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August 20, 2021

Faction image & design

Faction image & design
Faction image & design

Sometimes a faction in an RTS is perceived negatively. And while a game's balance changes every patch, these perceptions can be more deeply rooted in the faction's design. Looking at the reasons behind this could help to explain why some factions have a bad reputation, or this knowledge might be useful when designing new RTS factions.

One difficulty to exploring this is that the current balance affects faction images as well – an uneven balance will make the currently over-performing faction look easy to play, and the under-performing faction hard to play. It becomes difficult to separate this effect from more underlying design issues. Fortunately, there are games like StarCraft I & II that received many patches and expansions during which balance changed often. It becomes easier to separate these effects, and I will look at StarCraft II later in this post.

Various examples

I will go over reasons why Protoss often gets a bad image. StarCraft II is after all a great case to look at – thanks to its long-term support and highly asymmetric factions. But it might be interesting to first look at other games and see why factions there get a bad image.

Traveler-59 in C&C3 Kane's Wrath is a Scrin subfaction. In my opinion, the main dislike comes because of various mind-control (MC) abilities available from Cultists (single-target permanent MC) and Prodigy (single-target permanent MC and area-of-effect temporary MC) all with low cooldowns (20/30s). The enemy stealing your units always feels bad, and Traveler-59 can focus on MC abilities heavily. Compare that to the strict limitations of Dark Archons and Infestors in StarCraft. Even if a strategy focused on MC abilities is balanced, losing to it will always feel bad. Prodigy stealing and instantly selling a Construction Yard or T3 tech can be a game ending moment as well.

There are other things like fast Disintegrators that can straight up end the game. And it compounds with the Scrin faction seemingly not always playing by the same rules. For example, if a GDI epic unit is low on health and taking damage, there is a good chance it will get destroyed which is a potentially game-ending moment. But Scrin faction has several get-out-of-jail cards – it can teleport the epic unit back to safety, make it temporarily invulnerable, or stasis the enemy army and walk home. This can feel unfair even if it's balanced.

Prodigy and Cultists have strong mind-control abilities
(Command & Conquer 3: Kane's Wrath)
Oberkommando West (OKW) in Company of Heroes II is a German subfaction that also got its share of dislikes. It has a powerful early game Sturmpioneer engineering squad that fairs well against most enemy infantry, as well as other all-around units for all stages of the game. The faction scales extremely well into the lategame with powerful units and more veterancy levels than other (sub-)factions (five instead of three).

There are also things that OKW can do that other factions cannot, for example retreat its anti-tank gun (Raketenwefer 43 Anti-Tank Rocket Launcher). Overall it's a very powerful all-around subfaction that sometimes doesn't play by the same rules or isn't punished for the same mistakes.

Oberkommando West has solid generalist units that excel at all phases of the game and scale well into lategame
(Company of Heroes 2)
Sweden was also disliked after its addition to Age of Empires III. That stemmed from balance issues as their Caroleans (Swedish musketeers) were very effective and without apparent weaknesses.

Though the balance of Caroleans has been addressed in the following patches, there are still things like Swedish Torps. These are houses that also spawn berries, automatically harvest nearby resources, and have an attack to kill animals or defend themselves. That's a lot of functionality given to a bit more expensive house, and at least on the surface looks like something for an easy mode.

Swedish Caroleans & Torp (Age of Empires 3)

I wouldn't say Allies in Red Alert 3 get a bad reputation as they are difficult to play well. But they have things that feel bad to play against – especially the focus on freezing units. A frozen unit is stunned and will get one-shotted by anything. Taking agency from the player and delaying the unit death can feel worse than just losing a unit. Cryogeddon (upgraded support power) is the big culprit, but that also comes to how spammy support abilities in Red Alert 3 are.

Cryogeddon freezing an entire army (Red Alert 3)

Raven clan in Northgard can feel bad to play against as players are forced to make defenses around coasts, costing them wood and valuable building slots in coastal tiles. Their ability to harass puts skill checks and limitations that no other faction does. This doesn't lead to wide dislike of the faction, but it's one of the things that can accumulate.

Raven clan (Northgard)


Can we take something from these examples? What are some design elements that can increase the chances of a faction having a bad image?

  • The faction seemingly doesn't play according to the same rules. It isn't punished for the mistakes other factions would be.
  • It uses design elements that are not fun to play against (e.g., removing player agency, abilities and strategies lacking counter-play, induced high loss aversion). These are basic issues that mechanics in competitive multiplayer can have.
  • Significantly restricts strategies available to other players.
  • Has moves that are easy to pull off and hard to counter.
  • Coin-flippy mechanics and strategies.
  • Units without apparent weaknesses.

I wouldn't say a well-designed faction won't have any of those. In fact, I would expect asymmetric factions to have some of these, which gives each faction a different flavor and feel. In an asymmetric game, each faction plays according to slightly different rules and restricts the opponent's options differently.

The issue is when these elements accumulate for one faction or are especially pronounced. If a faction is having an easy time with too many mechanics and isn't punished for the same mistakes, it will start to gain negative perception unless it's easy to see where else the faction is difficult and punished more.

★ ★ ★

Apart from avoiding the points above, what are some things that can make a faction image better?

  • Clearly visible impact of skill. If the skill is hidden, players and spectators that are not closely familiar with the faction might assume the skill is not there. This visibility of skill includes both positive impact (e.g., great infantry splitting and kiting) and negative impact (being punished for mistakes). It's a common tendency to disregard the skill and effort of a player, and it's so easy when the skill is not clearly visible. For example, Artosis likes to complain that "the opponent did literary nothing".
  • Clearly visible what caused the player to win (e.g. micro, successful drop). If the cause is hidden, players and spectators might assume the player won because of some "bullshit". Though this can be difficult for RTS games, as the time between a cause and its effect is higher than in other genres, and there are many interacting systems. So identifying the cause can be difficult. The game can end with one army rolling another, but the cause might be a delayed expansion 5 minutes ago. Having an easily comprehensible game state can help and many RTS tried to improve that.
  • Units with pronounced strengths and weaknesses make it clearer when they are used correctly, better show player skill, and lead to a wider range of outcomes. For example, a Siege Tank is an iconic Terran unit mainly defined by its weaknesses. It cannot shoot air, it's costly and vulnerable when (un-)sieging, when sieged it cannot shoot at low ranges and deals friendly splash damage. It's these weaknesses that make the unit and engagements interesting.

The impact of negative perception

It's unfortunate for a game's audience to have a deeply rooted negative perception of one faction. It's detrimental to both players playing the faction and playing against it. A tribe mentality forming around factions is normal, but it shouldn't be overly negative.

This is a part from a full post from MC (Korean professional Protoss player) from 2014 which was during heavily Blink all-ins and strong Mothership Core.

진짜 프로되서 밸런스 징징 이런거 같이 이야기 나누고 하고 싶지않았는데
I really didn't want to talk about balance whine because I'm a pro player, but

프로토스 게이머들은 뭐 노력도안하고 종빨로 맨날 이기는거처럼 애기하니까
People are saying that Protoss players don't even try hard and win due to the race

내가 선배입장으로써 애들이 안타깝고 분통이 터져서 적어봅니다
As a veteran, I feel bad for players that get all the hate and feel angry about it.

오늘 올라간 주성욱 조성호는 일주일내내 놀다가 화투쳐서 16강 딴것도 아니고
Zest and Trap didn't go to ro16 after they were fooling around for a week.

누구보다 노력 많이했을수도있는데 무슨 종빨이니 어쩌니로 선수는 폄하 안하셨음 좋겠습니다
They probably worked very hard. So please stop saying that it's "the power of protoss".

It's easy to dismiss the achievements of players. It's easy to blame the balance when the faction is already negatively perceived due to its design issues. Then the faction image can take a nosedive when there are just a few issues too many (in this case strong Blink all-ins and Mothership Core that was eventually removed).


I could make a list of views contributing to a faction's negative image for other factions as well, but as mentioned previously it's the accumulated effect that counts. People will subconsciously compare such lists against each other and find an outlier. When a faction has a negative perception throughout two games, three expansions, and many patches, there must be something to it.

Disclaimer: Do not take these notes as facts, a wide enough perception that they are true is enough. After all, this post is about image and perception. A view can be unsubstantiated and inaccurate, but at the same time, if it exists, the implications could be as severe as those of actual balance issues.

So what views contribute to the negative Protoss image?

  • Having a good repertoire of cheesy and all-in strategies
    • These increase the role of luck in the game, and through it players can get few easy wins. It's easier to learn one strategy than to learn to defend all of them and how to play standard. And they force the opponent into a very different type of game. I wrote about this topic previously in more detail.
  • Having powerful unit compositions that are very effective with minimal control and take more effort to fight against (Chargelots, Immortal-Archon-Chargelot, traditional Colossi deathball, Skytoss).
    • I would say this mostly falls into the lack of having a "clearly visible impact of skill". Though it's possible that some of these compositions are consistently over-performing at lower skill levels, I don't have any data on that. Balancing such an asymmetric game is basically impossible for all skill levels.
  • The faction seemingly ignores certain mechanics or has them easier. As mentioned before, this is natural in an asymmetric game but it compounds.
    • Warpins lets Protoss players ignore the defender's advantage to a certain degree. Often the Protoss player has faster reinforcements than the defending player.
    • Less punished when out of position thanks to recall and warpins.
    • Easier base management than other factions.
    • Not having units that need a setup (e.g., Lurkers, Tanks, Liberators). All units can be a-moved and move at a decent speed. High Templar was even given an auto-attack to make a-moving easier. Why do Protoss players need that while other factions do not?
    • Sturdy units with auto regenerating shields are more resilient to splash damage than units of other factions, and shield regeneration prevents attrition.
    • Warp Prisms provide a high potential for damage at a very low investment cost, especially if we compare them to something like Medivac drops.
  • I would also argue that the tendency to deathball, snowball, and often resulting binary outcomes of battles don't help the faction image either. There are few reasons for that. First, binary outcomes with high stakes amplify the role of randomness. Second, if engagements snowball quickly (binary outcome), then the game can end convincingly for the winner with a simple a-move. Due to less visible skill and a higher role of luck, the cause can be easily misattributed to an imbalance. More on this in the next part, but now let's look at some reasons why Protoss tends to deathball and snowball.
    • Sturdy units naturally snowball more (less attrition, less susceptible to splash).
    • Auto-regeneration (shields) prevents attrition damage to the deathball and helps to snowball after a fight.
    • There are a lot of Protoss options for splash damage that make engaging deathballs even harder.
    • Higher weapon ranges increase DPS density and make deathballs more effective.
    • Units that gain increased weapon range once the target is acquired (Void Rays, Carriers) make disengaging an army harder which leads to more snowballing. Both units also have some ability to move while attacking when in combat, which has the same impact.
    • Warp gate reduces defender's advantage and makes the game more snowbally.
    • Due to warp gate design, there is usually an expensive core of units with basic gateway units serving as a meatshield in front. The core is either cracked, which is very bad for Protoss, or not cracked and gateway units are quickly reinforced through Warp Gates, which is bad for the other player. This differentiation makes the outcome more binary and the game more snowbally.

I want to put the last point in contrast with the widely liked Marine-Marauder-Mine-Medivac vs Muta-Ling-Bling matchup in ZvT. There all units are frequently getting killed, armies consist of many small units with low weapon ranges, units are often split into multiple groups to attack different locations or to surround, and defender's advantages are preserved. This has lead to one of the best matchups in StarCraft II.

Effect on balance

Balance isn't the point of this post, but I thought it might be interesting to look at how some things make it harder for developers to balance the game.

I would say the main issue is with the game being decided by few player interactions with binary outcomes and high stakes (for example "Did you scout it or not?" or "Who won that one big battle"). If a game's outcome significantly relies on a single interaction between players like this, then the game is more difficult to balance.

One could argue that the game state will be inevitably reduced to a binary outcome (win/loss), but what matters is how many meaningful player interactions have led to it. One big battle deciding a match isn't a bad thing if there were multiple engagements throughout the game that led to one player having a better army. However, if there were no engagements before that, then that single moment can have too much weight put on it.

If there are more interactions between players and with more gradual outcomes, the difference in player skill is more accurately measured over many interactions. A single impactful interaction would amplify the effects of randomness (coming from the game itself or execution) and doesn't measure skill well. The more skill matters, the less a faction choice or any imbalance matters.

If there is a balance issue with a certain unit or game phase, having multiple player interactions throughout the game will reduce the effect of that imbalance. On the other side, a single interaction with a binary outcome and high stakes can amplify this imbalance (e.g. overpowered cheese, all-in or lategame fight). Developers might also have an easier time when more interactions matter due to there being more things they can tweak to precisely target a problem.

★ ★ ★

Protoss can naturally amplify any imbalance while focusing on it through dedicated cheese/all-in. Warp Gate tech helps with that, as well as the effect of Chronoboost and diverging tech with high investment. This means that Protoss is very good at putting everything into a single build. The cost it pays is less solid gameplay outside of these dedicated builds. Though this improved especially in Legacy of the Void through the effort of developers.

Protoss tendency to deathball and snowball also leads to more binary outcomes often deciding a game, and made balancing the game harder.


Hopefully, it's more clear what are some reasons that can make a faction have a worse image. Such a situation isn't good for any players or spectators. Some design elements can also make the game harder to balance for developers.

I think that Blizzard's StarCraft team has done a good job at improving Protoss throughout the years, but it has been a constant battle against Protoss' design issues. Ideally, the worst issues would have been avoided in Wings of Liberty, but it's easy to say now.

Related pool "Which race do you dislike the most?" from r/starcraft

From interesting links here is an old Brownbear's post about Protoss design (2016). Though he is mostly focusing on reasons why Protoss wasn't that fun to play.

And now for some old Protoss memes...

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