Extending the Supreme Commander/Forged Alliance Experience – Part 1

We have been playing Total Annihilation (TA) for over 6 years, since 2003. “We”, that is a group of friends and colleagues, initially located around Strasbourg, France. And even if the exact number and composition of the group varied over time, we were nearly always about six to seven people to play once a week, during a long evening. Most of us are a bit older ;-),  have a family and a job, so we are what people would call “casual gamers”. Most of the initial founding folks are still in, even if now more geographically separated.

TA (Well, that is TA:ÜH – A major mod, called Überhack 4.0 to be precise) has been a lot of fun to play and i still consider it one of the best RTS ever (and in particular compared to its competitor StarCraft).

So it was only natural for us to move to Supreme Commander (and the Forged Alliance extension, some time later), once it had settled to a stable and affordable game in 2009. The SupCom experience, although praised as TA’s “spiritual successor” everywhere, proved to be a lot different than TA:ÜH though.

It seemed they had mixed in many of the elements of StarCraft, that made it speedier, rushier and much more economy-dependent than TA used to be. SupCom/FA seemed to be aimed at the fast 1vs1 duel environment, typical for online centric games.

Our environment is different: With a typical number of around six players, chosen maps are rather larger (20km x 20km is common). This means that surface units spend much time moving to the enemy. This wouldn’t have been a big deal, hadn’t there been some serious flaws in the game design for this kind of scenario.

We quickly identified several shortcomings (on the basis of the latest official patch 1.5.3599) that needed to be addressed in order to save the tactical interest of the game:

  • Air is way too strong

Air units not only have a speed advantage, but were also overpowered. Stationary anti-air was nearly ineffective so that nobody really used it.

Nearly all major games ended up with gigantic aircraft clouds moving around the map, destroying everything on their passage, only to be stopped by another even more massive swirl of defensive aircraft. The map had gotten “flat” at this stage of play. The game tactics came down to producing more aircraft in less time than the enemy. This seemed to be pointless.

We wanted the TA feeling back, where you could do serious harm with a well placed bomber-run, but it was nearly ever possible to crush a suitably well-defended base with aircraft only.

  • Unit life cycle is too fast. Experimentals are too cheap.

Another consequence of large maps is that units that have made their way to the enemy will most often face defenders of higher level than their own, due to the simple fact that the defender had time to upgrade while the lower level units were still inbound.

The result is a systematic shift to a late attack strategy, since early (i.e. low level) attacks are nearly always doomed to be crushed at the “level barrier”. The consequence is a rush to experimentals, with low to zero engagements during the early and mid-game. Boring!

  • Economy drives off too fast for less gifted players and becomes pointless once L3 is reached.

This is of course more a problem of group homogeneity than of the game itself. Nevertheless it can ruin the fun.

Consider that you have a mix of more and less experienced players in your group. (This will almost always be the case somehow). There is usually no problem with this, if teams are mixed in the right way, with some less experienced players teaming up with the more experienced on  both sides. The problem is that SupCom/FA is very economy-dependent. The economy in FA runs away exponentially, leaving the less gifted players behind in a spectactor role far too early.

Another problem with economy in SupCom/FA is that once Level 3 extractors and converters are built up, there is so plenty of resources (for the gifted players that is) that the whole game turns into “how to spend income more quickly than the enemy”. Again all tactical options fall behind a purely mass fabrication strategy. There is so much income available that considerations about land occupation become totally unimportant.

We wanted to have a fight for every acre of exploitable land instead, and that until the late game!

Read how we managed to address each of these points in the following post!

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