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The Balance of Power: Progression and Equilibrium in Real-Time Strategy Games

the “traditional” model of RTS design contains some inherent or baked-in features which provide players with incredible autonomy, but ultimately drives a very steep slippery slope or “snowball” curve that can erode the quality of gameplay.

Brandon Casteel, Blogger

March 6, 2017

21 Min Read

This article was originally posted here.

In my personal definition of what constitutes a real-time strategy game, one of the genre’s key requirements is that there be some sort of economic component. Specifically, a real-time strategy game asks players to acquire and expend some sort of store of value in order to expand their ability to modify the game’s state (that is, to build units, perform research, activate abilities, et cetera in pursuit of the game’s objective).

In most RTS (what I will call “traditional RTS” in this article), the resulting system is a variant or extension of the model introduced or popularized by Dune 2: players acquire resources to build structures, which provide access to units or additional structures, produce units, add functionality (e.g. turn on the minimap) or make research options available. Some of these structures may play a role in the game’s economy: serving as a drop-off point for one or more of the game’s resources, generating resources themselves, and/or producing units that harvest resources.

In previous articles, I have advocated for the efficacy of such systems. They have a lot to offer, and it is my firm belief that competitive strategy games suffer when a player’s ability to have nuanced control over a game’s economic interactions is restricted. In short, competitive strategy games best serve their player base when they provide multiple paths down which a player can exercise mastery and drive success: economics, infrastructure, combat tactics, research, scouting, et cetera. I tend to think of this, personally, as vectors or hooks on which a player can hang a victory.

It is my contention that the “traditional” model of RTS design contains some inherent or baked-in features which provide players with incredible autonomy, but ultimately drives a very steep slippery slope or “snowball” curve that can erode the quality of gameplay. In this article I will attempt to address what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of common themes in real-time strategy base and economy management, and attempt to identify aspects of a variety of games I see as ultimately the most empowering and engaging for players. And hopefully, I will be able to explain why I feel this is important.

Thanks for reading. Let’s get started.

All Your Base…

Economic operations are a separate though related system from army management: building, protecting, and managing one’s economy in the classic RTS franchises (Command and Conquer, Age of Empires, and the -Craft games, among others) provides a unique stream of objectives, unique types of operations, and unique types of challenge, decision points, and methods of skillful play that differ from army management in terms of execution and mindset.

What do I mean by that? When building up one’s economy to fund the expansion of their army, the player is making a series of decisions down a variety of paths, each influencing the availability and feasibility of other decisions they will face. Production, research, economic expansion, army expansion, and information gathering are all products of a player’s time, attention, and physical game resources (e.g. Gold or Vespene Gas).

Each of those facets of gameplay requires both short-term and long-term decision making that impacts the overall progression of the game. Short-term decisions are mostly trade-offs: do I build an additional worker to increase my income, or do I build an additional soldier to better defend my holdings? When (and where) should I build this production building to take advantage of my income? Tactical decisions in the early game are likewise trade-offs; moving one of your few early-game units is a risky bit of force projection that could leave the player vulnerable to counterattack.

It’s these sort of decisions that many hardcore players of RTS deeply enjoy, and for good reason. Few other types of game provide players with such a rich patchwork of opportunities to be successful in a large variety of ways. The best RTS give players tactical and economic autonomy to drive efficiency and excellence – to outplay their opponents along multiple vectors.

Most strategy games in which economy is linearly increased via sustained production (meaning, most strategy games) tend to embrace the idea of snowballing. That is, due in part to the growth curve of the economy – I’ll go into some other reasons as well – advantages tend to pile up, and setbacks tend to have a similar pile-on effect. Winning an individual engagement or interaction has a tendency towards making winning future engagements more likely, which increases the overall chance of victory. Sometimes, I’d even go so far as to say quite often, this tendency can be quite pronounced.

Please do note that I intentionally use the words “tendency” and “chance” – this is not always a done deal. But in the vast majority of RTS games, a single decisive victory in a single engagement can start tipping the game’s balance in one player’s favor in ways that can feel irrevocable. These games are designed in such a way that balances them along some very thin seams that are subject to disruption. And often, disrupting one facet of a player’s plan (killing an army, destroying an expansion, et cetera) simultaneously confers benefits across a wide swath of the game state.

There are, however, several examples of games that have a trend over time of allowing players to seesaw back and forth across the line of balance. These games trend towards an overall equilibrium between players that requires non-trivial and repeated effort to imbalance, and whose vectors for victory are independent enough to allow a player on the back foot in one regard regain standing via manipulation of other game facets.

It’s my contention that this sort of design, what I like to call ‘homeostatic design’ is overall friendlier to players, resulting in the potential to drive more engagement in competitive multiplayer.

Homeostatic Design

In my personal parlance, homeostatic design in strategy games refers to how difficult it is to achieve an advantage that an opponent cannot overcome. One of the most straightforward examples of this principle are the dynamics of Zerg vs Zerg in StarCraft 2 – due to the nature of Zerg production and the way their economies scale, it is virtually impossible for a player to recover from losing even a handful of Drones in the early stages of such a match. Zerg mirrors in StarCraft 2 have knife’s-edge balancing in the early game, which often leads to a player quitting after only one or two disadvantageous engagements. While exciting and tense, such gameplay is incredibly unforgiving. In play, it is a theory of mine that losses are easier to swallow if a player feels like they understand why they lost, and if they feel like they understand how they have a path forward to improving. What’s harder to swallow are losses that felt inevitable, decided by factors beyond the player’s control.

In many real-time strategy games, it is very easy for slight advantages to snowball as matches are decided in the early minutes of play. Moreover, those early minutes of play are often intensely regimented, as players spend the bulk of their limited playing time building an infrastructure that might not amount to anything. So, ‘homeostasis’ in this context refers to the tendency of any individual interaction to irrevocably alter the course of a game.

The Balancing Act

What does homeostatic design look like in a real-time strategy game? Easy examples come from Relic’s games, as well as the Command and Conquer series and Supreme Commander. In Company of Heroes 2, player objectives fall into two general categories: capture map territory, and destroy the enemy’s army. Capturing map territory is a system with multiple levels of success: converting a point held by an enemy deprives them of its income, while capturing it yourself adds to your ability to produce units, use special abilities, et cetera. Additionally, the nature of control points in  COH2 means that hitting a vulnerable choke point could deprive the enemy of virtually all of their income for a period of time.

Armies in COH2 are relatively small for the size and number of POI they have to cover, meaning that a player who is numerically behind is still able, at least in theory, to continue to contest the map and keep their enemy off balance. The highly specialized nature of units in this game likewise reinforces this sort mentality: many units are able to be effective without requiring overpowering numbers to be produced. This allows players with numerical disadvantages to continue to be effective. Other things can help break up fights and provide situational advantages, as well: mines, barbed wire, smoke, suppression weapons, and more.

Secondly, and I think this is one of the most important factors in the game’s model. The game’s two main objectives: destroying enemy forces, and taking territory, are partially independent. Gaining ground against your enemy in terms of territory doesn’t automatically snowball your chances of victory as, say, destroying an enemy expansion or killing off enemy workers does in StarCraft 2. Likewise, driving off an enemy army (the more common scenario in COH2) doesn’t itself provide a numerical or lasting advantage, mostly giving the successful player room to breathe to take more territory or attempt to secure the territory already in their control.

Lastly,  and be assured this is something I’ll come back to: many game objects in COH2 aren’t sunk costs. Unit weapons, support weapons, and even tanks have some degree of permanence on the battlefield. This allows them to change hands repeatedly over the course of a match, and can allow a player on the back foot to instantly and without resource cost acquire the means with which to continue fighting and succeeding. This knife can cut both ways, to be sure, but the system is remarkable for allowing interesting and dynamic gameplay.

Company of Heroes 2 can feature some strong snowballing itself, particularly in team matches – the reinforcing effect of cooperative unit and tank squads can become virtually unassailable when one player or team is faced with recurring or excessive loss of materiel (this is one reason why German teams tend to perform better than Allied teams – their tanks tend to be heavier which means they have an easier time keeping them in tact – a lower replacement rate can add up over time, and their endgame armies are simply harder to kill). But overall, I find it less generally prone to snowballing due to what I’ve listed above.

A Good Thing?

But is this homeostasis, this natural equilibrium, a good thing? Is it good, generally, that games would tend to ‘revert back to center’ and wouldn’t necessarily reward success with more success? Typically, computer strategy game design philosophy seems to indicate that the makers of these games expect a slippery slope – encourage it even. In a way, I appreciate this. In a genre that is designed to be one of the ultimate displays of skill, concentration, and mental performance in history, any action designed to curb the impact of player skill will hamper a game’s overall appeal.

I suppose this is determined by your definition of what makes a good and successful game. My approach and line of reasoning is driven by the sidelining of the RTS genre. Something, it seems to me, in these games is failing to reach a broad audience. Moreover, the recent trend towards the automation of RTS economic processes serves to me as an indication that simply streamlining is not going well for the popularity of strategy games in general. As ready examples, Act of Aggression and Grey Goo both automate aspects of their economic models to the point where it becomes very difficult to drive a win through economic operations.

So, what I’m attempting is to identify design trends that I feel are keeping players out of RTS multiplayer, and attempting to address those design trends in a positive and reasoned way. Here are my premises, in general:

  • Snowballing makes players feel powerless and frustrated

  • Infrastructure should be decoupled from objective

  • Base management/infrastructure (as commonly implemented) encourages uninteresting choices

  • Sunk costs increase snowballing

  • RTS can make room for lessons from other competitive genres.

  • The early game is one of the most frustrating phases of competitive gameplay. Mid- and late-game are players’ favorite phases because they offer the most freedom to act and the largest number of options

Sunk Costs

To me, one of the core issues surrounding traditional RTS design is that of sunk costs. A sunk cost is one that cannot be recovered. Commonly in RTS games, virtually every expenditure is fixed. Build a Barracks, and the resources used to produce it are stuck. They can’t be purposed in another direction. Losing that Barracks is far worse: those resources are just gone now. In objective terms, in a concrete way, the player is objectively worse off than they were when they had that Barracks.

Compare this to Command and Conquer, or Supreme Commander, or Company of Heroes. Resources in these games… They’re free to be reused, provided you have the time and concentration to do so. What’s more, resources in these RTS can actually change hands in meaningful ways. Losing a fire base in Supreme Commanders means that your enemy could harvest it to your detriment, while you could simultaneously be scooping up the remains of an old battle elsewhere on the map. This cost reclaiming becomes in itself a strategic and tactical consideration, adding another layer of interest and skill into the game’s resourcing system.

Sunk costs kill players. Losing a battle, or a part of your infrastructure, in StarCraft or Age of Empires is demonstrably worse than in the games mentioned above because there’s no chance of coming back from such a loss. You’re able to attempt to inflict loss on your opponent, or increase your income independently to account for the setback, but at best you’re able to trade some resource/income/infrastructure penalties on your opponent. The idea of economic counterplay, give and take, doesn’t really exist.

One piece of this puzzle, to me, is the idea of the permanence of resources. In the vast majority of real-time strategy games, units and structures are both sunk costs and impermanent. The only investments a player cannot lose, typically, are the research they perform. Research tends to be a permanent facet of a player’s arsenal, even if its impact and utility vary with army composition, unit availability, and owned structures.

In terms of resource permanence, Supreme Commander and other Annihilation-style games take a very interesting view. Everything that is built turns back into resources when destroyed. Everything, even Experimental units. These resources can be harvested, not in the game’s structure-based method, but by engineer units. These resources serve as a balance-tipper: salvaging an enemy’s wrecked Experimental can help fund an additional Experimental of your own. Further, SupCom and its sister games allow the player to steal, well, anything they can: factories, units, anything can be converted back into resources (sold) or captured by engineer units. This is a tremendous amount of fiddly detail in a game already full of things to do, but it provides endless opportunities to tip the scale in a player’s favor in small ways.

There’s a reason the -Annihilation games are so popular and memorable, by the way. It’s good to remember there are reasons for this beyond simply their scale.

The Build-Up

Another aspect of common design seen in real-time strategy games is an incredible ramp-up from just a single unit or structure to a massive army of  The Traditional RTS build-up phase provides a large number of vectors for success, but also opens up numerous situations that can result in widely unbalanced interactions between players, and create numerous opportunities for incredibly steep slippery slopes.

I don’t think, in some ways, that this is directly due to the game’s economic growth curve. In my opinion, Supreme Commander’s gameplay systems lend themselves towards general homeostasis going into in the mid-game: the number of points of interest, the number of production facilities, and both major and minor ways to tweak cost efficiency (building adjacency bonuses, reclaiming map objects as resources, converting enemy units, et cetera) lead to a situation where players need to find clever ways of tipping the scale.

The most ‘slippery’ portions of strategy games across the board – where interesting play choices are prevalent, but equilibrium hangs on a knife’s edge and homeostatic design breaks down – are often in the earliest minutes of play. Setbacks in the early game have a snowball effect on the late game. This is eminently obvious in StarCraft, in particular. Zerg vs Zerg matchups hang on this harsh truth, as mentioned previously.

The designers of StarCraft realized that these fraught moments, the incredibly imbalanced interactions possible in the earliest moments of the game, the fun-sucking moments that leave people wanting to put their keyboards through their monitors, were not optimal for keeping their community engaged on a casual level, a competitive level, or for observers.

In Legacy of the Void, StarCraft’s designers took extreme steps to truncate the build-up phase to make players less vulnerable in the earliest stages of the game. This opened up a wider variety of interesting strategies, more of the back-and-forth play that viewers love, and opened up the map more, and earlier. LOTV forces players to expand early and often, increasing the number of points of interest, increasing player vulnerability to counterattack while decreasing the overall impact of said counterattacks. While the LOTV changes increase the game’s mechanical demands, which were already intimidating for the average player, they at least band-aid some of what I’m trying to talk about here.

These changes illustrate 2 important things to me: First, that games with more points of interest are inherently friendlier to players than games with fewer POI. We also see this in Homeworld Deserts of Kharak, where the relatively number of POIs lends itself to army blobbing and limits overall gameplay dynamism. You know, without scouting, pretty much where your enemy needs to be and what they care about.

Fundamental problems: geographically constrained economic operations are at inherent odds with expansionist tactical operations. Build up phases introduce a large number of volatile resources that can be lost, leading to an increasing opportunity for unbalanced and, ultimately, un-fun interactions.

To untangle all of that, here’s the point. When you ask players to build a base, you’re giving them a huge and fragile infrastructure they have to protect. That infrastructure, in most cases, is a sunk cost. Losing a significant percentage of that infrastructure leads to a slippery slope. The location of this infrastructure tends to be predictable and geographically constrained, leading to a few areas of high importance on the map. This all adds up to a formula which, while it has a lot to offer, also tends to leave players feeling demoralized and powerless.

And Here’s Where Tactical Games Tend To Stumble

To borrow and mangle a phrase, traditional RTS design is the worst system… except for the others that have been tried. It’s a bit inaccurate, but kind of punchy, no? Here’s the problem: when designing tactical RTS, or RTS which attempt to reduce the game’s emphasis on economy, the number and impact of various success vectors is reduced.

If a game is created which, using the “traditional RTS” as a starting point or point of comparison, blunts the various impacts and implications inherent in base building and/or economic (resource gathering) operations, the game has 2 fewer major vectors for players to drive success. If the game includes systems such as terrain bonuses, directional armor, miss chance et cetera, it is just increasing the weight of unit choice and positioning, making that one vector even more important, and forcing players to master increasingly narrow and nuanced skills along this one vector to be successful.

This is one reason tactics games tend not to be as popular as traditional RTS, and one reason that modern attempts to streamline economy tend to suffer as well – in removing player agency and nuanced progression, these games are giving the players fewer ways in which to be successful, and making success along one path increasingly important.

Many tactical games also utilize some sort of control point system. Control points and territories have a number of important features: they force players to focus on something else besides pure combat efficiency. They force players to be proactive, and constantly move their units on the map. They force players to split up their forces to take and contest multiple objectives under experientially different circumstances. But, all or most of these operations are still focused directly around, or influenced directly by, tactical unit operations.

Where tactical games tend to stumble is giving players different categories of operation to perform, or different vectors along which to pursue success. And this is why basebuilding, traditional-style RTS are still the most popular and successful form of RTS design.

Is There A Solution?

The core premise of my article is: players are the most engaged when they feel that the situations in which they find themselves are fair, balanced, and understandable. Competitive games should strive to create situations where players feel that they are engaging in equal interactions, and that their skill (both proactive and reactive, or both strategic and tactical) is the primary determining factor in their success in the game.

Let’s look at the issues again:

In the early game stages of traditional RTS, players are forced to perform a large number of operations in as short an amount of time as possible. This is a concession to the power of incremental improvements to expand the scope of the game in a way that does not overwhelm players, and to limit the damage done by an individual loss of an investment (unit or building). Average RTS ramp up curve is painful to a large section of the player base. Slower ramp-ups, like in COH and DOW series, or much quicker ones, like LOTV, are better overall solutions for increasing player agency and decreasing the wide variety of unbalanced and frustrating interactions that can happen in the early game phases of most RTS.

This is not an indictment of the “rush” as a tactic in real-time strategy games. It is an indictment against a particular variety of rush that is virtually impossible to scout in time to defend against, as well as the fundamental game mechanics whose design results in a preponderance of imbalanced interactions between players and an attempt to identify systems that include aggressive play that feels natural, fair, and engaging.

Player investments tend to be clumped together into bases, since the common protection of a large number of investments is the most efficient path. This tends to limit the number of points of interest on the map, and increase the value (and increase the pain of loss) for each one. A limited number of POIs coupled with extensive holdings to expand and maintain, inherently fosters a passive, defensive mindset. Many players are able to successfully overcome this (at least partially), but I am still noting it as something that must be overcome. Having a large number of points of interest decreases the pain of loss of each, and creates an incremental system of dominance in which the objectives are instantly identifiable and highly understandable.

Player investments tend to be sunk costs. Losing such an investment, especially with typical income generation models, means that the player is now inescapably behind with a limited palette of options to recoup their loss. Reducing the number of sunk costs can decrease snowballing and create more opportunities for dynamic counterplay that is interesting both to watch, and to perform.

Fast, or shallow, build up phases mitigate the most frustrating situations common in RTS. Fast build up phases also puts more pressure on rushers to execute better to be successful.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope that, at least, it has provided you some food for though about how RTS might be able to grow in ways that keep players coming back. I look forward to your comments.

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