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Large Scale RTS and their intimacy problems: SupCom 2 report

March 10th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 12 Comments · Design, Gas Powered Games, Me, RTS

At this week’s GDC, Gas Powered Games boss Chris Taylor told Greg Tito of The Escapist that Supreme Commander 2 was one of the best games he’d ever worked on. (I’m still working my way through the campaign, but I’ll let you know if I agree with him soon.)

He also said that SupCom2 was a top notch “large-scale RTS”.

It’s really leading the way in large scale RTS. I’ve never actually said those words before now, which is really odd, because you’d think it’d be the first thing out of my mouth when I was launching the first Supreme Commander. There’s small scale and large scale RTS, and we’re on the large scale side of things.

Though I’ve often talked about how the RTS is becoming smaller and more streamlined, I’d never really thought to distinguish the genre in terms of how big its scale is. And, of course, no RTS really has the scale of the Supreme Commander/Total Annihilation games. Taylor makes a comparison between the size of SupCom and the masses of armies we see in Hollywood blockbusters (though his choices for movie comparisons are odd because none of them really show huge engagements on any super scale. Happily for me, all ancients themed movies, though.)

As kids when we played in the sandbox, we may have only had 25 plastic soldiers, but we imagined 25,000. This is where large scale RTS plugs into the psyche of the gamer

So, for Taylor, a large scale RTS is making manifest all those childhood dreams of huge clashes of arms. The movie analogy isn’t a bad one for Supreme Commander. Though Spartacus had to use real men, it is relatively trivial to paint ten thousand CGI soldiers storming the beaches of Troy. Likewise, SupCom’s lack of a meaningful population cap makes it trivial to assemble hundreds of units for your army. You can churn out tanks like candy if you have the mass and energy, and resources are infinite.

The price, of course, for having almost unlimited manpower is that your armies become cannon fodder. Playing Supreme Commander 2 sometimes feels like playing a General Haig simulation – storm into enemy defenses to wear them down while you prepare your big strike because, after all, there’s an unending supply. This doesn’t work so well in the skirmish game, but the campaign maps have little sense of urgency or conservation, at least in the first third of the game. So I’ve picked up a lot of bad habits, I’m sure.

One reason I’ve never really warmed to the technically impressive SupCom/TA games is that the scale is so large that it does detract from that sense that every unit I have is important. Intimacy is probably the wrong word here, since I never feel all that close to my snipers in Company of Heroes. But one of the perils of relying on scale to make your statement is that this scale has to somehow be made relevant to the player once they get past the “Look how big this is!” thing. Ironically, the large the scale of battles, the more work a designer has to do to give the player a reason to play beyond “Go win”.

Let’s return to Taylor’s Hollywood movie comparison. Most large battle scenes are on screen for less than a minute. You get a big panning shot or something. And these battles are tied to characters or situations that we are asked to have a connection to – a hero, a pivotal historical event, the world in the balance. Peter Jackson’s Helm’s Deep worked because the stakes were so high for characters we’d grown to like (except for Rhys-Davies’ Gimli. Ugh.). The large scale was representative of the importance of the battle, of the odds that our heroes faced. Homer’s catalog of ships in The Iliad is similarly there to underscore the size of the Argive operation against Troy even as his story focuses on the leaders.

Strategy games don’t expect you to make these same sorts of connections, but they are there. When Gary Grigsby does one of his huge wargames, he’s counting on us to appreciate the size of the effort it took to defeat Japan in the Pacific or for the Soviets to roll back the Germans.

A year ago, I wrote about how so many people misunderstand what it means for something to be “epic”. SupCom 2‘s campaign is, so far, attempting to be a real epic about a real character with real issues leading hordes of robots into battle. Well, not lead, exactly. One problem with the SupCom 2 campaign as an epic is that your hero in his ACU will spend the first three quarters of the battle back at home base building stuff. It remains to be seen if GPG can build that link between me and the hero(es) and this army of whatever that thing I just made is.


12 Comments so far ↓

  • Ginger Yellow

    “Intimacy is probably the wrong word here, since I never feel all that close to my snipers in Company of Heroes. ”

    I don’t know about that. There’s nothing more gutwrenching in CoH than hearing “Sniper killed in action” or worst of all being counter-sniped.

  • Jon Gad

    I find that Sins of a Solar Empire strikes a nice balance in that regard.

    True, I don’t care at all if another expendable Cobalt class frigate gets vaporized, but if I lose the Horizon, my level 6 Dunov class Battlecruiser, then I’m affected. Especially since Sins gives you those warnings about your damage level, so if I’ve lost a capital ship its almost always after a significant effort to save her.

    So by making at least a few of units unique, levelable, and for my purposes most important of all, nameable, a game can increase how much I care about my units, such that I’ll actually call off an attack just to try and preserve them…which is something I’d almost never do in something like SupCom or C&C where the units are nameless and easily replaced.

  • Flashduck

    I’ve always thought that people meant ‘epic’ as in ‘large scale’ when talking about games; I never even considered the other meaning. But if you mean ‘large scale’ with ‘epic’, SupCom/TA are both epic games, not to mention AI War.
    Besides, I thought the whole point of large scale RTSes was both to focus more on the strategic (rather than tactical) and logistics side of battles, and huge amounts of units certainly help with that.

    Epic is still overused as hell, though, but blame WoW for that.

  • Thomas Kiley

    I agree that at this scale it is very difficult to form emotional attachments with individual units. Also, if the story deals with individual characters they you get this huge disconnect I think you talked about in some episode of TMA.

    Instead, I think the story should match the scale. So instead of characters you have countries. It is harder to write a compelling story at this scale, but I think it would quickly encourage you to win. While you don’t have an invested emotion interest in the units, you do at least have an invested emotional connection with the battle as a whole.

    If you do character stories for large scale, you tend to not care about the bigger picture (and hence the battle) because you are linked with the characters, but you can’t care about them in game play because they simply aren’t represented or are just a tiny insignificant force.

  • FhnuZoag

    It seems like here we find the Total War games’ strength (whatever their weaknesses may be in other respects) Despite the large scale of the battles, units in total war tend not to be replacable, since things like group morale means that units tend to live or die in large groups, and carry over experience. Hence, at least for elite units, keeping them alive is important. Generals, too, carry on their own narrative arcs, tracked by their traits. And the trick of the TW system is that the general needs to be at risk to be most useful, since he’s needed for his local morale effect, and the charge of his cavalry can be an important tide turner, before you get the expensive hi-tech cavalry units to replace him.

  • PleasingFungus

    If we’re talking about large-scale RTSes that let you form an emotional attachment to your troops, then my nomination would be for Men of War. On the larger scale missions, there can be hundreds of men fighting and dying, and most of them you’ll never really care about. But every one of them is named and has an individual inventory, which really helps for those moments when you’ve just got that one flamethrower-guy hiding behind a barn and darting out to stall the German advance, or those three tank crewmen who’ve crawled out from their burning T-27, dashed their way through a battlefield, and managed to get to an abandoned mortar just in time to save the day…

    Men of War is amazing for those kind of moments.

    (Also, it has a haberdashery mini-game!)

  • Primemover

    I agree with the idea that “epic” refers more to the depth of the story that is intertwined with the game play. I think COH is the best example of that. The scenarios themselves are fought on the small scale, yet when they are combined with the cut scenes, the end result is truly “epic” (and I think this scale has been quasi-mastered). Lots of units on the screen at once is “large”, but (to use Troy’s analogy) if a Haigian approach is required to get to the end goal, then we end up with “mass”. If you had 10-20 units (who as a player you could become invested in or see a story develop around) who controlled large scale sub-units (aka cannon fodder), that itself would be both large scale and epic. That would be a cool game, and to my knowledge, is not yet available.

  • LintMan

    Kind of ironic that Chris Taylor is calling Supreme Commander 2 a “large-scale RTS” when it has shrunken so much compared to SupCom 1. At least, for the single player campaign, anyway.

    All the campaign maps are tiny compared to the SupCom 1 ones, and you’re always limited to 300 units or less. 18 short missions , each about 1/3 to 1/2 the length of the SupCom 1 missions, feels like a bit of a rip-off: The multi-stage expanding missions in SupCom 1 are really missed. There wasn’t a single moment in the campaign where I really had any need for the big strategic zoom-out.

    I could live with the “streamlining” of the economy and base-building, and reduction in unit variety, but the campaign shrinkage has really left me vastly disappointed. It’s an expansion-length game that I paid full price for.

  • JohnDoe

    “One problem with the SupCom 2 campaign as an epic is that your hero in his ACU will spend the first three quarters of the battle back at home base building stuff.”

    I think the majority of people who like TA and the SupCom series are more into the multi-play/skirmish aspect.

    In these aspects your ACU is on the front line. I haven’t played much of the single play but provided the game is similar enough you should be able to put your ACU on the front line. This of course may not be viable due to a limited tech tree.

  • Chris Floyd

    Troy — Not sure if you got to see any of Sid Meier’s GDC address. A lot of it was pretty ho-hum, but at the end he discussed the goal of game design as being to make an “epic journey” for the player. It struck me that his definition of “epic”–focused as it was on the player (SINGLE player, by implication) and his experience–melded very well with yours and Homer’s.

  • Troy


    I didn’t see Meier’s talk (alas) but it was tweeted everywhere and I have a lot of thoughts on it. I want to wait for a full text/video before I comment too much. Same with Soren Johnson’s talk, which I think will make a great podcast episode on its own.

    Thing is, it is relatively trivial from a game perspective to create an epic experience with the player as the focus – games have done it forever. For some reason, RTSes don’t do this and prefer to create an epic experience through size.

    Also – great discussion here. I love you guys.

  • Chris Floyd

    There’s a video of Meier’s talk on Gamespot and probably elsewhere. Got a source for Soren Johnson’s?

    I wish Sid’s talk was better organized. He had plenty of insights, but it lacked cohesion. He definitely didn’t convince me why everything I know is wrong. But he’s Sid Meier and I’m not, so I’m going to take his word for it anyway. Now where did I put that design doc and my lighter.