This is my 5th patron-supported article. Thanks to everyone who supports me, both financially and otherwise. I deeply appreciate everyone who pays attention to what I write, challenges my ideas, and engages with me in thinking about the fascinating experience that is real-time strategy gaming.
My particular thanks to Ashes and Xiao Hu, my top supporters on Patreon.
About 3 months ago, I wrote a pretty long and, admittedly, rather rambling post about in-match progression in real-time strategy games. My core premise in the article was that while base-building and economic operations can be instrumental in providing players with important fine-grained control over their success in the game, they also present some seldom-addressed issues: namely, that such systems promote the type of imbalanced interactions that can limit player engagement and drive players away from a multiplayer game feeling that their losses are unfair. The purpose of the article was less to say that these systems were bad, but more to draw some lines around their limitations.
That article also pointed out some RTS games that have tried to design their systems to account for those limitations. Namely, Legacy of the Void drastically altered the StarCraft 2 early game to shorten it and minimize its impact, and changed the logic of its expansion system to get, and keep, more of the map relevant and keep the player moving. And the entire premise of the Dawn of War and Company of Heroes games revolves around an extremely protracted economic crawl, with most interactions including only a small fraction of a player’s total possible fighting force. In my mind, both of these systems are intentionally trying to limit the possibility of wildly imbalanced player interactions and widely differing relative player power at any point in the game. Lately, though, we’ve seen something new tried in RTS.
In the past month, we’ve seen two new RTS which introduce the concept of ‘phases’ into their gameplay. Both Dawn of War III and Steel Division: Normandy 44 include some type of built-in escalation, though the implement them slightly differently. While the concept of phases is not new to gaming in general, it’s certainly not something seen in many strategy games. But, perhaps I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. First, I will define and describe phases as they appear in Dawn of War III and Steel Division. Then, I will discuss the positive and negative impacts of phase mechanics on RTS.
In a world where strategy games are the veritable red-headed stepchildren of the games industry, it’s refreshing and welcome to see a company like Stardock put so much energy into long-term support of their lineups. All of their recent games: from Sorcerer King to Galactic Civilizations III, to Offworld Trading Company and Ashes of the Singularity, have received ample post-launch patching, updates, and DLC, continuing to improve and refine and build upon those games’ premises.
ETHICS NOTE: To conduct this interview, I was given access to a temporary closed beta for Dawn of War III. I independently decided to pre-order the game with my own money based on my experiences in the beta. No other compensation was related to the production of this piece.
After speaking with Dawn of War III’s Game Director Phil Boulle, Relic approached me with an offer to interview Carolina Mastretta, one of their game designers, about the game’s customization systems. Being a long-time proponent of personalization options in real-time strategy games as regards both cosmetics and play mechanics, I was glad of the opportunity.
Carolina was a gracious interviewee, patiently talking through the finer points of army customization and happy to retread over topics that she or I thought weren’t covered properly. While the somewhat narrow context of the conversation prevented me from focusing on some of the game’s larger controversies, I was more than happy to get some additional information about Relic’s goals and direction regarding supporting a variety of play styles, and what they’d learned from previous games.
Let’s take a look at what Carolina had to say.
I started out with some of the low-hanging fruit: the game’s cosmetic options. “In Dawn of War III, we wanted to broaden the paint and badge options that players have access to- so they can recreate factions from the lore.” Carolina said. “Skins and unique paint colors are tied to the progression system… Macha pink, for example.” Farseer Macha is one of the Eldar heroes in the game, and she apparently has a unique color swatch that can be unlocked via her progression path. Carolina continued, explaining that each Elite unit contains a number of unlockable paint swatches and badges specific to them. They also, she said, each have one unlockable skin. They’re not ready to talk about post-launch plans yet, but aren’t ruling out the possibility of adding more over time.
A longtime frustration of mine in the Dawn of War franchise is the limited number of army decals: it’s really hard to use them for custom color schemes and personally designed Chapters or Craftworlds when they’re all established in the canon. It doesn’t sound like this is changing for Dawn of War III, though: “We’re staying true to the lore, but there are definitely more badges than we’ve ever had in a Dawn of War title. Also, our Elite units will have custom badges to unlock, that represent them. Once you get an Elite to level 6, it unlocks a series of swatches of both type and material.”
Apparently, as with Dawn of War II, there will be not only paint colors but paint material that affects its appearance. Matte and glossy options will be available, as well as metallic colors. The big reveal in terms of cosmetics to me was that some options are tied to specific Elites and are a reward for using them. Personally, I’m a fan of this, but mileage is sure to vary on that one. I like feeling, well, elite, for having earned access to skins or other “bragging rights” content. Limited-access paint colors and badges are a fun reward for spending a lot of time learning the ins and outs of a particular option.
But, enough of that. Let’s get to the meat and potatoes of customization in Dawn of War III: Elite units, and Doctrines.
Some of the defining elements of Relic’s latest RTS titles are varying forms of meta customization: In Dawn of War II, that revolved around choosing your hero/command unit. The hero character in DOWII has a large array of customization options in the form of wargear whose availability is tied to the player’s unlocked tech tier. Heroes have a pretty big impact on how the player approaches a match (particularly in its early stages) and often has trickle-down effects on the player’s faction, such as with Chaos Heretics’ Shrine, whose aura changes depending on your hero.
Similarly, a controversial feature of Relic’s last title (Company of Heroes 2) are its Commander and Bulletin loadouts. In COH2, players can pick from a variety of pre-configured tech, unit, and ability options, packaged together into Commanders. While in Company of Heroes 2, players are able to bring 3 Commanders along with them, choosing a Commander locks the player into its specific path for the rest of the battle. One much-requested feature in Company of Heroes 2 was player-designed Commanders. It seems that Relic has, in part, acceded to this in Dawn of War III. In Dawn of War III, players essentially design their own Commander via the Elite system.
We talked at length about how Dawn of War III is attempting to build on what Relic learned from the previous two titles, and from Relic’s other properties. I really loved the Wargear system from Dawn of War II, and asked about that specifically. Here’s Carolina’s response: “This is one of the things we struggled most to define. We knew we wanted big armies, but we wanted to keep the unique heroes people loved from Dawn of War II. We asked ‘How do you balance heroes with armies?’ We found our answer in synergies between hero and army.”
In the beginning, Carolina explained, they’d wanted to stick more closely to the Wargear system. But they ended up feeling that the scope of battle was so large that hero loadouts weren’t manifesting in interesting ways. “Players weren’t seeing the impact of their choices.” She said. “We looked to the lore, for some of it. What kinds of squads are these heroes associated with in the Warhammer universe?”
Carolina had a lot to say about the evolution of these mechanics in Relic’s latest title: “We looked at Bulletins. They were interesting, but they didn’t give players ownership of how they acquired them. And they didn’t have a big impact. Players often wouldn’t notice 2% accuracy on a weapon, for instance.” She continued: “In Dawn of War III, we realized that Doctrines needed to be limited in amount, and strong enough to craft a strategy around. Company of Heroes 2 Bulletins didn’t have enough impact, and we wanted Doctrines to be a big deal.”
Regarding Commanders, Carolina had more to say, “We didn’t want to change the core play style of the faction. That was one complaint we saw regarding some Commanders. We wanted to steer Dawn of War III more into readability and clarity, and clear opportunities for counterplay, more clear than previous titles.” This really rang true for me. I’ve written before about taking specific lessons from other genres, and I think some of the deeper mechanical changes to Dawn of War III come, not from a desire to mimic or borrow specifically from StarCraft 2, or MOBA titles, but from a desire for Relic’s titles to be more readable and predictable in general. They want to limit the effects of RNG on their games, and smooth out cases where players feel they’ve been robbed of a win due to vagaries of an imperfectly predictable interaction between players’ forces. While I remain somewhat skeptical over DOWIII’s victory system, I was very glad to be able to do both this interview and my earlier talk with Phil Boulle, both of which allowed me to take another look at the reasoning behind some of the game’s more controversial design decisions.
“My favorite doctrine is Holo Fields for the Dire Avengers” she said – it’s one of my favorites too, by the way – “It [Holo Fields] really changes the unit dynamic.” From there, we returned to talking about Doctrines and their relationship with Company of Heroes 2’s Bulletin system. “We did a lot of post-mortems from Company of Heroes 2. We wanted to learn what their design team would have done differently. It was clear that there should be very clear avenues to earn these things. No loot drops: we wanted to empower players to make decisions, and limit random factors in player progression.”
The concepts of expanding player choice, and giving the player a clear progression path as opposed to one dominated by item drops, was one that was often repeated in this conversation. Relic seems committed to learning from some of their missteps from past games, or to be more precise they seem to be committed to implementing game elements that resonate best with players. Random elements can be hostile to players, and provide widely varying gameplay experiences, and I think Relic is acknowledging that reality in the design of Dawn of War III.
I asked Carolina about her opinions on the pros and cons of their Doctrines and Elite system. Her response was “As a player, we’re giving you the means to acquire meaningful choices, to experiment with choices. To try something new in the next match. Each match can feel different. But we know there’s a challenge. The progression system can feel pretty hands-off. Players need to be willing to learn from mistakes. There are a lot of meta-game variables that you have to be aware of now, and that requires a lot of trial and error. There’s a bit of a learning curve here. How you use your army is balanced against the choices you make in the Armory, and ultimately I think that’s a good thing.”
I wrapped up the interview by asking questions about how the choices made in the Armory impacted gameplay. This is, after all, the most important thing to players: army customization, both cosmetic and mechanical, is ultimately in service to the game experience that players will have when they queue up for a match.
One of my burning questions was, basically, what’s up with those crazy end-tier units? The ones that cost 8 or 9 Elite Points to purchase? Beauty Da Morknaut, and its related Elites in the other armies. Personally, I take a unit like that as a challenge. I want to see if I can possibly get away with not using it. I asked, can players succeed meaningfully without taking a super Elite?
Here’s Carolina’s response: “The feedback from beta was that they felt overpowered,” she said, before continuing, “But part of that is people tend to build very blobby armies in the beta. super Elites melt those blobs. Your question applies to the game as a whole, though: Dawn of War III combat is about finding the right counter. Solaria is incredibly powerful – she can meltarmies. But I’ve seen her taken out by Shadow Specters, with the Eldar player moving them around. Skillful play can definitely take out the big units, but the player has to know their options well to take them out. It requires skillful use of units, especially with the Eldar, who have a high skill requirement.”
Carolina continued talking about super Elites: “The player has to take advantage of the mobility of smaller units, and abuse ability cooldowns. Opportunities certainly exist to take them out. It’s a big part of our ongoing balance, though, to make sure that super Elites aren’t a win button.” She also noted that in her personal experience, it’s not all that common to see a player call in all three of their Elites in a match, that it’s common to see a single Elite unit called in early and used throughout a match, with the other two Elites held in reserve.
In the betas, each faction had access to five Elites, and Carolina told me that each will have nine when Dawn of War III launches. I wasn’t able to get her to spill the beans about more Elites coming, but the knowledge that more options were en route was heartening. Systems like this are more interesting if they give players a bevy of experientially different options, and it looks like Relic’s making a commitment to making their Elite system interesting.
From there, I turned to another one of my absolute favorite mechanics from the Dawn of War games, and Relic’s titles in general. Relic’s games have traditionally featured really tough, meaningful upgrade choices, particularly at the squad level: if you choose one weapon upgrade, often that choice lasts the life of that squad. If you pick Lascannons, you can’t change your mind later and choose another weapon upgrade. I asked if tough choices like these existed in the game: perhaps not at the level of the individual squad, but maybe elsewhere?
“There are a lot of different answers to that question,” said Carolina. “We did move away from the Wargear system in Dawn of War II. We wanted players to make decisions that impacted the rest of their army. But, the fun in the Wargear system was exploring the options, to take Elite units and craft particular roles for them, meaningful roles. We’ve moved these hard, binary choices to the meta-level, the doctrine level. Over all, we’ve moved away from the idea of individual upgrades. We wanted to craft clear roles for units, and feel that benefits both the player and their opponent. For both the player and opponent, we want things to be clear and readable. We want people to say, ‘I know where my opportunities are.’ Too much modification of individual units made the game less readable.”
As much as I like squad-level customization, that definitely made sense to me: there’s a lot of value in making things instantly understandable, especially from a competitive standpoint. Here’s some more of Carolina’s reply: “We didn’t want to change the unit’s role, but have upgrades expand the pre-defined role of that unit.” She also mentioned that, for players like me who are fans of individual customization, the Ork’s looting system has an element of this with its random customizations.
I wrapped up by asking Carolina what she thought the strongest and weakest elements of Dawn of War III’s customization systems were. I’ll conclude with her words on this topic “We’re very excited to see how players can craft something that works for them, about providing new gameplay options via Elite units. We are excited for players to unlock other doctrines and expand their versatility over time. We want to see players grow in power based on the options they have to craft their perfect strategy. We do believe that the system is complex, and it will take a lot for players to learn and understand. We have tried to turn these challenges into features, to welcome the players in a learning environment.”
I want to thank Carolina Mastretta for taking the time to talk with me about Dawn of War III’s customization systems, and look forward to open beta where I can experiment more with them. Thank you for reading.
ETHICS NOTE: To conduct this interview, I was given access to a temporary closed beta for Dawn of War 3. I independently decided to pre-order the game with my own money based on my experiences in the beta. No other compensation was related to the production of this piece.
I’ve been following the development of Dawn of War III with a mixture of interest and, well, a bit of apprehension. The Dawn of War series is one of my all-time favorite RTS franchises, and as excited as I’ve been to jump back into a Dawn of War game, the latest entrant has felt like a pretty radical departure from Relic’s first two RTS forays into the Warhammer universe. As a fan of Dawn of War I and II, I was honestly a little concerned that such a departure might remove what I loved about the original games.
So, when I got the opportunity to speak with Game Director Philippe Boulle about the Dawn of War III, I went into the conversation with a pretty specific mission: to have him put this latest Dawn of War in its historical context. Clearly, choices were made in the development of DAWN OF WAR3 that resulted in a departure from the previous titles. But, to me, there were elements that just as clearly seemed to be drawn from the lessons of past Relic RTS titles.
Phil was a gracious guide as I jumped around from topic to topic, asking about Dawn of War I’s core systems one minute, and then changing abruptly to ask about Dawn of War II’s hero mechanics the next. He was very animated as we talked, able to speak articulately and in depth about every design question I asked, often covering topics before I brought them up. As he was my guide through the history of the franchise (and Relic’s vision for its future), let me be yours. Read More
From humble beginnings, Petroglyph’s “8 Bit” series has some quite a long way. They’ve gone from 1 faction at launch to 6, with army themes including near future military, WarCraft 2-esque high fantasy, and most recently they’ve added 2 science fiction factions. The games have 2 campaigns in each version, and recently their free-form territory control game mode has been rolled out across all 3 titles. They’ve even launched a multiplayer-only version of the title for $5, and a free version of that offering, which I see as a really smart idea. Additionally, a version of the game is inbound to consoles, further increasing the visibility of this zany little franchise.
If you’ve been interested in playing, but unwilling or unable to pay the cost of entry, I might be able to help. I have a spare key to the latest 8 Bit title, 8 Bit Invaders! and I’m offering it to you, my readers.
Just leave a comment on this page. However, during my last giveaway the winner didn’t leave any contact information which caused some problems delivering the prize. So, this time, please leave a comment from a connected account, or provide your twitter handle or email address or some way to contact you in the event that you win.
Comments will be accepted as entries through 3/23/2017. A winner will be chosen on 3/24/2017. Only one entry will be accepted per person.
Good luck, and see you on the battlefield!
This is my 4th patron-supported article. Thanks to everyone who supports me, both financially and otherwise. I deeply appreciate everyone who pays attention to what I write, challenges my ideas, and engages with me in thinking about the fascinating experience that is real-time strategy gaming.
My particular thanks to Ashes and Ian Richard (@McTeddyGames), my top supporters on Patreon.
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.
This is my 3rd patron-supported article. Thanks to everyone who supports me, it means the world to me.
Every so often, I return to one of the RTS I played when I was a kid. Some of these are broadly popular, like StarCraft or WarCraft or Tiberian Sun. Some may be less so, like Earth 2150 or War Wind. In part, these ventures are driven by nostalgia: to recapture or relive the wide-eyed enthusiasm and untrammeled joys that I remember from childhood.
But, as a student of strategy games design, I also find it interesting to analyze the design of older games. It is fascinating and instructive to struggle through less-than-optimal user interfaces (truly a first world problem, right?) to explore mechanics that have fallen by the wayside and to examine design practices from the pre-esports era.
Recently, to satisfy both of my inclinations, I’ve picked up and begun playing copies of a variety of classic and/or remastered RTS: Earth 2150, Battlezone ’98 Redux, Homeworld Remastered, War Wind 1 and 2, Battle Realms, and Bitmap Brothers’ Z (well, the steam version, which is based on a remake of the original). I hope to find time to write analyses of all of these games, but I thought I’d begin with Z.
In the following paragraphs, I’m going to describe the game as a reminder for those who have not played it recently and as an introduction for those who might not have played it at all. Then, I’ll discuss its mechanics in more depth, along with their limitations and what I see as their potential in modern strategy games design.
Let’s get started.