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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Tales of Terrachanics - Part III

The Art of Abstract Game Design

Working on Terrachanics taught me many things. Tackling it at the height of my battle with depression with many hurdles along the way, I learned valuable lessons about game design, the production process, and life itself. 
Our challenge of designing an abstract, mobile, serious puzzle game can be summed up in one word: communication. How do we explain our mechanics to our players? How do we sell the idea of advanced energy technologies? How can we make a game with cerebral depth, yet without intrusive tutorials? How do we integrate theme and educational content into a mobile game? How can we make a serious game that is both educational and fun at the same time?

Terrachanics is my team's answer to these questions.

A Brief Recap

Terrachanics is an abstract puzzle game designed by a small, virtual, indie team of volunteers for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Its mission was to be a recruitment tool to attract prospective applicants toward job opportunities the DOE offered, as well as educate the public on alternative energy technologies. As developers, we also wanted to raise the bar for serious games, making something that could be every bit as fun as mainstream games on top of being educational.

As of this writing, we are awaiting some final legal resolutions before we can officially (re)launch the game to Google Play and the App Store. In the meantime, I recommend checking out this video for a primer on our mechanics, and if you feel so inclined, you can download and play the full PC version of the game from my website.

The Big Picture

From the outset, Terrachanics was created with two key goals in mind. For the DOE, we needed our game to help drive their recruitment efforts effectively. As developers, we wanted to make a game that accomplished this goal without sacrificing any of the fun factor from the end product.

Given the resources we had at our disposal, we had to find a way to tie in the theme of energy technology into a game that was simple enough to be intuitive, yet challenging enough to appeal to our S.T.E.M. field student demographic.

Initial Inspiration

In our ideation phase, we looked at a number of games on the mobile market. We knew early on that we wanted to do either a puzzle or strategy game, as we wanted the focus to be on problem solving. We debated on making a physics puzzle game (like Cut the Rope), or a trimmed-down city building game like Sim City.
Our discussions made us think hard on what key element of energy technology we wanted to represent, ultimately settling on the theme of interdependence. Having recently played Deus Ex: Human Revolution at the time, I was intrigued by its clever hacking minigame, and thought that perhaps with a little tweaking, this node-connection gameplay might just be the mechanic we were looking for. 

We came to develop a game centered on creating connections between buildings, representing resources shared across a resource network. This concept came to be the backbone of our game - the Linking System.

In a Nutshell

In a typical level, players must create a series of links from a starting point to an ending point on a map. The starting point represents a raw source of energy, such as a solar panel, while the end point (called a Hotspot) represents a crisis or challenge the player must fix by repairing and organizing an area's resource network. All Hotspots have a timer next to them, indicating how many turns you have to reach them. Creating a link, erecting a building, or commanding a Unit all take a turn to accomplish. In short, it's connect the dots with a countdown timer. 
One would think that a game based off of connect the dots would be simple. Yet we found early versions of this mechanic suprisingly difficult for players to understand. This forced us to get creative in how we taught our players how to work with this mechanic.


In DX:HR, players connect nodes together by tracing lines between them in order to reach a server. The lines between nodes represented connections between terminals on a network, with the ultimate goal of reaching a central mainframe. This theme was intuitive and worked well with the stealth and espionage focus of the game. While a solid mini-game, we felt the mechanics needed a bit more to it to hold its own as a game unto itself.
Our first major change was to add multiple types of links between buildings. These came to be called Resources, representing things like electricity, coal, or ethanol transported from one building to another. Instead of freely being able to link neighboring nodes, players had to examine and match the resource types to produce a path from their start point to their objective's Hotspot. 

For example, a typical level may start with an oil drill that produces Oil, with no requirements of its own. The player would then click and drag to make a link to a nearby building that required Oil. Providing power to this building would activate that building, unlocking the resources this new building would produce to be allocated to a new building. This would continue until you had a continuous chain of links leading to the Hotspot for that level.
While this worked fine on smaller maps, as maps became more complex, it became more challenging for players to figure out which icons corresponded to which buildings. We tried to mitigate this by spacing out buildings, and to keep icons close to their source, but it became clear that players were spending too much time parsing out what was on the screen, rather than intuitively reading what they saw and making the appropriate choices. Text-based tutorials proved to be too wordy and ineffective, and without a practical way to implement video demos, we decided to look for alternatives to teach and reinforce this essential mechanic of our game.

Audio-Visual Feedback as Reinforcement

As the design team worked to refine our mechanics, our Art Team was improving our game's UI and overall art style. We wanted every action the player took to feel satisfying and reactive, so even the basic actions of the game felt satisfying. As we saw these feedback systems develop, we came to realize they could also be an excellent tool for non-verbally communicating how the Linking System worked.

This realization allowed us to offload some of the explanation of mechanics off of our tutorials into the UI itself. Things like "resource rings" were introduced to show which resources corresponded to each building more easily, and animation of icons enlarging or flashing allowed players to intuitively grasp the concept of identifying and matching Output and Input icons. 

Implications for Level Design

It became clear early on that the manner in which we implemented the mechanic would have a huge impact on the pacing of the game, size of our maps, and overall flow of the game. Early concepts featured non-linear maps, where players not only had to create connections between buildings, but also determine where missing buildings aught to be placed. Even working with paper prototypes, we found this approach to be problematic.
At this stage, we were still favoring a more strategy-base concept, where players had to weigh the costs and benefits of different actions in an attempt to maximize their score. We had a system of Events that players had to reach in a specific number of turns. Depending on if they were reached in time, different outcomes would occur, such as a building catching fire due to an outdated electrical system, or a scientist volunteering to help you complete a level. The idea was to have the choices the player made operate under a "realistic" model of cause and effect, tying the game's experience in with an energy technology theme. Unfortunately, this non-linear level design model just wasn't compelling, as players lacked a clear starting point to get their bearings on a level, and it lacked a compelling objective. 

Thus we had our first major rework of the game. We looked at DX:HR again, and realized that each level had a clear start and end point. In making their hacking puzzles linear, it gave players a clear and compelling goal, with a continuous sense of progress start to finish. We decided to try this approach out for ourselves in an effort to streamline our core gameplay loop. Levels were simplified to include one main "Hotspot" that the player had to reach in a specific number of turns, making the player objective more consistent. We did, however, include a number of levels with optional Secondary Objectives, which worked just like Hotspots but without a timer. To reach these, players had to find the optimal solution for a level. Thus we were able to retain many of the top-level idea from our original concept and refine them into a more satisfying form.

In giving players a clearer, more consistent goal with a stronger sense of progress, it allowed us to design tighter, more polished levels that put the player's skills to the test in more satisfying ways. While it did sacrifice some of the more realistic themes we wanted in the game, we ultimately felt this was the better way to go.
As a result of this tweak, we removed the ability to freely place buildings on the map, reworking the concept into the Building Sites system.

Building Sites

Our early prototype featured a sideboard of missing buildings the player had to place down on the map in order to complete their link paths required to complete a level. Players were free to place them anywhere on the map, but had to do so carefully by matching resource inputs and outputs, as they did with Linking. We thought of it like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, visually scanning the map and seeing where each new piece belonged.

With our first rework, we determined we wanted to keep this mechanic, but simplify it and make it more focused and deliberate. Instead of allowing players to place buildings anywhere on the map, we designated specific points on the map called Building Sites as locations where a building could be placed. Thus it still worked like a jigsaw puzzle, but was closer to the end of a jigsaw puzzle, when you are finding the right piece to fill the last few holes.
This mechanic allowed us to further challenge a player's skills in reading the map, as it required a player to not only read the map and find the proper path, but visualize what pieces are missing to complete that path.


Units were designed to make players think about the timing of their moves and be more deliberate in their link path choices. Players not only had to think about what path they wanted to create, but in what order they would make their Links.

Units served as abstract representations of important characters working with the player. They appear as icons hovering over a building, and when their building is activated players can command them to move to other buildings. When moving, they will follow the Link path you created, moving one building at a time each turn until they reach their destination. They would then interact with that building in some way based on the type of Unit.
Over the course of our development cycle, we ended up creating two Unit types: the Engineer and the Agent.


The Engineer was created to introduce a timing-based gating mechanism. We designed some buildings to have an "Extra Output," or a resource produced by that building that is initially locked. To unlock the resource, the player must order their Engineer to go to that building to activate it and make it available.
Originally, we thematically explained this as the Engineer being a super-efficient worker, capable of boosting the resource output of a building they were connected to. While this was a decent enough theme for the mechanic, playtesting exposed a few problems:
  1. Gameplay ended up just being a matter of going from point A to point B, as originally Extra Outputs only remained active while an Engineer was standing on that building.
  2. Due to issue 1, this meant that if we wanted to have more than one Extra Output in a level, there had to be one Engineer for each one. This further would require larger levels to support the number of actions required to get them where they needed to go.
  3. Explaining how the Engineer functioned was clunky and difficult through text-based tutorials, especially for a mobile title.
Then, during one of our weekly meetings, one designer inadvertently described Extra Outputs as "Broken" Outputs. What started as a mistake turned out to be a breakthrough for us, as it allowed us to intelligently tweak the theming of the mechanic. Now Engineers would repair a Broken Output of a building, and be able to and be able to do so for multiple buildings on a map. This change both cleaned up how to describe the mechanic to our players, and opened up exciting new level design possibilities.


The Agent started its life as the Researcher. It was a Unit that would move around the map collecting Data Fragments attached to various buildings, then deliver them to the Hotspot. It was an evolution on the Engineer concept, involving a two-step thought process in order complete the levels that used them.

In our original design, levels with the Researcher would contain around three or more Data Fragments, each representing a piece of a technology required to complete your mission. Some Data fragments would be components or blueprints required for the technology you needed to complete your mission, while others would be irrelevant information (like a silly email or spoof on an internet ad). Players would have to click on each Data Fragment to examine them, displaying a description of what they were looking at. The player would then have to determine which of the Data Fragments were useful, and plot out a path for their Researcher to retrieve and deliver them. The idea was not to make this task hard, but to force players to think about the function of the technology of the level and the components that composed it.

While this helped in terms of making our subject matter a more explicit part of the game experience, it proved too clunky in playtesting. Taking the time to examine Data Fragments felt more like a chore than an interesting challenge, and did nothing to make the technologies in question more interesting. We knew it wasn't working, but  we were reluctant to change it, as it was the last refuge where our game mechanics explicitly dealt with our subject matter.

We knew our problem was bigger than just this one mechanic. Shoehorning educational content into the game was a losing strategy that so many serious games before had done. It disrupts the pacing of the game and makes education feel like a roadblock to enjoyment rather than a source of fun. The mechanic also had the same problem as our early Engineer concept did, requiring larger, more complex levels than we felt would be appropriate for a mobile game.

We ended up rebranding the Researcher into the Agent. Instead of examining and picking up pieces of Data, the Agent would collect Packages, then deliver them to the Hotspot. There would only ever be one Package per level, thus players only had to reach it and deliver the Agent to the Hotspot. We distilled the mechanic down to its core essence, and as a result it was a lot more enjoyable.
As a result of this change, however, we had to re-evaluate our priorities as a serious game. Would we continue to water down our educational content in favor of making the game more fun, or would we have to sacrifice our gameplay to make such content more prominent? Fortunately, we found a solution that would please both parties. It involved re-thinking our approach to delivering educational content.

Educational Content on Mobile

As previously mentioned, the goal for the DOE with this game was to have a product that would attract players toward a job at the DOE. Our approach to this was to feature a variety of cutting edge energy technologies in a in a wacky, spy-spoof setting. The idea was that by contextualizing energy technology within a fun setting, it would entice people to want to learn more or explore career opportunities in that field.

Yet many times making a serious mobile game felt like a contradiction. Successful mobile games, like Angry Birds or Candy Crush, rely on fast-paced gameplay with minimal downtime between levels. Games that featured stories, like Tiny Village, often had easily skipable narrative segments, which were indeed all to often skipped. This posed a challenge for us in terms of approaching narrative, educational content, and tutorials.
So we decided to look at education from a different angle. We looked at TV shows like Captain Planet, which contextualized environmentalism in an action-filled fictional universe of empowered kids. We saw a similar dynamic at work with Pixar movies, like Wreck-It Ralph, which successfully featured compelling life lessons alongside moments of thrilling special effects. We wondered if perhaps we could approach education through inspiration instead of lecture, as they had done. What if we focused on an emotional appeal to get people to care about energy technology?

Thus we developed a new guiding principle - optional educational content. Rather than forcing players to read through data logs or be bombarded with facts and figures, it was our job to convince players to care about energy. Not only would we not try to beat players over the head with our subject matter, but we would make it so players could enjoy the game even if they had no interest in learning. Our goal shifted toward finding ways to entice players into wanting to learn, rather than being a traditional teacher.

This idea tied in with our distribution strategy. By putting enjoyable gameplay first, our goal was to go for volume. If 100 people played our game, 10 people would be inspired to learn more, and maybe one or two might visit the DOE job site. Multiply this by thousands or even millions of players, and suddenly we are reaching more people than conventional education or recruitment methods might never reach. This wasn't just a stab in the dark, either, as we were encouraged by the success of America's Army, which has been doing this successfully for years, achieving "more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined." 

Integrating Educational Content

With this in mind, we decided that in order to sell our educational content, it had to be framed as a reward and take center stage. This informed how we developed our scoring system and narrative delivery.
We moved away from having a long story arc as we previously planned. Instead, we focused on a more emotion-driven narrative centered on our key characters. We presented narrative in the form of small vignettes to flesh out each character and establish the lighthearted tone of the game. Mission descriptions were brief, but usually featured a joke or two, with the goal of each mission prominently highlighted. For our loading screens, we used comicbook-style narrative sequences of the ECRB gang's various antics. These were interspersed with job descriptions for positions with the DOE. These all worked to make our subject matter prominent, without being too intrusive.
Mechanically, we made learning about energy technology more rewarding by merging our Codex system into our score system. The Codex was planned as a database of info on the technologies featured in the game, with one-click access to resources to learn more. With our score system, we had toyed with the idea of achievements, allowing players to collect badges for accomplishing specific tasks. After some thought, we realized that we could enhance both by turning them into a single system.
We decided to combine these two together, making Codex Entries on various energy technologies appear as badges in your Codex gallery. Not only did this make the Codex more visually appealing, but it tied energy technology directly into our award system, enticing more players to learn about our subject matter.

The Takeaways

As soon as you decide to make a game abstract, you immediately raise the learning curve of your game. This can be mitigated by clever thematic choices and use of visual metaphors. The more you can communicate non-verbally, the more intuitive the experience feels, and the more you maintain player immersion.
  • Enhancing our UI feedback with this in mind dramatically improved how quickly our players grasped the nuances of our Linking System.
By the same token, it is also good to develop tutorials early in the design process, such as when developing a vertical slice. When considered alongside the theme of your mechanic, this helps identify sticking points in explaining the mechanic to players while creating a common vocabulary and understanding for developers to work with.
  • By simply redefining an "Extra Output" to a "Broken Output," we were able to make the mechanic more compelling and intuitive.
In iterating on any aspect of your design, consider the purpose behind each element you put in the game. As you develop your game, compare this original purpose with the new solution in front of you, and decide which one has to change. Sometimes you will find alternate solutions that still satisfy the same need you had previously identified. This will help you develop a more strongly defined concept, helping both players and developers understand your creative vision.
  • In playtesting our Linking system, we eventually came to define our game more as a puzzler than a strategy game, making all subsequent decisions more deliberate and focused.
Too many serious games are held back by fixating on their subject matter to the detriment of their gameplay. If you game is bad, no one will want to wade through it to learn about your subject matter. Don't try to be the one-stop-shop for information on your topic. Instead, be the gateway toward your player's own educational experience. Make them believe in the impact of climate change, the urgency of stopping violence against women, or to empathize with kids in war-torn Sudan. Touch their hearts first, and let them take the next step toward learning more.
  • Terrachanics is a game first, and a message second. It is the icebreaker to intrigue players into learning more about energy technologies, and perhaps develop a long-term relationship with through a career with the DOE.

Please Help Spread the Word!

Thanks for reading! If you appreciate this blog series, or even better our game, please spread the word about us on your respective social networks. The wheels of government bureaucracy have not been kind to us lately, and despite completing development back in August, we are currently unable to properly release our game until some legal hangups are cleared up.
The DOE has also restricted us from making any social media accounts for the game, had us take down most of our videos from youtube, and our official website is currently down until things come together on their end. So any help in getting our names out there would be much appreciated!

Next Time on Tales of Terrachanics...

Stay tuned for Part IV, where I will be delving into some more philosophical revelations that came out of this experience, related to work ethic, leadership, and communication.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Dawn of War II Reborn - Artillery's "Atlas"

There once was a game…

A few months ago, I learned the talented shoutcaster Sean "Day[9]" Plott was hired by the rising indie studio Artillery. While unexpected, I wasn't surprised, given his extensive knowledge of Starcraft. I saw it as an interesting development, but initially I didn't get too excited about it.

Curiosity would later pull me back to learn more about Artillery's Project Atlas. That's when I did get too excited, as shall soon be apparent. They weren't just making any RTS. Without knowing it, they were creating the spiritual successor to one of the most underrated RTSes ever made - Dawn of War II. Not only did Atlas share a lot in common with its ill-fated predecessor, but all of the challenges they now face (as highlighted in their blog) were ones that DOW2 not only tackled, but overcame in a spectacular fashion.

So I thought to myself “man, it would be awesome to work on a game like that!” My mind raced with the possibilities, analyzing and breaking down all the things I loved so much about DOW2. Then a crazy thought popped into my head: why wait to work there? Why not blog about it now, and evangelize to the world just how great DOW2 was why the world needs more games like it? Why not nerd out about what makes my favorite RTS so special? Thus, we have this blog.

This will be equal parts open letter to Day[9] and the Artillery Team, a response to their design blog, and a springboard for some fun discussion of RTS game design. Seasoned, of course, with some healthy fanboying over Dawn of War II. I truly believe DOW2 had the potential to be one of the best RTSes ever made, but was tragically held back by not having sufficient tutorials to help its players understand its multiplayer. I intend to correct this error here.

Full disclosure, I did apply for a job with Artillery recently, hence the craziness of doing something like this. But I figure, screw it, if this is the closest I ever come to setting foot in their studio, then I’m going to go all out on this one.

To fully understand what DOW2 did and why it worked so well, lets start with some general ideas around RTS game design.

Golf, Goals, and Obstacles

In Day[9]'s first design article, he describes the game design process as one of “making your life hard”. He shares one of his professor's stories about golf. In it he describes how putting a ball into a cup isn't that exciting, but that adding additional “inconveniences” made the experience more enjoyable. Hitting a tiny ball with an awkward club at a target many yards away all made the player's goal more elusive. Placing challenges between the player and their goal made that goal more satisfying to achieve. While I think this is a good way to describe the design process, I would argue that perhaps we aught to consider a different perspective.

The development of golf started when people realized hitting rocks with sticks was fun. To make this more fun, they experimented with different ways to hit the ball: different sticks, different rocks, different targets, etc. Each feature became a layer that enhanced the the players enjoyment. Each made it take require more finesse, have a cool sound, or give the player more control. The goal of getting the ball in the hole was merely one such layer. Despite what some players and designers might say, the true heart of the game is not getting the ball in the hole, but what that feat represents - the culmination and validation of one’s time and effort in honing their skills. Each layer is a lens to magnify the enjoyment of what began as a simple activity.

Writing a story works much the same way. Starting with a focal character, dilemma, or setting, the author adds layers to flesh out the world and enhance the emotions they are trying to conjure up. A writer might ask "I want to make a stone-cold badass, so what kind of scenarios can I put this guy in to make him more badass?" So perhaps they could add some rivalry with an old partner who killed his daughter. Perhaps his daughter was blind, and reminded him of his ex-wife. His goal of revenge sets the stage for resolving this escalating emotional buildup. Each new layer adds to the emotional weight of a character, action, or scenario.

Constraints as Focusing Devices

Another way to look at constraints is not hurdles to overcome, but the natural characteristics of a fictional world. For non-abstract games, the designer is taking all of human experience and cutting it down to just a handful of familiar activities. The choice of what gets included and what does not dictates the focus of that game, and thus the actions available to the player. Like in the real world, if done correctly, these "constraints" do not feel forced or limiting, and instead fade into the background and become invisible. In our daily lives, we do not think about the "inconvenience" of breathing or the strain on our legs to keep us standing upright - we intuitively overcome these challenges unconsciously and without anxiety.

The challenge is to leverage player expectations around the familiar elements you have chosen . The very act of reducing the world in this manner is itself a form of escapism, as players are transported into a simpler, more predictable world. A world players can easily wrap their head around, and where they have a strong sense of agency in their ability to control it.

Consider the times when you played a game and came across a knee-high wall you couldn’t cross. It was frustrating, wasn't it? Then think of something like the original Super Mario. Did it bother you that you couldn’t punch koopas? Did you feel shackled by the inability to talk and discover the backstory of a Pirahna plant? No, because the world was presented in such a way where your mind could intuitively define a range of possibilities of what you could and could not do.

Abstract games, or abstract game elements, obey the same dynamic. Often they too are inspired by a small subset of the human experience. The further from reality they become, the more you must take a bottom-up approach in presenting them. Like a newborn child experiencing the world for the first time, you must start small, and build upon the players knowledge until they can model the entirety of this alien world within their own mind.

Story Arcs

The topic of Day[9]’s second and third posts is story arcs in the context of a multiplayer game. He describes the desire to have a strong beginning, middle, and end, and how to make each of these key points feel significant, while steadily growing in intensity. The challenge, as he rightly points out, is how do you make these key peaks in the story arc happen, and how do you keep people engaged in between them?

I think this dynamic can be approached from two schools of thought, which I will call the mono-arc and multi-arc approach.


mono-arc story follows your traditional story slope - steadily rising tension, punctuated by moments of great intensity, building to an ultimate climax. The theory is to spread out your peak moments so the audience does not get desensitized, as that would diminish the impact of major plot reveals. At each peak you give your audience a taste of the good stuff, then withhold it from them and have them follow your narrative path until they reach next one. This is a perfectly reasonable model for thinking about narratives, but I feel it is vulnerable to misuse, particularly in games.

Sometimes you end up with a game where the player is stimulated during certain peak moments, then is handed little more than breadcrumbs during the downtime. At its worst, the game teases the player, padding out the length of a game with hurdles and filler, demanding the player "earn" the right to be entertained (as if shelling out their hard-earned cash wasn't enough). Sure, the tension may rise over time, but player retention ends up resting perilously on their patience. Particularly in a modern world of Youtube, Netflix, and a million other distractions, why should I slog through 5 hours of random encounters just to see what Sephiroth is up to next? I suspect this is was the fear one commenter had in rejecting Day[9]’s “Making your Life Hard” theory.


An alternative is the multi-arc approach. I came up with it from reading “How to Win Friends and Influence People." In its first few pages, the reader is instructed to take their time reading the book, and set it aside when it inspires you with thoughts of your own. In following this suggestion, I discovered why people celebrate books so much. In these moments of mental reflection, the reader experiences a very different kind of stimulation from other media, a kind that relaxes some parts of the mind while exciting others.

This got me thinking that perhaps the best way to approach engagement is to not think about a single arc, but many parallel arcs, each representing a different kind of activity or emotion. As one arc would dip, another would rise, keeping the overall experience consistently stimulating. This bypasses the problem of desensitization, as you are not dialing back stimulation altogether, merely tuning in to a different frequency.

RPGs offer the clearest way to visualize this, as they often broken down into distinct and separate "modes" of play. In Mass Effect, for instance, you would have intense firefight one minute, then be talking galactic politics with an NPC the next. As the combat arc declined, the narrative arc ramped up, picking up the slack. The overall engagement level never dropped, it merely changed its flavor.

The beauty of RTSes is that they already follow a multi-arc structure naturally. Within the span of a few seconds, the player is transitioning from scouting, building, upgrading, moving units, formulating plans, microing abilities, and planning expansions. The player is never locked on a single thought for long, transitioning between many different strategies, tactics, and sub-tactics in the blink of an eye. It turns the seemingly chaotic and manic task of juggling memory, critical thinking, visual perception, and physical coordination all at once into something exciting and engaging. There is never a dull moment, as each decision and action tickles and prods at every corner of the brain, without any single part burning out. For this reason, I regard the RTS genre as having the best gameplay of any other genre out there.

The key to using the multi-arc to its full potential is to provide a variety of different stimuli to your player, as well as a broad range of strategic and tactical choices at any given moment. This is something Dawn of War II did phenomenally well.

Equilibrium and Cognitive Dissonance

Day[9] cites Settlers of Catan as an example of "equilibrium" dynamics. He describes its transparent scoring system as one that naturally nudges players toward withholding trade and ganging up against players in the lead. This produces a natural balance to the game without any explicit rule to enforce it. This dynamic helped most games remain close down to the very end.

If we look a little deeper, we understand that this dynamic is based on eliciting a sense of fear, while giving player's readily available tools to handle the threat. Every good strategy game uses this in one way or another, but when pushed to its extremes, things get really interesting. Cosmic Encounter offers one such example.

In Cosmic Encounter, there is a much wider range of power levels in its races than you would see in most games. Some races have relatively modest powers, like the Pacifist, who can win a battle by playing a negotiate card (which ordinarily causes a loss). Others, like the Virus, seem completely overpowered. Ordinarily, combat is resolved by both players playing attack cards face down, revealing them, and adding the number of ships on their side to the total number on their card, with the highest total deciding the victor. For the Virus, their power allows them to multiply the card’s value by the number of ships they had in the fight. So a measly 10 attack card backed by 4 ships could turn into an attack of 40 - matching the highest attack card in the game.

When I first (terrestrially) encountered the Virus, I was convinced the game wasn’t playtested. How could you possibly win a fight against those guys, let alone against races with arguably even stronger powers? I was turned off from the game for a good 10 years. I later learned that Cosmic Encounter has been around since 1977, and has been reprinted at least three times without  any fundamental changes to its core mechanics. It is still going strong today, and even has its own convention! So I decided to give it another look.

What I discovered was that there were in fact many mechanics that constrained any potential inbalances, including:
  • Random assignment of each player's race (from 50 different choices)
  • Attack card values range from 0 to 40, weighted more on the lower end of that scale, so your chances of getting a bad card at some point is high
  • Players only draw new cards under very specific circumstances, so getting stuck with bad cards can be tricky to deal with
  • Players can lose an encounter by playing a negotiate card when the Virus plays an attack card. They lose ships, but as compensation they can steal cards from the Virus player, potentially weakening to weaken them
  • Players cannot control which player they encounter with, so a powerful player can't bully any one particular player
And most importantly:
  • All alien powers are public, which means everyone knows just how powerful someone is. They can use this to either get the other players to turn against an “overpowered” player, or tactically ally with them to ride their coat tails to earn a few easy colonies.
In other words, with the right combination of mechanics, coupled with an equilibrium dynamic, you can allow players to wield far stronger abilities, well beyond what conventional wisdom would call “balanced.”

It was this very dynamic that was at the heart of the Dawn of War II experience. Unlike Starcraft II, DOW2 was balanced a bit more heavily in favor of hard counters. Yet it did it in a clever way- even though any individual unit had a clear counter, the player often had the choice of what they wanted their unit to counter through their choice of upgrades.

The best example of this is the Tactical Marine. As a heavy infantry unit, it was pretty beefy against most things, but had a hard time against melee weapons and plasma guns. It could be upgraded with a flamethrower (to counter light, swarmy infantry), a plasma gun (to counter other heavy infantry), or a rocket launcher (to counter vehicles). Likewise, even more specialized units, like the Assault Marines, could be upgraded to have a secondary support role. While they ordinarily countered artillery and weapons platforms (like machine guns), they could be upgraded with a bomb that allowed them to soften up and slow enemy vehicles for your main anti-tank weapons to take them out easier. It is the simple but weighty choice of what units and upgrades you got that was at the crux of the game’s tactical experience.

DOW2 did not go out of its way to keep itself balanced, and instead merely handed the tools to the player to balance it themselves. The first brush with this dynamic was often when a player first encountered a tier 2 mech unit, like the badass Wraithlord. They found out quickly that their puny tier 1 infantry could barely leave a scratch on it, and that it could inflict heavy damage if allowed to come into melee range. As scary as the Wraithlord was, they were not that hard to deal with - they walked slowly, and could be taken down fairly quickly with a few well-placed anti-vehicle weapons. Of course, this fear could come right back if your opponent destroys those anti-vehicle units on you. Thus was the rollercoaster ride of your typical DOW2 match.

Getting the most out of equilibrium dynamics involves leveraging cognative dissonance. Consider the thrill of riding a rollercoaster - your irrational side is terrified of falling off and dying, but your rational side knows you are safe. This is the mindset you want to put your players in. Make them afraid, yet confident they can overcome what's in front of them. That way when a player is facing down a massive superunit that requires an entire army to kill they know they can outrun it, dodge its special attacks, and defeat them with minimal casualties by dancing their injured units around. This makes players feel empowered as they take down what feels like a massive threat.

The most important thing is explaining this dynamic to your players clearly so they always know what they can do and how to handle such threats. Otherwise you risk your players ragequitting, uninstalling, and declaring you game imbalanced. This was a lesson Relic learned the hard way.

Speaking of dodging, lets talk about Skillshots.


Skillshots are one of several interesting mechanics Artillery is considering for Atlas. They seem to be going for a hybrid of a tactical RTS feel with a few MOBA mechanics thrown in. I think this is a great idea, and in fact DOW2 experimented with this as well, though had its own twist on it. Before I get to that, lets step back a moment and trace the evolution of this mechanic.

Warcraft III featured an early version of skillshots in the form of line-based area effect abilities. There were only three of them in the game (the Tauren Chieftain’s Shockwave, the Crypt Lord’s Impale, and the Pandaren Brewmaster’s Breath of Fire), and they weren’t quite what we would call skillshots today. You had to target a unit to aim them, which mean that the “shot” part of it really wasn’t there yet. They were essentially little more than an area-based attack,  resolving too quickly to be dodged, limiting the tactical depth of executing or defending against them.

Dawn of War II took it a step further. Unlike WC3, you could aim at the ground to line up and time your shots in anticipation of enemy movement. Most of its skillshot attacks had a windup period, with a visual telegraph showing when it was coming. Thus the onus was on the defender to dodge them. Since units moved fairly slowly, players needed to react quickly to avoid getting hit. Since these were mostly area of effect attacks like in WC3, their system focused more on punishing the mistakes of the defender than rewarding execution of the attacker.

MOBAs like League of Legends perfected the skillshots to what we know today. Not only can you aim them at the ground, but units (Champions) can move pretty quickly, and there are plenty of minions and terrain around you can duck and weave around to evade them. Thus both the attacker and defender feel empowered by the mechanic. Both are rewarded for success and only modestly punished for failure. It is worth noting, though, that unlike DOW2 or WC3’s “skillshots,” LoL’s were mostly designed around hitting a single target, rather than being used against large groups.

While we're on the subject of player empowerment...

Randomness and Player Agency

Going back to Catan, lets talk about randomness. I’m not a huge fan of Catan myself, as I feel too much of the game hinges on a random dice roll. Sure, people can mitigate it a bit in how they conduct trade with other players, but for me I just can’t get over that RNG element taking agency away from players.

That’s why I love Dominion. As a deckbuilding game, it balances randomness and player agency in a really clever way. Over the course of the game, players choose which cards to buy to add to their deck. Each choice a player makes directly impacts the probability of what kind of hand they will get. Want more reliability? Buy a Village. Want to buy better stuff sooner? Buy a Silver. Want to trash your weaker cards so you have an awesome hand every turn? Buy a Chapel. Every card allows the player to directly impact probability.

Dominion also has interesting scoring mechanic, which synergizes well with this idea of probability control. You win by collecting victory cards, which each have a point value on them. The player with the most victory points at the end wins. The problem is that most victory cards (with rare exceptions) are worthless during the game, and don’t do anything but clog up your hand. Thus you have to choose carefully when and which victory cards you take. Get overzealous early game, and you’ll have a hand full of victory cards and not be able to buy anything. It also acts as a balancing mechanism as players that are ahead “pollute” their deck with useless victory cards, allowing other players to catch up.

Player Decisions in Randomized Scenarios

In addition from the RNG you get from drawing cards, when the game is set up you randomly select 10 kingdom card types. These will be the 10 type of action cards players can choose from during the game. While completely random, this dynamic is carefully balanced in a way that still retains strong player agency.

The RNG in the game's setup creates a situation for players to react to - it does not decide the outcome. Players choose how they react to what is available, and tailor their strategy around it. Its not unlike the randomized map rotation of something like Starcraft II, where a player would study the map to plan out their expansions, identify choke points, and determine which map features best suit their race's unique traits.

Compare this to something like D&D, where the player chooses what they want to do, then rolls a die to see if it happens. Execution is handled by RNG, robbing the player of a sense of ownership of the outcome. In Dominion, the consequence of a player's actions within its randomized scenarios are entirely their own.

The Power of Variables

Variables are the key to a great strategy game. Both variables and RNG contribute to emergence - the generation of novel scenarios and interactions within a game that are not pre-scripted. Both add uncertainty to a game, but the key difference is that variables are things a player can control, and RNG is not.

Part of what made Starcraft II the massive success that it is was its maserful use of variables. Controlling where every unit goes, what units get produced, where your units are positioned - everything is controlled and decided by players. These choices leave artifacts behind, usually buildings, to give clues to scouting opponents of what to expect. Rather than being a game where anything could happen, observant players could control or predict the probability of certain outcomes.

It is this strong sense of agency that players really crave out of their competitive games, knowing that their actions are the deciding factor in their success or failure. It is the reason why Starcraft II and League of Legends achieved the level of success they enjoy now, and games that used too much RNG (like Dawn of War II and Company of Heroes) did not.

Player Expression

Beyond just giving players more control over the outcome of a match, variables enable player expression. With the right number of variables, players can develop their own unique playstyle, and allow for metagame trends to emerge. I hear Day[9] mentioning all the time “Bomber’s style” or “Scarlet’s style” when he describes pro matches of Starcraft II. Being able to put a signature to your play makes a big difference in how the eSports community responds to your game.

To pull this off requires the right amount of variables tailored to allow for a wide range of viable strategies. This is where Warcraft III fell short for a lot of people, as if you watch enough pro matches you will see that players of a given race will almost always have the exact same build, with the only difference coming down to how they micro their units.

SC2 allowed for much more player expression compared to WC3 thanks to a few subtle but important design choices. Units in SC2 move much faster than in WC3. This means that there is a lot more “physical” micro of units moving around. It is far easier for a casual spectator to see and delight in physical movement of units, as it reminds them of players running down a field in a sports game. Warcraft III was about targeting abilities and microing of injured units out of harm's way, but lacked this dynamic “dance” of well-microed units you see regularly in Starcraft II matches. Enhancing this one variable in SC2 made all the difference in its popularity, as it allowed micro to be much more visible to eSports spectators.

Player Interaction and Resources

This brings us to Dawn of War II, and how it put the above theories and dynamics into practice. A big part of the pacing and strategy of the game revolved around its resource system, which worked very differently from just about any other RTS out there.

Overview of Resources

DOW2 featured four main resources: requisition, power, victory points, and “red.” The first two dealt specifically with building units and upgrades, while the second two dealt with controlling the pacing and escalation of the game. All four of these were governerned by dramatically different dynamics, aligning nicely to the multi-arc principle I talked about earlier.

Each resource (aside from Red) was obtained by using infantry units to capture and hold nodes on the map, passively increasing a player's income of that resource. Its worth noting that while held, these nodes gave a small area of vision to their owner, working as a good substitute for traditional scouting. It allowed players to see what upgrades and units their opponent was using whenever they attempted to steal a node.

These nodes could only be captured using infantry units or commanders, often your most vulnerable units. Combined with DOW2's focus on small armies  (typically maxing out at just 4 to 6 squads), your units could not be everywhere you needed at any given time.


Requisition is the most basic of these resources, like the minerals of Starcraft II. You gained some automatically from your main HQ building, but could obtain more by capturing Requisition nodes. The income each provided would  “mature” if held long enough, yielding up to triple its original value.

In a typical match, Requisition was often overlooked in favor of the seemingly more valuable Power and Victory nodes. Their nodes were both the easiest to capture, yet also the easiest to steal. They were a resource that could be easily taken for granted, and thus players exploiting the maturation mechanic could do some serious damage to their opponent’s economy if they just “decap” their opponent’s nodes, if not capture them for themselves.


Power was the premium resource of DOW2, like gas in Starcraft II. It was used to fund high-value units, upgrades, and to unlock higher-tier units. They could be reinforced by "activating" them, causing a structure to built over the top of the node. Opponents would have to destroy this structure before attempting to capture the node for themselves. Additionally, once a Power node was activated, you could build up to three Power Generators around it, providing up to 8x its original value.

Power Nodes were often one of the biggest areas of contention on the map, and the most frequently harassed. Attackers had a few choices for dealing with them:
  • They could destroy the generators and the node structure, forcing their opponent to pay requisition to rebuild them.
  • They could destroy just the power node structure, capture the point, then steal the power generators for their own use.
Your choice ultimately came down to how much economic damage you wanted to inflict on your opponent, or how power starved you were at that particular moment.

Victory Points

Each player started the game with 500 victory points, and each map contained three Victory nodes, one near each player/team, and one in the center. When a victory node was captured and held, it started eating away at an opponents victory point total. The amount of “damage” to their victory points was equal to the difference in the number of victory nodes each player held (so if both players held one, neither player was “damaged”).

In a sense, victory points were a combination of a player's life total in Magic: The Gathering and Victory Cards in Dominion. Like in MTG, getting your opponents victory points to zero is the only way you win. It does not matter how many units you had on the field - this was the only victory condition. Additionally, like victory cards, holding them not give the player any tangible in-game benefit. They didn't give you any more resources, nor unlock any new units or powers. In fact, you could argue capturing them hurt you, as you could be spending your time capturing requisition or power nodes instead.

What it did, though, was add a sense of passive pressure to the other player. Before any shots were fired, merely holding a victory node “damaged” the opponent’s victory point total, forcing them to respond. Ignoring victory nodes in favor of rushing for other resources was not viable, as even a superior army would lose to a player that holds the victory nodes the longest.

But what if both players decided to ignore victory nodes and just amass their army? You couldn't do that either, as Relic also built in a gradual sudden death mechanic. After around 20 minutes, the victory point total of both players began to steadily drop, down to as low as 1. This not only made it impossible for games to drag on too long, but it meant holding and contesting victory nodes became increasingly more important the longer the game went on.


Finally, we have what players called “Red.” It went by different names depending on which faction you played, such as “Eldritch Might” for the Eldar to “Waaaaagh!” for the Orks, but functioned the same way regardless. Each time you killed a unit or destroyed a structure, you earned Red. The defending player also earned 75% of the Red value of what they lost, so both players were constantly earning red throughout a match.

Red could be spent toward using Global Abilities, of which there were four for each Commander (DOW2’s equivalent of heroes from WC3, with three per faction). These abilities varied wildly, from providing a temporary damage buff, to calling in airstrikes, to summoning powerful special units. The first two abilities could be used right from the beginning. Abilities three and four become unlocked as you upgraded your HQ to advance to a higher tier. These abilities became increasingly more powerful, culminating in devastating 4th ability.

The 4th ability for every faction was always some equivalent of an SC2 Ghost’s nuke, capable of wiping out an entire army in a single click. As mentioned before, this is one of those things that seemed massively overpowered, but in fact wasn't. It could help a losing player even the odds, or a winning player finish out a game, but only if the defender ignored the very obvious glowing mark on the ground (which was even more conspicuous than the Ghost’s tiny red dot, mind you). They could also only be used once per game, as matches never went long enough for you to earn enough Red for a second shot. As such, skilled players often skipped these in favor of their lower-cost alternatives.

DOW2’s resource system was more than just a serviceable hurdle to getting fancy units and abilities. It opened up a multitude of paths to victory and gave players many different options to juggle during a match. It is the multi-arc principle at its finest.

Game Pacing - Punctuated or Gradual

Dawn of War II also had an interesting approach to game pacing. Like the Zerg in Starcraft, the HQ building of all factions could be upgraded up to three tiers. Unlike in Starcraft, advancing to a new tier was a major turning point in the match.

As I mentioned earlier, this was a game of hard counters. In tier 1, there are no vehicles nor any way to counter vehicles. Thus if you encounter an opponent that has hit tier 2 first, they will hold an advantage over you until you can catch up. This is likewise the case with tier 3, when aforementioned super units and army destroying abilities become available.

Arguably you could say this mechanical enforcement of a very clear early, mid, and late game transition may feel a little too forced. Perhaps, but I think having these punctuated moments added a lot of tension to the game, and complemented the game’s commitment to putting very large amounts of power in their player's hands. Compare this to the more gradual build-up of armies in Starcraft II, where the main pivotal moments come from players pulling off some awesome play and overcoming a superior force with great micro.

I think there is value to both player-authored turning points and mechanical turning points, but for me advancing in tiers felt far more compelling in DOW2 than in any SC2 match I played.

What Held Back Dawn of War II

So with all this awesome wrapped up in a single game, why didn’t Dawn of War II take off in popularity like its older sister Company of Heroes? I touched on a few of these already, but in brief:
  • No multiplayer tutorials: This is obviously a huge one, compounded by the fact that the single player felt like playing almost a completely different game.
  • Unintuative Balance Model: As awesome as leveraging fear and equilibrium can be, you absolutely have to tell your players how this works. To a casual observer, your game will seem massively broken and unfair if you don't explicitly show them the tools at their disposal. Of course, I say "unintuative" only when coming from other RTSes, as in real life it is perfectly reasonable to assume your pistols will not harm a massive, horrifying abomination.
  • Too much RNG: There wasn't enough RNG to tip the scales most of the time, but there was just enough to turn off hardcore eSports folks. For example, the awesome but random sync kills, first introduced in DOW1, caused a unit to become essentially invulnerable for a few seconds as they performed a dramatic takedown of an enemy unit. This kind of stuff made the game a blast to play and watch, but not eSports material.
  • Backlash from Company of Heroes Fans: There were many fans of CoH and the original Dawn of War that were dissappointed by the game. They were drawn in by the similarity to those two beloved games, but turned off for the above reasons, and thus gave it undo negative criticism beyond what it deserved.
This all could have been avoided if they just took the time to explain just one of their brilliant but punishing mechanics - Retreat and Reinforcement (DOW2's answer to Atlas's "respawn" mechanic, if you will). With the single click of a button, you could tell a squad to automatically run home to your base, moving much faster and taking significantly reduced damage as they did so. When they arive at your HQ, you could then "reinforce" to replace the squad members you lost. It costs roughly twice as much to buy a new squad as it does to reinforce each member one by one. Your decision of when to use just one single button was one of the weightiest decisions in the game.

This mechanic was carried over from COH, though Relic did not fully account for how its dynamics would change in DOW2. As mentioned earlier, this was a game where the biggest army would have maybe 6 squads total, whereas COH routinely had around twice that, and used infantry a lot more and made them cheaper (iirc, I'm not as experienced with COH). This meant that unlike in most RTSes, none of your units were expendable. If you failed to retreat even a single squad early game, you were done. You would fall way too far behind to recover. In fact, for experienced players, it was not uncommon in most games to go an entire match without losing a single squad, or at least evenly trading with an opponent after a big battle.

They didn't neccesarily have to change anything about the mechanic, all they had to do was tell people how it frikken worked!

Opaque Mechanics
Another thing that both Dawn of War II and Company of Heroes had in common was very opaque mechanics. While you could see a particular squad’s health, you could not see how much damage they did, how fast they were, how fast they attacked. The majority of their stats were just completely hidden from you. In fact, for many of the mechanics I even described earlier, like requisition point maturity, no player would ever know about them without some digging.

Instead, they did things like have more qualitative descriptions of things. Like “this unit is good against vehicles” or “deals fire damage in an area.” The player is left to experiment and feel out what these meant. I suspect this was done to make the game more intuative, or possibly to hide the insane damage modifiers they used under the hood. While never vague, they lacked the concrete numeric values something like Starcraft II thrives on, allowing for quick comparison between units across factions.

This often colluded with RNG, such as with the “melee skill” mechanic, where each squad had a rating of 1 to 100. When facing a unit with a lower melee skill, they have a chance to do a special attack, usually a knockback. This makes for some interesting visuals, but robs the player of a sense of agency, as they neither know when it will happen nor what the melee skill of any given unit was. Agency and control over outcomes is key when making a game with eSport potential.

Dawn of War II is a tremendously underrated game marred by a few bad decisions, and Project Atlas is shaping up to be its spiritual successor. Words cannot describe how pumped I am to see that happen (though I suppose the previous 6000+ words give you a good idea). I really want to see more games carry the torch and experiment with high power ceiling design the way it did.

So go out there and play some Cosmic Encounter and Dawn of War II. It is a crime that this style of game isn't tried more often, and I intend to correct that injustice.
Thanks for reading, and happy gaming to all.

EDIT: After some thought, I think I may have overstated how underrated Dawn of War II was by a little bit. At launch, it got great reviews, but even at its peak it never had a high server population on its multiplayer ladder. My perspective here comes more from my own personal experience of the game fading out of the public eye strangely quickly, while its predeccessor Company of Heroes remained strong for far longer. Thus consider this speculation and conjecture, not based on hard and fast research.