It’s Monday! I have declared that all Mondays* are henceforth known as Mechanic Monday, a day when I take a hard look at one mechanic in a game, and explain where and why it succeeds or fails.
* More like every other Monday, but I like to be optimistic at the start of things.
The subject of this first Mechanic Monday is a wonderful little feature from the Supreme Commander series: strategic zoom! The Supreme Commander series falls in the real-time strategy genre, but its strategic zoom differentiates it from the pack.
Strategic zoom allows the player to zoom his or her camera out much, much further than is traditionally possible in an RTS. This movement is a smooth motion from the closest possible zoom of a single unit, all the way to viewing an entire theater of operation.
As the player’s view moves higher and higher into the sky, units and buildings become represented with small shapes and symbols. The symbols match the tier, type, and owner of unit; a red obtuse triangle means a bomber for the red player; a blue square with a cross on it means a tank for the blue player.
Why is this so cool? First of all, it defines the Supreme Commander style by differentiating it from every other RTS made before or since. RTS games have had mini-maps and map overlays, but never before has the map been integrated into the interface itself. The player can select units and issue commands at any zoom level. It emphasizes the player’s role as the commander of an entire theater of operations; not just a squad leader leading a few troops.
It also affects how the player makes decisions. Units in Supreme Commander get into nice formations and strategic zoom also makes it much easier to discern the quantities of troops, both friendly and hostile. Strategic zoom is also highly… strategic… in terms of map control. Moving units around the map takes a long time, but strategic zoom helps the player to better estimate whether or not his or her reinforcements will arrive in time. The zoom also helps the player to see how far his or her intelligence reaches; radar and sonar in Supreme Commander can detect enemies long before they can be seen and the distances are displayed with the strategic zoom.
Finally, there’s nothing that makes me panic more than the announcement of “Strategic Launch Detected.” I zoom out quickly, and watch in horror as a nuclear symbol moves slowly from the enemy base toward mine. I try to calculate where it is going to land and moving troops to minimize the casualties. It’s great drama.
I love the strategic zoom feature because it puts the strategy back into RTS. Supreme Commander (and its spiritual predecessor, Total Annihilation) has always been about huge armies trading blows and hammering one another with impressive firepower. Nothing says, “I’m a Supreme Commander!” like throwing an entire army at the enemy stronghold, only to watch their blips on the strategic map go out one by one. All without ever having to get your hands dirty.