gap1.JPG[Gods at Play is a regular GameSetWatch column from Troy Goodfellow about design issues and gamer experiences in strategy games. How can strategy games help us understand the nature of play and the minds of players? This week, Troy examines what an RTS viewing angle says about design priorities.]

When I began playing Blizzard's Starcraft 2 beta, my first instinct was to grab the mousewheel and start scrolling. I like to get a good view of any battlefield before I use it to my advantage, and the mousewheel scroll is the default real time strategy interface for zooming the camera out, giving you a bird's eye look at the world.

Alas, the mousewheel did nothing. Following in the footsteps of its classic parent, Blizzard's Starcraft 2 will not let you zoom out, preferring to give you an intimate look at a tiny corner of the map. The minimap in the lower left is the only strategic view you have, so you must rely on your own memory of how far it is to the next ridge and your knowledge of how quickly your assault team can get to the enemy base.

Supreme Commander 2 was the other end of the zooming spectrum. Gas Powered Games designed the ultimate strategic zoom. All of your monstrous war machines would become no more than NATO symbols as you took a satellite view of the map. The sounds would fade away and the combat was reduced to boxes and diamonds and triangles shooting yellow dots at each other. In the first Supreme Commander, once a mission was completed, the map would get even bigger, letting you zoom even further out.

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In Supreme Commander, situational awareness is never an issue. This can make it tempting to play the entire game from the satellite view, never dipping below a near maximum zoom level since to do so would compromise your ability to see everything you possibly can. In strategy games, success depends on the right response to information; the more information you can process the better.

Real time strategy game designers have a tough decision when it comes to setting the proper maximum zoom level for a specific title. Many RTSes invest heavily in art and animation, so there is an incentive to give the player every opportunity to see these in action in great detail. Where's the fun in animating a Cyclops tossing an elephant in Age of Mythology if the player only sees it from a high and distant angle?

But if you keep the angle too close, it can be difficult to get a sense for the map or keep tabs on complicated military movements – attacking from more than one angle, co-ordinating units with different speeds, combined arms, etc. Those RTSes that let you build forward defenses and structures anywhere on a map become much more manageable when you can zoom out far enough to properly plan their placement.

The trade off, then, is between intimacy – a connection to your units, the art and the battles they engage in – and strategic sense – the idea that you are a god-general commanding forces on a map. Starcraft 2 insists on intimacy to the point where you almost need to follow your units around to make sure they get where they are going. Supreme Commander is more interested in you managing production centers and rally points while you move a series of large forces to their destination.

Properly conceived, a maximum zoom level is fitted to other design elements in a game. Though strategy-minded RTS gamers might think that a super zoom out level is always a good idea, it can collide with other design factors to make a mess of the actual play experience.

Some real time strategy games emphasize micromanagement of units. If a unit is a specialist unit that needs time to set up or is one with alternate powers or stances, then it needs to be immediately recognizable and quickly selected so it can put its best foot forward. EA's Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 is fast with many fragile units, each of which has multiple stances. Already a poor game, it would have been even more unplayable from a more distant view.

Red Alert 3 is a more tactical RTS; success is heavily dependent on matching counter units to whatever your enemy has assembled and making sure that the counters are targeting the appropriate enemy. The more reliant a game is on these types of matchups, the less useful a strategic zoom is.

Though not a traditional harvest-and-hunt RTS, Longbow Digital Arts' Hegemony: Philip of Macedon sprawls across a map of ancient Greece with dozens of cities. Battles erupt on a wide front, so the player has to organize rapid response teams to put out the fires that can weaken your growing empire. The units are not hard counters to each other; most units will do fine against other units so long as they are well led and supported.

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Since it is designed as a more strategic game, with more open ended goals and a range of priorities across great distances, a wider zoom is necessary and executed to great effect. Where Supreme Commander uses NATO symbols, Hegemony zooms out to board game pieces and a parchment map. Because the game is more about seizing general locations (cities, farms) than destroying specific enemy units, the eagle eye view is perfect for the grand sweep of the game's theme.

The design problem comes with those many dozens of games with needlessly close or intermediate zoom levels. They let you get a wide angle view of what is happening, but there is a natural strategy gamer impulse to zoom out just a little bit more. Given Starcraft 2's minimal micromanagement and varied map designs full of choke points, the decision to stick with a close viewing angle is not optimal from the perspective of design.

The further you can let the player zoom out, the more you have to give the player reason to trust his or her armies to manage without handholding. You need better pathfinding, attack-move commands, anything that lets the player keep his/her eye on the larger picture. Though it easier to think about more with a wider view, it also reveals new problems for the player to handle.

So why does Blizzard stick with it? Tradition, probably. The entire design of the game is a throwback to the early days of real time strategy. A lot of the game is geared to appeal to the sportsmen and women of Korea who have made Starcraft a national pastime. Even if the core game remains the same, a different level of attention is needed for different zoom levels.

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The natural urge to want to see more is intentionally quashed in Starcraft 2. Given the variety of units and lack of clear unit iconography, it would be too much to expect a Supreme Commander level viewpoint. But the stubborn refusal of Blizzard to move their camera out a bit makes it hard for those of us with itchy mouse button fingers.

Sometimes design elements survive in a series well past the point where they make sense from a technological or gameplay perspective.

But that's another column.

[Troy Goodfellow is a freelance writer based in Maryland who blogs about strategy and war games at Flash of Steel. He also hosts Three Moves Ahead, a weekly podcast about strategy gaming.]