Covering (but not limited to) all of my thoughts on the PC gaming scene.
Which system do you prefer?
Published on July 1, 2008 By Phazon88 In PC Gaming

Now here's an interesting discussion for all you strategy fans (and game designers too!). I refer to RTS games mostly in this article but it can be applied to other types of strategy games as well.

In most traditional strategy games, the player can recruit / build "units" for the purpose of getting closer to the goal of winning with the selected unit taking a place within a player's strategy. Normally there is some sort resource requirement to stop the game from degenerating into mindless spamming (and to give the player a reason to fight for resources in the first place) as well as serve as a balancing tool (powerful units are expensive etc). This is a common formula for most strategy games out there.

However that's where the similarities usually end. You see there is some different design philosophies that can be adopted in order for a game designer to further control unit production.

 

The first one I'll talk about today is known as the hard-cap. This essentially means there is a set limit on the amount of a single unit you can build. This mechanic is most commonly seen used on elite or extensively powerful units and can create a number of beneficial effects within the game.

The first (non-gameplay related) effect of the hard-cap is that it can help improve the immersion of a game. This is particularly true with titles with a realistic background to them. For example, a hard-cap placed on the amount of Tiger tanks (a powerful yet relatively rarely produced tank), a player who is playing as a Wehrmacht-based faction in a WWII strategy title can build would help improve the immersion of the game in this context.

The second effect of the hard-cap is that it can help improve the strategy of the game. One of the main reasons I love playing strategy games so much is the challenge of making the most out of what you have. Hard-caps placed on certain units mean I can't just build the most powerful unit in the game constantly and just use that to win. This helps improve the unit variety used within the strategy game and really helps keeping it from degenerating into single-unit spam.

The main possible disadvantage to the hard-cap that can be pervieved by some players / game designers is that it can potentially limit the kind of unit combinations a player can make and restrict their playstyle.

In addition to the hard-cap, there is also something known as the soft-cap. Its a similar premise to the hard-cap except that the limit can extend over multiple units in multiple ways. Most strategy games feature a soft-cap in some ways in the form of a population limit (pop-cap). However the term soft-cap can also apply to limits being placed on a certain group of units (eg- there is 2 different units, you can build them in any combination but in the end you can only build a total of 4 units).

The pop-cap is pretty self-explanatory (and is obviously implemented into games for reasons involving playability and technical limitations).

The other form of the soft-cap I mentioned can be used to similar effect to the hard-cap, but it can help open up additional possible strategies because of the wider variety of unit combinations a player can work with.

 

On the other side of the spectrum (and game design philosophy) we have the no-cap unit limit. The no-cap limit can be associated with having no pop-cap, but it is very rare to see within a strategy game. The primary definition of the no-cap unit limit means there is no limit to the number of a unit you can build. As long as you have the required resources and satisfy any other requirements (such as staying within the pop-cap) will be allowed to build that unit and continue building that unit as long as you possibly can.

The main advantage of having a no-cap system in place is that the player gets to play the game and enact the strategy that they want to use and not have any limits emplaced on them in doing so. This can potentially lead to a game that features a wide diversity of tactics and strategies available to players for use. However this will only happen if the game is inherently well-balanced with no unit combinations proving superior over others. This brings me to the next point.

The main disadvantage of having a no-cap system is that it is possible for players to find the most successful unit combination and continually only use that specific unit combination because it proves to be most successful in the majority of games played. This then leads to a poor level in the diversity of tactics and strategies possible.

 

I personally prefer strategy games that have hard-caps (and soft-caps) placed on certain units to help keep a reasonable level of unit diversity that are present within tactics within the game. I also enjoy the immersion it brings. I'd say a perfect example of positive effects of hard-caps and soft-caps combined is the Dawn of War Pro mod for Dawn of War. Try it out to really see how effective a use of hard-caps and soft-caps can be.

It can also be proven however that the use of the no-cap unit limitation system can also prove to be a success - Starcraft being the proof. However for a game to use the no-cap unit limitation system effectively it needs to be impeccably balanced (which is no easy task).

Now my question to you all is, which kind of unit limitation do you prefer?


Comments
on Jul 01, 2008

I hate hard-caps, imo its just an excuse of lazy balance guys to prevent the game to become a spamfest, why not balance the game so that building only 1 or 2 types will result in a loss vs a balanced army?

 

Starcraft has a 200 pop cap btw and as units consume different amount of control, it isn't just because of the technical aspect (unlike it is in Warcraft 1 & 2 or Supreme Commander). I am fine which such a general cap as long as they dont implement silly things like upkeep in warcraft III.

Nor do I mind needing to build farms/pylons/supply depots/whatever to extend that cap.

 

 

 

on Jul 01, 2008
I prefer the no-cap, though it is probably the hardest to implement. I don't really understand the way you defined the different types of pop-caps, though I can guess based on RTS games I've played. You may want to give some examples.

Regardless, all other forms of population cap are arbitrary extensions of the no-cap type. Hard-cap and soft cap both just say "This unit here is very expensive and very hard to build (IE just THAT cool), but we still want you to build it in an unrealistically short amount of time and for a disproportionate amount of resources or else it'll never get used". Basically, these type of units are out of balance with other units in the game. Now, I realize this is because of necessary limitations (such as total game time), but I still think there should be a better way based on what these arbitrary limits represent.
on Jul 01, 2008
I hate hard-caps, imo its just an excuse of lazy balance guys to prevent the game to become a spamfest, why not balance the game so that building only 1 or 2 types will result in a loss vs a balanced army?
 
Starcraft has a 200 pop cap btw and as units consume different amount of control, it isn't just because of the technical aspect (unlike it is in Warcraft 1 & 2 or Supreme Commander). I am fine which such a general cap as long as they dont implement silly things like upkeep in warcraft III.
Nor do I mind needing to build farms/pylons/supply depots/whatever to extend that cap.
 
 
 


I actually prefer a type of upkeep over building farms. I don't remember how it was done in warcraft 3, but a maintenance cost based on a unit just seems so obvious to me. Both are fine ways to reflect unit maintenance; in fact, farms are easier, but I'm sort of a number cruncher so...

[EDIT]Starcraft is a "no-cap"??!! Seriously???!! Where does Total Annihilation/Supreme Commander fall??
on Jul 01, 2008
Insanetitan, in WC3 you had to build farms and had additional upkeep (you got less money if you have more than a certain amount of units (70% if more than 50supply and 40% if more than 80 supply).

Maybe upkeep without farms and not with just 3 steps would be interesting but warcrafts implemention is just fail.
on Jul 01, 2008
I like the Up-keep system. Basically the more you build of unit the more its going to cost you maintain, and the more powerful units require big-upkeep.

This works well, for you means you need a good economy and management to keep a stable army or a few very powerful units. A similiar method is increasing the cost of your unit like the game Rise of Nations did. Getting your first hoplite would be 50 food, 50 metal, but each additional one would cost you like a 25% increase. So your 10th Hoplite would be 175.5 food, and 175.5 Metal (176 rounded up would be the case for the game). What this did, was effectively limit spamming, and make you build more diverse units. Why create a Tank when you can build 3 units of infantry for the same price?

While I like the fact you can't get more of certain units of hard-cap, I prefer more of soft-cap/upkeep method.

on Jul 01, 2008

I prefer soft-caps, myself, though in some cases, hard caps are just the only choice that works well.

Sins actually has my favorite sort of soft-caps: One falls into Fleet upkeep, where a player needs sufficient economy to support the fleet(though I think in Sins' case it needs a little tuning perhaps), with a harder cap in the form of population limits(both for the overal fleet and for Capital ships specifically), which can be raised via research. It's a flexible setup, in that you can make a lot of choices in fleet make-up, but there are limits and tradeoffs(only so many Cappies you can build, and every capital ship you build keeps you from building a LOT of smaller ships).

No cap is just a bad idea, at least from a multiplayer perspective, in my opinion. Aside from the largest problems of players falling into an attrition mindset-- because whatever your theory is, players *will*, by and large, fall to the path of least resistance-- there also raise unfair technical issues. What's to stop a player on a quad-core double vidcard monster of a system from throwing enough units at another player that his computer starts dropping framerates badly? That sort of scenario, to me, would speak far more of bad design than balance via hard caps.

on Jul 02, 2008

Gradiated soft-caps.  Each player then can decide for themselves the point of no return.  This leads to the greatest diversity as eventually any unit will become worthless because it's cost will be so high as to be a virtual hard cap.  But that hard cap will be different for every player.

on Jul 03, 2008

manbear


Gradiated soft-caps.  Each player then can decide for themselves the point of no return.  This leads to the greatest diversity as eventually any unit will become worthless because it's cost will be so high as to be a virtual hard cap.  But that hard cap will be different for every player.

 

This sounds kind of like the system used in Rise of Nations (where the resource cost of a unit increased exponentially the more of that one unit you built).

on Jul 03, 2008

Insanetitan

[EDIT]Starcraft is a "no-cap"??!! Seriously???!! Where does Total Annihilation/Supreme Commander fall??

Well considering the fact that almost all strategy games have some mechanic that controls the amount of total units being able to produce, I consider games that have no limit on the amount of any one unit you can build (apart from the convential and neccessary population cap) to be a no-cap.

Starcraft goes down well with not having any unit limitations because it is incredibly balanced. Even though the units from each side function radically differently.

Supreme Commander similarily is also balanced pretty well, but it is less of a feat compared to Starcraft due to the fact each side has units based on the same type (with just variations in stats and their weapon functionality).

on Jul 03, 2008
Based on your definitions, I would consider Starcraft to be softcap -- you had to build structures and protect them to maintain your capacity. Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander is a better example of no-cap.

To be honest, a hard-cap game, by your definition, would actually control peoples strategies a lot more than soft cap. A good game should reward unit diversity via gameplay, not artificial unit caps. That way people build what they think will suit their immediate strategy best.
on Jul 03, 2008
The best RTS I played is Blitzkrieg, and it has no unit production at all. No production means no capping and no bullshit economies. Solves lots of problems.
on Jul 04, 2008

Gambler


The best RTS I played is Blitzkrieg, and it has no unit production at all. No production means no capping and no bullshit economies. Solves lots of problems.

Yes I remember that game. Probably one of the best games that gives you the type of challenges where you have to do with what you got. This is probably considered a complete hard-cap (as you're stuck with what the level designer gives you) but I'd say it gives you an equal level of strategic challenge as does an RTS where you fight with a force you create.

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