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The Three Layers of Control in Strategy Games.

Strategy game UI design succeeds or fails by the control it offers the player. However, what distinguishes UI design comes down to three areas of focus.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

March 2, 2012

7 Min Read

Recently there has been major news surrounding Double Fine and the kick starter funding success. I know that several people (including me,) took it as an excuse to replay the various games from the studio. First up on my list was Brutal Legend which I have a love-hate relationship with. I loved the story, art design and writing, but just hated the stage battles. The stage battles for those who didn't play it, were Real Time Strategy styled battles. With the defining feature that you control someone on the field at all times. As I sat there thinking about my issues with it, a thought occurred to me about control, and what it has to do with strategy titles.

When you think of the term "control" with video games, thoughts like responsiveness or how well the buttons are laid out come to mind. With strategy games however, there are several layers of control that the designer has to get right. For this post we're going to define them as: "micro", "wide" and "macro".

The micro layer deals specifically with individual commands for units or an order for a small number of units. For example: telling your templar in Starcraft 2 to use psionic storm. Micro commands are one of the hallmarks of expert RTS players, who can quickly shift between individual units to deliver multiple commands quickly and accurately. As an example of an expert use, I remember watching a pro Starcraft 2 match where the Protoss player picked out multiple templar from his army. Then launched several psionic storms across a wide area completely covering the enemy army and decimated them.

Turn based games don't have too much to deal with at this level of control. Since players have all the time in the world to make their decisions. Controls at this layer don't require as much thought as other ones. The most complex action here would be deciding what special skills (if applicable) to use.

The wide layer is made up of commanding multiple units for a battle, or to put it in perspective, dealing with a screen's worth of information at a time. This is where using control groups and keyboard hot-keys are important for RTS players. Games that deal with the real world concept of flanking require the player to be able to command multiple squads of units on screen quickly to set up maneuvers.

For TBS games, this is the layer for fighting a multi-unit battle, such as two armies going at it in Civilization 5. For TBS games, there isn't as much of a difference between the micro layer and the wide layer, due to the lack of urgency with making decisions.

The macro layer is both the biggest in terms of decisions and where a good UI design is needed most. Here, the layer encompassing all major decisions dealing with the match and where high level thinking comes into play. In the wide layer you were just focusing on one screen of units, at macro it's the entire map. Balancing multiple groups, base building, research and unit production are all elements at this layer. Because of the importance of the macro layer, this is where UI design is focused on, and where strategy games are praised and criticized the most.

For TBS games, this layer is different compared to RTS games. For 4X strategy games, this is the layer that deals with all the multiple cities and systems of the game. If the wide layer was about winning the battle, the macro layer is about winning the war. There is so much we can talk about in terms of UI design at this layer but that would be too much to go into for this post.

The challenge when it comes to RTS games is balancing control between the micro and macro layers. One of the problems that I had with Starcraft 2 was how the same skills of control at the micro layer were also needed for the macro layer. With how the player had to set unit productions structures at hotkeys and making sure that rally points and such were set up.

Supreme Commander 2 was one of the few titles that did a decent job of balancing the three layers. As the player could switch to strategic view, allowing them to see the entire map and command their troops from there. Then zoom in to command armies in battle without missing a step. Another game that had a great UI was Sins of the Solar Empire. Like Supreme Commander 2 the player could zoom in and out at anytime, while issuing commands to solar systems while zoomed all the way out.

Finally with all that said, we can talk a little about where Brutal Legend fits in on this. Using the three layers as a guide I can see where my problems with the battles come from. Let's start with where BL succeeds: at the wide layer. The player can use the directional pad to issue commands to all nearby troops, it's quick, efficient and allows the player to focus on other tasks.

At the micro layer is where the problems start. There are two ways to issue individual orders: on the ground and in air. On the ground you have to hold a button down then run over to a unit to highlight them, and then use the directional pad to issue an order. The system is clunky and in the heat of combat you can't really stop your army from fighting to pick out a unit for a specific command.

Selecting units from the air is part of the macro layer and where BL just falls apart for me. While the player is flying in the air it's incredibly hard to see your units on the ground (at least for me on a SD TV.) There is no mini-map functionality and the only way to see if your units are fighting is a popup showing the general direction of the conflict.

The problems with BL's macro layer stem from the designers using the same HUD-less UI for the battles as they did for the open world gameplay. You can only see how many units you have and your current resource total by bringing up the unit recruitment screen. This kind of information should always be displayed on the main screen due to its importance. Even from the secondary screen, you can't quickly see how many of each unit type you currently have.

There were plenty of times where I was fighting a group of enemies to then switch back to the unit deployment to find that the majority of my army was gone, without any warnings from the game. Trying to organize your army at this layer is also a pain due to how rallying works. To set up a rally point you have to play a guitar solo (the game's version of spells) to create a flag. You can only summon the flag while on the ground, forcing you out of the macro layer to make macro layer plans.

The simple fact is that a good UI is required for the macro layer, as the player needs to know quickly the shape of the battle to make decisions. Imagine playing Starcraft 2 without being able to see your unit counter or resources at a glance. What I would have done for BL, was while the player is flying around, they could see and interact with icons that represent enemy and friendly positions. Also I would put on the main screen the current unit counter and resources.

If we go back to the RTS game: Sacrifice, which also featured a third person control scheme. It still had a UI designed to give the player all the information they need to win. Brutal Legend is unfortunately a case where gameplay was put aside in favor of art direction and has an important lesson for designers. Sometimes you have to sacrifice art direction for gameplay, especially when the player has to make informed decisions that affect the game.

Josh Bycer

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About the Author(s)

Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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