In a previous article I wrote, I covered the topic of veterancy in real time strategy games as analogous to research. While, for the purposes of that article, that was sufficiently true, I don't feel like I quite did the topic justice and since then I've been mulling over a more complete and interesting dive into the concept of unit progression in real time strategy games.
I'm going to get right down to brass tacks with this article. I'm going to be defining what veterancy is, describing the various pros and cons of such systems (accompanied by examples) and close out after discussing when veterancy can add to a game and when it's not helpful.
With my writing nowadays, I'm trying to alternate between quicker, lighter, top-of-my-head pieces with longer form more in-depth work. This is intended to fall in the former category. I guess we'll see how I do?
Veterancy rank icons on units in Company of Heroes 2
Defining Our Terms
I always like to start out by being very clear about what it is, specifically, that I'm talking about. I like to start from a clear position, something everyone can agree on and a baseline understanding before talking more in depth about a subject. So, let's do that here and define our terms.
In RTS games, veterancy systems are any system where a player has one or more units which gain in power through, specifically, combat as opposed to resources. StarCraft 2's attack and damage upgrades are purchased with the game's resources, Minerals and Vespene. An Archon does not become stronger by killing enemy units or dealing damage to them. Hence, StarCraft 2's Archon does not have a Veterancy system.
Hero leveling in Warcraft 3 is similar to veterancy, though there are some key differences that set it apart
Technically, hero leveling (as seen in games like Warcraft 3) is a type of Veterancy system for the purposes of this article. However, hero leveling tends to be different in kind from what is typically meant by Veterancy, and this contrast can help provide more clarity. In Warcraft 3, with each Hero level, the unit typically gains one or more points to spend to unlock or improve a skill, as well as gaining pre-set benefits in terms of their health, and other statistic.
Typically, with Veterancy bonuses, all or most unit benefits are pre-set. However, we do see in Ancestor's Legacy for one example, units that gain a choice in how to progress when they hit a new Veterancy tier.
There is another difference, and to me a more important one, between hero leveling and units becoming veterans. And namely, it's that heroes tend to be singular entities. You typically only have 1, 2, 3, maybe 4... not many, at any rate. With units, any of them or all of them could gain these bonuses, meaning that the benefits aren't siloed (usually) into a handful of key units, but could appear anywhere on the battlefield and add up over time as a player engages in multiple conflicts.
Also, typically, heroes end up leveling up considerably more, and with (as mentioned) far more control over what happens at each individual level. Most veterancy systems are fairly shallow on a per-unit basis, going for breadth rather than depth. Hero leveling tends to be narrow, but deep, to continue on with that metaphor. Where a unit might 'level up' three or four times, heroes might be expected to attain 10, 12, 15 or more levels in a similar situation.
So, what sort of benefits does Veterancy usually confer? Well, across a wide selection of games we see health bonuses, armor/damage reduction, speed and/or attack speed, and more esoteric benefits such as turret rotation, miss chance, ability cooldowns, and more.
So, let's end this section with a one-sentence definition. Veterancy consists of any system of tiered bonuses in which units gain power through engaging in combat by damaging or killing enemy units, instead of being purchased by the player via resources. From here, we'll move from 'what' to 'why' and discuss the whole point of the mess anyways.
Ancestor's Legacy allows players to choose, for each squad at each level of veterancy, what bonus that squad should receive
What's the point?
What though is the purpose of veterancy systems? Why include them at all? Well, that's a fair question, and a bit of a doozy. In Command and Conquer titles, getting a unit to the top tiers of veterancy is no small matter of skill. Units die very easily and are incredibly hard to keep alive. It's a challenge to get any unit to the point where it becomes Heroic, and in that case the player is rewarded with a much more powerful unit that has the chance to make an outsized impact in the game, even given how high-impact everything tends to be in C&C titles.
Since most things in C&C games are potentially game-ending, the addition of an Heroic unit on one player's or team's side can be enough to finally tip the balance and grant a win. Or, potentially, not. But I feel like in these cases it's a potential way to tip things over into a conclusive state, when such tipping is often needed in close games, to ensure they reach a conclusion.
In more tactical games such as Company of Heroes, I feel like veterancy is a more normal part of natural match progression and scaling. Since more tactical games include less in the way of fine-grained control over economy: there are no workers, and little in the way of direct control over income on a moment-by-moment basis. There are of course, far fewer upgrades to research, buildings to mass up, and what have you in more tactical games, and one way they choose to offset this is via unit-level progression in the form of veterancy.
This also serves the purpose of helping make each individual unit have a more individual character. It's often possible to have unique weapons on a squad, from having picked them up on the battlefield, or via pre-match outfitting, or via unit upgrades like US Forces BAR rifles in Company of Heroes 2...
So: individual character for squads, an additional (needed) source of combat progression, a way to tip the balance in games that require such fingers-on-the-scale. Anything else?
Next, we're going to cover the pros and cons of veterancy systems, and when it's good to include them in a game.
In Kane's Wrath, Elite units gain a variety of bonsuses and become far more deadly and survivable
A Brief Description of Veterancy Systems
In almost every game, it works the same way. Either the killing of units or the dealing of damage will eventually cause a unit to gain a rank (or level - they're really basically the same thing). Upon attaining a new rank, the affected unit will gain some UI indication of that benefit.
Company of Heroes uses stars above the heads of the units to denote rank/level. Command and Conquer games tend to use an icon that's updated as a unit's rank is improved. In Red Alert 3, each faction uses the same rank icons, but in Tiberium Wars (C&C 3) each faction uses its own icon. Both Ancestor's Legacy and Warcraft 3 use a number to denote rank/level.
Bonuses to units tend to be pre-set, but some games include a mixture of chosen boosts and pre-set ones. Ancestor's Legacy, for instance, allows players to specialize each squad with Offense, Defense, or Speed as it levels. Leveling in Warcraft 3 has a couple of differences to veterancy systems, as we've already discussed above, and will continue to discuss below. It's definitely a special case.
It's really hard to keep units alive in RA3, so veterancy is a big deal with considerable bonuses
Veterancy pros and cons
Let's get the big con out of the way first: veterancy systems definitely have a snowballing component. Keeping units alive makes them do more damage and maybe take more punishment. They tend to provide a big boost over time to players who are efficient with their combat encounters (already a way to gain an advantage over the opponent, it should be noted).
This is ameliorated somewhat by the fact that veterancy systems tend to appear in games with pretty pronounced hard counter systems, meaning that a veteran unit is merely more effective at its role rather than overpowering units it's not already designed to overpower. A fully veteran Conscript squad from Company of Heroes 2 will never overpower a Panzer, no matter the benefits conferred upon it by its veteran status. And it still remains vulnerable to anti-infantry mines, MGs, and other anti-infantry targets.
Still, as I said, keeping units alive and being cost-efficient in terms of killing enemies is already a resource advantage to a player, and becoming veteran is still compounding that by providing a compounded advantage for the player who's doing the better job killing more than they're losing. So, there's a definite, though minor, snowballing component to veterancy systems.
Another, lesser, element to veterancy systems is that there's a memorization (and in some cases, guesswork) component to them. While upgrades, especially in games like Dawn of War 2 or Company of Heroes among many others, are modeled on affected units, veterancy is often not as obvious. In most cases veteran rank status is denoted by an icon or a number of stars floating above the affected unit, and the effects of veteran rank upon a unit are not clear to a player.
I should probably take a second to talk about hero leveling now.
Earlier, I mentioned hero leveling in Warcraft 3 as one form of veterancy system. In that game, the resource of hero experience, which is unable to be destroyed for a hero once earned, has a huge impact on the gameplay. The purpose of this, presumably, is to offset the power of an army with the power of the hero. It's definitely a balancing act, as units can have a huge impact on the game. But since units and heroes can also feed experience to enemy heroes, there ends up being a weird space in the game where the loss of a hero can lead to an unrecoverable advantage for the opposing player.
Hero leveling as we see in WarCraft 3 is unique in veterancy systems in that the gained benefits of hero leveling are not able to be removed once earned. The hero may die and must be re-purchased, but their accumulated experience level is retained, unlike with veteran squads or units in other games that, if lost, remove their accumulated experience from the game entirely. This makes persistent hero leveling much more of a snowballing threat/problem than is typical for veterancy systems in general.
In games without large progression paths economically, veteran units can add much needed depth of interactions and reward player skill and planning
In terms of benefits, veterancy systems form another type of resource efficiency for players to excel in. The physical resource of accumulating benefits on troops is something that will accrue over time, based mostly on skillful action by each player - combat skill, to offset and complement economic mastery of executing on a player's build order and expanding their economy (presuming any given game has such a system),
Anyways, keeping one's units alive in combat with enemy units is a matter of no inconsiderable difficulty, and players who perform well in combat see this pay off in real terms via the accumulation of veterancy in their units, which manifests in additional damage, range, movement speed, fire rate, abilities, or whatever else have you.
In Close Combat: The Bloody First, veteran units can help in long campaign wars of attrition
Prime habitats for Veterancy systems
Otherwise known as 'when do you want to have this sort of a thing in your game?'
While veterancy systems are sometimes present in games with low time-to-kill such as many of the Command and Conquer titles, it's more common to see them in games where it's possible to pull tricks to keep units alive. From body blocking and health potions and Town Portal (there's probably dozens of options in terms of abilities and items) in Warcraft 3 to preserve heroes, to the retreat function in Company of Heroes, there are a variety of methods in most games where units can gain veteran status to prevent those units and investments from being lost.
Secondly, these systems tend to be more common in games with relatively small unit numbers and tech trees. As mentioned above, veterancy tends to be a method for providing progression army progression in games which tend to have more shallow progression trees. Additionally, veterancy systems are most often seen paired with harder counter systems, as those seen in Command and Conquer or Company of Heroes games.
The reason for this is that, with larger unit numbers, the advantages of veterancy are both harder to keep track of and would compound into more of a snowballing problem. First off, keeping track of veteran flags on units can already be UI dense; adding rank flags to multiple dozens of units would just add more visual clutter. Additionally, in tightly controlled games like StarCraft 2, veteran ranks on units would have the potential to throw of the careful, delicate balance of unit interactions. Again, veterancy tends to help a unit perform in its given role while not necessarily making it better against the various other things in a game that are designed to counter that specific unit type.
Therefore, veterancy systems are less useful - and likely destructive - in systems with softer counter systems. Games with softer counter systems tend to revolve more around pure total damage output, and a combination of larger armies, higher DPS, and escalating bonuses due to multiple units ranking up is a recipe for disaster.
You probably don't want Ultralisks getting veteran rank bonuses
Wrapping it all up? Final Thoughts
I'm going to be completely honest, I didn't really have a point I was trying to drive home when I decided to write about Veterancy systems. I'm not advocating for a certain thing about them, or against their inclusion in games, or anything. Between Iron Harvest and Company of Heroes 2 and the hero leveling in Spellforce 3, I've just been encountering a lot of games that use these sorts of systems this year and I had an itch to put pen to paper (as it were) on the topic.
Veteran rank systems are an interesting part of strategy and tactics game design. Ranks can be mixed with research to provide a hybrid system of unit advancement which can provide an interesting alternative form of match progression. It can be combined with permanence of other game objects to foster equilibrium and enable players to come back from behind. And yet, there are also issues with snowballing regarding veterancy bonuses. Quite a pickle, one related directly to
Clearly, this is not something that belongs in every game. It'd feel nightmarish in something like StarCraft. But, I think in more tactical games, it's a really great way to add more dynamics to gameplay. For veterancy/rank systems in future games, I think what I'd like to see is, choice in terms of rank bonuses similar to what Ancestor's Legacy uses, reflected via UI or on unit models, or both.
It could be interesting to see veteran rank bonuses for units in non-combat roles. Iron Harvest allows engineer units to get rank from building structures and defenses like barbed wire and mines. Healers gaining rank from healing would be another nice touch. Also, it could be interesting to have the ability to train, even in limited quantities, units which already have ranked up, possibly as a global or support power.
Huh, support powers... Maybe that's a topic for another time?
Thanks for reading I'll see you on the battlefield.
(Read my original article here)