Let’s Designing~ #2: Build Order and APM (or, Why Video Games Make Me Drink More)

I reckon this isn’t really a game so much as a Life Hack(tm), but whatever.


For people who play real-time strategy games, there is a significant first step that starts the transition from Random Scrub to a Serious Player. It’s the moment where you distill the infinite possibilities of the faction you’re playing into a cohesive Build Order–that is, the order in which you grow your army, take more resources, tech up, and attack.

Your Build Order sets the pace for the rest of the game, because the way you prioritize those four tasks will leave you with corresponding advantages and disadvantages. In StarCraft 2, I (playing Terran) can be greedy with resources and put early pressure on a Zerg opponent with a no-gas two-barracks expand build, but I’ll be behind on tech, or I can tech quickly to Banshees (a flying, cloaking air-to-ground unit) and harass the Zerg economy but I’ll lose out in the long run if I expand too late.

Naturally, your Build Order doesn’t stand alone in the game; a good player learns to make subtle changes to it in response to the information they’ve gleaned from scouting their opponent. Correctly predict their build order based on a few clues (key tech structures, drone/army count, etc.) and you can better alter your build order to exploit their weaknesses.

These alterations are often very, very minute changes in timing. Building one extra worker and getting him started on gas a few seconds earlier means you can get two cloaked Dark Templar out right after he’s just used his Orbital Command energy on another MULE instead of a scan, giving your DTs a good 20 seconds of unchecked damage in his base–which gives you a lead you can then exploit for the rest of the game. Finishing the game could take an extra 20 minutes, but those 20 seconds are all it takes to win it.

What’s more, the timing of your build order is dependent in part on how quickly you can execute your in-game actions. The faster you’re able to order your workers to mine in the beginning of the game, or hone in on the exact millisecond that your resource bank will let you build that Barracks, the faster you’re able to execute your build order and maximize whatever timing advantage you’re aiming to get. This is the other side of a StarCraft 2 player’s obsession—APM, or Actions Per Minute. Faster players aren’t necessarily better, but they can do more, which means they can win more (assuming they’re performing the right actions).

Once you’re used to thinking of the game as Real-Time Chess instead of SimCity-with-armies, this kind of obsessive thought process is almost second nature. But that’s only when you’re playing the game. What about the rest of our lives? Anecdote time: I was hanging out with the infamous Day[9] at the Consumer Electronics Show, and we were both in need of a bathroom. I suggested we head out to the lobby and look there, since the show floor wasn’t particularly promising. “That sounds like a good build,” he said. Hmm. Perhaps my in-game fixation with timing and actions-per-minute could come in handy.

My girlfriend cooks, and I do the dishes and clean the kitchen. This arrangement works out for several reasons. However, I will also cook, on occasion, and when I cook, I usually still do the dishes—in part because seeing leftover dishes sitting in the sink irritates the hell out of me, since I know that they’ll often require more effort to handle hours or day after a meal than they will minutes after a meal. I don’t wait until after the meal to do the dishes, though. My meal-preparing process is a blur of activity that combines cooking and cleaning. Prep, cut, start warming the frying pan, wash the vegetable cutting board, dice the chicken, add oil to the pan, wash the chicken cutting board and the knife, grab a spatula, wipe the counter, tend to the stir-fry while cleaning the stove burners not in use. The overall time and energy cost is the same; I just did more. I raised my APM, as it were. I do this all the time. She, for whatever reason, does not.

Lately, I’ve been taking this even further. My evening before-bed ritual consists of brushing my teeth, taking a piss, and either rinsing with mouthwash or flossing (I generally don’t do both in the same night). The whole routine only takes a few minutes, but I often cut down on the last step in the interests of time (gotta be in bed by 11:30 sharp!), meaning that I don’t floss as often as I should. LIFE HACK: Gargling or flossing while peeing is actually not too hard. Just don’t get too vigorous, or you’ll end up with a mess. It sounds ridiculous, but my flossing frequency has increased.

Oddly enough, build orders and APM have been responsible for my increased alcohol intake over the last few months. Now, I enjoy a good beer or cocktail every now and then, but alcohol isn’t my primary vice—give me a spliff over a scotch any day. But I’m a really busy guy. There are lots of games I want to play, lots of training I want to do, and lots of people I want to spend time with. And an hour with a beer or six and someone else to help you drink them is pretty much the best setting for some Bro Bonding(tm) you can get without taking your clothes off. (Believe it or not, that’s basically the origin story for this blog.) So now I drink more.


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