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November 3, 2020

Transmission 01 - Setting, scale, heroes, socialization

Transmission 01

Real-time strategy has always been my favorite genre. I do some modding in StarCraft II and occasionally write about game design. In the last few years I have been playing StarCraft II's Co-op. I think I contributed at least a little bit to making this game mode better through a series of ten posts looking at bugs, and by providing feedback to now u/Frost_monk. I'm happy that I could do my small part. I have a lot to say about Co-op, but more on that in another post.

Let's start with some subjective feedback about RTS. Then I will comment on setting, scale, heroes, socialization and shareability.

Few things I like in RTS

  • Action with crisp and responsive controls
  • Basebuilding (~StarCraft, Stronghold, C&C3)
  • Rewarding multitasking that leads to the flow state

And more... Many things have been already mentioned, and others we take for granted and don't realize how much work was put into them to make the game feel just right.

Few things I dislike in SC2

This is again completely subjective, and I will focus on two things that are keeping me from competitive 1v1 despite reaching masters several times. First, 1v1 can feel lonely. That's it.

Second, returning to competitive 1v1 feels hard after weeks or months. I can't enjoy games until I'm somewhat satisfied with my mechanics. Only then I can play "actual" game where games aren't decided solely by macro slipping or forgetting to scout.

It feels better in team and Co-op games. There is more freedom for strategic thinking, scouting is either easier or not required at all, and it doesn't feel like the game's outcome is on a knife's edge.

MMR adjustment compensates for lower skill after longer time of not playing. However, I often found it being too aggressive with lowering my MMR. When I finally decide to come back to 1v1, I would get several games when I stomp my enemy, which is not fun for either side.


Let's move on to the visual style, and more precisely to light vs dark theme. Lighter theme is more welcoming, and it's easier to spend more time in a game with it. Including some nature and cute things helps as well, even if they are not the main focus.

It's also important how relatable the environment and characters are. A setting too distant to anything in player's experience will be hard to connect to. This can be a problem for sci-fi settings. And that's why StarCraft is basically Terran version of wild-west with Protoss wizards and Zerg swarmy monsters. It makes it more relatable, you can connect to characters and their stories easier.

Titan Quest – Grim Dawn

One of the best things about Titan Quest was that it takes you through ancient mythological Greece, Egypt, China and Underworld. These environments are very diverse and colorful. It's almost worth playing just to see how they are portrayed in the game.

Grim Dawn is Titan Quest's successor built on the same engine. I imagine it improved a lot since I last played it, but as its name suggests, the environments were very grim, dark and also blander. Another downside is the lack of wide variety of popular mythological enemies like Minotaurs. You already know these monsters from stories, and it makes them more relatable. These two things made Grim Dawn a harder sell, despite it being a better game in other aspects.

Supreme Commander – Ashes of the Singularity

Supreme Commander has a lot of colorful and beautiful environments that contrast with the crushing war that is being waged between factions. Lush nature and crumbling cities emphasize the scale of armies. Ashes of the Singularity's environments are less interesting, and lacking features that would highlight the scale of your forces. This again makes Ashes of the Singularity a harder sell.


Neuroslicers is an interesting strategy game with a good visual design. However, its post-cyberpunk setting isn't very welcoming. This isn't an issue for a small game trying to distinguish itself from competition. But I think there are both short and long term downsides to it.


Taur is an action tower-defense game. I'm including it here because of its simple, clean and colorful visual design. It's an example of a light visual style done right.

★ ★ ★

How does StarCraft stand? It's rather dark, lacking portrayed nature and cute things. I already mentioned its setting, which is closer to wild-west and fantasy which makes it more relatable. WarCraft 3 is more welcoming with colorful nature, medieval villages, castles and various cute animals.

I would prefer to start with a lighter, more colorful theme that has some nature and possibly cute things in it. From there you can always add darker parts to the universe. And the contrast will make those darker parts even more impactful. Also, you can always write dark stories no matter what setting or visual style is used.


WarCraft 3 low unit scale makes sense for how strongly it's focused on heroes. Supreme Commander's scale is great for strategic and macro focus it has, but it doesn't fit the style of action with crisp unit control that is present in games like StarCraft 2 and WarCraft 3.

I would prefer something in the middle. StarCraft 2 seems like a good target for unit numbers, but that might be just my bias. Brood War could be even a better target. It can go as high as StarCraft 2 in unit numbers, but due to its economy scaling and army control limitations you will typically see fewer units.

Supreme Commander


There are a lot of ways to add heroes into the game. And there has been a lot of discussion about whether to add them or not – providing good arguments on both sides.

Heroes do fit in Co-op and Campaigns, no questions there. I'm leaning against heroes in competitive modes, but there are some good arguments for them, and what would be the best way of adding them is an interesting design problem.

Few reasons for heroes:

  • Players can more easily connect to them
  • Heroes can encourage action on the map
  • They are a good vector for adding more content to the game (new heroes & skins)

Selling a skin for a hero makes a lot more sense than for a Zergling. More focus is on heroes, and a skin on a hero won't affect the game clarity as much as on other units. Adding a new hero doesn't bloat the game the same way as adding more units would to already working factions.

★ ★ ★

It could be interesting to see only some factions having heroes. But that might prove to be too restrictive to hero design.

Significantly weaker heroes compared to WarCraft 3 could be interesting as well, especially if heroes worked better outside the main army. This would discourage death-balling and encourage splitting forces. Weaker hero units could have additional effects similar to choosing a faction, however, that it would be better if it's tied to the choice of a hero and not the unit itself.

Some important questions for hero design:

  • Do you have them from early game (WarCraft 3) or later (Supreme Commander)?
  • Is there a limited number of heroes?
  • Do they gain experience and get stronger?
  • What is their relative strength compared to the army?
  • Do they respawn?
  • Are there items for them?

Social aspect

The socialization between players is very important whether it's for growing the community or engaging already preset players. There is room to improve compared to StarCraft II, but it's a difficult problem for a game with likely strong focus on competitive 1v1. Which is where player socialization is the weakest.

Few ideas that could be looked at. Some are already present in StarCraft II.
  • Better ingame chat channels. Brood War and WarCraft 3 put the chat to the forefront.
  • Somehow improve clans and make them more meaningful. Anyone has good ideas? Specific clan page, clan wars and clan ranking. Shared progression towards some goodies?
  • Better support for team games (balance, design, maps, supporting creators and tournaments).
  • Reduce barriers for sharing and getting into the game
    • Easy to share game/lobby/map/profile/party/spectating links. The game starts if you click the link and redirects you.
    • Easy to share after-game stats.
    • Web based front-end for ingame chat, searching arcade, joining lobbies, and more.
    • In both cases the goal is to reduce the time between deciding playing a game and being in a game.
    • A side effect is that custom games could be much easier to get into. You wouldn't need to open the game, search and join lobbies. One click in the web-based front or on a link a friend sent you, and it will put you into a lobby and/or party.
  • Promote discord, subreddit and other communities.
  • Promote content creators, arcade maps and tournaments anywhere possible. Rotate who is promoted.
  • In-game spectating.

    There has already been some talk about this and Ryan gave some responses. I want to list a few options where it could be useful. I don't think Discord or Twitch streaming are quite there to make this redundant. Discord isn't so great for this, and Twitch isn't trivial to set up. Either requires good internet connection on both ends.
    • Spectate friend's ladder game. This could be good for socializing and learning. The vision would be limited to your friend, and ideally no or minimal delay added.
    • Spectating selected or random player in a chosen league and matchup. This would be good for learning, and socializing if more spectators are there. Spectators have full vision and can chat with each other. There is a delay added to prevent abuse.
    • The same thing but for clan wars and tournaments.
On the ladder a player should have an option to disable spectating of his vision. Players should be able to easily share a link to spectate gameplay of a player or a spectator.

If lock-step architecture is used, this spectating would have to be different from StarCraft II's spectating to add delay and prevent observers to cause any lag for players. The server might have to stream data to spectators separately.

I think it has a potential to improve socialization, but it's hard to gauge how much. For big tournaments and streamers Twitch and YouTube will be preferable, but this could be good on smaller scale – for few friends or on the level of clan wars and smaller tournaments.
  • I would love to hear more ideas to improve socialization.

★ ★ ★

The last thing I want to mention is designing score screens to be more shareable. For example, I made my post-game score screens knowing that players will want to share them. My overlay app for Co-op has even its own screenshot button. This is a small thing, but it counts.

Custom map score screen – everything in one screenshot
Post game stats from my overlay for StarCraft II Co-op (GitHub)


I'm excited about Frost Giant's RTS. But we are in early stages, and it's a long way to get there. Perhaps something I wrote can help or shape further discussions.

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