I love the fast-paced rush of StarCraft, the tactics of Company of Heroes, and the intricate micro of Command and Conquer. Although Supreme Commander is on the opposite end of the RTS spectrum, it resonated with me, and many LANs of my teenage years were spent playing it. To this day, Supreme Commander is still one of my all-time favorite RTS games and I play it on FAF (Forged Alliance Forever) from time to time. Supreme Commander is a large scale RTS from 2007; its meticulous design, backed by a massive budget, resulted in a huge amount of depth and strategic diversity, a superb art direction, and innovative quality of life features that streamlined the interface.
At this point, you may be wondering why the Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation dev is writing all this praise for a competitor? For starters, I love ranting about RTS and articulating my thoughts, but I don't view Supreme Commander as a competitor to Ashes - in fact, it's quite the opposite. This poll from our site is a good demonstration as to why:
It's a small sample size, but according to this, half of our player base chose Supreme Commander as their favorite RTS. As great as Supreme Commander is, it's now a 10 year old game and people get bored and want something fresh and new that builds on the Total Annihilation formula (the predecessor to Supreme Commander). If not for the popularity of Supreme Commander, Ashes would probably would have been far less successful.
Many of our players wish Ashes had the same content variety and quality of life features that Supreme Commander boasts, such as naval units and build templates. I thought it might be appreciated that the Ashes lead designer has a thorough comprehension, articulation, and passion for Supreme Commander (though the old lead designer, Brad, will argue Total Annihilation was better). Today, I'll be analyzing Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance and exploring what made it such a masterpiece.
Polish and presentation
At first glance, the most noticeable thing about Supreme Commander is that it's gorgeous; the visuals and sound effects are incredible and hold up even to this day. There's not much I can expand upon here, so I'll provide some explanation as to why that is. You may find it odd that modern RTS games struggle to surpass the presentation of a 10+ year old game, especially since 10 years was the gap between then, and Total Annihilation.
The reason boils down to budget and engine limitations, and these are not trivial matters. We've solved the engine issue at Stardock with our core-neutral Nitrous engine, but as for budget... let's just say that Supreme Commander was not profitable on launch and the publisher, THQ, collapsed 5 years afterward (coinciding with a whole host of other reasons, I'm sure). As RTS games become more niche, it's now too big of a gamble for publishers to invest a huge budget in them, unlike for other genres.
Here's an interesting excerpt from a Q&A with Chris Taylor, lead designer of Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander, that I came across while researching for this essay:
"Supreme Commander 2 was criticized for being a simpler version of the first game – do you agree and if so, how/why did this happen?"
Chris Taylor: "It was a fair criticism, and it happened for two reasons. The first reason was that times were a lot tougher in the world of PC games. We didn’t have that big of a budget, and we had quite a bit less time. But we thought, hey, if we have to really bust ass to get this game out, lets see if we can make it a more accessible and mainstream game by shrinking the scope and scale a bit, and in some ways that worked, but to our original fanbase, this strategy was a failure."
Gameplay aside, most people would say Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance is a much prettier looking game than Supreme Commander 2. Budget matters.
Progression throughout the match
At the start of the game, the resource income and production speed is slow, with players only able to build a handful of low tier units at a time. As the game progresses, the economy rates and production speeds snowball to enormous levels, fueling destruction on a massive scale. Artillery batteries rain bombardment from the sky, wrecks of colossal Assault Bots litter the battlefield, and Battleships contest the seas; the late game in Supreme Commander is epic, but getting there is a challenge and is not guaranteed. Many games of Supreme Commander are over in the first 15 minutes, with players barely progressing past tier 1. The late game - and all its cool toys - are a privilege, not a right, making it much more rewarding when you get there.
The journey from early to late game along the gradual progression of tiers works in a really profound way. Late game isn't just fun because you get bigger stuff and a lot more of it (although that's certainly part of it), late game is so compelling because as you tech up and the game draws out, the level of intensity and required management escalates.
In the early game, the only consideration for the players is to build their base and have tank battles to contest Mass Extractors. Later during the tier 1 land battles, players tech into air factories, where they now have to think about mixing anti-air while reacting to bomber raids and air transport drops.
Once players hit tier 2, it isn't just Medium Tanks turning into Heavy Tanks - there's now Amphibious Tanks which open up whole new attack paths. Artillery and Tactical Missile Launchers become prominent at tier 2, so players need to invest in Shield Generators and Tactical Missile Defense. Once players hit tier 3, scouting becomes crucial as identifying an enemy Experimental Assault Bot, Strategic Bombers or Nuclear Missile requires completely different responses.
As the players tech up and proceed throughout the game, the level of strategies and responsibilities increase. Players don't stop worrying about air transports and tanks sniping their extractors just because they hit tier 3; they still have to worry about all of those things, on top of being concerned about their base being annihilated by a Nuke. Supreme Commander does not require a high actions-per-minute in the way StarCraft does, but it does require an immense game knowledge and capacity for decision making.
Every time you start a match of Supreme Commander, you have no idea what to expect; the game length and the strategies of your opponents, and consequently your own, are up in the air with many different possibilities. Other RTS games are predictable, with predetermined match durations and rigidly designed factions that result in matchups following the same repetitive patterns.
Unlimited scalability of economy and production
For the progression to work so well, the game needs to have an unlimited scalability of the economy and production. This is achieved through:
- Multiple tiers of Mass Extractors and Power Generators
A tier 2 Mass Extractor or Power Generator produces many times more yield than a tier 1 structure, and likewise for Tier 3. Higher tier economy structures were big investments, and less cost-efficient in the case of Mass Extractors, but allowed players to get huge non-linear bonuses.
- Power and Mass Fabricators delivered infinite resource potential
Power Generators and Mass Fabricators could be built anywhere and provided unlimited income, fueling endless growth of economy. It’s important to balance this carefully, as unlimited income from a player's own base could result in the game being too defensive and passive. (e.g. GLA Mirrors in C&C Zero Hour). Mass Fabricators were woefully inefficient compared to Mass Extractors, which served as a valuable point of contention on the map. This meant that Fabricators were mainly used in the late game when all the accessible Extractors were taken. Despite this, Fabricators allowed for defensive “Turtle” play to be more viable.
- Production speed scalable to infinite levels
There was practically no limit to how many engineers could create a structure or boost a factory. This allowed players to have hundreds of Engineers working in tandem to rapidly churn out expensive late game stuff. Engineers also had multiple tiers with improved build speed, peaking at Support Commanders, which made boosting cleaner than having 100+ Tier 1 Engineers awkwardly pathing. The UEF Tier 4 artillery took almost 2 hours for a single engineer to build. Stacking multiple engineers is essential for late game assets.
The economic management in Supreme Commander was challenging and compelling. On of top of what was already mentioned, the following reasons contribute:
- Managing surplus and drain
To play Supreme Commander most efficiently, expenses should be as closely tied to income as possible. Spending too little resources would see it wasted, while spending too much would see your production slow down. Pausing production of units in order to boost an upgrade of a Mass Extractor optimize a player's economy and can make a significant difference when they stack up. You're also required to think ahead about what rate of income you need to support certain production; do you build a third Tier 3 Power Generator before beginning construction of an Experimental? The economy has so much complexity and there's always lots of considerations to make, and as your income grows or shrinks from harassment, you need to adjust your expenditure to compensate.
- Management of storage
Due to the tiered resource structures, upgrading one's economy was always an option, however the investment was large. To prevent an economy from crashing during an upgrade, players could invest in resource storage. Players are able to upgrade storage in Ashes, but there is practically no reason to do so, lacking the same level of huge economic investments that would crash an economy if not prepared for. For storage management to be an interesting mechanic it requires meaningful and expensive investments such as Commander and economy upgrades on top of expensive units like Experimentals. If the Refineries in Ashes were to cost 10x more but granted 10x more yield, upgrading storage would be more valuable, as then players can save up to build one outright.
- Power Drain
Certain units and structures would drain power, such as Shield Generators, Radar and commander abilities. This required more consideration and foresight for investments.
Badass late game stuff
Due to the unlimited scalability of economy and production, every faction has incredibly powerful late game tools. These include Experimental Assault Bots and Air Units, Rapid-Fire Artillery Installations that saturate global targets, Nuclear missiles that can annihilate an entire base, and Experimental structures to provide a utility such as generating unlimited income. The late game high tier units were colossal in comparison to the early game units. The scale difference served as a visual representation of their power and gratified the player for having obtained them. The units themselves were very quirky; a giant robot firing lasers out of its eyes and huge giant magnets to suck up units is cool, as is a giant 6 legged Spiderbot.
Due to their expensive nature, the late game units and structures can be truly devastating and wacky, yet remain balanced and fair. Accessing these late game tools is so difficult that fielding them was exciting, unlike most RTS that games have finite resources so their end tier units can only be several times more expensive normal units. Supreme Commander’s Experimentals delivered a power fantasy; there's something fun about sending your giant robot over to the enemy base and watching the carnage ensue.
Quality of life features and usability
There were a lot of tools for automation of unit management and production, allowing players to focus on the large scale “macro” management and not have to worry about micro-managing their units. A great example is the “Ferry” option for air transports, allowing them to be assigned a pickup and drop-off location. The Transport will automatically taxi any units between the two locations that move to the pickup zone which can be a rally point from factories. Features like this, being able to click and drag to draw a line of buildings, and build templates streamlined the rate of which players could grow and manage their base, removing the barriers between strategy and execution.
Naval and amphibious units added a lot of flexibility and variety to map design. Naval units weren't completely separated from other unit types; Torpedo Bombers could destroy Submarines while Amphibious Tanks and Gunships could engage ships. Naval is well designed because it is just one of the many strategies when playing on water maps, but there was one big flaw. Mass Deposits were not found in the water which made naval play contain less contention and harassment opportunities compared to land combat. Underwater Mass Extractors are utilized in the Forged Alliance Forever community project, significantly improving naval play.
Detailed base building
Base building in Supreme Commander requires lots of consideration, which makes it more fun and meaningful. Economy structures benefit from from adjacency bonuses when placed next to each other; Mass and Power Storage next to the equivalent resource structure would improve its yield while Power Generators would reduce the power drain of adjacent structures and boost the rate of fire of Artillery Installations. However, power structures were volatile, so adjacency came with a risk. Shield Generators provided defense to all structures inside them but were costly to maintain and only had a limited radius, incentivizing players to group important structures into the same areas and efficiently stack them to minimize shield investments.
There's also many kinds of base defenses, from protection structures such as Shield Generators, Tactical Missile Defense and Walls to combat defenses such as Point Defense, Artillery Installation and Tactical Missile Launchers. This gave more depth and deliberation to fortifying positions on the map; the player had to think about the most effective way of defense and had to react to changes in the opponent's attempts to break it or scouting to see how they intended do. Insufficient Tactical Missile Defense could see shields overwhelmed from missile bombardment but not enough Point Defense could result in the position being crushed by a direct assault. In Supreme Commander, something as traditionally "noob-y" as turtling also had a high level of complexity and skill ceiling.
Didn’t go overboard with asymmetric faction design
The four factions in Supreme Commander have unique units, Commander upgrades, and in some cases, buildings. For example, UEF is the only faction to get Shield Boats while Cybran naval units can walk on land. Asymmetric faction design can be a great way of creating strategic depth and variety while allowing players to find a faction which appeals to their play style. However, asymmetric design needs to be used delicately as a tool and not a feature, else implementing it poorly can cripple a game. Supreme Commander’s asymmetry is elegant because it doesn’t go overboard; while the unit roster varies between factions, they each have access to all the core tools and mechanics and they are all equally challenging and balanced at all stages of the game.
Supreme Commander has enough depth and variety in units and structures that players are free to pursue different play styles and strategies. Each has their own strengths, and weaknesses, which experienced players read and adapt to.
- Aggression: Deploying forces to harass the opponent's infastructure or find beneficial engagements. By harassing the opponent’s economy, a player will ensure a stronger economy of their own and splitting their opponent’s attention makes it more difficult for them to manage their base.
- Turtle: Economy structures are fragile, so defending one's territory and infrastructure is critical. Base defenses, in particular, are used to secure positions from enemy raids due to their cost efficiency. A defensive, “turtling” play style is typically weak in RTS games, but the multiple tiers of Mass Extractors combined with Mass Fabricators and reclamation of wrecks allows turtlers to still gain income at a competitive rate, though less efficiently compared to a player who establishes map control and saturates tier 1 Mass Extractors.
- Economy: Producing additional resource structures or upgrading to high tier resource structures sacrifices the short term for the long term investment. Players can be overwhelmed if they invest too much in economy too early on without support but if left unchecked will reach the late game first.
These three play styles are meta-strategies, with each branching off into countless sub-strategies utilizing particular units and timings. An aggressive strategy could take many forms as there are always multiple ways of applying aggression, such as swarming cheap tier 1 tanks, dropping units behind enemy lines with air transports, or deploying air raids to neutralize key defenses. Some strategies are based on particular units and timings, such as neglecting ground units in favor of mass naval power.
Expert players do not lock themselves into a meta-strategy such as aggression, but rather balance out all three meta-strategies, reading the battlefield and reacting accordingly. Every unit and structure built is a deliberate investment which has the opportunity cost of neglecting another play style. Upgrading to a tier 2 Mass Extractor is 16 tanks or 3 Point Defense that the player didn't build, these small divergences rapidly add up and create ripples that can shape the course of a match.
The trichotomy of strategy into Aggression, Turtle, and Economy is a common theme throughout RTS games, but Supreme Commander does this dynamic so well because of the vastness of meaningful decisions the player has to constantly make and the variety of tools they have to manifest these strategic divergences.
Intuitive and distinct art style for each faction
The 4 factions in Supreme Commander look very distinct from each other, the style of units and structures intuitively reflect the backstory of the faction. I recently wrote an essay that highlights the superb art direction of the Seraphim faction, so you can read that to get an understanding of the way the factions are visually designed.
The Commanders have mutually exclusive upgrades between offense, defense, economy and other utility, allowing for customization and using the Commander loadout in synergy with certain strategies. The Commander upgrades were varied between the different factions, so it was a good outlet for asymmetric design.
However, I have quite a bone to pick. I personally think the weapon upgrades are far too cheap for their potency on small maps, especially when combined with Overcharge. The range weapon upgrades allows the Commander to negate endless amounts of tier 1 units and Point Defense by outranging them and safely engaging from a distance. Increasing the combat potential of the Commander would be fine if not for the risk and penalty of using the Commander in combat being thrown out the window when it simply outranges everything. Rushing Tier 2 point defense to combat the upgraded commander can be suicidal due to the huge initial investment and static nature, while many maps have elevation blockers which limits their effective range.
The enemy is then forced to back off and concede map control unopposed, or to try to all-in the upgraded Commander and hope they manage to kill it instead of throwing away their entire army for nothing, which the Commander then reclaims. When playing on small maps, especially with minimal chokepoints, rushing Commander weapons upgrades seems to be crucial else your opponent can just march their upgraded commander up to your base and cripple you. It's an obnoxious interaction that limits strategy diversity and is part of why small maps are not popular. The Cybran Torpedo upgrade and Seraphim health regeneration upgrades can be equally obnoxious. Despite its many flaws, I think Supreme Commander 2 balanced their Commanders better, and it had some cool ideas such as the Escape Pod upgrade that alleviated some of the extreme risk/reward of using the Commander in combat.
Role of units & structures was intuitive
Supreme Commander didn’t have as deep of a counter system as Ashes, such as not having certain Tier 2 units that countered tier 1 and vise versa. However, there were scouts, artillery, anti-air, tanks and assault bots (walkers instead of tracked vehicles.) The silhouette of each unit and their weaponry instantly defined them as their role, and made it obvious to the player. Supreme Commander had traits for their units types as was consistent with them, such as Assault Bots are always faster but weaker than the tank equivalent. Structures were also well defined, a Power Generator was not mistakable for a factory.
Readability when zoomed out
When players zoom out, they are able to monitor the entire battlefield on one screen. Supreme Commander had an elegant system of icons to communicate the exact unit type to the player. Each unit type was represented with a different shape such as squares for buildings, triangles for air units, and diamond for land units. There was also an icon for the role of a unit, such as Tank, Anti-Air, Artillery and Engineer, while the tier of each unit was denoted by 1-4 lines below the icon. Weapon projectiles are indicated as yellow dots when zoomed out, so it's still possible to follow combat from a distance.
Supreme Commander’s radar structures and units show the number and type of enemies approaching through the fog of war. Radar contacts use the same shapes to describe unit types, but it didn’t reveal what tier of units or what role they filled, so air scouts were still required for visual confirmation. Radar structures covered a long range and with full precision, so there was lots of seeing enemy movements and trying to intercept and outmanoeuvre. Positioning of forces was vital, and sneaking units past enemy lines to harass extractors and other infrastructure was punishing. Radar drained power, so there was a cost to pay for this useful information.
The system of icons (and grid locations in build menus) is consistent between each faction, so even if a player is not familiar with all the factions they are able to see the role of the unit. Ashes has an inferior approach, by using a 2D silhouette of the unit which does not communicate the role or power of a unit who is not familiar with that unit or faction.
Relevance to Ashes of the Singularity
There's a lot that Supreme Commander gets right, and it'd be foolish to reinvent the wheel instead of embracing those lessons in a way that leverages the existing strengths of Ashes. Since the release of Escalation, we have been embracing much of what worked so well in Supreme Commander such as Strategic Zoom, Tier 4 units, and unlimited scalability of economy and production. Moving forward we have more features in mind such as naval units and air transports that will further align Ashes with the proven Total Annihilation formula.
This doesn't mean we're just trying to make a Supreme Commander clone; it's obviously not perfect and there's other criticisms I could have mentioned here. There's a lot I like about Ashes over Supreme Commander such as its counter system that makes unit composition more meaningful, on top of other factors such as the better engine and AI. Ultimately, we have a lot of work ahead of us, whether that comes in the form of small patches, expansions or a sequel.
Thanks for reading and leave your thoughts below! Anything I left out, or that you disagree with? What would you like me to discuss in future?