RTS101 – Blobs

An undifferentiated mass sweeping across all in its path, unmaking. That’s the blob. This is, of course, a passable definition of a “blob” in real-time strategy games, as well. This ‘tactic’ – if it can truly be called such – is when a player, regardless of unit diversity, is able to simply select a large group of units and without further manipulation attack-move these units around the map and have this effectively fight and counter superior unit choice and strategy. Blobbing sucks. It takes what should be a game of skill and counterplay and just… nullifies a large portion of the strategy involved in playing the game. A baseline unit choice, a single command, and armies fall.

Blobs are just the worst.

The Anatomy of a Blob

1

One of the major efforts on Blizzard’s part regarding unit design in Legacy of the Void is providing each faction with tools that punish blobbing. The Protoss are getting a Baneling type unit, the Zerg are getting a Siege Tank type unit, as well as seeing the return of the Lurker unit from Brood War, and Terrans already have Widow Mines but are also currently slated to get a zone-control air unit that can alternately defend choke points and punish air blobs. Conceptually, I support these choices because I hate blobbing. I hate it more than turtling, I hate it more than cheese tactics.

Depending on game and faction, blobs are going to look different. Typically, some factions in a game are more prone to blobbing than others. In Dawn of War 2, it’s quite common to see Tyranid blobs. One of the core mechanics of the race, Synapse, actually encourages Tyranid forces to keep fairly close together. Orks tend to be a somewhat blob-friendly race as well.

In Company of Heroes 2, both Western Front factions can be blobbed fairly easily. US Forces tend to rely on a core of Riflemen and Assault Engineers (partially due to limited options in the early game), coupled with officers and swarms of light and medium vehicles. As a survival tactic, US Forces troops tend to move in packs to take down the heavier German infantry and tanks. Couple this with BARs and the incredible damage output of Assault Engineers, and the US Forces can be a passable sample of blobbing.

A better example of blobbing in COH2 is the Oberkommando West. Even this faction’s basic units – Sturmpioneers and Volksgrenadiers – pose not inconsiderable threats to enemy infantry and vehicles, respectively. Sturmpioneers have impressive damage output, and rapid fire weapons, meaning when massed they can literally mow through enemy squads quickly when in close range. Volks, as they’re called, can be upgraded with Panzershrecks that can take out medium tanks in a couple of volleys en masse. Throw in Obersoldaten with incredible damage output at range, Fallshirmjaegers and Jaeger Light Infantry, and masses of OKW forces can just melt through enemy infantry. OKW blobs do well against light and medium vehicles as well, and can resist or overcome even anti-blobbing tools like heavy machine guns or mortars. Even potent anti-infantry damage sources like the KV-8 flame tank are not guaranteed resolutions to OKW blobs.

2

The Protoss “Death Ball” from StarCraft is perhaps the most recognizable blobbing tactic that exists. It’s the poster child for blobbing. Consisting of around 6 Colossi, a couple of Tempests, and masses of Stalkers, Zealots, Sentries, and Immortals, the Death Ball utilizes most of the tools of the Protoss arsenal. It’s, at least anecdotally, able to attack move across the map and win games. This might fall a little flat in practice, but it’s a force to be reckoned with.

StarCraft, and games with higher population caps like Supreme Commander or Planetary Annihilation, are going to have some degree of blobbing. Masses of units are inevitable in games with populations of a couple hundred individual entities. The “blob” factor comes into play when players are able to rob a game of strategy and depth with the simple addition of bodies. Blobbing is a problem when it becomes an alternative to needing to think or plan or react to what your opponent is doing.

Being the Blob

Blobbing tends to have a couple of prerequisites. In StarCraft, for instance, the Zerg faction would seemingly lend itself to blobbing due to the generally lower population cost of their units – and, in fact, Mutalisk swarms are a fairly common tactic that I’d consider somewhat blobby. In practice, though, Zerg are less able to circumvent or ignore terrain than Protoss or Terran players, and their units tend to be out-ranged by those of other factions, making attacking intelligently from multiple angles a must. Blobbing is not the Zerg’s methodology, it’s instead a desired outcome for the Zerg, and the game makes Zerg players work hard to pull off success with swarms of units.

Typically, the impetus for blobbing is derived from ranged units with high rates of fire. High rates of fire in RTS games allow for more consistent damage and a lack of ‘overkill’ or wasted DPS. High rate of fire ranged units, especially those with decent mobility and DPS, tend to make up the bulk of all blobs.

Typically, ‘generalist’ base units fill this role: units that can attack air and ground reasonably well, or armored units and infantry, in the case of Relic’s titles, are best suited for blobs. Blobs tend to work because they can direct enormous firepower at virtually any target. Whether they’re Protoss Stalkers or Terran Marines or Oberkommando West Sturmpioneers, generalists are the most efficient blob core. Factions without easy access to these units – the Company of Heroes 2 Soviet faction has little access to mobile SMG units, for instance – tend to be less… blobby.

3

I Hate The Blob

Specifically, the largest issue with blobbing – actually, with balance in any RTS – is one of effort. Any strategy which requires considerably less effort to execute than to prevent or overcome is unbalanced. Ideally, winning in an RTS would result from a combination sorts of factors

  • Superior scouting to outmaneuver your opponent, hit them where and when they’re weak, and to produce units which counter their strategy
  • Superior unit control, to ensure that units target the enemy they’re most suitable for taking out, and to force the opponent to trade unfavorably with you at critical times, then exploit their weakness
  • Knowing when to be aggressive, when to be defensive. When to build, when to attack
  • Superior manipulation of in-game economy to out-tech or out-product an opponent

Blobbing is like Alexander cutting the Gordian knot – Protoss Deathballs require little in the way of scouting in their preparation, as they automatically counter a wide variety of enemy strategies. They put the pressure on the opponent to find a way to prepare and counter, while the player can by rote go through their build order and push out.

Unit control is less important – almost unimportant, in some cases, for blobs. In Company of Heroes, it’s typical to create kill zones with AT weapons and suppression weapons, forcing the opponent to flank or outrange a defender to overcome the HMGs and assault guns placed in a key location. Blobs can push into these kill zones, and by weight of bodies, mitigate or ignore the presence of suppression weapons, and almost mindlessly wreck an otherwise well-planned defense under its weight.

Blobs are not unstoppable, but they are often much harder to break than they are to build. This is, of course, why players use these strategies – maximum results for minimal effort. The trick, the challenge, is to introduce mechanics or strategies which punish blobbing.

Killing the Blob

One of the most popular ‘anti-blobbing’ mechanics I’ve heard is also one of the straight up stupidest. The suggestion is to actively, through making each subsequent model of a specific unit type cost more, or to actively debuff the damage of units within a certain proximity. Again, for emphasis. This. Is. An. Awful. Idea.

Any mechanic which forces players to play in a specific way, as in “this is the force composition your faction is required to have” decreases emergent gameplay (a topic for another day perhaps) and ultimately makes the game less dynamic and fun. The solution to anti-blob play would ideally increase the fun of the game while forcing the would-be blobber to put additional effort into winning.

Units like Legacy of the Void’s planned Zerg Ravager and Lurker are –excellent– examples of anti-blobbing tools. They are counterable, but make mindless manipulation of masses of units dangerous. Likewise, units like the Soviet 120mm mortar in Company of Heroes 2 can punish blobs by dealing massive damage to component units.

In some cases, dealing with overwhelming blobbing is a matter of user training. Using Company of Heroes as another example, mines and demolition charges are solid ways to demolish, break up or otherwise weaken blobs en route to strategic locations. In some cases, the onus is on the developer to increase the strength of anti-blob tools, decrease the effectiveness of blob component units, or provide new tools for dealing with masses of units. Ultimately, the goal (as I said before) should be increasing the fun of the game while forcing the would-be blobber to actually think strategically.

Mechanically, it is important for RTS games to require each player to perform actions of similar complexity across the course of a match. It’s a common complaint in RTS games that some factions or strategies require less micro than others. That again is a topic for another article.

Conclusion

The blob or death ball doesn’t necessarily result in instant wins. The core problem is the reduction of game complexity and nuance. It’s bypassing the interaction model and counter system. It can be satisfying to defeat blobs. It can be fun to adopt this play style every now and again. But good games will discourage blobbing via tools that add considerable risk to clumping of DPS in a tight knot. Good games will seek to protect their counter system and promote a diverse and evolving array of strategies and counter strategies. You can’t kill the blob, but you can confine and cripple it.

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2 Comments on “RTS101 – Blobs

  1. As a fan of both SC2 and CoH2 communities, it’s kinda interesting to see how each community deals with blob/deathballing. CoH2 players really look down on blobbing as a skill-less tactic, with some players going so far as to rage at people who blobs. In SC2, while the general consensus is that deathballs suck, they see it as a part of the game and is a perfectly legitimate strategy to win. What I mean is that CoH2 fans seem to put their hate on players who blob instead of the game that allows blobbing in the first place. Heh.
    Great read!

    Like

  2. The LotV units are in now way a good solution to the blobbing problem of Starcraft 2.
    They are nothing but another layer of patches on a ruined clothing, spaghetti in bad code, et cetera.

    The game is just fundamentally broken and badly designed.
    Look at Warcraft 3 which had blobs and they never were an actual problem. So did AoM and AoE:O… those games also had good pathfinding algorithms with limited supply count and thus were always about two blobbed armies smashing together.
    Unlike in Starcraft 2, however, it was never a problem and they were still great fun to play and compete in even with absolutely no active abilities to speak of.
    Blobbing is a side effect of a good pathfinding algorithm alongside limited supply count.
    You can’t get around it, that’s why you design the game in such a way it is still enjoyable with blobs in it instead of trying to get rid of it with complete BS like those new protoss literal deathballs with invincibility.

    Like

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