Gamasutra: Brandon Casteel’s Weblog – In Protection of Arduous Counters in Actual Time Technique Video games


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I really feel like arduous counters get a nasty rap in RTS video games. There are a variety of arguments on the market each for and in opposition to such methods, however I have been fascinated about them lots these days and I truthfully needed to attempt to lay out a transparent case for why I feel they’re an affirmative good in actual time technique video games, at the very least from my perspective. As per regular, I feel nuance goes to get in the way in which of issues slightly bit, however let’s give it a attempt.

As all the time, I will begin by defining my phrases. In an RTS, a ‘arduous counter’ is an interplay the place it’s virtually or truly unattainable for one unit or military composition to defeat one other unit or military composition. I wish to principally speak about unit arduous counters fairly than military or technique arduous counters, however the two are associated.

So, simply for instance: in an hypothetical real-time technique recreation, we’d have 2 models: one is a ground-based infantry unit which may solely assault floor targets. The opposite is a flying unit which may assault floor models however not different air models. On this state of affairs, whether or not or not the flying unit is designed to successfully kill infantry models, the air unit is a tough counter to the bottom unit on this instance. The bottom unit can’t harm the air unit in any method, and the air unit can harm the bottom unit. This relationship is predicated on innate and immutable variations between the 2 unit varieties.

There isn’t a state of affairs in C&C 3 the place Riflemen beat Flame Tanks, thanks to break bonuses and penalties on either side

As a second instance: let’s check out the Flame Tank and Rifleman Squad from Command and Conquer 3. The Flame Tank offers bonus injury to the Rifleman squad, which in flip offers drastically diminished injury to the Flame Tank. Virtually, the Flame Tank will soften nearly any variety of Riflemen whereas the Riflemen won’t ever kill the flame tank in an inexpensive period of time. That is one other arduous counter. On this case, in fact, the connection depends on injury bonuses and penalties as an alternative of innate unit attributes, because the earlier instance. We’ll look into injury bonus and penalty methods afterward on this piece.

To be tremendous clear: a tough counter is a sensible analysis of the relative capabilities of the 2 issues being in contrast. Injury bonuses and penalties alone do not make a ‘arduous counter’ system. For example, the connection between the Baneling and Marine from StarCraft 2 is usually thought of a ‘arduous counter’ – Banelings will all the time kill Marines immediately once they hit them. However virtually, Marines and Banelings are a ‘comfortable counter’ to one another, since Marines can and do come out on prime on this relationship primarily based on the participant’s management over their models. A extra true ‘arduous counter’ relationship between the Baneling and Marine is perhaps if the Marine could not injury the Baneling successfully, or if the Baneling’s explosion radius had been a lot bigger and it had extra well being.

The Baneling/Marine relationship has a extremely variable value effectivity, making it not likely a ‘arduous counter’ – as an alternative, I consider it as a risky relationship primarily based on the truth that Banelings typically both do super injury (whereas dying themselves) or nothing in any respect, or to do partial injury or to solely hit a couple of targets. Because of the volatility of the Baneling’s injury profile and AOE vary, it is very easy to supply a variety of completely different value efficiencies on either side of this specific unit pairing.

One other method to have a look at arduous counters is the quantity of sources required to beat the well being reserves and injury output of the opponent’s unit(s). Within the Marine/Baneling relationship, it is fairly simple for both unit to return out on prime by way of making the participant’s opponent commerce badly by way of value effectivity. Within the relationship between the Flame Tank and Riflemen, the Flame Tank can take out its personal value in Riflemen many instances over, requiring the opponent to decide on one other instrument to cope with the Flame Tank.

The tougher the counter, the extra value environment friendly the commerce will all the time be between 2 individuals in fight. As with the air unit instance above: that 1 air unit can’t be killed by any variety of these floor models. Now, in fact, the perfect state of affairs can be if the air unit in query was designed to kill infantry. A fight state of affairs the place you’ve an air unit that may’t adequately injury its goal on one aspect, and a floor unit that can’t hit the air unit in any respect on the opposite aspect is simply flat out boring. Technically by my definition it counts as a tough counter, however that exact gameplay end result can be an issue since on either side you’ve an uninteresting and unsatisfying engagement.

So, within the traditional youngsters’ recreation “Rock, Paper, Scissors” you’ve these 3 binary relationships you are coping with. I will not go into it as a result of I assume that is widespread data and if it is not, Google it I suppose? Typically, arduous counter methods are known as “Rock, Paper, Scissors” or RPS methods. I’ve a little bit of a quibble with this.

In sensible phrases, in RTS video games you are nearly by no means going to have a “rock” unit that may immediately and instantly invalidate the complete presence of “scissors” models from the sport in a binary method. There could also be relationships the place the “rock” unit invalidates the presence of all close by “scissors” models however even in small scale RTS like Firm of Heroes, having highly effective anti-infantry choices on the sphere doesn’t suggest that infantry are hastily ineffective. They is perhaps higher suited elsewhere on the map, or used to lure the anti-infantry car right into a entice, however they nonetheless have a job within the recreation.

To me that is one among my key frustrations on the subject of speaking about arduous counters vs comfortable counters. There appears to be this assumption baked in that tough counters present implies that issues are going to quickly grow to be pointless to make and unattainable to make use of simply because their counter is on the sphere.

Which, in some worst case eventualities, may technically occur? To to select up our Command and Conquer 3 instance of the Flame Tank and Riflemen once more: if I’ve a military of nothing however Riflemen squads for some motive, and my opponent creates a few Flame Tanks, and for some motive there’s nothing else I can produce then I am in all probability screwed. However, realistically, this state of affairs is not going to occur. In truth even within the above instance I might wish to preserve my Riflemen alive as a lot as potential for potential use in different conditions.

In a sensible sense, a method to consider arduous counters that I discover very useful is to think about them not by way of “this unit may be very good at killing that focus on sort” however extra by way of “this unit may be very dangerous at killing that focus on sort.” To me, the distinctive factor of arduous counter methods not that some models get immediately deleted from the sport you probably have a sure unit sort on the sphere; it is that floor unit that can’t assault that air unit, or that Rifleman that may simply by no means do sufficient injury to take down a tank.

OK: I am having a little bit of enjoyable with the above picture. Gentle counters aren’t a “lie” in fact. However in my years as a pupil of RTS design, I’ve discovered that it is pretty widespread for issues to not have the impact on a recreation that gamers or designers may need desired or anticipated once they got down to create (or play) a selected recreation.

In my expertise, what occurs in video games with a variety of deal with ‘comfortable counters’ tends to interrupt down a bit, particularly with giant numbers of models in play, in direction of a spot the place whichever aspect has essentially the most total well being and injury within the fight will simply win.

Since we outlined ‘arduous counter’s let’s take a second to speak about comfortable counters and the way I am defining these. If the ‘hardness’ of a counter (as outlined above) is the pure value effectivity of a tradeoff: “I put $2,000 of one thing on the sphere it will probably wipe out $20,000 of one thing else.” Then a comfortable counter can be a lot decrease than this, lower than one thing like a 2:1 value effectivity ratio for an encounter.

Now bear in mind, we’re speaking about gameplay outcomes right here. So by way of gameplay outcomes, the baseline assumption is that if value effectivity is extra equal between models, then different issues like positioning and micro can come extra into play, and the participant who controls their models higher will win. Proper?

Nicely, perhaps? That may signify a finest case state of affairs for comfortable counter methods. I feel although in conversations about counter methods, one dangerous baseline assumption that is made is taking a look at best-case eventualities for comfortable counter relationships and worst-case eventualities for arduous counter relationships.

I view the general aim of RTS fight to be centered round gamers using positioning, micro, and unit skills to return out on prime in an out-and-out battle, in addition to harassing the opponent’s buildings and economic system the place potential. However, as I mentioned above, it looks like with ‘softer counter’ methods, the large baseline are the overall well being and DPS of the models in a battle.

In video games with the next prevalence of tougher counters, on the very least the potential pool of efficient HP is split between the varied counter varieties. For instance: if the counters are infantry, automobiles, and air models, your efficient swimming pools of well being reside with these 3 separate classes of injury varieties (with the potential caveat of injury varieties which is perhaps efficient in opposition to greater than 1 of the above). In softer counters, sheer efficient DPS and HP in a single space could be sufficient to win a battle.

Attributable to this, it’s normal for gamers in video games with softer counters to rely closely on excessive powered generalist DPS and AOE models the place potential, because of the excessive effectivity in value and goal alternatives. Really the identical factor tends to occur in video games which have tougher counter methods, as effectively: dependable generalist DPS (just like the Terran Marine in StarCraft 2 or the Tengu in Crimson Alert 3) is usually a continuing thorn within the aspect of gamers and gameplay designers alike.

In a number of Command and Conquer video games, I imagine this was known as the ‘medium tank drawback’ – faction’s mainline battle tanks had been value environment friendly and effectively rounded to the purpose that many video games got here all the way down to whomever was finest at constructing and preserving their tank ball. Now, in fact, this is not all all the way down to ‘counters’ in fact: models can overperform roles simply nice with out blaming it on one thing like a recreation’s ingrained counter system. However models that are too helpful and too effectively rounded usually are a particular drawback in lots of RTS video games, and minimize down on the depth and enjoyable of those video games. And in my thoughts, that is tougher to attain in video games with efficient arduous counter methods.

To me, each arduous counter and comfortable counter methods may end up in the kinds of extremely dynamic fight eventualities I used to be speaking about above, however every has its personal tradeoffs. You want look no additional than a recreation like Crimson Alert 3 for an instance of a very deep and enjoyable recreation with a tough(er) counter system, and to StarCraft 2 for a depth and enjoyable with a softer counter system.

For video games with a bigger variety of arduous counters, there are a few potential points that usually come up: two unit varieties which are not designed to counter one another preventing one another is without doubt one of the worst ones. As with the “air unit that does not do good injury in opposition to infantry models, preventing an infantry unit that may’t assault air” above: that is the “rock vs rock” in Rock, Paper, Scissors: not a lot occurs. Really, in fact, a real “Rock vs Rock” state of affairs can be the place you’ve 2 models and neither can assault, block, or impede the opposite unit in any method. To me, as a lot as this is a problem within the first place (I do not actually see it as an inherent drawback with RTS design) it will probably have an effect on any kind of RTS.

In truth I might go as far as to say that an RTS with out “rock vs rock” interactions is one that you just would not actually wish to play within the first place. Do you actually need one thing just like the Firebat to have the ability to assault the Valkyrie, in spite of everything? Or Valkyries to have the ability to assault staff? We already know there are fight relationships we do not wish to see, and there are ‘rock paper scissors’ interactions constructed into most RTS.

However, I am digressing slightly bit. I am purported to be speaking concerning the weaknesses in each comfortable and arduous counter methods.

I already talked a bit above about how, with softer counters, pure HP and DPS values are likely to grow to be extra dominant, since (as a minimum) tougher counter methods are likely to divide the efficient HP and DPS swimming pools of a participant’s forces into extra ‘buckets’ or classes.

On the flip aspect, with tougher counter methods, the most important factor you get by way of downsides are a bigger share of unit matchups that may really feel one sided or dangerous to a participant. That is contrasted with the “Firebat vs Valkyrie” state of affairs I discussed above, which is one other interplay that would not really feel good. However being on the dropping finish of the “Flame Tank vs Riflemen” state of affairs I preserve coming again to additionally feels fairly dangerous.

Typically, earlier within the recreation is when tougher counter methods are likely to really feel worse. Later within the recreation, bigger armies give the system extra room to resolve into enjoyable encounters with enough depth, management, and curiosity. This might be a case for arduous counter video games to incorporate softer counters within the early recreation part and ramp up the severity of the counter system with later recreation models?

With tougher counter methods, it is smaller fight conditions that are likely to really feel the worst. Within the early recreation, when you’ve only a few models obtainable, is when arduous counter methods are likely to really feel the worst.

One other hazard of tougher counter methods is that models will be apt to be diminished to a injury sort and unit sort. This will result in actually boring unit design the place “shoots X gun” and “is Y unit sort” turns into a variety of the core design of the unit. Video games like C&C Generals and particularly Crimson Alert 3 show this is not crucial, nonetheless.

To me, the perfect design of a unit is that it performs some distinctive perform for the participant, which the participant can exploit or use skillfully to be able to assist overcome their opponent’s models and talents (there is a entire can of worms there I can not wait to handle in some unspecified time in the future sooner or later)

Free RTS Zero-Ok makes use of an attribute-based counter system, the place Crimson Alert 3 is an efficient instance of a tough bonus-and-penalty counter system.

When most individuals take into consideration ‘arduous counter’ methods, they appear to consider what are generally known as “RPS” or “Rock, Paper, Scissors” injury methods. I talked about {that a} bit above, however I really feel like this can be a little bit of a misnaming. Principally, these methods assign “unit varieties” and “weapon varieties” to models, and supply varied bonuses and penalties to unit injury primarily based on the goal and weapon sort.

These bonuses and penalties are present in each softer and tougher counter video games. For example: Warcraft 3 makes use of such a system, as does StarCraft 2, and as do Battle Realms and Command and Conquer: Crimson Alert 3. Nevertheless, in Battle Realms and RA3, the injury bonuses and penalties are usually much more emphasised, with 75% or extra injury reductions on some matchups and 300% injury bonuses on different matchups.

We have already talked about Attribute design as effectively, utilizing extra immutable design attributes corresponding to: this unit can’t goal air models. Or, this melee unit can’t catch as much as that quick ranged unit to be able to assault it. Or, this unit has a excessive injury, gradual assault, which makes it good for taking out excessive HP targets however dangerous at taking out quite a few low-HP targets as a consequence of its low rate-of-fire and overkill per shot. That kind of factor.

These two methods are in fact not mutually unique and are literally used collectively pretty typically. And, as I mentioned, such methods are sometimes seen collectively in lots of video games. Zero-Ok is without doubt one of the premier video games that makes use of attribute-based counters, an Crimson Alert 3 is without doubt one of the higher examples of bonus-and-penalty primarily based counter methods.

Fight in Battle Realms is especially unintuitive due to its dense counter system

The robust factor about bonus-and-penalty counters is that they are typically unintuitive. Whereas it does make sense {that a} common troop with an automated rifle isn’t going to have the ability to take out a tank, it’s considerably much less plausible {that a} tank shell would look off of a daily solider with out blasting him to smithereens. In Command and Conquer 3, I imagine, tank pictures even have a visible of lacking their goal, which helps ‘promote’ the counter relationship lots higher.

Warcraft 3 and to a better extent Battle Realms have notably dense counter relationships. I’ve performed each video games for years and it is nonetheless irritating to me that it is unattainable in lots of instances to inform the counter relationship between unit varieties with out simply memorizing them. Which models do piercing injury vs which models do bludgeoning injury is usually potential to find out (Battle Realms’ Lotus clan models generally make this troublesome although: does acid spit do piercing or does it do another form of injury?) however armor varieties can generally be actually unclear. Why one unit takes triple injury from a sword versus the unit subsequent to it taking 25% injury from the identical sword is a matter of memorizing tables and taking part in again and again – there is not any good visible indicator for the participant to make use of. This, together with the horrible feeling once you run up in opposition to one thing that simply flat out deletes your military, are among the worse emotions introduced on by tougher counter methods.

There are, in fact, different injury methods: in Gray Goo, every unit has an Armor ranking and an Armor Piercing ranking, and the connection is just about what you’d count on: Armor Piercing ignores that a lot of an enemy’s Armor worth per assault. Presumably extra comprehensible than unit varieties and weapon varieties? However it will probably nonetheless be a bit complicated because it’s generally not apparent what may need Armor and what is perhaps good at hitting a goal with an Armor worth.

Anyway, in a counter system, the large differentiator is not within the particular system used, however within the affect that system has on the gameplay. Typically, larger bonuses and penalties result in tougher counter eventualities, in fact.

That is the place issues get slightly difficult: “arduous counter” video games truly themselves typically include a ton of soppy counter relationships. In RA3, for example, when Allied Peacekeepers meet with Soviet Conscripts, or when Soviet Flak Troopers have a run-in with an enemy Sickle. There is a state of affairs the place each models have form of an equal probability of popping out on prime. That is nice truly, in my e-book: comfortable counters are nice to me (regardless of my joke above about them being a ‘lie’) and positively have a spot in any RTS. Simply, protecting in thoughts that the sport being diminished to whoever has the larger pool of HP and DPS, is a very dangerous end result.

The actually essential factor in a recreation with arduous counters is, uh, the precise availability and prevalence of arduous counter relationships. That tank that is good in opposition to infantry is a ‘comfortable counter’ to anti-tank infantry models, however the truth that it is there to scare off or take out anti-air or anti-infantry is a crucial relationship. Weirdly, Command and Conquer: Rivals is sort of an ideal stripped-down instance of what I am speaking about right here.

In C&C Rivals, the participant all the time needs to pair off a unit with what that unit kills finest (whereas protecting it away from issues which might be good at killing it). This results in a surprisingly tense dance of counters being moved subsequent to the factor they wish to assault whereas protecting away from issues that wish to assault them. For such a easy and small scale recreation it is obtained surprisingly deep fight with attributes so simple as “if X dies close to my unit, Y occurs” or “This unit performs that motion when it is stationary” or “this unit has a passive factor that applies round itself whereas it is attacking.”

In my expertise, weirdly, video games with a variety of arduous counters are likely to (when the sport in all fairness effectively balanced, anyway) common out into fight eventualities the place the arduous counter relationships easy out the gameplay. In case you have tanks, models which might be good in opposition to tanks, air and models which might be good in opposition to air, and infantry and models which might be good in opposition to infantry, you do not have a sequence of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” binary deletion interactions, however a dance of gamers looking for good angles of assault and making an attempt to protect their models to be able to deter or destroy or drive off items of the enemy military.

As regular, I’ve written over 3000 phrases with out feeling like I’ve greater than scratched the floor of this subject. Whereas I addressed (briefly) the concept of attribute-based counters, there’s a complete unexplored terrain there that I did not actually really feel like I had time to enter: non-damage primarily based counters, like models which may stop different models from attacking, or the straightforward act of deterring a unit or military with one other unit or military. Time-based benefits are one among my favourite methods in RTS, in spite of everything.

Thanks for studying. Wanting ahead to feedback, as regular, and I hope you will return sooner or later to learn extra of my ramblings about aggressive RTS design.

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