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August 26, 2018

Pushing Forward & Rewards

Pushing forward and rewards

Let's examine mechanics that provide rewards from fallen enemies, their connection to aggressive gameplay and how they can lead to snowballing. Then we look at few other games that use them to encourage aggressive gameplay.

Biomass and Essence

Abathur and Dehaka have been doing very well in both speedruns and mutations. The power they gain through killing enemy units lets them kill enemy units even faster. In the hands of experienced players, these commanders can snowball and finish missions very quickly or stay one step ahead of dangerous mutations. What things are required for a commander to snowball?

Abathur and Dehaka gain a significant part of their power through Biomass and Essence which drop from killed enemy units. This is the main prerequisite that lets them snowball. Another important factor is that the resource investment required to take advantage of gained Biomass and Essence is minimal. Dehaka himself becomes available for free, and Abathur only has to build three Roaches, tech to Spire and get another three Mutalisks. This independence from economy assures that snowballing isn't bottle-necked. In case of Dehaka, Primal Pack Leaders also require only a minimal investment. The last thing necessary is the ability to efficiently trade units in the early game. This was the main issue with old Abathur before his masteries and Ultimate Evolutions got buffed. At this moment both Dehaka and Abathur have tools to be aggressive from the very start.

All this is very useful in both speedrunning and mutations, where not having to rely on economy and being one step ahead of the enemy is crucial. To sum up, there are three things required for a commander to snowball:

  • Rewards from killed enemies that provide a significant increase in power
  • Minimal economy investment
  • Ability to trade efficiently from the start

Direct Kills

Speaking of Biomass and Essence, I have to appreciate that these mechanics work significantly better than rewards for direct kills which were common in older RTS and RPG games. Rewards for direct kills lead to players, units or characters competing for kills. Such zero-sum mechanics usually don't fit well into cooperative modes. Toxic Nests might be the only mechanic in Co-op where a player can hurt his ally by doing what he essentially should be doing—killing enemies. This is one of reasons why reducing bonus biomass from Toxic Nests in the upcoming Abathur's revamp is a good change.


There are two games I want to mention that use such rewards to encourage aggressive gameplay. In Doom 2016 players are rewarded by additional health and ammo from enemies if they kill them with a melee attack. This is one of many mechanics—reduced need for reloading, no health recovery, better projectile dodging, etc—that supports their "push forward combat". In linked video from GDC 2018, id Software's Kurt Loudy & Jake Campbell detail the philosophy behind their combat design.

Diablo 3 health drops were chosen as the most fitting health recovery mechanic for constant action. In the video from GDC 2013, Blizzard's Wyatt Cheng talks about many iterations of heath recovery they went through. The following part about Command Input is extremely interesting as well.


Abathur and Dehaka benefit greatly from these mechanics—placing them in top spots in both speedruns and mutations. I don't think snowballing was Blizzard's design intention for these commanders. I find it more likely that these mechanics just fit well to their fantasy. Abathur's early units and Toxic Nests hint towards intended gameplay that is more passive. On the other side, aggressive gameplay was definitely a focus for Dehaka which spawns earlier than any other commander.

Snowballing can lead to very enjoyable gameplay. However, in case of Abathur and Dehaka, economy and supporting army might have become little too inconsequential. This removes some depth from the commander gameplay. Upcoming revamp update for Abathur seems to address this too with some nerfs to Ultimate Evolutions.

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