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Ashes Dev Journal: Why Balance Matters

Posted on Wednesday, April 18, 2018 By GeneralsGentlemen

To this day, Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation is still receiving balance updates. You may be wondering - since Ashes is not a competitive game like StarCraft - why there is all of this effort being put into balance. There can be a misconception that balance is esoteric and only matters to high level players, but I don't think that's accurate. Today I'll be exploring why balance matters for all players and how it's crucial in making an RTS fun.


The first thing to talk about is the intention behind balancing. What does “balancing” even mean? Ostensibly, it means to make the game more fair for each faction, staying as close as possible to a 50/50 win rate. Ensuring the factions are balanced is certainly important, but that’s only a small part of what I'd consider the umbrella term of "balance" to include. I'd define balance as any change to the performance or utility of units and other game components.

Balance isn't just about tweaking numbers, it's about envisioning and guiding player interactions while providing them with more opportunities to pursue their favourite strategies. Adding new features or content is a great way to make an RTS more fun, but they're expensive from a development perspective, and additional content is pointless if it’s not balanced properly. What would be the point of having 30 units if only 10 of them are useful? There's potential downsides to having too much content; it can be overwhelming for new players to learn, it can lack visual clarity and can make decisions feel meaningless. "Does it really matter which ones I build?"



Let’s back up a bit here. To understand why balancing an RTS game is so important, one must first begin by understanding what it is that makes RTS fun. Fortunately, I’ve done an entire series of video essays investigating this question, but let’s boil it down and say that the fun of RTS games is the act of crafting, refining, and executing strategies. Having to gather information and make quick decisions against your opponent is also part of the fun. RTS games contain a wide range of tools which manifest as units, upgrades, and abilities; it’s up to the player to piece these tools together in ways that form powerful strategies such as unit compositions, timing attacks, and build orders. It’s not the number of tools the player has which makes the game engaging - it’s the amount possible combinations that can be fielded.

Forming a strategy is like forming a deductive argument. There’s a number of premises which respond to the possible threats, and these together establish a powerful strategy. But, if one of these premises proves false, then the strategy is void. Let’s say a player’s strategy is to overwhelm their opponent with Hades bombers; they must overcome the fact that Hades are vulnerable to other air units and cost a lot of Radioactives. To complement the Hades, the player relies entirely on Atlas anti-air frigates because they only cost Metal, so all of the Radioactives can go towards the Hades. So far, there’s three premises to this strategy:

  • Hades Bombers are powerful against ground targets
  • Hades Bombers are expensive (Radioactives)
  • Atlas Frigates don't cost Radioactives and provide anti-air support for the Hades.



Let’s pretend that the Atlas is underpowered - what would happen? The player would send their Hades in and be met by enemy air fighters, and the Atlas would open up and not do enough damage to destroy them before the Hades are shot out of the sky. The strategy is void because the premise of the Atlas frigates providing adequate anti-air support is false. The player can try to find alternatives such as Apollos and Furies, but those don’t offer as much synergy because they also cost Radioactives. The strategy needs to be discarded, which is frustrating for the player, as they spent all this time crafting it only for it fail for reasons which are not faults of their own. They are cheated out of their strategy due to poor balance, and this disconnect between the expectations of a unit and how it actually performs results in a negative experience. Poor balance takes away the agency of player decisions as it puts up barriers and limits their strategies to a narrow band of what’s viable. 

Strategies can also fail for plenty of legitimate reasons. Let’s say that the Hades bombers go in and get shredded by an upgraded air defense, the Falcon. In this case, the player’s strategy failed because one of their premises was flawed; the Hades is good against ground targets, but not against upgraded anti-air defense. The player needs to adjust their strategy to mitigate this strong counter; they could rush Hades sooner before Falcons arrives, shoot down the scout planes with early Atlas Frigates to deny scouting, or hide the Sky Factories in obscure locations. If a strategic premise fails for legitimate gameplay reasons, there are paths the player can pursue to rework or refine their strategy. Here's the new premise list for this strategy:

  • Hades Bombers are powerful against ground targets
  • Hades Bombers are expensive (Radioactives)
  • Atlas Frigates don't cost Radioactives and provide anti-air support for the Hades.
  • Falcons are static and expensive, so they will not be built early
  • Attacking early means my opponent won't have Falcons
  • In order to attack early, I need multiple Sky Factories to produce Hades quickly
  • If my opponent scouts multiple Sky Factories or a buildup of Hades, they will rush-build Falcons
  • I need to deny scouting



Pursuing even a simple strategy contains lots of depth, but if the strategy is countered by an imbalance then there’s no way to respond to it. A unit just doesn’t perform its intended role, or an overpowered unit prevents another from doing so. Obviously, imbalances are bad and things that are under-performing or overpowered should be fixed, but that's still a shallow view of why balance is important. Balance isn't binary - units are not just either balanced are imbalanced. A "balanced" unit can be defined by whether it performs its intended role, but if that's the only criteria then you'll end up in a bland game of units that do nothing more than fill predefined roles. 

Units should have multiple facets that determine their utility and why a player would want to build them. The Archer is a unit designed to counter the Athena, but they're embedded within a more detailed context. The Athena is a cruiser which costs both Metal and Radioactives, while the Archer is a frigate which only costs Metal, allowing it to be used more flexibly to complement Radioactives-heavy strategies or to burn excess Metal if your Radioactives income suddenly drops. Frigates are also considerably faster than cruisers, which makes Archers useful as a nimble form of harassment. Archers have high damage but low health, which makes them great against buildings, but vulnerable versus Orbitals and area of effect damage. 

Meticulous balance creates a richer setting for discovering strategies and for reacting when things don't go to plan; if a player's strategy gets countered they might still have a wide arsenal of tools that can perform other functions instead of just being made obsolete. Expanding the utility and unique qualities of each unit may create some balance issues in the short term, but if fixed and iterated upon it will make the game more compelling in the long term by maximizing what players can get out of it. A small amount of content with a breadth of utility is better than a large amount of content with limited utility, and the determining factor is how thoroughly they're balanced. The more you can do with less the better.



Curbing out underperforming or overpowered units is crucial to maximizing strategic diversity, but good balance doesn't just make an RTS game "more balanced." It emphasizes the unique qualities of each unit and ability, creating more depth and decisions about which tools are used and how they're used. I love the analogy of RTS as a set of tools for players to utilize because it encourages design of units that have unique qualities, allowing players to field them under many circumstances for various reasons. Flexible RTS design allows for flexible decision making from players, and meaningful decisions broken up into small increments is at the core of what makes RTS games fun. 

Balancing an RTS is difficult, and one of my next Journals will be exploring the challenges I have faced during my work on Escalation.

So what did you think, and what else would you like me to talk about?



Dev Journal: Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance Analysis

Posted on Thursday, April 5, 2018 By GeneralsGentlemen

I love the fast-paced rush of StarCraft, the tactics of Company of Heroes, and the intricate micro of Command and Conquer. Although Supreme Commander is on the opposite end of the RTS spectrum, it resonated with me, and many LANs of my teenage years were spent playing it. To this day, Supreme Commander is still one of my all-time favorite RTS games and I play it on FAF (Forged Alliance Forever) from time to time. Supreme Commander is a large scale RTS from 2007; its meticulous design, backed by a massive budget, resulted in a huge amount of depth and strategic diversity, a superb art direction, and innovative quality of life features that streamlined the interface.


At this point, you may be wondering why the Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation dev is writing all this praise for a competitor? For starters, I love ranting about RTS and articulating my thoughts, but I don't view Supreme Commander as a competitor to Ashes - in fact, it's quite the opposite. This poll from our site is a good demonstration as to why:


It's a small sample size, but according to this, half of our player base chose Supreme Commander as their favorite RTS. As great as Supreme Commander is, it's now a 10 year old game and people get bored and want something fresh and new that builds on the Total Annihilation formula (the predecessor to Supreme Commander). If not for the popularity of Supreme Commander, Ashes would probably would have been far less successful.

Many of our players wish Ashes had the same content variety and quality of life features that Supreme Commander boasts, such as naval units and build templates. I thought it might be appreciated that the Ashes lead designer has a thorough comprehension, articulation, and passion for Supreme Commander (though the old lead designer, Brad, will argue Total Annihilation was better). Today, I'll be analyzing Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance and exploring what made it such a masterpiece.


Polish and presentation
At first glance, the most noticeable thing about Supreme Commander is that it's gorgeous; the visuals and sound effects are incredible and hold up even to this day. There's not much I can expand upon here, so I'll provide some explanation as to why that is. You may find it odd that modern RTS games struggle to surpass the presentation of a 10+ year old game, especially since 10 years was the gap between then, and Total Annihilation.

The reason boils down to budget and engine limitations, and these are not trivial matters. We've solved the engine issue at Stardock with our core-neutral Nitrous engine, but as for budget... let's just say that Supreme Commander was not profitable on launch and the publisher, THQ, collapsed 5 years afterward (coinciding with a whole host of other reasons, I'm sure). As RTS games become more niche, it's now too big of a gamble for publishers to invest a huge budget in them, unlike for other genres.


Here's an interesting excerpt from a Q&A with Chris Taylor, lead designer of Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander, that I came across while researching for this essay:

"Supreme Commander 2 was criticized for being a simpler version of the first game – do you agree and if so, how/why did this happen?"

Chris Taylor: "It was a fair criticism, and it happened for two reasons. The first reason was that times were a lot tougher in the world of PC games. We didn’t have that big of a budget, and we had quite a bit less time. But we thought, hey, if we have to really bust ass to get this game out, lets see if we can make it a more accessible and mainstream game by shrinking the scope and scale a bit, and in some ways that worked, but to our original fanbase, this strategy was a failure."

Gameplay aside, most people would say Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance is a much prettier looking game than Supreme Commander 2. Budget matters. 


Progression throughout the match
At the start of the game, the resource income and production speed is slow, with players only able to build a handful of low tier units at a time. As the game progresses, the economy rates and production speeds snowball to enormous levels, fueling destruction on a massive scale. Artillery batteries rain bombardment from the sky, wrecks of colossal Assault Bots litter the battlefield, and Battleships contest the seas; the late game in Supreme Commander is epic, but getting there is a challenge and is not guaranteed. Many games of Supreme Commander are over in the first 15 minutes, with players barely progressing past tier 1. The late game - and all its cool toys - are a privilege, not a right, making it much more rewarding when you get there.


The journey from early to late game along the gradual progression of tiers works in a really profound way. Late game isn't just fun because you get bigger stuff and a lot more of it (although that's certainly part of it), late game is so compelling because as you tech up and the game draws out, the level of intensity and required management escalates.

In the early game, the only consideration for the players is to build their base and have tank battles to contest Mass Extractors. Later during the tier 1 land battles, players tech into air factories, where they now have to think about mixing anti-air while reacting to bomber raids and air transport drops.

Once players hit tier 2, it isn't just Medium Tanks turning into Heavy Tanks - there's now Amphibious Tanks which open up whole new attack paths. Artillery and Tactical Missile Launchers become prominent at tier 2, so players need to invest in Shield Generators and Tactical Missile Defense. Once players hit tier 3, scouting becomes crucial as identifying an enemy Experimental Assault Bot, Strategic Bombers or Nuclear Missile requires completely different responses. 

As the players tech up and proceed throughout the game, the level of strategies and responsibilities increase. Players don't stop worrying about air transports and tanks sniping their extractors just because they hit tier 3; they still have to worry about all of those things, on top of being concerned about their base being annihilated by a Nuke. Supreme Commander does not require a high actions-per-minute in the way StarCraft does, but it does require an immense game knowledge and capacity for decision making. 

Every time you start a match of Supreme Commander, you have no idea what to expect; the game length and the strategies of your opponents, and consequently your own, are up in the air with many different possibilities. Other RTS games are predictable, with predetermined match durations and rigidly designed factions that result in matchups following the same repetitive patterns. 



Unlimited scalability of economy and production

For the progression to work so well, the game needs to have an unlimited scalability of the economy and production. This is achieved through:

  • Multiple tiers of Mass Extractors and Power Generators
    A tier 2 Mass Extractor or Power Generator produces many times more yield than a tier 1 structure, and likewise for Tier 3. Higher tier economy structures were big investments, and less cost-efficient in the case of Mass Extractors, but allowed players to get huge non-linear bonuses.


  • Power and Mass Fabricators delivered infinite resource potential
    Power Generators and Mass Fabricators could be built anywhere and provided unlimited income, fueling endless growth of economy. It’s important to balance this carefully, as unlimited income from a player's own base could result in the game being too defensive and passive. (e.g. GLA Mirrors in C&C Zero Hour). Mass Fabricators were woefully inefficient compared to Mass Extractors, which served as a valuable point of contention on the map. This meant that Fabricators were mainly used in the late game when all the accessible Extractors were taken. Despite this, Fabricators allowed for defensive “Turtle” play to be more viable. 


  • Production speed scalable to infinite levels
    There was practically no limit to how many engineers could create a structure or boost a factory. This allowed players to have hundreds of Engineers working in tandem to rapidly churn out expensive late game stuff. Engineers also had multiple tiers with improved build speed, peaking at Support Commanders, which made boosting cleaner than having 100+ Tier 1 Engineers awkwardly pathing. The UEF Tier 4 artillery took almost 2 hours for a single engineer to build. Stacking multiple engineers is essential for late game assets.


Economic management
The economic management in Supreme Commander was challenging and compelling. On of top of what was already mentioned, the following reasons contribute:

  • Managing surplus and drain
    To play Supreme Commander most efficiently, expenses should be as closely tied to income as possible. Spending too little resources would see it wasted, while spending too much would see your production slow down. Pausing production of units in order to boost an upgrade of a Mass Extractor optimize a player's economy and can make a significant difference when they stack up. You're also required to think ahead about what rate of income you need to support certain production; do you build a third Tier 3 Power Generator before beginning construction of an Experimental? The economy has so much complexity and there's always lots of considerations to make, and as your income grows or shrinks from harassment, you need to adjust your expenditure to compensate.


  • Management of storage
    Due to the tiered resource structures, upgrading one's economy was always an option, however the investment was large. To prevent an economy from crashing during an upgrade, players could invest in resource storage. Players are able to upgrade storage in Ashes, but there is practically no reason to do so, lacking the same level of huge economic investments that would crash an economy if not prepared for. For storage management to be an interesting mechanic it requires meaningful and expensive investments such as Commander and economy upgrades on top of expensive units like Experimentals. If the Refineries in Ashes were to cost 10x more but granted 10x more yield, upgrading storage would be more valuable, as then players can save up to build one outright.


  • Power Drain
    Certain units and structures would drain power, such as Shield Generators, Radar and commander abilities. This required more consideration and foresight for investments.


Badass late game stuff
Due to the unlimited scalability of economy and production, every faction has incredibly powerful late game tools. These include Experimental Assault Bots and Air Units, Rapid-Fire Artillery Installations that saturate global targets, Nuclear missiles that can annihilate an entire base, and Experimental structures to provide a utility such as generating unlimited income. The late game high tier units were colossal in comparison to the early game units. The scale difference served as a visual representation of their power and gratified the player for having obtained them. The units themselves were very quirky; a giant robot firing lasers out of its eyes and huge giant magnets to suck up units is cool, as is a giant 6 legged Spiderbot.

Due to their expensive nature, the late game units and structures can be truly devastating and wacky, yet remain balanced and fair. Accessing these late game tools is so difficult that fielding them was exciting, unlike most RTS that games have finite resources so their end tier units can only be several times more expensive normal units. Supreme Commander’s Experimentals delivered a power fantasy; there's something fun about sending your giant robot over to the enemy base and watching the carnage ensue. 



Quality of life features and usability
There were a lot of tools for automation of unit management and production, allowing players to focus on the large scale “macro” management and not have to worry about micro-managing their units. A great example is the “Ferry” option for air transports, allowing them to be assigned a pickup and drop-off location. The Transport will automatically taxi any units between the two locations that move to the pickup zone which can be a rally point from factories. Features like this, being able to click and drag to draw a line of buildings, and build templates streamlined the rate of which players could grow and manage their base, removing the barriers between strategy and execution. 


Naval and amphibious units added a lot of flexibility and variety to map design. Naval units weren't completely separated from other unit types; Torpedo Bombers could destroy Submarines while Amphibious Tanks and Gunships could engage ships. Naval is well designed because it is just one of the many strategies when playing on water maps, but there was one big flaw. Mass Deposits were not found in the water which made naval play contain less contention and harassment opportunities compared to land combat. Underwater Mass Extractors are utilized in the Forged Alliance Forever community project, significantly improving naval play.


Detailed base building
Base building in Supreme Commander requires lots of consideration, which makes it more fun and meaningful. Economy structures benefit from from adjacency bonuses when placed next to each other; Mass and Power Storage next to the equivalent resource structure would improve its yield while Power Generators would reduce the power drain of adjacent structures and boost the rate of fire of Artillery Installations. However, power structures were volatile, so adjacency came with a risk. Shield Generators provided defense to all structures inside them but were costly to maintain and only had a limited radius, incentivizing players to group important structures into the same areas and efficiently stack them to minimize shield investments.



There's also many kinds of base defenses, from protection structures such as Shield Generators, Tactical Missile Defense and Walls to combat defenses such as Point Defense, Artillery Installation and Tactical Missile Launchers. This gave more depth and deliberation to fortifying positions on the map; the player had to think about the most effective way of defense and had to react to changes in the opponent's attempts to break it or scouting to see how they intended do. Insufficient Tactical Missile Defense could see shields overwhelmed from missile bombardment but not enough Point Defense could result in the position being crushed by a direct assault. In Supreme Commander, something as traditionally "noob-y" as turtling also had a high level of complexity and skill ceiling.


Didn’t go overboard with asymmetric faction design
The four factions in Supreme Commander have unique units, Commander upgrades, and in some cases, buildings. For example, UEF is the only faction to get Shield Boats while Cybran naval units can walk on land. Asymmetric faction design can be a great way of creating strategic depth and variety while allowing players to find a faction which appeals to their play style. However, asymmetric design needs to be used delicately as a tool and not a feature, else implementing it poorly can cripple a game. Supreme Commander’s asymmetry is elegant because it doesn’t go overboard; while the unit roster varies between factions, they each have access to all the core tools and mechanics and they are all equally challenging and balanced at all stages of the game.


Flexible strategies
Supreme Commander has enough depth and variety in units and structures that players are free to pursue different play styles and strategies. Each has their own strengths, and weaknesses, which experienced players read and adapt to.


  • Aggression: Deploying forces to harass the opponent's infastructure or find beneficial engagements. By harassing the opponent’s economy, a player will ensure a stronger economy of their own and splitting their opponent’s attention makes it more difficult for them to manage their base.


  • Turtle: Economy structures are fragile, so defending one's territory and infrastructure is critical. Base defenses, in particular, are used to secure positions from enemy raids due to their cost efficiency. A defensive, “turtling” play style is typically weak in RTS games, but the multiple tiers of Mass Extractors combined with Mass Fabricators and reclamation of wrecks allows turtlers to still gain income at a competitive rate, though less efficiently compared to a player who establishes map control and saturates tier 1 Mass Extractors.


  • Economy: Producing additional resource structures or upgrading to high tier resource structures sacrifices the short term for the long term investment. Players can be overwhelmed if they invest too much in economy too early on without support but if left unchecked will reach the late game first.


These three play styles are meta-strategies, with each branching off into countless sub-strategies utilizing particular units and timings. An aggressive strategy could take many forms as there are always multiple ways of applying aggression, such as swarming cheap tier 1 tanks, dropping units behind enemy lines with air transports, or deploying air raids to neutralize key defenses. Some strategies are based on particular units and timings, such as neglecting ground units in favor of mass naval power. 

Expert players do not lock themselves into a meta-strategy such as aggression, but rather balance out all three meta-strategies, reading the battlefield and reacting accordingly. Every unit and structure built is a deliberate investment which has the opportunity cost of neglecting another play style. Upgrading to a tier 2 Mass Extractor is 16 tanks or 3 Point Defense that the player didn't build, these small divergences rapidly add up and create ripples that can shape the course of a match.  

The trichotomy of strategy into Aggression, Turtle, and Economy is a common theme throughout RTS games, but Supreme Commander does this dynamic so well because of the vastness of meaningful decisions the player has to constantly make and the variety of tools they have to manifest these strategic divergences.


Intuitive and distinct art style for each faction
The 4 factions in Supreme Commander look very distinct from each other, the style of units and structures intuitively reflect the backstory of the faction. I recently wrote an essay that highlights the superb art direction of the Seraphim faction, so you can read that to get an understanding of the way the factions are visually designed.



Commander upgrades
The Commanders have mutually exclusive upgrades between offense, defense, economy and other utility, allowing for customization and using the Commander loadout in synergy with certain strategies.  The Commander upgrades were varied between the different factions, so it was a good outlet for asymmetric design.

However, I have quite a bone to pick. I personally think the weapon upgrades are far too cheap for their potency on small maps, especially when combined with Overcharge. The range weapon upgrades allows the Commander to negate endless amounts of tier 1 units and Point Defense by outranging them and safely engaging from a distance. Increasing the combat potential of the Commander would be fine if not for the risk and penalty of using the Commander in combat being thrown out the window when it simply outranges everything. Rushing Tier 2 point defense to combat the upgraded commander can be suicidal due to the huge initial investment and static nature, while many maps have elevation blockers which limits their effective range.

The enemy is then forced to back off and concede map control unopposed, or to try to all-in the upgraded Commander and hope they manage to kill it instead of throwing away their entire army for nothing, which the Commander then reclaims. When playing on small maps, especially with minimal chokepoints, rushing Commander weapons upgrades seems to be crucial else your opponent can just march their upgraded commander up to your base and cripple you. It's an obnoxious interaction that limits strategy diversity and is part of why small maps are not popular. The Cybran Torpedo upgrade and Seraphim health regeneration upgrades can be equally obnoxious. Despite its many flaws, I think Supreme Commander 2 balanced their Commanders better, and it had some cool ideas such as the Escape Pod upgrade that alleviated some of the extreme risk/reward of using the Commander in combat. 

Role of units & structures was intuitive
Supreme Commander didn’t have as deep of a counter system as Ashes, such as not having certain Tier 2 units that countered tier 1 and vise versa. However, there were scouts, artillery, anti-air, tanks and assault bots (walkers instead of tracked vehicles.) The silhouette of each unit and their weaponry instantly defined them as their role, and made it obvious to the player. Supreme Commander had traits for their units types as was consistent with them, such as Assault Bots are always faster but weaker than the tank equivalent. Structures were also well defined, a Power Generator was not mistakable for a factory.



Readability when zoomed out
When players zoom out, they are able to monitor the entire battlefield on one screen. Supreme Commander had an elegant system of icons to communicate the exact unit type to the player. Each unit type was represented with a different shape such as squares for buildings, triangles for air units, and diamond for land units. There was also an icon for the role of a unit, such as Tank, Anti-Air, Artillery and Engineer, while the tier of each unit was denoted by 1-4 lines below the icon. Weapon projectiles are indicated as yellow dots when zoomed out, so it's still possible to follow combat from a distance.


Supreme Commander’s radar structures and units show the number and type of enemies approaching through the fog of war. Radar contacts use the same shapes to describe unit types, but it didn’t reveal what tier of units or what role they filled, so air scouts were still required for visual confirmation. Radar structures covered a long range and with full precision, so there was lots of seeing enemy movements and trying to intercept and outmanoeuvre. Positioning of forces was vital, and sneaking units past enemy lines to harass extractors and other infrastructure was punishing. Radar drained power, so there was a cost to pay for this useful information.


The system of icons (and grid locations in build menus) is consistent between each faction, so even if a player is not familiar with all the factions they are able to see the role of the unit. Ashes has an inferior approach, by using a 2D silhouette of the unit which does not communicate the role or power of a unit who is not familiar with that unit or faction.


Relevance to Ashes of the Singularity
There's a lot that Supreme Commander gets right, and it'd be foolish to reinvent the wheel instead of embracing those lessons in a way that leverages the existing strengths of Ashes. Since the release of Escalation, we have been embracing much of what worked so well in Supreme Commander such as Strategic Zoom, Tier 4 units, and unlimited scalability of economy and production. Moving forward we have more features in mind such as naval units and air transports that will further align Ashes with the proven Total Annihilation formula.

This doesn't mean we're just trying to make a Supreme Commander clone; it's obviously not perfect and there's other criticisms I could have mentioned here. There's a lot I like about Ashes over Supreme Commander such as its counter system that makes unit composition more meaningful, on top of other factors such as the better engine and AI. Ultimately, we have a lot of work ahead of us, whether that comes in the form of small patches, expansions or a sequel. 


Thanks for reading and leave your thoughts below! Anything I left out, or that you disagree with? What would you like me to discuss in future?



Dev Journal: Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation So Far

Posted on Wednesday, March 28, 2018 By GeneralsGentlemen


Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation embarked on a remarkable journey throughout 2017 to get to where it is now. It's something I am very proud of. In a previous Dev Journal I mentioned how I often get nostalgic thinking back to all of the old silly quirks and overpowered stuff, so I thought that'd be something worth writing about. Today, I'll be mapping out and reflecting upon the immense progress we have made and provide some insight about my intentions along the way.


My first experience with Ashes was way back in November 2015 when I played the beta and wrote my impressions. Aside from that, A year later, I got in touch with Stardock for the release of Escalation, initially just for the purposes of sponsoring my channel. Shortly after, I joined on for "Design Consultancy" of Escalation. I was spending lots of time rapidly learning the game and this put me in the ideal position to offer feedback since I was entering through the lens of a new player confronted with all the hurdles that anyone else new to the game would also encounter.

Before my time with it, Ashes didn't get the attention it needed and deserved, as the previous lead designer was jumping around to other projects and doing everything else that being a CEO of a company entails. There was a lot to criticize, and a lot that needed to be set right. Escalation shipped in November of 2016, but I only started working on it in January 2017, so that's where I'll be beginning. 


January 2017 - First Impressions, Player Accessibility & Map Improvements

My first couple of months playing Escalation were characterized by confusion; Ashes was not at all intuitive and I didn't understand the role of units. I didn't understand what was good against what, which defenses I should build, and so on. Picking up a new RTS game always involves lots of learning, but there are ways RTSes can speed up this process and make it more gentle for a new player. In the age of Steam being so flooded and with gamers having an overwhelming choice, the first impression matters more than ever. Players will often pick up games for cheap during a Steam sale, and if they're not hooked in the first couple of hours, they'll shelve it for one of the other 10 games they bought for cheap. It's difficult for RTS to land a good first impression due to the delayed gratification compared to other genres, but it was clear to me the first impression and accessibility of Ashes to new players was a huge weakness. 

My first half of January was investigating and articulating how I could make Ashes more intuitive and user friendly by picking apart the things that annoyed me and that I thought were odd when I began playing. I started at the first possible thing: the mess of the main menu. The names were confusing or misleading, the ordering didn't make sense, and the misaligned text was an embarrassing. "What does Ascendancy Wars mean?" Many other factors such as Extractor visibility, unit tooltips, grid locations, and map options made picking up the game more difficult than it needed to be. "What does an Assault Cruiser do? What is it strong against?"

January's 2.1 update saw the release of the main menu rework, observer mode for single player, and the first of my map changes aimed at improving those which had balance problems or just weren't fun to play on. Most of the accessibility issues documented in January took some time to develop and wouldn't be implemented until later.



February 2017 - Merging of the Singularity, Balance Testing

February saw a pivotal decision for the direction of the franchise: the Merging of the Singularity We discontinued the base Ashes of the Singularity (now referred to as AotS: Classic) and everyone who owned it received a free copy of Escalation. To compensate players who paid for Escalation, the rest of the year would involve several free DLCs. This allowed us to combine player bases, focus all of our developer effort on Escalation, and ensure all new players had a better experience with Escalation.  Giving away so many copies, and later, free DLC, was a huge decision that would have hit our profits for the year, but it epitomizes a big part of why I love working for Stardock. We're an independent company - there's no publisher stepping on our toes, so we're free to make decisions that keep our customers happy and make sense in the long term.

February didn't contain an update but we were very busy working on the many changes that would later be released in March. Towards the end of January, I assembled a community balance team of high level players, as I was newer to the game and didn't have enough experience to be aware of the balance issues. Throughout February I learned how to make gameplay changes and created a balance mod, which we used for testing. The balance mod that would later become 2.2 went through several iterations.



March 2017 - Mods, Replays, Accessibility, Quality of Life, Balance & Map Improvements

The 2.2 update shipped and it's huge, setting the precedent Escalation would maintain for the rest of the year. It contained two long requested features, replays and modding compatibility (which have been in development for a while), on top of the most gameplay changes of any Escalation update. This was the first update I was involved with and included lots of changes intended to iron out most of the balance problems. 2.2 also contained the fixes to many things that bugged me since the beginning of my time with Ashes ("Lol, there's an ability just called Kill"). Aside from the new features, the following was the core of the 2.2 update:

  • Almost every unit tooltip in the game was rewritten to specify the role of each unit. For example, instead of "Assault Cruiser" the Athena's tooltip is now "Cruiser destroyer. Strong versus other cruisers."
  • Standardization of grid locations, Extractor visibility, and other quality of life changes. 
  • Removal of frustrating cheese and gimicky rush strategies
  • Extensive rebalance of units and structures
  • Huge number of map reworks

2.2 was the first update to include an update overview video, which has become a standard for all our major updates. There were so many changes that I wanted something a bit more digestible for players to view instead of having to read a monolith of text.  


April 2017 - Inception DLC

April saw the release of the Inception DLC featuring 2 new scenarios and 3 new maps. We were busy working on many other things at the time, but they wouldn't see light until later.



May 2017 - The Great Rework

The 2.25 update hit and it contained another vast set of gameplay changes, which began to realize the vision I had for the game. Rather than just re-balancing individual units and structures, it reworked entire sections of the unit design and resource system in order to add strategic depth and diversity. The days of just mindlessly spamming Athenas/Maulers each game were over; each unit now had a proper counter and many changes culminated to make the game flow better.

The following was the core of the 2.25 update:

  • Armor was reworked and standardized for each class of unit and faction, allowing consistent counters to exist among unit tiers such as Brute>Archer>Athena>Zeus>Brute
  • Cost ratios of units and structures were reworked to make the allocation of resources and choices of units a deliberate strategic investment with more consideration
  • Base defenses had their armor removed but their health increased to make them more consistent and viable to attack with non artillery units
  • Dreadnought cost and performance was rebalanced

With the launch of 2.25, Ashes hit an important milestone for me: it went from a game that I would play because it was my job, to a game which I would play for fun in my own spare time and that I would recommend to friends. 


June 2017 - Juggernauts, Genesis & Campaign Update 

The 2.3 update launched and it was our biggest ever content update - all for free! Players gained access to Juggernauts, tier 4 game-ending epic units which make the late game more interesting and build more anticipation. The PHC Leonidas and Substrate Nest of the Queen were the first of our Juggernauts, but they wouldn't be the last.

The story-driven campaign continued with Genesis, which was our toughest campaign at the time. Quality over quantity was the design philosophy for Genesis, which featured less missions than the previous campaigns, but each had more complexity and challenge, as it was designed for advanced players who have already completed others. In preparation for Genesis, the original Imminent Crisis campaign received an update for compatibility with Escalation and to improve how it played.



July 2017 - Work, Work

July saw no updates, but we were flat out working on stuff for the big 2.4 update coming the next month, and beyond. During July I hit 1000 hours on Steam for Escalation!


August 2017 - Vulkan, Co-op Map Pack, Interface Improvements & Quality of LIfe

The 2.4 update launched, headlining support for Vulkan, a graphics rendering API alternative to DirectX that can deliver improved performance for gamers on Windows 7 and 8. Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation was one the first games to offer support for DirectX 12, and its support for Vulkan was a continuation of Stardock's commitment to bringing cutting edge technology and performance to gamers.

2.4 also featured additional improvements to the menus, quality of life, and interface, including updated art for many of our Orbital Abilities to improve their look and visual intuitiveness. The campaigns were further improved alongside several scenarios, balance changes, and a rework of air units.

Alongside 2.4 was the launch of the free co-op map pack DLC, delivering 8 maps designed for cooperative play between friends. Spawn points were placed to keep teammates close together to allow for combined attacks and strategies. Clearly defined resources for each player prevented any fighting over spawn locations or expansion opportunities and kept the maps fair and balanced for everyone.



September 2017 - More Juggernauts, Modding & Sight Range Rework

Two new Juggernauts were released for free: the PHC Agamemnon and the Substrate Eye of Darkness. Designed to complement our existing Juggernauts, each has a unique role to fill with its own strengths and weaknesses. These two Juggernauts were the first units I designed from scratch; it was so cool seeing them progress every step along the way.

The 2.5 Update made the life of modders much easier as we updated all the obsolete internal reference names to reflect their current display names and tidied up a number of configuration files. Alongside many minor gameplay improvements, sight and radar was overhauled with most units having their sight range doubled and the range of radar increased to compensate. The sight range relative to size and attack range was very low compared to other RTS games; increasing sight range meant there was more interaction and maneuvering between players as they had time to see enemies approaching and disengage if a fight wasn't favorable. 


October 2017 - Work, Work #2

October was another month that saw no update, as our work went into the upcoming 2.6 update.



November 2017 - New Tutorials, UI & Quality of Life

It was clear to me very early on that our existing tutorial was bad and needed an update, but I knew doing so was such a large project that'd take me multiple months. So, there it sat until July before I began to work on it. With the retirement of our old tutorial and its replacement by the new basic and advanced tutorial, I finally completed my goal of making Ashes as welcoming to new players as I could. The new tutorials are more fun with so much more explained, yet are more concise and shorter to complete. The old tutorial would fail you for doing too much too soon, while the new basic tutorial rewards you with hidden dialog and objectives if you venture out. There's even a hidden Easter egg, which as far as I'm aware, no one has yet discovered.

Breaking the tutorial up into basic and advanced sections allowed me to provide all the necessary information without the player having to sit through a single 30+ minute slog, and the basic tutorial covers every part of the game - economy, units, defenses, Orbitals Abilities, and Quantum upgrades. The basic tutorial shows off how much Ashes has to offer, and as much as possible uses the "show don't tell" philosophy. The player completes the tutorial by calling down an Orbital Strike on the enemy base: "Hmm, let's see what this does..." *BOOM. An Enemy Nexus has been destroyed!* "(The Tutorial Nexus has modified health to ensure it gets one shotted by the Orbital Strike.)

Just as much as teaching the player, the basic tutorial is intended to excite the player to experience the game, and leave a positive impression for that crucial 1-2 hour window. The advanced tutorial then explains more complicated concepts such as economic management and using Charons to reinforce your  army - there's no information left out. The new tutorials seemed to work; we did notice a drop in the refund rate after they were released. Since I voiced the tutorial, it means I'll easily be able to update them if we need to include new concepts such as Air Transports.

Aside from the new tutorials, the 2.6 update contained the Nexus Health Quantum Upgrade to create counter-play against late game Nexus sniping, many quality of life changes, and a rework of the UI. The old unit panel had lots of wasted space as it inefficiently spread out information. The UI was changed to more tightly pack the unit actions together with the rest of the unit panel, and then used that gained space to increase the size of the panel icons and replace their art with something much more snazzy. 



December 2017 - Campaign Improvements & Benchmark Screen

The 2.65 Update included a number of improvements to the campaigns, fixed some map issues and bugs, and greatly improved the appearance and layout of the Benchmark screen.


January 2018 - Secret Missions DLC, Air Marauder Audio

The Secret Missions DLC launched, featuring two new Frigates: the PHC Atlas and the Substrate Tormentor. The DLC also expanded the flexibility of frigate strategies for the PHC with their new anti-air frigate, and provided Substrate with long range anti-unit indirect fire from their artillery frigate. Eight new scenarios test a player's flexibility as they cover a range of unique challenges, such as having to build up in time to defend against the Experimental Eye of Darkness, or playing with Overcharged Orbital Relays that grant enormous amounts of Quanta income on a map starved of resources. The "Fun Gimmick" is a design philosophy for single player content that I think makes campaigns the most interesting; for examples, you could look at the StarCraft 2 Wings of Liberty Campaign or the Generals Challenges from C&C Zero Hour.

We already have so much single player content in our existing campaigns and scenarios, so I wanted to make something that really stood out. The advantage of making standalone scenarios compared to campaigns is it gives more freedom to just do wacky stuff and not have to worry about how to continues onto another mission. It also means I don't have to think about how I am going to tell a story and advance a plot, I can just focus on "You know what would be fun... the feeling of terror when a ridiculously overpowered Experimental unit murders 3 of the player's Juggernauts." I ended up reusing the Experimental Eye of Darkness in the King of the Hill scenario, which players will see if they manage to survive that long.

Lastly, Secret Missions also contained eight new maps for Skirmish and Multiplayer, including balanced symmetrical 5v5, 6v6, and 7v7 maps for those who like huge battles. It always bothered me the only maps for large team games had weird spawn locations where some are closer to the enemies than the other; having unfair spawns can be frustrating if you're the guy who gets rushed first while everyone else is sitting back safely. Players now have the option to play whatever game mode they want with a more standard map layout.

The Air Marauder weapon audio was very lackluster, and finally in the 2.7 update we got it replaced with a new and improved pew pew!



February 2018 - Audio Rebalance, Scenario Changes

The 2.71 update launched, with its most notable feature being an audio re-balance. There were many issues with the volume of weapon effects; some weapons were too loud or quiet, while many secondary weapons on Dreadnoughts were just as loud as the primary weapon. We re-balanced many of the weapon effects to ensure volume levels were more consistent and better reflect the potency of the weapon type. 2.71 also includes additional improvements to scenarios and campaign missions, and minor balance changes. At this point, almost every campaign mission and scenario in the game has been updated during Escalation's life.

March 2018 - 2.75 Preparation

And here we are today! It's been a crazy but fun journey, thanks so much to everyone who has been here along the way. The direction of Escalation in 2017 was driven by a desire to make it as accessible and welcoming to new players as possible while increasing the strategic depth, refining the role of each unit, improving the single player experience and streamlining the flow of the game.

How do you think we have done? Let us know what you think and if you have suggestions for what you'd like me to discuss in future.



Dev Journal: Working For Stardock

Posted on Wednesday, March 21, 2018 By GeneralsGentlemen


Hey guys! I've been working at Stardock for a bit over a year now as a designer on Ashes of the Singulairty: Escalation. It's been an incredible journey, so I wanted to share my experience of how I got here and what it's been like. 


How did I get started working at Stardock?

I've practically dedicated my entire adult career to the comprehension, articulation, and broadcasting of RTS games. In November 2016 I was 4 years into creating frequent shoutcasts, reviews, and video essays on my YouTube channel. At the time, I was pumping out a video every day as I was creating YouTube content full-time, after the Australian Electronics Retailer chain that I was working at for years to support myself closed down. YouTube advertising revenue is small and my channel is far from large, but I was hoping that if I was prolific enough I'd be able to attract enough of my audience to back me on Patreon for the funding to be sustainable.

Despite the generous backing of much of my audience, it wasn't enough, and after 6 months I had burned through a significant chunk of my savings. I accepted defeat and applied for jobs at some local retail stores. I had an interview at a second-hand retail store which went well, but I was pretty bummed that I was a 23 year old dude now about to start another soul crushing retail job. I dropped out of University in first semester a few years earlier, and the only work experience I had was retail; it was rather all-in for my YouTube channel to take off or to get picked up as a shoutcaster for a company like ESL or Riot Games. But the way I saw it, I'd rather try to pursue my passion of RTS games while I was young and didn't have the responsibilities and stresses that I would later in life, instead of doing something safe and standard and then waking up one day in my 40's miserable that I wasted my life and living with regret that I didn't give it a go. 


The day after my retail job interview, I woke up to an email from the President and CEO of Stardock, Brad Wardell. He said he was a subscriber who liked my Company of Heroes content and that he made some of his team watch my "What Makes RTS Games Fun" series, then gave me some info and Steam keys about this new game they were about to release called Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation. I asked him if he'd like to sponsor my channel, and to my surprise he said yes. I worked my way up from running ads on my videos and doing sponsored content, to then giving feedback as a design consultant, and ultimately where I am now full-time at the helm of Ashes of the Singularity and future RTSes.


What's it been like working on Ashes?

Working on Ashes has been amazing and I'm very proud of how the game has progressed over the past year. To use the terminology that Professor Jordan Peterson recently popularized, I've found working on Ashes strikes the balance between Order and Chaos, and the sense of meaning and purpose is profound. Order, because RTS is my speciality and my jam, so I'm confident in my decisions and articulations; I feel like I'm the right guy for the job. Chaos, for two reasons: firstly because my work encompasses so many things, from new scenarios and designing units,  to making videos and balance changes, and secondly because I have so much to learn about the industry, the game development process, and disciplines such as programming and art.

Most weeks I am working on something different which prevents it from becoming repetitive and boring, unlike when I was making YouTube videos full time. That had the Order, but not the Chaos, which made me feel stagnant. Working on Ashes is not always fun - such as when I'm updating wikis and testing a Scenario during its development for the 7th time -but it is always compelling.



What's it been like working for Stardock?

Like many members of the Stardock team, I operate from home which works with Stardock's unconventional structure. There's an emphasis on individual team members taking initiative and creating their own value, as opposed to a top-down management approach of being directed what to do. My job is to make Ashes better and more successful, and I have the freedom to pursue that through whatever means I think would best achieve it. Each week I decide what I'm going to do, what changes should be made, or which types of videos would help promote it. Despite having a boss and producers above me, it feels like I'm my own boss. 

I have a weekly Skype meeting with the VP of Stardock Entertainment and other team members, where sometimes I am assigned certain tasks - but most of the time it just goes along the lines of: "So what have you been up to the past week? Cool, anything you need from us? Cool."

I get input, help, and perspective from other team members, and sometimes my decisions are questioned, but never challenged or denied. In essence, Stardock's teams trust me and are confident in what I'm doing, which is greatly appreciated. There's a big link between the feeling of being controlled and job dissatisfaction, which Stardock seems to be aware of. Here's a quote from Brad on an old forum post about our work philosophy: 

"Every day at Stardock is FUN.  Even during crunch-time, it's FUN.  And why is it fun? Because every day we do what we want to do. It's why we are able to attract the best and brightest. Because the best and brightest are often motivated to have the freedom to work on the things they want to do work. To do the things they want to do."


Another thing about Stardock that I really appreciate is that the members of upper management are actual gamers themselves. Most game companies are managed by executive corporate suit types who don't understand the culture and passion of the medium and of their communities. Our CEO was the initial founder, and is still hands-on with the coding and presenting the game to an audience. Many founders of games studios sell the company off and get replaced with Mr Burns types that treat video games as if it was any other kind of business. With Stardock, I don't have to worry about management coming down and busting my balls about, "Why did you spend all this time writing a ~4000 word essay about Supreme Commander? How is that going to generate sales?" 

Stardock has a culture of transparency and integrity. Our products each have a monthly dev journal which lets our players into our inner thoughts about what we've been up to, what we're working on, and what our plans are moving forward. These aren't fluffy marketing pieces; sometimes we say we're working on stuff, which then ends up being delayed or scrapped for various reasons, and players can feel let down. It's the inevitable price for consistent and transparent communication, but I think most people prefer it since it creates trust and anticipation for what's to come. I always get annoyed by draconian silence and vague responses from devs in other companies who are afraid to say anything for fear of backlash if they don't meet all of their road map deadlines.

We interact with our community in a way that's unusual for most game studios, aka: "Thanks for your feedback, we'll look into it!" Our developers are active on forums and respond candidly, even when it's not what people want to hear; we don't just relegate it to community managers. I'll argue with people about balance or about why I didn't like a certain RTS game, and Brad may deliver a snide response to someone who leaves a really stupid review. Ultimately, we act like normal people and we treat our community members like normal people. This often catches community members off guard as they're not used to devs acting this way. Sometimes, people apologize and get worried that they have offended me, just because I concisely say to someone they're wrong and explain why they're wrong. We always try to be polite, but we don't put on a fluffy marketing guise that would be draining to maintain. 



What's been your highlight?

From a personal perspective, my highlight was being flown out to the Stardock office in Michigan, USA and staying there for a week and a half. I got to meet all of my colleagues that I long had correspondence with, and those working on other projects I got to meet for the first time. Stardock is filled with talented and passionate industry veterans and it was great learning from their experience about how the industry and development cycle functions. I loved the culture and the atmosphere there, from the dogs running around the office to the quirky personalities people were displaying on their desks. I'm in the process of trying to immigrate over to the US so I can work from the office. It'll take some time, but I'm really looking forward to it.

Being in the office made me feel like I was a part of something big - Stardock has an exciting trajectory with our world first core-neutral engine, Nitrous, and seeing so many great people work together across many different projects was humbling. Plus, it sure was convenient being able to tilt my head to the side and say, "Hey Rob, can you help me with this?" instead of waiting until 9pm when he'd get online. I wasn't there for long but I felt a sense of family among the team, such as their regular board game nights and all the offers to hang out with them outside of work hours. 

From a work perspective, my highlight was the production of the two latest Juggernauts: the Agamemnon and the Eye of Darkness. I designed these two units from scratch and was able to see them develop every step along the way, from the initial tinkering around in Photoshop cannibalizing concept art trying to piece together something which I thought looked cool, to now having the final product brought to life blowing up hundreds of units. 



What are the challenges?

The main challenge is wanting to do fifty things but only being able to do three of them. Just like playing an RTS game, I have to manage the resource of programmer time. Adding new features and making fundamental gameplay changes requires a programmer to allocate time to implement, and everything has an opportunity cost. Implementing a quality of life change is a new feature not implemented or a bug not fixed. Many things that ostensibly seem quick and simple can be a significant engineering undertaking, so the answer to, "Why don't you do this?" is generally, "Because it would take a programmer 2 weeks to implement." This means I have to make tough decisions about which features and changes get the attention, while many other things may be neglected.

Ultimately, my vision for Ashes is held back by programming limitations; things would look different if I could wave a magic wand. It's the inevitable plight of any designer, a final product will never match the designer's original vision - the consumer just never gets to see what the initial design was. 

How do I get a job at Stardock?

For starters, check the Stardock careers page to see if our current openings are suitable. On a more general note, I'll provide some advice on how to enter the video game industry if you might not be suitable for a traditional entry. Find a specific outlet for your passion, something worthwhile and pursue it. Articulate. Do. Take the initiative, put yourself out there, create something valuable, be consistent. Not just because you think it will lead to something, but because you enjoy and find fulfilment in whatever it is you are doing, it's essential to have the drive to spend countless hours on it. Take pride in your work, do what is meaningful, not what gets you the most clicks. My video essays can take over a week to script, voice, record and edit, compared to the negligible preparation and editing required for a shoutcast which often got more views, but all it took was one CEO to notice. I have a friend who used to tell me off for not making my bed in the background of my videos. "You never know who might be watching."


My YouTube channel started as just a fun hobby with my best friend, but over the years through our content, I've been contacted by Stardock, Relic, Microsoft and EA. If you put yourself out there diligently, people will notice, and if you're lucky, doors may open. If nobody notices, make them notice. One of our newest hires at Stardock, Henry AKA SchismNavigator, spent over a year fostering and growing the Ashes community on Discord, just because he loved the game. He loved fostering a community, loved Discord, and very much hated Skype. Stardock noticed his work and how important Discord was becoming and thought, "Wow this is good, we'd love it if you did that for our other products." He is now one of our community managers. There are a lot of valuable things that game companies don't know they'll invest in until they stumble across or are presented with it.


As you can tell, I'm very grateful for the opportunity Stardock has provided me with. It's been an absolute blast so far, and thanks to all our fans who make it possible! Let me know if you have any other questions or what you'd like me to discuss in future.



Ashes Dev Journal: March 2018

Posted on Wednesday, March 14, 2018 By GeneralsGentlemen


G'day! Today I'll be talking about the upcoming 2.75 update for Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation and some cool things that have been happening in the community. 2.75 will contain a large number of gameplay changes, but I'll only mention the most significant ones. You can view the full changelog here.


**Movement speed rework**

A criticism of Ashes that has often came up is how slowly the units move. We are increasing the speed of many units, frigates in particular, and standardizing cruiser speed. This helps Ashes flow better, gives frigates more utility as harassment, and doesn't punish a player for mixing in a type of cruiser that is considerably slower than others, such as the Drone Hive or Nemesis. Here's the full list of movement speed changes (which is subject to change upon more thorough testing):

  • Archer max speed increased from 110 to 150
  • Medic max speed increased from 120 to 150
  • Reaper max speed increased from 110 to 150
  • Sky Cleanser max speed increased from 110 to 130
  • Sky Cleanser acceleration increased from 180 to 400
  • Capacitor max speed increased from 110 to 130
  • Tormentor acceleration reduced from 400 to 180
  • Apollo max speed increased from 84 to 100
  • Destructor max speed increased from 78 to 100
  • Drone hive max speed increased from 70 to 100
  • Drone Hive acceleration reduced from 120 to 70
  • Artemis max speed increased from 78 to 100
  • Nemesis max speed increased from 72 to 100
  • Nemesis acceleration reduced from 120 to 70
  • Caregiver max speed reduced from 150 to 120
  • Mauler max speed reduced from 125 to 100
  • Avenger max speed increased from 100 to 100
  • Masochist max speed reduced from 150 to 100
  • Hera max speed increased from 60 to 72
  • Eradicator max speed increased from 60 to 72
  • Prometheus max speed increased from 68 to 72

**Substrate Anti-Air**

Substrate's lack of advanced mobile anti-air akin to the Apollo has been an issue that's bothered me for some time. In theory, the Overmind and Nest of the Queen fill that late game anti-air role, but the area of effect damage of the Strategic Bomber destroys all the drones, and any other anti-air nearby. It makes Substrate vulnerable in the late game to mass Strategic Bombers, and while heavy defenses like the Sky Ender do the job, you can't attack into the enemy base with your own defenses.

I thought about how to rectify this for a while and had a different ideas about how to address this. The first thing I thought of was removing the requirements for the Savager's anti-air beams, which it unlocks with the Sky Scour upgrade that it can get at lvl 3 on the left upgrade tree. The problem with this is that it would be two very important roles being fielded in a single dreadnought, and then I would have to replace the existing upgrade with something new.

My second thought was, what if I gave the Overmind the anti-air beam that the Savager gets. It was a much better idea to rework the Overmind into an anti-air support unit, as the Overmind currently lacks any specific role and it heavily overlaps with the Retributor, something else that has bothered me for a while. This solution works fine, but it has the huge downside of looking very contrived and tacked on... because it was. There was a little crystal that I attached the beam to, but you couldn't really tell and it just looked bad:

So then my next idea was to give the Overmind a set of dedicated anti-air drones, but I would have to make them invulnerable so they don't just get blown up by the Strategic Bomber and made obsolete. To compensate, I removed one of the existing drone swarms and increased the drone manufacturing time so the Overmind is weaker against ground targets, especially compared to the Retributor. The anti-air drones is thematic to the unit and faction, and it was easy to do the exact same for the Nest of the Queen which now also has anti-air drones. The only down side is that the invulnerable anti-drones is a little contrived, but you can't tell when all the other drones are shot out of the sky. The area of effect damage typical of many anti-air attacks and rapid movement of drones, which results in constant re-targetting, prevents the anti-air drones from having any impact on the survivability of regular drones. 

You can expect the anti-air drones on the Overmind and Queen in the 2.75 update. Here's what the anti-air drones look like in action:


**King of the Hill - Substrate Edition**

King of the Hill has been getting lots of attention lately, and as of 2.75 you'll be able to play it as Substrate! There are also some other tweaks coming to further improve it and better balance its difficulty, such as removing one of the early difficulty spikes, but then making it more challenging very late in the scenario as some players managed to outlast it. I really like this mission, and I think Ashes works so well as a Tower Defense game; Against All Odds is probably my favorite single player component of Ashes. I have thought about writing a Dev Journal about why Ashes is so fun in defense missions, and perhaps I will. 

Here's part of what players can expect if they last long enough. I will not tolerate anymore "beating" of this mission... you're supposed to eventually lose horribly.

**Screenshot Contest**

We recently had a screenshot contest for Escalation. Congratulations to bbc6rgf57ytty5yxyw5gt who won it! (Yes that is actually his account name.) Here's the winning submission:


**Community Shoutout - GB Gaming**

More Ashes YouTubers emerge! The guys over at GB Gaming have been producing some great Ashes videos and live streams, so thanks to them and follow their channels to keep up with their content.



**Alien Art Essay**

We recently posted a video essay analysing the art design of the Substrate from Ashes and the Seraphim from Supreme Commander. We have more essays like this to come on the forums in the forms of Dev Journals, and some will be made into videos such as this one:



**Tweaking Weapon Colors**

I'm always thinking about ways within my means to improve the game. In the Alien Design video essay, I talked about how color palettes can be used for readability and establishing faction themes. Ashes does this with some things such as the orange PHC rocket projectiles, but there's other parts of the game where Ashes holds no regard for factional color schemes. It always bothered me how many weapons colors are not uniquely held by a faction; red lasers are typical of Substrate because of the Reaper and Harbinger, and yet the Athena and Prometheus Draining Beam are also red lasers. You'd think Green lasers are representative of PHC because of the Brute but then the Retributor and Savager AA beams are Green.

I wanted to standardize the laser weapons for each faction based around Blue and Green for PHC with Red and Purple for Substrate, and here's a sample of what that looked like:

But then I ran into the issue of, if all the Substrate lasers are red, what about the Hera, which has a red attack? If purple is for Substrate, then what about the Hades and Strategic Bomber, which have purple bombs? Isn't red for Substrate too similar to the orange rocket effects for PHC? I came to the conclusion that if I was to rework the weapon colors and VFX to be consistent and thematic, I would practically have to rework most weapons in the game to get a consistent theme that makes sense, something along the likes of:

PHC - Warm colors: Red, Orange, Yellow.

Substrate - Cool colors: Blue, Green, Purple. 

On top of the fact that there seemed to be some code limitations preventing me from changing certain effects like the Hera, it was just too big of a project to justify something that has no gameplay implications. Either way, this idea been scrapped for now but I thought it would be interesting to talk about and let you know what I've been thinking about.

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That's it for today, thanks everyone. What balance changes would you like to see in the upcoming 2.75 update?

- Callum


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