For a real-time strategy game, the design of the game’s maps is perhaps as important as the design of the units and factions themselves. This is nowhere more evident than in the Company of Heroes and StarCraft games, where map design conventions alone have been responsible for power shifts between factions in the respective franchise’s competitive scenes.
An easy for-instance is the design of maps in StarCraft 2, particularly during the Wings of Liberty multiplayer. Zerg players favored larger, more open maps that catered to their macro-friendly, swarming style. This is still largely true in StarCraft 2, I believe, but the condensed early game in Legacy of the Void, as well as the numerous unit additions, have changed the dynamics between factions on these maps.
Terrans, on the other hand, preferred defensible positions with chokepoints that enabled them to bring more of their impressive, ranged firepower to bear on enemy armies than their enemies, in turn, could direct against them at once. Protoss, so I understand at least, tend to split the difference between these two extremes, tending to want to surround Terran armies, but fight Zerg armies in chokepoints.
So, the number and arrangement of choke points, the security or defensibility of base expansion locations, and the time it took various attacks or unit types to cross the map (such as Hellions) had profound implications on the success rates of each faction on various maps.
Without becoming too terribly wordy, similar balance shifts were seen in the Company of Heroes 2 map pool based on the design of the maps. Angular, tight, city-based maps tended to favor German forces, who appreciated the lack of Allied flanking capability on their devastating long-ranged firepower. The Oberkommando West, in particular, enjoyed tight spaces that left opponents little room to bring the full brunt of set-up weapons to bear against their Sturmpioneer Squads, who tend to shred enemy squads without the support of effective suppression weapons.
Maps and units live in an ever shifting and interrelated relationship that has profound effects on how RTS games are played and the balance of those games. Taking the above examples into account, I’d like to talk about the design of the SCRAP game map, and how it’s evolved based on both playtesting with users, and my own internal assessments of how the game is, and should be, played.
The common saying, I’ve come to believe, is 100% true – playtesting early and often is a critical method for determining if the game is on course, and correcting as early as possible if it’s not.
Initial (current) Map Design Logic
For the first several months of development on what I’m now calling SCRAP, I gave little thought to how the game elements would be arranged, beyond some very basic elements. I’ve been a big fan of some of the map design logic Blizzard titles, early Command and Conquer titles, especially the Dune series, and in Company of Heroes 2, and attempted to draw some of the rules of map design from these games.
The initial guiding logic of my map design efforts were as follows, briefly:
- Resources are more interesting if they are located away from infrastructure. This is a lesson both from the Dune games and from Relic’s titles. Moving harvesting operations away from infrastructure has a number of effects, not the least of which is that it makes them more exposed.
- Making harvesting more exposed, of course, makes it less trivial (and therefore, arguably, at least, more interesting). We can see this in the spice-mining operations in the Dune games, with their ample opportunities for stray Sandworms or enemy raiding parties to pick off Carryalls – which, of course, drop spice fields if they die.
- We can see this in the Fuel and Munitions gathering operations in Company of Heroes 2, which are able to be captured by opposing players as they are often in far corners of the map away from Victory Points and are an opportunity cost to garrison and/or maintain defensive forces.
- Non-trivial operations demand more attention, and provide more opportunities for skillful execution on all match players’ sides. Skillful, non-trivial harvesting is interesting. Moving harvesting away from infrastructure is one way of making harvesting non-trivial.
- Harvesting should not be near infrastructure.
- Infrastructure harassment can be interesting, and tactically important areas of the map should evolve with the battle.
- This can be most readily seen in Relic’s titles, with the constant changing-of-hands of territories, or of control points of various kinds. Taking, holding, and losing territory is inherently interesting conceptually.
- Making it interesting and balanced mechanically, however, is of course more complicated. One thing often seen in RTS are infinite stores of value (resource points) that can be contested – Total Annihilation-style games, and Company of Heroes-style games, both have variants on this model.
- What I wanted to try with SCRAP was a little spin on this. First, the primary store of value (resource) is finite. It can run out. As in Total Annihilation-style games, it can be recycled: Units (but not most buildings) drop a percentage of their hit points as resources when they die.
- Specifically, most buildings don’t do this. It’s more valuable to a player to capture a building and use or sell it than it is to kill one. Killing an enemy structure, depriving them of its utility, is a lesser victory to be had, though.
- Units, as mentioned above, become resources when they die. This allows resource value, a Point of Interest on the map, to be located in different areas of the map over time. This makes tactically/strategically important areas of the map actually evolve or move over the course of a match, defined by player action. And unlike in Total Annihilation games, these are not ‘bonus’ resources – over a match, these can easily become the only extant resources for players.
- Decisions should be non-trivial.
- This includes unit production, research, and spending decisions.
- It’s very easy for RTS to render otherwise interesting decisions trivial through scale. Unit position of individual units doesn’t matter if you have 800 of the same thing running around. Likewise, an individual spell isn’t interesting if you have 30 units all casting the same spell. Each decision matters less under the weight of being made ad infinitum. Scarcity generates difficult decisions which generates interesting decisions.
- I quickly came to the realization that if every resource is truly scarce, the game feels harsh and unforgiving. Slowing down combat slightly and providing escape mechanisms improves this somewhat, but if one bad fight ends one player or team’s prospects, the game can feel like it snowballs, and/or could be unfair.
- The secondary Power resource is more scarce than Scrap, not the least of which because it is stored in limited containers (Power Nodes) fed to units as Energy and spent piecemeal from the units’ limited stores. It’s a constrained resource many times over, intended to act as a soft cap on the duration and lethality of battles, and a blunting mechanism on sustained pushes. As Power Nodes can be stolen, it also serves as a source of contention between players that can potentially gain in value the longer it’s held.
- Power is only really spent in combat, making it a resource of ‘doing things’ – also, since more units will need power than can utilize it (on average, for a variety of reasons) choosing which units get power is a difficult decision made because of scarcity.
- All RTS address the idea of gating – that is, locking some things away from the user until requirements have been met. One examples of “map gating” in RTS are Destructible Rocks in StarCraft 2. Oftentimes in SC2 maps, there will be debris blocking strategically interesting areas: expansion locations, more direct routes to the enemy, back doors into bases. Sometimes these work to drive interest and dynamism in maps, and sometimes (as is all too often the case with backdoor ramps into bases) it tends to fall flat.
- In SCRAP, several gating mechanisms exist. The foremost of these is “Scrap” type unit armor. It’s always possible to damage Scrap piles likely to be used by one’s opponent as a harassment tactic, but in the late-game Scrap-killer units come to bear that can wreck enemy resources (not just harvesting operations) making full on destruction of your opponents’ ability to acquire resources a possibility.
- Scrap type objects also serve as a gating mechanism for some resources, allowing for “late game” stores of resources that only realistically become available once scrap-killer weapons come into play. Slagged Debris functions like Destructible Debris from StarCraft 2, but also explodes into Scrap when killed. This Scrap, since it cannot be harvested from Slagged Debris without late-game units, is time-gated from players in a way that few RTS allow or implement.
All of the above considerations, plus some more, such as some thinking about victory points, came together to produce the map design you see below:
This led, in its turn, to the design of the first (and current) SCRAP map, which you can see below:
That version of the map has a variety of issues, not limited to:
- uninteresting dead space in the “bottom” left corner of the map
- Too many extant resources results in players acquiring too much wealth too quickly. Consequently, the game does not feel particularly “low-resource” at this time. This is going to be a tough one to balance, in my opinion.
- Players tend to stop immediately upon reaching their first base location, and failing to expand quickly
- Hostile unit camps placed in inconvenient locations
- Base locations feel cramped and have numerous pathing issues
- the “top” right side of the map feels cramped
- Sections of the map are difficult to understand, tactically uninteresting, or don’t contribute to the flow of the game
- The map has no cohesive story – it’s not clear what it’s supposed to represent, and provides no context to players.
Taking all of those things into account, I generated a new design for the SCRAP map. Here’s what it’s looking like now
A New Map Design Logic
If that’s confusing, this key might help somewhat:
Now this might not look like much to you as a reader at the moment, but allow me to describe what you’re seeing here.
The area in the center of the map is an abandoned crossroads settlement in the deep desert of a dead world.
- Those black squares are all resources: the lighter grey squares (very few of these) are loose scrap that can be collected directly by harvesters.
- The darker squares, the ones made of sets of 9 dots, are actually going to be new for this new map. They represent
- abandoned or destroyed buildings or vehicles dotting the landscape. These must be killed, dispersing their Scrap, before they can be harvested.
- The little rock icons represent slagged debris – crashed starships whose fuel has combusted, as a for-instance, that also must be killed before it drops Scrap. The difference here being, slagged debris often blocks tactically interesting paths around the map, and is almost impossible to kill without specialized scrap-killing weapons.
The area at the top in the center is an old power plant, and will be fairly representational with a parking lot, outbuildings, defunct sci-fi power generating equipment and more. Its mirror at the bottom will be a small military base.
The blue lines on the map are roads. They have no currently planned functional purpose and are purely aesthetic.
I’ve decided to keep the map symmetrical out of a sense of fairness: though players will be required to move and maintain forces in multiple areas of the map at once, an advantage in terms of better defensible base locations, more accessible resources, etc in the early game could easily cause imbalances in combat situations later on. Asymmetry can drive interest and dynamism, but I feel that a more consistent experience for each player is the better choice. I’m hoping to drive interest and dynamism in other ways, though if this ma doesn’t work out, I’ll revisit the possibility of asymmetrical map layouts.
I’ve attempted to diagram the possible points of interest a player might visit in the early game, and the ways in which these POIs logically connect by pathing, distance, and avenue of approach, which illustrates to some degree why I designed the map the way I did (see below). The northernmost 2-slot base in this map, the “first” or “main” base for the player, is relatively isolated, serviced by relatively simple to extract Scrap.
All center-map areas are designed to be more high-conflict than edge map areas: the central plateau holds the most dense resource accumulation on the map, and also many of the map’s chokepoints. The ‘forward’ 2-slot bases are incredibly exposed and can be approached from any direction. The 6-slot bases start off relatively secure, but also in relatively low-resource areas of the map. As Slagged Debris is destroyed, they gain access to easier resources, but become more exposed.
I don’t think this map is perfect, by any means, but I’m happy with it as a step in the right direction.