My brilliant idea was to drag the computer monitor to the ground and huddle up against it. The keyboard and mouse were tucked beneath the clunky display unit and allowed just enough awkward access to point, click and poke the hot keys I needed. My magnum opus was the stealthy cover provided by an unnecessarily thick beach towel cloak. The flickering glow of the screen coupled with the myriad of random Zerg noises had definitely become a problem, and this was the solution my fifteen year old brain had concocted. By now it’s well past midnight on a school night and I’m woefully aware that I have to be “up” for morning practice in few hours. Just one week prior to the late night construction of this computer fort, a friend had ever so casually changed my life with an extra copy of Starcraft: Brood War. Within that week, the need for sleep (and basically everything else) had greatly depreciated in comparison with the immediate need for more Vespene gas and the demand to spawn more overlords.
Technically, Oregon Trail and Day of the Tentacle were my first visual computer game experiences if you don’t count the LOGO turtle program from elementary school and an intranet MUD game that I’m not entirely sure my high school knew was available. Starcraft: Brood War was different, this was my first graphic real-time strategy game with the option of playing collaboratively with friends. That’s the kicker, I was going to have to eventually play with or against my friends. The completely reasonable fear of being terrible at multiplayer left me no other option than to challenge the Blizzard AI until I could hold my own. I played the campaign and then custom melee games against one to four computer controlled players to “train”. It wasn’t easy but it wasn’t discouragingly hard either. Just enough to keep me hiding under a towel with my computer until the wee hours of the morning. If it had been too difficult to play I might have given up but I didn’t. With every game I learned how to be more efficient. This, of course, could be attributed to building muscle memory and acquiring the understanding that comes with repetition but I wouldn’t have learned to defend if the AI didn’t attack. I wouldn’t have learned how many units I needed for a formidable attack if the computer players didn’t build forces. The computer was organized, systematic and quick but they didn’t adapt. There was always a logical build script that could be disrupted. I’m sure the AI could have said the same thing about me if it could have analyzed my standard lazy build pattern.
After about five weeks of only battling computer controlled forces I felt ready to move to multiplayer. This is be the first and last time I would ever shocked that multiplayer was nothing like playing the AI. The biggest difference was that I knew these people. I watched them play, they had given me tips and tricks. I could assume they were going to play a certain way. Over the next year l improved significantly with practice and help from friends. I was the weakest link of our group but still better than a computer controlled ally would be since at the very least I could communicate with them. My allies could give me direction and I could respond consistently. Sacrificing units to deliver tactical information or acting as bait were desirable qualities in a teammate who wanted to continue to be invited to games. I have vividly fond memories of this time in my life when I played Starcraft and was always tired during the day.
Two decades later Blizzard has free-leased original Starcraft and Starcraft Brood War for PC and Mac. The company gave the games a graphic overhaul and released Starcraft: Remastered in August of last year. Original SC players will be pleased to hear they nostalgically enhanced the original sounds. Yeah, that’s the stuff. It’s been well received by the loyal community and touted as al successful remastery. It’s no surprise that significant resources were invested into updating this classic since it was the primordial e-sports game. Today, Starcraft 2 has the fourth highest professional payout of all current video game tournaments and Starcraft: Brood War comes in a respectable ninth, according to esportsearnings.com. Top players of both games bring in over 500k USD. Makes me think I should have stuck with it a while longer.
At the same time Starcraft: Remastered was going live, Blizzard was also releasing Starcraft 2 as an open AI development environment. Blizzard specifically created a Machine Learning API and provided an incredible amount of data to enable community collaborators. There have been a number of global AI-only tournaments like the SSCAIT (Student Starcraft AI Tournament), the CIG IEEE (Computational Intelligence and Games hosted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), and others established by organizations like the AIIDE (Artificial Intelligence and Interactive Digital Entertainment). Recently these same associations have been hosting the top SC2 professional players to be pitted against AI competitors submitted by outside developers. Several well known technology companies have entered these tournaments such as household names, Google and Facebook. The top human SC2 players are still significantly better and have won decidedly more in past tournaments despite the AI’s ability to complete an inhuman amount of tasks per minute - about 19,000 compared to the human player’s top average of about 300.
All in all the future looks bright for a game that I still hold close to heart and AI technology as a whole. Companies like Decisive AI are going to play big roles in this future with special respect to enablement and impact on the world of gaming. It’s an exciting time to be both - part of a company enhancing the world of Intelligent Artificial Players, and a gamer. Watch this space for more.