Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Book of Nothing

The title of this article (and most of my articles, actually) are nerdy references, so props if you get them.

Anyway, this article is about nothing. It's going to be really, really long. I'm serious.

The readers most likely to benefit from this article are gamers or competitors in general. Martial artists have a lot to gain here, since this isn't something you learn until you are a high ranked black belt in your discipline. Most competitors in most types of games will benefit from this. People who participate in contests (track and field, Guitar Hero, weightlifting) will not benefit much, though.

This article is about nothing. I mean that. The art of nothing is a magical thing because when we are competing against someone, we are of the mind to do something as much as possible. But sometimes the best choice is to do nothing. And that is the focus for today.

When I think of game strategy, the value of nothing is very close to my heart. If nothing is good in a game, I tend to think of it as a good game, since so many games focus on doing a lot of things as quickly as possible. If nothing is a good choice, it means that there is a good balance between offense and defense. Obviously in a game like Killer Instinct, nothing is far too good and doing something is very very bad. This is also very bad too.

When you boil down the strategic option to do nothing, we have to analyze exactly what 'nothing' is. In StarCraft, it is a very bad idea to never be doing anything, but there is certainly value in 'doing nothing' at times. Even if we narrowly define nothing, it is usually a bad idea to do nothing in StarCraft.

In order to be doing nothing:
1) You must not be doing anything that affects the opponent
2) You must not be spending resources on things that sacrifice your defense (teching and expanding in SC are not 'nothing')
3) You must be able to defend yourself instantly in the event you are attacked

The first point is true because if we are attacking or otherwise harassing the opponent, that is not nothing. The opponent is threatened and he will likely respond. A good example of doing nothing though is when you are not quite threatening the opponent, you feint an attack, such as whiffing jabs or fast kicks in front of the opponent in Street Fighter. This can intimidate the opponent without actually attacking him. Also, if the opponent does an attack, your 'nothing' defense becomes a counter attack and interrupts his attack. Of course you cannot be predictable, or else you are in fact doing something and your opponent can try to hit you out of it. So if you are doing nothing, you must in fact be doing nothing that your opponent can strike at you for, even if he predicts your something - because your something is actually nothing, his counter will miss and he will leave himself open.

Point one also has to do with attacking resources. If we are not attacking we are not spending valuable resources on attack. If we have some kind of energy that we use to attack or a number of units we must send to attack, we are losing resources when we are attacking. In many cases an opponent who is defending may overpower us in resources or have the endurance to withstand our attack even if we expend our attacking resources. We must either attack in ways he does not expect in order to bypass his guard, or we must do nothing until the situation changes - he attacks foolishly or we gain more resources. In this way, building units and amassing an army in a defensive position is nothing until the time either we or our opponent attacks, because we are flexible - we can decide to expand or tech or do other things if it becomes needed.

Point two is that we are not spending resources. If we build a resource up to gain a powerful advantage later, we are vulnerable in the meantime. This is not nothing, for if the opponent were to attack, he would find us unprepared and vulnerable. This is why teching and expanding are not nothing. If we expand, we are vulnerable until our expansion is completed and has paid for itself. In the meantime, we are down on resources and the opponent may decide to attack us before our resources have become an advantage.

If we have weakened the opponent, we can use that opportunity to build resources. If in Street Fighter I knock down my opponent, I may take the advantage I gain there to move away from my opponent and use special moves in order to get super meter faster. Instead of attacking my opponent, I spent that opportunity moment to gain resources. This is not nothing, even though my opponent could not retaliate. A good example of nothing was if I moved close to the opponent but out of throwing range and did nothing. If my opponent were to attack me, I would not be harmed and could attack back. If they do nothing, I have only a little time to react and keep the advantage. Since being knocked down is a bad situation for them, if I do nothing and they do as well, the opponent gets out of the bad situation for free. Doing nothing can be a disadvantage in this case.

Likewise in StarCraft, if my opponent and I exchange in battle and my opponent is weaker afterwards, it may not be a good idea for me to do nothing. I should convert that advantage in some way to make more advantage, whether I decide to tech or expand or attack, I should do something because the situation is in my favor. My opponent's ability to defend is weaker so I should make the most of my situation. Sometimes though it is prudent to do nothing, if it is not possible to tech or expand and my opponent can retreat to a strong defensive position and even the battle up. In this case, as before, the best option is to attack in sneaky ways the opponent is not defending against or tech or expand in order to turn your advantage into more advantage.

In non-RTS type situations though doing nothing can sometimes be good even if you seem to be at an advantage. A good example is in fighting games or a martial arts tournament, if you are ahead in score (health, in fighting games) it may be the best option to do nothing. If there is a time limit, being ahead in score means you will eventually win unless your opponent does something. If you are well-prepared to defend the attack, you should prepare to avoid their attack and defeat it with a powerful counter attack instead of pushing forward to attack.

The reason why is because when you are ahead in score or life, your opponent can still fight back at their full strength. Being behind in score does not stop your opponent from attacking in every way they would otherwise be able to do. For this reason, you should wait for an opening or weakness in order to press advantage. When the opponent is losing, they often get upset or angry and try to attack in order to tie things up. You can take advantage of this by being prepared and defeat his attack before it ever happens. This will put you even further ahead in score and make your opponent feel even more helpless.

Part number three is quite obvious in that we must be able to defend ourself or else we are not really doing nothing, we are doing something. It is obvious - if we are doing nothing, we must be able to easily be able to do something as soon as our situation changes. On the one hand, we must be able to defend ourselves, and that is the most important thing. But we must also be able to attack. If we are doing nothing, our opponent may think we are defending. But we are not! We are ready to defend or attack at a moment's notice! If our opponent plans for a sneaky way to get around our defense he may leave himself open. This is the time to attack! If we can gain the upper hand in battle we should surely leave our position and strike quickly before the opponent can change his fate.

But doing nothing also gives us a discerning eye to recognize bait, so make sure that you are not attacking at nothing, for you will surely fail. When in doubt, always attack with things that do not cost much resources. If the opponent counters that attack, you have knowledge of how he planned to counter you, and you likely didn't spend much resources on your attack so you probably have many options left. Once you know how the opponent plans to counter you can then ready yourself to defeat that counter. Best of all is if we pretend to attack at their bait, but do not! Then the tables have turned, and we have baited them into countering nothing! Then we defeat their attack decisively.

But the greatest advantage of nothing is that it makes us aware of things. If we are not worried about what we are going to do next, we can mentally make ourselves aware of what our opponent is to do next. Then we can formulate a plan of action. If we are doing something, our concentration is divided, but if we are not doing something, we can focus much more on what the opponent is doing. This is a concept I'll talk about in much greater detail later, since it is key to success in competition (especially StarCraft, heh).

Nothing is not present in all games. In most RPG-type games, doing nothing is very bad. This is because there are not many immediate counters in RPGs, so even if we know the opponent will do something, we cannot wait and counter it - we have to implement a method to defeat it, and that means doing something, such as crippling the opponent's attack or preemptively attacking in order to defeat the opponent quickly. Many times in these type of games battles become a matter of whose attack is stronger, and not the mind games of the battle. This is unfortunate, since mind games are needed for a strong competition. Still, even in some RPGs like WoW, doing nothing is not very viable but there are many different strategies, and even though nothing is quite bad in that game, there are still many options for defeating the opponent's strategy. Even then, a game where nothing is not viable deprives a player of a key strategic option.

For a game that is very strategically deep and intense without having nothing, look at Puzzle Fighter, or perhaps Hexic 2. These games are very strategic and interesting, but nothing is a bad idea. Obviously WoW is also a good example, even if its strategic depth is not as high as Puzzle Fighter's. For sports, tennis is a good example of a game where you cannot do nothing. Football is an example of a game where nothing is usually a bad idea but there are some times where it may be useful (especially at the end of a quarter). Other games like soccer or basketball are good examples where nothing is a fairly good strategy.

One other thing I would like to address before I finish is whether running away ("kiting") is nothing. I am inclined to say no in most games. If you cannot immediately attack or defend, retreating is not nothing. In some games, like City of Heroes, running away is probably safe to consider as nothing, since you are free to attack or defend in most cases even if you are running away. Likewise, withdrawing from a battle in a martial arts competition is probably also still considered nothing although in the strictest sense, you cannot use your legs in the same way as if you are not moving.

As I said, nothing is a very detailed subject, with many facets. You didn't think I could really write an article about nothing, did you!


  1. The concept of doing nothing also has some wider-reaching macro-concepts behind it, as well, on a grander scale.

    From a military standpoint, in real life (Or in... gasp, EVE Online), doing nothing can be extremely advantageous.

    I often mention this to people in EVE, (You knew I would bring up EVE, don't lie) because a lot of the players, corporations, and alliances in EVE have this opinion that they should always be doing something, much like in StarCraft. EVE alliances (in 0.0) are almost always either attacking, expanding, or defending against attackers who are attempting the foremost option.
    I rage at a lot of corps and alliances for this reason. Doing nothing in EVE is extremely advantageous. On a macro, alliance-wide, scale, doing nothing is the same thing as teching and resource building, but it doesn't create a massive opportunity cost.
    Doing nothing means that you will be able to respond to the (MANY) enemies in nearby space, at any moment, and you're not committing to actions which have wider-reaching political implications.

    I'll show an example, which is currently affecting the alliance I am a part of in a big way. My alliance decided to attack a neighboring alliance who had recently been expanding (not doing nothing) into some space dangerously close to our own borders. Seeing this as an aggressive action (it really wasn't), alliance leadership decided to commit to an attack.
    The end result of performing that attack, even though it was successful initially, was that we severely pissed off all of the friends of the alliance in question, and strained the political ties we already had. We pulled all of our resources which we had committed to that attack back, almost immediately, but it was too late to stop the political landslide that ensued.
    As of this moment, there are no less than 12 alliances that have us on the defensive, punishing us for the attack we made... but if we had simply done nothing, instead of attacking, we would have had time to better assess the situation, and realize what we were really up against.

    It's like we got punished for an unsafe attack with a huge ultra-combo... the only difference is that in EVE, the combo lasts for months.

    Anyway, the point is still that doing nothing can be important in large-scale military actions and in politics, and not enough people realize what that means about the depth involved in the choice. Too many people, like Auspice says, are focused on "doing something".

  2. Yeah, something like that. I mean, it's the same idea as in starcraft, except the timescale is a lot longer. I think that maybe you're missing the point a little because decision-making is much easier the more time you have to do it, and in most cases the decision to attack in EVE 0.0 isn't really taken lightly.

    Or maybe it is, I don't know, I don't play EVE. It just seems like in a game where lost money can take weeks or months to recover from, a group would think a lot on whether they should commit to an attack or not. I assume that if you're in a fairly big 0.0 alliance that you'd think very hard on attacking, because a failed attack is very painful in terms of resources lost.

    Again, kind of like starcraft. The only difference is that in SC having lots of resources built up in units for a long time is really bad. You should not build up for too long because if you do nothing and your opponent techs or expands you are in trouble. Obviously if he commits to an attack then doing nothing is good, and if you are doing nothing and get dropped you can be in a better spot to counter.

    In EVE I assume that building up resources is the point, so everyone gets richer? I have no idea, there's no winning condition in EVE so it seems sort of subjective to me. I can only relate doing nothing to zero-sum situations, if profit is the point then doing nothing and gathering resources is the better choice obviously.