Who was there: Starcraft II game director Dustin Browder was joined by Battle.net project director Greg Canessa and associate game balance designers David Kim and Matt Cooper.
What they talked about: Few games are as synonymous with competitive gaming as Blizzard Entertainment's Starcraft franchise. And while most of the planet isn't likely to be able to go toe-to-toe with the wunderkinds of South Korea, where Starcraft tournaments are a national pastime, a handful of Blizzard designers were on hand to give a few pro tips to the workaday multiplayer gamer in a BlizzCon 2010 panel titled "Starcraft II: Secrets of the Masters."
Canessa kicked off the panel by first explaining a bit about how Battle.net's matchmaking and ladder system for Starcraft II works. First, he noted that the matchmaking system is an adaptive, learning one, where the more matches a player undertakes, the more accurate the matchmaking system becomes. He also noted that a player's win-loss ratio isn't particularly important; instead, a player's skill versus the opponent's skill is what matters.
Blizzard's Battle.net chief also noted that skill tracking is per match type, so a one-vs.-one match operates separately from a two-vs.-two game. That way, he said, players of a high skill rank shouldn't be deterred from playing with their less-skilled friends, as it won't impact their individual rank.
Canessa also made a couple of announcements, saying that Starcraft II would soon feature a master league, which would be a level above the current top-tier, diamond. The top 1-2 percent of players in any given region will be invited to this league. A second new tier, the grandmaster league, will also be introduced, where only the top 200 players in a region will be invited to compete.
The discussion then turned to just how the top-tier players became as good at Starcraft II as they are. The Blizzard team noted that these players all compete in ladder play like everyone else, but they also spar with one another in custom games. Practice makes perfect, and the team noted that the pro players often spend more than 12 hours a day honing their skills, trying new strategies, and watching film.
The team also noted that psychology is a major element of top-tier play, and they offered a few words from the best Starcraft II competitors. "Don't stress over losses. Use them to learn your faults. No pain, no gain," commented Select, with QXC adding, "If you're not attacking you're probably losing."
Watching top players compete is also an excellent way to learn, but the team noted that their strategies are not the be-all and end-all. After all, the average gamer isn't a pro, and the people they're competing against aren't top players either. Therefore, it's a good idea to gain inspiration from the pros and then adapt the strategies for their level.
As for the nitty-gritty basics of improving, the team noted that it's important to build lots of workers to grow a substantial economy of resources. With 80 workers, for example, a gamer's army can be that much bigger, thanks to all of the resources those units are bringing in. Adding to that, poverty is a good thing in Starcraft II, and players shouldn't horde their resources.
More advanced economy strategy involves figuring out in advance a strategy for attack and then determining how integral vespene gas is to that equation. Expansion is also important. If the strategy involves lots of fast units, spreading out is a good idea. However, if a player builds a slow-moving army, it may be best to keep expansion close to the home base.
Shifting to combat, the team emphasized the importance of terrain. Choke points, walls, and high ground are all integral to success, as they can help a smaller army route a much larger army. Flanking the enemy, whereby a group of units are attacked from multiple sides, can help win a battle.
The team also cautioned against directly controlling units during a battle. If it's an important battle, the team highly advocated it, noting that it can make all the difference in winning that individual encounter. However, participating in that battle instead of just letting units attack can greatly impact a player's ability to continue growing their army and producing new units, which can ultimately lose them the war.
Quote: "Poverty is a good thing in Starcraft II."--David Kim, on resource management.
Takeaway: Not to state the obvious, but Starcraft II strategy runs deep. The easiest way to gain a step on the competition seems to be to pump out resource-gathering units, as well as make sure that battles are undertaken with choke points and other terrain in mind. As for the rest, it's best to just go online and watch what the pros are doing.