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January 26, 2021

Transmission 03 - Playerbase, modes, victory conditions

Transmission 03

Divided playerbase in RTS games and its consequences will be the focus of the first part of this post. Then I'll look at the variety mode that could bring the community closer together, and related to that explore pros and cons of different victory conditions.

divided playerbase

StarCraft II's playerbase is highly divided between the campaign, co-op, arcade, and competitive modes. Players seek different experiences that are provided by unique game modes. While having divided playerbase is more difficult for developers, it's not necessary a bad thing. The fact that several game modes are popular means that different players can enjoy one RTS game. There is some overlap between these communities, and they support each other out by being parts of the same ecosystem.

Advantages of a diverse ecosystem:

  • Captures players seeking different experiences.
  • Players are more likely to stick to the game if there are more ways they enjoy it.
  • The return value of new content is improved if it's valuable to more players.
  • Stronger community.

A few things that can make the ecosystem stronger:

  • Lower barriers to switching between modes (reduce necessary learning and unintuitive things).
  • Encourage trying out different modes by in-game events, achievements, cross-promotion and more.
  • Rewards affecting multiple modes (e.g. cosmetics).
  • Promote content creators that showcase multiple game modes.

Playing & watching

There is a self-reinforcing connection between playing a game and engaging with its content on Twitch or YouTube. The more you play, the more interesting it's to watch and vice versa.

The issue with StarCraft II and its divided playerbase is that competitive games make up most of the video content despite the majority of players playing other modes. These modes have often different rules and units which weakens the self-reinforcing connection. Watching a great game will not motivate you to play to the same degree. You will learn less from the stream as the new information will be less applicable to the mode you play. While this is true for other games as well, it's more pronounced in StarCraft II with its wide variety of game modes. Few things that might help:

1. Making the campaign and Co-op better for content creation

For a campaign this could mean including interesting challenges and achievements, higher difficulties, being speed-running friendly, or an option to play with friends. Similar things can apply to Co-op, and I will go over some other avenues in the next transmission.

2. Reducing differences between modes

This is a tricky approach. If taken too far, it would significantly limit the design space of other modes. Still, I think differences should be reduced when possible or clearly distinguish things that work differently.

For example, I think it was a good choice to leave enemy waves in StarCraft II Co-op to be mostly vanilla units that work the same as in multiplayer. This eases the transition between modes, and you might relive moments similar to a game you have watched albeit in a different setting. As for things to avoid, I believe at one point Battlecruisers worked differently in Campaign, Versus and Co-op, which is not ideal.

3. Modes closer to competitive but better for a wider audience

This can mean higher focus on team games or having a new unique mode. For example ARAM (all-random-all-mid) is a popular mode in MOBAs, and while there are differences in the rules, the core experience and relations are still very similar to the competitive mode. Another option is to have a "variety" mode and more on that right next.

Howling Abyss
ARAM pushes all players into a single lane (Howling Abyss; League of Legends)

Variety mode

The idea behind this mode is to have different rules every week or two. It would have its own matchmaking queue, and popular entries could be repeated. It could be a good change of pace, less competitive than typical 1v1 or 2v2, more approachable for wider audience, and a reason to come back periodically.

If there is a game-wide progression system, there could be some rewards for participating in it. I imagine this would be more team focused, but including 1v1 version could also work. Few classical examples of rule modifications that could be tried:

  • Zombies spawn on the battlefield (± bounty for killing them)
  • Campaign/Co-op units
  • Company of Heroes-style economy
  • Double resources & mining
  • Monobattles
  • All units have triple health and shields
  • And other variations on Co-op mutators

Different victory conditions could be interesting as well, so let's look at them more closely.

Victory conditions

Annihilation victory condition is the classic one where players have to eliminate all enemy structures. It's the most likely to be used given StarCraft, Warcraft and Age of Empires also use it. However, it might be interesting to look at other victory conditions – be it for the variety or other modes. They have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. For detailed list of advantages and disadvantages see this post of mine.

Another common victory condition is domination where players have to control points on the map that generate victory points (Company of Heroes, Dawn of War II). Players win when they have enough victory points.

Elimination is a victory condition where destroying one special unit or structure is enough to win the game (Supreme Commander, SpellForce 3, or a regicide mode in Age of Empires). It's very similar to annihilation but with a potential to end games more quickly. This can be an advantage – avoiding prolonged games – but some endings can feel cheap and anticlimactic.

There also exist hybrid victory conditions, for example Dawn of War III has a mix between domination and elimination.

Victory Points decide matches in Dawn of War II

Advantages of trying out different victory conditions:

  • Something different.
  • New strategies emerge, factions show different strengths and weaknesses.
  • Potentially increases player agency and reduce loss aversion.


In typical annihilation victory the game rarely ends with actually destroying the last structure. Instead, a player is trying to remove all agency from its opponent. That, of course, doesn't feel good for the losing player. In more objective-focused victory conditions, there can be a stronger defender's advantage, the losing players can retain its agency for longer, and have a better comeback potential. The winning player might focus on gaining a favorable position and securing the objective, instead of pushing and destroying some part of the enemy – reducing player's ability to influence the game.

Victory Points in Company of Heroes are the way to the victory

In Company of Heroes both victory conditions and economy are very different from games like StarCraft or Age of Empires. Here they naturally encourage splitting, multitasking, and area control from the very start. Player bases are only rarely attacked which protects player agency and reduces loss aversion.

Downside of this particular style is that the game can seem to lack development. In a game like StarCraft the focus can switch more between locations, and player strategies like turtling or rushing can emerge stronger. Here it's a tug-or-war from the very start to the very end. Plus a counter reaching zero might be an anticlimactic end.

★ ★ ★

C&C Rivals' (mobile game) victory condition is similar but with some advantages. The player has to control the middle when a nuclear missile is prepared to launch against the enemy HQ. Launching two nuclear missiles will destroy the enemy HQ. This leads to a more exciting finale that ends with a boom. Plus there is higher comeback potential as you only have to control the middle when the missile launches.

In C&C Rivals players are trying to control a nuclear missile launch site

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak has a primary victory condition, eliminate the enemy carrier, and an alternative one – artifact victory condition. Players can win by collection artifacts on the map and delivering them to a usually exposed extraction point. It enables players to put pressure on the enemy and get ahead if the enemy loses maps control, but without actually snowballing.

Deserts of Kharak has an alternative victory condition through gathering artifacts

Those all were symmetric objectives. Asymmetric victory conditions aren't common in RTS games. One team can be tasked with defending an objective while the other team attacks, or one team is escorting while the other delays. Asymmetric objectives can be a lot of fun but also hard to balance. In other genres they are often balanced through teams alternating roles and comparing progress. For RTS games that could draw matches for too long. But asymmetric objectives could be very exciting if done right – especially in less serious game modes.

★ ★ ★

Some of Age of Empires' victory conditions:

  • (Symmetric) Annihilation, also called conquest here
  • (Symmetric) Collect all relics and defend for 16 minutes
  • (Symmetric) Build a wonder and defend for 16 minutes
  • (Asymmetric) Defend the Wonder game mode – one team defending the Wonder (structure) with pre-placed walls and typically fewer players (e.g. 3v5)
Defend the Wonder game mode in Age of Empires II with asymmetric teams.
Attackers throwing their armies at defenders' walls.

Those were some examples from various RTS games. In all cases victory conditions should facilitate conflict and interaction between players throughout the game, provide players good sense of how are they doing, and lead to an exciting finale. Annihilation will be likely the victory condition used in the competitive mode, but it would be interesting to try these and others in the variety mode:

  • Domination
  • Escort
  • Capture the flag / Artifact hunt
  • Defeat AI boss/base (and maybe hold the location for some time)
  • Protect your AI boss/base (outside your base) and destroy the enemy one

Closing

Thank you for reading. I believe some kind of a variety mode could be a good addition to the game, and bring players from different modes together. There are interesting things to try in it – be it different victory conditions or other modifications.

For discussion check this thread on r/FrostGiant.

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