The ITAS Fleet Mod Concept

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The ITAS Fleet Mod Concept

Postby IskatuMesk » Sat Nov 14, 2009 3:59 pm

In this article I'm going to explain the logic behind the Fleet Mod. This article is not intended to be an attack on any mod or modder, but rather an extrapolation of my logic behind the Fleet Mod concept that I introduced into the community and what I personally feel helps establish a good Fleet mod.

My third TC project, back in year 2000, was a Fleet Mod. Along with Dominion War by Jstek, I produced amongst the first ever Fleet Combat Simulation mods. But the concept didn't really kick off until 2004 with the production of In The Admiral's Service, although many of my viewers felt that 2003's UF was superior.

ITAS was created not to establish a concept of Fleet Combat, but to exercise modeling techniques in Rhino. However, once it appeared at Staredit.net and Maplantis, it became wildly popular - enough to spark a number of modders to try their own hand at creating Fleet Mods, including Ad Astras and Temptation. I later intended to finish ITAS but lack of motivation and crashes from the limit expander cut the project short.

I feel that these newer mods have failed to understand the concept of fleet combat, and ITAS was still played significantly more despite its incompletion and lack of strings. They're good mods, but in my eyes, they do not reach the level of depth that is possible with this concept.

Why?

First we must understand the basics of the Fleet Mod and the foundations that ITAS was built upon.

The Basics

A fleet mod entails that all units must be air units. This immediately removes the concept of terrain value and largely decentralizes the gameplay from map control and strategic movement. With ITAS I danced around with the idea of anti-matter ribbons and other terrain obstacles, but never had the opportunity to attempt such a massive terrain overhaul.

Fleet mods are heavily based on tactical gameplay. Mods who tried to diverge from this concept by enforcing strange economic situations only served to twist the concept of the Fleet Mod and turn away from what makes a Fleet Mod interesting, often boring the players and destroying a key part of the Starcraft experience.

Although Fleet Mods are total conversions, like all mods they should follow several key gameplay elements presented by Starcraft. Starcraft is the only RTS with reasonable high-end gaming and a level of depth flexibility that appeals to both progamers and casuals alike. Although mods aim to change the gameplay, often significantly, one would be wise to pay attention to the fundamentals that make Starcraft so popular.

Most fleet mods orient around the combat of capital ships, using fighters primarily as support. This is the biggest limitation of the fleet mod concept - it is very, very hard to balance strike craft against capitals. Stat-wise, capitals will always be stronger and you can encourage turtling too much by poor strike craft design. As strike craft that are too expensive and too frail will mean that the only easy and fast way to access the enemy player is defeated because the defense will always be superior to the offense. This will encourage players just to take up a position on the map and hold out until they get the biggest, baddest ships and can confidently and slowly roll across the map, killing everything in sight.

With ITAS, I went with two totally different race designs. The Undead focus on frontal weaponry and have a very basic tier-based system. Their ships tend to specialize in specific tasks; the Shadow Dancer is a debuffer, the Dragon is a light artillery, and the Blood Moon is a support artillery. Meanwhile, the Xenon Project had a wide variety of tiers based on ascending classifications.

These tiers bring us to the second most important aspect of a fleet mod.

Economy

I always facepalm when I hear about a mod that proclaims it has come up with this wildly different and totally new economy system. The best example I have on mind is Temptation, which gives gas to you in the form of resource injections (or, on the map I played, whoever holds the center gets the only gas geyser on the map). This is a perfect example to explain to you a critical pitfall.

Because every unit is an air unit, they are much more mobile than in vanilla Starcraft. Even if they are really slow, they can cross the map at will and aren't restricted by cliffs or choke points. This will naturally discourage players from taking map control. Even though ITAS was played largely on money maps, every base only had one gas, and units became very, very expensive as time goes on. This is an extension of the concept of vanilla starcraft; A five-base zerg can readily go Ultralisks, but a two-base zerg will be gas starved and kind of screwed. The idea is that as the game progresses, players take more and more map control to exponentially increase the resource income. Since it's difficult to turtle in ITAS because strike craft are very fast and if you ignore expansions you're going to get boned, you are always macroing and in a state of production or upgrading. The more expansions you have, the more affordable the late tiers become. You can hole up in one base and try to rush for blood moons or battlecruisers, but that's just the same as trying to 1-base battlecruiser rush in starcraft, except much more time consuming.

The starcraft economy system is simple, but it works perfectly. There is absolutely no reason to diverge from it. It's a simple concept and when you start monkeying with it, you run into difficult balancing challenges. Using Temptation as an example once again, the resource injections make it extremely difficult to reach the high-tier ships. This encourages players to turtle and wait for injections so they can build the big, bad megaships which typically utterly destroy the weak ones. This is further compounded by the rule that defense is stronger than offense; if a player loses his investment, he can't make it up by having more bases or factories because his resources are linear. The exception is of course when a player rushes to the gas geyser and turtles around it. Every tick of the gas geyser creates a void between the two players, a void which is virtually impossible to recover - even if the geyser is lost and taken by the other player - because intelligent investment of those resources can be immediately applied at that time.

While a custom economy system can be created and tweaked to perfection, this is rarely the case and it takes much more than just a few months of testing with a handful of guys to perfect something as wildly different as resource injections or regional control bonuses. Most of the mods I've seen to date, with the exception being STF, that implement such an insanely new system end up coming out really bad.

To elaborate on this observation...

Something that really bothers me about the SEN community is a comment someone made a while ago. Something along the lines of, "Modders are all terrible melee players". From my experience this tends to be a correct assertion; there are decent players in the community but those are not the mod designers. Another common problem that is notorious with other modders tends to be extremely bad balancing. Now, I'm not exactly IdrA's rival, destroying foreigners left and right, but out of the games I played with modnighters I was often struck with how terrible they played. It wasn't that they were stupid people or anything, it was that they didn't understand the basic concepts of Starcraft gameplay. Almost every mod is simply an extension or mutation of this gameplay, so this terribleness ends up extending to the modplay as well.

One has to wonder, then, that if they don't understand Starcraft that well, how can they design a hugely different economy system that no one has done before and hope for it to work as fluidly and balanced as the original?

The other factor is quite simple; Fun. ITAS' extension of Starcraft's economy is really, really basic. Expand more so you get more money. Hold the expansions. You can choose to fight whenever you want; strike craft are fast and benefit heavily from upgrades, so even in the late-game, striking your enemy's economy is always a potential plan. This system is easy to understand and allows players to worry more about the combat aspect of the mod. And, let's face it, the only thing that makes ITAS so enjoyable is blowing the shit out of each other with huge fucking ships. That is what Fleet Mods are all about, a setup provided by the ease of mobility and accessibility.

That isn't to say that mods like Temptation and AA are total failures. But the very thing they aimed to make their mods unique - their economy systems - end up working against them. Not necessarily because they're complex, but because they detract from the gameplay experience by overcomplicating an aspect of the game that doesn't need to be complicated and taking away from the game key elements established in Starcraft's lengthy lifetime. These mods wanted the player to pay more attention to their economy, which often ends up equating to just waiting for the economy instead of interacting with it. STF's regional control is something much more interesting, because that is interactive and plays into map control. STF isn't a Fleet Mod, though, and a fleet mod utilizing a similar system would be easy to turn into a mess.

Think about Command & Conquer. Eventually long-term games turn into injection races; Oil Derrecks, Hackers, supply drops ect. These aren't intuitive. They're boring. They add nothing to the gameplay experience. The games drag on and turn into turtlefests.

A mod that would benefit more from crazy economic setups would be a ground-only mod, where you could use intelligent map design to mold your economic gameplay into. I've heard of a few mods that do something like that, and they're far more interesting to me than Fleet Mods who try it. It's because of the presence of terrain and elevation and choke points and logistics that make economic gameplay interesting. It's why Heartbreak Ridge is so much of a different gameplay experience than say Python or Andromeda. Their economic setup is totally different from each other even though they are both using the same system, which is resource harvesting.

ITAS and my horrendously badly-terrained maps were an extension of this concept. By placing expansions at key locations, generally in a non-symmetrical pattern, each location of the map held different value. In a mod like ITAS where you have extremely fast strike craft capable of doing a lot of damage, the position of your main fleet is important. Despite strong defensive structures, defense isn't always strongest in ITAS. Usually it's very, very bad to find an enemy fleet near your base, where they can destroy expensive structures in the blink of an eye. This plays in a different part of Fleet Mods, one that is very difficult in my opinion to get right because of the limitations of SC - perhaps plugins could help?

Intelligence and the Information War

Scouting is a huge thing in Starcraft. Denying the enemy's SCV from seeing your hydra den and only your spire, or tricking him into thinking you're going for mutalisks by allowing him to see your spire, stuff like that can often be big and even game deciding. In ITAS, not necessarily all Fleet mods because each developer designs their races different, scouting your opponent's base isn't really that big of a deal because build orders aren't extravagant. It's more important to know how many bases they have. It's important to know their upgrade level - upgrades are huge in ITAS which modnighters never seemed to understand - but most importantly, the position of their fleet is most important. In vanilla SC, deceiving your opponent that your army is moving across the northern valley in Heartbreak Ridge can be deadly if in fact you're moving along the south ridge and flank him. In ITAS, the majority of ships are capital ships and, especially for Undead facing Xenon Project fleets, knowing where that big ball of death is can make a huge difference. Likewise, since the Undead possess two extremely long-range artillery ships, the XP must know where they are at any time.

This isn't a concept I was able to expand upon very much. In SC2, the sensor tower and its map blips are something I would have loved to have in vanilla SC - to implement the concept of space probes and "pinging". As it is, both races have access to scanner sweep (Peeky station and the Crusader supership) which is a little too powerful for my liking. If I know that the Undead fleet has a bunch of Blood Moons trailing behind it I can easily swoop around them and get into their blind spot. I'll get into this kind of unit balance in a bit.

ITAS was originally designed to be played on 512x512 and 1024x1024 maps. The project was discontinued when this was discovered to be impossible to achieve, presumably because of some limitation with the minimap (SCMDraft can make these big maps, but sc won't work with them). This made fighters a little bit too powerful. Okay, they can't fight a battleship head-on unless they have some serious upgrades, but they are really, REALLY fast. Ideally, I'd loved to have given fighters and stuff some kind of dodge ability to avoid heavy guns, or better yet, give capital ships special weapons which could ONLY target fighters and vis versa. But such is the stuff of dreams. Fighters end up being great for scouting because they're cheap and fast, which isn't the role I intended for them.

I think that an aspiring modder looking to make a fleet mod could possibly do something really cool with plugins in terms of the information war. A lot could be done to improve the depth of tactical decision making based on guesswork and pieces of information rather than either knowing where the enemy fleet is or having not a damn clue.

Unit design

ITAS had 3 races conceptualized - Kaloth Industries, Xenon Project, and the Undead. Each had dramatically different unit designs, a little similar to SC's unit designs. None of the races in ITAS were ever finished; the biggest drawback of the mod by far, and probably the biggest reason why other developers chose to take a hand at the concept themselves. But the two races were quite playable.

Kaloth Industries has big, beefy ships with high cooldown, high damage, and high range. But they were expensive. They relied most on the Information War concept; they needed spotters for their big guns and generally wanted to avoid being caught up in a melee. In the newest version of the mod they have a handful of example units and a REALLY retarded AI courtesy of a modified Ashara $P.

Xenon Project is a jack of all trades race, the easiest to play for new players and the easiest to understand. Their ship tiers are divided into specific classes; Missile ships, direct-damage ships (Laser corvettes, Quantum Frigates, ect.), but they also had really big, beefy ships that could fight a number of enemy vessels of varying classes. An Enforcer's damage is wasted on a fighter, but a Battleship could damage a cluster of fighters or duke it out with an enemy battleship. The key with Xenon Project is map control and upgrades. All of their big guns do incremental damage which suffer from multiple armor calculations; upgrades are ESSENTIAL. And because upgrades are ridiculously expensive, a good economy is essential. They are the easiest race to play but the hardest race to control. Modnighters underestimated the power of the Xenon Project and considered the race underpowered until I showed them otherwise by demolishing multiple Undead players who spammed specific superships, often Blood Moons, with basic battleships and frigates.

The Undead are fast-moving, hard-hitting psychotic demons from the pits of microsoft. Their ships are more frail than those of Kaloth or Xenon, typically don't do AoE damage, and tend to fit very specific roles. The ultra-slow Spirestorm is designed to force enemies to move or die, and does massive single-target damage. The Blood Moon is a huge artillery piece that also does huge single-target damage but has a massive blind spot and a large cooldown. You can't get away with spamming only two kinds of ships with the Undead, you NEED a big, varied fleet. Modnighters had a very hard time understanding this and were soundly squashed by myself and the computers as a result.


The unit design in ITAS was the thing I paid attention to the most. I wanted Undead to be the guys who swarm dudes and then come out with exotic super weapons. I wanted Xenon Project to be the race where it was key to position your ships properly and set up a system of crossfire to wear down the enemy. I wanted Kaloth Industries to involve big, bursty damage and tactical movement. Each race was catered to a different style of play, and this had to reflect on their impressive number of units.

Undead were split into around 7 tiers. Each tier unlocked a set of ships, with the final tiers unlocking the Superships and eventually the conceptualized 500x500 Megaship class. Superships ranged from the ultra-cheap Blood Moon to the highly tactile Sorrow siege cruiser. Undead needed a big economy because unlike in Starcraft, it was difficult to cap out your supply in ITAS until you reached the upper tiers. This meant that if you were power-teching away aiming to rush someone with a big ship, they could have a huge quantity of smaller ships in the same time. Incidentally, it's also easier to replace small ships than it is big ones.

Xenon Project functioned very similar to the terrans in starcraft, but with a bit more of a complicated tech tree. My laziness with strings ended up making this race more difficult to play than it really was, which is probably why players favored the Undead the most. XP had a number of production buildings that specialized in specific classes of ships, although they direly needed a new production center and some organization. Getting into the sweet spot of capital ship production was an expensive prospect and demanded the player to establish a strong degree of map control. Against the extremely passive modnight players, this was very easy although in one game I was rushed by a decent Undead player who used a Sorrow cruiser and a bunch of smaller ships to destroy many of my expansions before I was able to out-micro him with frigates and kill him.

While these two races appear deceptively simple, the real magic behind them is really only unveiled to players who already have established Starcraft mechanics and understanding. This leads to the concept of unit design and one of my biggest gripes with mods made by other people.

Particularly involving big ships.

Most often mods have a big ship that fires a single gun or does very little damage and is underwhelming. The focus of the Fleet Mod is fun. Because of the limitations of Starcraft and modding, you can't really do a whole lot with mods and that's why people fuck with economics; they're trying something new, even if it eventually shoots them in the foot. But what they often neglect is something that's sitting right in front of them - exciting unit design.

Undead are a very violent, brutal race, and their units do a lot of damage very quickly. But they need to be used carefully. A careless Undead player will lose everything, but a skilled Undead player who relies on the strengths of his units will be rewarded greatly. XP is a little more lax in this sense, but proper unit placement, separation, and targeting goes a long way to directing that focused firepower of your fleet and getting the most out of it. The fundamentals of the unit design complement the race's gameplay style.

The big beefy battleships of the Xenon Project are a key unit and great to use an example for my unit design philosophy.

"If it's big, pointy, and has a lot of guns, it should feel big, pointy, and show that it has a lot of guns."

Fleet Mods are about being fun, fast, and furious. The Xenon Battleship is the perfect example of this concept. When it shoots, it sprays dozens of projectiles in quick succession and deals a significant amount of damage. In terms of balance, this is a tough unit to balance; the first incarnation of the Battleship did over 3x its current damage. It was nerfed, but then the upgrades were boosted when the concept of upgrades was established. ITAS has a maximum upgrade level of 15 - at around upgrade level 7-8, most fighters have their damage doubled or more, and incremental damage like that of the battleship benefit greatly. So when you first acquire a Battleship in the beginning of the game, it may not seem so great. But as time passes and combat becomes faster, more frantic, and more bursty, the Battleship scales upwards and becomes very fearsome. This kind of play is one I have never seen in another user's mod to date, and I think it's because of the developer's lack of experience in the Starcraft game.

In starcraft, upgrades are critical. The most basic example is the Zealot; upgraded, he kills a zergling in 2 hits. unupgraded, it takes 3.

Xenon Project's damage is largely based on incremental damage, except for units like the Laser Corvette and other major single-target units. Incremental damage is when a unit fires multiple times and deals damage multiple times; thus, armor is calculated for every hit. Against a unit like the Blood Moon who has a serious amount of armor, an unupgraded battleship is greatly outmatched. This is how it should be - a Blood Moon is much harder to obtain than a battleship. But as the game progresses and the XP player upgrades to +7 and higher, suddenly Battleships are doing huge amounts of damage to small ships and can tear down a Blood Moon in small numbers.

Unfortunately, unlike vanilla starcraft, armor upgrades are almost worthless. This is because the damage ranges in ITAS get absurd pretty quickly, and even maxed out armor (+15) isn't going to really do a lot, except on ships like the Blood Moon who already have a lot of armor.

To make up for the weakness of fighters defensively (If they were more defensively strong ie more durable, they'd be too powerful and ships like the Battleship would be helpless against them let alone single-target ships), I gave their upgrade bonuses a massive increase. This meant that as the game progressed, and bigger and badder ships appeared, fighters scaled in that they could do huge amounts of damage to ships if they flanked them during a battle. This is largely what makes the computer AI so deadly, especially for Undead - their big masses of upgraded little ships can easily tear down lone capitals.

I'd have loved for a subsystem kind of thing like in homeworld 2, to give fighters some more tactical options than just bumrushing an unsuspecting and vulnerable capital.

Unit roles

Incremental damage, artillery, ships speeds and everything are attributes. Unlike vanilla Starcraft, where everthing is generally the same speed except for units like vultures, speed shuttles, ect., in a fleet mod you have the opportunity to make some pretty strange and unique units.

The Blood Moon is like a glorified, heavily-armored siege tank. But it doesn't splash, so it has to be targeted manually in a big brawl. The Battleship is your all-around attack ship, but it's small splash radius means that when surrounded it's much more vulnerable. The Hydra is super fast and has crit, but it's very vulnerable; like vultures, it's a dangerous flanking unit or great when used as a meat shield.

One of the units I really like in ITAS is the XP's Enforcer II. It fires three times in a quick burst, producing a small beam. It's great against small ships and big ships alike, but its role changes with its targets. Against small ships, it's best to aim at stacks of them so it hits them in a cluster. Against big ships, you want to point it at enemy battleships and other heavy-hitters because of the front-loaded damage it does, which is hard to get in the upper tiers of XP ships. You also have the DensuKii II Omega-class - basically a gigantic version of the Battleship. It deals its damage across a lengthy volley, so it's ideal to target ships with a lot of health so its shots and cooldown aren't wasted. A missed shot with an Omega can have serious consequences while Undead Alrashann's beat down on you with their 6x100 damage shots; much more front-loaded damage than the Xenon equivalent.

The roles of the units start to mold into the player's head as he plays. Most mods I see just have generic units. Your artillery, your infantry, your tank, ect. And at first glance, ITAS' unit roles are pretty basic as well. But being a Fleet Mod, those unit roles have different impacts than on the ground. Never treat a fleet mod like you treat a generic ground and air mod; unit roles are much more flexible. Blood Moons can be surprisingly dangerous as general combat units - if they're spread out and separated to avoid clustering. This plays into a concept I established for modders looking for balance advice some time ago; when making the attributes and cost for your unit, factor in the POTENTIAL power of the unit. Vultures are terrible against Dragoons, but what if the place mines and the dragoons run into them? That's why mines are a research. Tanks also die to dragoons in frontal warfare, but they're considerably more expensive - because tanks can hide behind vultures or cliffs and turn your army into a pile of blue goo. Carriers are really strong units, but it costs a fuckton of minerals and gas to get that first carrier out with interceptors. Units should be an investment, an option that the player is choosing to take. With ITAS I never delved into complex tech trees because I wasn't motivated at the time to make a huge system like that, but if I were to go back and make the mod again, that's exactly what I would do.


Anyways, this is a big rant I've wanted to shout out for a while now. I hope it gives you some food for thought before you jump into making a Fleet Mod. Just because it's the latest fad doesn't mean that you should try to turn SC into something it's not, or throw something together and toss it out without much thought.
Last edited by IskatuMesk on Sat Nov 14, 2009 5:18 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The ITAS Fleet Mod Concept

Postby FlyingHat » Sat Nov 14, 2009 11:41 pm

You wrote, I learned. Great writing here, this article serves as a good logical guide for those who are messing around with Starcraft's fundamental gameplay.
Last edited by FlyingHat on Sat Nov 14, 2009 11:47 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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