What Makes RTS Games Fun: Meaningful Base Building

Dawn of War 2 (DoW2) got slammed on launch by many fans of the original for its removal of base building. I found the base building in DoW1 to be shallow, so I never viewed DoW2’s removal of it to be a detriment and DoW2 is still one of my favorite RTS games. Base building in RTS is typically the manifestation of strategic investment, so it’s always meaningful in that you’re choosing to build an Armory over teching up into Tier2. Base building isn’t always needed for strategy in RTS and DoW 2 clearly shows this; there’s so much going on in that having to build structures might have just been a chore that distracts from the heart of the game. (I think Spellforce 3 suffered from a problem like this, having both an overly complicated economy and multiple WarCraft 3 style heroes)

To me, base building is so much more engaging if the actual placement of structures is nuanced and meaningful, rather than just a way of spending resources and advancing through a tech tree. I’ll admit my position on base building is esoteric in that most RTS fans do enjoy base building regardless of if the positioning is meaningful. I think that enjoyment comes from a feeling of sandbox creativity and a visual representation of the economic, tech and production progression that happens throughout a match. While I don’t think it’s always necessary, I’ll generally enjoy base building as there is something innately satisfying about it, but I think there’s so much potential for base building in RTS games to be more meaningful and some RTS already have nailed it.

Economy & Production


Age of Empires 2 (AOE2) has four resource types which are gathered in different ways. Players have to plan their base for villagers to be as productive as possible but also defended from harassment. Players have to think about the paths their villagers will take on their way to and from the drop off sites, and update drop off points as trees are cleared and animals hunted. Rise of Nations has similar resource types to AOE2, but its lack of resource depletion and villager drops removes the complexity of placement. Rather than trying to force meaningful base building, first consider how a game’s economy will naturally have an impact on the importance of base building.

A similar perspective can be applied to production, if income is slow and build times are fast (like Command & Conquer) then there’s no reason to build multiple production structures of the same kind. In StarCraft, needing to invest in multiple Barracks to efficiently spend all your minerals adds a huge layer to preparing for strategies and transitioning between them.

Blocking

Base building placement can be meaningful as a means to block access; this could be “walling off” or creating choke points and limiting surface area to reduce the efficiency of melee units. It sounds simple but there’s a lot that needs to go into an RTS game for those mechanics to actually matter. Not only does StarCraft and WarCraft 3 have lots of melee units, but ranged units have very short attack ranges relative to their model size. A blob of stalkers getting clumped up will be much less efficient than if they were firing from a nice concave. Inversely, the infantry units in Command & Conquer (C&C) are tiny for their massive attack range so being limited by choke points doesn’t affect DPS and structures won’t be a deterrent.


Utility

The more utility buildings have, the more their placement will matter. WarCraft 3 is a fantastic example of this with quirks such shop structures that sell items to heroes, Ancients that attack nearby units, Orc Burrows that are garrisoned by Peons, Moon Wells that replenish, Farms to shield turrets and many other examples. The art of base building in WarCraft 3 is a crucial skill and the hyper-vulnerability of structures during construction combined with open maps and no natural high ground like in StarCraft means even the timing of base building is important. C&C Generals also has good examples with the GLA Palace being both a tech structure and a garrisonable emplacement that creates a trade-off of wanting to place it somewhere safe or boosting a defensive line.

Additional Vulnerabilities

Additionally, the more ways players interact with buildings the more meaningful their placement will be. C&C is the only franchise I can think of that gives buildings more vulnerability types than just simply attacking them. From capturing them with Engineers to stealing money with Spies or blowing them up with a stealthed Colonel Burton; there’s a lot of cheeky stuff that can happen to your buildings in Generals. When placing a Super Weapon you can’t just think about is it safe from attack, you have to think about is it fully covered by detection from all angles so a scumbag Saboteur doesn’t come along and reset the countdown timer. Engineers can also be used to instantly, fully repair a structure so placing a Barracks directly behind a Command Centre or other crucial building could heavily pay off. If an RTS is made with extra bonuses and vulnerabilities to structures, then base building will naturally become more meaningful. What if Infestors in StarCraft 2 could capture a Barracks to spawn Infested Terrans, how would that affect base building?



Busy Workers

The placement of base building in Company of Heroes (CoH) is not meaningful, there’s a couple of small quirks but mostly it doesn’t matter where you plonk your structures down. CoH makes base building meaningful in a different way, rather than about specific positioning, base building is a time investment from something that actually matters. Base building in most RTS comes from worker units that are either sitting idle in base waiting (DoW1) or are collecting a resource and are ready to be pulled with little consequence, but not in CoH. Engineers aren’t cheap and have enormous utility between capturing points, repairing, building fortifications, planting/sweeping mines, and being in combat especially with a flamethrower. Every time you build a structure in CoH, it’s being done with the opportunity cost of all those engineer functions, and that adds a layer of strategy to do with retreat timings and map presence.

Vulnerable Workers

The more utility you can pack into worker units, the more meaningful their participation on the map will be and therefore the more strategic consideration goes into base building. C&C Generals also does utility on support units quite well, such as Construction Dozers used for crushing infantry which comes into play in the early game because of crushing workers to deny GLA tunnels. In general, I find slow, expensive and/or fragile worker units to be much more interesting than fast and expendable ones because then sniping workers becomes a specific type of harassment. There’s no quirky utility for the Engineers in Supreme Commander, but they’re still significant as a form of harassment because of how they’re balanced and their movement speed relative to the map sizes.


Building Mechanics

As much as I love C&C I think worker units are a better mechanic than buildings magically deploying from the sky. Though C&C3 and Red Alert 3 do have some units which are analogous to worker units. Build radius is limited in those games so if you want to expand out to distant resources you’ll need to send out and deploy an Emissary/Sputnik. These build radius units are expensive, slow and fragile which opens up an opportunity to snipe them en-route. Once deployed they’re much tougher but can still be destroyed to prevent building placement in that region. It’s a cool mechanic, but sadly they’re rarely used as they’re undercut by the free ability to simply unpack the MCV and then drive it somewhere else with its massive build radius. Balance in those games aside, traditional worker units may not be suitable for an RTS but there’s still room to add depth and harassment options to base building. This can also be seen with the Empire in Red Alert 3 that use weak mobile cores that deploy into a structure.

Scouting

As base structures are generally the first step of a strategic investment, they provide the best form of scouting. Scout a Dark Shrine and you know you need detection for those incoming Dark Templar, but scout mass Gateways and you know you’ll need bunkers for that all-in. When the scouting of base building matters, then scouting and counter-scouting becomes a big part of the game and helps it flow by creating small skirmishes. Players will then try to place structures in a way to obscure scouting or mislead the enemy, and even more drastic things like proxy buildings (hidden outside the main base). Scouting also needs to be designed in a way where it’s fair and not too easy or too difficult, and the significance of structures at a particular timing needs to mean something that the enemy can read. Scouting a Dark Shrine wouldn’t be useful if it also unlocked Colossus and High Templar. Going back to build times for a moment, the longer the unit build times are relative to income, the more production structures are needed. The more production structures are needed, the easier it is to scout specific strategies.


Adjacency Bonus

Like with many others of these RTS discussions, applying them to large-scale RTS games can be quite challenging and less applicable. Supreme Commander takes an unconventional approach to make base building meaningful via its use of adjacency bonus. Building economy structures next to certain structures will provide a bonus such as reduced energy consumption. I don’t think this is a good approach and I wouldn’t recommend it because it’s not creative, it’s mathematical efficiency telling you the exact way you should be placing structures. In theory, it’s offset by the volatility of Power Plants but that hardly matters in a real match. Adjacency bonus to that style would be a better mechanic if there were meaningful trade-offs between different types of bonuses you have to weigh up. Mutually exclusive adjacency bonus is a way to think about the Tech Labs and Reactors for Terran buildings in StarCraft 2. Those add-ons are especially a great mechanic that adds incredible depth because of how Terran buildings can lift off to swap between the two add-ons.

Summary

In summary, most RTS players tend to enjoy base building just for the sake of it, but it can be way more fun and provide an avenue for immense strategic depth if the specific positioning of structures has consequences. The game’s economy will heavily tie into the importance of structure placement, but base building can be meaningful through many other ways. Structures can be used to block pathing or funnel troops, so long as the game is designed where clumping limits DPS. If buildings have additional utility and vulnerabilities then interaction types are created which naturally gives their positioning benefits and consequences. The timing of base building can be made more strategic if builder units have additional utility as that creates an opportunity cost to having them idle in the base. Otherwise builder units should be a combination of slow, expensive or vulnerable to provide harassment targets. Lastly, an RTS should be designed in a way so that base building reveals strategic information to create the dynamic of scouting and counter-scouting, which encourages players to hide important tech buildings and creates small skirmishes.

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Author: Callum "GGTheMachine" McCole

RTS YouTuber, Shoutcaster, Writer, Critic and Design Consultant https://www.youtube.com/generalsgentlemen. Works mostly for Stardock on Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation, Siege of Centauri and Star Control: Origins.

7 thoughts

  1. I think you’re on to something here that I’ve thought about before: RTS games as a whole haven’t utilized base building in the way they have other elements.

    And again, I think SupCom’s adjacency system is a good concept, but one that could really be expanded. What if buildings needed power like in Command and Conquer, but each power-plant had a radius, and the further a building was from that radius, the more power they used? You’d have to decide between building power plants all over the place, thus leaving parts of your base open to sabotage, or building heavily reinforced power generation.

    Or what if production speed could be limited by how far from your resource collection it was? You’d have to make a choice between plopping your production down right next to your resources—not something you normally want to do—or having a slower build queue.

    I think there’s a lot that could be explored with the science of just base design that could give players better choices than something like Starcraft, which I honestly consider extremely binary. Building gives unit: Yes/no. You can plop that building almost anywhere (varies based on the faction a little). Terran players at least get the most variety with mobile buildings, but a lot of the choices are still “Want this single unit? Build this single structure somewhere.”

    And what about WALLS? So many games have done away with them (Or stranger still, decided that STRUCTURES should serve as walls, like Starcraft II’s supply depots. Are terran engineers really so inept they couldn’t just come up with a wall instead?). You mention C&C’s infantry having large ranges, yes, but in old C&C games, there were multiple wall types with varying rules a player could construct. Barbed wire didn’t block line of sight but blocked infantry passing. Concrete barriers blocked line of sight and movement, and couldn’t be crushed. There was potential there for neat play (though the interface originally didn’t aid it).

    Base-building feels like one of the least-focused areas of RTS development, which is a real shame given it’s almost a blank slate. Sure, armies shooting at one another is instantly appealing, but I think there’s room for RTS games to borrow a bit more heavily from something like Simcity and allow players to make more interesting bases that carry greater effects than current.

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  2. This is one of my favourite areas of game design that I’m currently trying to work around for my own hobby document (and potential future pitch), thanks for summarising the different aspects!

    Personally, I think inspiration can be taken from games outside of RTS more often as sometimes I feel the genre is only ever built within its own pre-defined box, using small incremental changes to address its problems. About the only genres you see heavy inspiration from these days are MOBAs and the occasional ill advised attempt to add fps game play to what is primarily an RTS game (it only works the other way round).

    One game I’m currently taking inspiration from for instance is a relatively old space sim called ‘Allegiance’ by Microsoft (https://store.steampowered.com/app/700480/Microsoft_Allegiance/) which actually still has a fairly dedicated following today.

    Team progression was built around sending vulnerable ‘MCV’s to deploy on special resource nodes which, once completed, opened further progression options. Once built they were also hard to destroy, requiring dedicated tech and a concerted effort by an entire team to accomplish. As such a large part of the game revolved around scouting/anti-scouting with sensor wards and then either defending or attacking the other teams vulnerabilities, often with aid of a blind spot.

    This kind of core design essentially has the benefits of 1. making scouting the primary drive throughout the game 2. both building/destroying bases are a worthwhile experience and 3. opens up potential for an interesting resource system that may overcome the weaknesses inherent in others (like snowballing)…

    With this example in mind, there may be other games out there we’ve played at some point in our lives but never really considered ‘what if we used this as inspiration for a unique RTS feature?’

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  3. P.S. ^ I’m talking about building inspiration from other genres ofc, places you don’t necessarily think of building.

    A better example may have been to take inspiration from various other forms of progression and objectives in other genres and converting them into base construction. For instance you can take the scavenging concept from battle royale and have your base slowly build up through the parts you discover on a map.

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  4. Interesting article.
    I think you had a good point on the importance of buildings to block units and using them to cut off areas of a base, especially in games like StarCraft 2, where units have small ranges. It really combines well with the cramped nature of StarCraft 2’s maps, as a mere two buildings can completely cut off access to a player’s base.
    At the same time I would have to say Max has a point about StarCraft 2’s tech system. Most tech buildings don’t have a limited area they can affect, and so the default is to place them in the most heavily defended area. True many of them have technologies so building multiples is not a complete waste, but that still leads to just building multiples in a heavily defended area. I know you think Grey Goo did nothing good, except the music, but maybe it did something mediocre by making tech buildings only affect either factories on the same hub, or directly attached factories for the Beta and Humans.
    Then there’s mobile buildings, which, I think, could both add to and take away from base building. They could take away from the permanency of having to spend resources, then live with wherever you put the building. On the other hand it could lead to much more aggressive play. I think the Terrans have always been held back by their reliance on supply depots. Because they can’t move the Terran player is tied down to set base locations that they have to defend, unless they plan to win the game with eight or less units. It really limits the utility of their mobile buildings. This is something I think the titular faction from Grey Goo did really well. Yes, they needed more depth, but the ability to gain resources by attacking (with what amounted to your resource gatherer no less!) really made for interesting gameplay that i think could be expanded upon.
    I think Supreme Commander’s adjacency system was a failure of execution, not a problem with the concept. They should’ve made the buildings do more damage, and then there would be a good trade off. When you say it was an uncreative mathematical solution, well, that sounds like a lot of rts mechanics, especially when taken in isolation. The adjacency system really fit with Sup Com’s streaming system, complex economy and power draining buildings. Artillery could blow up power plants in the middle of your base and benefited from being ringed with plants, which could be a great system for counterplay.

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    1. I actually think the supreme commander adjacency bonus is not just a failure of execution but one of the fundamental failures of RTS. Its a sort of designer tunnel vision as creativity can be channeled into the manipulation of numbers rather than natural cognitive behaviors.

      It might make perfect sense and seem natural to the designer because they know it all inside out but from an outside perspective it will most likely be clunky and obscure, with most people never coming to a full understanding. As such, without that understanding, the value and creativity behind those systems are lost effort.

      If we focus design around fundamental concepts that a player has agency over and can see every detail playout (‘player sees problem’ > ‘player responds to problem’ > ‘player sees result of response’), perhaps then we can make RTS more widely appealing.

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      1. Really, you see it as unintuitive? I think it makes a lot of sense from a first impressions perspective.
        “You have building a, which produces power, and building b which uses power. Put them next to each other and building b will use slightly less power.”
        I don’t think it’s for every game and the damage of the buildings exploding could’ve been tuned up, but I think it fits with Sup Com’s focus on economy and efficiency. It think it gets a boost from the urge to build compact bases and also plays into the natural urge to have a nice neat symmetrical base, including a management factor in the game.
        It wouldn’t work for something like Dawn of War 2 and it does require a bit of long term thinking, but that’s what Sup Com was designed to prioritize; long term thinking If a player has to see every detail play out before their eyes than we’ll have to remove the fog of war that has become so common, and I think it’s doubtful that that would improve most games.

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  5. ctrl+f “upkeep”

    (no matches)

    Yo, missed that part! I know that you mention in SC2 how taking build times and resources into consideration for “timed attack” strats (for the layman reading this, if five minutes have passed, and Toss hasn’t placed a pylon outside your base, the canon rush isn’t coming, and they might be doing something like immortals or worse–skytoss). But even having to build certain structures just to keep up with the demands of a large army is something,too.

    And that’s just for standard RTS! Large armies in Total War games will eat your econ, so you have to leverage building a war chest for tech versus defending territories.

    I preach often how They Are Billions is excellent, because the core of that game’s survival mode is to build a base from nothing, and prepare for the MEGA ZOMBIE RUSH in 100 days (2 hours real-time, IIRC). So now, you have to do all of these things of balancing upkeep while building a colony large enough, but not vulnerable enough to get wiped out because your defenses were too weak to defend your north side because you thought the rush would come from the south.

    You also have to consider building placement so your army can stay mobile, map hazards, and so on. It really is the next “evolution” in RTS.

    Lastly, shout-out to Homeworld, where you have a whole Z-axis to account for, and bases are mobile!!!

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