The Achievement Gap

Under the flickering light of an alien sun a handful of Protoss probes busy themselves about the endless, automated work of collecting crystalline minerals. Occasionally one of them, as if directed by some guiding intelligence, breaks off from the main group and targets a spot of nearby ground where monumental energies are expended to warp in technology from some faraway somewhere before returning to its primary job.

A handful of minutes pass, and already the first Zealot has boots on the ground and takes position just outside the main camp. He crackles with alien technology and surveys the domain that shall soon belong to him and his allies. His confidence is echoed in his stance, as if he has taken illicit but irrevocable ownership of the dust under his feet. As he oozes his dominion a second soldier quickly takes proud position at his side. They are the vanguard of an invasion force that shall sweep across the face of the planet.

Before long a Cybernetics Core is furiously preparing the troop Gateways to become Warp Gates, dramatically accelerating the rate at which an army can be amassed. The first Robotics Facility nears completion, while nearly 2 dozen probes work furiously to sustain the resources of the war machine. Again, one of these proud probes breaks off from the gathering congregation to lay claim to a second nearby resource rich patch of land. Grand plans for glorious expansion are at work on the face of this doomed world.

As the determined probe passes through the small contingent of soldiers, now five units strong and down a ramp it encounters a wall of Terran firepower, and is annihilated under an immediate rain of fiery ordinance. There is a beat of shock before the sense of panic sets in.

It’s all over a few moments later. After 9 minutes and 56 seconds, the Protoss are wiped clean from the Blistering Sands.

As I sit back in my office chair, having played the first of what will be two humiliating games of Starcraft 2 against forum member and arbiter of genocide, Tkyl, I am reminded again of the monumental gulf that so often exists between myself and others in games like this.

At least it didn’t come as a shock. I knew going in that Tkyl competed at an entirely different level. He is ranked within the complex systems of Battle.net as a Platinum player, which I imagine means that before each game alien slave girls adorn him with crimson robes and rub exotic oils with enticing aromas into his revered hands. Then, from a throne of energy, and fueled by the angry heart of a contained supernova, he dispatches his galactic vengeance.

I, on the other hand, once beat a couple of guys who had never played before.

It was humbling, of course, to realize that not for one second of either game did I pose even a cursory threat. If you require some kind of equivalent simile to have it make sense in your head, here are a few that feel accurate to me. It was like trying to dogfight an F-16 with an Ultralight and a slignshot. It was like an intramural football game between the Indianapolis Colts and a group of aging Peruvian sharecroppers. It was like trying to light a campfire by hurling the sun at it.

This is a not uncommon problem with competitive online games. Much as I may long to engage in a game like Demigod, Halo Reach or Team Fortress 2, even the most cursory effort to dip a toe into the multiplayer spaces reveals the hideous truth that a substantial population have, in my absence, dedicated themselves to the glory of the game in ways usually reserved for religious rituals. To attempt to breach their holy sanctums of online space is like trying to talk theology with the Pope by continuously referencing Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a Christ figure. Not only are you going to get beat, but you’re probably going to be asked to leave.

Even in the confines of an accepting community such as ours, where I can use my safe word with players like Tkyl, there is an unavoidable blow to the spirit and ego when you realize that your efforts have only made him sleepy and longing for bed. For even the well trained, much less the best, playing me in one of these games apparently has the same effect as drinking a cup of warm milk and cuddling under a blanket on the couch.

For fragile egos like mine, this is not a desired outcome.

The solution, one might suggest is to put in the time, dedication and effort to become better. There are optimized build orders, hierarchies of give and take between units, well practiced strategies, optimal moments in which to act, and there is no reason I should be competitive without endless practice. While the idea of this goes against some basic principles of how I play games, it is not a concept that I have never considered.

I need only look back to the last game I really tried to be competitive with, Rise of Nations. Night after night I would take on friends and forum goers, tightening my game, working to identify the best moments to move through the ages, learning which Wonders of the World best fit my strategies. I was never great, but I felt good about my play, until of course I actually came into contact with someone who truly understood the game.

Two, maybe three months or organized effort, and within a handful of games I discovered that I was no closer to being significantly skilled at RoN than I was to being voted People’s Sexiest Man of the Decade. After that, it was just so easy to stop playing altogether.

Maybe this is why I love games like Rock Band or World of Warcraft so much, because ultimately I know my only real opponent is myself, and I’ve totally got myself pegged as a chump. In all seriousness, though, eventually getting through a song like Everlong or Won’t Get Fooled Again on Expert drums is a goal that can happen on my own timeframe and without the intimidation of having someone periodically take the drumsticks from me halfway through the song so they can show me how a real man does it.

I don’t think I’m alone on this. I know games are trying harder to make sure that people are matched up with evenly skilled players, and I am genuinely grateful. It’s fine to know that somewhere in the ether hyper-brained proto-men are playing at the level of Gods, just so long as I don’t have to sit down across from them and play catch the deadly laser until my very soul, in a fit of embarrassed disappointment, catches a bus for the greener pastures of someone who isn’t a complete tool.

And, that should be the end of it, except that in the wake of my catastrophic defeat to Tkyl, I went back to my home field of the Practice League, and sent a call for challengers out into the night. In the battle to follow I happily unleashed an army of Protoss charged with the kind of primal fury that really can only be tapped in the wake of utter humiliation, and swept through my foe like a neutron star boulder through a planet made of Cappuccino foam. And, enlightened as I was by my victory, I realized maybe all that stuff about the intimidation of the achievement gap and the sanctity of engaging the self as the ultimate opponent is all just baloney.

Maybe I just really like winning more than losing. There's a life lesson for ya.

Comments

I think the lesson here is to just always make sure you're on the same team as Tkyl. Works for me in L4D.

Don't feel too bad. If I played a 1v1 game of SC2 right now, I'm sure I would lose even to newbies in the "Practice League". Of course the chances of me actually playing SC2 are practically zero, as I have no desire to. I was into RTS games back in the late 90s / early 2000s (WarCraft 2 and 3, Age of Empires 2, Warlords Battlecry), but haven't really played since.

Maybe I just really like winning more than losing. There's a life lesson for ya.

At the heart of it, whatever else I say, this is why I don't play games with other people.

I'm experiencing this same phenomenon in League of Legends right now. The ass-kickery is pretty epic. Sure, there's a ranking/matchmaking algorithm, but it seems like I have to get slaughtered pretty good a couple times before it evens out. And if I get better, ranked higher, and take a couple weeks off to play something else, my skills aren't as good as my ranking, and the cycle begins anew.

I really enjoy LoL - it's the only multiplayer champ/hero I've enjoyed - but it's like the difference between a gorgeous bdsm mistress and a less-attractive mistress - the view is better, but the whips still hurt the same. From what I imagine, anyway.

Actually, the domination analogy is probably perfect for my TF2 experiences on Stan's.

Signed,

Aaps
Another Aging Peruvian Sharecropper

Elysium, sounds like my 2 matches against Gunner.

Let's have a tourney for people who have never won a Starcraft 2 match against a human opponent.

I wonder if ancient civilizations had similar conversations about chess? I've certainly talked about Scrabble like this in the past.

Quintin_Stone wrote:
Elysium, sounds like my 2 matches against Gunner.

Let's have a tourney for people who have never won a Starcraft 2 match against a human opponent.

I won once against a random guy on Battle.net, but I'd like to join in. Latrine can verify that I suck.

As he oozes his dominion a second soldier quickly takes proud position at his size.

Where's Wordy when you need him?

On topic: Yeah, I'm not a multiplayer guy. Besides the technical aspects of third-world internet, the fact is, I suck.

At least most goodjers are usually good sports when they kick your ass.

Where's Wordy when you need him?

Likely cursing my name for yet again subverting the very rules about editing that I, myself, put in place.

TheCounselor wrote:
I won once against a random guy on Battle.net, but I'd like to join in. Latrine can verify that I suck.

No! Disqualified.

I'm glad you included the Rise of Nations thing, or else I'd be pretty sure that I wrote that whole article about myself while in some sort of hyper-literate fugue state.

Agreed, agreed, and agreed. To sum up:

I don't want to play better. I want dumber friends to play.

What a timely article, as I recently played the SCII Beta and lost every game I played until I quite simply gave up. A game like this, I have to be honest with myself and admit that I no longer have the time or patience to become competitive - not in a game that really requires a lot of out-of-game studying. Which for me, is really different from a game such as a competitive FPS, where you get better by simply playing, learning all you need to know from simple experience in the game - and your road to getting better is paved with small victories; maybe your team didn't win the round, maybe your K:D ratio was poor, but even a noob in a fps is probably going to get at least a few kills - and it's these small moments of satisfaction that keep you going to get better. I found that SCII has no such moments to latch onto, just one punishing defeat after another, where I did not really feel like I was learning anything ingame, but would have to resort to out of game studying to even begin to compete.

That was exactly how things went last night for me versus Renji. Elysium, your reaction was like mine post-match, because, like you, I knew I was going to lose, but it doesn't make it any easier.

Quintin_Stone wrote:
Elysium, sounds like my 2 matches against Gunner.
Let's have a tourney for people who have never won a Starcraft 2 match against a human opponent.

It would be great to have a losers bracket for this tournament or a tournament in the future. It'd also be fun to have an Average Joe's kind of league for us SC2 players for who aspire to get better but never turn pro or climb above the Bronze league.

TheCounselor wrote:
I won once against a random guy on Battle.net, but I'd like to join in. Latrine can verify that I suck.

After my double loss last night, I finished off my placement matches and after being beaten by Zergs for the 10th time, I played a Protoss player who, to my disbelief, decided that building 30 photon cannons and walling his base in was the best way to victory (uber-turtle?) so I decided to bust through his turtle with 8 Battlecruisers with Yamato Cannons. Through some mildly impressive micro, I took out his pylons and decimated his base, scoring my first victory in SC2.

Victory tasted so sweet, however like TotalBiscut says at the beginning and end of each of his episodes, "I suck at Starcraft II."

Sean, don't let yourself down because you lost against a platinum leaguer in our community tournament. I noticed you don't have any ranked 1v1 matches under your belt, and I highly recommend you finish your practice rounds (placement rounds, they're otherwise called), and really give their match making system a shot. It will only take 5 preliminary match-ups before the system really enrolls you in their system and starts matchmaking you against appropriate opponents.

The Battle.net ranking system is pretty darned good about pitting you against people that are surprisingly as bad as you are. It'd be an absolute shame if the GWJ tournament, which does not take into consideration the measured skill levels like battle.net does, totally put you off the game before you even got into really giving their awesome matchmaking system a go.

I was probably much worse than you are when I started playing SC2, but I came a long way since I started thanks to the matchmaking system. The fact that, even if you lose, the matchmaking system will have pitted you against a similarly-classed player, allowing you to actually look back on your performance and find things you can improve upon immediately. The fact that they have a fanstic replay system will further aid you in this.

If you can find an experienced SC2-playing friend who could help you review your performance with these replays, you will find that the improvements you can bring to the game will be drastic.

Also, you should try playing some 2v2 matchmaking with a friend. There's a lot less pressure since you know you've got a partner who can back you up if you screw up. It also makes the victories even sweeter, because you actually have someone to celebrate with.

Sean, don't let yourself down because you lost against a platinum leaguer in our community tournament. I noticed you don't have any ranked 1v1 matches under your belt, and I highly recommend you finish your practice rounds (placement rounds, they're otherwise called), and really give their match making system a shot. It will only take 5 preliminary match-ups before the system really enrolls you in their system and starts matchmaking you against appropriate opponents.

So far I'm 3 for 3 in the wins department in the placement league, so at least I know I'm not the absolute worst player on the market. And, I'm not really down so much as just very very aware of the breadth of the gulf that separates the best from the rest.

Remember that I am writing for entertainment value, so I'm not nearly as broken down as I may let on.

Elysium wrote:
Sean, don't let yourself down because you lost against a platinum leaguer in our community tournament. I noticed you don't have any ranked 1v1 matches under your belt, and I highly recommend you finish your practice rounds (placement rounds, they're otherwise called), and really give their match making system a shot. It will only take 5 preliminary match-ups before the system really enrolls you in their system and starts matchmaking you against appropriate opponents.

So far I'm 3 for 3 in the wins department in the placement league, so at least I know I'm not the absolute worst player on the market. And, I'm not really down so much as just very very aware of the breadth of the gulf that separates the best from the rest.

Remember that I am writing for entertainment value, so I'm not nearly as broken down as I may let on.

eh hem, very important and HUGE tip from my experience here. DO NOT win all your placement matches. that's one part of battle.net that's a bit wonky atm.

i somehow won more of my placement matches than i thought i would (I believe I won 3 out of 5), and i got stuck in the gold league. I wasn't really learning anything or having any fun of any degree until I eventually got knocked all the way down to the upper levels of the bronze league... after 12 losses.

you might think i m telling you to play the system to have an easy life, and you'd be wrong sir. i m trying to spare you from torment.

I played the better part of two dozen 2v2 games before going for 1v1. I ended up in bronze with 1v1 and copper with 2v2. I've now fallen to copper in 1v1, but part of that is just a lack of regular play. I'm finally starting to win in 1v1 and feel like I've got some clue as to why I lost, often a pretty fine line "tipping point" moment like scouting the map in such a way that took me an extra 30 seconds to find their base. I think the next league should attempt to match similarly ranked opponents.

Tkyl hardly counts as human.

Ask anyone from the Demigod days about him. He's an inhuman beast with direct connections to the dark gods of rts style gaming.

You losing to him is like writing an article about how you were beaten in an MMA match by Fedor.

I'm generally intimidated by multi-player RTS games. The idea of getting rushed, and forced to go at a pace I'm not ready for shuts down my desire to play before I can get much fanboy momentum built up. However, I just heard some advice from Day[9]'s starcraft show that might get me over the hump. He recommended playing each game to learn something, rather than to win. If your goal during a game is to improve how you manage your resources, or to test out a new unit mix, then even if you lose in 10 minutes you can walk away thinking you've accomplished something. That's a philosophy I can have fun with...I think =)

Very nice article, Sean. I was scared going into the match that I would ruin any desire you had to play the game. I'm glad that playing me gave you a new found enthusiasm about the game.

Bullion Cube wrote:
However, I just heard some advice from Day[9]'s starcraft show that might get me over the hump. He recommended playing each game to learn something, rather than to win. If your goal during a game is to improve how you manage your resources, or to test out a new unit mix, then even if you lose in 10 minutes you can walk away thinking you've accomplished something. That's a philosophy I can have fun with...I think =)

I can't express how true this is. Something as simple as having a plan on what I'm going to focus on has dramatically help me. I went from being a silver player to a platinum in a matter of about 2 months.

This is the case for most every online game I've ever played. I have a theory as to why.

I guess I'm much like Sean. I play a lot of games, but I tend not to play one game alot. I'm the jack of all games, and we know what that means.

I don't want to spend the time and effort to be learn how to no-scope from across the map, because there's other games clamouring my my thumbs.

On the flip side, I'm happy to sink 60 hours into an RPG, but that's because the first 30 hours didn't consist of being mercilessly beaten, and because ever hour (hopefully) brings something new. I put maybe 10 hours into the MW2 multiplayer before it ceased to be fun, and simply became repetetive. Same maps, same getting shot in the face, yawn and move on.

Jonman wrote:
This is the case for most every online game I've ever played. I have a theory as to why.

I guess I'm much like Sean. I play a lot of games, but I tend not to play one game alot. I'm the jack of all games, and we know what that means.

I don't want to spend the time and effort to be learn how to no-scope from across the map, because there's other games clamouring my my thumbs.

On the flip side, I'm happy to sink 60 hours into an RPG, but that's because the first 30 hours didn't consist of being mercilessly beaten, and because ever hour (hopefully) brings something new. I put maybe 10 hours into the MW2 multiplayer before it ceased to be fun, and simply became repetetive. Same maps, same getting shot in the face, yawn and move on.

I love alot.

But yeah, this is like me exactly. I'm a total game slut. If something becomes too frustrating or challenging, and it starts demanding a commitment, I'm all, 'Sorry baby, it's not me it's you. Time to move on.'

RPGs are also an exception, but it's only recently that I've started to be able to finish longer games before turning my attention to something else.

Practicing to get good at a game in order to be able to compete a few months down the line? Madness!

I'm even a medium player in Guitar Hero, back when I had it. As soon as I started to need to use practice mode I lost interest.

I am a competitive guy. Any chance I get to be competitive I try my hardest to get to the top. That's what I find fun. If I loose, I get disappointed but I always play another round because I want to win and get better. That's why I love StarCraft

I think this philosophy is from my days playing Counter-Strike and being in a very demanding clan.

So when I have the challenge of better competition, my fun is had beating that competition no matter what.

It was like trying to dogfight an F-16 with an Ultralight and a slighshot.

Yeah, don't subvert the editing guidelines.

I think there's a difference between being a beginner at a game and being an amateur. When an amateur loses they understand why and can accept it, but when a beginner loses they often don't understand why and can get frustrated if they don't accept their role as beginners and first try to learn and achieve competency. Some games just have longer learning curves than others, this is particularly true of competitive multiplayer games. Most people who play video games are conditioned for low learning curves because it would be too burdensome to train a complex skill set just to play a simple narrative driven single player game. But traditionally most competitive games/sports have steeper learning curves because there is satisfaction in achieving competency, playing at a higher competitive level, and appreciating the skill of master level players. For example I've played tennis off and on for a few months and I still can't play a match that in any way resembles how the professionals play because simply learning to hit the ball and serving takes a very long time. But I still enjoy the learning process itself and building the skills needed for more advanced play.

This is why I insist on one of two things in my multiplayer experiences: co-op with asynchronous difficulty, or versus with handicap.

All my friends are better than me at Gears of War, but I don't mind: we just play the co-op campaign and set our difficulty levels wherever we feel comfortable.

I'm better than all my friends at Soul Calibur, but they (well, most of them) don't mind. We just play winner-stays, but for each match you win beyond the first, you drop your health by 5%. That way, nobody can dominate for too long.

That what I love about the matchmaking system in Battle.net SC2, it seems to be very good at finding someone who will give you a good competitive game.

Because as several people posted above, it's about staying on the field so that you can learn. Games are about exploration to me, and getting into SC2 at some of the higher levels has allowed me to learn something almost every time I play. Just finding out what is possible keeps me constantly facing new revelations every time I talk to someone about SC2, or watch a replay, or watch someone else's replays.

So I hope at release the matchmaking system will keep most people from being discouraged, compared to the "pit of constant rape" battle.net was in the first game. With the several millions to draw from, hopefully most people can find their match in someone online.

Quintin_Stone wrote:
Elysium, sounds like my 2 matches against Gunner.

Let's have a tourney for people who have never won a Starcraft 2 match against a human opponent.

I am so totally down for that. This afternoon is a case in point; I backdoored a guy with a pair of Void thingys. Then got owned by his superior macro. Wiped his entire main base and everything but still lost. Wish I had a replay, but I had to go take care of kids and stuff. Really, I promise.

I knew going in that Tkyl competed at an entirely different level. He is ranked within the complex systems of Battle.net as a Platinum player, which I imagine means that before each game alien slave girls adorn him with crimson robes and rub exotic oils with enticing aromas into his revered hands.

This is awesome.

Perhaps pro gamers are treated this way in South Korea?