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April 15, 2021

Transmission 07 - Team games

Team games in RTS
Transmission 07
Team games in RTS

Team games are a popular part of RTS games, as they are more accessible and provide a stronger social experience than 1v1. Some RTS games managed to make team games more enjoyable than others, and this post attempts to uncover the reasons behind it. The goal is to see which factors contribute to creating a good team game.

It's a complex topic; building a competitive 2v2 game is different than going for a casual 4v4 experience, and so I will generalize. Also, while I find team game dynamics very interesting, I do not have a deep team game knowledge of every game mentioned here. I watched and read as much as possible, but take my observations with a grain of salt. I want to thank people at Wayward's discord for answering my questions, and particularly monk for his insight into Warcraft III team games.

Age of Empires II

Let's start with a game hailed as one of the best RTS for team games. After that, I will look more at theory, and finally go over more RTS games.

Many things make Age of Empires II (AoE2) a great game, but which make it a good team game?

1. Strong defender's advantage

It provides more stability to the game and prevents it from deteriorating into rushes. A player can't be quickly focused and destroyed by multiple players, or at the very least the player can buy time for his allies to help or counter-attack.

The defender's advantage is already strong in AoE2, but in team games it's further reinforced by allies covering flanks, which leads to fewer walls and defensive structures needed, and easier positioning on defense.

Castles, Town Centers, and walls are great for defensive purposes, but they also have their weaknesses. Walls can't shoot, Town Center's attack is quite weak, and castles become available at the Castle age (3/4) and are costly. That means that there are still openings for harassment and action. Players are unlikely to get eliminated completely, but aggression can still damage their economy, which is a more interesting outcome for everyone, and especially for the player that would be out of the game in StarCraft II.

These limitations on static defenses are important. Too strong static defenses would lead to passive gameplay. In the Imperial age (4/4), castles can be out-ranged and destroyed by Trebuchets, which prevents them from slowing the game excessively.

Strong defender's advantage in Age of Empires II
We can also see some role differentiation between players

2. Role differentiation

Faction differences encourage players to take certain roles in the team, for example, a civilization might have a bonus for cavalry and so a player will focus primarily on it. Any civilization can deal with any threat, at least in theory, but choosing to work within these roles is more optimal. Cooperation isn't required, but it's rewarded.

Different armies can work well together (e.g., crossbowmen and cavalry) which rewards teamwork, and larger battles don't degenerate into huge unit blobs the same way as merging multiple similar armies does. Imbalanced resource spending, which is the result of focusing on certain units, encourages sending spare resources to allies. This is another opportunity for good teamwork.

Civilizations have strengths in different parts of the game, and so strategies can form around that – letting certain players to boom (quickly expand economy), while others secure the map or feed (send resources). Spawning positions play a role here as well, a player in more secure position might decide to boom and shift its power spike to later stages.

★ ★ ★

Passive team bonuses are shared within the team (e.g., Scorpions have +1 range). While I prefer emergent synergies in competitive multiplayer games, these do have positive effects on the game:

  • Make players feel like are always contributing
  • Change how economy or army operates – making the gameplay experience more diverse
  • Discourage multiple picks of over-performing civilizations as identical bonuses don't stack
  • Make a pre-game strategy of picking civilizations deeper

3. Keeping the complexity down

To keep the overall match complexity at a reasonable level and comparable to 1v1, the game is simplified in certain parts. This also plays well with the more casual audience of team games. AoE2 accomplishes this in a few ways:

  • Allies covering flanks means the surface on which action happens doesn't increase linearly with players. There are no air, teleporting, or stealth units to harass everywhere.
  • Role differentiation leads to players controlling fewer unit types compared to 1v1. In team games, a player might often control an army composed just of cavalry or archers. This also makes battles easier to visually parse, identify mistakes in positioning and coordinate with teammates.
  • The economy is easier to optimize for the production of one unit type.

More on this in the Information Overload section.

4. Economy scaling

One set of rules that affects how the economy scales during a game might fit 1v1 but lead to problems in team games. For example, reduced mineral amounts in StarCraft II Legacy of the Void lead to more dynamic games in 1v1, but were too restricting for team games, especially with the maps where players couldn't expand as frequently as in 1v1.

In AoE2, trading routes are practically absent in 1v1, however, this mechanic adjusts the scaling of the economy in team games – serving as an unlimited source of gold in the lategame. It's also a team effort, a potential target of harassment, and requires high investment which leads to a strategic choice when to start building trading routes.

5. Other factors

Players can easily feel like they are contributing – whether it's through passive bonuses, strong civilization units, feeding, defending, repairing allied structures, or pushing with static defenses together. It's less likely a player is completely out of the game and unable to contribute in any way.

Of course, having good support for team games in terms of playtesting, balance patches, and map pool helps as well.

Role differentiation

Let's go deeper on few factors that contribute to creating a good team game experience in RTS games. First, let's look at role differentiation (player specialization). Specialization happens when players opt for different strategies to complement their teammates. Let's distinguish a few types of specializations based on how players can deal with different situations:

  • Inherent specialization – Players are given roles and cannot deviate from them. No single player can do everything (Dwarfheim, monobattles, RPGs with classical tank/heal/DPS trinity).
  • Somewhere in between – Players can deal with any situation but not always effectively. Focusing on faction's strength is more optimal (Age of Empires II).
  • Emergent specialization – Players have one or more ways to deal with any situation effectively. Specializations emerge because of team play (Warcraft III, StarCraft II).

Specializations can happen along several axes:

  • Unit type – based on range, movement, bonus damage, and others (crossbowmen & cavalry in AoE2)
  • Army type – defensive, offensive, harassment or armies good at holding positions can complement each other
  • Game phase strength – players have different strengths at different game phases (this can be either inherent strength of a certain faction, or a player might decide to focus on the economy while allies defend)
Map Seton's Clutch leads to emergent specialization – typically 2x navy, 1x ground, 1x air (Supreme Commander)

What are some advantages of having role differentiation in a game?

  • It encourages team play and adds more depth.
  • It makes each game feel more different as interactions between allies and strategies will change.
  • It can reduce information overload. Fewer unit types improve visual clarity.
  • It can make it easier for a player to contribute effectively. Player's roles are simplified (economy, army composition, and army control) and inherent faction bonuses add an edge for the player.

Negative effects can come up mainly when high coordination is required due to inherent specialization. Having to rely on allies can be frustrating and lead to toxic behavior.

★ ★ ★

Monobattles in StarCraft II (4v4 arcade mode where you can make only one combat unit type) are popular because of the reasons mentioned above. It's a lot about novelty, every game being different, and what you can do with such limited tools is strategically interesting. It's not balanced, but it's not framed as such. AoE2 does something similar with civilization and team bonuses, but to a lesser degree and in a more balanced way.

In AoE2 the specialization in unit types can be quite high – to the point where a player is making just one unit type. This is partly because unit diversity isn't high to begin with, and partly because of a strong defender's advantage and the lack of harassment units ignoring walls and terrain. If we compare it to StarCraft II where many units ignore terrain, and time-to-kill is very low, every player has to be more self-sufficient. In AoE2 walls and static defenses will usually buy enough time to reposition and defend.

High investment in upgrades and production structures also leads players to specialization into certain unit types. Though this approach is more opaque to casual players, who often don't grasp the opportunity cost of getting every upgrade available.

Levels of cooperation

Team games can demand varying levels of cooperation. Some can be enjoyed with random players you just met, other games ask for high levels of coordination and trust. Dwarfheim is one such game and with strong inherent role differentiation – players can choose from three roles: warrior, builder, and miner. Because these roles are highly dependent on each other, the game requires good cooperation and is best enjoyed with a group of friends.

In games with such strong role differentiation, you have to rely on your teammates heavily. If the cooperation is lacking, it can quickly become frustrating and lead to toxic behavior, which MOBAs and games like Overwatch have to fight in various ways.

In my opinion, the best situation for an RTS is when cooperation isn't required, but it's rewarded. Ideally, you could do things alone, but it's more optimal and fun to do it together. This is where role differentiation is emergent. Though I can see that for practical purposes adding some inherent specialization helps (AoE2).

Builders build, Miners mine, Warriors wage wars (Dwarfheim)

Related to this is what I call the "ability to have fun alone". In some games this ability is relatively low – if you are a healer or support in Overwatch, you rely heavily on your team. Moreover, the focus being on a single objective means you always need your team. Compare that to games like Call of Duty, where you can have a decent time no matter if your team is doing well or not – you can always run alone, get some kills and weapon unlocks, and have fun.

This doesn't mean one approach is better than the other, but this "ability to have fun alone" is an interesting concept. It's not directly linked with the "ability to carry", it's more about the degree to which you can have fun despite losing and despite your team not doing well. The higher it's, the more players enjoy the game, and fewer players gets frustrated and display toxic behavior. However, designing both for it and a good team play experience is very hard.

Co-op in starcraft 2

In this post, I'm focusing on PvP team games, but let's quickly look at Co-op which is purely PvE. Most games in this mode are played with a random partner through matchmaking, and so Co-op can't rely on high-coordination tasks. Those few missions that require even the most basic cooperation are often a source of frustration.

Except for those few forced interactions, essentially every mission can be done solo with any commander. Even mutation challenges can be carried or done solo for most of the part. This makes matching with a random ally a lot more enjoyable.

Players have to capture locks together.
Sending a unit seems simple, but not everyone will manage (StarCraft II Co-op)

Passive team bonuses, similar to team bonuses in AoE2, are a good addition for very similar reasons – players contribute by just existing, each game is a bit different, and there is more strategic depth when choosing commanders. Few examples:

  • Vespene Drones – more vespene resource changes build orders and compositions
  • Guardian Shell – units gain temporary invulnerability on-death, this changes the strength of certain unit compositions and lets players be more aggressive
  • Emergency Recall – cloaked and burrowed units gain increased damage, regeneration, and on-death are teleported to the main base instead of dying

Ideally, there would be many such bonuses where each makes the game a bit different. However, not all commanders have these.

Actual coordination is rewarded in Co-op as well. For example, Vorazun can put enemy units into a black hole, and the ally can use area-of-effect damage to destroy them. Kerrigan's allies can use her Omega Networks to travel around the map. These interactions between players feel rewarding, and the more of them there are, the better. Highlighting where the mutual help occurred can improve the feeling of good team play.

Information overload

One player's actions usually occupy the player's whole attention budget. The game state of a 1v1 game was designed complex enough to be interesting but not overwhelming. But even in a 1v1 game, it can be challenging for professional observers and casters to catch all the action happening, and to understand the current game state.

Scaling this into team games can be an issue. Suddenly players and spectators might catch only a part of the action. This makes identifying the current game state harder, and the game state might be also significantly more complex. In a 1v1 game, you could follow the story of the match, but in team games, this story might be too complex for players or viewers to see or enjoy. That's an information overload.

Carefully designed complexity and pacing for 1v1 can break when scaling for more players. Clarity and unit balance can break when scaling for more units. Let's see how some games manage the increase in actions and complexity.

★ ★ ★

2v2 suffers the least from the information overload, as the number of players is only twice that of 1v1. Warcraft 3's 2v2 still works well because of this, smaller armies, low base count, centralizing effect of heroes, and slow time-to-kill. Hero levels are a good indicator of how the game is going (game state).

Higher team sizes still work decently in AoE2. Compared to StarCraft II, the action is slower, the surface on which action happens is limited (doesn't scale linearly with players, units cannot get past walls easily), and strong role differentiation encourages players to make simpler armies – often massing just one unit type. Strong defensive structures slow down any pushes. All of this reduces the complexity of game states and action to manageable levels.

Team games in Red Alert 3 suffer from information overload. The game's 1v1 is designed for fast action happening all over the map with very impactful units and support abilities. This can be quite exciting to play and watch in 1v1, but it's extremely hard to follow in team games. The economy was simplified to make the game state clearer, but this change came with negative consequences as well.

MOBAs (typically 5v5) have the advantage of one unit per player which greatly simplifies things. The basic game state is also nicely shown in their UI (team kills, gold value, levels, destroyed towers). The game has enough "structure" so players and viewers are aware of broad strokes, and where the game is going – there is less strategic confusion. However, it's not perfect either. The true game state that relies on items purchased, abilities chosen and dynamics between all heroes, this state is way too complex for the vast majority of players and viewers. Also, the clarity in team battles still suffers from all visual effects.

Real-world team games like basketball or soccer focus most of the action on the ball, which makes the action easy to follow. The game state is also easy to understand with a simple score system and the number of players being usually constant.

★ ★ ★

One interesting connection is between the general idea of information overload and mechanical tasks in RTS. This can involve common micro patterns, small tactical maneuvers, or macro-cycles. These do not contain strategic decisions, and typically don't change where the game state is going. Some might ask – if they do not contain meaningful decisions, why are they there? I can see few reasons:

  1. They are a different type of skill check, and a parallel and more incremental type of progression. You might get stuck with your strategic understanding of the game, but you can always improve on macro, micro, or unit positioning.
  2. Deep strategic decisions are mentally demanding as they are done by system 2 (slow thinking). However, if they are interleaved with actions that do require very little brainpower, those executed by system 1 (fast thinking), then the brain can rest for a while, or compute in the background – not breaking the flow state. That's a better experience than every action having deep strategic meaning, and doing this under time pressure. Speed chess isn't for everyone. I believe this is one of the reasons behind the feedback that StarCraft II feels harder than Brood War.
  3. Given these actions or tasks do not individually change where the game state is going, a player or spectator doesn't have to be aware of all of them. This is even more important in team games where many players are always doing something.

    Macro in AoE2 falls into this category. Nobody can follow all actions spent on macro in a 3v3 game, but those actions keep players engaged, and don't increase the complexity of the game state excessively. Compare that to a hypothetical situation where all player's actions are spent on multi-prong attacks. That would be a lot harder to follow.

WarCraft 3

Warcraft 3 (WC3) has a healthy competitive 2v2 scene. That's party because of a decent map pool and balance changes aimed directly at team games. I have just mentioned factors that prevent information overload, and let's look at a few other reasons. High time-to-kill means that players can react and help their allies. The Town Portal spell even lets players teleport their army to the allied base. Compare that to StarCraft 2, where being even few seconds late can mean the battle is already over.

Because of fewer units, all players can engage in a 2v2 battle. However, due to higher unit spacing, large armies typically don't create a blob – positioning remains important. The game flow seems to be preserved from 1v1. That's partly because of the defender's advantage, and because the creeping mechanic gives the game a structure. The game doesn't degenerate into rushes as StarCraft 2 does; strategic and unit diversity are preserved. Strategic diversity can be even increased due to synergies. Creeping also discourages deathballing – when to join armies is a strategic decision and comes at a cost.

Ghouls + Crypt Fiends combo (Warcraft 3)

Cooperation isn't required, but it's rewarded. Synergies come from various heals and buffs, and abilities like Siphon Mana (Bloodmage), which can be used to either transfer mana from enemy units or recharge mana of allied units.

Role differentiation is emergent, and happens on few axes:

  1. Range – typically a combination of tanky melee unit and ranged DPS. This is more optimal due to upgrade costs, and limited surface area for melee units. Players can also switch roles during the game. For example, Orc + Undead team might start with Ghouls (Undead melee) + Headhunters (Orc ranged), and then transition into Crypt Fiends (Undead ranged) + Taurens (Orc melee).
  2. Army type – certain armies are more suited for hit-and-run tactics, to harass and buy time (e.g., Huntresses) while other armies are slower and more lategame oriented (Undead).
  3. Game-phase strength – players take roles based on whether their faction's strengths lie in early, mid or lategame. For example, a Night Elf player might secure a strong early game, expand, and later feed an Undead player who has a better lategame.

Players try to take advantage of the power spikes and strengths of their faction, and let their ally compensate for their faction weaknesses. The more coordinated the team is, the more they can lean into their strengths while not leaving themselves open for an attack.

Starcraft 2

Despite StarCraft II (SC2) being an awesome and popular game, some issues prevented its team games from becoming more popular. They never got much attention in terms of (map) design and balance, leading to long periods of stagnant and not enjoyable metagames. But there are other reasons as well.

Low defender's advantage together with high lethality and used maps leads to the prevalence of rushes and cheeses which limits strategic and unit diversity, especially on higher levels. This restricted map design, and shared main bases became a necessity to prevent at least part of early rushes. High lethality also means fewer chances to help your ally as battles can end in seconds.

Past early game, high lethality tied with many units ignoring terrain makes defending harder, as all players have to prepare for a variety of harassment and aggression (Dark Templar, Mutalisks, Oracles, runbys, etc). Players are not as free to coordinate with allies as in AoE2. It became even more difficult in Legacy of the Void when players were forced to expand even faster.

Overall, I think that together these factors made the game full of early aggression, unstable and difficult for teamwork.

★ ★ ★

There is some role differentiation on all axes in SC2. For units, it's due to melee-ranged or air-ground split, and damage bonuses against different armor types. On the game-phase axis, players hit power spikes at different times, or one player might focus on macro. Feeding is possible as well. Despite that, I think role differentiation didn't flourish and became more interesting because of the reasons listed in the previous section. Plus there are no team bonuses, and Zerg can be even detrimental when it comes to basebuilding due to creep blocking allied structures.

Despite the focus on harassment, multi-prong action, and the lack of reduction in complexity, I don't think information overload was an issue in SC2. That's partly because of rushes keeping game lengths short, maps being quite small, and the lack of a professional scene for team games.

Issues with lategame unit compositions, particularly deathballing and skytoss, are in both 1v1 and team games, but there is a potential for it to be more problematic in team games. Firstly, DPS densities and effectiveness of splash damage, both problematic in SC2, can reach even higher levels in team games. Secondly, asymmetry in required skill and coordination to defeat certain unit compositions can be even more lopsided in team games, where tight coordination between players isn't always possible. Both of these factors have the potential to change a normal unit composition in 1v1 to a broken one in team games.

I do think the economy was an issue, especially with the changes in Legacy of the Void. While it made 1v1 more dynamic, players in team games can't expand as easily or as frequently. This didn't play well with other issues of team games in SC2 and made the game flow very different to 1v1 – further encouraging aggression.

Early rushes are prevalent in team games (StarCraft 2)

Where normal 4v4 failed, others took its place. Megaton with unlimited resources is a solid 4v4 map that fixes the limited economy and pushes the game flow closer to 1v1 where epic battles are more likely. There is also a small reduction in the complexity due to no need to constantly expand and transfer workers.

Monobattles is another popular 4v4 team game where players can make only one combat unit type. This greatly reduces information overload, simplifies both economy and army control, and adds a huge amount of game-to-game diversity.

I would also argue that not being part of the ladder made these maps better. On the ladder, the objective is framed as winning the game, and players are more likely to rush even if they do not enjoy it. In the arcade, there is no reward for winning, and the objective is to have fun. Also, the matchmaking on the SC2 4v4 ladder isn't much better than picking players at random, so not much is lost there. Games not being framed as balanced can prevent some frustration with allies as well. For example, the most popular mode in monobattles, blind pick, is inherently not balanced.

Dawn of War 2

Dawn of War 2 and Company of Heroes 2 are two of Relic's RTS that are unlike other games I have mentioned here. They are good team games, and one reason for it is that each match is very stable – a player can practically never lose straight up and be unable to participate in a game, which can happen all too often in StarCraft 2. Matches are guaranteed to last some time, but despite the strong defender's advantage, there is action from the very start of the game.

That's all because of how the economy and objectives are structured – both resources and victory points are gained through territory control. Pushing to player's bases is unusual, and enemies are likely to focus on securing victory points instead – giving the losing team a chance for a comeback. An upkeep mechanic provides another helping hand to the losing team – while feeling better than the one in WC3.

The stability of the game is further improved with the retreat mechanic (units can quickly flee the battlefield and replenish at the main base). Deathballing is discouraged by the importance of territory control.

Score system (top), minimap showing both economy and positions (bottom-left), unit tab (bottom-right).
Together all these give a good idea about the current game state (Dawn of War 2)

Information overload is kept at bay by focusing on a single front-line and having a relatively low number of units. The game has also more structure than most other RTS games – it being essentially a tug-of-war in the middle. Plus there are other factors that help players and viewers to get a good idea about the current game state – territory on the minimap corresponds to the economic power, units have permanent icons on the screen, and a simple score system is always visible on the top. All of this makes it easier to see how the game is going.

Company of Heroes 2 puts more emphasis on positioning with static defenses, and weapons firing in arcs. This makes team play even more important to protect flanks or outmaneuver the enemy. It can stabilize the game further since it makes pushing into the enemy territory with exposed flanks and an uncertain retreat path even riskier.

Strong positional focus in Company of Heroes 2

Takeaway

  1. The number of important actions and the complexity of the game state are often designed for 1v1 and don't scale well for team games. However, some mechanics and dynamics can help to reduce the complexity and keep it at manageable levels. Good UI can help players and viewers identify the game state.
  2. One set of rules for the economy might fit 1v1 but not team games. This can have a negative impact on game flow, faction design and balance. It's possible to have an economy model that scales well into team games or mechanics that are targeted at team games (e.g., trading routes in AoE2).
  3. Map design can help with mentioned issues, but when neglected it can introduce new problems.
  4. New balance problems arise in team games – mainly in early game rushes and lategame deathballs. If balance issues are not dealt with, the strategic and unit diversity will suffer, and games become less enjoyable.
  5. A player being eliminated early on and not being able to contribute isn't good for anyone. A strong defender's advantage can stabilize the game, but it shouldn't prevent action between players. Other mechanics can stabilize the game or facilitate comebacks (retreat, victory point system, upkeep, etc.).
  6. Passive team bonuses and role differentiation can add more depth, encourage team play, reduce information overload, make it easier to contribute effectively, simplify the game for players, and add a lot of game-to-game diversity.
  7. Having good opportunities for team play is important as well. Role differentiation can help with this, whether it's inherent or emergent. I prefer when cooperation isn't required, however, when it happens, it should be highlighted and rewarded so players can appreciate it more easily.

Closing

Thank you for reading this. The post became a lot longer than I expected. What makes team games work is extremely interesting, and there is a lot more to it than this post. Still, I hope it made sense, and you got something from it.

For discussion check this thread on r/FrostGiant.

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