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So a recent post on the TDG forums got me thinking about the value of upgrades and research, and it’s really rather simple, but I think worth saying anyhow since they are so common and to amateurs often a bit bizarre.


Research enables new the construction of new units and technology can often be researched in a variety of ways. New units can often  be unlocked by simply building or upgrading structures, and upgrades or new abilities can often be unlocked via researching the technology directly at a building.

However, the difficult part is really just determining if it’s really worth it to buy many of these upgrades or research the technology. Sometimes the choice can be simple- If for example, a player already owns a hundred soldiers and researching an attack upgrade is cheap, it’s a no brainer. The player will get his money’s worth as soon as the research is completed.

If however, a player is spending resources to simply unlock the ability to construct a new unit (or alternatively use a new ability) the price at first is a little more difficult to figure out. If we assume that the new units is more cost effective than existing units, the player could simply determine if he will reasonably build enough units to get his money’s worth. If for example, the current tier of units get a 100:10 strength to resource ratio, and the new tier would get a 200:10 strength to resource ratio, but initially costs 200 resources, then to make those lost resources back, the player would have to purchase 10 of the new tier units. Beyond that is a profit in strength.

It’s in my opinion though, that having such strict tiers, with each new tier nullifying old ones, is often bad design. (Sometimes, as in the case of Tower Defense War games this is necessary.) The alternative approach, as appears to be most common in RTS games, is to make units cost effective in certain scenarios, say good at defeating groups of units via splash or effective at combating biological units via poison, such that no unit is truly superior to any other, except in certain scenarios. It then becomes the player’s job to guess at how often the player will be able to effectively use unlocked units, and if the benefits outweigh the costs, then to purchase the technology.

To give an example- Consider you are playing StarCraft. You are the Terran (an army of gritty future humans) playing against the Zerg (an alien army that has evolved to kill).  The game begins, and you start building Marines, the basic component of early Terran armies. Very quickly, the option to purchase Medics arrives, which are extremely useful units when the opponent is unable to kill your Marines quickly. Knowing that the Zerg only has access to Zerglings and Hydralisks, both of which are relatively fragile and also unable to overwhelm the healing effects of Medics, it’s a logical decision to buy them. The benefits greatly outweigh the costs, and you will make up the money spent on the research very quickly. You will not however, proceed to buy Firebats, because despite their splash attack, which is effective against clustered enemies, their short range makes them particularly weak against Hydralisk, which your enemy will have many of, and therefore, your Firebats will always be fighting in situations where they are not cost effective, and they will not make up the money spent on research.

As designers, this effectively means that the price of research is effectively arbitrary. Higher costs however, will mean that the research will much less often be purchased, since players will only see it as useful if they can pretty much guarantee that the unlocked units will be able to be deployed in cost effective circumstances.

Research is kind of interesting because players will shape their armies based on the conditions they are fighting in. Based on the map, it may or may not be cost effective to purchase certain units. For example, ground units lose a lot of their effectiveness of island maps. Additionally, the race of the opponent will have to be factored in. For example, Science Vessels are pretty much a must have against Zerg, with their ability to Irradiate enemy units and detect Lurkers. And perhaps even more interestingly, the units that you have already unlocked has to be considered. Certain units may work extremely well together, such as Marines and Medics.

So basically, research is kind of the depth aspect of RTS games. It takes experience to figure out what’s worth researching and what’s not, and these decisions, strategically, are often the most important, and really fuel the interesting interplay behind the RTS.

Rethinking research in the frame of context of group combat, it occurred to me that beyond the points covered in my original post on research, the real value of research comes from the ability to construct more specialized units, which in turn result in stronger heterogeneous groups. From this perspective, I would claim that in any well made RTS, the lowest tiered units would be largely unspecialized- namely, stats that are effective for 1v1 combat and as more research permits the creation of more units, the new units become more and more specialized. We see this in Starcraft- Terrans have the well rounded Marines, Zerg have well rounded Hydralisks, and Protoss typically produces well rounded combinations of Zealots and Dragoons.


Written by Ceasar Bautista

2010/08/16 at 01:11

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