RTS Basics

Distributed Force





Economies of scale: Homeworld's monstrous Battlecruiser (fig .1.) gives your fleet a fantastic weapon. But for the same cost, fig. 2, 3 or 4 show what the same resources could have bought instead. The more expensive and powerful a unit, the longer, slower and more ponderous it generally becomes. On top of that, you've tied up resources that won't be of any use until its finished building. Each group's firepower is roughly comparable; only its distribution is different. A hundred strike craft aimed at a single target can do similar damage as a battle cruiser, and they're a lot faster - if not more of an armful to manage. But you'll also get 100% out of a cruiser right until it finally dies, whereas a strike craft cloud's firepower will start weakening as individual fighters are lost.
Another way of deploying units and making your presence felt on the battlefield is to take a more crowd orientated approach. Rather than concentrating on individual units with special skills that you manhandle into position, you direct numbers of them in groups and "distribute" your firepower like firefighters directing water at a blaze. This is a sort of top down, do-it-by-feel approach. Individual stats become less important than the total capacity of the entire group.

3D games tend to fall into this latter category. In older 2D games its easy to manipulate your forces by hand because much of the actual fighting is worked out in the computer's mind before its actually gets around to showing the result in graphical form. In a 3D environment, you tend to get a more simulated environment. No one, not even the game engine, quite knows what's going to happen once a bullet has been fired: the game engine has to work out the trajectory, plot its course and then by the time the bullet arrives - assuming it didn't get tripped up on an 3D obstacle - the target might have moved. The bullet itself is practically a cut down unit with its own attributes.

Homeworld's probably the best example of a true 3D strategy game. Every unit is of the same type - a spaceship. All of them occupy the same theatre - space. Every armed unit can affect every other unit without restrictions. However, game balance and unit types still decide the outcome. Its the size, speed, cost and behaviour of the units that becomes the Paper Scissor thing. When you deploy your forces in Homeworld your strategy is really about how you distribute your firepower in order to achieve your goals. Its a question of whether you spread your force amongst small agile fighters or concentrate it in slow, lumbering dreadnoughts, or in some other combination. You distribute your forces in terms of group strength and where firepower is focused collectively, not on heroic individuals who demand intense micromanagement.

In Homeworld, there's no terrain to trip you up, and all your buildings are spacecraft - so effectively, the entire map and its strategic elements (apart from mineral rich asteroids) are mostly on the move. Issues such as responsiveness, time to build and defensive coverage suddenly become the deciding factors for which units you build and how and where you deploy them. The speed at which ships can turn and shoot and the formations they're in suddenly becomes all-important in determining who survives - almost more important than how much weaponry they pack in most cases. Powerful weapons aren't much chop if they're too slow and can't hit anything! Distributed force discourages neurotic bean counting. The numbers can't tell you everything: unit behaviour and the environment they're in is going to decide who survives as much as unit stats do. In a 2D game like StarCraft, you really can sit down and work out all the numbers beforehand (although the game might be moving too fast for you to do this most of the time); but in more simulated environments, especially in 3D games, there are more variables at play and the outcome of any battle is harder to predict. Even in a game like Homeworld, where there really isn't any terrain at all, you still have quite a few strategic options to consider - even though at first glance a newcomer to Homeworld will probably be wondering how a bunch of spaceships floating around in open space can qualify as being strategic, especially if they're used to dealing with terrain, obstacles and choke points. Its a combination of picking the right units, making sure they get to where they're supposed to and then managing their formations and tactics during the big fight. Its just as relevant on a ground map, except there are choke points and obstacles to complicate matters further.

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Last modified Sat, 30 Apr 2011 by Lindsay Fleay