The revolutionary breakthrough of strategic zoom

After just my first hour of playing Supreme Commander those many months ago, I knew strategic zoom was something amazing, and that it would revolutionize the real time strategy genre. The ability to fluidly zoom out and see the entire battlefield, then zoom back in just as quickly to a hot spot of interest, was such an enhancement to the gameplay that I couldn’t believe I had ever played RTSs without it. Try going back to an RTS that uses a minimap — you’ll see how agonizing it is, how much harder it is to marshal your forces on a grand scale. I also recall, within my very first hour of playing Supreme Commander, I vowed that I would never play another RTS that lacked strategic zoom ever again. So far I’ve made good on that vow. Thankfully, there’s Sins of a Solar Empire.

Sins of a Solar Empire is a 4X space game in the same vein of Masters of Orion or Galactic Civilizations, except instead of being turn-based, it’s real time, thus making it an RTS. I’ve only had a little bit of time with it so far, but Grokmoo has played it a lot more than I, and we both love it. One of its best features? Strategic zoom, naturally. I wouldn’t exactly call it a rip-off of Supreme Commander, as a lot of space games before Supreme Commander had maximal zoom capability. Of course, it’s much more of an accomplishment to do it in a game like Supreme Commander, because you have all the terrain to worry about; in a space game, the planets and such just scale smaller with distance, and the background (stars or whatever) can remain unchanged. But just because it isn’t as big of an achievement as Supreme Commander’s strategic zoom doesn’t mean that I appreciate it any less.

Strategic zoom is amazing. As Supreme Commander fans, we all know this. So it’s such a relief that it’s starting to pop up with regularity in other RTSs. Hopefully, within a few year’s time, it will be a standard feature of the genre. Any game lacking it would be judged an outright failure, much like how the ability to assign units to groups in RTSs and give them simultaneous orders obsoleted all RTSs before them. Unfortunately, StarCraft 2 looks it it’s going to heavily challenge my vow of not playing another RTS without strategic zoom. What in the hell was Blizzard thinking? They’re displaying the same short-sightedness as the stagecoach builders in the early 1900s who, after seeing the first automobiles, thought that they were nothing more than just a passing fad, and cheerily returned to strapping animals onto awkward wheeled wooden boxes. Once you see the future, how can you turn a blind eye? Strategic zoom is as transformative for RTSs as the automobile was for transportation, and we haven’t nearly seen the full ramifications of that sea change yet.

26 Responses to “The revolutionary breakthrough of strategic zoom”

  1. T2A` Says:

    SC2 is being made for the 1773 players! SC is all about microing everything, so no strategic zoom enforces the idea that only those who can do 400 actions per minute shall survive! :P

  2. Cameron Says:

    I take it you’ve never played the Homeworld series?

    Same company, same game scope, same strategic zoom, RTS.

    Homeworld and Homeworld 2.
    Quite possibly the most difficult RTS games ever made in my opinion.

  3. Miglecz Says:

    Get Total Annihilation Spring.

  4. Alexander Williams Says:

    Same company, same game scope, same strategic zoom, RTS.

    Well, not exactly the same strategic zoom. Homeworld let you pull out into a flat planar space with full 3d motion throughout it, but only in the singular. Sins lets you pull back and see those particular gravity wells as part of a network of systems around a single star, and there are more stars in the network … and so on, and so on …

    The huge maps in Sins are terrifying to behold.

  5. DeadMG Says:

    I dont want to actually play Starcraft 2. To me it seems like it will be very similar to Starcraft. A lot of micromanagement and armor types and stuff. I couldn’t go back to a game without proper physics.

  6. Cyde Weys Says:

    I have played Homeworld and I did sort of have it in mind when writing this post, then decided against mentioning it because technically it didn’t have seamless maximal zoom in the same manner that Supreme Commander or Sins of a Solar Empire do. I would call it more of a full-screen minimap.

  7. Engineer Says:

    I have seen Sins of a Solar Empire praised just about everywhere, including Penny Arcade which carries a lot of weight in my book. This is great to see, I am a huge fan of Stardock and anyone they work with, their mature development model and respect for players are unequaled in the industry. I am not going to run out and buy it simply because my gameplay time is totally soaked up by WoW and occaisonal SupCom matches right now, but I hear a demo is coming out in about a month and I will definitely have to check that out.

    Does it bug anyone else that Starcraft and Supreme Commander both abbreviate to SC? That bothers me to no end. I will get Starcraft 2 to play through the campaign at least, Blizzard has probably some of the best storywriting talent out there. However, I don’t think I could get myself into the multiplayer, that micro-intensive style is the type of play that I came to Supreme Commander to escape.

  8. Cameron Says:

    “Does it bug anyone else that Starcraft and Supreme Commander both abbreviate to SC? That bothers me to no end. I will get Starcraft 2 to play through the campaign at least, Blizzard has probably some of the best storywriting talent out there. However, I don’t think I could get myself into the multiplayer, that micro-intensive style is the type of play that I came to Supreme Commander to escape.”

    Not to mention the unit group size limits, the horrible static battle scenes with ‘interceptors’ hovering in place shooting at each other, and the stereotypical (rock, paper, scissors) gameplay.
    It really is a step backwards for RTS games.

  9. Cyde Weys Says:

    StarCraft. It’s got micro. It’s what Asians crave.

  10. Cameron Says:

    Maybe that should be the marketing slogan, right on the box in giant raised lettering.

  11. zordon Says:

    sins is pretty fun, had a couple of fun multiplayer games this weekend against AIs learning it. A much more abstract game than supreme commander, but finally a 4x that could be good! its been a damn long time…. nothing beats MOO though.

    as for rts, I wouldn’t call sins that. it just doesn’t feel like it. rt4x that works though.

    Not looking forward to starcrap 2 coming out & the insane hype that will appear everywhere.

  12. Cyde Weys Says:

    I suppose there’s some truth to it. Even though it is real-time, and it definitely favors strategy and logistics over tactics, it doesn’t quite feel like what we traditionally consider to be an Arrteeesse game.

  13. TheBlackKnight Says:

    hmm; there is no release date for sins here in europe – yet; well MOO 2 was fun;
    Regarding StarCraft 2; I will prolly play the singleplayer campaign – but not multiplayer in a competitive context;

  14. jumppoint1 Says:

    You can order it off stardocks site and get it via mail or direct download, the mail version comes with the download version as well.

  15. Gimpb Says:

    While certainly a great large-scale management tool, it has its downsides I think. For example, when I play supcom I generally spend most of my time looking at little dots on the screen, clicking the ui, and hitting hot keys. While that might be the easiest way to get things done, it doesn’t make for a terribly immersing video game imo.

    Technically it’s not that tough based on the messing around I’ve done, only use every Nth pip from the height map, replace models with icons as you zoom out, and the linear algebra of doing the actual zoom is trivial.

    For those reasons I think it will continue as it has with some games choosing to do it and some not. Those developers that want to concentrate making the game immersing and engaging (typical blizzard philosophy, for example) probably won’t do it and those that want to concentrate on the unit management tools (home-style game studios like relic or GPG, for example) will likely continue to provide it.

  16. Molloy Says:

    You know, I’ve begun playing Total Annihilation multiplayer again recently and I don’t miss the zooming at all. In fact, It’s made me realise how redundant it is. The minimap tells you pretty much what’s going on, and you can just right click on it to quickly get to the part of the map that needs your attention. If anything the whole zoom out, move to what needs your attention, zoom in mechanic is actually slower. Not to mention the fact it wastes alot of the effort that’s gone into making SupCom a pretty game with interesting looking units because there’s always the temptation to play it pretty zoomed out most of the time.

  17. Engineer Says:

    Molloy for shame! Really now, how can you say you don’t miss the strategic zoom. I have such a hard time playing any top-down view game without it now. That’s one of thing things I really like about Stardock’s Galactic Civilizations is the huge zoom range.

    Regarding playing zoomed out and missing out on the pretty graphics: Well now, we can’t have everything. If you want a game with great strategic depth and enormous scale, you have to be able to take in a huge amount of information at once. This is, after all, what most hardcore wargames look like; NATO symbols on a bland map. On the other hand, if you want to enjoy the pretty graphics up close that means you are sacrificing the high level view. SupCom lets you have both with the strategic zoom; you can go from pretty explosions to NATO symbols in a fraction of a second. The mini-map just doesn’t cut it for me in this regard, now I don’t have to divide my attention between two distincly separate images.

  18. Cameron Says:

    Well technically you can’t really call Starcraft or SC2 RTS games, they are real time tactical games.
    Starcraft and most other ‘RTS’ games before it lack true strategic elements like TA/Supcoms super artillery and TRUE strategic nukes, let’s face it in Starcraft you have to sneak ghosts in literally 1 screen away from the target to ‘paint’ it, a laughable premise.
    I do agree that while useful the minimap simply doesnt cut it.

    No doubt SC2 will sell like crack to baseheads, because it’s a better game? No definately not.
    It will sell extremely well because it will likely run perfectly on any system made in the last 6 to 8 years, like all Blizzards ‘childishly’ colourful games, Diablo2, WoW, Starcraft etc.
    Blizzards graphics have never been up to scratch, most of the time not even up to standard but their games sell because they are simplistic and their system requirements are below average.

  19. Molloy Says:

    Engineer: You know, I think I’m actually onto something here. The whole clicking on the minimap system of getting around is really a thousand times faster. I largely work in Autocad for a living so when SupCom first came out I though “Finally someones got the right idea. This is so much more efficient.” But now when I think about it I’d probably be able to draw in Autocad alot more quickly if there was a minimap style preview pane that cut down on the huge amount of zooming in and out that I do on a minute by minute basis. You’re generally only ever operating at two levels of zoom, the detail level and the expanded level that lets you see the bigger picture. All the other levels of zoom inbetween are largely redundant.

    It’s purely a speed issue. I think I can play TA much more quickly than I can Supreme Commander because of the lack of strategic zoom. It was something I was clamoring about for years but now I actually have it I’ve realised it’s a bit of a flawed system.

  20. Woden Says:

    Cameron: You’re forgetting that they are also incredibly addictive, they have professionally written, innovative story lines, they have excellent map editors, and they are flawlessly bug-free. I don’t think I’ve ever known a Blizzard game to crash. Sup Com is an entirely different story. So maybe Blizzard games are sapphires to Sup Com’s diamonds, but they are superbly faceted and polished in comparison.

    As for strategic zoom, I’m tending to agree with Molloy – though I play sup com with the minimap enabled anyway, so there’s no real disadvantage.

  21. Cameron aka BodyBag26 Says:

    That mustn’t be the case for me Woden, i haven’t played a Blizzard produced game in years (not that they’ve released a whole lot lately), if i wanted to waste money i’d throw it off a bridge like ‘Yahtzee’ instead of playing WoW, or buy something i actually want like a new bench, ezy curl bar or punching bag, something that enriches my life.
    As for ‘flawlessly bug-free’ (thanks for the laugh) you should go browse the innumerable patches for blizzard games.

  22. Engineer Says:

    Blizzard doesn’t release games very often because, quite simply, they don’t have to. Their enormous financial success means they have freedom in their release schedule and they aren’t forced to push games through as aggressively as many other game companies are. WoW alone grosses over $800 milllion a year and World of Warcraft, in its different boxes, was #2, #4, and #5 in sales just last month. All this for a game that came out 4 years ago now. Blizzard games do have numerous patches, but they are primarily minor technical issues and balance patches; balance gets to be a pretty big deal when you have millions of players trying to find exploits and when you have games with races as diverse as the ones in Starcraft and Warcraft. I also think you can’t underestimate the importance of Blizzard’s storytelling and intellectual property.

    Sadly, most game developers don’t have this much leeway, and this was visible in Supreme Commander. The game shipped with some pretty serious gameplay and balance issues that turned a lot of people off to the game, and it wasn’t until the first expansion that these were really fixed. Unfortunately by that point a lot of players had stopped playing the game and never came back.

  23. Cameron aka BodyBag26 Says:

    WoW maybe an exception to the rule, i wouldn’t know i’ve never played it but i never equate popularity with quality.
    From what i’ve seen of Starcraft 2 there’s nothing that looks particularly spectacular or innovative, i’ll probably buy it just so i can see where the story has gone, i must admit buying a video game just for that is rather sad in my view.

    Starcraft 2 on the Moho engine…. yeah now that would impress me. :D

  24. MeDDish Says:

    i admit ill buy/borrow/download SC2 just to see the story line (or more likely 1/2 of it then type in the cheats to watch the rest… but realisticly blizzard games SHOULD be dated by the time they hit the shelfs! they often look old, and play old, but the one thing they allways have is the shiny polish, no release day patches!
    Also game wise never that good but a GREAT story line everytime… lets face it Warcraft 3 was a flop multiplayer the ONLY reason its still played is pplz got into the map editor and made DOTA & TD & HD maps! with out these the game would of suck….. and we would of never had the WOW factor!

  25. gap144 Says:

    I have a major problem with my online Supcom as whenever I load up GPG net all the options to join game, host game, join ranked game ect ect are faded out and I cannot click on them, also if I join a chat channel it instantly bans me from the general chat, I also cannot download patches, replays, mods, maps ect ect. Could someone please tell me how to solve this as I really would like to play my favourite game online.

  26. braydz Says:

    how do you turn the strategic icons on and off ?

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