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October 16, 2017

Upgrades in Co-op

Upgrades have been a core part of strategy games for a very long time. They add a sense of progression, delay abilities or other powers to later stages of the game, and add choices when to research them and which ones. While upgrades are still an important part of Co-op, their role is different from the competitive multiplayer, and they don't have to be as restrictive. My issue with some upgrades in Co-op is that they serve no good purpose. Let's look at few different examples.

  • Swann's Defensive Matrix upgrade delays the ability until later stages of the game. In the early game players are starved for gas as they're making Science Vessels and researching Improved Nano-Repair. Without Improved Nano-Repair, Science Vessels don't have enough energy, and so there is no reason to get Defensive Matrix first. But early game is also the time when Swann struggles the most, when Defensive Matrix would come handy and when it would be the most fun to use. Yet at that time it's locked. Defensive Matrix being an upgrade helps nothing and makes Science Vessels less fun and engaging. In this case the decision when to get matrix is much less interesting than using the ability itself

  • decision when to upgrade Defensive Matrix
  • <<
  •  decisions and execution tied to using Defensive Matrix

  • On the opposite side we have Raynor's Stimpack upgrade for Marines. In the competitive multiplayer, it's necessary for it to be an upgrade. It delays pushes that would be otherwise game-breaking. But in Co-op these same reasons don't exist. And so it's not an upgrade and it's good for the game. The same is the case for the Burrow upgrade. As a counterpoint I have to note that interactions between units change depending on active upgrades (e.g. Stimpack vs Baneling speed), this can add more depth while keeping the number of units low.

  • A good upgrade is Artanis' Whirlwind upgrade for zealots. While some would argue otherwise, for me, it was always a choice whether to get it and how fast.

The good

In my opinion, there always has to be a reason for an upgrade to exist. It has to give player some choice, intentionally delay power or add a sense of progression. Also, w
e have to be aware of drawbacks upgrades can have. They can delay fun abilities, discourage mixing small amounts of units into your composition and reduce resources players have available. Resources spent on an upgrade, that is researching, makes for a lot less fun than a unit you can use. Also, if a global calldown has an upgrade, players will want to save it, before it's upgraded.

Another common approach for strategy games is to have different tiers of an upgrade. First tiers are cheap and thus your economy doesn't suffer as much. Subsequent tiers of the upgrade get progressively more expensive. That is currently used for attack and armor upgrades, but it can't be used for all research. In Warcraft 3, some abilities were tied to these upgrade with tiers (Shaman, Witch Doctor, Sorceress, Priest, etc.)
Now let's look at more examples of good reasons behind upgrades in Co-op mode.

Upgrades that provide a choice whether to get them. Sometimes they are worth it, sometimes not.
  • Afterburners, upgrades for Nova hero unit, static defense upgrades, Carrier's repair, some Spear of Adun upgrades, Disintegration, Whirlwind, Blink and Stun for Dark Templar, Supplicant upgrades, etc.

Some provide a choice in the way they affect buildorders.
  • Upgrades for Kerrigan hero unit, Whirlwind, Infested Infantry upgrades

Some give a choice through the order in which they are researched.
  • Upgrades for Abathur's Mutalisk, Kerrigan's Hydralisk, Dark Archons, Templar Archive's upgrades

Upgrades that let units scale into the late game.
  • Upgrades for Drakken Laser Drill, Spear of Adun, Infested Compound, hero units, Zerglings and Marines

The bad

I consider poor upgrades those that have no good purpose. Defensive Matrix was an extreme case in which it effectively makes the unit less fun. But while most of the upgrades are not like that, for example Swann's upgrade for Siege Tank is just something you get after you made certain amount of Siege Tanks. There is no decision. But at least in this case it's just a numerical change and you are not missing any fun ability. If the reason for upgrades was to slow commanders from getting too strong too fast, more expensive units would serve better. If they are here to add a sense of progression, cheaper upgrades would serve just as well.

Some upgrades should be removed, and some could be made cheaper while keeping the same research time. The sense of progression would be still there, players would have more resources to spend on units and the choices were preserved. At least in the form of which upgrade to get first and how many buildings for upgrading players want. A good example was a change to Kerrigan's masteries that added an option to reduce her upgrade cost and time by -66%. While it was mainly intended as a balance change, her gameplay has become a lot more enjoyable too.


In the end the state of upgrades is not the most pressing issue in Co-op. In certain cases where the compounded cost is too high, it can become a visible problem as with Swann's early game. Some changes to co-op upgrades would be good. As it would lead to additional diversity in playstyles, and we would see more of underused units like Vorazun's Centurions or Kerrigan's Broodlords.

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