<< Portico: Supreme Commander and scaling

7/11/2005

Supreme Commander and scaling

Despite another hopelessly bland title, Supreme Commander hopes to give strategy gamers a "spiritual successor" to much admired Total Annhilation. The recent Gamespy preview by Dave Kosak spends a lot of time talking about the scale of the units, a factor much in evidence in the screenshots provided. There is talk about some units dwarfing others and how some can only be grasped by zooming way out.

Visual scale in RTS games never bothered me all that much. Sure, the catapults in the original Age of Empires looked a little goofy because they were so huge. The houses were all tiny and could never fit a family of Age-sized citizens. None of this got in the way of the fun.

In the move towards greater technology, sharper resolution and better interfaces we've had a simultaneous push towards greater realism, a realism that often manifests itself in the sizes of the units that we are given. Take Rise of Nations, a game that gave wonders a wondrous scale compared to all the people that built them. Though you couldn't really make out all the details from a distant zoom, you could tell who your light infantry were by little graphical details and every other unit scaled appropriately.

Supreme Commander will emphasize its scale through the production of huge super units, like the giant spider crawling around on the first page of the preview. The still distant Rise of Legends will take the steps of its predecessor even further, as the buildings seemed to have ballooned in size to meet the epic scale of the campaign. Even Age of Empires 3 has taken the size thing to heart. None of this stuff will make for a better game, in my opinion, but it might contribute to that ever elusive immersion thing that gaming pundits keep talking about without ever defining.

The other scaling train that Supreme Commander seems to be riding is a push to scale down the micromanagement. Where Empire Earth II gave you wood, gold, tin, food, oil, iron and God knows what else to harvest, Chris Taylor is going to run SC on just two resources - mass and energy. It sounds very ninth grade science, but by directing the player towards efficient paths, the plan is to make a lot out of a little.

Supreme Commander is not alone. Act of War had, in effect, one resource - money - that could be collected in a few ways. I suspect that it is easier to balance unit cost with fewer resources than it is with many. Balancing cost is the often undiscussed side of unit balance but is, in the long run, more important than attack/defense values. With a single resource, you can make unit power directly relate to cost and not have to worry about the relative availability of resource points.

I think RTS games have reached a point where they can't have more resources added. The balancing becomes impossible to the point that min/maxing is inevitable and a lot of work goes for naught. Rise of Nations was pushing it with five or six resources, but mitigated the confusion through brilliant design and management tools. I think that any more than three can make the economic minigame a chore that deters casual players from getting up to speed.

I, like most strategy gamers, am looking forward to Supreme Commander. And for more than its scale. I have no idea what it means to be the "spiritual successor" to a game, but it has vaulted to near the top of my must-have list for 2006.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Jason Kozak said...

The "spiritual successor" bit is just refering to the designer/founder at Gas Powered Games, Chris Taylor, also happened to be the designer for Total Annihilation before Cavedog kicked the bucket.

Last I'd heard, the rights to a Total Annihilation sequel went to Phantagram (of Kingdom Under Fire infamy).

7/12/2005 12:29:00 AM  

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