(長文)權勢的均衡:即時戰略遊戲中的發展與平衡

本文原作者: Brandon Casteel 本文譯者:ciel chen

在我個人對即時戰略遊戲(Real-Time Stratagy Game)的組成成分的定義中,其中一個關鍵要求就是裏面要有一些經濟成分。具體地說,就是RTS需要玩家學會並運用一些價值儲蓄手段來拓展他們改變遊戲格局的能力(可以通過生產單位、開展調查、激活能力等等來達到遊戲中對目標的追求)。

在大部分RTS(我在這篇文中將稱之爲“傳統RTS”)中所採用的系統都是根據《沙丘2》(Dune 2)所引進流傳的系統進行變體或者延展開來的:玩家通過獲得的資源來構建生產單位和附加建築等、進行單位生產、增加功能(比如開啓迷你小地圖功能)以及開通調查選擇。這些構建有的是能在遊戲的經濟體系中發揮作用的:他們能作爲一個或多個遊戲資源的存放點,能自己生產資源,並且/或者生產能自己收貨資源的單位。

在以前的文章中,我倡導了這些系統的功效性。這些系統存在很多可能性,並且我堅定地認爲:作爲有競爭力的策略遊戲,當玩家在遊戲中對遊戲經濟互動的把控能力受到限制時,他們會爲此而感到內疚。簡單地說,有競爭力的策略遊戲在提供多種途徑時,他們以服務玩家爲第一要義,他們會讓玩家能夠通過施展掌控能力而取得成功,這些玩家可掌控的方面有:經濟狀況、基礎設施、戰鬥策略、調查、偵查等等。我個人傾向這種想法:玩家如果能在某個方面抓住不放就是一種勝利。

我堅定地認爲:RTS的“傳統”模式設計包含了一些自帶的或者內嵌的特點,這些特點給玩家提供了難以置信的自主權,但是最終很有可能導致遊戲走向滑坡或者形成“雪球”曲線,降低了遊戲質量。在這篇文章中,我將致力於討論我認爲的遊戲中即時戰略基地和經濟管理中常見主題的長短板。以及我將嘗試把各種遊戲裏能最大程度給予玩家最大權利和沉浸感的方面給講出來。希望我能夠把爲什麼我認爲這些東西重要的原因解釋給你們。感謝你們願意閱讀,接下來我們開始吧。

你的所有基礎建設

max resdefault 2(from gamasutra.com)

max resdefault 2(from gamasutra.com)

經濟運行是從軍隊管理獨立出來但又有所聯繫的:經濟的建立、保護、管理在經典的RTS遊戲中提供了一系列獨特的遊戲目標、運營方式、挑戰方式、決策點和各種技巧玩法,這些從執行方面和心態方面上來說是不同於軍隊管理的。

那麼我說的這些是什麼意思呢? 當玩家在強大其經濟來擴建軍隊時,玩家是在做着一系列走向不同道路的決定,每個決定都會影響下一個將要面對的決定的可行性和有效性。生產,調查,經濟擴張,軍隊擴張和收集的信息都是玩家動用了時間,精力和遊戲資源而得來的(比如Gold或者Vespene Gas)。

每個方方面面的玩法都要有短期和長期的決策,這影響了遊戲的整體進展。短期決策大多是些權衡:我是要添加一個額外的工人來增加收入,還是要添加一個士兵來更好地守衛我的財產?我應該什麼時候(在哪)利用我的收入建這個生產房以呢?戰術決策在早期遊戲中就是一種權衡;移走你少數的早期遊戲單位建築之一對於兵力投送是有些冒險的,這有可能會讓玩家更容易受到反擊。

就是這樣的各種決策有充分的理由讓RTS骨灰級玩家享受其中。很少有其他種類的遊戲能給玩家提供如此豐富的機會讓他們通過大量混合的不同方式來取得成功。最好的RTS會給玩家策略和經濟自主權驅使他們走向高效和卓越的遊戲體驗——從多個方面戰勝他們的對手。

大部分戰略遊戲的經濟都是通過持續生產(我指大部分戰略遊戲)成直線增長的,這迎合了滾雪球的理念。就是說(部分由於經濟的增長曲)——我還會探究一些其他原因——優勢會堆砌變大,而障礙也會有類似堆砌化的影響。獲得個體的參與或互動纔有可能讓遊戲在未來贏得更多人的參與,這也增加了獲得全面勝利的機會。有時,我甚至會說,到目前爲止這樣的趨勢非常明顯。

starcraftii terransvszerg(from gamasutra.com)

starcraftii terransvszerg(from gamasutra.com)

請注意我有意用到的詞語“趨勢”和“機會”——就是說這並不是板上釘釘子的事。但是對大體上的RTS遊戲來講,在一名玩家的一次遊戲接觸中,他取得的僅一次決定性的勝利就能掀翻遊戲平衡傾向對玩家有利的一側,這種局勢的發展會讓人感覺到無論如何都無法逆轉了。這些遊戲就是以這樣一種方式設計的:它們平衡杆的一端的實際是一些非常薄弱不穩定容易被破壞的東西。然後情況往往是:打亂了玩家計劃的一個方面(殺死一隻隊伍,破壞了一次擴張等等)就等同於取得遊戲中大好的局面。

然而,還有些例子是遊戲會讓玩家趨於隨着時間的推移來回處於平衡的狀態,就像玩蹺蹺板一樣來來回回跌宕起伏。這些遊戲傾向使玩家之間的處在整體平衡的狀態,這要求玩家用非凡和不斷的努力來打破平衡,這樣的玩家爲了取得勝利,其努力的各個方向要足夠獨立,這樣當他/她在某個方面處於不利境地時,才能通過其他方向的掌控重振旗鼓。

這是我對於這類遊戲設計的觀點,我喜歡稱之爲“自我平衡設計”,這種遊戲從整體上來講對玩家更友好,這潛在地推動了更多人蔘與到多玩家的激烈競爭中。

自我平衡設計

coh2 soviet mud(from gamasutra.com)

coh2 soviet mud(from gamasutra.com)

用我的話來說,自我平衡設計在策略遊戲中意味着獲取對手無法超越的優勢的難度。有一個該原理最直接的例子就是《星際爭霸2》(StarCraft 2)中蟲族(Zerg)與蟲族之間的對抗——因爲蟲族的生產本質(犧牲自己完成建築孵化)以及他們經濟規模形式, 若一個玩家在對弈前期損失即使是少量的工蜂(Drones),這時想要把局勢扳回來基本上沒戲了。《星際2》中蟲族的鏡面對戰在遊戲前期有一種刀刃上的平衡,所以玩家常常在一兩方面上處於不利境地時就不玩了。儘管緊張刺激,但這樣的遊戲是非常無情的。在遊戲裏,我的理論是:如果玩家弄明白輸的原因以及知道要如何改進,那麼這樣的失敗更容易被接受。而那種讓玩家覺得避免不了的,超出他們可控範圍的失敗才更讓玩家更難以接受。

在很多即時戰略遊戲中,玩家略微的優勢很容易就變成“滾雪球”,好像這局遊戲在開始的前幾分鐘就已經成了定局似的。不僅如此,這前幾分鐘的遊戲常常是受到嚴格的條件限制的,因爲玩家們把他們有限的操作時間大部分花在建造一棟基礎設施上,然而最後卻有可能啥也沒得到。所以“自我平衡”在這裏指任何玩家個人的互動都有可能完全地轉變遊戲局勢。

平衡之道

自我平衡設計在RTS中是什麼樣的呢? 讓我用Relic旗下《命令與征服》(Command and Conquer)系列遊戲以及《首席指揮官》(Supreme Commander)來舉個簡單的例子。在《英雄連2》(Company of Heroes 2)中,玩家遊戲目標分成兩類:一是獲取地圖上的領土,二是毀滅敵人的軍隊。獲取領土是一個從多層次取得成就的系統:將敵人的一個領地轉爲自己的,佔有他們的資源,在獲取領土的同時你還能增強自己的能力來生產單位建築,使用特殊能力等等。此外,COH2中控制點性質是這樣的:猛攻一個脆弱的突破點可以掠奪敵方几乎所有資源,這將讓對方在很長一段時間內緩不過來。

COH2中的軍隊對於他們所要佔領的資源點的規模和數量來講是相對小的,也就是說當一名玩家在數值上落後時仍舊能夠(至少理論上來講)繼續爭奪領地並且不讓對手打破勢均力敵的局勢的。這個遊戲裏單位建築的高度專業化同樣也強化了這種心態:很多單位建築能夠在數量不多的情況下,依舊發揮他們的效力。這讓在處數值劣勢的玩家仍舊能繼續遊戲。對了還有其他能夠阻止衝突提供優勢的東西:地雷、帶刺鐵絲圍欄、煙霧、重武器等等。

第二點,這也是我認爲遊戲模型中最重要的一個因素。遊戲的兩個主要目標:摧毀敵人的軍隊和佔領領地是獨立開來的。跟敵人對抗,在領地方面取得進展,這跟在《星際爭霸2》中摧毀一個敵人的擴張領地或者殺死敵軍的工人可不一樣,並不能意味着你的勝利機會就可以滾雪球了。同樣地,趕走敵軍(這在英雄連2中是很常見的場面)也並不意味着就能有數值上或者長期上的優勢了,主要是能給成功趕走敵軍的玩家有些喘氣的空間,好讓他能佔領更多的領土或者努力保護已經在控制中的領土。

最後一點,我很確定這是我要重複之前說的事情:英雄連2中很多東西都不是沉沒成本。在戰場上的單個裝備,支援裝備,甚至坦克都在某種程度上體現了其持久的功效性。這點讓玩家們在遊戲對弈中不斷改變遊戲的局勢,而且對於那些落後缺乏資源成本的玩家還是能夠繼續戰鬥並取得勝利。以上說的兩種方法都能打破這個刀刃上的平衡,但是這個遊戲系統讓遊戲過程變得變幻莫測充滿樂趣。

《英雄連2》本身就有一些很強的“滾雪球”特徵,尤其是在團隊戰役中——當一名玩家或一個團隊面對多次或過度的物資損失時,協同的單位和坦克小隊可以變得相當的無懈可擊(這也是德國團隊常比聯盟團隊表現得好的原因——他們的坦克比較重,這樣他們就比較不怕坦克被損毀,較低的替換率會隨着時間增加,他們的最後的軍隊只會更難被消滅。)

自我平衡設計是件好事嗎?

grey-goo1(from gamasutra.com)

grey-goo1(from gamasutra.com)

那麼這個自我平衡的設計確實是件好事嗎? 一般情況下,遊戲結束後會“返回到開始界面”,未必會獎勵贏得勝利的人讓他贏更多,這樣是好的嗎?典型地來講,電腦戰略遊戲設計心理學似乎表明這些遊戲的製作者期望玩家遊戲結束後“回到解放前”——甚至對此是鼓勵的。從某種程度上來講我是同意這個想法的。這種類型的遊戲設計初衷在於體現玩家從過去的經驗裏得到的的技巧,注意力的集中和精神表現,而任何抑制了玩家遊戲技術的設計都會糟蹋遊戲的整體吸引力。

我認爲這個問題的回答取決於你對好的和成功的遊戲的定義是什麼。我推測的方法和方向是基於RTS類型遊戲的邊緣化。該類型遊戲的一些東西(對我來說)未能夠獲得廣泛羣衆的青睞。而且近期對於RTS經濟模塊的自動化趨勢,在我看來,這種簡易的流水線模式整體上並不利於策略遊戲的流行普及。現成的例子有《侵略行爲》(Act of Aggression)和《灰蠱》(Greygoo),他們在經濟模式方面都採用了自動化,這使得通過經濟運營來獲得勝利的機會變得很渺茫。

所以,我正在嘗試做的是識別遊戲設計趨勢,我覺得現在的設計趨勢正在讓玩家脫離了RTS多人遊戲,並且在此我想以一種積極理性的方式來闡述一下這些設計趨勢。以下是我觀點的引述:

“滾雪球”的現象會讓玩家感到無力和挫敗感

基礎設施不應該同遊戲目標掛鉤

基礎設施(一般常用的)增加了無趣的選擇

沉沒成本增加了“滾雪球”現象

從別的競技類遊戲得到的經驗教訓在RTS中都可以實現

遊戲前期是遊戲競技中最令人沮喪的一段時間,遊戲中期和後期是玩家最喜歡的時期,因爲他們有了最大程度的行動自由和選擇自由

沉沒成本

nuclear launch detected(from gamasutra.com)

nuclear launch detected(from gamasutra.com)

在我看來,傳統RTS設計的核心問題之一就是沉沒成本。沉沒成本就是指那些沒有辦法收回的成本支出。通常在RTS遊戲中,每個支出都是固定的。如果要建造一個兵營,那用來建兵營的資源就被扣住了,沒法用來做其他用途了。如果損失了這個兵營就更糟糕了:現在這些資源都報廢了。從客觀的角度,具體地說來,丟了兵營的情況真的會變得比沒丟時候糟糕很多。

這點跟《命令與征服》,或者《首席指揮官》,或者《英雄連》比起來——資源在這些遊戲裏……它們都是可以被重複使用的,前提是隻要你有時間和精力去這麼做。而且,這些RTS遊戲的資源都是可以以有意義的方式轉手的。在《首席指揮官》中,失去一個兵火基地意味着你的敵人可以接手從而對你造成損失,但同時你可以把地圖上一些遺留的老戰地的基地再給挖出來。這樣的成本回收本身成爲了一種戰術和戰略上的考慮,爲遊戲的資源系統加上了一層趣味與技巧。

沉沒成本會搞垮玩家。相同情況下,在《星際爭霸》或者《帝國時代》裏損失一個基地,或者基礎建設的一部分,遠比在之前那些遊戲裏肯定要糟糕得多,因爲根本沒有機會挽回這些損失。你有能力給對手造成損失,或者獨立地增加收入來彌補短板,但是最好你要能利用對手的一些資源、收入以及基礎建設。理想的經濟反攻(公平交易)事實上並不存在。

對我來說,這個難題的其中一角是資源的永久化想法。在大部分RTS遊戲中,單位和建築都是沉沒成本,並且都是非永久的。玩家投資中唯一無法丟的就是他們指揮的調查。即使其影響和實用性隨軍隊組成,單位實用性和所擁有的建築而不同,但調查往往是玩家在兵工廠中具有永久性的投資。

從資源永久性方面來說,《首席指揮官》和其他的殲滅類遊戲有一個非常有趣的地方——他們所建成的一切建築在摧毀時會返成資源。是的,一切建築,甚至包括試點單位。這些資源可以被收穫,但不是通過遊戲中基於建築結構的方法,而是通過工程師。這些資源被用來平衡玩家的戰鬥資源:回收敵方的試點單位碎片來資助自己多建一個單位試點。不僅如此,《首席指揮官》和它的姐妹款遊戲允許玩家在遊戲中偷取東西,呵呵,偷啥都行:工廠、單位等等一切能轉化成資源的(能被賣的)或者能讓工程師獲得的。這在一個已經有很多事要做的遊戲裏是一個相當繁瑣的細節,但是它從一些小的方面爲玩家提供了無盡的機會,這些機會將起着關鍵性的作用。

順便說下,殲滅類遊戲之所以能這麼受人歡迎叫人難忘還是有原因的。記住它能這樣受歡迎不僅僅是因爲它的規模宏大,還有其他的原因,這是件好事。

積累建設階段

另外一個在STR遊戲設計方面中常見的是驚人的上升過程,從剛開始單個單位或單個建築發展成壯大的軍隊,這個傳統STR遊戲的積累建設階段爲獲得成功提供很多的方向,但是同樣也會促成很多玩家之間大幅度不平衡的局面,還會造成戰力急劇下滑的可能。

某種程度上來講,我不認爲這跟遊戲的經濟增長曲線有直接關係。個人覺得,《首席指揮官》的遊戲系統在遊戲進行到中期時段,把自己帶入了一個總體的自我平衡狀態中:興趣點(POI)的數量、生產設備的數量、調整成本效率的主要方式以及次要方式所形成的一個相對平衡的態勢,這個狀態需要玩家找到一個能夠起決定性作用的好辦法來打破。
全線策略遊戲最“滑”(不穩定)的部分就是——有趣的玩法選擇普及開來了,但是平衡給掛在了刀刃的邊緣,自我平衡設計分崩離析——這常常在玩的前幾分鐘就感受到了。遊戲前期的短板在後期會有“滾雪球”的效應。這尤其在《星際爭霸》中最明顯。蟲族與蟲族之間的戰役驗證着這個嚴酷的真相(就像我上文所述的那樣)。

《星際爭霸》設計者意識到:當玩家之間可能大幅度失衡的時候、以及玩家玩得失去樂趣有拿鍵盤砸顯示器的衝動的時候,在這些時候設計者是無法讓他們的遊戲社區保持在一個休閒的、有競技性的水平的(或者對於旁觀的人來講是這樣的)。
所以在《星際爭霸2:虛空之跡》(Legacy of the Void)中,設計師們極力削減了積累建設階段比重,讓玩家在遊戲起步階段不再那麼脆弱。這才得以開啓了多種多樣的有趣戰略,增加了觀衆喜愛的遊戲局勢的跌宕起伏,並且在遊戲中更早地開啓了更多的地圖。LOTV讓玩家不得不及早並且經常性地進行擴建,增加POI數量,增加玩家的弱點以便雙方反擊,不過減少了這樣反擊的總體影響。然而LOTV做出的改變提高了遊戲在玩家手動方面的要求,這已經嚇到了平均水平的玩家,設計師們至少得在我接下來說的方面做出些彌補措施。

LOTV做出的改變讓我看到2個重要的地方:首先,遊戲有了更多POI後,其本質上會變得比那些POI比較少的遊戲對玩家會來的更“有愛”。這點我們在《家園:卡拉克沙漠》(Homeworld:Deserts of Kharak)中也能看到,較多的POI有利於軍隊的選擇,限制遊戲整體的動態性。在沒有偵查的情況下,你也對你的敵人的動向和需求瞭然於心。

接着一些基本問題:在地理方面受限制的經濟運作是有固有機率產生擴張性的戰略操作的。積累建設階段引進的大量不穩定資源都有可能損失,這會讓失衡的機會增加,最後變成無聊的互動。

把所有問題整理一下,重點就來了。當你讓玩家建造一個基地時,你要給他們一個大卻脆弱的基礎設施讓他們來守衛。這樣的基礎設施在大部分情況下都是沉沒成本。丟失了基礎建築中的重要部分會導致戰力的急劇下滑。該基礎建設的位置需要在一個可預測並且受地理因素限制的,它可以通向地圖中少數比較重要的地方。這一切構成了一個公式,儘管爲玩家提供了很多東西,但卻讓玩家感到士氣低落和一種無力感。

戰術遊戲往往會跌倒這裏

借句丘吉爾的話改造一下來說,傳統RTS設計是最差勁的系統……除了其他所有被試驗過的系統除外。這樣說有點不準確,但還是挺有力度的不是嗎?問題就在這:在設計策略型RTS,或者說旨在減少經濟權重的RTS時,在遊戲中取得勝利所通過的多種指標,其數量及影響會減少。

如果創造一個遊戲,拿“傳統RTS”當起點或者對照,它鈍化了基礎建設和經濟(資源蒐集)運營的影響和固有涵義,遊戲就會少了兩個方向來贏得勝利。如果遊戲系統有例如土地獎勵、裝甲薄弱處、擊空概率等等的設計,這將只增加了單位選擇和定位的比重,讓遊戲的一個指標變得更重要,迫使玩家得順着這個指標掌握很邊緣和微妙的技巧來贏得勝利。

這是策略遊戲往往不如傳統RTS遊戲流行的原因,也是現在很多試圖簡化經濟權重的遊戲難出頭的原因——它們刪減了玩家中間商和小任務進程,讓玩家減少了能贏得勝利的途徑,並且把能贏的某一個方面強調得特別重。

很多策略遊戲還利用了控制點系統。控制點和領地有很多重要的特點:它們讓玩家的注意力集中在除了純粹的戰鬥效率以外的一些東西。它們要求玩家要有前瞻性,在整個地圖裏不斷轉移自己的單位;它們要求玩家在體驗層面不同的情況下分散戰力來爲多個目標努力。

策略遊戲摔倒的地方在於玩家要執行各種不同的操作或者順着不同指標來努力贏取勝利。這也是爲什麼基礎建設和傳統風格的RTS遊戲依舊是所有類型RTS遊戲中最流行和成功的。

有沒有解決方法?

這篇文章核心的假設是:玩家只有在感受到自己是在一種公平、平衡以及合理的遊戲環境下才能最大化地投入到遊戲中。有競爭力的遊戲應該堅持的創造出這麼一個環境——它讓玩家覺得他們是在進行着平等的互動,覺得他們的遊戲技巧是贏得勝利的首要決定性因素。

讓我們重新看看這個問題:

在傳統RTS遊戲的早期遊戲舞臺上,玩家們被迫要在儘可能短的時間內執行大量的操作。在不壓榨玩家的情況下,設計者擴大遊戲規模、限制因個人投資(單位和建築)損毀而造成的損失,這是是對漸進式改進力度做出的妥協。一般RTS遊戲的上手曲線令大部分玩家感到痛苦。遊戲提升過程較慢的有《英雄連》和《戰爭黎明》系列遊戲;較快的有類似《虛空之季》,不論較快還是較慢,比起增加玩家中間商及減少大部分RTS遊戲前期各種各樣的失衡和遭心的互動更好的解決方案,它們都是更好的解決方法。

筆者不是在控訴把策略元素在RTS遊戲中作爲“衝擊”的存在。筆者是在控訴那些把幾乎不可能及時做到的偵查和對抗,以及所設計的基本遊戲機制導致玩家間不平衡的互動優勢作爲遊戲“衝擊”的特殊形式,筆者是在嘗試着把那些能讓玩家在激烈遊戲中體驗到自然、公平、浸入式玩法的系統給找出來。

玩家投資常常扎堆在基地上,因爲對大量投資的共同保護是最有效的途徑。這常常限制了地圖上的POI的數量而導致其價值升高(同時玩家損失時的痛苦也增加了)。限量的POI配上需要擴張和維護的大量所持資產,自然形成玩家了一個處被動和防備的心態。很多玩家能夠成功地跨過這個坎(至少是部分吧),但是我仍然認爲這是必須越過的坎。掌握地圖上大量的POI減少了失去其中某個的痛苦,並且形成了增量系統的優勢,這讓目標們可以被馬上識別並且屬於高度合理化。

玩家投資常常都是沉沒成本。損失這樣的投資,特別是在典型的創收模式下,這意味着玩家現在只有少的可憐的選項來挽回他們的損失,逃不掉變成落後的結果。裁減沉沒成本會減少滾雪球現象並創造動態反擊的機會,這無論是對當局者還是旁觀者都是一個非常有趣的局勢發展。

快節奏的(或者淺薄的)建設階段得以減輕RTS中常見的最令人沮喪的情況。快節奏的建設階段也對那些猛攻者施加了更多的壓力,讓他們能更好地操作來贏得勝利。

感謝你們抽出時間來閱讀這篇文章。無論如何,在你們思考通過哪些方法能讓RTS遊戲有更多的發展與成長來留住玩家時,我希望這篇文章能爲你們提供一些參考。

本文由遊戲邦編譯,譯者爲ciel chen,轉載請註明來源,或諮詢遊戲邦,微信zhengjintiao

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

by Brandon Casteel on 03/06/17 11:26:00 am
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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

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 investmaent, 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.(source:gamasutra.com  )