Lowering Floors and Sparing the CeilingLowering Floors and Sparing the Ceiling
In our last article, we talked about why a low skill floor helps grow the playerbase, and why keeping the skill ceiling high is so important for competitive games. (It’s a quick read; recommended if you have some time!) This time around, we’re gonna talk about how we’re going to do that, but we first need to elaborate on how we want to interact with the skill ceiling.
Previously, we noted that if you lower the skill ceiling, but that ceiling is still beyond the human potential to reach, then we haven’t really touched the skill ceiling as far as human vs human matches are concerned. If something does lower the skill ceiling in a way that matters (placing the ceiling within human potential), then we’d call that a change which harms the skill ceiling.
Our goal with IMMORTAL is not to leave the skill ceiling utterly untouched. Rather, we are making sure to not harm the skill ceiling—in other words, make sure the change makes no impact on human play. If it does harm the skill ceiling, we then figure out how much to compensate for that change in other areas of play. With this in mind, we’re able to provide hardcore and pro players the satisfying high-skill experience they’re looking for. In fact, almost all high-level and pro players that have played IMMORTAL (and its predecessor, Vanguard Prototype) have said that the game feels just as skillful and engaging as other competitive RTS games.
SIDE EFFECTS MAY INCLUDE…
We know that lowering the skill ceiling causes serious issues with competitive play. Many of us know what some of the biggest games do to create a high skill ceiling, but there’s also some baggage that comes along with those techniques that substantially increases the skill floor. Let’s take a look at a few of the biggest offenders:
- Burden of Knowledge is how we refer to how much people have to learn before they can have fun—both for players (how much do you have to know to play a match?) and spectators (how easily can you tell if you should cheer?). This is a problem that MOBAs in particular have struggled to handle, with long lists of champions and items that you have to learn to really play the game, or get smashed. And more often than not, new players that get smashed and don’t know why put the game down and never pick it back up.
- Poor communication of role is sort of a sub-issue that crops up with a high burden of knowledge. “How much damage does this ability do?” “Can this unit attack air?” Sometimes this information is hidden away or, worse, the art doesn’t feel like it matches how good or bad a unit or ability is.
- “How do I even play this game?” is a question that crops up when players don’t know what to do to win or can’t identify when to make a move. Some games, like competitive shooters, can get away with “just kill the other player,” but in more complex games like DOTA or StarCraft II, players have to learn to set lots of small objectives for themselves: gather gold/minerals, set an ambush, fake-out the enemy. Letting players decide how they want to tackle a match is awesome, but without a few obvious objectives to take, new players become confused and incredibly frustrated. RTS has had a particularly hard time overcoming this challenge, as the more structured environment of a campaign mode doesn’t prepare you for the freeform play you see in multiplayer. (Shout-out to AOE2’s Art of War series for taking this on!)
- Required physical coordination is a tricky line to draw. Rewarding fine coordination is a great way to raise the skill ceiling, but if players can’t have fun until they run practice drills, you’re on the wrong side of the line. You see this pop up in RTS and in some arcade-style fighting games. Physical coordination will be necessary for top level play in IMMORTAL, just not for the lower rungs of the ladder.
THE PRINCIPLE OF THE THING
The last thing we want to discuss before talking about specific solutions are the broad concepts we’ve discovered over the years. We’ve covered a few of these in other articles, but for the sake of completion let’s hit all of our core principles one more time.
- Opt-In Complexity: One of our most treasured philosophies, opt-in complexity is the idea that the core experience of the game is something anyone can get in on. For people that want a more hardcore experience, though, there are more layers of complexity and interaction beneath the surface for better control, better timings, and better performance. In RTS, attack-moving is an example of this, where more skilled players can opt to focus-fire.
- Forgiving Experimentation: If you can try new things without losing the game, folks tend to try new things. Allowing for a less punishing experience lowers the burden of knowledge, and the more things people try, the more they can learn!
- Proportional Consequences: We’ve all been there. You didn’t hold-position your zealot and lost your entire mineral line. You looked away for a second, and when you looked back you/your entire army was blown to bits, and you weren’t going to be able to recover in time to save the game. Making sure that your mistakes have appropriate, “proportional” consequences is one of the most powerful tools in allowing forgiving experimentation.
- Guiding Feedback: This is the other side of making mistakes easier to understand: make the game sing your praises when you do something right! Helping players understand that they did something well helps people have fun and learn good habits.
- Skill Displacement: There is a phenomenon in games that have aimed to make genres more accessible that I like to call “skill displacement.” If you lower the skill ceiling of some aspects of the game and increase it in others, players will naturally migrate their attention and skill to the new space. This is particularly visible in the transition from classic fighting games into games like Super Smash Bros., where the complex super-move combos translated into wavedashing and position-based combos.
- Easy Intention to Action: If you want a unit to move to a location and perform an action or ability, it should be easy to order the unit to do that. Cutting out unnecessary key presses and making it easier not only to select your units, but to make the units you want, makes it much easier for new players to jump into the meat of the action: slamming their powerful units into an enemy army.
- Transferable Skills: We want as many skills to be transferable between different factions and playstyles as possible, lowering the burden of knowledge substantially. In short, similar actions should (ideally) produce similar results. We achieve this by creating broad systems that touch every faction, such as placing zone control units on the same hotkey or granting access to a generic scouting unit. Players can then learn much more of the full game through learning a single faction.
MODERN PROBLEMS REQUIRE MODERN SOLUTIONS
And now, at long last: the way to solve game design.
Not really, but here’s the solutions we’ve found work best to achieve the goals we’ve laid out. We’ll also talk about how much all of these systems impact both low- and high-level play, and how we work to make sure the game is fun to play at all levels.
UNIFIED COMMAND CARD
Possibly one of our proudest innovations is the Unified Command Card: in IMMORTAL, all of your faction’s army abilities, available buildings, or available units can all be accessed through a single tab (the army tab, construction tab, and production tab respectively). Each tab is divided into the basic and advanced layer (which can be accessed through the space bar).
The hotkeys, designed by Tom Labonte and Colter Hochstetler (the brilliant minds behind StarCraft II’s The Core hotkey setup) are built to be ergonomic and comfortable, taking into account ability frequency, unit role, and more. Many of our hotkeys are built to make switching between factions easy by having units which fill similar roles (such as transports) on a similar key.
- Skill Floor Impact: There are dramatically fewer habits new players need to learn to engage with the game. Hotkeys are an advanced feature for skilled players, and anyone can jump in and use any of their abilities without having to manage complex unit control. With the use of the Advanced Layer, new and casual players don’t need to interact with the advanced layer for some time, making the initial experience less overwhelming. All of this results in casual players getting to the meat of “cool units, powerful abilities” very quickly.
- Skill Ceiling Impact: The skill ceiling is lowered slightly by control group management skills being less of a hard requirement; StarCraft II-style tabbing between different unit types and the classic “caster control group” are no longer requisite parts of the game experience. That said, this frees up control groups to easily allow for multi-pronged attacks, and advanced players can still opt for caster control groups to achieve fine control in the heat of the moment.
Macro (the systems around economy, production, and infrastructure) is the soul of most competitive RTS titles. It is one of the primary drivers of complex decisions (such as composition and upgrades) and allows for you to learn about what your enemy is doing with his resources if you can wriggle a scout into their base.
Macro is also, unfortunately, not the fantasy on the tin of the RTS genre. Most new players want to open a game, get their army onto the field as quickly as possible, and hold grand battles across the map. Imagine these players’ surprise when they launch StarCraft II and the only way for them to actually reach that experience is to stay on top of their worker production, deal with supply blocks, and create every bit of their army one-by-one-by-one.
We’ve taken a hammer to these pain points in the RTS space in a way that preserves almost all the decision-making. Here’s some of the highlights.
OPTIONAL WORKER MANAGEMENT
We’ve done what we can to make having to micromanage your workers completely optional. Town halls produce workers and automatically populate their nearest resource cluster to its maximum capacity, sending them to mine automatically. Creating a new structure simply requires you to press a button and order a structure to be built, and the nearest eligible worker will get to work. If workers have been pulled off of mining, they will return after a few seconds to make sure you don’t lose resources by simply forgetting to tell them to do their jobs. Finally, ether (your high-tech resource) doesn’t need to be gathered by hand, and you don’t need to assign a specific number of workers to each extractor—once you build the structure, the ether goes straight into your bank.
- Skill Floor Impact: This suite of changes has an enormous impact on the skill floor. New players no longer need to run drills to have a functioning economy, and they won’t be punished for forgetting to send their workers back to mine after pulling away to build a structure or defend from harassment. They no longer need the esoteric knowledge of determining how many workers they need on their gas in order to have a viable build. Getting to the core experience—make big army, smash into other big army—is viable for even the least-skilled players.
- Skill Ceiling Impact: Rote mechanical tasks (creating workers one-by-one, shift-queuing worker commands, splitting workers between geysers) are less valuable, though players that do have good worker control will still have a small advantage. Bringing a worker to a location before you have enough money to create the building eeks out a few seconds, for example, which can make all the difference in that early timing push. In our tests, we already see this extra effort in high-level play.
COMBINED PRODUCITON AND ARMY CAPACITY
Put simply, your barracks and your houses are now the same structure. When players create new production structures, they are indicating that they want to expand their army, so we wrap this functionality into a single building. Creating your factories and airfields will allow you to have more units, in addition to being able to build more units at a time.
- Skill Floor Impact: Players no longer need to drill to build their supply structures and avoid frustrating supply blocks. If they want a big army, they just make a lot of unit-producing structures. Note that you can still be supply blocked—it just won’t happen because you forgot to build an extra depot.
- Skill Ceiling Impact: The rote mechanical task of building your houses, depots, and similar structures at regular intervals is less helpful under this change.
Military production structures are also not limited to the old-school “one archer at a time” speed of production. IMMORTAL’s structures can simultaneously build as many units as they have the capacity to support. In other words, a structure that provides 8 capacity (or supply, or population, etc.) can create eight 1-capacity units, four 2-capacity units, etc. at the same time. This means that if you have the capacity to support 200 capacity of units, you can build that entire army in a single production cycle.
- Skill Floor Impact: This is a small change with large effects at low levels of play. Players can feel more free to make mistakes, as rebuilding a force is much more feasible (provided you still have the resources). This freedom means that taking fights is less anxiety-inducing and gives more room for players to get creative and experiment, allowing for more fun.
- Skill Ceiling Impact: This is one of the biggest drops in the macro skill ceiling. While it is still advantageous to pump units out as soon as you have the space and resources to do so, even high-level players will not need to do this one unit at a time and can simply frontload their production after a large fight.
All of these macro changes, in tandem, allow us to cull a lot of rote, decision-less mechanical tasks that are a requisite skillset in other RTS games, drastically dropping the skill floor. (Anecdotally, I’ve brought friends who have never touched RTS into early builds of IMMORTAL, which were missing huge swathes of accessibility features mentioned in this article. They were creating mid-sized armies, getting onto the map, and casting spells within 20 minutes and needed almost no explanation to get started.)
Of course, the removal of many of these tasks have also dropped the skill ceiling around macro by quite a bit. At a certain point in IMMORTAL, you have to distinguish your skillset and playstyle through other skills—pure macro won’t get you as far up the ladder as it does in other games.
AUTOMATED CONTROL GROUPS
In IMMORTAL, all military units you produce are automatically added to a default control group (we refer to this as your “main army” group). This functions similarly to “select all army” in other games, with one major exception: adding units to another control group automatically removes them from their current control group.
- Skill Floor Impact: With the addition of the “main army” control group, new players are able to take advantage of “select all army” functionality, but the steps to learn actual control groups are much easier to climb: you retain your main army and can easily split off harassment or defensive forces without losing that “select all army” reflex.
- Skill Ceiling Impact: The rote mechanical task of “select the new unit, add it to my main control group” is no longer a required action. High-level players will still benefit from grabbing certain units (such as casters or harassers) and adding them to a special control group as soon as they pop out.
Through the use of pyre, Immortals can place beefy defensive towers at various strongpoints on the map, and players always spawn with a couple of towers already outside their base. These towers provide early vision of the map and a place to retreat when things go wrong, helping instill low-level players with confidence to move out onto the map.
- Skill Floor Impact: Players are incentivised to explore, as they have safe spots out on the field rather than the black expanse of a brand-new map. These also provide an intuitive objective for new players to pursue. Claiming more of the map and expanding their tower network feels good and makes it easier to grow an economy. Additionally, these towers provide an intuitive point to attack: when players see lonely towers on the map, it acts as a stepping stone objective to chip away at the enemy without diving directly into their base.
- Skill Ceiling Impact: This is one of the changes on this list that actually raises the skill ceiling, through the introduction of our third resource (pyre) and the management and tension that the system provides. We’ll cover this in more detail in a future article.
IMMORTAL also introduces a creep camp-style system, where neutral units chill at various places across the map until they are provoked by one side or the other. Clearing these camps provides players with additional pyre.
- Skill Floor Impact: Camps do a surprising amount of heavy lifting. They provide new players with “easy wins,” helping them get comfortable and warm-up to combat in the game, and further encourages players to get out on the map to hunt more camps. They also function as an intuitive secondary objective—if you’re stuck and don’t know what to do, it rarely hurts to clear another camp.
- Skill Ceiling Impact: In high level play, camps raise the skill ceiling by providing more opportunities for multitasking, and creates more points on the map with significant strategic value. It can be worth allocating resources or troops to secure these camps indefinitely.
AUTOMATED MAP GATES
Maps will include automatic gate structures at the entrance to the player’s main base (as well as across other points on the map as well). Activating these ancient gates will cost some resources, but can be quickly employed if you realize a huge early push is coming that you aren’t quite ready for. Once activated, allied units will be able to pass through, but enemy units will be blocked and need to destroy the gate to proceed.
- Skill Floor Impact: The days of losing games because you didn’t hold-position one unit in the exact right place are behind us. New players don’t need to be scared of losing the game because of tiny, unintuitive mistakes like that, and allies can’t accidentally wall each other into their main by creating wall-offs and constantly forgetting to lower their gate.
- Skill Ceiling Impact: “Sim-city” skills are slightly less valuable, particularly in the early game, though creating wall-offs at expansions is still viable.
There’s a lot more improvements where these came from. We’re constantly developing, learning, and improving, and a ton of our accessibility features are still deep in the bowels of development. One example is our in-depth tutorials system.
Ultimately, the changes we’ve made to really lower the skill floor either don’t affect the skill ceiling, or only affect it through the removal of mindless rote tasks. In principle and in testing, the loss of these tasks translates quite consistently into active participation out on the map, which makes it much easier for new players can find the fun of commanding armies. It also creates more highlight-reel moments between pros as they spend their attention on battles, pushing each other to the limit.
- Donavon Bailey, Designer
- Colter Hochstetler, Director of Game
- Tom Labonte, UX Lead