Startups and Starcraft

by Nate Lowell

Spectators at a Starcraft II event (BlizzCon 2014)

Starcraft II is a strategy video game where you build an alien military base to fight your human opponent's alien military base in a one-versus-one match. Starcraft can best be compared to chess, except there are no turns. You can move your pieces as fast as you are physically able to. Starcraft is considered by some to be the most competitive video game of all time. The top players have made hundreds of thousands of dollars playing. As strategies evolved, insightful players created concepts and words to better understand and describe the elements of different gameplay and strategies. Although these words and concepts are mostly isolated in the Starcraft community, I think many of them would benefit outsiders to learn. As I'm also part of the startup community, I figured I could teach them in that perspective.

Micro / Macro design by HandsomeNerd

The balance of "Micro" and "Macro"

In SC2, there are two major aspects of gameplay that are basically the yin and yang of the game:

Controlling individual units of your armies with speed, precision, and well-chosen tactics.
Developing your economy, harvesting resources, and upgrading military technology in a way that creates strength and size advantages over your opponent.

Every move you make can be categorized into micro or macro. This roughly equates to attention to detail vs. big-picture vision in business endeavors. Micro is making sure that the size of the buttons on your landing page is exactly right and that the copy is clear. Macro is strategizing where you want the company to be in one month, six months, one year. Micro is writing unit tests. Macro is choosing what features you want to add to your product. You need to be good at both, and you need them in balance with each other. Another way of thinking about it is that micro is anything that happens on a day-to-day timescale or more often, and macro is any decision with broader affect.

A Starcraft player with high APM


SC2 is a game in which the speed at which you can give your units actions can give you a major advantage over a slower opponent. This speed is measured as APM, or actions-per-minute, roughly equivalent to the total amount of keystrokes and mouseclicks within one minute of game time. Professional players often have average APM as high as 300, or 5 actions per second. The business or startup equivalent is execution speed. If you can pump out features faster than a competitor, talk to more users, and iterate faster in general, you can outpace and outmaneuver slower startups and the almost-definitionally slow incumbents. Some people increase their execution speed by working more hours per week. APM can also be thought of as similar to the business/military concept of an OODA loop. All else being equal in a competition between two companies, the company with a shorter OODA loop (rough equivalent of higher APM) can outmaneuver the other.

Bitcoin presenting timing windows
Bitcoin prices presented timing windows (though not for the faint of heart)

Timing windows

SC2 is a game where each player's army starts very small and increases in size and ability over the course of the game. There are strategies that are considered to be only effective in the "early-game", or only effective in the "mid-game", or only effective in the "late-game". If you use a strategy at the wrong time, it can cost you the game instantly. Likewise in startups we need to be cognizant of the strategies we're using and whether or not they are right for our current size and strengths. For example, paid ads may work much better for an established company with a large budget and long timeline than for a bootstrapper. Blogs and content marketing may be much more effective for starting out than publicity stunts. Besides the concept of time relative to your company's size and budget, there is also the concept of time relative to broad technological and market trends. Deep learning is becoming more and more prevalent, and there are now businesses built around deep learning that could not have existed just three years ago. There will be a small amount of time where deep learning is not completely adopted across different industries. During this time, those who are faster to successfully adopt deep learning practices may reap major reward. This, right now, is a timing window! One more example of a timing window is the cyclicality of availability of venture capital. A company may not be considered for VC not because the company is flawed but because it is too risky for the current financial mood of VC.

Starcraft army units in 50/50 ratio

Army composition

An army of soldiers and tanks behaves differently than an army of spaceships. Likewise, a soldier and tank army that is mostly soldiers behaves differently than a soldier and tank army that is mostly tanks. Understanding their strengths and weaknesses is important to effective control and utilization. In startups and business in general, you can view your company in this way as well. If you have a large marketing team, you should consider that an advantage for decisions involving marketing. Usually composition is obvious, but not always. Sometimes it takes work and effort to gather the information in the first place. Some skills are totally hidden until tested. For example, you might not know that your partner is an extremely good salesperson until they go to a conference with you. Or perhaps you don't realize you have an advantage in your customer support team until a user tells you how much better your support is than a competitor's. Perhaps you have funding to hire one more person but you have to choose whether they be a salesperson or a software developer, so you need to talk to people to figure out where the money would best be spent. A more general and friendly term is "team composition" or "team comp".

Metagame is a key aspect of balance

Meta (short for metagame)

This is my favorite concept from Starcraft. You may have heard it elsewhere. Once you understand it, you'll see it everywhere. Meta has multiple meanings. I will provide many examples because sometimes the concept is hard to grasp, mostly because the noun and verb form have slightly different meanings.

Meta (n.)
Short for "metagame". The common-knowlege "most-effective" strategy under certain conditions. Note here that it's not important that the strategy is actually the most-effective, but that it is commonly understood to be the most effective. The conditions are used to specify the meta as opposed to other metas.

Some examples: "the 2014 Starcraft 2 meta was very defensive", "the meta for professional soccer involves a lot more injury-faking than casual pickup games", "the current meta for startups is to take extreme risks and then go big or go home", "the meta for venture capital during the dot-com bubble was to focus on internet companies and disregard profits for the sake of growth", "the metagame for more conservative venture capital firms is to follow on investments made by other firms rather than be the first investors in a company or product space"
Metagaming (v.)
Using a strategy that is not considered generally effective but is especially effective against your specific opponent or in circumstances not inherent to the game itself. This opportunity might exist because the opponent has a simple flaw in their gameplay, or perhaps they have an idiosyncratic, non-meta approach that presents a unique weakness. Sometimes it simply means taking advantage of metagame knowledge in a broader sense.

Examples: "John knew that his opponent Mike would forfeit their Starcraft match if Mike got mad at the game, so John metagamed and intentionally used a very annoying strategy even though it wasn't as strong as his standard choice", "the Patriots knew their next game would be played at high-altitude, so they metagamed by practicing in Denver longer than they usually would", or "Uber metagamed the existing taxi services easily because they were not subject to the same laws"

Strategies can be effective because of inherent strengths, but they can also be effective because they counter a different strategy that is very popular at the time. Imagine that we're all playing rock-paper-scissors. If 50% of people throw rock every game, then rock is the "meta" for our group. This creates an opportunity to take advantage of an "anti-meta" strategy: paper players are going to win more often. Over time more people will be throwing paper, and the meta adapts. This is a key part of understanding meta: it tends to develop naturally over time as the popularity of strategies weighs against them as a disadvantage. Not to get overly poetic, but I find this particular aspect of metagames particularly beautiful. When there's a strong enough penalty for your strategy being popular or known, it creates a competitive environment that is practically guaranteed to have many diverse and creative strategies. Structural changes to a given game can also cause the meta to shift, sometimes quite dramatically. For example, if a large internet-search company changes their search engine optimization (a.k.a. SEO) algorithm, this may change the meta for how to write content that is easily discoverable online.

It's valuable to know how to use the meta to your advantage. An example we see in VC is that there are sometimes flavor of the month categories, such as scooters. A new scooter company may only be considered investable because there are other scooter companies around at the same time. Or the polar opposite, a company that is very unique in its offering (non-meta) may have very little competition and be desirable for that reason. A pattern we often see in metagames is that if one pole is extremely popular, it often indirectly causes the other pole to become more powerful than usual.

Of course, being meta can also be advantageous or even considered table-stakes by the common-knowledge crowd. For startups in the U.S., being a Delaware C Corp is meta to the point of assumption. Your finances are more easily understandable and investable. The metagame is usually the metagame for a reason after all.

There can be many different simultaneous metagames for the same game, based on who the players are. For example, high school football and professional football have different metagames because the players have different ability and the teams have different resources available. In Starcraft 2, casual and amateur players focus on different strategies than professional players for the same reason. They might not even have enough APM to execute the high-level strategies.

Metas can also develop between similar groups that are geographically isolated from one another. As an example from Starcraft, the players play online against each other but the game servers will only match players who are on the same continent. Because of this, sometimes the metagame in different regions will diverge. Perhaps the Korean players start playing very aggressively, while Europeans end up favoring a passive and defensive style. This can create very exciting clashes of strategy at international events. If a professional player wants to compete internationally, they need to know how players from different regions will play to their respective metagames. This is a pretty good analogue to businesses competing internationally. For example, there may be a metagame in the U.S. for how to compete in the automobile industry. But, if a company in the U.S. wants to compete against a European company, the competition will be fundamentally different because now the companies are subject to different regional laws. "Metagaming an opponent" in this arena might mean taking advantage of the fact that your country has looser laws around vehicle emissions in order to make more powerful cars. This regional law example is one way in which different metagames can develop for the "same" competition.

The lesson I want to preach here is not to always play meta, non-meta, or anti-meta, but to be aware of how they can be advantageous or disadvantageous, and to always be in-the-know about what the current meta is and how it is shifting.

Thanks for reading!