But they've infected a legion of game designers
I originally posted this on the relic forums in response to a mod to Dawn of War (an excellent game, as all Relic's games are excellent) which is attempting to enlarge the scope of the large singular units available to each side toward the end of the game so that they dominate gameplay. To clarify, each side, with the exception of regular humans, can elect to produce (assuming they've captured a special kind of strategic objective called a relic--no accident I'm sure) several smaller, or one extremely large and powerful unit. The humans merely produce super-elite troops, eschewing the crass demonstration of a large monster. The unit varies from being a large demon to a slightly smaller lava-demon who's supposedly good, but only from one highly privileged point of view, to a elephant/shark/rhino hybrid with a couple canons mounted on its back. These units, while being very powerful, are not the end-all-and-be-all. Given sufficient fire (reasonable to expect from a late-game army--the scenario in which these things are utilized) they fall just like anybody else. More significantly, they do not have the personal wherewithal to annihilate an entire army single handed. They are devastating to infantry, reasonably effective against vehicles, not-quite-the-most-devastating against buildings, and can take hits roughly as well as the toughest vehicle unit--the ubiquitous dreadnought (big heavy robot with guns, claws, and stifled emotions which enrage it). It often has secondary abilities or purposes which make it more tactically interesting, such as coincidentally increasing production speed for the entire army, or increasing morale of nearby units. In any case, these units are both a utilization of the source material and a concession to the human need for big shiny objects at which to gaze in wonder and morbidly poke with a stick.
Point being that they are not the focal point of gameplay.
Other examples of focal-point gameplay are Age of Empires: Something of the Titans, which makes the unremarkable eenie-meenie-minie-moe gameplay of hard-coded random damage modifiers and shifts it to a race to end-game. A kind of bastardization of the Wonder mode into an offensive unit which prolongs the enemy's suffering; and, of course, the Blizzard shit fest called 'Warcraft III' which takes the rich possibilities of an RTS tactical challenge and renders it into juggling 3 pretty action figures while wondering if you'll ever have prostate cancer (quick tip: if you're a girl... no).
So one guy was pointing to this other guy saying he was the 'designer' as if this would cow some rash objector who had taken issue with some choice (the choice being the fact that a 12000 hitpoint character would also be able to heal itself--keep in mind the most hitpoints a super-creature has in game is 8000 at the moment). So I mustered purposefully intimidating language (which I did unabashedly to put off those who didn't have the patience for this kind of arguement, or were easily intimidated, as well as non-native english speakers, since then I wouldn't have to revisit the post to defend my viewpoint or clarify my sources--in academia, avoiding an arguement is 9/10ths camoflouge and 1/10th good material--there are additional trace elements of pandering) and posted the following.
I hate to say this but an avatar-based end game ruins gameplay.
Look at it this way: the Warcraft III design implementation of avatar-centric gameplay has a 3 node endgame scenario, meaning you have 3 pieces with various abilities and subarmies which you control. As the game has no tactical advantage for height--only using terrain as a means of funneling or obstructing the movements of nodes in the system, this means that the subset of possibilities is limited to movement with respect to the 3 nodes--attempting to find, isolate, and destroy a single or double node of the enemies while avoiding that fate yourself. In that game gameplay hardly ever exists at the one-unit-one-node level, and is correspondingly simple. Tactics revolve around building your hero and his army, and then some additional base-defense tactics, which are more or less moot, since the best defense in a limited-resource game (such as WCIII with depeleting gold mines, and most RTSes, since actual physical realestate for laying out defenses is limited as well) is a good offense. The units have the maximum flexilbility to do what a turret does, except with the flexbility of movement, and in 40k, the possibility of easier upkeep and additional upgrades.
In 40k the node-set is usually something like 10 infantry and 4-10 vehicles against the enemies similar numbers. Producing an avatar reduces the number of tracked nodes under infantry from 10 to usually (and be lenient with me here, I'm not sure) 4-6. In the case of a bloodthirster, there is no initial reduction, and with the avatar there is a corresponding increase on the vehicle side. The avatar represents not only a conversion of population resource to the hardier more useful vehicle-class (not that they count as vehicle class but that a super-unit is usually more than a match for a vehicle, and that vehicles have a higher upper end on their performance level than infantry), but also a reduction of management overhead for the player. An avatar or thirster can be left to its own devices for precious moments while you order other units around. This makes it a supplement to the end game, allowing a player ot better control the node set he's in charge of.
If you make these units the focus, by enhancing their performance to the degree that they're meant to combat each other, or in the absence of their opposite, simply allow you to win, then you will be reducing the game to a 1 node game. You will be using your brain to protect your 1 or 2 primary nodes, and the armies that surround them will be equipment.
As it is, it's quite enjoyable to have a 10 v 10 node battle. Sure, alot of times it devolves into all-target-one mentality, but that's the nature of the game, and at least the balance of each node allows it to remain valuable in firefight size usually seen in DoW.
IF you reduce this game to a 1-3 node level, then you are simply going for the lowest common denominator. 3 is the smallest set that human beings can easily memorize and work with beyond 1--the utter unstreamlined sideeffect of raw cognitive function.
As it stands the game strives for the 9 level, which is on the outside of human ability. Social security numbers have this many digits precisely because it is the recognized limit. Phone numbers reside at a more comfortable 7 digits (these are all United States, figures, obviously, but there are analogs in any society--for instance I believe license plates in England have 7 or 9 digits? Am I wrong? Possbly Europe then? Whichever is the long thin one). 9 is probably too taxing for consistent play. We purposesly amalgamate those nodes ourselves into sub groups (the same way you parse a credit card number into 4 sets of 4 or some other configuration), which we can manage. The sweet spot of task management seems to be (another blizzard game) Diablo II's 6 cardinal functions with an additional 4 other tasks which switch in and out.
It's possible here to go further up the scale and manage 15 nodes at once, its possible that the best players do this very thing, but even if people don't do it, the fact that it's there makes for an interesting problem for the rest of us mere mortals: at any moment we can shake loose the tactical problem by temporarily reorganizing or expanding the number of nodes we're using to participate in the game.
now THAT'S what gaming is about. When you reduce it to 3 nodes, it's like tictactoe or a simple organizational puzzle. You produce x units for some time period until you meet the enemy and then produce y units after that until you can afford x upgrade, and then, if the games not over, you do a little more y and mix in some z and you're done. You can literally watch someone's recorded game to learn build-orders. So that task does not make the gameplay in itself.
Learning a set method is not gaming. That's auto-eroticism. Which is to say you stimulate yourself (with pretty pictures and sounds) until satisfied. The learning centers of your brain engage in a limited way, and you do 0 cognitive construction.
The leeway is in the tactical problem after management (although it's possible to have a management structure sophisticated enough to entail gaming--Total Annihilation did that, and there was an element of it in Homeworld, since your factories were big ships that blew stuff up like totally rad omg awesome), and in DoW we get a good taste of that.
So please be aware, if you push effectiveness of single, double, or even triple-node units (the ones that are totally uber and make focal points out of play) you're reducing the quality of the game experience to younger age level (like, and I don't mean this as an insult--8 years or so when I think the brain finishes developing the ability to work with abstract thought... herm. I can't remember exactly what it is... let me consult a book... ah! It's conservation. The idea that an amount of water is the same regardless of what object its poured into--a concept involving the ability to collapse and expand subsets and realize connections between disparately featured environmental stimulus--so we're talking about the process by which you reduce 15 nodes to a manageable 7 or expand them and reorganize them at need--rather than just managing 3 which is the active mind-limitation in most people. Well to be fair, 4. 3 is lowest common denominator. 4 is average.)
So keep that in mind with your design. If you want these things to be focal points but not overpowering you'll need to develop anti-big-thing weapons that have a skewed effect. That will make it a sports-style game where, rather than direct confrontation, you confront around mobile objectives in an attempt to move one to the goal (the enemy base where damage gets done).
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