Game Design

How do we improve resource harvesting in RTS games?

I was recently asked the question; “how do we make resourcing more interesting?” And of course, me being me, it’s not really a question with a simple and straightforward answer. First off, we have to figure out why we want resourcing to be interesting, and what the idea of ‘interesting resourcing’ even means. Then, we can look at interesting resource systems to see what they do well.

Finally, we’ll wrap up with a simple set of rules for resourcing that should be generally applicable across the board for strategy games. Please note, I do say “generally” since I don’t think there is a solid universally good resource system that will work in any game. Your StarCrafts are going to have different economic needs from your Supreme Commanders, which will have different needs from something more tactical like Iron Harvest, after all.

Anyways, let’s get crackin’

Defining ‘Interesting’

For me, resourcing is one of the core pillars of the strategy genre. Without something to build up, and limits that force players to make tough choices about what they’re going to do next, what you’re making isn’t really an RTS to me. And if we’re talking about this fundamental piece of the RTS puzzle, it makes sense to try to do it right and to make it an enjoyable and interesting part of the game.

Mr. Callum McCole, the game designer and proprietor of Generals Gentlemen who occasionally puts some of his excellent RTS analysis into this very blog, has been writing a lot about what makes RTS games fun. Things like super units, and meta campaigns, and what have you. And I think that is a good place to start.

But the words ‘fun’ and ‘interesting’ – what do they even mean in this context? Is the idea that you should be jumping for joy with each SCV you produce?

I mean, couldn’t hurt right?

But the idea, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that RTS live and die by how they engage players’ attention and present them with ways to show mastery while not overloading them with unnecessary work. Maximum depth achieved via a minimum of required complexity. That is, of course, always the goal.

Realizing the Goal

For me, it sometimes rankles a bit that players have so many options when it comes to engaging the enemy, and for building out their tech infrastructure, but what feels like comparatively few when it comes to handling the other big bit of the game: their actual income. Think about it. In StarCraft (as, actually, in most RTS), about half of your army by population usually ends up being composed of a single unit: workers. You have like, 90 population of SCVs and the other 90 is divided up into whatever mix of units you’re using to take the fight to your opponent. Surely, we can find little ways to increase this diversity without killing players under a glut of complexity.

… I promise, I won’t just use StarCraft as an example. It’s just always so easy to use as a launch point for talking about what happens in RTS games. We could also use villagers in Age of Empires, since you’re in the same boat in that game with a ton of diversity and choice in offensive units, but far less so when it comes to economics.

And I have a couple of examples that give me hope in regards to simple systems that still provide players with a wealth of options regarding resourcing. In the next section, we’ll take a look at games like C&C3 and the Dune games from Westwood, as well as games in the Total Annihilation space. Age of Empires will also be making an appearance, though in that regard I’m mostly looking at how it handles its Food resource (the Market is another praiseworthy system but I won’t be going into much detail there, sorry).

The best resource systems, hands down

Food in Age of Empires is like, one of my gold standards for resource systems. First, in comes in multiple forms: gazelles that run from you when you get close to them, elephants that attack your villagers and can kill them if you’re not careful, easy-to-gather but quick-to-consume berries, and of course farms, which are cost-inefficient but a renewable resource. There’s even fish for if you’re going to be going for water-based play. It’s all just so glorious to me. There are tons of decisions to be made in the early game, there’s ways to mess with your opponent (e.g. stealing sheep from them, killing animals early so they don’t have the option to use them for food, killing either villagers or farms or resource stockpiles etc).

One good example of a multi-part system is Emperor: Battle for Dune. Having Carryalls support spice harvesters is a really neat symbiotic relationship. Harvesters can actually work without Carryalls, but the Carryall lets you mine anywhere on the map with ease.

There’s a really fun dynamic to that system, considering the hostility of spice blows and worm attacks and enemy units tracking you down to kill your harvesting operations. Also, with Refineries having additional harvester slot upgrades, there’s a surprising amount of nuance involved. It would have been even more interesting if Carryalls could ferry other units around the map (perhaps they actually did do this and I never took advantage of it? That sounds like me).

Lastly, Grey Goo had an interesting idea with its resource. By running in ‘veins’ underground, it was possible to have 1 player mine out a resource zone really quickly by tapping all of the geysers in an area, or to have players competing with each other to mine out a vein quickly. Unfortunately, it didn’t often work out that way in the game. I would’ve loved to see more mileage pulled out of that system.

You could spend a whole article talking about the intricacies of Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander’s system, but I’ll only touch on it briefly. Using resource and energy storage to modify unit costs and build times is pure damn genius, and positional resource advantages for structures is woefully underutilized in the genre.

I’ll wrap up quickly with a quick note about Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation’s Substrate faction and their economic options. The optional harvester unit, which boosts the production from a control point, as well as the Support Powers that can be used to briefly boost your income, are exactly the sorts of thing I want to see in RTS games. These things aren’t necessary, you don’t just lose if you don’t use them, and they don’t stop your entire economy when they’re not utilized, but with careful planning and expenditure (since they themselves take up resources that could be used elsewhere, including the scarce Quanta resource that is so important for Ashes) they can be used to tip the scale just enough to matter. It’s really smart in my humble opinion.

Army harvesting and combat workers

I also really like systems that get your army involved. In my personal StarCraft 2 mod, SCRAP, some resources are locked away inside of neutral structures on the map, and you have to take your army to kill the buildings to get the resources out. Additionally, one faction’s worker is also it’s basic fighting unit (WarCraft 3 has this with the Ghoul as well) which leads to some hard decisions about how and when to allocate those units to fighting versus harvesting.

Warcraft 3 has some of the best examples of this in the entire genre. First off, the XP resource (yes, I count it as a resource in this particular case) is mostly gathered by actually fighting things, and we all know that creep camps and keeping units from turning into XP for the enemy are huge parts of the game.

But the utility of worker units is something that I particularly love in this game. Wisps are a phenomenal design for a worker unit: they gather lumber without killing trees, but more importantly: they have tactical utility. Wisp explosions can be HUGE in WC3, and watching workers used in multiple areas of the game is something I love to see. Peasants turning into militia is another thing I like seeing (though it never feels very effective to me). The Horde’s raiding mechanic is another stroke of genius, allowing Grunts and Raiders to generate income by attacking structures. It’s little touches like these, folks, that drive games to the top level.

In Conclusion

I don’t want to stop writing about this. It’s such a full and rich topic. I haven’t even touched on resources themselves yet. Like, the actual design of Tiberium is masterful. It hurts infantry that walk on it. There’s so much to unpack there. It’s out on the map instead of tucked close to you where you can easily protect your workers (there’s a lot to unpack there too!) and at least in C&C 3 slowly regenerates over time. Spice in the Dune games can spontaneously appear in a unit-killing Spice Blow. In Grey Goo, harvesters loaded with resources explode when they die, which can kill attacking units if you’re unlucky – or, lucky, depending.

Anyway, what it boils down to, is that your resources themselves should be interesting, the workers involved need to have interesting systems supporting how they harvest or store resources, the systems could have extra components, etc. It’s easy to go overboard: in Earth 2150, one faction had 2 separate structures for processing resources, and I think 2 units involved as well. That felt too rickety to me, especially since both other faction’s systems were much simpler.

Look at how the resource itself impacts the game. Is it a natural defense that must be preserved, like Lumber in Warcraft? Is it a murderous nuisance like Tiberium? Can players compete over stockpiles of it, like you see in C&C3 with some of the large central Tiberium fields?

Look at how the units that harvest the resource interact with the player’s army. Providing combat utility for workers, or resource-gathering utility for combat units, is often overlooked.

Look at how buildings can be used to improve the system. Drop off points are a good start (here’s lookin’ at you, Lumberyard), but there’s so much more space there, as Supreme Commander shows us.

Lastly, look at ways you can include semi-optional harvesting accessories that conflict with other economic or military priorities. Like spending Quanta (used to raise popcap and upgrade damage) to increase the income of other resources, or creating expensive units that can boost workers alongside of one’s army.

There’s so much out there besides green gas and blue crystals.

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11 comments

  1. This was a good article, and something the RTS-sphere needs to look at. Personally in too many RTS games resource acquisition feels almost like an afterthought. The original C&C games, for example, made resource acquisition feel risky, with your slow, expensive harvester trundling across the map to a tiberium field as soon as the field near your base was gone. You had to decide either to protect it in case of attack, risk an attack, or maybe expand your base that way.

    Sands, some of the best RTS starts for me were the games where you started out WITHOUT any resources in sight. You had to choose between delaying starting a base and production to scout for resources nearby hoping for optimal resources later, or starting immediately and then hoping you could optimise.

    Unfortunately, RTS games moved away from interesting economic situations. Look at Starcraft or Red Alert 3, where resources are just a fixed node right next to each “base location” on the map, with optimum placement and gatherer numbers literally part of the interface. Queue it, defend it, and otherwise ignore it.

    Other games unchain the economy in different but equally uninteresting “fire and forget” methods. C&C 3 made queuing hordes of harvesters the best strategy, to the degree that pro games would feature dozens, and the loss of a few would just result in a player building another half dozen with a few clicks and going back to pushing around units.

    It felt sidelined. And in most RTS games, feels sidelined. The only reason they’re even kept as exposed as they are is so that players have some sort of “raid” option on a player’s economy. But too often, a lot of the RTS games I see or play make the economy feel like something you queue up and then forget about as long as you built a token defense.

    I think that’s overlooking a huge amount of potential, personally. Ever played a game of C&C with a limit on how many harvesters you’re allowed to have? Suddenly you have a very strict income, and a very vital supply chain to keep an eye on (as opposed to the standard C&C3 army of harvesters and almost bottomless economy income that results).

    Do you build two tanks? Or a commando? You’re only getting the money for one of those in the next minute.

    Warcraft 3 did some interesting experimenting with upkeep, even though it still had a pretty traditional income of gold and wood. Of the two, I preferred the wood because it left an impact on the map. Gold was little more than a little line of trundling workers at optimal places from the get go. Not very interesting to keep an eye on.

    I think RTS games have a lot of room to grow where an economy is concerned, and this article is a good “tip of the iceberg” for that. A lot of players might balk at the idea of making an economy more restricted in ease or impactful, but only because they’re not thinking ahead to the rich possibilities that can offer in strategy.

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    1. I think part of the simplifying of rts economies has to do with the increasing focus on tactics. For probably the ultimate example of this, look to Dawn of War 2, where your combat units automatically capture points, which automatically gain in resource rate. And you have not one base, not one building, but a single build queue for the entirety of the match. Dawn of War 2 makes up for this in large part due to having complex unit interactions and different upgrades, but I would like to see more economically focused rts games.
      One thing I’d like to see is making houses chunkier in cost and pop given. Instead of a little annoying thing you have to do every 5 or ten units make them give 20 pop space, but cost a proportional amount more. Something I could see in this type of game (inspired by logistic tech in Sins of a Solar Empire) is having every one of these mega houses extract a small tax on player income. That way its not just the immediate “Do I want more units and have the funds to pop up.” It’s more of a long term question. “Do I want to lessen my income for a larger army. Another thing I could see happening is that destroying houses would lessen the upkeep cost on the attacked player. This could be a good way of putting in a negative feedback loop; if you reduce a player’s population cap, then they’ll have a better economy and you had better use your larger army to blow up something else, otherwise they’ll come back.
      Another thing I could see being interesting is converting a resource into another so that the cost increases with the amount of the advanced resource gained. Make the advanced resource rare and required for powerful units/techs/buildings. Then the player has to choose; “Do I stick with the staples of my faction, or go for the really cool toys?”
      Another idea I’ve had is making resources really specialized for certain advantages. A great example of this is Supreme Commander 2, where research only costed research points. This meant the player could tech up at the same time as expanding their army and the choice was in what to get. While I think the instant nature of research in that game made hoarding points till the last second the go to strategy, I’d love ot see more games that have specialized resources, where certain aspects of their army/base require only x resource and so they can advanced them in parallel with other means. Maybe normal units cost gold, but you can purchase leveling heros for special crystals; then the player is encouraged to expand both.

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  2. I agree that Tiberium is brilliant, both for how it forces you out on the map and ties into the story.

    One of coolest RTS resources I’ve encountered was in a PS2 RTS with a generic name like Combat Fighter or something. It was basically ‘PR’, the Goodies would gain it from delivering aid or rescuing refugees and the Badies would gain it from building a camera crew unit and having it nearby when they won a fight. Better PR meant you could bring more advanced technologies to the battlefield.

    I also like when games require you to build resource storage rather than them being stored in another dimension or wherever they go! Even if the ‘silos needed’ cry was annoying, being able to lose stored resources in an attack or have them stolen by a spy was really cool.

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    1. Tiberium is genius. It explains the reason so many tanks and rockets and giant stompy walkers can be made so fast, and really ties into each faction. GDI hate it and so have abilities to wipe it out, while Nod and the Scrin probably snort the stuff and so have ways to spread it and use it to buff their troops. I really have to disagree with Wayward when he says he doesn’t want similar super resources in rts games, I think the fit perfectly, because they reduce the burden of suspending disbelief and can be great jumping off points for new mechanics. Like tiberium healing Scrin troops, or spawning visceroids from infantry. It isn’t scientific, but a purely scientific rts would be heavily limited in what type of story and gameplay it could use. I want to see more super resources with all sorts of crazy effects and gameplay changes, because, in the end, the central idea behind rts games is pretty unrealistic. You build a base just a few hundred meters from an opposing force in the span of a few hours or days at most, all while attacking them with troops created by said base. That’s friking bonkers from a military realism standard and I think there is plenty of potential for a game to embrace that.

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      1. I have highly praised the design of Tiberium from the C&C games. I really like it. What I think is pretty unique to the C&C universe though is how well that Tiberium is integrated into the story. So many other RTS where the story is about the resource are bad. Like, Etherium for instance.

        I think making the STORY be about the resource is risky and think it’s better to avoid it where possible. Make the story about the motivations of the characters, about the politics of the faction’s relationships, about the goals of the factions and the people within them. There’s a lot of potential story space out there that doesn’t involve people fighting over a mystery space resource.

        C&C either got really lucky, or had really good writing. Probably both. But I think there’s so much risk there that ‘Tiberium’ as a story hook is often not a good place to start.

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        1. Okay, I might’ve confused gameplay for story.
          I suppose something that could work is having one of these super resources for the gameplay, but having each character/ faction’s reaction to it be based on their personality. Like, maybe one of the sides is really paranoid and xenophobic, so they view this new mystery resource as a possible threat, but are tempted by the power it gives. If the resource really is from an outside agent, have the discovery of that be a plot point, with this character/ faction suddenly becoming dead set against using it.
          I think part of it is that synchronizing gameplay and story in strategy games, especially rts games is pretty difficult and so writers would naturally want to abstract a lot of stuff away with aforementioned magic resources. Maybe it’s just me, but when I think about strategy game stories the idea comes up of having the troops under your command in game have more human qualities, like fatigue or morale. Which would be a massive change to gameplay and a pain to balance. Plus it might not be the type of gameplay the devs want.
          I think a major problem with Etherium is that the resource is not interwoven into the gameplay like tiberium. It’s just this magic stuff in giant spheres that you extract to get units. The lore mentions those spheres being extra dimensional creature’s eggs, which sounds like a great hook. Maybe there’s some sort of extra dimensional oviraptor, that’ll eat your resources if you’re too slow in fortifying them/ draining them. Are we sure the mother is gone? Maybe you could give the player the ability to supercharge their gathering, but with an increasing chance a giant monster will appear and smash their stuff.
          I think another thing is that, if I am interpreting your post correctly, you want to have the story be about the differing personalities and motivations of the parties involved, not “Get as much of the pink space LSD as possible.” I think there is room to have a singular source of power and show how the factions/ characters treat it differently due to their individual biases and wants.

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  3. I love the harvesting of food in AOM too, cause, the dead animals will loose their value with time.
    Some idea i have could be : to renew the field too. After two harvests, you cant use this place to harvest again. But you can put seeds of trees for example.
    That way you can have farm exposed to some place too (a bit risky), and then build not a wall but a forest to protect your base. Or you have wood jsut near your base later.
    You can add “toxicity” for the workers of mines: if they need to harvest wood or food after sometimes, if not it can be lead to death.
    Two Last things : if you build a farm on a recent wood cut, the farm produces more food
    last : you need a “dowser” to find spot of gold or a specific ressource. It appears around him , but only around him. As soon as it s discover, he puts a flag to keep that ressource visible and usable. Your opponent may steal your discovery.

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    1. Those sound like neat ideas. Have you heard of Battle Realms? It’s an early 2000’s rts with two resources; rice and water. The latter is needed to grow the former, so the player has to balance having both to expand their forces. It also had a cool unit training mechanic. The only unit you actually built from raw resources was the peasant, which could garrison certain buildings and train there to become a combat unit.
      I like the idea of two resources being able to be seeded in locations to grow, but needing to be switched out after several uses. Really reminds me of Stronghold or the Settlers.
      This may seem off topic, but if xp is a resource, then I wonder if buildings could have and use it. Most buildings don’t attack, so you would gain it by training units from said building. When it levelled up you might get a training time or cost deduction. In Battle For Middle Earth you even unlocked new units from leveling up buildings, something they sadly turned into a purchased upgrade in the second game. You also had certain resource buildings reduce the cost of certain units. For example, Mordor and Isengard had slaughterhouses and furnaces, both of which produced the single resource. Thing is, slaughterhouses reduced the cost of trolls/ wargs (the giant wolf things) while furnace (I think) did that for upgrades or siege weapons.

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  4. While I agree with the Age of series having the most interesting resources I think it would be close to impossible to balance a game around so many resources AND drastically different factions like in SC (which is to me an inherently more interesting overall design).

    In my RTS design fantasy I dream of a game based around resources convoys. Imagine a basic gathering mechanic like a building on a nod automatically producing BUT you cannot use its resource until it has been conveyed to either your base or sent to your capital city via a defined trigger point on your edge of the map.
    Harrassement would not be about suiciding units to kill as many peons as possible but rather about controlling space, ambushes, even the theft of already gathered goods. Imagine having to send wood to your base to make more houses or having to send gold to your king to buy new units or tech. As the game goes on, the trips would become longer and more perilous.
    [Just to clarify, I’m thinking about each transport being a big cart full of gold, worth a whole new tech, not constant stream of peon-like automatons.]

    You’d have to allocate parts of your army as escorts. It would limit turtling around resources by design and leave the place of harrassment into the hands of players instead of having mutalisks always abuse that particular cliff on that particular map because the crystals and peons are always in the same place.

    What do you guys think ? Does it sounds cool or is it just pettiness on my part because I could never stand the stone teleporting instantly from a mining camp into my coffers for no reason 🙂

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    1. I think that’s an interesting idea, one that Wayward would seem to like. I could see the various players having access to different harvesters in these scenarios; do you want the big slow one that brings in a ton of ore, or a smaller speedy one, that could escape enemy ambush better? I also wonder how big the ore deposits would be. With a single point it’s very easy for one player to monoplise that point with a small army (I’m assuming the ore points are in terrain you can’t build on.) If, on the other hand, the ore was in large fields, I could see players trying to steal others’ ore. Or it could be in Grey Goo style veins, where you have lines of ore that run under mountains and lakes.
      As for your first point, Age of Mythology had four resources, one of which was gathered in different ways for every faction, and it only had a few units that were similar across factions. While it isn’t praised as highly as AoE2, I think it is the superior game, if only because factions half the world away from each other aren’t separated by a particularly fast cavalry archer, +2 to villager attack and 15% off cavalry gold costs. They actually feel different in the majority of ways they play, as opposed to a few bonuses being thrown on and a unique unit.

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  5. You forgot an important point: resource harvesting in Dune games is also dangerous because there’s plenty of hungry Sandworms in the desert of Arrakis.
    This was less of a problem in Emperor: Battle for Dune since each harvester “purchased” either via Refinery construction or Refinery dock upgrade also came with a free Carryall (making it rather easy to leave the Spice fields for safer Rock), but in Dune 2 and Dune 2000, the Carryalls had to be purchased separately.

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