Actions Per Minute
With the evolution from turn-based to real-time strategy games, a new gameplay element was introduced. No longer was success only a matter of making the right decisions but also of making the right decisions fast. RTS gamers these days are in fact often ranked by their APM – their actions per minute. Clicking fast gives the player the ability to make more decisions than her opponent and supposedly gives her a leg up to victory. It’s quite obvious that simply clicking very fast alone doesn’t help you much, what you need to be able to do is to make a lot of meaningful clicks. A high APM number could allow you, for example, to perform a two-pronged attack on an enemy’s base while at the same time building up a new base of your own and making sure your attacking units don’t stand in some sort of area effect attack your opponent may launch.
Evizaer argues that there are actually two kinds of APM, mental and physical. Physical APM would be your ability to click very fast and convey very precise orders to your units that way, while mental APM would describe the ability to make lots of decisions in a short time and keep a clear picture of the overall game state through all that. He goes on to argue that physical APM are essentially a function of bad interface design and that mental APM are all that should really matter.
On a first look, I would totally agree. I’m not a very good twitch player and I quite often lose games of Starcraft II simply because I wasn’t able to get my units to do what I wanted them to do fast enough. Strategy wise I’d say I’m pretty good on the other hand. I know a lot about the game and usually know what I should be doing to counter whatever move my opponent is making – I’m simply lacking the physical APM to do it. Looking at it this way, I should be totally in favour of getting rid of the need for physical APM. Indeed, in some ways evizaer is completely correct, many bad user interface designs can create a need for physical APM that just feels annoying and contrived.
Staying with Starcraft, we can observe some user interface improvements from the original to Starcraft II that have eliminated the need for high APM in certain areas. In Starcraft you have to send every worker you build to their resource gathering spot manually, while Starcraft II automates that for you. Starcraft II even alerts you of workers that have not been properly assigned and allows you to reassign them quickly. Yet, there are still some flaws in worker assignment in the new game. It is more effective to manually assign your workers than to let it be automated, even though it should be clear to the game that you want your workers working at optimum capacity. Still I don’t want this to be fixed with an improved artificial intelligence because assigning workers manually takes away some of your attention – which is essentially another resource.
A less-than-optimal user interface / artificial intelligence and the need for physical APM that is derived from it actually makes the game more interesting. Without perfect control I don’t just have to decide which course of action provides me with the highest possible reward, I also have to consider whether I would be able to actually perform that action adequately and whether it is worth my attention resources. Perfect execution ruins variety and individuality in games. Stepping away from real-time strategy for a minute and over to World of Warcraft raiding, we can see that every single boss fight in the game has a detailed strategy written for it on various websites. If strategies were always perfectly executed, there would be no need for anyone to ever rethink these strategies or adapt them for their own personal use.
The same would happen in an RTS game. If everyone could execute strategies perfectly, then there would be a list of optimal strategies and how they perform against each other and the games would become quite boring. As it is now, I know for example that many Terran players in Starcraft II like to open with a very early Barracks to produce a Reaper unit or two. These Reapers are specifically meant to run into the opponents base and wreak havoc on their harvesters while you use this time to improve your economy. Personally, I’ve all but stopped using this strategy – not because it’s a bad strategy but because controlling the reapers takes away so much of my attention resources that I tend to fall behind economically when fighting an opponent with higher physical APM. Instead I’m making the conscious choice to focus on a more strategic instead of tactical build so that my inferior agility with the mouse doesn’t matter as much.
One last thing that physical APM have going for them is that they make watching professional players play cool. Just as watching regular sports on TV gives you the ability to admire the physical prowess of the athletes, watching an RTS player with very detailed control over their units is simply very interesting and can create awesome moments. As an e-sport, the RTS genre would be pretty boring if physical APM weren’t an integral part of the gameplay. Every successful (for a certain definition of “success”) e-sport I know relies on twitch to be interesting, and I’m certainly in favour of e-sports becoming more successful than they are now. Especially in the western world.