Which of these is your favorite RTS of all time?

Votes: 214
-- View Results

Ashes Dev Journal - What RTS can learn from Chess

Posted on Wednesday, September 12, 2018 By GGTheMachine


Chess is one of oldest strategy games of all time, and the most successful having been passed down across generations for two millennia. Depending on how you define esports, Chess could now be considered one via platforms such as, with computerization and AI having increased accessibility and the scope of what's possible within Chess as a product. The long-term thriving and proliferation of Chess is a consequence of incredibly elegant game design both regarding depth but also simplicity. Today I'll be analyzing Chess through the lens of my RTS perspective, praising its design and drawing lessons that RTS games can learn from its success. I'm not a Chess expert, but I have a great appreciation for it, growing up with it and still enjoy playing it casually. 


If I could only pick a single point to praise about Chess, it would be the amount of depth and variation possible within such a limited roster of simple pieces. You can play Chess a hundred times and never feel like you are playing the game twice, yet it isn't convoluted with too many pieces or complex abilities. RTS games should certainly be more complex than chess, but the design philosophy of doing more with less is usually the key to success, with franchises such as StarCraft and Company of Heroes being prime examples of this. There are so many strategies for how Chess can be played, even from the start of the game. Players can open to form a strong Pawn structure, prioritize deployment of Knights and Bishops or look for a Queen trade. Chess doesn't fall into the trap of a slow predictable early game with a delay until the game gets interesting. Likewise, the best RTS will have their early game with room for variance so that every decision is meaningful. 



A unique quality of Chess compared to many other board games is the absence of luck. There's no dice rolling or drawing cards, everything is in the player's control so nothing to blame when you lose. The absence of luck makes the game always fair and means losing is less frustrating, leveraging our competitive drive to improve. The amount of variance and depth within a game devoid of any luck and with such a small unit variety is an absolute marvel. Maximizing variation within a simple framework is an immense challenge that requires precise execution; adjust the starting piece layout in Chess and you could have a more shallow and repetitive game. Throughout the ages, Chess has undergone many changes to the game to improve its game flow and variation, such as the introduction of double pawn movement and changes to the Queen. 

One great thing that Chess does is how the low tier unit, the pawn, is an integral part of the game. Establishing strong pawn structures gives players more stability and safety when deploying pieces around the board, and threatening higher value pieces with pawns can displace your opponent and waste their moves. Pawns also have utility in blocking the King and late game scalability with the promotion mechanic, allowing the pawn to get promoted to any other unit if they reach the end of the board. Instead of looking for King pressure or attacking pieces, a player's mid-game strategy could be to advance their most forward pawn to secure a Queen. RTS games typically benefit from having basic units as a core of the game which then also contain utility and late game scalability.



One of the key pillars of Chess is the unique way in which games are resolved. Rather than wiping all your opponent's pieces or forcing them to surrender, players attack their opponent's King which if successful will result in an instant loss. The vulnerability of the King keeps the stakes of the game high as players always need to play carefully as small mistakes can lead to devastating consequences. Players can't play clumsily just because they currently have an advantage. Multiple modes of success or victory are an inherent anti-snowball mechanic; some RTS leverage alternative win conditions to keep the game flowing better, and there's no doubt Chess would be boring if the only path to victory was through total elimination of pieces. Alternative victory conditions are not necessary to prevent snowballing, but RTS games need more than one path to success else the game loses any tension once a player gets a slight advantage. RTS games typically have the options for deciding engagements with superior control or strategic counters on top of raw numbers.

A large component of Chess, which RTS and most multiplayer video games lack, is the ability to decide matches in a stalemate. If a player is unable to make any moves on their opponent lacks the units to cause a checkmate, the game ends in a draw. Stalemating is a great mechanic because it gives players a reason to continue the struggle even if they have no hope of winning. The only RTS that meaningfully implemented stalemates is Rise of Nations' Nuclear Armageddon mechanic that occurs if too many nukes are deployed. I'd love to see RTS experiment with the introduction of non-binary game outcomes to give players a reason to keep engaged even if they clearly won't win.  A variant of the victory points system from Company of Heroes could be used to draw if no players can take and hold enough territory for the required duration.


Another aspect to the success of Chess is the presentation. Each of the units are visually distinct and unique, both as their 3D objects on a board and their representation in 2D such as computer games. The bishops are pointy, the Rooks are squares and the Knights are a horse. This makes the pieces memorable and makes the learning curve more simple as no two pieces look the same. The representation of each unit as a piece of a medieval battlefield helps players conceptualize the premise and gameplay of chess. There's a difference between abstractions and contrived gameplay, it makes sense for a Knight to be capable of traversing over pieces since cavalry are more mobile than infantry.

Chess as a strategy game is fantastic, but also as a wider product. The mechanics of Chess can be accessed and modified in many ways; starting pieces and layouts can be mixed up, pieces can be remodelled into a different theme, solvable Chess problems can be extracted and analyzed, and it can even be made into whole new games like 3D chess. The amount of variance an entertainment product can have will allow it to thrive in different conditions, a younger player may prefer more wacky rules while an experienced player may want to change the conditions to force them to improvise strategy. Modding is a great feature for RTS games, but I think it's more important to offer multiple ways of accessing the product. This comes in the forms of different game modes and features such as observer mode.



Chess also has a difficulty slider that does not affect the mechanics of the game. Novice Chess players can play in an untimed match where they have as long to consider a move as they wish, while experienced players can test their mastery of variations and speed by playing on a timer. A common accessibility issue for RTS is new players enter the product and learn dynamics completely antithetical to how the more experienced gameplay takes place; playing a singleplayer campaign is a completely different experience to multiplayer which results in forming bad habits that need unlearning. 

Chess is more than just an incredible game, it's a historical triumph and the ultimate manifestation of good strategy game design. Modern RTS games that have adopted the design principles found in Chess have been successful, and designers should be cognizant of why Chess has been so successful.



Ashes Dev Journal: Accessibility Woes of RTS

Posted on Wednesday, August 1, 2018 By GGTheMachine

It's well known that RTS suffer from being less accessible than other genres, but I think the reasoning for why is oversimplified and under-analyzed. Most people attribute the accessibility woes of RTS to their steep learning curve, but that's only part of it. If the steep learning curve is such a hurdle, then why are MOBA's like Dota or League of Legends so immensely popular? I don't think you can argue that StarCraft or Company of Heroes have a steeper learning curve than Dota, which is as hardcore as you can get. A more accurate diagnostic might be that RTS have issues with player retention, it's difficult to get new players hooked on an RTS. Today I'll be exploring what it is that makes RTS suffer from player retention and mention examples from RTS that have attempted tackled these problems.


Delayed Gratification

When playing a multiplayer FPS or a MOBA, gratification is explicit and externally presented to the player. You run around the corner *bang bang* you just got two kills which pop up on the scoreboard, one of them was a headshot. You run into the bomb site and defuse while your team is watching. You won the round. In other genres, you're able to identify success immediately, are presented with direct objectives, and victory is broken up into small increments such as rounds in Counter-Strike or pushing a tower in Dota. Shooters and MOBA's have those individual exciting moments, and the rush of that experience is enough to keep you coming back and tolerate mostly loses in the hope of reliving that exciting triple kill. 

RTS games can be immensely gratifying to play, but there's a critical difference between how it's established in RTS compared to other genres. The gratification found in RTS games is self-directed; to fully discover the enjoyment of RTS, one must first develop a thorough understanding of the game to identify consequences of actions. Let's take an example from StarCraft 2, if I send a Reaper to my opponent's base and I scout a quick Dark Shrine, that feels good. The discovery of that quick Dark Shrine is gratifying to me because I know it's a significant investment early on which I'll now be able to easily counter and get ahead by throwing down Missile Turrets for stealth detection. Furthermore, the process of scouting the Dark Shrine is an achievement, it required me to outplay my opponent by finding a gap in his defending units. If I were a novice StarCraft player, none of this would have happened for many reasons:

  1. To begin with, I wouldn't know that I should scout
  2. I wouldn't know how or when to scout
  3. I wouldn't know what to look for
  4. I might not know the significance of scouting a Dark Shrine
  5. I might not know the correct response of scouting a Dark Shrine. (Build Turrets)

Instead, I wouldn't scout my opponents Dark Shrine, and then several cloaked Dark Templars would run into my base and swiftly murder me. I would be helpless against the cloaked units, and I would have no idea how to respond or how to prevent it happening in future. This feeling of helplessness can be extremely off-putting, us humans need actionable goals and a sense of fairness. When you're new to an RTS, there are lots of things that can be frustrating but little that is exciting.



When you lose in an FPS game it's pretty obvious; they clicked on your head faster than you clicked on their heads. In a MOBA, you can see your failure to dodge an ability resulted in you getting caught. RTS lack the visual clarity that allows new players to identify their mistakes and have a clear trajectory of how to improve. This isn't necessarily a flaw of RTS, part of the depth and challenge of RTS comes from receiving limited information from your opponent and making decisions about how best to respond, it creates the entire dynamic of scouting and counter scouting. I'll be attempting to come up with solutions for the accessibility woes of RTS, but I recognize that it may be unsolvable and at the core of RTS design.

Lack of Social Experiences

RTS can be played in team games, but they don't deliver compelling team experiences and synergies compared to other genres such as MOBA's where each player is assigned a role and class. A support or a carry on their own are worthless, but together they form a powerful combination. Humans yearn to feel valued and offer a unique contribution which MOBA's deliver excellently, whereas in an RTS there's less interaction with your teammates and more interaction with your opponents. In an RTS , if you win a team game, it's generally because of each player outplaying their opponents rather than the players forming a unified team and outplaying their enemy team as a totality. 

RTS games don't deliver the combined sense of comradery that other genres boast, if you win a team game but didn't do well, you may feel like you were letting down your team and not helping. In a MOBA, your ability to perform a unique role such as healing or split pushing always makes you feel as if you're offering a unique contribution to the team, even if you had a bad game. FPS games offer less interaction with your teammates compared to a MOBA, but each round is a new opportunity for one player to have excellent performance, whether it's getting three kills or having the entire team watching as they clutch a round. In an RTS, players are too busy managing their forces to view the actions of their teammates and there's no scoreboard to break down success.

Over the years, RTS have tried to tap into the team-based experience to varying extents. A subtle example is the Commander loadouts in Company of Heroes that can be used to field complementary assets, while the more extreme example is World in Conflict where players pick a specific role such as Aircraft or Infantry and can only build units from that class. The challenge of how RTS can improve the quality of team games and player synergy is a serious question that hasn't been worked out yet, but I think there's still potential for it. 


Contextualizing RTS

It won't occur to those of us who have been playing RTS for a long time, but RTS gameplay is weird and contrived. If someone new to RTS watches you play, they may ask "Why is the camera in the sky?" Or "Wait, you're controlling all of those tanks?" The concept of floating around in the sky and controlling a bunch of things is a lot less intuitive than playing as a soldier in an FPS or as a character in an RPG. RTS games and MOBA's share the same camera system, but MOBA's have the individual hero that players embody to serve as an anchor into the game. Finding ways to anchor players and contextualize the gameplay of RTS is a technique that helps a new player comprehend and immerse themselves. A classic method that RTS have employed to address this is the unit responses such as "Yes my lord" or "What are your orders Commander?"

Voice lines are a great way establishing the player as a leader in command of the battlefield where the actions of units are them responding to their orders. Another great example of establishing context is when zooming out in RUSE, where zooming out far enough depicts the battlefield as a war table monitored by a group of generals. In the background can be seen radios and operators. Think about how much easier it would be for a new player to visualize an RTS if you could just zoom out and show them "I'm a general monitoring and in command of a battlefield."



Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander have a great technique of anchoring the player into the game with the Commanders. In those games, you start with only your Commander which grows your base and forms as the backbone of your production. If the Commander is destroyed, so are you. From the lore perspective, the units in the game are expendable robots, and only the Commander is a person (or alien.) Through both narrative and gameplay, the Commander is the player, and like a MOBA hero, it serves as an anchor and avatar into the game. Other RTS's like Company of Heroes could replicate this by having a Major standing in the base with a map and a radio which suggest the Major is the Commander, who could have their appearance determined by which Commander the player locks in. 

Command and Conquer: Generals - Zero Hour had a great way of personifying each of the sub-factions when playing the Generals Challenge. The sub-factions were all depicted as a general that had their goofy personality and voice acting. When playing Skirmish and Multiplayer, USA Air Force would be described as with the following tooltip: "General Granger Malcome "Ace" Granger prefers to utilize the maximum airpower available to defeat his enemies." General Granger's portrait would then be presented to the player as they loaded into a game. Not only does the personification of the sub-factions give great context to the game, but it enhances the roleplay immersion of the game. I wish Zero Hour did more to emphasize the human side of the sub-factions such as having voice commands that players could send during games, or perhaps unique sub-faction units addressing the player directly as "General Granger."

Player as the Cursor

One method of contextualizing and anchoring players in an RTS is the player-as-the-cursor concept found in games such as Tooth & Tail and Airmech. Commands such as follow, attack or retreat are applied to units based on pressing buttons in relation to the current player's position. Base building in Tooth & Tail relies on the player's current position to determine where a building is placed, while deployment of turrets in Airmech is done manually by transporting units. The Player-as-the-cursor is a big design commitment that greatly limits the amount of possible management, but it has the consequence of making console controllers just as capable of a keyboard and mouse.

Tooth & Tail and Airmech are both available on Xbox as well as PC, and while I haven't done so, playing them on console would be a smooth experience, especially compared to conventional attempts that convert RTS to console. The simplified management and shorter match duration found in those RTS also suits the more casual console experience. For the player-as-the-cursor design to work, the player needs to be very mobile to allow for rapid movement around the map. In Tooth & Tail, the player can quickly burrow between and back to bases, while the Airmech can transform to jet mode and rapidly fly around the small map. 

Lack of Transferability

If you go from playing Call of Duty to Counter-Strike or PUBG, your skill set of reflexes and hand-eye coordination will transfer over and make the learning curve less challenging. While there are recurring concepts and mechanics in RTS, the transferability of RTS is low as there's so much to learn from one RTS to another. It doesn't matter how much Command and Conquer you've played, picking up Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation is going to be a challenge and will require lots of learning. MOBA's also suffer from low transferability because while the mechanics are mostly the same, having to relearn all of the heroes, abilities, and items is a massive undertaking.

The transferability of FPS games means they tend to have shorter life cycles as people constantly move over to new ones. The lack of transferability in RTS means players are more likely to stick to their favorite classics, so a new RTS released in 2018 has to compete with old titles more than other genres have to. The fidelity of RTS has stagnated compared to other genres, as RTS games are more intensive on CPU power than GPU, so playing a new RTS for the sake of better graphics is less prevalent. 


Different Gamemodes

Having alternative casual game modes that players can begin with is a useful way of more gently introducing them to an RTS. The perfect example of this is the Co-op missions found in StarCraft 2. StarCraft's Co-op missions simplify the game and make it less stressful for new players by limiting the unit roster and reducing the complexity of economic and production management. The Co-op missions are also played as sub-factions represented by a character in the StarCraft lore, so it has the advantage of personifying the character you play as. The Co-op missions also provide players with clear objectives instead of the self-direction found in multiplayer and skirmish, and lastly, Co-op has the social team-based experience of playing alongside a friend. 

Other examples of introductory game modes are ARAM (All Random All Middle) in League of Legends, the Arcade in StarCraft 2 which hosts user created mini-games, and The Last Stand survival mode in Dawn of War 2. The best equivalent for Ashes of the Singularity is the King of the Hill scenario which plays out like a tower defense mission, but it would be much better if it included the option for co-op play. Instead of trying to change fundamental RTS design to fix accessibility problems, a better solution might be to put more emphasis on creating introductory secondary game modes.

Archon Mode

StarCraft 2's Archon mode is a great spin on the team game formula. Instead of it being a 2v2 with separate bases, the two players share control of the same forces together. Archon mode requires a lot more interaction among team members as lack of communication can result in contradicting each other's orders. Sharing management of a single base means teams organize them selves into certain roles such as upgrades, microing drops or producing workers. The specialization into roles makes players feel more valued and creates a much greater sense of comradery compared to traditional team games.

Relegating tasks between players alleviates the breadth of responsibility and overwhelming management for each player, so Archon mode serves as a great introduction to StarCraft. The shared control aspect is also just so much fun and I think it's a shame more RTS aren't going down this path, but it wouldn't work in all types of the genre. Archon mode will only work where there is enough management and tasks to share around, but I think it'd also be fun in a game like Company of Heroes where each player can focus on one or two squads each.


RTS are known for having issues with accessibility; the steep learning curve and large amounts of management are contributing factors, but only a piece of the puzzle. The lack of player retention can also be attributed to the delayed self-gratification, lack of social experiences that other genres boast, the contrived gameplay that can be hard for new players to contextualize, and the lack of transferability between RTS. Fixing the accessibility barrier of RTS is a complex topic that may not be possible given the design of the genre, but more emphasis on alternative casual game modes could serve as a great introduction to each title.



Ashes Dev Journal: Map Making Considerations

Posted on Thursday, July 5, 2018 By GGTheMachine


During my time working on Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation, I have made many new maps and reworked countless of the existing ones. There are recurring characteristics for the changes I make to maps, and criteria that I base most of my maps on, so I thought it would be interesting to articulate what it is that governs my map making and rework process. 

Making maps before the release of an RTS is difficult because as a designer, you don't know what formula of maps are going to work the best. Once extensive playtesting happens and feedback starts to emerge, the most popular maps can be replicated and expanded. If you go back and play the launch maps of an RTS game, most of them are laughably bad and imbalanced. In other words, making a bunch of different maps and seeing what sticks is what tends to happen, and it's part of why we ended up with a lot of funky maps that needed reworks. 

Making a map within a formula does not mean all the maps are homogeneous, there's still flexibility and lots of variation between them. Not all maps need to follow this formula, I have made some deliberately designed to be "noob maps" with little aggression opportunities, but it's useful to have a format in mind to base maps on to cater standard play. As a designer, you want to give players the freedom to play your game any way they want, but it is valuable to have a clear vision in mind for what you think the best way to play it is. If a designer focuses on delivering a particular experience, it can be iterated upon and refined to give more depth and longevity to the game. When I'm designing maps, here's what I consider:

Proportion of choke points to open terrain

If there are too many choke points, base defenses lock down the map, and it becomes very defensive and campy. Alternatively, aggression becomes overly prominent if a map is so open that players can easily avoid base defenses. There's a sweet spot in the middle, where the game flow is not too fast but not too slow. I typically aim for maps to have both areas of open terrain and other areas of choke points to create decision making about where and when to attack. The gentle use of high ground is important as high ground offers a strong defender's advantage. 

Proportion of Metal to Radioactives

There's a similar a sweet spot for the proportions of resources; too much Metal and you're forced to spam frigates, but not enough Metal and frigates are neglected over high tech units. I aim for a 2.5/1 ratio of Metal to Radioactives as that's where the most strategic diversity occurs. It's not as simple as just counting the number of deposits, the accessibility of the resources and how dense they are for Amplifiers and Refineries is also a consideration. 


Moderate use of cutoffs

Cutoffs are frustrating if they're overly punishing, but can offer interesting tactical gameplay if done cautiously. Disconnecting a player's base from the resources of the map should require cutting off at least two regions, with single cutoff points only used for smaller amounts of resources out on the map. 


Mirrored but asymmetric layouts.

Maps should be mirrored for all spawns to be balanced, but the layout of regions and resources can be asymmetric to allow for exploitation of the map's layout to cater specific strategies. Let's do some analysis of Seginus: 

The non-linear region design of Seginus and asymmetric sides offers lots of flexibility for different capping orders.

  1. Players can delay capturing of the left side and some of the central Metal regions to rush the Radioactives regions to fuel faster air units or tech.
  2. Players wishing for an aggressive game can forego the sides to rush the central Metal region which boasts 4 Metal Deposits, but will need to keep up the pressure in order to hold the region and prevent counter-attacks.
  3. Players wishing to turtle could rush the Turinium Generators on the high ground, then lock them down with defenses and artillery to deny their opponent movement around the map and hold out for a VP win.


No ideal locations

Good maps make players think about which regions they prioritize, especially with our creeps that must first be cleared before a Generator can be captured. No maps should have overly strong positions that players default to every game because everything else is sub-optimal. There should be pros and cons to different areas on the map, if the middle has the same resources as the sides then players will prioritize the middle every time because it grants the ability for quicker map rotation. An area that grants high mobility should have fewer resources than the sides, while Turinium Generators and the rich resource regions should be spread out from each other. A bad map is predictable and repetitive, and while some maps have a center rich in resources, the exposed position means they're risky to saturate.


Tidiness and consistency

I don't want to talk about cosmetics in this journal, but this point also bleeds into gameplay. If there's inconsistent spacing between regions it looks messy and means the game doesn't flow as well. Having several low yield regions right next to each other can create tedious gameplay of capturing and building Extractors. To tidy up a few maps I condensed regions together into a single richer region and standardized distances between Generators.



Clearly defined player resources

Team members shouldn't be competing and bickering over resources. For team maps, resources near a player's base should be located in a way to suggest which regions each team member is supposed to capture. It's a limitation of our interface that you can't gift regions to allies, but either way, you don't want players and the AI accidentally capturing their allies regions because they're too close. All spawns should be balanced with access to equal amounts of resources; no one should get stuck with the bad spawn. Here's a breakdown of Delta Serpentis that shows each player's equal access to designated resources, despite there being lots of possibility for team strategy and combined attacks.


Dev Journal: Experiential Unit Design

Posted on Monday, June 4, 2018 By GGTheMachine

Experiential unit design is the realm of making units and other game components feel different from each other, players have to think completely differently about Siege Tanks and Zerglings because of good experiential unit design. It may sound like a simple topic, but many RTS games have failed due to not executing it properly, resulting in a bland game where unit control is unsatisfying. Today I'll be exploring examples of superb experiential unit design from a few of my favorite RTS franchises, including Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation. 


Command and Conquer

In Command & Conquer games, players control a variety of units ranging from infantry, tanks, motor bikes and aircraft. These different unit types have large stat differences such as tanks being tough, infantry being cheap and aircraft being fast, but that's only part of the picture. It's important that units have unique properties to distinguish them in ways which are more interesting than just stat differences. For example, aircraft have limited ammunition and need to land on the airfield to be replenished, tanks can crush, and infantry can garrison neutral structures or be loaded up in transports. 

Experiential design can also be cosmetic, the Telsa Coil in Red Alert has nothing fun about it from a gameplay perspective, yet it's so cool because the weapon effect is totally unique to anything else in the game. (Until the introduction of Telsa Tanks & Tesla Troopers.) If it's not possible to make something unique through experiential gameplay design, giving it a unique style and effects can achieve a similar result.



StarCraft combines melee and ranged combat which creates a wide variance between the unit types. Due to the ranged/melee attacks and various properties of Marines and Zerglings, players have to think tactically about how and when to engage. Playing with Marines forces players to think about how to minimize surface area and forcing the enemy to engage in choke points. Siege Tanks and High Templars both provide powerful area of effect damage, but those units are used and thought about in incredibly different ways. Siege Tanks need to deploy in a stationary mode to fire, but High Templars have limited energy that is required to cast a spell. Units can perform similar roles but while being thought about in unique ways.

Company of Heroes

Company of Heroes is a much smaller scale RTS and consequently has many tactical mechanics that vary between infantry and vehicles. You need to interact with the battlefield in different ways depending on which units you're using, infantry position themselves behind directional cover for protection while tanks roll over cover. Roads should be avoided by infantry because it provides negative cover while vehicles receive a speed bonus. Other iconic Company of Heroes mechanics only apply to certain unit types which also helps make those units viscerally feel the way they are supposed to.

When Infantry receive machine gun fire they become suppressed which heavily reduces their movement and combat capabilities. Relic could have decided to have tanks also debuffed from all machine gun fire which buttons up the tank crew and limits their sight, but doing so would have ruined the emotive feelings associated with those unit types. Infantry are brought to life and made to feel vulnerable through the dynamic movement as they automatically weave in and out of cover then drop to a crawl when machine gun fire goes their way, meanwhile tanks feel destructive and tough as they crush everything in their path and have thick armor that negates all small caliber bullets. A tank wouldn't feel like a tank if you could destroy it with small arms fire.



Supreme Commander

Large scale RTS games make experiential design more difficult to implement because there's little focus on micro-management and abilities. Supreme Commander still manages to have some variance on gameplay mechanics design such as Cybran naval ships being able to traverse land, but the main way Supreme Commander makes units feel varied is by having large differences to the stats and creative art design. The UEF Fatboy could be viewed as an equivalent to the Seraphim Ythotha as they're both experimental ground units, but the Fatboy is very different. Not only can it produce units, it also has long range and splash damage compared to the powerful single target weapons.

Unlike the Fatboy, the Cybran Spiderbot has practically an identical role and weaponry to the Ythotha, so how does it still manage to feel unique? The Spiderbot, as the name suggests, resembles a Spider with its six legs giving it a different feeling of locomotion, albeit only at a cosmetic level. The Ythotha and Aeon Galactic Collosus are even more similar as they're both bipedal walkers, and yet they still manage to feel different from each other. The Galactic Collosus has a single deadly laser weapon that makes up almost all of its DPS, while the Ythotha has three separate weapons that each share roughly a third of the overall DPS. The Galactic Collosus also has Tractor Claws which sucks up nearby low tier units, and while the overall DPS of the Tractor Claws is largely insignificant, it looks cool and is a unique weapon which makes it feel different to use. 


Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation.

Experiential design is equally a challenge in Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation due to the large scale, and creating vastly different appearances can be expensive from a development perspective. One of the methods for implementing experiential unit design in Ashes is veterancy that only applies to high tier units, and in differing ways. Almost all RTS games that feature veterancy handle it in the same way for every unit type. In Ashes only the dreadnoughts and juggernauts (Tier 3 & 4) units have veterancy which makes them feel more important, separating them from the expendable low tier units.

The dreadnought upgrades achieved through veterancy are unique for each dreadnought type, which refines their role by providing them with new bonuses or weaponry. Juggernauts also have veterancy, but it's applied very differently. When juggernauts level up, they automatically receive a small stat bonus which can be applied infinitely; there's no limit to how many times juggernauts can level up which makes them feel more like ultimate late game tools. Unlike juggernauts, dreadnought upgrades can provide bonuses to an army lead by a dreadnought, which adds to their role of being designed to lead armies. 



Experiential unit design is one of the most crucial components of making an RTS game fun. Differences to stats and cosmetics is a crucial part of experiential variance, but a more interesting approach requires unique properties and mechanics. Players should think about different unit types in different ways, else an RTS game becomes bland with all the units blurred together. 

Dev Journal: The Challenge of Balancing an RTS

Posted on Wednesday, May 2, 2018 By GGTheMachine

Balancing an RTS is difficult. It’s a long, iterative process and, inevitably, there will be mistakes along the way.

Today, I'll be exploring what makes balancing an RTS such a challenge, and explain my intentions for some of the changes I've made throughout my time with Ashes. In a previous Dev Journal, I discussed why balance matters, so read that first for additional context.


Many Variables & Context

The main reason why RTS games are so difficult to balance is the abundance of variables that need to be taken into account. For example: let’s assume the Athena and Mauler cost the same resources. Imagine you make them fight, only to find that the Athena wins with 20% of its health left. Does this mean the Athena is overpowered and should be nerfed by 20% to compensate? The Athena might overperform in this one specific case, but does the same thing happen if you get 5 Athenas against 5 Maulers, or 50 against 50? Factors such as reload, burst, and projectile speed can make a massive difference when looking at the scalability of an interaction. Let’s assume even in the 50 v 50 scenario, the Athenas win with a 20% advantage. Is it now safe to say the Athenas are OP? Unfortunately, it’s never that simple, you can’t just test things in a vacuum and compare them by their direct interactions, you need to look at matchups in their totality and the only way to include the known and unknown factors is in regular matches. Other factors to take into consideration include the type of production and economic management for each faction, the synergy with other unit types and abilities, and additional mechanics such as energy and shields.

Let's take a real example: one of the balance mistakes I made was the gunship buff back in 2.2. Previously, gunships were never used because the Advanced Sky Factory was locked behind the Dreadlaunch, and the gunships themselves were weak. I both buffed the gunships and made them more accessible, which made rushing them out overpowered. I tested the performance of Gunships against anti-air in the unit spawner and thought “Well anti-air is very cost efficient against these so it should be fine.” However, having air units attack anti-air and seeing how it performs is a very inaccurate simulation of a real game. The strength of gunships came from the ability to rush them out and surprise your opponent who may lack anti-air, or even if enemy anti-air was present you could just avoid them and fly around sniping extractors to weaken their economy.


Managing Bias

Testing regular games is time-consuming, and it’s difficult to replicate every situation. You need to test the late game, multiple game types such as 1v1 and 4v4, different maps, play styles, and skill levels. To adequately test this full range of scenarios, you need to outsource the playtesting, but doing so can water down the quality of the feedback if the people offering it lack the context, skill level, or are unable to eliminate their bias. Bias can take many forms; it could be the preference for a particular faction and playstyle, or it could be a designer’s own bias that an idea is great and it’s the community’s fault for not understanding it yet. I mitigate my personal bias through the following ways:


  • Lots of varied play testing

Not much of a surprise, but the importance can’t be overstated. Lots of playtesting is essential in order to develop the game knowledge and mastery required to see through the bias and false claims of other people. As a designer you need to have the confidence and expertise to say, “No, you’re wrong, and here’s why.” Feedback from community members can be fickle, and you'll only hear from a vocal minority, especially when they're not happy. An RTS needs the stability of an expert designer who has a clear direction in mind.

To avoid my own bias, I continuously alternate between both factions. I play a variety of maps and try to play team games, despite my preference for 1v1. Playing against a variety of players is also crucial, as different players have varying play styles and there may be something unbalanced that some players don't utilize.


  • Watching replays and observering

This is similar to the idea of playing lots, but is even better. When you’re observing a match, the emotional investment of winning or losing is thrown out. Better still than just passively watching is Shoutcasting, because when broadcasting and communicating the raw game to live viewers, it’s unavoidably clear when things are unfair or not fun.


  • Variety of feedback

Taking feedback from a variety of people is incredibly helpful, whether it’s from players or other team members who may observe an "out of the box" factor. For example, "You probably shouldn't make the Assembly cost Radioactives because it may trip out the AI." It helps to identify some people you can trust with the quality of feedback and assemble them into beta testing groups. People will suggest things that may have occurred to you but never articulated, or may call you out on an oversight that you never considered.

Many players offering feedback may not have good suggestions, but if enough people are pointing towards the same issue, then it’s worth investigating. Feedback is a safeguard against making bad decisions, but you have to be critical about the feedback you are getting because their vision for the game may differ from yours.


Find The Root Problem

Often, the perceived balance problem isn’t the actual problem; players will typically only report issues at a surface level, but fixing the underlying cause is necessary to allow for maximum strategic diversity. Let’s take a recent case which has now been fixed as of the 2.75 update. There were several claims of the PHC being stronger than Substrate in the late game, which on its own is not helpful. Pressing for more information led to reports that the Leonidas is overpowered because Substrate lacks an answer, since it duels both Substrate juggernauts and crushes dreadnoughts.

I initially dismissed this as players not respecting the counter system; the Leonidas is intended to duel other Juggernauts since it lacks the area of effect damage of the Substrate equivalent, making it vulnerable to masses of cruisers and air units with armor-piercing. I mostly play 1v1 games, which rarely go for long enough to field Juggernauts, so I hadn’t much experience trying to counter the Leonidas in a real scenario. In theory, Substrate had counters to the Leonidas, but I then played several team games and free for alls as Substrate where juggernauts became prevalent and noticed my assumptions didn’t hold up.

I tried building Air Harbingers to counter Leonidas Juggernauts, but even with my own buffer of mobile anti-air to protect them, I was helpless as the Harbingers reliably got picked off by the Fury air fighters. Likewise, trying to rely on mass Eradicators to counter the Leonidas was flimsy as one small mistake and I’d lose my Orbital Jamming so an Orbital Strike would decimate my entire army. I worked out what the underlying cause was; it wasn’t just that the Leonidas was overpowered, or that the units designed to counter it were under-powered, it was that the counters to the counters of the Leonidas were too strong.


In 2.75, Substrate got heavier mobile anti-air in the form of the Overmind rework while Furies also received a reduction in their missile attack, allowing Harbingers to engage the Leonidas more efficiently. The “Nuke” Orbitals also received a substantial cost increase while Mobile Nullifiers received a range increase so that cruisers are harder to shut down with Orbitals. Despite these, I still thought a nerf to the Leonidas itself was justified, but rather than toning down its main weapon, I weakened its secondary weapons so it’s specifically more vulnerable to cruiser armies but still deadly versus other Juggernauts. Accurately diagnosing balance problems is only half the challenge; working out the best solution can be more difficult. When investigating how I will fix a balance issue, I'll generally pursue the path of what will best foster strategic diversity.

Had I not followed the rabbit hole to its origin and instead just nerfed the Leonidas or buffed the Eye of Darkness, then the factions may be balanced in the late game, but it would result in just throwing Juggernauts at each other - the late game wouldn’t be as strategically diverse with functional counters. With cruisers and air units becoming more useful in the late game, the previously neglected Agamemnon is now more desirable. Asking if the game is “balanced” is the wrong question; it should instead be asking if the game is fun, challenging and strategically rich. If faction A has an overpowered thing, the solution isn't to give faction B their own overpowered thing to compensate.

The Leonidas was overdue for a nerf, but it didn’t get one for so long because late game stuff is really hard to test. Let’s say Juggernauts only get used 1 in 30 matches I play; how many of those matches can be used to draw conclusions? Most of the times Juggernauts get fielded in my games is when somebody gets a big lead so they sit back and rush out a Juggernaut, which then is promptly used to crush their opponent and end the game. I deliberately had to pick huge maps with similarly skilled players in 4+ player games to try and naturally create situations that would showcase the relative performance of Juggernauts. Anything situational or only available in the late game will be difficult to test, but the Leonidas' over performance was prolonged by my initial dismissal of the players just not using the right units to counter it.


Map Design

The more asymmetric factions and units become, the more their performance varies on different types of maps. StarCraft 2 is praised for its meticulous balance while maintaining vast asymmetry between the factions, but this is only possible because of how formulaic its maps are. There are many strict rules that every StarCraft 2 map needs to follow, otherwise it breaks certain matchups; if there were no ramps into the main base Terran would be helpless against Zerglings. It’s not as pronounced in Ashes, but certain assets such as the Artillery Post vary in performance depending on the map layout.

Air units are always going to be stronger on large maps because their mobility is more significant, and relative range of anti-air is smaller. Similarly, base defenses are stronger on choke point centric maps because there's less room to maneuver around them. A designer needs to decide on a loose format for the maps to adhere to, else it will be impossible to balance asymmetric content. It’s okay if unconventional maps are a part of the game, but they should not be used in standard play such as automatch. There are several rules that I design and rework Ashes maps to adhere to, but that's a topic for a separate Dev Journal.

Reconciling Single Player & Multiplayer

Unlike most RTS, Ashes uses the same stats for its single-player campaigns and its multiplayer. Sharing stats has the advantage of ensuring consistency so that learning the game via single player better prepares you for multiplayer and prevents you from making false assumptions about units. The downside of this, is that sometimes decisions for skirmish and multiplayer get held back by the needs of the single player campaign. For example, I had the idea of making Orbital spawns such as Saboteurs and Incursion only work in friendly territory, which is how the Emergency turrets now function. Unfortunately, there are multiple missions that require the use of these Orbitals in enemy territory so my hands are tied. The missions can be changed, as much work as it’d be, but the voice over for them can’t be.


Technical Limitations

Most balance changes are easy for me to implement, involving just a simple tweak of files. However, many things instead require a programmer to implement, such as changing the dreadnought experience or what units are spawned in the Incursion Orbital. It’s not necessarily time-consuming for a programmer to adjust these, but it still takes away from their crucial time of what would otherwise be fixing bugs or adding new features. Code limitations also mean I can’t just freely tinker and experiment. Some balance changes require an artist, Orbital abilities such as Plasma Storm can’t have their radius reduced because doing so would require the video effect to be redone to sync up with the adjustment.

An artist would also be required if I wanted to put juggernauts in a separate production structure from dreadnoughts. That would require a whole new 3d model, texturing and a programmer to set up in the game. Performance can also be a factor; if I wanted to triple the number of drones spawned by Drone Hives, then players may get frame rate drops if they have too many of them on screen. Even for just balance changes, a designer always has to operate within a limited framework and sometimes has to settle for compromises. 

Game Knowledge

I pride myself on being one of the top Ashes players in the community and having an incredibly deep understanding of the game. Despite this, I have made embarrassing mistakes due to lacking game knowledge about a particular thing. One example of this involves the Overmind and Nest of the Queen which spawn drone swarms which are capable of engaging air targets. I intended these units to be Substrate’s late game answer to heavy air units such as Strategic Bomber, but there was one significant oversight. The drones work great for shooting down most air targets, but the Strategic Bomber’s massive payload also destroy them.

If you have multiple Strategic Bombers you can chain kill all the drones from the Overmind and Queen as fast as they spawn, preventing most of the anti-air capabilities. Strategic Bombers blowing up drones is unintuitive and doesn’t make much sense visually, so I had no reason to think it would. I had over 1000 hours on steam, and yet I didn’t realize this until I discovered it the hard way during a game. The antidote to missing game knowledge is obviously just more and more playtesting and getting feedback from other people who may notice things like this before me, but it’s important to be modest and avoid thinking “I know everything about the game” even after having spent an enormous amount of time on it. I’m still learning things about the game and the development side of it to this day, and I try to assume that maybe other people might know something that I don't. 


Foresight of Changes

Balance changes need to be done carefully to prevent them going overboard and flip something from underpowered to overpowered. It's essential that a balance designer has the game knowledge and foresight required to predict the consequences of changes and preemptively make adjustments to compensate. In the 2.75 update, frigates and many cruisers received an increase to their movement speed.

This frigate speed buff made the Hades and Strategic Bombers weaker as their bomb projectiles don't track moving units or attempt to lead their targets. I was okay with the indirect nerf to the strategic bomber, but I wasn't okay with it for the Hades, so it received a projectile speed increase to compensate. The knock on effects of balance changes is the context that community members tend to lack, so if a designer doesn't understand their game well enough and is basing their changes mostly off community feedback, there will be a perpetual state of playing catch up for new balance issues that arise each update.

Intuitive Design

Aside from balancing, there are other ideals to aim for such as making the game more intuitive. Certain changes may make the game more balanced, but if it’s a contrived and visually unintuitive change, then that’s something you want to avoid. For example, the Strategic Bomber and Air Harbinger could initially only target buildings; I dislike these contrived targeting limitations because it artificially limits player choice and makes no sense, a new player's initial reaction would be to assume these units are bugged because they’re not firing their weapons. I reworked both units to be able to engage ground targets, but the Strategic Bomber caused some balance problems in the short term due to Substrate’s lack of advanced mobile anti-air. However, I think in the long run it was a good change, on top of giving more player freedom and depth to the game, it makes the Strategic Bomber more intuitive and is one less thing new players get confused over.


Cool Factor

The visual presentation of the game is a factor that needs to be considered, balance isn't everything. Lowering the projectile speed of a weapon might make it more balanced, but it could have the consequence of looking contrived and less cool, for lack of a better word. I've thought about removing the squads of 3 that light air units spawn as, replacing them a single entity with triple the stats, as I dislike how single target anti-air such as the Air Eliminator and area of effect anti-air like the Falcon vary in performance drastically depending on which targets they're engaging. I may still do this at some point, but one concern I have is that the squadron of 3x Furies looks cool and it helps make the game feel large scale.

Gameplay should generally come first, but there are other factors to take into consideration and there's generally a balance solution to find that doesn't involve removing the cool factor. Another example is the Air Marauder which use to not fly around its targets. Instead, it would just awkwardly float on top of them and fire with little movement. Air units rapidly moving and strafing their targets looks much cooler and distinguishes them from just higher floating ground units, so I gave the Marauder the same movement pattern as the Air Rampager but then increased its weapon damage since the firing time was much less when it was strafing around. 

Asymmetric Factions

Another factor that has to be kept in mind is the asymmetric design, it's generally more interesting if the factions are unique and the units aren't the exact same as their alternative. Balance changes should try to avoid making the factions less asymmetric, but this isn't always an option depending on how the counter system and matchup is fleshed out. Managing asymmetric design is often a battle of competing qualities, asymmetry is good but strategic diversity and intuitive gameplay is better, if the asymmetric design is sacrificing those other qualities then it's bad design.


Let's take an example of a change that I made in Ashes which caught some flak for diminishing the uniqueness of the factions. Originally, only PHC had armor in exchange for Substrate's regenerating shields, which I reworked so that Substrate units also had armor on their cruisers and dreadnoughts. Giving Substrate armor was necessary for the counter system to flow properly and be consistent between both factions. The high levels of armor on PHC dreadnaughts meant you needed armor-piercing units such as the Nemesis to counter them, but the lack of armor and high health pools on Substrate dreadnoughts meant Nemesis cruisers were weak and you were better off using Athenas instead. Since Athenas are the unit to counter other cruisers, if they were also the best way to combat Substrate dreadnoughts then there's little reason to do anything against Substrate other than just spam Athenas all game. The inconsistency of unit roles was a noob trap, the Nemesis is referred to as an anti-dreadnought unit but then was actually worse than Athenas against Substrate dreadnoughts.

Some people hold asymmetric design in the highest regard, which I rebut by asking about the underlying intention behind it. Asymmetric design is desirable because it creates more variety as the factions are different from each other. What creates more variety and makes the game less repetitive, Substrate lacking armor for the sake of lacking armor resulting in endless Athena spam, or having a functional counter system where each unit has strengths and weaknesses and a unique role to play in the matchup? I tend to rank asymmetric design low in the priorities compared to strategic diversity and depth of a matchup, but it shouldn't be stripped away unless for a good reason.

Asymmetric design can also be a balancing challenge if factions vary in their difficulty level; if one faction is easier to play than it will practically be overpowered in low level games, while the more difficult factions will presumably be overpowered in high level games. Ultimately, asymmetric design can be great if it's done correctly, but if done poorly just done for the sake of it, it can and has ruined RTS games. I like to think of asymmetric design as a tool that can be used to create fun varied gameplay, not an objectively good feature that should be aimed for in order to tick a box. 

Expanded thoughts on asymmetric design in RTS:

Ashes Compared to Other RTS

So far I've been talking generically about balancing RTS while drawing examples from Ashes, but I'll finish by explaining some of the factors that make Ashes easier or more challenging to balance compared to other RTS. There’s currently only 2 factions so I only have 3 matchups to focus on, instead of the 6 matchups that most RTS games with 3 factions have. If one unit or strategy is overpowered in a matchup but then weak in another, it can't be fixed with minor balance tweaks and instead needs to have fundamental design reexamined and adjusted. Could you imagine having to balance all the matchups with the 12 factions in Command and Conquer: Generals - Zero Hour?

Another advantage which Ashes has that makes it easier to balance is that it lacks the micro-management of small-scale RTS games. An Athena in the hands of a top player is going to do the same thing as an Athena in the hands of a noob, the difficulty and depth of Ashes instead come from macroscale management of economy, production and unit compositions. Compare this to StarCraft where some units such as the Reaper and Ghost vary in performance drastically across skill levels. There's no way to balance that variance so you end up with many units being worthless in Bronze league, while others are arguably overpowered in Bronze such as the Dark Templar.   

On the flip side, one of the unique challenges of balancing Ashes is the Quantum Upgrades; your units may appear weak, but it could just be because your opponent has more Quantum Upgrades than you. It's another reason why late game is particularly harder to balance, the potential variance of Quantum Upgrades is much higher. However, the difficulty of Quantum Upgrades for readability isn't necessary a game design fault; it's more a flaw of the interface which doesn't give you an option for viewing how many upgrades your opponent has. Hopefully we'll address this at some point. 



RTS games are immensely difficult to balance as they have an vast range of factors that needs to be taken into consideration, requiring lots of play testing. It's crucial for a balance designer to have a deep mastery and understanding of the game because while invaluable, player feedback is fickle. A designer requires foresight to predict consequences of changes and needs to diagnose issues at a deep level to cater maximum strategic diversity. The challenge of balancing is heightened by designers having to work within a limited framework and having to make compromises between other design principles.


If you already have a Stardock Account, please use it to log in. If not, you can create one here:

Email Address: *
Username: *
Password: *
Confirm Password: *
First Name:
Last Name:

*Required fields