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Submitted by Chris Leyton on September 9 2004 - 12:22

Relic Entertainment discusses the most important aspects behind developing an RTS…

JAY WILSON â?“ Lead Designer

Multiplayer design and game balance is really the core of RTS gameplay. You build your multiplayer game before you create a single mission, or even start work on your AI, and base your gameplay around the concepts you establish during the initial design and playtesting of your multiplayer sessions. This diary is going to cover how we went from concept, to implementation, to final with the multiplayer aspects of Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War.

One of the main advantages in the initial design phases of Dawn of War was that we could utilize the Warhammer 40,000 table top wargame as a jumping off point for defining game intent, and unit statistics. The downside to this is that the table top gaming system has many incompatibilities with an RTS game, and we wanted to make sure we did not get hung up on trying to turn Dawn of War into something it could never be.

With that in mind we established a few basic goals that would govern how we wanted the multiplayer game to play.

GOAL 1: Unit effectiveness and unit counters should be straightforward and easy for players to grasp.

A lesson we learned through extensive balance iteration on Impossible Creatures is that just as important as having a solid system for establishing unit effectiveness is having that system be easily understood by players. Knowing that our other goals were focused on modifying this system was another reason to keep it very simple.

Luckily this is an area where the tabletop game gave us a good set of examples to work from based on weapon effectiveness. Heavy Bolters are effective against units with light armor, but not nearly as effective against units with power armor. Plasma guns are prized as weapons designed to take out units with high armor. And weapons like lascannons and missile launchers are valued for their ability to counter vehicles. Most weapons in the tabletop game fit into one of these three conventions: anti-infantry, anti-heavy infantry, or anti-vehicle. So we used this basic and easy to understand triangle as our foundation. Every weapon in the game would be focused on countering a specific unit type. We later added other unit types, like Daemons, Buildings, and Commanders, allowing us to diversify out counters a bit, but the system remained relatively straightforward and easy to understand.

GOAL 2: Use of effective tactics like morale-killing units, or gameplay elements like cover, should allow players to alter or reverse counters.

A primary goal of our game was that we wanted players to be able to use more than just typical RTS unit counters to defeat their opponent. To systems were primarily focused on this goal: morale and cover.

Cover as a system would allow players to utilize terrain to increase the survivability of their troops by placing them in specific locations on the terrain. This has obvious advantages, and rewards players for smart use of various areas on the map. Early on we were concerned about the power of infantry versus vehicles (see Goal 4 below) so we made sure that this system benefited infantry far more than vehicles. Balance for cover was primarily a map-based issue, so once we got the system in the game it pretty much stayed as is until we hit the final map design stage.

Morale as a system is designed to allow players to use specialized units like snipers, or simply concentrated fire, to overcome a superior foe. With units collected together in squads and taking morale damage at a squad level it is possible for a player to counter the effectiveness of a squad by breaking them, and therefore making them combat ineffective. With this system players would have an alternative to wiping an enemy out, an alternative that is much simpler to accomplish. Morale acts as a good foil for cover as well, as cover provides little benefit against morale damage.

GOAL 3: Close combat versus ranged combat should be a major component of unit balance. Close combat units should be able to negate the effectiveness of ranged units by engaging them.

One of the main tactical concepts of the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop game is the use of close combat versus ranged combat. Close combat units in the tabletop are quite powerful because they not only deal a lot of damage, but can stop ranged-focused units from firing their weapons, and force them to fight in a manner that does not suit them. This concept does not really exist in RTSâ??s, as generally the only way to stop a unit from doing what it is good at is to kill it.

We knew this was definitely a concept we wanted to transfer over to the RTS, so we determined that all infantry needed to have close combat attacks, and if they were in close combat than they wouldnâ??t be able to shoot. We also put in several simple systems to change the dynamic of ranged units so that some can fire on the move, while others are most effective when stationary. Again, all concepts from the tabletop game that we pulled into DoW to increase the level of tactical gameplay.

GOAL 4: Vehicles should be more realistic than most RTSâ??s portray them, i.e. less vulnerable to small arms fire.

There is a very good reason most RTSâ??s donâ??t have realistic vehicles. Such extreme counters can be devastating in-game, can be frustrating to players, and tend to imbalance a game towards such uber-units. However, itâ??s our firm belief that holding onto such unrealistic concepts as machine guns gunning down tanks are one of the things that are starting to make RTSâ??s not enjoyable for a lot of players.

At Relic we rarely make high level decisions like this based on potential balance problems, as being ruled by this can force you to make unimaginative choices, so instead we looked at high level ways to address the problems we knew would arise from having really strong vehicles in the game. Cost, build time, and tech tree placement are obviously big factors in balancing out extreme counters, but this would not be enough. Realistic vehicles should only be able to be deployed in realistic numbers, so we decided early on that weâ??d need an independent cap on the number of vehicles the player could choose to keep the total number of vehicles under control, and prevent the player from having to choose between vehicles or infantry in ways other than simple expenditure of resources.

We also built into our system lots of advantages for infantry to counter the power of vehicles. Things like cover benefits, infantryâ??s ability to capture resources, vehicleâ??s reliance on the secondary (harder to acquire) resource, and the fact that most special abilities benefit infantry, not vehicles.

GOAL 5: Each race should have a unique play style.

Simple to say, harder to achieve. Weâ??ve discussed how each race is different in other forums, so I wonâ??t get into those details here, but suffice to say we established this as an early goal for out multiplayer game.

With these goals in place we went about building a basic playable version of the game. Weâ??d already tested major systems like cover, morale, our resource system, and combat times in the prototype, so this build focused on getting all the tech trees and units in, but not more advanced functions like abilities, which came in piecemeal throughout the remainder of production. With all the elements in place and functioning it was time to move from theory to practice and begin balancing the game.

Andrew Chambers â?“ Designer in charge of Multiplayer Balance

With the intent of the multiplayer game established, it was up to me to take that intent and figure out how we were going to make it a reality. We had a destination, now we just needed a road. I was tasked with laying that road.

Let me give you some basic numbers on the scale of the task at hand.

  • Dawn of War consists of 4 races, each with at least 14 different unit types.
  • Most units can be equipped with a variety of weapons, even the most basic unit, a Space Marine squad, can be a mix of 5 different weapons.
  • We have 14 different armour classes, all of which take different amounts of damage from every weapon in the game.
  • All this makes for an approximate total of 400,000 different possible combinations of weapon vs armor, all of which need to be balanced!
My first course of action was to talk to the other designers at Relic who had balanced our previous games. Damon Gauthier was largely responsible for balancing Homeworld2, which by all accounts turned out really well. We sat down together and talked about the process he used to balance the 2 races of HW2. We spoke about the new system he called â??balance for timeâ?.

Fun has always been the focus of Dawn of War. We wanted the balance to accommodate that, and in an RTS game a large part of what makes it fun is the pacing of the combat. Games like Impossible Creatures have a very fast combat pace, whereas games like Homeworld2 have quite a slow combat pace. It gives a very different feel to the game. We wanted Dawn of War to be slightly on the fast side to give a sense of hectic action, but slower than say Impossible Creatures. In order to achieve this, we decided not to balance for effectiveness but instead to balance for time.

We developed â??Time to Killâ? for all the different unit relationships in the game. These were our baselines, the minimum time it would take for X to kill Y, with all other factors being equal. The balance team took these times and modified weapon damages until they were at a point where I felt comfortable with them.

With this baseline time established, we then went ahead and did effectiveness values for all of the unit weapon types vs armour types. This was basically an immense excel spreadsheet that had every unit with every weapon combination in the game vs every armour type in the game, and a number from 1-10 defining how good that weapon would be at killing that armour type. It was HUGE, and took awhile to put together (you can imagine my dismay when at one point I deleted the entire thing, losing a good 10 hours work...), but it was invaluable. Dawn of War is, of course, based off the very popular Warhammer 40,000 Universe. In this Universe, certain weapons and units are established as being effective against certain things. It was my job to ensure that these relationships stayed true and carried over to the balance of Dawn of War.

Mike Echino â?“ Lead Balance Tester

Our next hurdle to overcome was to hire a professional playtest team. Professional playtesters are guys who live and breathe Real Time Strategy Games. These guys love playing RTS games and for them, itâ??s a dream to work for a game developer so we had no problem recruiting a stable of â??Pro Gamersâ? to balance Warhammer.

Now that the Test team and the â??Time to killâ? system were firmly in place, we were ready to get to work! First, we broke the game down into a number of components. We decided that the 1st step was to get the game playable, in order to do that; we had to balance the base units. We achieved this using the above mentioned tools â??Time to killâ? & the Unit effectiveness charts. We gave the unit & weaponâ??s an effectiveness value to determine their cost. Once the costs were in place, we plugged the numbers into the Battle Simulator. The battle simulator allows us to run hundreds of battles at simultaneous times. We then used the results to tweak and hone our original statistics.

We decided as a team that we did not have enough time to individually master all the playable races in Warhammer so we assigned a race to each of the playtesters. The playtesters were now responsible for finding any glaring imbalance that pertained to his race. By thoroughly understanding each race, we were more accurately able to verify and solve problems.

With the basic structure in place, the balance team began playing Dawn of War competitively. Daily statistics were taken on the success rates of both the playerâ??s and the races. This helped us determine which races were too strong or too weak.

Even though the play balancers did an amazing job in so little time; we knew that having a public beta would be very beneficial. We wanted to make sure that the game would be fun for everyone; not just for the developers and playtesters. The feedback we garnered from the public beta test was invaluable and helped us create a game experience that appeals to casual players and hardcore players alike.

JAY WILSON â?“ Lead Designer

The hardest thing about balancing an RTS game is perception. You can numerically assure that one unit is not greater than another, or that one race cannot reach unit X before another race can effectively counter that unit, but what you canâ??t control is what players will perceive is or is not balanced based on their play experience, and their style.

Take the 400,000 possible combinations of weapons and units listed above and multiply it by the thousands and thousands of players that will interpret those options in different ways and you are faced with a task so terrifying that most developers would be wise to simply avoid the whole thing altogether! But whereâ??s the fun in that!

This is why, as Andrew mentioned, our primary goal has always been to make the game fun, first and foremost. Itâ??s true that un-balanced games are not fun, but overly balanced games arenâ??t fun either. One of the things that has made the Warhammer tabletop game such an enduring past time is that every race gets extreme tactics and powers, something so great that it seems like it could never be balanced, even though it seems like for the most part win ratios are fairly even between the different races. Debating, using, and getting abused by these tactics are part of the fun, and we were determined to bring that into DoW.

In the end strategy games are all about screwing the other guy, and as long as weâ??re working on DoW and its predecessors weâ??ll make sure you can do just that, in a fun, and fair, way.

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By: Anonymous

Added:Thu 25th Jan 2007 22:26, Post No: 1

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