Guest Article: Multitasking and Starcraft - The Perfect Amount of Drops

Written by Offsajdh
Jul 18 2011, 9:04 AM EDT

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Written by Joel Hakalax
Art by Jeremy "Dinusty" Estrellado

What does science have to say about players performing 250-300 APM and how does that affect our decision making? How many things can the mind keep track of before losing information? Is there a golden amount of drops that can be sent to guarantee that the opponent won’t be able to keep up?

As it turns out, science has a lot to say about multitasking, namely that we can’t do it. At least not very well. Studies show that true multitasking is an extraordinarily difficult thing for the brain to process, resulting in a significant increase in errors and the time required to accomplish the tasks. Truly solving two different problems at the same time is hard. But when we watch our favorite StarCraft players execute multiple drops while taking an expansion and keeping up with worker production, how is that not multitasking? How are they managing to stay on top of so many things at once if they are not, in fact, multitasking?

Robot Hands

In an interview with NPR, neuroscientist Earl Miller explains that "People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves. The brain is very good at deluding itself." However, what we can do is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed. So while our professional StarCraft players are not multitasking per se, they are instead shifting focus between different pieces of information really really fast and making decisions based on what they see while doing so. Being able to sort out and ignore irrelevant information becomes just as important as highlighting valuable information. It is no small mental feat to do this while playing at the speeds that professional Starcraft players are.

Okay, so it may not be true multitasking, but for practical purposes it can be called multitasking, right? Well sure, but understanding how the mind works is important if we want to be able break that "multitasking" focus. Remember, if we can overload our opponent not only strategically, but mentally as well, then winning becomes that much easier.

So where do we go from here? Well, we need to look at how much our mind can keep track of and make sure that we force our opponent to exceed that limit. Our opponent will normally go through a number of familiar tasks in really quick succession, making sure that everything is in order. What we need to do is to add to that list of tasks so that something gets forgotten or at the very least, delayed.

The common claim is that the mind can only keep track of seven things at once. It has its origin in a 1956 psychology paper known as “Miller's Law”. However, it is worth mentioning that more recent research has begun demonstrating that the correct number is more likely around three or four.

Playing well in Starcraft requires keeping track of a lot of different elements, such as maintaining map control, producing an army, establishing a strong economy, scouting your opponent, etc.. As a result, the cognitive effort for the average player may already be tied up in maintaining what we would call “good macro”. Even if we have godlike reflexes to react to potential drops in a heartbeat, a two- or three-pronged attack may not only result in direct damage, but may also impact later stages of our game, since those attacks forced additional items on to our already crowded to-do list. Thus we want to keep our opponent under pressure, especially in the lower leagues, so that we are constantly poking in and making sure our opponent has additional items on his to-do list to worry about in order to play well..

But this isn't the final answer, it can't be. Our StarCraft heroes have long since proven that they can micro people’s pants off while still maintaining strong macro, not sacrificing one thing for another. So what gives? How are StarCraft II pros able to keep an ungodly amount of things in their head at once if there are true scientific limits to our mental capacity for "multitasking?”

10,000 Hours

Well, the short and easy answer is practice. Lots of it. No really, LOTS. Upwards to about 10,000 hours of it to be exact. That is equivalent of eight hours a day for over three years, without vacation. This is also the estimated lower limit needed to build a gameplay vocabulary similar to that of a chess grandmaster. Once you have put in that amount of practice, you will have accumulated a vocabulary of patterns so vast that there are very few situations that will throw you off your game.


The mind loves to find patterns; it tries to do so even when there are none to be found. Patterns allows the mind to make certain assumptions regarding a situation and therefore have more time to devote to other, more important tasks. StarCraft, especially the opening of a game, consists of very clear and well defined patterns. Even into the mid-game these patterns are evident for established pros, allowing them to spend more of their cognitive ability thinking about their overall strategy simply because their mind has encountered this situation before, recognizes the pattern, and knows what the proper response is. Through devoted practice, the whole concept of macro becomes to a degree; second nature, and takes up less and less cognitive space, freeing the mind to work on the finer and more detailed aspects of the game.

Unpracticed players are forced to devote more of their working memory and cognitive effort on tasks that well practiced players do almost automatically, which explains the difficult learning curve of the game.

Think of it as playing a familiar song on an instrument. If you have played that song before, your fingers know where they are supposed to be going almost by themselves, it becomes muscle memory. Although, not every game of Starcraft is the same, therefore not every melody that you start of playing will end up the same. The “4-Infestor Hit Squad” creator, Destiny, likened it to music improvisation in one of his lessons, saying that certain notes follow each-other better than others. Likewise, through extensive practice our professional players learn better and better sequences of “notes” that respond well to given situations, allowing their cognitive effort to focus on a more long-term strategy for victory.

The keyboard becomes your piano, and your fingers find the notes you need given the patterns the current game reflects. Nowhere is this more beautifully demonstrated then by IMLosirA, effortlessly allowing his fingers to find the notes he wants without giving it much conscious thought.

Overall though, it is hard to claim that there is a golden number of drops that will guarantee that your opponent will lose focus of something important, especially if we are talking about well-practiced pros. What can be said though, is that breaking the familiar patterns that players are well-practiced versus is a potent way of increasing an opponent’s cognitive load. But in the event that your opponent has over 10,000 hours logged, that may not be enough, since the previous cited study of chess grandmasters shows a strong correlation between normal paced chess and speed chess, hinting at that it does not really matter how fast you force your opponent to play, at a certain point of practice he will find the right solution to most situations.

PainUser reportedly said on a co-cast with HD: "Hard work always beats talent, until talent works hard."

Sources and further reading for those interested:

The Effect of Speed on Skilled Chess Performance
A bit of a heavy read perhaps, but quite interesting nonetheless. At a high level, skilled players perform almost as well in Speed Chess as they would in a normal paced game based on the Chess rating system. So is it possible to claim that APM does not matter as long as the player has the ability to spike his reaction times in accordance to the circumstances? I don't know. But this would further lend weight to statistics showing famous players such as White-Ra, Sjow, ThorZain, Socke etc. not bothering with increasing their average APM beyond 130, but spiking it higher only in situations that require it (found in this TL thread).

[Anand Vs. Ivanchuk Blitz Chess Game]

A few things to notice and think about here. See how the opening of the Chess game is very fluent? It is not until the later stages of the game where we see how the players begin to struggle with strategic situations. The same can be said of games in Starcraft, where players in the opening of the game “go through the motions” of familiar patterns they have played many many times before. This video is particularly interesting because it shows that, unlike what the study cited in the article claims, speed has an impact at least some of the time. The exception that confirms the rule perhaps?

NPR - Think You're Multitasking? Think Again
Scientific American - Motivated Multitasking: How the Brain Keeps Tabs on Two Tasks at Once
Both are easy and interesting reads, highly recommended.

The Architecture of the Golfer's Brain
A study examining the differences in brain structure between golfers of various skill. This is interesting because it also cites the 10,000 hour mark as required to become a professional, but finds that actual structural change in the brain occurs as early as during the first 800-3000 hours.

Human Multitasking
The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two