Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Strategy for Strategy

The summer heat and humidity settled across the area early and in force this year.  June was the hottest June on record, ever, and July's temps are staying above normal so far.  Paradoxically, when the sun is bright in the summer, I tend to close up my south facing blinds more often in an attempt to keep the house cooler.  And if it's going to be cool and relatively dim in the house, well that's a perfect video gaming setup.

I've been anticipating Starcraft 2 for some time, despite having "finished" with the real-time strategy genre in the late 90's.  In many ways, the game is a throwback to the decade old original, which was in turn a mere evolutionary step above its even older predecessors.  That said, there is one new "killer" feature that has hooked my interest almost more than the game itself: replays.  Starcraft 2 automatically records every game you play.  You can then play it back anytime for review and analysis or upload it to the internet for others to examine.  I think it will be a revolution in analyzing ones own play.  Of course, the serious Starcraft community has been analyzing matches for quite a while.  One such commentator has taken the place of physical sports for me this summer.  His name is Sean Plott, his handle is Day[9], and the archives of his commentary can be found here.  Be warned, his enthusiasm for the game is infectious.  (Though like sports, there is a fair amount of shorthand jargon you may have a hard time immediately understanding if you aren't at least passingly familiar with the game.)  One cast, covering some basics of developing Starcraft strategy, really caught my attention.  I think the things he mentioned are widely applicable across all sorts of different strategy games, and I want to go into them here for a bit.  Honestly, I think there may be some aspects to the tips that can be applied to life in general as well.

Have a plan.
Seems obvious, right?  But really, the root of any sound strategy begins with an attempt to accomplish something.  You may succeed by acting randomly in the moment, but you won't know why, and you won't be able to reproduce your success consistently.  Come up with a means to get to your desired end.  It shouldn't be too rigid in the face of adversity, but neither should you abandon it at the first sign of trouble.

It's more about timing than speed.
Just because you are constantly doing things doesn't mean you are actually moving efficiently.  Having good timing means you can outpace competitors who are fast but not as good at using resources properly.  (And how many of us wish we could get that message through in our workplaces?)  Remember the lesson of the tortoise and the hare, and keep an eye on speed vs. quality trade-offs.

Remembering what you need to do is the key to good timing.
Sean recommends building a mental list of the things you need to constantly keep track of as you go about executing your plan.  Then just loop through the list over and over.  At each step make sure you have it covered and then move on to the next.  As the number of things you have to keep track of increases, so does your list.  This list becomes a tool to leverage repetition for learning.  With practice, the "simple/mechanical/housekeeping" stuff becomes internalized and you can focus your mental energy on the "big picture."

Don't think about what you are doing now, think about what you need to do next.
Now is already happening, stick to your list and you don't have to worry about it.  Given the situation, what do you need to do next to keep moving along your plan?  This is where your flexibility lies.  If you loose a battle in Starcraft or get your queen captured in chess, don't sit in the moment fretting about how it happened, use your list to keep moving forward and get straight into mitigation if you need to.

Improve your technique as you go.
Practice had to come in here at some point, and this is it.  You have to learn your sense of timing through focused effort.  The first step is to thoroughly learn your game's mechanics.  For a real-time game like Starcraft 2, this will also involve training your physical memory for the interface, which is the same thing one does when practicing a musical instrument or learning an artistic medium.  Games like chess or go lend themselves toward learning to intuitively see patterns developing on the board.

I want to give a big thanks to Sean for framing the bolded tips above.  I suspect I will be pondering their application in all sorts of areas for some time to come.  And when you think about it, they make a pretty good mental list in and of themselves, don't they?

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