In my last post we discussed how map design can greatly impact the quality of single player missions. At the end we came away with the conclusions that what we want from a good map is:
– Naturally encourages a player to interact with the map and their opponent
– Use subtle methods to encourage this though sometimes overt methods work as well
Today I want to discuss the basis of map design but tie it back to what started this idea, time as a resource within the real time genre strategy. As I said in the introduction of the last article within the standard real time strategy genre (along the lines of Command and Conquer, Age of Empires and Starcraft) there is a real sense of progression as the game moves along, having fairly clear early, mid and late game. This is drawn out in a few ways, resource expansion, technology improvements and overall growing unit population. Some games, notably the Age of Empires series, has even more clear cut barriers between stages of the game. Other series only have two stages, take the Supreme Commander series, there are really only two phases to the game, the slow expansion and turtling phase followed by the clashing, reinforcing and tipping point stage.
Unlike Age of Empires, where the stages are fairly even in length and get longer as the game goes on, in Supreme Commander the actual battling is the much shorter aspect of the game, prior to it you’d often have build ups and defensing lasting as long as an hour or more. But what does this all mean, where am I going with this? What I want to talk about is the aspect of time within the RTS genre, how games use it differently and the differing styles we’ve seen. While most single player campaigns are fairly similar, at least in their design, it’s the small differences that make all the difference, but when it comes to multiplayer, things get much more varied.
I won’t cover every style of RTS game, that would take far too long, I just want to highlight three main examples of popular, and successful, designs: the traditional Command and Conquer/Blizzard RTS, Age of Empires/Command and Conquer: Generals, and then the Company of Heroes series.
When I set out to delve into this idea I was largely going to spend my time discussing the multiplayer aspect of real time strategy, it’s the better known side of the games and what gets the attention post-release. Though after digging up an old article about Blizzard saying that their player base is largely split 50-50 for single and multiplayer focus, I decided to look at this idea of game progression, time and map creation from both sides of the coin.
In the conclusion of my last article I wrote:
To me it comes down to the fundamental aspect of designing a map, we want the player to be doing something, anything. Whether that’s raiding an enemy base, adjusting their defenses, migrating, competing for scare resources or map objectives, you don’t want the player waiting for their dream army behind an easy to defend base. We want interaction and reaction, when a player is active (obviously there is a fine line between too much busy work and meaningful decisions) they are usually happy, they’ll want to continue what they are doing, they are less likely to save mid-mission or not come back, they want that stimulation.
Now while harder to create in a multiplayer map, it should still be a driving force. Within a games map design and it’s mechanics we can see how they should encourage a player to not just build up an army, never venturing out. This will not be an economic study or an indepth look at what resource model is the best (though for a good article on that topic feel free to read this article), rather it’s a look at how when you construct your resource design how you should use it to motivate your player to interact with the map and their opponent.
This is usually the category many of us first knew, your Command and Conquers, Warcraft and Starcraft series. Let’s start with the basics of how these games generally progress in their multiplayers. While not a perfect fit for the Command and Conquer series I believe the description of Starcraft’s resource model will cover the basics of the idea well:
StarCraft’s resource system is very close to the RTS baseline. At its core are workers (SCVs, Probes and Drones) which serve both as the means of constructing new buildings and collecting the game’s 2 resources. Over the course of a match, dozens of these units are created to mine minerals and gas at the player’s bases, which tend to center around the Command Center that serves as a resource drop-off point. During a match of any decent length, 80-90 of the 200 population cap will be involved in resource gathering during the game’s peak, nigh half of the units involved.
The game has 2 main resources. The more plentiful of the two, Minerals, are involved in all building, unit and upgrade production. The more scarce resource, Vespene Gas, is mostly a factor of the power or versatility of the unit or upgrade being utilized. Spellcaster units, which have some of the highest potential impact on the game, also tend to cost the most Vespene. Some assault units like the Archon are also comparatively expensive. Spellcaster units have their own resource, energy, which limits the usage of their abilities over a given time frame.
To add my own thoughts on this resource model it should be noted that a player gains an advantage by expanding to new resource nodes throughout the map. By reaching new resources they are able to increase they production and thus produces more units, hopefully with which you can defeat your opponent. Expansion for the most part is vital to success. Lastly I want to note that these resource nodes have a limited amount, if you mine from them long enough they will deplete, so staying in one location too long can lead to resource starvation and potentially a loss.
Let’s take these words and put them into practice. I’ll first present a map and then we’ll walk through how the resource model and map design lead the player as time passes. First we’ll look at a map from Starcraft 2 called Coda:
In this map players spawn opposite of each other, for this example the player will start in the bottom right. Within Starcraft 2 a player usually looks at a map for two things, how far away is my opponent and how do I secure a 3rd resource location. For Starcraft 2 the number of bases a player has usually goes along with what stage of the game they are in. When a player is on one base it’s usually early in the game, a 2nd base signals the transition to the mid game but taking a 3rd is incredibly vital because that is when a player is able to fully ramp up their production, reaching their full potential. This 3rd base is incredibly vital for the most part and this is done on purpose by the game developers and map makers. Let’s take a look at the map above, we can see the two players start locations and following the green arrow we see a closely located 2nd (natural) base. But once we continue out on the map we see the player has a choice of two options for their 3rd expansion (3a and 3b), The map makers made these two bases options for a reason, let’s see why. I’ve drawn your opponent’s attack path to each expansion in red. We can see that 3b is clearly closer to your opponent, allowing your opponent to reinforce their attack more quickly along with also having a second entrance to it’s right side. 3a is further away from your opponent and would take some time for their army to reach that expansion. But things aren’t always quite that simple, when we look more closely we can see 3b is easier to reinforce. By building these subtleties into map design it forces the player to think about their decisions, when a map forces a map to pause for a second and think “is this the best place to build a base?” or “should I attack through this route or take the long way and potentially surprise them?” we know a player is engaged.
For the most part we see this design in the games that use this resource model. I want to cover one more aspect of this resource design and how map makers use resources and the map to encourage the players to engage. Let’s look at the map again, if we see where the 3rd bases for the players are, we can already see the intended impact of this map design, as the game goes on the players are forced to build bases closer and closer together. Let’s look at another map that is a bit more obvious with this intent, follow the arrows to see the expansion path of each player:
As players are encouraged to expand they also draw closer and closer to each other. This map and it’s resource system nudges a player to expand to increase their power but by doing so they also grow closer to their opponent. The player could choose to not expand towards their opponent but they then risk falling behind economically. This choice is both a vital and fun aspect of this resource model. This intent to force players closer as the game goes on both sets a kind of a time limit on the match (you’ll run out of resources nearby eventually, to survive you must expand towards your opponent) while also use the carrot on a stick tool to motivate you into thinking “I know the risk of taking this resource node but if I can secure it I’ll have the advantage.”
Let’s conclude quickly by covering the idea of attack paths. This is when a map maker designer purposely plants resource nodes, elavation changes and choke points to force players to either attack or avoid certain areas. Let’s look at a Red Alert 2 map that showcases this well:
The two players starting zones are in white and their movements paths are marked in red and blue. As you can see the players are encouraged to met in the middle (the green oval). This is the nature of symmetrical maps, they are balanced so one side doesn’t have the advantage but tend to create these chokes, for better or worse. For games like Red Alert and Blizzard’s RTS series, this aspect of map design is critical for game balance, resource location as well as visual appeal. Though to few attack paths (imagine the map above with only two attack paths) you can get a stalemate feel to the game, something few designers want.
Let’s move onto the Age of Empires’/Command and Conquer:Generals resource and map design which I’ve labelled “Open Ended Traditional.”
Within the Age of Empires series they follow a similar style of resource design as the one discussed above they increase the number of resource types, ranging from four to six or more depending on the game. Now I don’t want to talk too much on the variety of resources, I just want to note that like with the traditional model that resources are finite and you must expand to resources you need to increase your army or research new technologies. The differences with the model set forth by the Age of Empires series is that while the maps have resource nodes like the last group, the maps are open. These games don’t feature things like designed attack paths. In a game like Red Alert 2 the map is specifically designed to create choke points and paths which the armies will take to encourage, or discourage, combat at these locations, we saw that above. But in Age of Empires they have a pretty powerful tool, the seed map. The game is designed with thousands of randomized maps so that each game feels unique with different settings for islands, laps, mountains and even archipelago (trying knowing what that means as a 10 year old). This style of map creation has it’s benefits, the player has a unique experience each time they play, variety of visual styles and a player’s strategy is forced to change game by game. The down side is there as well, the biggest of which is balance. Now not all RTS games are designed with multiplayer balance in mind, and that’s especially true in the Age of Empires series where a few units and factions have a strong advantage. Sadly due to the nature of the Age of Empires series minimaps it’s hard to get quality images of them, which makes me frustrated but hopefully my words explain the idea well enough and I apologize.
What you’ll notice right away is that the resources can sometimes be in groups but often times can be far away from different types. This means that it’s hard to build infrastructure around these areas since you don’t want to commit a lot of resources to build fortifications around a resource node that may not be worth the investment to defend. Secondly you’ll see that the maps tend to be far more open, there are no clear spots to defend or locate the majority of your defenses, mobility is key in this series for defense rather than space control and security. This style of map design creates a very chaotic sense of combat throughout the entire game, something many people enjoy about the series. It is also easier on the game developer since they don’t have to spend time and manpower designing and balancing multiplayer maps.
So while this model has similar style of resources and how they are handled, the difference is that these resources aren’t laid with intent and are more open ended maps. While this may seem insignificant but going from model one to model two can be quite the shock, especially when it comes to combat.
While this applies largely to all of their real time strategy games (Dawn of War and Company of Heroes series) I will focus mostly on the Company of Heroes series since I feel it does a much better job of showing how this model works. As with the past two models there are resource nodes and a variety of differing resources for players to focus on but there are a few differences. The first is that unlike the past two examples the resources are not finite, they can be gathered indefinitely. Secondly you don’t mine resources in the traditional method, instead you control the nodes for a set rate of income for that resource type. Similar to the previous model the player isn’t encouraged to “expand” their base towards these resources nodes, rather they are to deploy a mobile force to defend their various interests along with a variety of static defenses. So instead of building a base and productions structures in the standard base like this from Starcraft 2:
We instead see nodes like this:
When we discussed the older resource and map model we discussed how bases were placed in strategic locations to draw players closer together, forcing them slowly together. Within this third model the resource nodes take this a step further, they are placed at vital locations around the map, cross roads, town squares, hills, etc. Where ever units would naturally travel or where a general would want to control, there is placed a resource node. This takes the idea of “taking resources brings players into combat with each other” and makes it mandatory for any form of success.
Within the real time strategy genre having map control is important since it allows easier control of resources and attack paths but unlike a game like Warcraft 3 where map control is nice but not vital but what you want is resource locations, in Company of Heroes we find that space IS resources, map control is how you gain resources directly. This leads to a more spread out conflict, you won’t see large scale battles often, rather you’ll see constant poking and jabbing as forces shift around the map trying to find weaknesses to attack and secure. Now some Company of Heroes maps do play on the more symmetrical and defensive style, which appeal to some:
– The road running through town
– The town square
– The river crossings by each base
– The farms around the outskirts of the map
Players have a natural focal point to draw their forces in during all stages of the game but there are also auxiliary attack paths if you are unable to secure the key roads through the town. Combining the resource gathering method, lack of standard expansion style and unit mobility we have a good example of the style of gameplay Company of Heroes encourages.
Entire articles could be written on each style, so I apologize for the shallowness of my analysis but I hope this is a good start for people in understanding how good map design and a quality resource model all factor into encouraging players to not simply defend opponent aggression but to also control both the map and resource locations. Games that follow the guidelines shown in these three examples will find players more active on the map, see increased aggression in play style and tend to have longer retention of it’s player base.
While I don’t think any of these are perfect I believe having a variety of foundations for new RTS games to build on is important for finding success.
I am not going to get into World in Conflict today, the game is worth an article for its own resource model.