Be warned that this will be a relatively long and detailed article, looking at weapons and their characteristics, the design philosophy of weapons and considerations of shields, point-defence and a number of other relevant factors.
Let us begin with examining the characteristics of weapons. Weapons in RTS games can quickly be simplified down to three types. These are direct fire – “scan-hit” (lasers and kinetics), ballistic (rockets and artillery) and guided (missiles and torpedoes). In some games, space games, there is also little difference between the first two, but for other games there’s an important difference there. Direct fire weapons can also be either instant-hit (lasers) or merely fast (kinetics), but there is often little difference in practical effect. On the other hand, ballistic and guided weapons may well behave differently, depending on things like point defence systems (discussed later in this article), and considerations such as gravity and wind.
What is perhaps most important, though, is weapon range. Essentially, doubling a weapon’s range does not double its value. The same damage, delivered over twice the range, means that it can fire sooner, and more units can fire on any given enemy. The exact value of this will vary depending on how fast units move compared to weapon ranges, faster movement somewhat offsetting the value of range, but is considerably above double. Equally, there is a difference between doubling a weapon’s damage and doubling its rate of fire – front-loaded damage allows enemy units to be destroyed sooner, and is thus of higher value. Weapons which take time to hit are also, thus, of somewhat less value than instant-hit weapons.
The ability to focus fire and destroy an enemy rises sharply with the number of units firing, which is a major consideration in a strategic game where unit counts may be high. Thus, direct fire weapons are often of relatively short range in these games, to limit this. Both ballistic and missile weapons are often longer ranged, but either low damage or have long reload times – the convention in games being that they are vulnerable to enemy direct-fire units closing in and destroying them. This can be useful, but you should not feel bound by it if your game philosophy on this differs – as I will discuss later in this article.
Of course, if there is some type of damage reduction in the game, where units take less damage from each hit, the value of high-damage weapons rises sharply against larger targets. This is actually something to be careful of, as it can mean that early-game weapons with lower damage may become rapidly obsolete later in the game – it is something of a crude tool compared to adjusting damages based on armour types, as the Homeworld games do – I recommend this above or indeed as well as the ability to adjust damage versus individual units in Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander, which can lead to long and unwieldy damage lists. Essentially, if some units have, say, anti-laser armour then if they are assigned that armour type, they can have lower damage set from laser-using units without needing to individually assign each laser weapon a lower damage against their type. Indeed, even being able to set modifiers on the unit to adjust damage types is more flexible than adjusting weapon damage against units individually (although again that is useful for special cases) – and in fact, when the game allows fan-made units, it’s strongly preferable as they will not be on weapon’s special damage lists without the fans also adjusting all of those!
There is also the consideration of accuracy. Generally, scanhit weapons are fairly accurate, or have a fixed accuracy and you can calculate their damage per second (DPS) accordingly. Guided weapons will also in most cases be perfectly accurate, and hence their DPS is also easy to calculate – this is why missile weapons tend to be slower-firing than other weapons in most games. Ballistic weapons, though, especially slower weapons may well do considerably less than their listed DPS depending on such factors as target motion. In some cases, such as the heavy long-range artillery of Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander, they may have poor accuracy – which is indeed something of a feature, as they can bombard widely across a base, not necessarily taking out a single target, but causing widespread havoc. That in turn brings up another factor, area of effect (AoE). How effective AoE is tied heavily to the game and unit type – flack in a space game may deverstate fighter squadrons, but capital ships may have considerable amounts of space between them. On the other hand, a tank formation advancing on a land base may be relatively dense, and heavy cannon with AoE effective. In some games,, for some weapons, damage falls off depending on how far the target is from the centre, meaning that only units close to the centre will take maximum damage – and the curve of this damage may vary – it may be linear or even quadratic (falling off rapidly as you move from the center). The value of AoE thus varies greatly depending on the game type.
This leads us into the discussion that it is very important to have a coherent design philosophy for weapons and armour in your game – it may be simple for the end-user, but quite complex for the designer to create and enforce. You can create anything from a simplistic R/P/S balance to the explicit (and indeed unit-cap enforced) combined-arms strategy of Homeworld or the more chaotic strategies of Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander. Without a coherent idea of the armour and weapons in your game, you will face a massive, uphill task to balance it. At the same time, you must remember that we are looking at a truly strategic game, and we do not want to micro-manage small units.
Games like Homeworld, quite understandably, have tiny fighters do damage to far larger ships only if they have weapons specialised in doing so. I say “understandably” because of the scale differences the game can provide. This is trickier in some other situations – for example, in TA Dark Suns, while it is a space total conversion I was still working with a 2d plane, and the actual differences in the size of units is far smaller than that Homeworld, with its 3d space, faster units and larger play areas can manage.
In the case of Dark Suns, I still deliberately chose to base the game around a damage model where smaller units did less damage to larger ones, unless those weapons were specialised for it. On the other hand, very powerful weapons basically either couldn’t target or couldn’t hope to hit fighters. A capital ship engaged other capitals with its main guns, and engaged fighters with light missile launchers or lasers! This was done by setting tracking speed limits on the larger weapons, and lowering the damage of lighter weapons against bigger targets (I could also, near-equally, have increased the large unit’s health values).
Homeworld and especially Homeworld 2 also picks this model, “tuning” targeting and damage between its three types of unit (fighter, corvette and capital) for each weapon. Other games, ground based ones, like Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander, tend to avoid this sort of special damage and their only major differentiator is air versus ground – some weapons can only fire, or only fire effectively, on aircraft. That itself can be good, of course, in that those weapons cannot become distracted firing on ground units, but will always be available for anti-aircraft work. In fact, the ability there to set targeting priorities is highly useful – if we look back to week three, we have a number of very useful tags set for units, which we can explicitly use for this. As well as being able to target “ground” or “air”, or for space games “fighter”, “corvette” and “capital”, we might use those tags to allow some (slow-tracking) weapons to preferentially target slower units, and other weapons might in fact actually be completely unable to target i.e. aircraft, as they could not usefully hit them and it is better that they focus on what they are actually good at!
Damage must also, of course, be hitting the enemy to be effective. In Homeworld 2, for instance, if you look at the capital ships of the Hiigarans and the Vaygr, they use quite different weapons and building philosophies. In fact, while if we examine the battlecruisers of both sides, while relatively well matched in a 1v1 there are substantial differences, especially as other ships mix into the battle. Let’s spend a two paragraphs looking, in detail, at the differences between the units – delving into the hard statistics of their weapons, which can be found here and here. You may wish to skip this if it does not interest you.
The Hiigaran ship has marginally (some 4%) more anti-capital ship firepower, and it has its weapons in turrets, allowing rapid switching of targets, while in turn the Vaygr ship relies heavily on front-mounted beam weapons which can costing it considerable retargeting time between targets. In a larger action, though, the Vaygr ship has 54% more damage in its first salvo which can make a big difference as to how fast the enemy ship dies – and when your primary weapons have a fifteen-second (or even thirty second) recharge time, that’s a big advantage –offset by the fact that if you overkill one target, your effective firepower is less. There is also the fact that the firepower the Vaygr ship can bring to bear against fighters is also about four times greater, which can make a substantial contribution in a larger action – while the kinetic guns of the Hiigaran ship can engage corvettes, that substantially lowers its firepower against other capital ships!
Therefore, despite the technical damage advantages of the Hiigaran ship, the Vaygr capital ship in fact has a substantial advantage over it in actual usage. One notable trap, however, is that some strategy guides suggest a hyperspace-jump, an instant movement across the battlefield, of a Vaygr battlecruiser above or below a Hiigaran one, temporarily limiting the firepower of the Hiigaran’s firepower to half normal, as half its weapons are ventral and half dorsal. The thinking is that the Vargr ship can immediately engage with its omni-directional missiles, and then turn to bring it’s forward lasers to bear. However, in fact, the missiles (while flashy and long-reload) are just a quarter of the Vagyr ship’s DPS, and it faces half the Higarran ship’s DPS immediately…you actually lose out compared to a frontal attack! This is, though, perhaps not obvious and an example of players in fact over-thinking without consulting the statistics!
The important point, however, about the game philosophy is less that it must follow any particular grounds, but that it must be well considered and internally coherent. You may wish to follow the particular memes of, say, a space game but it’s also a perfectly valid choice to do something different and interesting – what matters is the balance here, and if you start with a good model, adjusting the assumptions should bring you very close to balance, needing only minimal hand tweaking – and you’ll almost always need some kind of final tweaking. No matter how good the model, the human touch of an experienced designer, iterating on and adjusting values remains invaluable and you will always need to allow time for this.
Moving on to discuss armour more directly, it’s one way of encouraging combined arms operations. Homeworld’s model means you face certain threats, and must mix and match to ensure you are not overly vulnerable to a given type of enemy weapon. Other games may be more subtle and assign certain types of advantage to certain types of unit – for instance, infantry may be able to garrison buildings, or if left without orders for a time may in fact “dig in” on their own, giving themselves the advantage of taking less damage until ordered to move. I prefer this more subtle approach for a strategic game, giving unit types an advantage – which does not necessarily need micro-management, but encourages mixing unit types depending on where the fighting is occurring.
Another example is that in many games aircraft are explicitly tied to a support role – they are much faster than other units, and immune to many types of weapons (which are too slow to hit them, or which have a limited range). Allowing them to, for instance, capture territory is simply too potent, you must send in ground units. They may also in many cases not be able to hover, but must make passes over enemy units (taking fire all the way) and/or have limited ammunition. All this effectively limits their damage, but allows them to have i.e. heavy-damage bombs and be able to take out a tank column – that’s their part in the game’s philosophy of damage!
Shielding is also a form of armour, and I must here discuss a major issue in Supreme Commander – its use of area shielding. This, unfortunately, has a number of notable drawbacks. Essentially, if you stack together a number of shields, you can do away with attrition and make long-range fire useless. If you don’t take damage from enemy long-range weapons, don’t need to replace units or change your plans, then you can build up unhindered – hence Supreme Commander games often stalemate until superweapons or vast units come onto the battlefield, as attacking an enemy’s base with moderate sized attacks will usually do no damage at all, and longer-ranged artillery weapons are of limited use. It is strongly preferable that this not happen – it overvalues defensive units and big artillery units firing on your base should always need a response – of units sent out to find and destroy them, for instance.
Some other games do have a similar nullifying effect with some types of weapon – for example, point-defence in Dark Suns allows capital ships to destroy some inbound torpedoes (slow, heavy anti-capital missiles) However, this only does this only affects one sort of weapon – energy weapon fire is closer-range but not affected, and there are other options such as your own capitals or heavy fighters with plasma guns, which are effective against lighter capital ships. The nullifying effects are also limited in several ways, either with imperfect protection (i.e. some defences miss) or a relatively slow rate of fire and expense – this is what I did in Dark Suns, where the idea is that while a few bombers will see their torpedo salvo’s thinned, larger numbers of bombers simply won’t see enough defensive fire to substantially thin their fire!
Therefore, there is a substantial difference between the layered strategy elements and strategic choices of unit which point defence adds, and the removal of major elements of strategy which unlimited numbers of overlapping shields creates. This is not to say that area shields are entirely bad, but they should, perhaps, be considered a sort of superweapon and be triggered manually, as are nuclear launches and other types of such – and be limited by things such as a limited uptime or be expensive with an inability to be repaired, their destruction blowing up the generator. This is not, of course, to say that shields on individual units is a bad idea – on the contrary, it is a useful tool, although its limits also need to be appreciated. Shielding which does not regenerate under fire is essentially another form of health – regeneration between battles only occurs if a unit survives in the first place, which becomes increasingly unlikely as the weapon count (and thus damage involved) rises. You will typically have far fewer damaged than destroyed units, in other words. Shields which do, in fact, regenerate within combat (perhaps only within AE, as discussed in part 5) add a considerable amount of effective health, but one which actually scales up for longer times to kill – if a unit regenerates 10 shields a second, if it survived two seconds under fire, this added 20 to the damage needed to kill it, but if it survived ten seconds, then this adds 100.
This of course ties back into the damage in range of a unit. Certainly there is a place for shields –perhaps they may interact differently with some weapon types, and shields on buildings can hold off early rush units, or anti-rush defending units may use shields to be far tougher without requiring massive health values. In a large scale battle, however, absent weapon interaction differences the actual colour of the bar, for armour or shields, is actually rather cosmetic – which is not to rubbish the value of this sort of cosmetic to players, who often enjoy this type of difference between sides, as much as simple things like different colour lasers for different factions.
This is hardly a comprehensive overview of weapons and armour in games – I have not touched upon, for example, damage-over-time or more exotic types of weapon, but this article is already more than long enough and I hope I have impressed on you something about the relative value of weapons and the need for a coherent philosophy behind weapons and damage in the game, more than any individual model of weapons and damage!