn Larva. Current balance estimates from testers place Spawn Larva as the most powerful of the three mechanics, but that is subject to change as balancing continues.

Known Attributes


Concrete Data

Proton Charge is currently an "area of effect" ability, cast from the Protoss Obelisk. It currently costs 50 energy to cast, and its function is to let any Protoss Probes caught within its area of effect to gather one extra mineral per mining cycle. Probes in StarCraft II carry 5 minerals per cycle from blue minerals, and seven from gold minerals. Thus after a casting of Proton Charge, those numbers rise to six and eight, respectively.

Proton Charge

Proton Charge being cast, affected Probes become highlighted.


The Obelisk itself is a building which costs 200 minerals, and currently has two other abilities aside from Proton Charge - Argus Link and Shield Recharge. Argus Link transfers 75 points of the Obelisk's energy to a target unit per second. Shield Recharge uses energy to boost the recharge rate of Protoss Shields.

Obelisk

A closeup of the Protoss Obelisk.


Inferences


I will refer to the following data as inference or educated guesses. All the information in this section is speculation based on others' first hand experiences of StarCraft II and the Proton Charge mechanic. The information is not claimed to be entirely accurate.

Proton Charge is estimated to currently last 30 seconds on normal game speed. Originally it was counted that energy in StarCraft II regenerated at one point per second on normal speed, but from first hand accounts it was possible to continuously have an active Proton Charge on one's Probes from a single Obelisk, meaning the energy recharge rate must be at least 1.67, probably closer to two, if it takes 50 energy to cast the ability. Workers are estimated to take between five and six seconds to complete a round trip of gathering minerals and dropping them off at the base, and it is this theoretical five seconds I will use in future calculations, because the exact numbers used are in fact not important, it is the equations themselves that matter.

Problems


Factor 1: Variable Mechanics

The first problem with Proton Charge is that it is a variable mechanic. This is the main issue, and there are actually many facets to this problem. Proton Charge affects Probes caught under its area of effect, and thus the power of the ability rests on how many Probes a Protoss player possesses. A player with 15 Probes will only receive an extra 15 minerals per cycle. A player with 30 Probes will receive double that. But the ability will always cost 50 points of the Obelisk's energy. This makes the power of the ability scale rapidly as the game progresses and a player builds more Probes. To fully illustrate the point, we must compare this to the economic (or military) gains supplied by the other race's mechanics.

"Calldown MULE" is an ability on the Terran Orbital Command, an upgrade of the Terran Command center, worth a base 400 minerals. The Orbital Command upgrade costs 100 minerals and 50 vespene gas to acquire. The mechanic itself produces a single MULE gatherer for 50 energy. This MULE collects 15 minerals per trip from blue mineral patches, and a yet unknown amount from yellow patches. These numbers stay consistent. They are additive. One MULE gathers 15 minerals per trip for 50 energy. Two MULES gather 30 per trip for 100 energy. Three MULES gather 45per trip for 150 energy, and so on.

spawn larva

A Terran MULE.


"Spawn Larva" is an ability located on the Zerg Queen, which currently costs 150 minerals to acquire. The ability must be cast on a Zerg Hatchery (or one of its two evolutions, Lair and Hive), which is worth a minimum 300 minerals. The ability creates 4 Zerg Larva at the Hatchery/Lair/Hive for 50 energy. Larva are the base Zerg unit; they can become every other Zerg unit. You will always get 4 Larva from using the ability for 25 energy. A Hatchery can only accept this ability every 25 seconds. The cost is additive. One Queen casting Spawn Larva on one Hatchery for 25 energy will produce 4 Larva. Two Queens casting Spawn Larva on two Hatcheries for 50 energy will create 8 Larva. Three Queens casting Spawn Larva on three Hatcheries for 75 energy will produce 12 Larva, and so on. These Larva may become Drones to collect minerals, at a cost of 50 minerals a piece.

spawn larva

Spawn Larva creating 4 Larva from a Hatchery.


From this, it sounds as if Spawn Larva is overpowered, and in fact may be because of these current stats. However, there are many ways to balance this purely through altering simple numbers - higher energy cost, longer spawn times, less Larva created. Mules also have access to balance through simple changes - higher energy cost, longer mining time, more or less minerals collected, etc. As will be explained, Proton Charge cannot be balanced so easily, as long as it remains a variable mechanic.

For visual aid, I offer this math. Remember, the numbers used are to help in illustrating the point; they are arbitrary. What matters are the equations themselves.

X = Workers
Y = Resources Gathered Per Trip in SC2 (8 in StarCraft I, 5 in StarCraft II)
Z = Length of Round Trip in Seconds (6 in StarCraft I, and I will substitute the number 5 for this variable in StarCraft II as that is the most consistent estimate by people who have played the game.)
IPS = Income Per Second

In StarCraft I, each faction's economy worked as such: (X x Y)/Z = IPS; (X x 8)/6 = IPS

ex. You have 10 Probes. (10 x 8)/6 = 13.3 minerals per second.

It is not hard to figure that out. This is the standard gathering rate for StarCraft I. For StarCraft II, we must adjust some of the variables.

In StarCraft II, each faction's economy works as such: (X x 5)/5 = IPS

ex. You have 10 Probes. (10 x 5)/5= 10 minerals per second.

The problem and inequality becomes apparent when you introduce the current macro mechanics.

For Zerg, Spawn Larva only has a direct effect on income rate IF you use the Larva to create Drones, which you then send to mine minerals. Based on using the 0 to 4 Drones one can produce from the mechanic, the equation becomes

(X [+ 0 - 4] x 5)/5= IPS

For Terran, when you use MULES, you're adding a unit that gathers 15 minerals instead of 5.

We'll call MULES M. So the equation is:

[(X x 5) + (M x 15)]/5 = IPS

For Protoss, each Probe gets an one extra mineral per trip when Proton Charge is cast. The equation is:

(X x 6)/5= IPS

These equations calculate the effect each mechanic has on a players economy when they are used. To calculate the effect this will have over time, being as each mechanic will be used at different times during the game, we need to substitute the variable X for different amounts of workers as the game progresses. Say, X = 10 workers early game, and X = 30 workers for late game.

First, Zerg Spawn Larva.

We'll say you use all 4 of your 4 Larva as Drones to mine, seeing as they cost you 25 energy (one cast of the ability).

[(10 + 4) x 5]/5= 14
[(30 + 4) x 5]/5= 34

Terran MULES now. We'll say you have 1 MULE for 50 energy (one cast of the ability).

[(10 x 5) + (1 x 15)]/5 = 13
[(30 x 5) + (1 x 15)]/5 = 33

For Protoss Proton Charge, 50 energy is the base (one cast of the ability), the Probes are variable.

(10 x 6)/5= 12
(30 x 6)/5= 36

From this, we can gather some concrete data, and explore its meaning and interpretations.

A. Unequal Worker Levels

At any given time, Zerg will need more workers mining than either Terran or Protoss if they wish to maintain an equal income rate. If they cast Spawn Larva and do not use at least 3 of the 4 Larva to mine, they will not get remotely the same income rate as Terran or Protoss. Drones take up supply, whereas MULES do not and Proton Charge works on the Probes you already possess, meaning that the Zerg, who's greatest strength is numbers, will have a smaller army than they could if the abilities were more balanced.

However, Zerg can also choose to sacrifice IPS and use the extra Larva from Spawn Larva to build more cheap units faster early game. In reality, we're comparing the army size of the Zerg given though Spawn Larva to the economic gain the Terran and Protoss get. This may be imbalanced, or may provide balance, and will be explored further in section G. Racial Diversity.

B. Discrepancy Over Time

Proton Charge increases income the more Probes it effects, marginally underpowered in the beginning of the game, and possibly overpowered at the end. The difference appears minute, but remember those calculated numbers are PER SECOND. Over the course of a 20 minute game, the gap will increase between the player using Proton Charge and a player who isn't using their own mechanic, or using it ineffectively. The 3 mineral gap per second between Terran MULE and Proton Charge becomes 1,800 minerals over 10 minutes (given each player has 30 workers and is consistently using their mechanic.) We also have to take into account that Spawn Larva cost half of what the other mechanics do. Theoretically for the same energy cost of 50 a Zerg player could be at 18 Drones when the Protoss is only at 10 Probes.

C. Saturation Influence

If we factor in saturation, the numbers become more accurate and clear. Saturation is when all mineral patches in a field are being mined continuously by the most efficient amount of workers. Any more workers, and you're wasting income on workers who are waiting their turn to mine, effectively inactive or idle. Any less, and you're not receiving the highest income rate you could be. The problem here is that all Drones and all Probes count as part of that saturation. But MULES can mine from the same minerals as SCVs at the same time.

Lets say the saturation rate of a field is 23 workers. We'll plug that into our equations. The Zerg mechanic affects the Larva not the Drones mining so we stick with 23 base saturation. Mules mine independently of SCVs so we'll have a single 50 energy MULE mining 15 minerals per trip in our equation. Proton Charge effects all Probes so we get 23 Probes mining 6 minerals instead of 5.

Zerg: (23 x 5)/5 = 23
Terran: [(23 x 5) + (1 x 15)]/5= 26
Protoss: (23 x 6)/5 = 27.6

Even with MULES being able to mine independently of SCVs Proton Charge still gives an extra 1.6 minerals per second to the Protoss player. The Zerg player has the lowest income rate however we must again consider that the extra Larva a Zerg player can create can be used to bolster his army.

D. Low Saturation

As another example lets try limiting the saturation. If the saturation of a field is only 9 workers we see these numbers:

Zerg: (9 x 5)/ 5= 9
Terran: [(9 x 5) + (1 x 15)]/5= 12
Protoss: (9 x 6)/5 = 10.8

This is why we state that Proton Charge is not overpowered but simply imbalanced. Because of the low saturation Proton Charge cannot meet its full potential unlike MULES who have set gains. Suddenly the Terran player has the highest IPS. Saturation levels this low are rare but not unheard of and must always be taken into account when designing a balanced StarCraft map. A field of 8 mineral patches provides a better opportunity for Proton Charge to maximize its power compared to two fields of 4 mineral patches because those two fields would require two castings of the mechanic. MULES are unaffected by this problem and Spawn Larva has no relationship with it all.

E. Expansions

All this culminates as the player expands and creates new bases. The gap increases as you add more workers and the ability to use the mechanics more. At three saturated expansions of 23 the equations become:

Zerg: (69 x 5)/5 = 69
Terran: [(69 x 5) + (3 x 15)]/5= 78
Protoss: (69 x 6)/5 = 82.8

Granted these are extreme numbers and are unlikely to occur in an actual game but must be recognized as existing.

F. Differing Interpretations

There is argument against the implications of these statistics. Critics say Zerg may receive a lower income rate but their units are also cheaper. Also once you achieve saturation any Larva you spawn are used to build structures and more units for your army. They also say that Protoss need the biggest income gain because they have the most expensive units. A final claim is made that economy in StarCraft is variable anyway even exponential and that all abilities are also variable and exponential depending on skill such as Psionic Storm so there is no problem with variable mechanics like Proton Charge who also have exponential potential. These arguments are flat-out wrong and I will elaborate on why.

I. Additive Sequence

To start we must explore the basic economy of StarCraft itself. The more workers you produce the better your income rate becomes. Some people including myself before actually doing the math have claimed that economy is exponential but that is incorrect. It's clear from the basic equation (X x Y)/Z = IPS that economy in StarCraft operates in what is known as an additive sequence. As you add more workers you increase your minerals in groups of five. We get a line as in figure 1. All races have access to this line potential to achieve it and it is the same for all the races. It is balanced.

starcraft resources


Let us consider the new macro mechanics now. For Spawn Larva and MULES which are additive sequence mechanics we get the same 45 degree increasing progress line. Every time you cast Spawn Larva you know you're getting 4 Larva a possible 4 IPS before saturation. Every Time you cast MULE you know you're getting one MULE that gives 3 IPS [(1 x 15)/5= 3]. This is illustrated in figure 2.

starcraft resources


Proton Charge compared directly to economy becomes graphed as (X x Y)/Z = IPS where Y = 6 instead of 5 as in figure 3.

starcraft resources



So how do we graphically display variable Proton Charge against Spawn Larva and MULES? Given (X x Y)/Z = IPS we know that we can substitute 0 for X meaning the graph must start at 0. Using our earlier calculations we know that the Zerg IPS to Protoss IPS was 14:12 to start and 34:36 at the end. The energy spent remains consistent in groups of 50 but the mineral intake is entirely variable based on Probe count at any given time. This creates a curve as shown in figure 4. This curve illustrates that Proton Charge can be underpowered or overpowered based on Probe count at any given time.

starcraft resources



II. Mandatory Usage

Secondly the game should be balanced without either player ever using the new macro mechanics. The player should reserve the right to not employ the use of them or to use them sparingly. When one person uses theirs their income rate (or army) will skyrocket compared to the player not using the mechanic. This forces the other player to employ their mechanic if they wish to retain the same potential for income rate that their opponent does. Zerg players may have cheaper units but those units are balanced against the higher costing but more powerful units of the other races without the mechanics. If both players are using their mechanics but the Zerg are not receiving the same economic or military benefits as the Terran or Protoss for the same amount of effort and energy that is imbalanced. The note of many extra larva for the Zerg due to Spawn Larva after saturation helping to address this pure economic imbalance will be addressed in section G. Racial Diversity.

III. Possibility of Failure

Third we address the comparison of Proton Charge to an ability like Psionic Storm. Psionic Storm is an ability on the Protoss High Templar. It does area of effect damage. At first glance the two "spells" appear similar. Both cost a certain amount of energy both have the ability to affect variable amounts of units. One increases how many minerals you have and the other decreases the resources of your opponent by killing his units. They are variable and Psionic Storm is balanced so the critics say there is no problem with Proton Charge being a variable mechanic either.

This is flawed. The difference between the abilities is in when you will use each ability and their targets. There is no point in casting Psionic Storm if your opponent has no units or you are no where near his units. The use of Psionic Storm is finite. It may even be wasted on empty space or not do enough damage to a stronger unit to kill it letting it regain its health and thus have no impact on the opponent at all. Psionic Storm can be countered the High Templar can be killed quite easily out in the field. Proton Charge does not suffer from these fallbacks. There is never a moment you will not want to cast it; it is increasing your income rate which you can do as long as you have minerals on the map to gather. It is extremely hard to waste: once Proton Charge has paid for the cost of the Obelisk it is on any casting of it on any Probes even one is pure economic gain. The only way to counter Proton Charge is to destroy the Obelisk deep in your opponents base it is being cast from or to force the Obelisk to use its other abilities which would likely still require infiltration of the base. Proton Charge has no real drawbacks. The only thing it has in common in Psionic Storm is "mass effect which will be discussed in the section Factor 2: Mass Effect.

G. Racial Diversity

StarCraft is a constant balance of economy and army. There is another convincing argument that the races require different income rates at different times in the games progression to compete to maximize the balance and that the nature of Proton Charge as underpowered in its initial use early in the game when compared to Spawn Larva and MULE and its higher intake rate later into the game as more Probes are added can be balanced by that fact. This argument is supported by the need of StarCraft I Zerg to expand faster than either Terran or Protoss and that in fact their expansion rate is often used to plan the expansion of the other two races and pace the game itself. It is also supported in StarCraft II where Spawn Larva gives the Zerg access to more Larva faster letting them create their army faster which some say in turn compensates for their lack of economic power especially early game.

The answer to this problem is related to the numbers we saw in the first equations we did.

Zerg Spawn Larva:
[(10 + 4) x 5]/5 = 14
[(30 + 4) x 5]/5 = 34

Terran MULES:

[(10 x 5) + (1 x 15)]/5 = 13
[(30 x 5) + (1 + x 15)]/5 = 33

Protoss Proton Charge:
(10 x 6)/5 = 12
(30 x 6)/5 = 36

Saturation Example:

Zerg: (23 x 5)/5 = 23
Terran: [(23 x 5) + (1 x 15)]/5 = 26
Protoss: (23 x 6)/5 = 27.6

In StarCraft I the balance was simple. There was no discrepancy between additive macro mechanics and variable or exponential ones because they didn't exist. All races had access to the same income rate. It is clear that Zerg have the advantage at the start of the game in StarCraft II if they choose to use all Larva from Spawn Larva for mining before saturation sets in. However we see that the logical progression of the numbers falters. Terran is still behind Zerg at 30 SCVs and one MULE compared to 34 Drones (or in energy costs 38 Drones) but actually overtakes the Zerg at saturation because of the MULE. And Proton Charge consistently has the highest IPS once the player has more than 15 Probes.

This is where things get increasingly complicated. If we factor in the time it takes for the races to reach saturation which is usually a very small portion of the game maybe the first five minutes of a 20 minute game it is clear that any economic gain the Zerg may achieve through a quick Queen and a few casts of Spawn Larva can almost be matched by the Terran and surpassed by the Protoss. What occurs is what has been stated before: Zerg will consistently need to have more expansions and more workers mining at any given time than the other two races to reach the same IPS. Now we can finally tackle the argument that Spawn Larva is then used to create more fighting units faster balancing Zerg army with the other races economy and thus why they don't need equal IPS.

To address this we must acknowledge there are three other saturation limits faced by all the races - the rate of unit creation to income intake supply and tech level. Lets first explore the rate of unit creation to income intake otherwise known as the queue/IPS balance where at a certain point either the build queues of units or income rate surpasses the other factor. So you end up with times you have open queues but not enough resources to build any units (or you're saving up to build a particular unit) and times you accumulate resources because all of your production queues are full. Next you'll hit supply cap and after that research everything available to your race. At this point you can choose to build defensive structures and more production buildings to increase your queue. It is here the problems arise.

Because Zerg buildings are built by Drones you must either wait for an open Larva to build a Drone to build your building or you must remove a Drone you currently possess from gathering resources to build the building. Terran face somewhat of the same issue an SCV must build the building through its entirety meaning you lose the SCV for the construction time of the building. Protoss Probes are unique. They simply plant the building and it warps in on its own. The Probe can then resume mining at an increased rate if Proton Charge has been cast. It is another way that the Protoss have economic advantage through the use of Proton Charge. Where normally the building methods of the races would be balanced Proton Charge and saturation rates create imbalance.

In relation to the way Spawn Larva gives the Zerg access to a larger army faster once mineral saturation is reached because all extra Larva can become fighting units the same matter applies. Eventually the IPS/queue (or economy/army) saturation point will be reached or the second factor of supply limit is reached and any extra Larva will just sit around or need to become buildings. We arrive at a competition based on two factors - IPS and player skill at controlling their full supply army where each player is replacing any units they lose as fast as they can and countering each other with the best units available. At this point the game still needs to be balanced. But if we factor in the following:

  • Protoss can always have a higher IPS than the Zerg after saturation with Proton Charge.
  • It costs Drones to build structures.
  • Extra Larva the Zerg have just sit at supply saturation because Zerg do not have a queue.
  • The Protoss player can still increase his queues.
  • It is clear that a Protoss player can rebuild his army faster than the Zerg and build more structures faster than the Zerg.

Amazingly there is in fact one solid conclusion that can be drawn from all this and it is crystal clear. Between the variable economic boost for the Protoss from Proton Charge the extra Larva the Zerg have access to from Spawn Larva and the saturation ignoring power of the MULE the base income numbers don't lie. Zerg gain 8 Drones through Spawn Larva for the energy price of one Terran MULE which is equivalent to 2.6 times the possible income rate of the MULE before saturation. Anytime after that they can still make more Larva and create a bigger army. Meanwhile Proton Charge causes Probes to surpass the power of the MULES at a mere 15 Probes affected.

Essentially Terran is currently without a doubt the race with the lowest overall benefit from their mechanic.

Factor 2: Mass Effect

No I'm not talking about the Bioware game Mass Effect which uses the term to mean a special property of the fictional Element Z to change the mass of objects through electric currents.

Mass effect for our purposes is defined as unequal gain for cost. A great example of mass effect in StarCraft I are "area of effect" spells on caster units like the Science Vessel and Defiler. A single Science Vessel or Defiler in StarCraft I was relatively expensive and high in the tech tree. The Science Vessel had an ability called Irradiate which dealt 200 damage in an area of effect around a targeted unit. The Defiler had an ability called Dark Swarm which voided all non-splash ranged attacks entering into the area of effect around the spot on the terrain Dark Swarm was cast upon. The tension between these two units and these two abilities is a major factor in all Terran versus Zerg games. Irradiate has the power to obliterate normally powerful clumps of Zerg and because almost the entire Terran army is ranged Dark Swarm lets Zerg ground units run rampant immune to most damage. These spells along with the Protoss High Templar's Psionic Storm described in the last section are all variable in power. They can effect one unit or many for a static energy cost. Multiple Science Vessels Defilers and High Templar can blanket entire areas in spells making what are normally balanced abilities into roving walls of death. This is mass effect in its purest form.

 

 
A few High Templar destroy a Terran force using well-placed Psionic Storms.


Mass effect is created by anything that has varying levels of power. Abilities like Irradiate Psionic Storm and Dark Swarm are balanced through multiple means in StarCraft I. Irradiate can only damage biological units and the targeted unit can be placed in isolation to decrease the impact of the spell. Psionic Storm cannot affect buildings and the High Templar who casts it has no natural attack so a mass of High Templar casting multiple Psionic Storms cannot win a game. Dark Swarm does not negate melee or splash damage and the Defiler itself is very weak. Also choosing to build many Defilers Science Vessels and High Templar means that you have chosen to not build other units or technology possibly leading to exploitable weaknesses in your army or base composition. The point being made is that mass effect can be negated by opposing mass effect (such as the eternal dance between Science Vessels and Defilers in late game Terran versus Zerg matchups) limiting factors or counters by the opponent using his own units abilities or just pure micro skill. This is important as we examine Proton Charge. It has no opposing mass effect to deal with seeing as the other races' mechanics are additive and not variable thus the mass effect of Proton Charge has potential to be fairly large. It is limited in its targets but it cannot be wasted as easily as the unit spells. It can be countered by the opponent if he kills your Probes or Obelisk but that in itself is limited by his ability to seek entrance into your base making it far more difficult to counter than a Defiler Science Vessel or High Templar exposed in the field. And perhaps most importantly it is cheap to produce an Obelisk at a mere 200 minerals whereas the Defiler Science Vessel or High Templar in larger quantities all cost much more in both resources and time.

So why is mass effect a problem? Because of mass effect Proton Charge is theoretically either more powerful or less powerful than the additive mechanics of the Terran and Zerg at any given time given any number of factors from the length of the game to the saturation limit of the map. This makes it extremely variable every game and thus hard to accurately balance. It means that the unit or mechanic with the mass effect problem will either never be used because its too hard to achieve a reasonable profit and maximize the ability or will always used because not using the mechanic will mean certain disadvantage. For example Irradiate is frequently seen in Terran versus Zerg because it is so effective and the potential cost of not using it and letting the Zerg swarm freely is too high. Alternately it is rarely seen in Terran versus Protoss matches because the Protoss have less biological units and thus its ability to effect the Protoss army is severely reduced. Mass effect is always a problem because it means that something is either underpowered or overpowered and has a very small balance point that in fact may not even exist or be possible to acquire. Proton Charge epitomizes these problems because it cannot be countered like other mass effect aspects in the game. The only reliable way to counter it is by somehow killing the Probes buried deep within his base.


Factor 3: APM Sinks

By adding one mineral to every Probe that Proton Charge is cast upon you start getting larger numbers of minerals every time it is cast. The more Probes you add over the course of the castings the more return you'll receive. At the start of the game you may not receive much benefit from casting Proton Charge at all because you don't have enough Probes to pay for the cost of the Obelisk. Later in the game you may get such a massive boost from the mechanic as it gets cast on many more Probes that if you don't cast it you're losing out on hundreds of minerals. So Proton Charge becomes what's known as an "Action Per Minute" or APM sink. An APM sink is something that must be done every X (variable seconds) to maximize the ability or it becomes exponentially more useless. APM is often used to determine how good a StarCraft player is; players with higher APM do more beneficial actions (like microing their Vultures) than players who can't do as much in the same time frame. Players who can do more beneficial actions generally have a higher chance of winning.

What we arrive with is a mechanic that is strategically void. Proton Charge provides no choice; if you do not use it it serves no purpose and is wasted. A Protoss Zealot standing in your base can still be used to defend if you are attacked. A High Templar not casting Psionic Storm is saving that energy for when it is needed and useful because Psionic Storm has variable uses and times to use it. Neither the Zealot or Psionic Storm is reaching their full potential by being idle but they still retain potential itself. An Obelisk not casting Proton Charge is wasting the ability because it only serves one purpose at only one time. APM sinks are mindless. There is no choice to them other than either you do the required task every X seconds or you don't. If you don't your chances of losing increase the longer you do not use them. They promote tedious repetition. You cannot use them to provide benefit because everyone is using them but if you don't use them you will suffer. The reason StarCraft survives even with spell-based mass effect is because spells have a chance to fail and have counters. Proton charge has neither drawback in any great quantity. What we end up with is a mechanic that offers nothing substantial to the game but consumes time that could be better used on actual strategic action and promoting real skill.

The irony is that in fact all three of the macro mechanics in the game are actually APM sinks. There is no reason to never cast them. Yes they compete with other abilities or factors but ensuring those other abilities or factors are comparably worth the loss in economic/army boost from Spawn Larva MULES and Proton Charge is a difficult feat. Spawn Larva and MULE appear to have acceptable alternative options namely the versatility of Larva themselves and Scanner Sweep which is why this editorial focuses on the most flawed and imbalanced of the three mechanics Proton Charge. Proton Charge has no such competition as will be elaborated on in section Factor 5: No Ability Competition.


Factor 4: Single Target Mechanics

Proton Charge only affects Probes who are mining minerals. If cast on any other unit it is wasted. It has a single target and must be cast on that target every chance it gets to make the most of the ability. There is no choice involved. If all players are using their mechanics the one who doesn't will suffer. Those who do use them receive no benefit they just remain on equal ground if the abilities are balanced. Proton Charge offers no choice no strategy in its use. This is related to and contributes to the APM sink issue but I believe it warrants a separate overview.

Contrast this to MULES and Spawn Larva. MULES suffer from the same problem they are only usable on minerals however if the player wishes he can use a MULE as a quick scouting unit although Scanner Sweep is clearly more effective. MULES could also once be used for repair and that ability may return. Spawn Larva is only target-able on a Hatchery but once again we can point out that each Larva created is full of strategic choice in what unit it becomes from a large selection. A Queen can also cast its other two abilities Creep Tumor and Transfusion as it waits for Spawn Larva's cool-down to finish.

There is some debate on this conclusion. Namely choice being created by the timing one sets for building their Obelisk in their build order. That sometimes you'll want to rush for your Obelisk and spend 150-200 minerals early to build it and other times you'll want to wait until your base is more secure from attack or you have more Probes to spend the 200 minerals on your Obelisk and maximize it. Effectively this is but an illusion of choice. Build orders used by professional players are decided before the game starts. They are not reactionary. They are set just like the use of Proton Charge


Factor 5: No Ability Competition

Obelisks currently cost 200 minerals. With the current energy regeneration rates and length of time Proton Charge lasts a single Obelisk can tend to an entire mineral patch. Because the Obelisk is mass producible they can also be built outside your base to maximize the other two abilities they currently possess: Argus Link and Shield Regeneration. Any Proxy Pylon built for Warp-In can become home for an Obelisk to use as a retreat point or forward assault post. These Obelisks being nowhere near any Probes will have no reason to use Proton Charge. Essentially you end up with two types of Obelisk which serve entirely different purposes whose roles never overlap. One stays in your base and casts Proton Charge exclusively and the other becomes an offensive building which casts Argus Link and Shield Recharge and has no reason to ever cast Proton Charge. There is no competition between the abilities.

This is a problem because Calldown MULE has competition with Scanner Sweep and Calldown Supplies abilities on the Orbital Command. The Zerg situation is different but still an issue. Spawn Larva on the Queen competes with two other abilities: Creep Tumor and Transfusion. However just like the Obelisk you can build multiple Queens and use one to cast Spawn Larva exclusively and one to cast Creep Tumour and Transfusion. But there is competition inherent in the abilities because of the Larva being spawned. They can become Drones to mine and increase income rate. But they can also become buildings and any other Zerg unit. The Queen can also actively cast Creep Tumor in between casting Spawn Larva. Spawn Larva creates a level of competition between economy and army that Proton Charge completely lacks. Proton Charge never has to compete with the other abilities on the Obelisk in any way. This again contributes to Proton Charge being an APM sink.

Solutions


Solution 1: Limit the Area Of Effect

The first change the Proton Charge requires is in limiting its influence on Probes. Instead of letting the ability become more powerful as you increase your Probe count limit it to a certain number of Probes. Currently the greatest balancing number is 15 being as MULES collect 15 minerals per trip and 3 Drones possibly created from the 4 Larva created by Spawn Larva also mine 15 minerals (5 each) and this is restricted by saturation. This simple change completely nullifies the problem of Proton Charge being a variable power mechanic.

Solution 2: Diversify Targets

MULES technically do not affect any units they are their own unit so there's no problem. It still competes with Calldown Supplies and Scanner Sweep. Larva produced by Spawn Larva have many options either becoming Drones to mine or make buildings or become any other Zerg unit to add to the army. Proton Charge is not faced with this issue it only affects Probes. I propose letting Proton Charge affect more units in some way. No other ability in the game is so radically focused on one unit and consequently no other ability poses the problems Proton Charge does. There are multiple ways to implement effects. For example make Proton charge increase movement speed of any effected unit or add damage to a unit's attack. Although admittedly those are not very good alternatives because they are better focused on offence than defence.

Solution 3: Increase Relative Cost

Another solution is to make Proton Charge cost more. Not necessarily in the monetary sense whether more minerals to build the Obelisk or more energy to cast it. In fact both of those solutions would not solve the APM sink issue - the ability would still be used every chance it was available or if it was not able to effectively provide sufficient profit for its cost never used at all. I believe what Proton Charge lacks is risk. It lacks a downside. I suggest giving Proton Charge a form of harmful side effect. For example the ability lasts 30-40 seconds. For that time maybe all Probes affected by the ability lose their shields. Suddenly there will be times you do not want to use the ability that can be exploited by your enemy. Having 15 Probes destroyed in a raid because they were only at half health could be devastating to your economy. Such a downside would create choice strategy or tension in the ability - exactly what Proton Charge lacks.

Solution 4: Meaningful Choices

The last solution is to make Proton Charge actually compete with the Obelisk's other abilities. Currently Proton Charge has no reason to be cast outside one's base. Argus Link and Shield Recharge have no reason to be cast inside one's base. Multiple Obelisks can be built ensuring that the abilities will likely never truly compete. To promote meaningful choices between abilities the abilities must be useable interchangeably or with equal benefit in different areas. For example with MULES is it better to cast a MULE and gain 3 extra minerals a second or cast Calldown Supplies and save yourself 100 minerals right away? For Zerg is it better to use your extra Larva from Spawn Larva to build another Evolution Chamber or to build another Lurker? The Obelisk and Proton Charge lack this kind of strategic tension. Giving the Obelisk more/better base-centric abilities or expanding the targets of Proton Charge (as suggested in Solution 2) will solve this issue.


What Won't Work & Why


Bad Solution 1: A Single Change

It has been suggested that only one of the changes illustrated above is required to "fix" the Proton Charge. I believe this is not possible given that the problem with the mechanic stems from a few different sources. It will require a combination of changes to salvage Proton Charge; there is no singular change to bring the ability on par with MULES or Spawn Larva. Stabilizing the variable power problem won't fix the lack of ability competition. Adding more target variety won't cure the mass effect.

Bad Solution 2: Changing Material Costs

All numbers are subject to change for balance. This is a common thing to hear and is a common solution to balance issues. However some of the problems with Proton Charge have nothing to do with the cost of the Obelisk and Proton Charge. Mass effect and the APM sink issue in particular is not affected by these numbers. The problem of underpowered or overpowered will remain regardless of how much you adjust costs. Either the profit gained from Proton Charge will be too little to be worth using the ability or too much to ignore using it. Proton Charge is flawed in its design as a variable mechanic not in resource or energy costs.

Bad Solution 3: Mobile Obelisk

An intriguing suggestion is to make the Obelisk mobile. Not so much as a unit but able to warp around anywhere within Pylon power. Theoretically this would let players build less Obelisks and use a single Obelisk to cast Proton Charge and its other abilities by moving location between inside and outside the base. It would create meaningful choice and competition between abilities.

This is however flawed yet again. We must always take into account the APM sink issue. An Obelisk using Proton Charge will eventually pay for itself. After that point all income from the ability is profit. If that profit is high the ability will continue to be used. If the profit is low the Obelisk will likely never be built in the first place. Any Obelisk built outside the base will be built specifically to cast Argus Link and Shield Recharge and attempt to pay for itself that way. There will be no reason to move the Obelisk and the abilities will still never compete.

Bad Solution 4: Casting Globally Or Within Pylon Power


In respect to the mobile Obelisk it has been considered to let the Obelisk cast globally or within Pylon power like the Orbital Command can do with its abilities. That way an Obelisk in the base can cast Argus Link and Shield Regeneration from across the map and an Obelisk outside the base can cast Proton Charge on Probes inside. Admittedly this is the best of the so called "bad solutions." However it still fails to address the APM sink issue completely. If Proton Charge is worth the profit it will always be cast. If it is not it will never be cast. Regardless of where the Obelisk is on the battlefield. What you end up with is the Obelisk storing energy. For example say the Obelisk has 200 maximum energy and Proton Charge still costs the 50 it does now. Once the Obelisk has stored all 200 energy the player will cast Proton Charge and the energy in the Obelisk will revert to 150. The player will wait until the Obelisk again gets 200 energy then cast Proton Charge again. The 150 energy the Obelisk is saving is emergency energy. Energy to be used on Argus Link and Shield Recharge when needed. Once that energy is expended the player must decide whether to cast Proton charge and leave the Obelisk at low emergency reserves or let the Obelisk regain its 200 energy. This gives the illusion of choice but it is not real choice. What the player does is based on the current profit margin for Proton Charge. If it is high the ability will be cast again and the Obelisk will retain low emergency energy. If it is low the player will let the Obelisk reach 200 again before casting Proton Charge.

MULES suffer from this as well. An Orbital Command with 200 energy will spend 50 on MULES or Calldown Supplies and the other 150 energy generally will be for emergency Scanner Sweeps. There are exceptions for scouting purposes but it is rarely true choice it is an illusion of choice. However the illusion of choice and possibility for choice is still better than no obvious choice at all.

Bad Solution 5: Put Proton Charge on the Nexus

Consider this as part two of the global Proton Charge suggestion. The theory is that by putting Proton Charge on the Nexus and possibly the Obelisks other abilities as well it makes the abilities more important because they are harder to acquire due to cost. As explained before monetary cost is irrelevant to APM sinks. This would also make the Nexus a clone of the Orbital Command decreasing racial diversity. This proposed solution offers no solution at all.


Conclusion


What Is Game-breaking?

A mechanic is game-breaking when it is inherently imbalanced either through exact statistics design or implementation. A game breaking mechanic ability or unit can essentially and literally stop people from playing or buying a game or it can cause a significant aspect or portion of the game to be completely ignored boycotted or banned. I believe that Proton Charge has the potential to be game-breaking to create an imbalance in the Protoss that will be evident in the highest levels of play. Though its design as an variable mechanic when compared to the Terran and Zerg's additive mechanics and its implementation with no competing abilities or diversity in its use I firmly believe Proton Charge is harmful to the success of StarCraft II. Proton Charge must be altered in a significant way or removed and replaced completely for it to be a fun and balanced mechanic.

starcraft 2

About the Author

Age: I am the Alpha and the Omega
Occupation: Graphic Designer
Education: College Degree
Family status: Single
Location: Calgary AB Canada
Non-StarCraft related Hobbies: The irresponsible consumption of alcohol
Currently reading: The Shiva Option by David Weber and Steve White
Currently playing: ODST
Playing StarCraft since: 1999
In the community since: May 2007
Favorite game (FPS): Halo: Combat Evolved
Favorite game (RTS): StarCraft
Favorite StarCraft Race: Zerg
Favorite StarCraft Unit: Hydralisk
Favorite StarCraft Character: Zeratul
Favorite Comfort Food: Chocolate Chip Mint Ice Cream
Favorite Meal: 10 cent wing night at the local pub

 

Article by DemolitionSquid.
This is a StarCraft: Legacy (http://sclegacy.com/) guest article.

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