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Difficult design decisions far earlier than anticipated, and ways to go around them. (Dev Blog)

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I've been playing the Soulstorm campaign recently, as well as some brief playtesting on Dark Crusade.

I've come to realize that I have my work cut out for me, and not in a good way.

The Problem

It seems that every single version of the game has a different balancing standard; unfortunately, some of these standards are also unable to be ported directly to earlier versions of the game, possibly nixing the idea of "Hey, let's port Soulstorm stats to the earlier games!" Namely, some new upgrades, some new units, and some new tech tree shenanigan's with new icons I cannot port without creating new iconography to replace them (as porting them in would be in essence copyright infringement).

For example, let's use the humble Space Marine Predator:

Dawn of War:
Cost: 455 requisition/190 power
Buildtime: 82 seconds
Vehicle Cap Usage: 3
Limit: Unlimited
Weapons: Autocannon, 2x Heavy Bolter Sponsons
Weapon Upgrade: Twin-Linked, Lascannon, 2x Lascannon Sponsons
Upgrade Cost: 230 requisition/90 power/40 seconds, 75 requisition/125 power/25 seconds x2

Dawn of War - Winter Assault:
Cost: 300 requisition/165 power
Buildtime: 30 seconds
Vehicle Cap Usage: 3
Limit: Unlimited
Weapons: Twin-Linked, Lascannon, 2x Lascannon Sponsons
Weapons Upgrade: N/A
Upgrade Cost: N/A

Dawn of War - Dark Crusade:
Cost: 300 requisition/165 power
Buildtime: 45 seconds
Vehicle Cap Usage: 5
Limit: 2
Weapons: Autocannon, 2x Heavy Bolter Sponsons
Weapon Upgrade: Twin-Linked, Lascannon, 2x Lascannon Sponsons
Upgrade Cost: 10 requisition/15 power/15 seconds, 75 requisition/125 power/25 seconds x2

Dawn of War - Soulstorm: (Note: Same as Dark Crusade)
Cost: 300 requisition/165 power
Buildtime: 45 seconds
Vehicle Cap Usage: 5
Limit: 2
Weapons: Autocannon, 2x Heavy Bolter Sponsons
Weapon Upgrade: Twin-Linked, Lascannon, 2x Lascannon Sponsons
Upgrade Cost: 10 requisition/15 power/15 seconds, 75 requisition/125 power/25 seconds x2

As you can see, things mostly (emphasis on mostly *Cough* 5 weapons in a Space Marine squad in Dark Crusade *Cough*) solidified after Dark Crusade, but there were some problems as well, part of it being how artificial some of the limits were (looking at you, Land Raider and Predator). Although the balance seems okay in Soulstorm, I found a lot of the rudimentary buffs and limitations to be harmful to both the spirit of the original Dawn of War (and, by extension, Total War), as well as the spirit of the strategy itself.

One of the key beauties of Dawn of War's RTS style was that you could mix and match bits and pieces on your units (not unlike the tabletop game it's based on) to adapt to the needs of the battle. Space Marine Squads were particularly notorious for this; they could either be set up as a defensive bastion against infantry hoards (heavy bolters), be generalists against infantry and light vehicles (plasma guns), charge the enemy into close combat (flamers), or even take out enemy vehicles effectively (rocket launchers). This flexibility gave Dawn of War a unique feeling that I feel has yet to be replicated by any game, and misunderstood by its own developers.

For example, this is a feature that was criminally taken away from the Predator in Winter Assault; Predators started with Annihilator loadouts (ie. 4x Lascannons) and ditched the Autocannon/Heavy Bolters) completely. This was a big problem for the Space Marines because it limited their fast response anti-infantry capability (I, for example, often run a Lascannon turret and leave the bolter sponsons alone for a well-rounded unit).

Another piece of evidence that Relic didn't understand the beauty of this customizability is something that few may have realized at the time - something that I had enabled almost as a stealth change: Relic had added a pair of weapon upgrades for the Imperial Guard Sentinel. When I was originally coding Total War: Winter Assault, I found a pair of interesting weapon entries inside the unit's ebps lua file: an upgrade for a Heavy Flamer, and an upgrade for an Autocannon. These two upgrades replaced the default multi-laser, and literally everything needed for them to work - weapon stats, icons, physical models - were all there. Simply put: Relic must have at the last moment disabled them, but otherwise leaving everything in there for an entrepreneuring modder to discover and re-enable (much like the Hot Coffee mod - except minus the lewds, of course). What's really funny? After extracting the ebps for Soulstorm, this weapon was still in the game. Funny that.

Here's a quick gallery of this:

Autocannon Tooltip (with default Multi-Laser 3d model shown):

Heavy Flamer Tooltip (with default Multi-Laser 3d model shown):

Autocannon 3d Model (Note the Green border around the Sentinel avatar picture):

Heavy Flamer 3d Model (Note the Red border around the Sentinel avatar picture):

What I found really interesting about these weapons is how much fun these weapons were, and how effective they were in Winter Assault.

Weirdly enough, despite the heavy armor focus, Winter Assault's Imperial Guard was severely lacking in effective anti-armor capabilities in their armored units. I struggled greatly against Squiggoths and other heavy ork units with the Imperial Guard using the Lemun Russ. But, surprisingly, the Sentinel's Autocannon made it a very effective raider, not only useful for knocking down enemy buildings in swarm attacks (much like the fighters in Soulstorm), but they could also act as an effective anti-armor in a pinch (or a high-speed weak-armored version of the Hellhound). This versatility added greatly to the Imperial Guard's arsenal, made the Sentinels a well-rounded option, but also surprisingly not overpowered because their weak armor made them easy targets for even anti-infantry weapons. I probably lost about 30-40 Sentinels trying to take down buildings in Mission 4, and only worked with the help of a large group of Kaskrins to handle the infantry.

The tragic case of the Sentinel upgrades is just one part of Relic's struggle with understanding the beauty they had created with Dawn of War, as well as their fight to make this customizability balanced. The Land Raider is another victim to this; originally, it could be spammed (you can build four with its cap of 5 in the base game), but later was designated a "boss" unit, and setting the limit to 1, and giving it a massive buff to hit points and effectiveness.

Although doing this with the Land Raider makes sense when looked at in comparison to the other faction's super units (the Eldar's Avatar, for example, provides a massive boost to the entire faction, and I hadn't realized until recent playtesting that this ability could be multiplied by spawning more than one. Whoops), in (tabletop) reality you should be able to add multiple Land Raiders, as in Warhammer they aren't the be-all end-all of tanks in the slightest, and could easily be killed unlike the vastly superior Baneblade (in terms of tabletop). They are strong... but they aren't boss-killers.

And what's wrong with having a faction that doesn't have a "boss"? Starcraft's Zerg, for example, may have had the Ultralisk, but it certainly wasn't equivalent to the Protoss Carrier nor the Terran Battlecruiser. More importantly, in those games, no units had rudimentary limits. In fact, rudimentary caps as a whole are very rare. I'm actually okay with having a cap on Commander units for both tabletop and practical reasons, and certain units (ie. Avatars) could also have such a limit (but be buffed in Total War to compensate for the lack of triple limit). But this just shows how much a jumbled mess the balancing of the game is.

Okay, Now What?

One of the hugely popular little perks about the original Total War and Total War: Winter Assault releases is the inclusion of normally unavailable upgrades (Sentinel), adding an Imperial Guard faction in Dawn of War (using Space Marine buildings and redoing the build list to include the Campaign-Only Guardsmen and the Lemun Russ tank), and slight tweaks in the balance (Dawn of War stats for the Predator and Land Raider in Winter Assault; the 22,000 HP, heavily buffed, 15 cap (1) multi-build Baneblade) could never fit the massively expanded roster once you get to Soulstorm. On top of that, I would sneed to fix a bunch of small issues (and the Avatar problem... sigh...).

In short, although I could slap together a simple 3x mod and call it a day, it would also lose those little tweaks and harm what made it truly unique.

So instead, I'm thinking of putting the cart before the horse, and I've decided that this game deserves a full rebalance. Although I've heard of of other balance mods (DoWPro being one I've heard of), I'm thinking of making this not only super lightweight (ie. no new models/textures wherever possible), I also want to rework the feel of the game, while keeping what made it so great in the first place.

One of my biggest complaints of the original game was the "clunkiness" of the game; with the customization options, it required a lot of micromanagement, and that meant that it made it hard to respond to fights effectively when you're constantly having to add individual members (and in some cases their weapons, too) to their squads. I think there's a better way to go about it, and this will also tie in a bit to the rebalance.

Like mentioned in the earlier post, I want to try creating ways to simply unit creation. The first idea is having all squads start as fully built squads (or add a second icon for players to have the choice). The second idea (which can be combined with the first) is have units start with their weapons upgraded.

Separately, I've considered adding a way to downgrade a weapon if the need arises (though I'm not exactly sure how to go about that with the apparent engine limitations that I suspect may be discovered down the road). I may have to add multiple upgrades back-to-back (up to a limit of 5 swaps) to make it work.

Although I really dislike the decay mechanic, I feel it might encourage turtling. That said, I've also said that I want to allow players to turtle up if they feel the need. Therefore I may very well do this after all.

One of the big changes I'm considering is to eliminate RNG from a vast majority of direct-fire weapons (or, at least, giving them a very high chance to hit), to give the game a far better response to actions. I can't help but notice how long units can stay under fire and... lose just a few hit points a second, and last for an absurdly long time (like, unless you're literally pouring firepower on a target, they just don't die). This will most definitely mean that weapons will be far more lethal, but that may not be a bad thing; it would increase the carnage. As long as resource income is stable, it should be sustainable.

After all, if you look at games like Starcraft, units won't last more than a few seconds at the best of times. In Supreme Commander and Total Annihilation (games that reminds me a fair bit of this mod), you can have large armies where some big powerful units can survive a tsunami of fire while the weak units get picked off extremely quickly - yet production is very simplified and allows for strategic production.

To reward keeping squads alive, and to speed things up one thing I've considered is making weapon upgrades/replacements free and instant, and squad member replacements free (but with the current replacement timers so you can't spam a unit alive indefinitely). But, while this is true, buying a squad should be costly, and losing one should have an impact depending on its original effectness.

One other idea I'm considering is a freely placeable requisition generator that works much like a Power Generator, except very expensive, does decay, and multiplies in cost for every one you build (much like how you can do this with HQ buildings and their juicy flat Requisition boost).

Rationale

Balancing an army isn't easy, and balancing nine of them is insanity. When balancing an army, you have to ask yourself the following questions:

- What is the army's strengths?
- What is the army's weaknesses?
- What is the purpose and role of a specific unit?
- What is the unit's counter and why?
- How easy/hard is it to obtain a unit (cost, buildtime, tech tree)?
- Can the army be competitive when resources are scarce, and can a player catch up if they are falling behind?

This isn't an easy question to answer, but one of the big issues with Dawn of War, is that there's a lot of units that are practically worthless (transport vehicles), units that are overwhelming (I have almost won the entire Soulstorm Campaign using Space Marine Scouts alone), and units that are meh (I rarely use Space Marine Speeders, for example, because a Dreadnought is way more reliable and effective).

There's also the weird balancing between identical weapons (for example, all Imperium Autocannons should do the same damage, as should all Imperium Assault Cannons, as should all Imperium Melta-Guns, etc). I'm also considering making certain weapons have equal values between races (for example, a Tau railgun may end up having the same damage, range and rate of fire as a Lascannon).

There's also the fact that the stats are all over the place. Some units have absurdly high health, and damage values make little sense. Some simplification may be needed to help with this, as well as a lot of number rounding. I may even lop off a zero off of some of the health values (ie 6000 health becomes 600 health, and 60 damage becomes 6).

Finally, I want to revisit the pro-turtling discussion from my last post. To recap, I'm considering making defensive weapons capable of killing any infantry (for anti-infantry turrets) or vehicles (for anti-vehicle turrets) far more effectively than they are now. One of the big boosts is to range, to ensure that no unit can outrange one... except for artillery (again, Starcraft's Siege Tank is a good example). All the races already have an artillery unit, and it is these units that would be able to outrange static defenses, and be able to break a fortress. Artillery units would therefore be far weaker and easier to kill, forcing an entrenched player to counterattack to save themselves.

Kind-of how Company of Heroes allows players to "bounce back" by taking specific strategic points and cutting off supply lines, I'd like to be able to have players be able to hold off a superior foe, build up requisition generators, and eventually break out. Although this would be very hard for the player, the idea is that it should feel rewarding. I also want to ensure that all units have a purpose, to discourage single-unit spam.

In short, balance is a bit of an art, and you have to keep a lot of variables in mind. A unit may seem overpowered, but if you spend half the game building up to it and saving up for it, then your foe will be regretting not acting sooner; however, if said foe can build a bunch of cheaper counters quickly, they can work down the unit rather quickly. The Baneblade super buff I did, for example, at 15 cap, you can buy five Predator Annihilators, and any Baneblade facing that would be in for a very bad day. Counterplay is the lifeblood of any RTS, and any game that lacks it will suffer for it.

Like before, if you have any thoughts, comments, or want to help out, give me a shout! :)

TL;DR: Looks like in order to keep the spirit of the mod alive, I may need to balance first and ask questions later.

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BlackRedDead
BlackRedDead

Well, interesting and in parts great Article! 😊👍 - however, i don't agree with the prebuild upgraded units, as that is exactly the issue with the damn WA Predator Annihilator! - but i Agree on Downgrading stuff, allowing to switch out weapons if necessary, but not instant and certainly not free! - as the resource system is infinite that is a viable counter, as those weapons are meant to be special! - loosing a Unit carrying one should hurt! - both in time and resource cost! - but the time could be reduced, to resemble more of a "swap" of those weapons (maybe halfed the time, but not further! - needs to be playtested ofc^^)

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BlackRedDead
BlackRedDead

Also you forgot to remind yourself about how each faction should be played, Orcs are somewhat the Zerg of this series, their unit cap & Waaargh should resemble that! - also the Imperial guard, i found it more logical how they where in the DoW Campaign, 15 low dmg taking&dealing; bunch of cowards wich do pack quite a punch together, just like an Space Marine Squad, wich are essential super soldiers on steroids, but are a bit to much nerved in these games! - i understand balancing however, an rather easy road would be to trade squads, meaning a full squad of eigther race pretty much balances out statwise with oneanother, while the time needed to develop a full squad depends on exactly that! - meaning every unupgraded squad takes exactly the same time to achieve the same squad stats, and thus single soldier stats are a fraction of that, just devided by the number of squadmembers! ;-)
But that would take away DoW ofc! - as it's about IMBA Units that you just counter eighter with other OP units or a sheer ton of average balanced Units to just overwhelm those Terminators! - wich in return are balanced by unit cap and limited numbers to be fielded! (tough, limiting the whirlwind to just 1 was absurd, it's way to inferior, even with provided line of sight! 🙄)
Also Tau pretty much suck at close combat, that i do understand but not why their Scouts (Those Ghosts) are stronger than their regular unit (those Fire Wariors)?! while they even have a dedicated "Scout" named squad that sucks even more, it's not even usable for their intended purpose because they die even faster than regulars! (and for some reason can't have fancy stuff like a shield drone that would somewhat help a bit xP - tough, i'm not that hugely into W40k lore, especially not Tau, so maybe they are just supposed to suck and die even against a small orc horde? - idk, but it sucks playing them!)
While Necrons also feel like pretty inferior - IMHO they are already balanced enough by their slow unit speeds! - if you're not fast enough against them they SHOULD overwhelm you! - they should be weak against rushing and get hard to counter in the endgame! (as their weapons - as far as i understood the ingame provided lore - should be effective against pretty much everything! - but presumably for balancing sake, they don't, they still have those anti-infantry vs anti-vehicle dmg types thing going on xP) - a still possible counter to Necrons could be a an energy malus per unit, meaning the more units they field, the less energy percentage of their current production they generate! - thus having many generators as necrons still benefits you, but keeping the mechanic it costs more and more resources and time to field more generators to reduce the debuff by the percentage malus provided by fielded units! - but idk how to implement such mechanic, if even possible? (and not only by stock numbers, as that could lead to negative income if somehow a player manages to get all generators destroyed but still having a large army that draws strictly on the now low income! - it should be percentage, like 0,1% for every single infantry gun, maybe more, depending on unit cap and where the heck balancing goes!^^)
Also i would like to see Bolters on Rhino's as they are supposed to have! - i don't understand why ALL other races (except Chaos and those that doesn't even have transporters!) have weapons on their transport units, why?!

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BlackRedDead
BlackRedDead

About Defence buildings... i would rather like to see less pinpoint staying out of range behavior seen by the AI! - also a dmg increase but not as much of a range increase! - except you want to change the whole defence building models to resemble towers? ;-) - they are supposed to be kinda "medium-ranged" defence structures, but are somewhat to weak in both dmg dealing and dmg taking regards! - yea, they should have longer range than a squad, and missile turrets maybe even average a sentinel! (thus you need at least two sentinels for 1 missile turret with one still die in the assault!) - but please, don't make it like sentinels fall prey to turrets easily! - they should be somewhat walking anti-armor snipers! (at least Gameplay wise - yea, i hate the AI using them so extensively against my defences and especially that they can then take my captured points aswell and being so fast at it that i can't get them down before they strike a second capture point! xP - but, as you said, they are the only anti-armor unit of the whole Imperial Army beside Baneblades! - and they are kinda weak, could be a bit weaker in my opinion, but idK about balancing-wise :-/ - i would rather like to see the purposes of the Sentinel split, it being more of a scout craft and the lemon russ the anti-armor behemoth! ;-) - or maybe buffing the Chimera main cannon a bit to be more reliable against armored targets, while the side weapons are still better vs infantry! - but idK Imperial Guard lore well enough eighter, just what the game told me about them!^^)
Also, because the Imperial Army/Guard is somewhat the Turtlers of this game, their turrets surely sould take much more of a punch than they actually are! - the dmg output seems to be higher than that of the space marines one, but should rather be average with them (as they use the same technology - if any, the space marine turrets should be more dmg dealing, as they seem to be more advanced and certainly are more focused!

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