Micro vs. Macro Gameplay

Micro vs. Macro


Surprisingly, a large number of people in the video games industry expressed ignorance on  the concept of micro vs. macro gameplay. If you’re not familiar, now’s your chance to learn.

It’s an important concept in video games and a concept that raises some interesting questions in the context of a mobile device.

Stop and think: Which kind of gameplay do you think works on mobile devices? Micro? Macro? Both? Why?

Really. Think about it before reading on…

The content of this post covers:

  1. The basic concept
  2. Micro vs Macro gameplay type by platform
  3. Implications for mobile games

1. The Basic Concept:

Let’s first start by explaining the concept for the non-RTS gamers out there:

Micro vs. Macro Diagram
Source: Warcraft 3 Screenshot

Micro (short for “micromanagement”) refers to the level of granular and specific control a user has over game units. See the Warcraft 3 example above. The user’s skill and ability to granularly control their hero and other game units define’s the user’s micro skill.

Macro (or “macro-management”) refers to higher level strategic game considerations. Macro skills therefore do not depend on granular twitch/reflex based control of game elements. Again, using the Warcraft 3 example above as a reference, good macro skill would involve:

  • Strategy: The player’s game strategy to win including issues such as planned attack sequence, game style, and building development progression
  • Resource Management: The management of game resource materials to build buildings faster and more effectively
  • Map Awareness: Ability to predict and properly adjust to what an enemy may be doing by watching map movements (or lack of movement)

A funny example of a player with poor micro ability:

Source: 9Gag.com

2. Gameplay Type By Platform:

Now let’s consider micro vs. macro gameplay by platform. While many games on the PC platform can have a micro, macro, or dual focus (such as in PC RTS), other platforms support these types of gameplay to varying degrees.

Consider the following hypothesis of gameplay type support by platform:

Micro vs. Macro Gameplay by Platform
Do you agree with this assessment? Let me know…

3. Implications for Mobile Games:

Assuming my thesis regarding micro vs. macro based gameplay type by platform is correct, then so what?

Well, if this view is correct then I posit the following conclusions:

  1. Do: In designing games for specific platforms, think about the type of control and type of gameplay that makes sense for the platform. How much micro vs. macro vs. both types of gameplay should be integrated into the game?
  2. Don’t Do: Consider that certain types of games or game genres will not work on mobile devices (e.g., Don’t build a MOBA/DOTA type of game or FPS for mobile devices!)
  3. Improve: Think about the localization of a game design more carefully by platform. How can you modify the game or +1 the game design of a game on one platform to make it more compelling for another platform by changing the micro vs. macro design and gameplay mix?

Industry Example: League of Legends to Mobile = Zynga’s Solstice Arena

A recent industry example of this concept can be seen in Zynga’s attempt to bring a MOBA/DOTA (e.g., League of Legends) type of game to mobile devices… which I just suggested above was a bad idea. 🙂

Based on the concept of micro vs. macro, I would conclude:

  • Mobile devices (not to say tablets however) will not be a good fit for MOBAs and will likely not gain a large audience
  • Tablets may be a viable platform but would require simplification of the micro gameplay
MOBA to mobile?

To date, Solstice Arena has not performed well which seems to corroborate the hypothesis of poor mobile platform fit for this kind of game:

Solstice Arena Download Ranks

However, as the user base for tablets grows and Zynga is able to better adapt the gameplay for tablet devices can this game make a comeback?

I believe the Solstice Arena team did a pretty good job of translating a MOBA type of game to mobile so would expect more success of the game at least eventually on tablet devices.


What do you think?

How important is the consideration of micro vs. macro based gameplay to you?


  • Brian Sapp (@Sappalicious)

    Posted October 11, 2013 12:11 am

    Nice post. I’d also add that when developing for mobile, you have to also consider ‘touch’ controls as your primary input which is still not optimal for most ‘micro’ games and most users. This reinforces the fact that micro is even less engaging on mobile and tablet.

    • Joseph Kim

      Posted October 16, 2013 5:07 pm

      Absolutely agreed Brian. I was actually considering delving a bit further into the point you make and discuss re-defining to some degree micro for phone/tablet/phablet. It’s a fundamentally different micro experience which is why MOBA type of games will need to adjust more strongly to find success. Great point…

  • Nicolas Godement (@NicolasG_B)

    Posted October 14, 2013 4:07 pm

    Great article! I often like to perform the following exercise: take big traditional (read: console, PC) game genres, and see how they had to adapt to mobile:
    RTS => Clash of Clans
    Platform => Endless runners
    Racing => CSR
    FPS => Deer Hunter (it’s debatable but I argue their gameplay is better suited to mobile than true FPS such as NOVA, The Drowning, etc.)
    Beat’em Up => Infinity Blade

    I realize now that what those games share in common is that they streamlined the experience to a couple of micro gameplay features, and added a heavier macro metagame. Wonder what your take would be on every game genre? Which genres haven’t been properly tackled yet?

  • Joseph Kim

    Posted October 16, 2013 5:14 pm

    Hi Nicolas! The approach you’re taking looking at console/PC is a good one, I would also say that the area I look at even more strongly is open web games and the whole Nintendo handheld catalog. There is so much opportunity left and I strongly feel that although there are some good games on mobile we still have a long ways to go in terms of making really awesome games.

    Deer Hunter is a good example but I would say that at least for me it was more arcade coin-op to mobile. I used to play the Japanese coin op game Golgo 13 and felt somebody would figure this out for mobile. There was also a casual sniper game in the top 10 free so was only a matter of time before someone did a higher production value version of that game.

  • Jason

    Posted November 22, 2013 1:23 am

    I really like the post and the discussion it sparks. I’m not really surprised that many people in the industry don’t know the terms “micro” and “macro”, as those terms are pretty specific to RTS and economics.

    I don’t quite agree with your analysis though. Fruit ninja, Temple run, Angry Birds, rhythm games etc are all pure micro games that work perfectly on the phone. I think it’s more about the type of micro / macro you can do that’s different, which is dependent on the screen size / device size / input type. I also don’t agree with Brian’s comment that micro on mobile is less engaging. It’s just as engaging, just different. I’m very engaged playing fruit ninja and running with friends!

    I would say that precision controls and quick complex controls in succession (not just swipe left swipe right, but tap back, click skill, target enemy) in general do not work as well on mobile, as your finger is not as precise or as fast as a mouse/keyboard, and your hand blocks part of your vision as you’re “microing”.

    I would avoid trying to force games like these onto mobile as is and take into consideration how the user actually uses the device. I’m highly skeptical that these MOBA games will work on tablet, even with smart touch controls. The complexity and speed of MOBA controls on PC I think just won’t work on mobile (someone can prove me wrong though). This doesn’t mean that MOBA itself can’t work in a general sense (multiplayer online battle arena), but it will probably need to take a different form that doesn’t look so much like DOTA.

    Also, Solstice arena failed for more reasons than just its controls. Matchmaking was pretty awful in that game, for instance. Getting everything right is something that Riot spent a lot of time, effort, and money on.

    Your blog is awesome. There aren’t many places to have real discussions like this online.

  • Joseph Kim

    Posted December 7, 2013 4:16 am

    Hey Jason, sorry for such a late response… I’ve been getting my butt kicked recently.

    To your point, I actually agree with your point that “micro” shouldn’t be considered in the same way for PC and for a mobile device. It’s almost like a notion of “micro granularity” where you are able to micro at a very fine and detailed level on PC devices but much courser and less control on a mobile device.

    As far as engagement, it may be a semantic issue but I agree with Brian that at least for me it’s a different experience. For example, you could call watching a movie more engaging than watching a TV show (in general) and that’s sort of how I feel about the “engagement” level of a micro experience on mobile vs. PC.

    Jason you and I should do a deep dive on mobile MOBAs and write something together! This is a very controversial and exciting topic. The Hammer & Chisel guys as well as Super Evil Megacorp are certainly making a big bet here and would be fun to analyze this area ahead of their launches.

    • Jason

      Posted December 10, 2013 7:51 am

      Hey Joseph,

      Good point on TV vs Movies – this a GREAT comparison and argument for different levels of engagement. I think that a lot of that is determined by the environment that you’re in and the level of investment expected of the user. This is a big reason why I think movie theaters will take a long time to phase out – it’s just a different experience than watching at home (and why playing games on your TV / PC monitor isn’t going away any time soon, it’s just not as exciting anymore).

      There can be something said about the medium being the message here. You’re never really going to sit down and try to get a “movie” experience out of your pad or phone, you have your PC and Xbox/Playstation for that.

      As for “micro”, I think it can be considered the same on all platforms. “Micro” is moving units, attacking, swiping, casting spells etc, while “macro” is managing your economy/strategy/unit composition/build order/skilling. It’s just that the controls are different, which fundamentally changes how micro happens. PC keyboard and mouse allow precision and fast control (small wrist movement and the cursor moves a far distance). A mouse / keyboard also allow more complex actions to happen at the same time, while on the pad you really can only perform up to 2 actions at the same time (left thumb + right thumb or something). I cringe at the thought of trying to QWER my skills on a touch screen (and selecting targets!). On console you can cast your spells, but selecting targets and moving around is so slow and clunky for most of the MOBAs I’ve seen tried there.

      I think the MOBA experience is definitely possible (in some form), and I’d love to do a deep dive on it and analyze / predict what I think are the key elements to being successful with it on mobile. Just let me know when / how you wanna do it.

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