2022 saw the release into early access of Blackbird Interactive's Crossfire: Legion, an RTS that is more or less in the Blizzard style which seeks to appeal to casual and competitive gamers alike. Its main claims to fame (the rhyme was unintentional but I'm leaving it) are: it's a StarCraft 2-like RTS with the Crossfire brand, seeking to get a boost from the popular FPS franchise, it is already host to a decent number of game modes like its macro-focused Battlelines, it's first co-op map, and its objective-driven Payload mode.
And, of course, the player designs their army in the form of a "loadout" of a Commander, which functionally is a collection of 2 Support Powers, plus 7 unit types: 2 infantry, 3 vehicles, and 2 aircraft. these 7 unit types are the only ones available to the player in a particular match, and only certain units are able to be slotted into each of the player's loadout slots. The loadout system came part-in-parcel with an in-game "store" (since removed) that allowed, or forced, depending on how you look at it, the player to earn a "soft currency" through playing the game that was spent to unlock additional Commanders and unit types in the loadout
The "Store" was straight-out hated by a lot of players, and I think tolerated or seen as a curiosity by some others. It's possible that some also truly enjoyed the store, but based on online comments they would have been in the vast minority.
As I said, the store has been removed while the loadout system remains. And this got me wondering, and my Discord channel talking… Do RTS players hate loadout systems? How would a game put together a loadout system that players actively enjoy engaging with? What are the parameters and constraints around which you'd design something like that?
Starting with a definition
As always, I like to start by defining my terms and the direction I'm moving in, so to speak. So, first off, what is a "loadout" system?
For the purposes of this article I'll be defining a "loadout" as: a system in which the player gathers multiple reusable gameplay elements into a defined collection, separated from the rest of the gameplay. We can see loadouts in games like Crossfire Legion, where the player picks a Commander (basically, a collection of support powers they can use in the game), and as of this writing 7 unit types, which populate their various unit production structures, defining the units the player is allowed to build in the match.
We can see a remarkably similar loadout system in Command and Conquer Rivals (released in December 2018) which itself resembles the one seen in Clash Royale (released March 2016). Forged Battalion (January 2018) also features a 'loadout' where the player chooses HQ type, designs units from components, and loads those units into slots in their various unit factories, all outside of combat. Being a little bit liberal with the definition, the player's choice of hero/commander unit in Dawn of War 2 might also count as a "loadout" of sorts, since it affects several things about the play experience, including what support powers the player has access to and at least in the case of Chaos armies, the abilities of some units like Cultists.
There are loads of other examples too. Dawn of War 3 (April 2017) features a loadout system where the player chooses 3 Elite units and a selection of bulletins which affect unit/faction performance, outside of combat. Company of Heroes 2 allows the player to select bulletins and Commanders as well - in this case, Commanders present the player with a fixed roster of upgrades, units, and support powers they can access as they unlock content in the game.
While they are similar in some respects, I would possibly differentiate a loadout from a deck in the following way: while a loadout provides the player with a fixed set of options which may have various prerequisites to access, a deck provides a player with a fixed maximum set of options. So, where in Crossfire Legion the player has access to 7 unit types, and it is up to the player to determine how many of each unit they want to produce, something like Wargame provides a player with a maximum total roster of units they can use. More like Magic the Gathering, where the player has 60 total cards in a standard deck, the player's deck of units in Wargame.
Functionally there are a lot of similarities here, and I'm basically going to use them interchangeably over the course of the article, as needed to illustrate my points.
And why should I care?
Now, onto the next question: why? What is the purpose of a loadout in an RTS?
Personalization and "making something yours" is a huge part of many games. Personal expression is a huge part of many role playing games for instance: choosing your character's appearance and (often) class, leveling them up, determining which skills/weapons/spells on which to focus. Even FPS games have elements of this, with at least cosmetic and weapons choices being common features in modern FPS games.
There is a definite and obvious drive to want to make something yours that a lot of games capitalize on, and which RTS have struggled with addressing for the most part. However difficult or impossible it might seem to achieve, it's apparent why studios large and small would strive to meet the challenge. RTS (at least in its purest form, the so called "harvest build destroy" game) is one of the game genres most resistant to attempts by developers to inject personalization options or "classes" into the game experience. And while I don't think I have a "magic bullet" solution to this, I feel like we've seen enough games make the attempt to draw some inferences.
First and foremost, I think a loadout is driven, at the design level, from the above-mentioned desire to make something "ours" - classes in RPGs are animated in part by this, as are itemization systems. Cosmetic personalization options in many games are driven almost entirely by this. It looks the way you want, it works the way you want, it is the thing you want.
Let me move on by referencing an article I wrote in 2020 "The Strange Flexibility of Boundaries" in which I talk about the creative choices and dynamics that can come from more pre-planned, constrained experiences. I believe that a drive similar to the one described my article is at least in a part of what animates designers and some players as well, perhaps.
One thing we have seen, and one reason Magic the Gathering designed its color system, is that in some cases excessively free and open systems actually end up reducing the same player choice they are designed to empower. In Clash Royale, we see a small fraction of the card pool considered meta-viable, while many of the other cards are relegated to niche status or noob traps. With class systems, or faction and subfaction systems, we are able to create a somewhat larger number of viable possible combinations of units and build orders by means of building pre-configured choices for the player that can be looked at (and, importantly, balanced) as a whole.
One other advantage of loadout systems vs something more expansive like a deck of units is clarity of choices presented to the player. While a Hearthstone deck might have 30 cards, and a Magic the Gathering deck 60, and a Steel Division deck is comprised of a large number of activation points, a Company of Heroes 2 loadout provides the player with around… 6 choices. 3 Commanders, and 3 Bulletins. And honestly, the Bulletins are so nominal they’re easy to ignore anyway. Or at least, to set and forget.
Typically, a loadout system is going to give the player fewer than 10 things to decide upon outside of combat, while a deck is going to give the player more than 20. This is not a hard and fast rule, but let's look at some additional examples. Right now, Crossfire: Legion's deck system gives the player 8 choices: 7 units and a Commander. Clash Royale's "deck" also provides the player with 8 choices. C&C Rivals' loadout is 7: 6 units and a Commander.
If we're going to count Immortal: Gates of Pyre, the player makes a single choice: their Immortal "subfaction" which has its own differences to the base faction. In now-defunct RTS by BonusXP, Servo, the player designed 3 robot 'heroes' from 10 components each (see below). Going outside of RTS, FPS Titanfall 2 has a loadout system for players, with a handful of choices.
Age of Empires 3 might be an extreme example in the RTS genre, with its deck system giving the player a tremendous number of decisions to make with its shipments deck, rivaling the unit decks in games like Steel Division or Wargame in complexity.
Loadout systems are also a good way to introduce additional content over time in a constrained, targeted fashion. In a game like StarCraft 2, or other mainline "harvest, build, destroy" RTS, it's really hard to add new content to the game. Maps are one thing, but adding new buildings, units, abilities, or other highly interactable content is really tough. This is why in RTS, you only see a handful of updates come into the game with expansions or infrequent DLC. For balance purposes, it might be about the same level of effort to add an entire new faction as it is to muck up the gameplay with a handful of new units.
Where do loadouts tend to go wrong? And some ideas to address the issues.
Based on my observations of the performance of these systems across a variety of games, I have a couple of... guesses, is probably the correct word, about how to design a loadout system that will be appreciated by players.
Loadouts need to be limited in their application. If you share 75% of a faction and you swap out 25% of it in loadouts, it tends to be easier for players to accept the loadout as a choice. One of the most frustrating things about the loadout system in Crossfire: Legion is that the 7 choices you make before the match circumscribes very nearly 100% of your unit choices within the game.
Imagine in Crossfire: Legion or Forged Battalion if the player had pre-assigned base units that their designs were intended to complement within the game. I actually think in these cases the "base faction" wouldn't need to even be 50% of the player's available unit choices in order to make a huge difference in terms of gameplay. The Crossfire: Legion community have suggested something like this to developer BBI already in fact: situational roles like anti-air, or transports, that are less likely to be chosen for the loadout but would be used (when needed) in game, for instance.
And CF:L has precedents for this already, in ways that FoBa didn't. In CF:L, there are already some common global aspects that each faction has baked in. All Global Risk faction infantry have the ability to place turrets, and all New Horizon units can share shields with each other, for instance. Each faction also has end-tier abilities on their Command Hub/Command Center, and there are shared upgrades as well. Adding some "base" units into the mix seems like it might be a good way to complement or offset the restrictiveness of their loadout system, and it would not surprise me to see them do something like this.
Look at COH2/COH3 with their Commanders/Battlegroups. Company of Heroes 2's system is not one of the more hated, though for a while it was because the only way to earn Commanders was to buy them. This led both to FOMO, and accusations that new Commanders were pay to win. Eventually, Relic changed the system to use a soft currency that players could acquire through playing matches, which could be used to purchase the Commanders. This proved to be much more palatable for the community, at least in comparison to the original system.
However, while the player is given some choice about their loadout in-match - they have 3 Commanders, and pick one of them to use - this is still fairly limited. Once chosen, the player gains access to the Commander's benefits in a pre-defined path from which they cannot deviate. This provides fairly limited tactical utility past the initial choice of "which of these 3 things do I use?"
Company of Heroes 3 is actually a really interesting case since the Battlegroup system provides players with something that they BOTH choose outside of combat and unlock one point at a time, choice by choice, within battle. In this respect, I think it will prove to be more popular with players than COH2's much more static system
Loadouts really need to provide choices in the actual gameplay -. If you can tweak your loadout in some way in combat, this is better for users than something where the entire choice is made at the outset. This limits counter picking considerably, and counter picking is one thing that players react really negatively to, for good reason.
One thing that many players who hate loadout systems often bring up is that they can remove choices from the actual gameplay, offloading some of the game outside of the actual skill-based counterplay they expect. Blind countering is deemed more possible with loadout systems: if I have brought X in my loadout and you brought Y, it might right out the gate invalidate what I've brought and therefore I can lose before having encountered a single second of actual gameplay. This is the sort of thing that anyone seeking to implement a loadout system should consider
In RTS games, the player's units, buildings, and abilities represent a flexible tactical and strategic toolbox they use to attempt to destroy the army and economy of the other player(s) or team(s). This is functionally very different to the 1-or-2 weapons or handful of abilities that a single player is able to use against their opponent in many other game types. Also, critically different in RTS from many/most other game types, the player is not represented by a single avatar with a single-stream attack/activity. So while the player's choice of hero in a MOBA, or primary weapon in an FPS, doesn't really feel limiting, being forced to a small subset of options in an RTS can feel really constraining in a whole different way.
Additional observations - trying to wrap things up
Loadouts need to scale carefully - Command and Conquer 4 is a great example of a terrible loadout system. New players start out with only T1 units and have to unlock T2 and T3 units by grinding access up their tech tree by playing the campaign or multiplayer matches. That's terrible. You just don't scale into the late game in a multiplayer match unless you grind. Interestingly, CF:L does way better than this and was still lambasted for its progression system. Dawn of War 3 likewise launched with a "skulls" soft currency system in order to unlock its Elite units and Doctrines, which was rapidly removed due to intense backlash. Which brings me to another point:
Loadout systems need to handle progression and unlocking really carefully - tech trees are seen as better than "stores" - flat structures are seen as OK, currencies are frowned upon generally. People hate FOMO and loadout systems tend to have it as a part of their content pipeline. This is a LOT more pronounced in RTS games than other gameplay genres - I went into this a bit above. I think swapping "lose this/add that" is better than adding "I have this, which you can't have because you didn't pay/grind" - So, I think the Immortal system of "subfaction loadouts" will be fairly well received. Though in Immortal the player is only making a single choice, and is doing so before the match starts, so in some ways it is more restrictive than what Company of Heroes 2 does, for instance.
As with many things, navigating the idea of adding evergreen content to an RTS is a sticky wicket compared to many other genres. "Loadouts" promise a way to accomplish this with a more graceful, limited implementation that is controllable by balance teams while trying to make the additional content feel less unfair to players with access to various 'slices' of that content. But, as I said, things work differently in RTS and systems that have been adopted in FPS games and RPGs don't work the same way, particularly in multiplayer.
Whether it's mucking with counter systems, game economies, or player choice; or it's creating FOMO or frustration due to content the player feels like they have to grind or pay for, we've seen plenty of rough edges to attempted loadout systems in RTS games. And there are players who do want that self-expression of working with their personalized army - it's a common request in RTS communities, though it more often takes the form of "design your own units" a la Earth 2150 than building a deck of units like you'd see in Wargame or Warhammer tabletop.
The urge to collect and personalize is there, but it's seldom gracefully been accepted on a gut level by players who love RTS games. In Warcraft 3, Blizzard handled variable content by adding it into the match itself: creeps dropped items, maps contained buildings where other units and heroes could be purchased in limited quantities in game. This sort of approach provides less developer incentive - you can't monetize the tavern like you could adding a shop with alternate hero choices for each faction, though if War3 was being developed today I can't help but wonder if someone might have tried to do something of the sort.
Well, in the end I'm not sure how much this article is going to help anyone. I certainly hope it does, or at least stimulates some interesting conversation. As a personal fan of such systems, I think it'd be awesome to see someone hit the nail on the head and create a really kickass game featuring unit loadouts. And I'm hopeful that my observations above will add in some way to the discourse that ends up solving this. But even if not, I've had a blast writing this up.
Thanks for reading.
You can also read this on my blog here