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Modifying the Map before Playing a Match

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I keep coming back to an idea for a competitive RTS that features randomly-generated maps for most matches, and where many other details such as opponent faction and your own and opponents' starting locations are not known. Obvious such a scheme would have  problems with balance in cases where a generated map turned out more favorable to one player than another. I've been trying to think about ways to ameliorate this (beyond simply having a really good set of generation algorithms), and want to know if there is a lot of precedent for one such idea (and to hear thoughts).

 

So imagine that a map is generated and certain amount of detail is revealed to the players; a partial preview. They then have some options for refining this preview: a strategic scouting phase. They might send out scouts to locate gold mines or other resources, or get a better idea of the exact topographical details. Finally, they might even have the option to modify the map itself: "destroying" a resource node hey have reason to think their opponent will be closer to, or otherwise values especially highly.

 

The idea would be that none of these changes could be completely game-winning. They would be at most little statistical shoves to make a map more favorable to yourself in a way that you can control, or remove an enemy advantage if you spot one.

 

In a more blunt fashion, this could be accompanied by a "veto" ability so each player can force a map regeneration if they desire. This option would have limited uses.

 

Known issues:

feasibility of a "veto" power dependent on how fast maps generate

In a hypothetical scenario with two players equally skilled at the "strategic scouting" phase, overall change to inherent map imbalance may be zero.

 

Anyone know of games where the first part - the ability to gain more info on and modify a map before proper play begins - has been tried? Of course, other thoughts are welcome. Aside from strictly balance issues, does this sound like a possible entertaining addition for RTS players?

 

 

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Multiplayer games on randomly generated maps is quite old (most often found in older RTS games).

But there are two major issues with them in competitive matches:
1. Modern maps are designed to focus on certain strategically/tactically features. This is really hard to generate.
2. Competitive gameplay is all about training and developing certain strategies. This is incredible hard and frustrating in a ever changing environment and strategies are often tailored to certain maps.

Just take a look at the number of competitive maps in SC2, they are limited.

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Random map generation to me sounds more like a feature that could increase the longevity of a single player game... in a multiplayer setting, I would have the same reservations that Ashaman mentioned.

 

Many Online game devs allegedly tried it, but gave it up early in pre-prod or production. Seems focus testing revealed that players generally hated it... "Where's my camping bush?" - "Uh noes, I went all the way here to play superman just to find the usual position is undefendable!"....

 

Everytime a new guy joins a team of longtime players on a map everyone besides him knows, he stands out... he will not do much useful even if he would be really skilled as he doesn't know where he should be at what time. He will only use a tiny amount of the cover and routes that the map has, thus not really using the map to his and his teams advantage.

Most probably he will die within seconds though, as he might run around a corner only to find himself on the wrong side of a shooting gallery, and the whole opposing team lined up to mess up the lone noob that might come around that corner every match.

 

Now, imagine if that happens to everyone, every time. Would probably balance out as everyone is now the noob not knowing what to do. But: Gameplay would certainly change, away from fighting, and towards scouting. He who scouts the full map first and understands its layout the quickest will have a huge advantage.

Most of the matches though would most probably be pure chaos.

 

And that is before touching on the subject of balancing the maps and starting position. Over many matches, things would be balanced. But most matches would end in unbalanced setups.

I can tell you, the one reason why I don't play some games is simply because matches tend to be unbalanced. For example, some tweaks done in Armoured Warfare lead to the PvP battles very often ending very one sided. Now, its not because of random map generation there, there are other factors. But there is no fun in loosing 15-0, nor is there any fun in roflstomping the enemy. Besides other things, that is my #1 for not playing that game anymore... doing PvE gets stale quickly in AW.

 

 

As fun as procedural map generation sounds in theory, in practive you need to put a clear limit on what can be changed by the procedure. Depends on the game genre really (might work better for RPG Dungeons for example), but for an RTS, I'd vote nay, at least for the multiplayer.

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To be clear, I'm well aware that random maps is not new and there are issues with it in multiplayer. I'm asking people's thoughts (and of any known examples) on specifically the idea of players modifying said maps before the match starts.

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To be clear, I'm well aware that random maps is not new and there are issues with it in multiplayer. I'm asking people's thoughts (and of any known examples) on specifically the idea of players modifying said maps before the match starts.

 

Well, a "veto" is something of a democratic instrument.... democracy does not work in a competitive setting though where each player is only looking at getting an edge over the opponent himself.

Problem is, there are actually very, very few people that are able to accuratlely gauge balance and are ready to give up an advantage to make the actual game more balanced. I can tell you from expierience, this is why in tabletop wargaming you usually stick to the STRICTEST of possible rulesets when playing complete strangers. It gives the highest chance there is no table flipping later when somebody finds out that their opponent tricked them somehow by abusing some obscure rules or using unknown units from weird expansions.

 

I would clearly NOT let people potentially shafting their opponents before the game even starts, either making the game loopsided and unfair for the opponent, or starting a war of shafting and getting vetoed until the pre-game rules end this silly nonsense.

 

Funfactor? Most probably nil. Amount of rage built up before the game even starts? Most probably a lot.

 

 

IF you want to try something like that out, make it a strategic game of its own. Make sure the whole "map preparation phase" plays out according to a fixed ruleset that is balanced so given the skill and knowledge about it is evenly distributed among both opponents, the result is balanced, without silly vetoing.

IMO I wouldn't give the players the tools to actually "change" the map.... they could built strucures, like supply bases, or bridgeheads to prepare before the battle starts. Maybe prepare their bases. Giving the players the ability to scout the map might be interesting, at least for new players.

Changing the map sounds like the hardest task with the least amount of fun factor coming out of it. Everyone will try to make sure their opponent has a huge disadvantage... either your pre-game ruleset is extremly strict about what players can or cannot do, severly limiting the amount of impact of this system, or this system might completly screw over the hard balancing work you did on the main game.

 

 

Really, what you propose sounds like an AWESOME game for good friends to have a blast, just as having a beers and pretzels tabletop game testing out the most OTT special units from the weirdest expansions for fun and giggles.

It doesn't sound like a game that has any chance to become a competitive gamers favourite, or is even very fun to play for strangers over the internet. Strangers playing competitive games against each other tend to be pretty much a**holes, using every loophole they can... yet they will complain about the loopsided battle and missing balance afterwards.

Giving these player less options that they can use to make the game less fun for themselves and their opponents if often a good idea, even if players might tell you otherwise.

Edited by Gian-Reto

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IF you want to try something like that out, make it a strategic game of its own. Make sure the whole "map preparation phase" plays out according to a fixed ruleset that is balanced so given the skill and knowledge about it is evenly distributed among both opponents, the result is balanced, without silly vetoing.

 

That was the essential idea, yes. The building structures thing is also a good idea, but I'm not sure it's inherently different. It involves changing the map in some way before starting. Perhaps I could make the "destroying resource" ability more analogous to this by allowing those effects to be reversed during the course of the game, just as one might destroy a pre-placed bulding. IE: enemy scout sappers collapse a gold mine entrance in the scouting phase, then the player takes control of the mine and invests some time and other resources into re-opening it.

 

The veto system was intended to work within another idea I had for the, which was a more varied win/loss system. In an attempt to give players a higher tolerance for losing any individual match, there would be levels and different types of winning and losing, and this would matter to a sort of metagame score layer. All very dependent on each other, which is another weakness. But the whole concept is experimental. Essentially it means that maps would be generated until both players had "accepted" one. A player who uses all their vetos auto-accepts all maps, but a player can also accept a map even when they have vetoes left. Accepting a map you perceive as having a very low bias against you might still be better than vetoing and possibly ending up with an even worse situation.

 

Really, what you propose sounds like an AWESOME game for good friends to have a blast, just as having a beers and pretzels tabletop game testing out the most OTT special units from the weirdest expansions for fun and giggles.It doesn't sound like a game that has any chance to become a competitive gamers favourite, or is even very fun to play for strangers over the internet.

 

Entirely possible. I'm operating under the advice of a game designer who said something like (massive paraphrase warning) "Don't try to design an esport. Add hooks to make it easier for your game to be adopted as one, sure, but trying to design one from the outset will get you a soulless, joyless 'game'" With how this game is taking shape in my head and in a handful of limited prototypes, any competitive scene that could possibly grow up around it would look very different to, say, Starcraft's. My use of the phrase "competitive RTS" was really just redundant - I meant the stereotypical RTS, where two or more players go up against each other.

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You said that the player doesn't know his start position. That makes it very hard to modify the map, because the players won't know where to optimize. They can only try to move the map towards more homogeneity, which doesn't sound particularly fun to me.

 

If the players pick there start locations, you've got a lot more options. There's divide-and-choose, where one player places both bases and the other selects his preferred one. You could also make the scouting phase variable length: you can keep spending more time scouting the map and learning more about it, but once an opponent selects his base that region is off limits: so you have to balance gaining more data to more accurately gauge the best location with selecting the best spot before your opponent does.

 

Regarding vetoes, you might break a map into regions (say a 3x3 grid) and allow vetoes of each region. That should speed up the process some, as each map doesn't have to be reanalyzed from start, and you're determining imbalance in a smaller area.

 

Another choice would be to create very vanilla maps and then have some resource that builds up and allows modifications. Maybe there's no iron/gold/whatever at all at the start, you have to deploy them during the game (with some rule about distance from other resources). You can also build mountains/rivers/whatever at certain points, so you can shape the map to your advantage as you go. By starting with a plain map all the unique advantages are player set. And the player might have to balance having more resources with better defensive terrain.

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You said that the player doesn't know his start position. That makes it very hard to modify the map, because the players won't know where to optimize...
 
If the players pick there start locations, you've got a lot more options. There's divide-and-choose, where one player places both bases and the other selects his preferred one. You could also make the scouting phase variable length: you can keep spending more time scouting the map and learning more about it, but once an opponent selects his base that region is off limits: so you have to balance gaining more data to more accurately gauge the best location with selecting the best spot before your opponent does.

 

Yeah, that problem did occur to me. I like the idea of the players not knowing where each other's starting location is because of how I want the rest of the game to play, but it does throw a wrench into this part. Your idea of closing off a "region" at a time helps. The player wouldn't know exactly where within that region the enemy was, it would just narrow down the search. If the map feels big enough that could still provide the effect I was going for. The "take longer to gain more information vs. grabbing an early good spot" sounds like what Offworld Trading Company does in the beginning. 

 

Generating the map in modular regions is a pretty cool idea as well! Definitely not something I've thought of. Will have to look up techniques on how to do such a thing.

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How about a Tile Laying meta-game at the start? 

 

Maps would be made out of known map tiles, and players start by placing tiles out. Different tiles have different risks/rewards tied to them, and players would have to choose to place a good tile near their starting point, or lock in a bad one near an opponent (And leave themselves open to getting a bad on in return.)

 

Starting a game off with something almost like a mini game of Carcassonne could be rather interesting with well designed tiles. 

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The closest thing I can think of is the current implementation of Star Wars X-Wing (a miniatures boardgame) where both players actually need to place asteroids before the start of a game (answering to a few rules).

This essentially generates the terrain for the game, and is part playing your strategy and denying your opponent's. I think it's brilliant, but it works only because it is simple.

Your suggestion sounds like it could be streamlined a bit further so as not spending too much time/attention/focus getting things setup before a game starts.

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One thing you could do is cake-cutting, i.e., where one person metaphorically divides a cake and the other person chooses which piece they want.

 

For example, you could start with a randomly generated (but pretty open) map, with two empty bases in reasonable positions.  Player 1 adds an environmental feature.  Player 2 has a choice: pick one of the two bases, or add an environmental feature of their own.  If they add a feature, then Player 1 makes a choice: pick a base or add yet another feature.  It goes back and forth like that until one player picks a base.

 

(After that, the player who didn't pick their base should have the chance to place one more feature, to mitigate the choosers' advantage a bit.)  

 

Having a hand of randomly-drawn feature tiles and a bit of placement constraint like a board game would enrich the decisions.  Like you don't just want players putting their favorite features in every map, and putting them all equidistant between the bases so that there's no advantage.  You want some tough decisions, like "this resource would play into my build strategy, but it only fits near that one base.  Do I place it and hope it's not so sweet a deal that my opponent chooses that base?  Do I enrich the other base with something nice so that my opponent takes it, so that I can get the first base and play this tile as my consolation tile?"

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Really, what you propose sounds like an AWESOME game for good friends to have a blast, just as having a beers and pretzels tabletop game testing out the most OTT special units from the weirdest expansions for fun and giggles.It doesn't sound like a game that has any chance to become a competitive gamers favourite, or is even very fun to play for strangers over the internet.

 

Entirely possible. I'm operating under the advice of a game designer who said something like (massive paraphrase warning) "Don't try to design an esport. Add hooks to make it easier for your game to be adopted as one, sure, but trying to design one from the outset will get you a soulless, joyless 'game'" With how this game is taking shape in my head and in a handful of limited prototypes, any competitive scene that could possibly grow up around it would look very different to, say, Starcraft's. My use of the phrase "competitive RTS" was really just redundant - I meant the stereotypical RTS, where two or more players go up against each other.

 

 

This is also my opinion. I see many games that are E-Sports favorites because of its balance as quite soulless. Not boring to play as long as you are into ultracompetitiveness and can get satisfaction out of that, but certainly lacking in flavour. And from playing games that have inherent troubles with balance I can say that this is not as much of a problem as some whiners make it sound like, as long as there are always multiple viable strategies, it doesn't matter much if one is a little bit better and one is not as good.

 

With that said, I would concentrate on balancing not so much the "fairness" of your design, but its "rage factor". Giving players the ability to "officially troll" their opponents can be fun in some games, as long as its tightly controlled. The last thing you want is that your players feel their opponents using cheap tricks, "cheating", and doing so by using (or "abusing") the games own official rules. Its when a not so balanced game turns into a broken one... and even if this would balance out over many games, many players will just look at that one match that made them angry like hell, forgetting the other matches where they owned....

 

That is why I have my doubts about too much interference with the opponents resources pre game or the veto system. I am not 100% sure I understand how you want to implement a veto system in a competitive game, but looking at the US politics, we see how a "veto" gets seen when the two parties involved are so hostile to each other... neither side sees anything good about it, not even the party that was able to veto their "opponent"...

As long as strangers are playing against each other, I would be concerned about making sure everyone gets to have some fun. Now, I know this is a hot topic about games which try to make sure skillfull players don't own too much, but given that as a dev you should be concerned about more than just single players, it does make sense to try to bridge the skill gap a little bit. So if your pre game is too much about skill (or knowledge), that gap will widen even more.

Making the pre game too much about luck would on the other hand leave players with the feeling that they lost because of the RNG... which can be good, to some extent, very few players want to face the truth that they are not the top 1% of players and rather blame it on the RNG.

But if the RNG starts to troll them before the game even begins, that might be too much for many.

 

 

Now, there is another thing. One of the interesting parts about wargames and strategy titles is to have to adapt to your surroundings. Its what makes or breaks a real militarys strategy. The combatant who is better able to adapt to their surroundings usually wins. Bringing tanks without infantry support into a city is usually ending badly. Letting infantry attack a machine gun nest over no mans land too.

Now, I did write before about why forcing the player to re-adjust every game could be too much... but you are trying to turn this thing on its head. Instead of the player having to adapt to the environment, they can now adapt the environment to them. That is not how war usually works. Which is fine if you want to go more abstract.

 

From a realistic perspective, a "random" procedural approach would certainly be better. How well that approach will work for an RTS or any strategic game IDK though....

The players involvment in pre game "environment setup" should be quite limited. You usually don't have the ability to bring in the big tools to move cubic kilometres of earth before a "random encounter" somewhere along the frontline.

I do see this as a good tool to make a onesided "defense" game mode more interesting though. Give the defender the chance to setup their defensive structures before the game starts, and also to change the battlefield within limits. Give the Attacker the ability to plan their attack waves at the same time to keep the attacker busy while the defender sets up his fortress and death zones.

Then give the attacker a limited ability to scout the defenders defenses pre game so its not just a mindless slaughter favoring the defender. And the defender is forced to adapt the well prepared strategy, and maybe even make sure their initial setup allows for multiple viable defense strategies should their opponent successfully avoid one of the traps they set up.

 

That would work without any veto system, as the whole game made is inherently assymmetric. Hard to balance? Yes. But could be very interesting, and makes exensive pre game environment changes quite realistic.

 

 

Other game types could have different pre-game options. A "random encounter" could have a real randomly generated environment. You could limit the terrain generation so no side is getting too much of an advantage. You could place resources at fixed positions, if there even are any (a game made WITHOUT resources in a game that usually has some in every map could make for quite a different game... having to preserve resources yet still defeat the enemy would force players to adapt their strategies for sure)... like the only resources on the map are in the middle, an abandoned supply base each of the opponents are trying to get.

 

Maybe there is a "trench line" style of game mode, where both players set up defensive lines in their half of the map? They can go crazy on it, with no involvment of their opponent.

The only thing here is that there needs to be some "stalemate breaker" units that prevent a WW1-style multiyear stalemate, without making the trenches completly irrelevant.

Edited by Gian-Reto

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With that said, I would concentrate on balancing not so much the "fairness" of your design, but its "rage factor". Giving players the ability to "officially troll" their opponents can be fun in some games, as long as its tightly controlled. The last thing you want is that your players feel their opponents using cheap tricks, "cheating", and doing so by using (or "abusing") the games own official rules. Its when a not so balanced game turns into a broken one... and even if this would balance out over many games, many players will just look at that one match that made them angry like hell, forgetting the other matches where they owned....

 

This is very much one of my focuses. I mentioned earlier the possibility of win/loss tiers. Right now in almost every game, a loss is a loss is a loss. People will "gg and concede" games that have turned against them (with varying levels of tolerance for the longshot comeback) because the only likely outcome left is defeat. The idea would be that even if your enemy has gained an advantage you can attempt to salvage the situation by holding them to a less meritorious win condition, or attempting a "minor victory" condition yourself.

 

The ability to modify the battleground would likely always be fairly minor, and ideally used to correct for certain strategies you think you might be weak against. However, it would almost certainly be necessary to have information about your opponent to make useful, meaning my "don't know the enemy faction" desire wouldn't work very well. Perhaps different game modes could allow for the possibility.You mentioned the "random encounter" and "siege" type scenarios, and I've envisioned others as well. All these could allow for different win/loss conditions - the downside being all the learning a player has to do to compete across all scenarios.

 

@valrus: "cake-cutting" is a very cool concept, but I think like Luckless' Tile Laying it doesn't fit as well into this particular design as envisioned. I want to resist the temptation to make the pre-battle phase too time-consuming for the players (if I include it at all).

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This is very much one of my focuses. I mentioned earlier the possibility of win/loss tiers. Right now in almost every game, a loss is a loss is a loss. People will "gg and concede" games that have turned against them (with varying levels of tolerance for the longshot comeback) because the only likely outcome left is defeat. The idea would be that even if your enemy has gained an advantage you can attempt to salvage the situation by holding them to a less meritorious win condition, or attempting a "minor victory" condition yourself.

 

The ability to modify the battleground would likely always be fairly minor, and ideally used to correct for certain strategies you think you might be weak against. However, it would almost certainly be necessary to have information about your opponent to make useful, meaning my "don't know the enemy faction" desire wouldn't work very well. Perhaps different game modes could allow for the possibility.You mentioned the "random encounter" and "siege" type scenarios, and I've envisioned others as well. All these could allow for different win/loss conditions - the downside being all the learning a player has to do to compete across all scenarios.

 

Time to learn certainly goes up with all the different Game Modes and the additional complexity this pre-game adds to it, on the other hand an RTS is not really a game type that lends itself to "try and error" type of learning. Only very frustration resistant players could learn the full set of rules in a RTS with loosing over and over. Most will turn to tutorials and other resources to learn the games rules.

 

You could introduce players to the different game type with a series of mini-tutorials, each showing how a certain game mode plays out in 5-10 minutes... that might give players enough knowledge to hold their own, without forcing them into playing a full battle tutorial mission for each game type.

 

 

Gaining knowledge about your opponent could be part of the pre game too. Maybe if a player gives up certain pre-game advantages, he can get insight into his opponents setup during the pre game... giving him the advantage to be able to adapt to this setup, at the price of having only limited means left to adapt as most of it was given up for the knowledge advantage?

This would mean the player would have wasted most of his pre-game advantage to get an early game advantage. He couldn't prepare the map for his strategy, but he most probably knows what his enemy will be up to. So you get an offensive option (adjusting the map and resources to give you an offensive boost) and a defensive option (getting the knowledge advantage, which might let you anticipate your opponents early game moves until first contact is made).

Edited by Gian-Reto

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Ah, it does help to simplify the concept down to basics. So now the pre-game phase is really a choice between one of several advantages: knowledge, advanced preparation, harming the other guy's strats, etc etc. That's a good way to think of it. It also lets me keep with the "minimum info known" at the beginning of the game.

 

Thanks for bouncing these ideas back and forth. Now to decide if I try to prototype this stuff now or later...

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Ah, it does help to simplify the concept down to basics. So now the pre-game phase is really a choice between one of several advantages: knowledge, advanced preparation, harming the other guy's strats, etc etc. That's a good way to think of it. It also lets me keep with the "minimum info known" at the beginning of the game.

 

Thanks for bouncing these ideas back and forth. Now to decide if I try to prototype this stuff now or later...

 

How about a simple paper prototype with very simplified rules and a "mockup game", so basically there is just the output of the pre-game prototype that will then be judged based on the mockup ruleset of your "mockup game"? Just to see if and how such a pre game could work from a high level perspective? Maybe that would be enough to have more eyes look on the idea, and put it in front of some friends to see if they "can break it", or if they like it.

 

 

Anyway, good luck with your idea there.

Edited by Gian-Reto

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For the tile laying mechanic, maybe think about it more as a deck builder game? You have X cards to play, and each card has a different effect on the game. Some cards grouped together would then play off each other, such as a resource card surrounded by mountains near your starting base, or be less tactically useful, such as an open plain.

 

As a player for each turn of playing you have to decide, "Do I play a card to secure an advantage FOR me, or do I play a card to limit the opponent's advantage?"

 

The key for an RTS type game would be how many tiles you place, and finding an effective sweet spot. Too few tiles in total and the mechanic doesn't do much and you don't get many maps over-all, but too many and your game start becomes bogged down.

 

Maybe different sized tiles would be an answer? So you could have larger more static tiles, and each player can place 2-4 of these that then build the bulk of the map, then smaller sub tiles that would help define the bases or special locations within the larger tiles.

 

 

I feel that it is kind of like selecting starting locations in Settler's of Catan; it is as much about limiting an opponent's options as securing advantage for yourself.

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I recall years ago (decades) seeing a gamemaster having a (large) minitiaturtes tabletop game where the two sides each got to discard from the terrain a set few features (objects)  from a randomy thrown together map (the GM litterally had thrown the terrain feature into place on the large map).   This gave them the choice to select terrain (a bit) to their advantage (something a historic general did by selecting the battlefield when given a choice.

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