5 lessons StarCraft 2 could learn from SupCom 2

Jaz McDougall at

supcom2 vs starcraft2

Before StarCraft came along, we all played Supreme Commander 2 at lunch. It's a great game with a dedicated development team who are committed to firing out updates and improvements months after release, even as their company at large is working on a new title. I returned to it yesterday after the recent patch, and I got to thinking – StarCraft 2 and Supreme Commander 2 are hugely entertaining RTS experiences with wildly different approaches to the genre. As you know, I hate diversity almost as much as I hate joy, so I started compiling a list of things that each game could learn from the other. Here are five things I reckon StarCraft 2 could learn from Supreme Commander 2.

Update: Servo at Gas Powered Games offered some insights into how feasible these would be. Here's what he said:

"I can understand why they didn't do any of these on Starcraft. Of the 5 items you listed, 4 of them are really, really hard to add to a game that doesn't have them built-in from the ground up."

Give me back my camera

After twelve years of development, StarCraft II let you zoom in slightly and temporarily wiggle the view to the left and right. That's, you know, fine. It's nice if you want a lovely close-up of a Queen blasting your Hatchery with eggs. It doesn't help you play, though. Supreme Commander 2 lets you zoom all the way out so that you can see the whole map. If you could do that in StarCraft II, it would be the same game, but it'd be far less annoying than the current affair – scrabbling around the map, wearing a hole in your mouse mat. Servo says:

"Strategic Zoom - Crazy hard. Our game was built from day one with this technology in mind. This is a huge technical hurdle for anyone."

Let me queue up infinite units

In StarCraft II, you need to personally queue every unit you want to build – and when you do that, you pay for it up front. This is micromanagement – I'm pretty sure that used to be a dirty word in RTS games. It means that players who are good at clicking on a lot of things a lot of times are better at translating their strategic vision into a hard victory.

In SupCom2, you don't get a pat on the back for for being click happy. You can set a factory to produce a certain unit or group of units forever. More importantly, you only have to pay for the first one. The rest comes out of your bank when the other units start producing. Imagine if you just had to set your Barracks to producing marines as fast as it could for as long as you had the money - you could take your eyes off of the Barracks and actually take care of that second expansion, finance your end-game push. Sure, some people could do that in their sleep, but some people choose StarCraft over sleep. What about the rest of us? Servo says:

"Queuing units should be a minor technical speedbump for any game that has the ability to accumulate resources. Probably this was a design decision to increase the distribution (and value) of CPM (Clicks per Minute). Starcraft just isn't Starcraft if it isn't physically demanding on the user."

Shields vs Artillery

Artillery is part of the reality of war. StarCraft II doesn't have any. It's an entire dimension missing from the game – what happens if I have a really slow unit that can hardly defend itself, but is really good at shooting giant shells at a target halfway across the map? Blizzard don't really know.

And how do you counter it? Shields. You can build your own artillery inside your shields, or leave shields around your factories as you close your forces in on the source of the shelling. It's a great spectacle in SupCom 2, and an opportunity for StarCraft 2 to come up with some new units. An upgrade for the spore crawler that lobs broodlings? A great big phallic attachment for the siege tank? Servo says:

"Shields & Artillery are not nearly as sexy if you don't have a built-in physics simulation to calculate impact points, and large zoom to take in the whole shield. Having said that, Company of Heroes did have really beautifully done off-screen artillery, so that at least is certainly possible with good sound cues."

Super units

Ultralisks aren't actually that big, you know? The Protoss walker thingies can take a beating from enough Mutalisks. No unit in StarCraft 2 is truly 'super'. That should be a crime. Supreme Commander raised the bar when it came to super units, and StarCraft 2 just toddled under it. Why can't I build a Heavy Carrier? Why can't my Nydus worm snatch Banshees out of the air and breathe fire? Scrabbling around in the dirt is fine, but I prefer sailing through the air on a boat with legs. Servo says:

"It makes units unmanageable when they take up too much screen real estate. You need a zoom to permit compensation at significant scale differences."

Moving and shooting at the same time

Here's an industry secret: they stopped making StarCraft: Ghost because they couldn't work out how to let you run around and shoot at the same time. In StarCraft 2, marines pursuing an escaping Overseer will actually stop in their tracks to let off little bursts of gunfire. When it flies out of range, they start running after it. When they catch up, they stop again, and fire while it escapes. These guys have massive suits of armour on that assist their muscles – you telling me the armour isn't strong enough to keep the gun steady while you run?

Note: I'm not talking about the attack move here. I'm talking about units who have to make a decision between moving and firing, when the units in Supreme Commander 2 can do both. I'm talking about the fact that you even need an attack move. It starts to get clunky in StarCraft 2 when you're attacking something and your units in front stop as soon as they enter range – meaning any units not in the front row are forced to run around them and find a better spot. Unless you're micromanaging them, only about 10% of your force will actually be shooting at things, and your force could even be gradually fanning out and getting in range of point defences like Photon Cannons. That's not how armies work. They're drilled, for one thing. A real soldier will never stand around shooting if they're blocking fifty other soldiers from chiming in. Servo says:

"Do not try this at home. This multiplies the AI load due to each weapon system having its own tracking and priorities. It also requires a blended animation system to look right. SupCom units can have upwards of 10 independent targeting systems slaved into a unified animation, and threaded into the multiplayer packets. Game has to be built and optimized to support this. Also looks less akward when a robot does this than an organic soldier."

While I'm busy giving SupCom2 the same treatment, riddle me this: what else could StarCraft 2 learn from its peers?