Supreme Commander introduced an extremely useful “strategic zoom”. While it certainly doesn’t replace the minimap, the ability to have a full-screen view, with icons for unit types – both yours and the enemies – adds new dimensions for strategic play.
This isn’t to say that it’s perfect, by any means. It perhaps provides too much information for the enemy – for instance, informing them of the type of ground units you have. It also seems, on many configurations, to display icons rather than units too early as you zoom out. This is also down to the need for distinctive unit shapes and side colours – something Total Annihilation did well – but also to design choices. In addition, it could provide you with more detailed information at some points – for instance, your high-tier structures/superweapons could all have distinctive icons. One area, in fact, I am extremely sceptical about is requiring “zooming” out to the strategic level. Instead of tapping a key, you need to go out with the mouse wheel. Add the use of a key – perhaps tab – to jump instantly to the full-screen, full-battlefield strategic view.
One area which can be improved on is alerts. In Supreme Commander, alerts jump you to fighting, at zero zoom. This is usually not what you’re looking for, especially for larger-scale combat. I would add some degree of zoom based on both the scale of the combat and the “zone” in which it is occurring – these zones being those we discussed in week 3 for the AI. In addition, instead of a single alert to be jumped to instantly (although that functionality is certainly something to retain), an “events” box on the UI should store the last say half-dozen significant events – these being alerts, super-weapons finishing building, etc.
Another area to look at is overlays. One commonly used overlay, which we have discussed from week 2, is the building overlay. However, that is not the only one which we might want to use. Other overlays are more specialised, but may give additional information. One overlay might show historical combat areas (that the player is aware of) on the map, or another might show the current known forces via colour shading. Still another might show ranges for super-weapons – there are plenty of possibilities here for useful overlays, many of them most useful in strategic view. A still further useful advance is allowing people to have multiple view windows. This is something especially lacking in Planetary Annihilation, where you must keep rotating worlds to follow the action, but is suited to even “flat” world RTS games – especially on larger monitors. You should be able to partition off part of the view area for second, and even third and fourth cameras, as your GPU allows, and to interact with them as your main view. Finally, the camera functionality from Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander, apart from this, can be kept and enhanced – the ability to “bookmark” and jump back to locations or groups of units, even having the camera automatically follow the later, for instance.
The major theme of the second half of this article though, is detecting enemy units. In Total Annihilation, Supreme Commander and so on, this is binary – you either have scanner coverage of an area or you do not, while some units never show on scanners because they are “stealth”. This is a rather simplistic model, and can be improved on. First, let’s give sensors a “detection” value. It will have a large range, but not be constant – it will drop off the further you are from the radar, and is additive based on the sensor units in range. Units will also have a “stealth”. A unit it detected if the detection is above their stealth. Sensors will generally “sweep” every 5 seconds, adding or subtracting units then. Some high-end sensor systems may sweep more often, or targetable sensor “pings” (“remote drones”, or similar) will simply last for a set period, perhaps 10 seconds, revealing units.
e.g. A sensor has a detection of 0.1 at range, 0.3 at two-thirds of its range, 0.5 at half and 1 at one-third of its range. It would detect a normal unit with a stealth of 0.3 at two-thirds of its range, and a stealth unit with stealth 1 at one-third of its range. This can even be refined, such that unit types might not be revealed at the very edge of detectability, but only their presence.
We can then fine-tune values – bigger, more powerful units will typically be easier to detect, while smaller units are less detectable. There may of course be exceptions to this for specifically stealthy units, while early raiding units will have a low stealth value. This means while you can attempt to raid the enemy, if they are alert they will pick up your unit’s early on and can intercept them before they do any damage with slower defensive units, or even place base defences.
Of course, all “emitting” units – that’s all scanners – and anything actively firing on another player has stealth 0, and will always be detected if you’re in range. In any case, this lets you locate i.e. enemy artillery, and lets you know where enemy sensor units are – this can be used for locating an enemy base (or, alternatively, be used to bait enemy units into a trap), and makes viable attacks on enemy radar locations to blind him. There can even be other units, such as sensor jammers which raise the stealth of all units around them, or “passive” sensors – very long ranged but only detect emitting units – or any number of other refinements. We, thus, have a new and powerful tool for enhancing strategic gameplay – creating an interplay of sensors and detection which builds and enhances on that found in other RTS games, and encouraging players to do more than build a few large radar units and always know where the enemy units may be found!
So – I hope this article has given you some interesting things to consider when it comes to maps and views, both how information is given to the player and how we can enhance the way players interact by using more advanced scanning and stealth systems.