Note: this article was written by Callum “GGTheMachine” Cole, a contributor to the Wayward Strategy blog and may appear in other venues as well
Is balance in RTS games overrated? This question can very much devolve into semantics, as it’s not exactly clear what ‘balance’ means. Balance, on the one hand, is crucial to ensure a fair player experience, yet it can also be stifling and suck the life out of a game by turning it into a neatly pruned spreadsheet. This is one of the reasons people make vague claims about ‘Esports ruining RTS.’ Overemphasizing tight balance can leave a game feeling bland and safe, yet quirky asymmetric design can quickly become repetitive and frustrating to play against. There’s no easy answer to this dichotomy, and RTS designers must walk this tightrope carefully. The challenge isn’t just navigating fairness versus excitement; other considerations include intuitiveness, elegance, immersion, and breadth of appeal. This essay will explore the friction between these often competing design ideals and argue that ‘fairness’ should be strived for rather than ‘balance’, as it leaves more room for excitement and quirky design while minimizing player frustration.
Different Types of Fun
Not only is ‘balance’ a nebulous concept but so is ‘fun.’ To properly grapple this topic, our understanding of fun must be interrogated. There is no one ideal of what is fun; people play RTS games for different reasons and have varied preferences, perspectives, biases, and expectations. People can experience many kinds of fun from playing RTS: Mastery of competitive multiplayer, sandbox of building up defences, power fantasy of controlling massive armies and launching nukes, the social aspect of playing co-op with friends, and the immersion into a new world and its story. Nobody cleanly fits entirely into one of these categories but is mixed between them to differing degrees. Mastery is the main reason I enjoy multiplayer RTS games. Still, I also love Company of Heroes because of the epic immersive experience of its WW2 battlefields, and I’m captivated by the unlimited snowballing of economy and production found in Supreme Commander. Fun itself is not an emotion but an umbrella term for a flow-state. Fun is an experience generated through interweaving complex human emotions such as excitement, engagement, anticipation, curiosity, pride, and tension. Understanding these different types of fun is crucial to identify how they can be at odds. Balance needs not always be opposed to things such as power fantasy, but often it will be. There are no simple answers to navigate this tension beyond trying to maintain a coherent vision and direction. Different genres of multiplayer games use player classes such as ‘support’ and ‘carry’ to have a broad appeal among a single game mode, but it is very challenging to achieve this in RTS. Instead, RTS games cater to several player preferences with multiple game modes.
These multiple fun types naturally gravitate towards different game modes, such as campaign, co-op vs AI, custom games rules, 1v1 multiplayer and large team games. Two players seeking alternate fun type will not enjoy the same game mode but should have the freedom to experience the game however they want. An RTS game should support custom rule sets, such as maps or lobby settings enabling ‘no rush’ or banning super weapons. Age of Empires 2 implements this superbly with the defensive ‘Black Forest’ map, ‘treaties’ as an option for no rush, and multiple options for resource rates. However, different games modes are still limited by sharing the same pool of units and abilities; a balance change intended for 1v1 could ruin the fun of something used in co-op vs AI. StarCraft 2 gets around this by having entirely different unit and upgrade sets for its campaign, co-op mode and multiplayer. The unit sizes also change in the campaigns, where mechanical units such as Siege Tanks are much larger relative to Marines. This alternate scaling presents a more realistic view of the game’s fiction, which improves immersion and power fantasy without being constrained by multiplayer balance or pathfinding.
That being said, imbalance itself is not fun. It’s not fun to be overly constrained to a limited ‘meta’ way of playing. It’s not fun to have one faction suck against another. It’s not fun to have a bunch of useless units and abilities that never see the light of day. Balance is essential to prevent a game from becoming predictable and repetitive. If one strategy is optimal, then everything else is suboptimal, and that strategy will be used over and over again ad nauseum. Quirky asymmetric factions sound great in theory, but they often lead to shallow and cheesy matchups in practice. Even in single-player, it can be fun to discover and exploit imbalances until you end up abusing the exact same thing for 7 missions in a row. Yet discussion of ‘balance’ may bring to mind blandness and safe design, another quiet death that can plague RTS. Nothing is more balanced than a mirror matchup, yet they tend to be the least popular matchups, demonstrating that balance is not the highest aim. Balance is necessary, but it stands alongside other crucial design considerations.
Fairness is a more helpful framework than balance, as it’s essential to make things feel powerful while remaining fair. If an RTS game is fair, players have an equal chance of winning and do not gain an advantage in factions, maps, game modes, or via micro-transactions. Achieving fairness is a challenge when designing an RTS with exciting and asymmetric units and abilities. A Kirov Airship from Red Alert 2 is tough can decimate the enemy base if unscouted, but it is slow and can be shot out of the sky on approach. StarCraft’s Battlecruisers may lack strong counters themselves, but rushing the strategy leaves the player vulnerable during its costly investment. Even though Battlecruisers and Kirov Airships may not be ‘balanced’, there is always recourse with good scouting, preparation and counters.
Hard vs Soft Counters
A hard counter system tends to be the easiest way to balance a game, but if done poorly, it can make the game feel uninspired with its rough edges smoothed off. Soft counters are generally a better framework for RTS gameplay, allowing units that are normally countered to retain tactical potential. StarCraft 2’s Banelings ordinarily counter Marines, but the Marines can spread out to avoid the splash. A Sherman Tank in Company of Heroes is countered by Pak anti-tank guns unless the Sherman flanks around its firing arc. Snipers in Company of Heroes can pick off infantry from afar but are quickly gunned down when caught up close. These situations are far more interesting than merely a rock/paper/scissors interaction. An RTS can mix both hard and soft counters, such as in Command & Conquer 3. Rocket infantry only soft-counter tanks because tanks can crush them, but infantry can also occupy garrisons for protection. Meanwhile, anti-air units simply blast aircraft out of the sky without any in-depth interactions.
Every unit and ability should have some role to fill, but not everything needs to be equally prevalent. It’s okay to have niche abilities rarely seen but can catch people off guard and be excellent in the right circumstance, such as Nukes in StarCraft. While not ideal, it’s also fine to have units weak in 1v1 but strong in team games, such as the Searchlight Halftrack in Company of Heroes 2. It’s another dichotomy for designers to navigate as excessive numbers of niche units and abilities is inelegant and confusing for new players. The commander system in Company of Heroes 2 allows situational content to be locked away from the main structures but available to be utilized in whatever game mode or map type they excel in. Supreme Commander also has extreme late-game ‘Experimentals’ that are completely imbalanced and uncounterable, but they’re intended to be exciting game-enders that are rarely possible to reach.
Spells & Abilities
Tethering powerful abilities to spell casters or behind telegraphed delays makes them feel fair. Psionic Storm in StarCraft is devastating but not unfair because it comes from a slow, weak, and unarmed spell caster unit and costs energy on use. This allows the enemy to see an approaching High Templar and pre-emptively dodge or focus it down before Storm can be cast. Company of Heroes has even deadlier off-map artillery strikes but red smoke flares and audio queues telegraph an incoming strike for a few seconds before the shells impact. Even on-map artillery strikes like Howitzers and Katyushas can be heard firing before the shells land. This delay allows enemies to reposition and means the artillery strikes need to be used more tactically or when the enemy is preoccupied. Yet, at the same time, Company of Heroes 2 also has obnoxious attack planes which can’t be avoided due to tracking moving targets ruthlessly. Even though the attack planes are weaker than artillery strikes, they don’t feel fair because they’re undodgeable in many situations. Command & Conquer 3 has a very different approach to both StarCraft and Company of Heroes. Support Powers are deployed instantaneously, and anywhere the player has vision, but they have a substantial Tiberium cost that could otherwise produce units. The cost of these abilities balances them out, yet it feels unfair and frustrating when your army suddenly and unavoidably blows up to some support power. Superweapons like the Ion Cannon are fairer than support powers because they have a long countdown timer where they can be destroyed while charging. Player interaction and potential to react make abilities feel fair, not the cost or power level.
Unbalanced but Fair
Company of Heroes 2 is both excellent and terrible in achieving exciting drama while maintaining fairness. Tanks on the ice can be sunk by explosives, sending that expensive Tiger to the bottom of the frozen lake. A lone mortar shell or grenade completely wiping a heavy tank does not sound balanced, yet it is fair because positioning the tank on the ice was a risk the player chose to make. So long as the maps are designed with enough alternative pathways, the ice sinking mechanic can create some exhilarating moments while opening up tactical risk/reward decisions. This is a perfect example of how mechanics that could be considered imbalanced are fun while remaining fair. A more straightforward example is how tough tanks can quickly turn into sitting ducks when crippled by a well-placed mine. If an RTS is well-designed, player frustration is channelled inward, such as: “****! Why didn’t I send out my minesweeper before I tried flanking with my tank!” However, things can technically be considered fair but still be overly punishing and frustrating. For example, cheap mines in Company of Heroes 2 could originally one-shot an entire squad of infantry. Technically, one-shotting a squad was fair because a minesweeper could have revealed the mine, but the punishment was over the top for a small mistake. Some of the stealthed Commando units in Command & Conquer: Zero Hour also cross this line as they can suddenly take out critical base structures extremely quickly.
It’s crucial to distinguish exciting mechanics such as those above from random chaos; fun should not be at the expense of your opponents. Before being patched out of Company of Heroes 2 a few years ago, planes that were shot down could crash land onto a player’s army and instantly obliterate them. This was a terrible mechanic because it was unfair; the player made no mistake, yet a plane could suddenly crash on top of their army. The abandon mechanic is also problematic because there’s no way to predict or prevent a tank from being abandoned as it’s just a random chance that sometimes occurs on death. Most of the time, it’s harmless and adds unexpected drama, but sometimes it’s plain obnoxious because it heavily swings the outcome of a game by giving your opponent a free tank to capture. Abandon would be a better and fairer mechanic if it were deliberate and reliable, such as being triggered when finishing off a wounded tank with small-arms fire rather than explosives.
Company of Heroes 2 has its immersive experience harmed by contrived balance changes. In a recent update, the heavy B4 Howitzer had its kill radius reduced, but given 3 shots per barrage to compensate. This made the B4’s damage more reliable, but now its damage profile is far weaker than the Railway Artillery Strike which shares the same visual effect. And for some reason the B4 now deals suppression, while Railway strike does not, despite having an identical explosion. Many of the explosive damage profiles have become extremely inconsistent and while this may improve the games balance overall, it’s clunky, inelegant and immersion breaking. However the wacky gameplay in other RTS games doesn’t bother me. StarCraft 2 can get away with all of its silly gameplay because it’s a goofy sci-fi game with a cartoony art style. Likewise, it’s fine for Age of Empires to have Priests which convert enemies by saying “wololo” or Catapults that move around without a crew because the units, and the wider gameplay, represent a historical abstraction. Company of Heroes doesn’t have this luxury as its realistic art style and smaller scale is far more grounded in its attempt to emulate authentic WW2 combat. The exciting WW2 experience of playing Company of Heroes is central to its appeal for many people, but contrived damage profiles and arcadey abilities have created a dissonance between its WW2 immersion fantasy and its actual gameplay. Players are jarringly snapped out of the Company of Heroes experience every time a tank or mortar shell explodes on top of someone but conveniently lets them survive at 10% health for balance reasons. Command & Conquer 3 helps the player achieve a suspension of disbelief by having tank shells and rockets miss infantry instead of doing little damage when exploding on them. Designers must recognise how balance can affect the ability to be immersed upon the world of an RTS.
Elegance suffers when balance solutions create overly complicated and convoluted systems. The most notorious example of this is the six different armor and damage types in Warcraft 3. Not only are there countless interactions to try and wrap your head around, but they also don’t make much sense. Piercing attacks do standard damage against heavy armor, 75% damage against medium (normal) armor, but then 200% damage against light and 150% against unarmored. It’s an arbitrary roller coaster of contrived multipliers. While it grants a level of balance precision, the unintuitive complexity is a significant barrier for new players. Damage bonuses and penalties are somewhat inevitable for balancing RTS games. Still, damage modifiers should try to be as minimal as possible and rely on more innate characteristics such as splash, reload and speed. StarCraft 2 is far more elegant with only two armor types: light and armored, but then utilizes additional, intuitive tags such as ‘biological’ or ‘massive’ for spell targeting and further damage bonuses. Even if it’s not self-evident what is considered ‘massive,’ it becomes much easier and less tedious to memorize a system when it makes sense. Worse than confusing damage multipliers are contrived targeting limitations. StarCraft 2’s Liberators are incapable of shooting at buildings for no real reason other than balance. This is a different situation to Spider Mines in StarCraft Brood War. Spider Mines cannot target workers for important balance reasons, but this is justified in the fiction because all the worker units hover over them. Likewise, it makes sense that Siege Tanks have a minimum attack range as their barrel is arcing upwards, but it wouldn’t make sense for a standard unit like a Dragoon.
The discussion of ‘balance’ is a challenge in the RTS space, and it’s easy to talk past each other and get hung up on semantics. It’s crucial to recognize the different types of fun, such as mastery and power fantasy, to appreciate how they might be at odds. Different game modes allow players to pursue the kinds of experience they seek, and an RTS should give them the freedom to play the game on their terms, such as no rush maps. Imbalances make a game predictable and repetitive, and so balance is crucial as long as it doesn’t subordinate excitement and unique and quirky designs. To avoid the stigma of ‘balance’ as blandness, ‘fairness’ is a more helpful concept and aim. Units and abilities should feel unbalanced in certain situations to make them exciting to use, but they should retain fairness by being possible to counter or prevent. Soft counters should generally be used over hard counters to give more flexibility and depth to unit interactions. Powerful spells and abilities should be anchored to something in the world, such as a fragile spell caster or a telegraphed delay. RTS games need drama, tension, and excitement, but this is not the same as random, unfair chaos. Elegance should be maintained by avoiding convoluted systems such as excessive armor types, and balance factors should be justifiable by lore reasons when possible. The gameplay should mesh with the art style to enhance immersion while minimizing contrivances to maintain the suspension of disbelief. Games with cartoony and unrealistic art styles can get away with very wacky gameplay because there’s no dissonance between presentation and gameplay. Balance is fun, but it’s the icing on the cake.