Micro- vs. Macro-Management

Micromanagement refers to controlling every detail of a task, usually done by another person. For example, if your boss micromanages you, that means she is hovering over your shoulders and telling you what to do. In video games, micromanagement (or “micro” for short) refers to the exact same act, except that the player will be controlling every action of the player character or, in some cases, multiple characters.

In StarCraft (PC/MAC 1998, Des. Chris Metzen, James Phinney), you must control multiple units by giving them different actions and move commands. SCVs must mine resources while marines fight enemies while dropships carry units across the map, etc. You must micromanage these units during the game so that they are doing exactly what you want them to, otherwise they might make decisions based on their programming and do something you hadn’t intended.

Macromanagement is not as often understood because the word isn’t used as much. Back to the example of you and your boss, imagine that instead of micromanaging you, she was macromanaging you. This would mean that she isn’t constantly controlling your actions, which are in the “here and now”, but she is working on the infrastructure and work space that controls your future actions. While micromanagement is very much about the “here and now”, macromanagement refers to the “big picture”. If you are a chef, you have to cook several dishes at once. Going around and adding spices, stirring, and checking for doneness are micromanagement. However, if you want everything to be finished at the same time, you must know that a risotto takes thirty-five minutes, so you’ll start that before the main course, and you’ll need to sauté the mushrooms before you can put the steak into the pan, so you’ll start that shortly after beginning the risotto, and the salad needs to be the freshest, so it’s done at the end while the steak is getting to temperature. Basically, macromanagement is putting tasks in their most efficient order.

image from Wikimedia

Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Making Us Smarter (2005), used The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GameCube 2002, Dir. Eiji Aonuma) as a perfect example of macromanagement (although he called it “telescoping”). In Wind Waker (as well as all Zelda games), you generally know your ultimate goal at the beginning of the game. In Wind Waker, you must defeat Ganondorf. This requires getting the Master Sword, which requires beating a certain dungeon which requires, etcetera and so forth. Basically, there are dozens, even hundreds, of tasks that must be completed before you (as Link) can defeat Ganon. Determining the most efficient order of events is the essence of macromanagement.

Going back to StarCraft, the “macro” (as its community refers to it) involves something called a “build order”, which refers to the order in which you must build various structures. For an example, take a look at the “2 Gate Fast Expand” build over at SC2Builds.com.  This says that when playing as the Protoss race versus another player of the Protoss race, you should create your first building at 30 seconds into a match. The “9” to the left of this text is how many units should already have been built. In this case, you have mined enough resources to build 9 probes, which means that (according to this build), you should build a pylon. And by the time you have 13 units, you should build a gateway. In order for this to be an optimal build, this gateway should be built by 1 minute and 20 seconds into the match. To see this build being used in a game, here’s a video from FlatLineSC2’s YouTube Channel.

Hand in Hand

The key to understanding real-time strategy (RTS) games such as StarCraft is to understand both the micromanagement of the units as well as the macromanagement of the build order. If you watch any video of a player in a StarCraft match, you’ll notice that the mouse is constantly controlling units (micro) while the keyboard is running through hotkeys that select units (for micro), switch to structures to build more units (macro), order a unit to build the structure (micro), and then controls the units (micro) until it is time to build another structure (macro).

This back and forth is not unique to StarCraft. After all, Zelda players still have to micromanage Link’s movement and attacks while they are on the way to completing their next objective (although the time between actions is much longer than fast-paced e-sports such as StarCraft). In fact, some games focus more on one type of management than the other, and understanding this balance is important in understanding the mechanics and appeal of that game.

Micro over Macro

Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas (MOBAs) such as Dota 2 (PC/MAC 2013, Des. IceFrog) and League of Legends (PC/MAC 2009, Dir. Tom “Zileas” Cadwell) are notorious for focusing heavily on micro- instead of macro-management.

Originally designed as a mod for Warcraft III: Frozen Throne (PC/MAC 2002, Des. Rob Pardo), Defense of the Ancients (PC/MAC 2003-05, Des. Eul, Steve “Guinsoo” Feak, IceFrog), often abbreviated as “DotA”, requires you to control a single character instead of a whole platoon of different unit types. Because you have only one player to control, the amount of management for that player weighs more heavily on the “micro” side of things than the “macro”.

The macromanagement of a MOBA lies more in the items and in what order to build those. The largest component, though, next to micromanagement comes in team strategy and tactics, which requires constant communication among players.

Multitasking vs. Efficient Unitasking

Micromanagement is closely linked to “multitasking”, or the simultaneous completion of more than one task. Multitasking is basically a form of micromanagement. Likewise, one can look at the earlier Zelda example and view macromanagement as “efficient unitasking”, which is the completion of several tasks in order, but one at a time.

The chef analogy is important because it demonstrates the perfect scenario when micro- and macro-management must be used symbiotically. However, there are plenty of times when tasks must be taken one at a time and completed at their own pace. For example, when you check your emails, you don’t start one, edit another, make an attachment on a third, and then go back to the first one before hopping back and forth. I suppose you could, but it just makes more sense to complete objectives one at a time so that all of your focus is given to one at a time instead of split over several. After all, it would be embarrassing if you sent your vacation photos to your boss and a year’s worth of invoices to your grandmother.

Notice how the World of Warcraft map shows the quests as dots that can be connected to form their most efficient path.

image from Wowjuju by Luci.

Likewise, some games prefer to have you focusing on one task before moving on to another. In a way, Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs, or MMOs) do this. In World of Warcraft (PC/MAC 2004, Des. Rob Pardo, Jeff Kaplan, Tom Chilton), you will often find that you go into a town and collect several quests before you head out into the wilderness to complete the quests. Of course, some of these quests can be completed at the same time (such as “Kill 12 Boars” and “Collect 6 Boar Hearts”), but what the game wants you to do is look at your map, determine what path you can take to complete as many of them in the least amount of time, and then execute on that plan. So in this example, you would be making more use of macromanagement techniques then micro.

Why Does This Matter?

Ultimately, games are social experiments where we choose to be test subjects. By studying the different ways we manage our time and organize our schedules within virtual spaces, we are able to bring that information into the real world. In fact, we’ve already established how we use these techniques in the real world, and by identifying these methods as separate and singular entities, we are able to have control over how these strategies play into our own lives.

So moving forward, think more about how you organize and complete tasks as well as how time is split between them, whether that’s within a game or in your everyday life.

featured image “chefs” by Matthew Hine licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution Non-Commercial

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