Right now, Age of Empires IV is a big topic of conversation in the RTS space. It’s among the largest modern RTS launches, and while there has been a bit of a rocky start in terms of game balance and the feature set of the released game, the window around Age IV’s debut compares favorably to that of Company of Heroes 2, Halo Wars 2, Grey Goo… I could go on. Regardless what you think of the game personally, I think it’s fair to say this RTS is a pretty big deal at the moment.
While it remains to be seen how (or even if?) the game will grow over time and what fan and player concerns will be addressed, it’s definitely jogged a ton of conversation in RTS spaces. From art style to camera zoom to expected launch feature sets; ranked multiplayer, faction design, and more: there’s a lot of fast and furious conversation on Discord, Twitter, forums, and elsewhere, all inspired by the development and launch of this new strategy game from Relic, Microsoft, and World’s Edge.
One of my personal favorite elements of the Age of Empires series has always been the complexities and optimizations present around its food and gold resources. While many of the systems specific to food are hidden (a topic for another day perhaps?) and difficult for the average player to determine without outside assistance, each source of food comes with its own pros and cons, and best sources at various stages of the game.
On top of this, various civilizations have their own benefits and drawbacks to food collection: Delhi and Abbasid players, for instance, gain extra benefits from Berry bushes but cannot hunt Boar; the English have superior Farms, and China’s farmed crop is rice, which has different regrowth rates etc.
All of these various things give the player a lot to think about and a satisfying variety of efficiency levels for generating food income.
Gold in Age IV is generated in an even wider variety of ways: Traders make trips to neutral towns and back, players can store captured Relics for gold income, the Chinese have an Imperial Officer which generates gold based on visiting player structures to gather taxes, the Rus have a Hunting Cabin that generates gold based on the number of nearby trees, holding Sacred Sites on the map generates passive gold income, and more (most civilizations have some special feature related to gold income).
Food and gold are 2 of the more important resources for players to generate in Age of Empires: gold is the game’s “tech” resource and is used extensively by high tier units and many upgrades, while food is the primary resource around population and army growth. These two resources are particularly bad if their income is interrupted, and their generation gains tremendous benefits from a gameplay perspective by having so many ways to acquire them across the course of a match.
What’s the Point?
A couple of years ago, I wrote an article about resource system design. I’m hopeful that this piece will compliment that one by going deeper into a discussion of the importance of having multiple ways to gain any given resource type in an RTS as opposed to being a broad-spectrum appeal for a variety of gameplay systems. In this article, I’m specifically considering the the pros and cons, the benefits and challenges of adding multiple discrete and largely or entirely unconnected ways to generate one or more of the game’s resources.
To be clear: this article is not an exploration of the topic of how many resources the game itself boasts. Whether it has 1 like Command and Conquer, or 4 like Age of Empires IV, or umpteen like Offworld Trading Company, is not really what I’m talking about. Instead, like gold in Age of Empires IV, this article is looking at how many methods are available to a player to generate any given resource, and the what impacts are on an RTS of having more than one way to gain that resource.
RTS which force the player to win multiple engagements before the game is definitively decided
Creating more variables increases the difficulty of optimizing systems, especially if some system(s) have built in inefficiencies
More ways to generate income lessens the impact of any single method of income loss
Equilibrium and the difficulty in permanently tipping the game state (slippery slope)
While there are some downsides to adding multiple discrete methods of resource generation, I think that in most cases, the benefits outweigh the issues. Let’s start off looking at the downsides (or challenges – potential downsides) though so we can see what we’re dealing with here.
First and foremost, complex systems don’t necessarily create depth. This is probably more than a little obvious, but it bears addressing right out the gate. The various method of generating the same resource have to be created to be complementary, and to have meaningful benefits and drawbacks that aren’t clear cut in every circumstance. The concern, of course, is that with an obviously better choice to make, the player will be able to ignore the apparent depth in favor of only one method of resource generation, creating what are effectively false choices instead of providing the player with an array of methods to keep filling their coffers, so to speak.
RTS players and communities can be powerful optimizers, and systems which present clear efficiencies, and/or which are much easier to benefit from, will mostly be chosen over those which are less optimal.
This is one lesson from gold income in age of empires games: some gold in generated through capture, some through mining some through travel by traders to and from neutral towns. Gold can be traded for in a pinch at the market, and both relics and Sacred Sites generate it as well. Thus, some gold is generated via an opportunity cost, since villagers can also gather other resources, but other methods of making gold come from a variety of things the player will want to do anyway.
Halo Wars 2 has some other interesting examples of multiple ways of gathering resources. First and foremost, all resources in HW2 are generated primarily from build slots in bases. So, the more bases you have, the more ability you have to acquire resources in this way. Also, in the early game, players must rush to gather resources from pickups spread around the map as a free and quick way to get an early game boost. Finally, Power is generated not only from structures placed on build slots but also from capturable areas in the map, providing other points of contention aside from bases and allowing the player to attempt to save build slots by capturing these points in the middle. It seems to work fairly well in practice in this game.
Multiple methods of generating the same resource are not unknown in the RTS space, but rarely are they integrated to the extent that one sees in Age of Empires games. In Supreme Commander and similar games for instance, the player is able to use Engineer units to sell units and structures, or to salvage the wrecks of dead units – this feature tends to provide a defender with a pretty significant income boost after a fight, for example.
In Command and Conquer games, players often sell off buildings they don’t need any more (in some cases, units can also be sold off as with the Soviet Crusher Crane in Red Alert 3 or the Grinder in Yuri’s Revenge) as a way to recoup buildings. Also, Oil Derricks or Tiberium Spikes also serve as alternate income methods. Generals perhaps does the best at this out of all of the C&C games, with Chinese Hackers, Allied Supply Drops, etc, allowing for late game income after on map resources run low.
Command and Conquer 3: Kane’s Wrath has the GDI MARV, which passively harvests Tiberium it moves across, and the Scrin’s Eradicator Hexapod, which passively gains resources when enemies die nearby, as alternate methods for late-game income. These systems, while interesting in their own right, might actually be more interesting if not placed on a pivotal, potentially game-ending unit. The idea of Scrin being able to gain resources from dying enemies, or the GDF being able to send units to mow through Tiberium fields, has a lot of implications that it might be interesting to see in a slightly different context than attached to something as monolithic as the MARV or Hexapod…
Iron Harvest has an interesting (though certainly risky and fraught) spin on this, with significant early game resources held in the form of on-map pickups that players must rush to capture and acquire lest they lose out on the race to have powerful units available earlier than their opponent.
Northgard is another example of multiple routes of resource generation, with