There are RTS games. Then there are RTS games deserving of their title as "Real-time strategy".
Just as the majority of games out there suffer from horribly bad design, like Dawn of War, most mods out there suffer as well. The defining point of a mod is introducing a new and exciting world; often buffeted by ridiculously bad balancing and plain, boring unit design.
Today I will give a glimpse into my balance designs of ITAS, AO, and other mods. I will go into the intricate details of my inner workings and show to you how I build carefully balanced and carefully designed gameplay. I will introduce to you the concept of metagaming on an entirely new level - your level.
I am IskatuMesk. The contents of this rant do not represent the views of CC. This article may not be recited or redistributed, in part or in whole, anywhere without my express written permission. Nothing I say here is meant to be an attack on modmakers or individuals, but rather taking their work as examples as to why I personally feel they do not reach their potential.
Balance is a messy topic. I am a messy writer. This article will probably not flow very coherently or be fully completed, because it is impossible to summarize balancing aspects and unit design in any number of articles. It's a key thing that separates tagalongs like Relic from legends like the team that made Starcraft.
The Edge of Reason, The Infinite Balance
Starcraft as you well know is virtually the perfect game. Its balance is untouched by the rubbish commonly forced out in a midnight ceremony by companies like EA and Relic. But what makes it so perfectly balanced? And, moreso, how can you as a modder and a developer reflect upon Starcraft and learn from it to extend its concepts to your creation and develop your own concepts?
Balance is, as its name implies, a concept of polarities. One side is strong, but so is the other. To create equal strength, one quickly presumes to make both sides equal. This is how Supreme Commander approaches balance - it eliminates racial diversity, tech trees, micro, and virtually all elements that can change balance. Or, you may go the way of the dodo - er, EA - and make everything Rock Paper Scissors. The gameplay is stale, predictable, and as both a spectator and a player you are left unchallenged by your opponent. Skill differences are few and far inbetween. High-end gamers find little separating each other and there is very little reason to keep playing.
Or, you can be innovative. You can place the power of the game in the player's hands. You can let them choose their fate.
This is what Starcraft does. It challenges players greatly. It isn't just a technical game. It isn't just a game where you know the units. You also must know the map. Even the slightest, almost insignificant map variations can totally change the game balance. Then, you must know your opponent. Starcraft delves deep into psychological warfare in a way never before seen in Esports.
"But mods will never be played in Esports. Why should I pay such close attention to balance when no one this skill level will ever play?"
Quite simple to answer this question.
At the heart of gameplay is balance. As I touched upon in my RTS article, a game that is otherwise intuitive can destroy itself if its balancing is horrendously bad. (re: everything by Relic, anything that uses Squads, anything that is hard-counter based).
Today I will challenge the three major types of balancing and show you what makes them tick. I will show you the concept of Metagame, why the games of today lack it.
Metagame - Forging your Gameflow
A game that has little or no racial diversity, like Supreme Commander, will always drum down to economy. Since all of the units play very similarly, the metagame drums down to who has the best economy. Ultimately player skill ends up mattering very little past early-game, and the user's attention ends up drawing away because there isn't much they need to think about. "Well, my 5 tanks will beat his 3 tanks." Often, economy-based gameplay is associated with very simple unit design. This isn't always so, but most often it is.
This is how Homeworld tends to fan out. Homeworld is most well-known for its fully 3d playing field, something greatly reduced by Homeworld 2, but at heart it's an economic game. The races have virtually no diversity, there is no micro to speak of, and you spend most the time just sitting there gawking at the little 20 poly ships as they fly around.
Supreme Commander can be fast paced, or it can be slowed paced. On a small map, it instantly turns into a spamfest that takes a nod from C&C; players just rallying units and A-moving them at each other until someone dies. Watching the highest skilled players and most revered individuals play on these small maps is boring as hell because it ultimately turns out to be luck or a minor mishap that ends the game; maybe he forgot to move his commander, or maybe the enemy snuck a few bombers into his power.
Ultimately, economic games are solved very quickly and suddenly by economic power shifts, or very slowly by slow economic supremacy and "crawling". They are boring to play because they don't demand much out of the player in terms of thinking. Because of the lack of racial diversity, you know exactly what your opponent will end up doing, and there is no real dynamic gameflow to speak of. Map properties will determine the economic gameplay but apart from that it typically is drawn into simple map control. "If I control these 2 oil derricks, I win because I have more money."
Economy-based gameplay has a niche audience, but is ultimately very bad for a mod to follow in the steps of. Slow gameflow, uninteresting strategic mechanics, and power shifts largely determined by who has the most cash to spend and little else makes both a boring game to watch and a boring game to play. Almost all of the games who are economic based, like Supreme Commander, have a very small userbase and are generally considered failures. Mods who use economic gameplay as a basis are rarely played that much because of the lack of intuitive gameplay and the overall stale nature that kills replayability.
Hard counter-based gameplay
C&C and Dawn of War both are hard-counter based games. A Hard Counter is when the Elf does 50% more damage to the Human, but the Human does 50% more damage to the Orc, and the Orc does 50% more damage to the Elf.
Hard-counters totally destroy metagame and mechanics because they take the gameplay completely out of the player's hands. He has no choice in what to do because if enemy has unit A he needs unit B because unit C is totally useless. Micro becomes a null-factor and so the gameplay has little driving it other than trying to cockblock the enemy first. Hard counters are boring and pointless and have no place in a modern game.
In Dawn of War, most vehicles do absolutely no damage to infantry besides very specific vehicles, which get all but 2-shotted by spammable abilities and anti-vehicle units. Yet, because the developers are retarded, you can actually easily rush vehicles and completely decimate your opponent if he doesn't see it coming simply because you can micro vehicles but you can't micro infantry. Squads take the unit control out of the player's hands and dumb down the gameplay to a point where you rarely need to even pay attention to where your units are or what they're doing; so long as they're shooting at something, you're good. The high level gameplay of Dawn of War is so pathetic that the majority of players who got into it ended up dropping out after a week or two.
Relic further added insult to misery by introducing Hard Caps; effectively limiting roughly half of the units in the game to a certain number being available at a time. So, you could only have so many squads of whatever and so many vehicles of whatever. These were pretty small limits, too.
Dawn of War is an extreme-end spectrum of a game that forces a player to play a certain way. Because of hard counters and hard caps, you'll always end up with the same units. Additionally, because the game's tech tree is extremely simplified, you generally always know what your opponent is doing.
I watched wc3 finals. NE vs NE. Every single game in a Bo5 was druids of the talon on both sides. EVERY SINGLE GAME. Goddamn, man. (I think it was a Bo5, whatever it was it took forever)
Hard counters aren't necessarily a bad thing, but they must be used in careful moderation. Be careful not to take away power from the player. The player must be in control of his units, not pre-determined values. Every unit should be viable in multiple situations and not specifically built to counter another specific unit.
Almost every single RTS game created in the last eight years uses hardcounters almost exclusively as a base. The oppose to this would be SoaSE, SupCom, and a few others, but the majority use Hard Counters. Why? The answer is simple - their userbase is full of idiots. That's really the only reason; the players who play RTS games for strategy, rewarding gameplay, and depth all go to Starcraft and cannot be pried away. Games like Dawn of War 2 are mostly a "Hey, neat" impact but are then discarded when the cleverness of the plasticy graphics burns away to reveal a fundamentally flawed and boring game design. The concept of squads, which take the control of the units out of the player's hands, makes infantry combat automated and boring.
Additionally, the only game released recently that demands macro skills out of a player is Supreme Commander. Dawn of War and its sequel don't even deserved to be called RTS', as they more resemble RTT (Real-Time Tactics) but lack the tactical aspect because there is no fucking tactics involved in a hard counter system.
What is "skill"? In an FPS like UT, it's twitch, it's prediction, it's the mastery of the level, knowledge of weapon pop timers, it's the combined ability to use this knowledge and apply it in real-time.
But "Skill" goes even further then that, especially in Starcraft. It's also psychological. When you face your opponent, you learn things about him. Is he ballsy, like JulyZerg? Or is he a mechanical mastermind, like Flash? Will this person shake down and crumble over the course of a few games, and open up psychological weaknesses that impact his play? Or is he strong and willful, able to carry himself to the grand finals?
How is it that a strategy game in 640x480 graphics from 1998 allows such intense psychological warfare? How is it that the game consumes the player, and becomes an extension of his or her mind and body?
Skill-based gameplay is gameplay that places control of the units and the game in the hands of the player. With very few automated processes, many units whose abilities and functions can be applied to different situations and lenient counters, there is room for creativity, room for expansion, room for clever and intuitive gameplay. 11 years after its birth and Starcraft's gameplay continues to evolve.
Terrain value. The most basic but the most prominent form of Starcraft in the form of amateur players - The Siege Tank push. Every knows what I'm talking about. Break it; rush into the middle and get into their blind spot. But if they're behind a cliff? A wall? Overlooking your expansion, perhaps? Suddenly the game becomes totally different. No other RTS has the kind of value in terrain that Starcraft does.
Jump into the professional seat. The very position of expansions will totally change the game. If gas is easily available, Zerg is gold; three hatch muta becomes strong. If the natural is easy to defend, Protoss FE becomes strong, and even terran FE is viable. What kind of difference is between the two players? Is one player scouted early on, but doesn't know where his opponent is, and assumes his opponent got a more distant position? Is he taking an economic build (Fast Expand, ect.)?
These are simply the basics of Starcraft.
Psychologically, there are many ways to torment your opponent. Your scout can harass his workers. In some hilarious circumstances, I've heard of players actually losing their entire worker line to a scout because they were occupied with a battle elsewhere.
There's also the whole Manner Pylon thing. Common examples including using a pylon to block the Zerg's natural, or to try to trap workers behind a mineral line. Also in this area is stealing their gas. These won't necessarily hurt the opponent a lot (Unless you somehow trap 5 probes behind a single pylon... it has happened!), but they annoy him. On ICCup, people have actually left from manner pylons. The psychological battle destroyed them before the game even started.
Me, I was so terrified of mucky in the tournament that I played mech builds and hoped he wouldn't scout me in time. Of course, he scouted me, and I knew I wouldn't win, so I forfeited.
Watch Starcraft progaming VOD's. GomTV has English commentated games, and there's a ton of Korean VOD's on youtube. Really, to properly balance a mod for starcraft, you must learn how Starcraft plays first. That is outside the scope of this article because it's simply too much to summarize.
In short, skill-based gameplay steps outside the dependency on counters and allows you to take multiple paths of your choosing. The gameplay changes over the course of time and allows players to take control of the gameflow with their decisions instead of being forced on rails thanks to lack of tech trees, limited unit counts, and hard counters.
The ITAS Design
In ITAS, on Mod Night, my superior micro skills and knowledge of the mod allowed me to demolish people. They became dependent on a unit they thought overpowered; the Blood Moon. But the BM is just a giant flying siege tank; it has a minimum range. I crushed them with the Confederates, they thought underpowered. Never again was I questioned.
ITAS and my other mods are an extension and stylized variants of SC's balancing system. I call it Skill-based gameplay, because of several key factors in unit design.
- Responsive, articulated. Units are not limited to exclusive functions. They have multiple uses and remain useful throughout the game. Even units with overlapping functions, which happens a lot inside an SC mod and is usually unavoidable, serve sub-functions that make them distinct. Example; Missile Corvette, Missile Frigate. Both fire missiles. Both have AoE attacks. But the corvette is faster, cheaper, and its small range is smaller, but it fires faster. Frigates are more suitable for fighting other frigates, Corvettes are more suitable for other corvettes, especially when they come at you in large numbers.
- Lenient counters. They do exist; Fighters and Anti-fighter ships like the Spectre share a countery relationship. But a Spectre is weak and vulnerable to concentrated fighter fire, they won't turn the game in your favor unless used right. Use counters lightly and wisely.
- Focus on Macro and map control. Even in a money map, units and stuff become quite expensive and so it becomes necessary to expand. You must prevent your opponent from expanding so you can deny him gas income. Enough gas income means he can maintain a fleet of larger ships. If you have superior economy, you can produce more ships, more defenses, and you can attack him aggressively without worrying about losing your ships because you can rebuild them.
- Allowance for harass, and need for intelligence. Most ships in ITAS fire quickly and have longer range than their own unit sight. By knowing where the enemy ships are, you can move around them and strike key locations with devastating firepower from afar.
ITAS, being a mod with all air units, is a difficult mod to balance. Fighters in particular become less and less powerful as the game goes on; the big ships can usually 2-3shot them with ease, especially AoE users. I countered this prospect by introducing a huge upgrade cap that especially benefited fighters with their fast attack. At about 7-8 upgrades, many fighters even doubled their damage output and became extremely dangerous when used to flank opponents. At 15 upgrades, Fighters became insanely good damage dealers. They were still squishy, even moreso with so many upgrades flying around, but they did a LOT of damage. Most players upgraded very little, if at all, allowing me to crush their big ships with my smaller ones because of a superior economy and foresight on their fleet composition (usually consisting exclusively of blood moons).
The thing that separates ITAS from the huge slew of fleet-based mods that came after it showed up at SEN/Maplantis, including AA, is that ITAS is actually fun to play. Why? Its pace is brisk, it challenges players, and there is always something to do. AA, being economic-based, is very, very slow. Even worse, combat is very generic. Big ships sit there, shoot a few missiles, and wait. The big ships in ITAS feel like big ships. When they shoot, shit explodes, and projectiles fly everywhere. Fleet battles are energetic and intense. You have to pay attention to your positioning and your targets very carefully.
In a mod, it is important to keep the gameplay fresh and involving. You cannot afford to have simple, basic units, especially big expensive ones that the player's been aiming to get at the entire game. Remember, some players like myself have been playing Starcraft for a decade or even since beta. We've seen it all, and the average mod just doesn't interest us. You don't necessarily need to be insanely creative, you just need to establish basic fundamentals, and then expand on these fundamentals to deliver a satisfying experience and an involving metagame.
The closest mod that comes close to ITAS would be Temptation, but economy in Temptation is rather screwy. You're dependent largely on timed income for almost all of your ships. The concept of timed income isn't new, but I avoid it at all costs for the reason that it takes away key parts of the game from players. Never should any part of the game be arbitrarily restricted to some timer. Sure, you can capture the one control point on the map and be fed with that resource; but suddenly the balance is totally fucked and you are quickly becoming God-like in power because you have something the other players can't get. This becomes exponentially worse every time you use the resource, because it puts more and more distance between you and the other players that they can never recover, even if they somehow capture the point later on; the damage is done, you're ahead, and unless you're a total retard you won't lose that lead.
That's the way it is with all games based on resources you can't acquire by your own means. That is why map control is supposed to be such a key part of ITAS; the balance of power can shift with it, rewarding you for being aggressive and being offensive instead of holding up and preserving your precious resources until the next delivery comes.
ITAS is largely played on money maps, but I make sure to keep bases with 1 gas only. Sure, you can turtle with 1 base, but ships cost so much gas that it is necessary to expand if you ever hope to get into the upper tiers. The Undead are hugely mobile but they are also the most dependent on Gas with a rigid tier hierarchy; every building being tremendously expensive, especially early-game. An Aggressive UD player will be rewarded far more greatly than a turtle. Likewise, the Confeds must work to keep the Undead from expanding; it's just like Zerg and Terran in Starcraft, except with big ships.
ITAS was never perfectly balanced; it was discontinued before I finished it, and some things that would be necessary to balancing it simply weren't possible inside SC.
Just as units must be balanced, they must be fun to use. It's no fun to use a Battlecruiser that shoots a handful of rockets with little bitty explosions and then waits a half-hour to fire again, especially when the rockets don't even do that much damage. Think of the Reaver for a moment. The Reaver needs a Shuttle to be most effective. Reaver/shuttle control makes or breaks a good protoss. Master them, and you can cripple your opponent's economy, devastate his army, and control the entire game with your reavers and shuttles.
The Siege Tank. It must be positioned correctly and protected, and then it delivers you a burning sermon. TvT is all about tanks, and many find the typically drawn-out games boring. I find them rather exciting, actually. Sure, racial diversity is thrown out the window, but suddenly the game becomes totally different from normal Starcraft. It really brings out the creativity of the players and their ability to endure. It reflects upon their strengths as people and their ability to withstand pressure.
I actually managed to beat a guy who played in WCG in a TvT. Sure, I'm a terrible player, and T is his weakest race, but it was an epic matchup for me. Battlecruisers, tanks, you name it. Our skill was so close that the game shifted in balance several times, ultimately my map control and ability to deny him expansions crippled him.
Those are the games I like. Games that can be won or lost because of a player's strengths and weaknesses, not because I have Orcs and he has Elves.
Likewise, those are the mods I think will get the furthest; those who allow players to express themselves and continue to evolve for a very long time, always finding something new to help their gameplay.
Look at Counter-strike. That's a mod, by some college guys. Now everyone knows its name. Cheesy jokes aside, CS is extremely diverse and there's plenty of players of different types out there. Campers, MP5 rushers, Faggots, and 12 year old meat shields. It's an FPS, and we're talking about RTS', but the same concept applies.
Open your game to the player. Don't force him to play a certain way; allow him to decide how he'll play for himself. Simply present to him the options.
Some people will probably ask me about balancing unit costs;
When I balance costs, I take into account the POTENTIAL of the unit.
"Sure, this guy might die to this guy one-on-one really easily, but what if he's faster and can kite the other guy really easily? Suddenly you can destroy this guy's dudes without much effort using a cheaper unit. Yeah... no."
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Warning: dialogue contains politically incorrect content. Viewer rearsore may occur.
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