By now most of us have either done the deed or had it done to us. Made popular by players within the community known for their love of cheese, Commander reclaim has added a characteristically salty flavour to Planetary Annihilation. But at what point does it become the only item on the menu and stink up the whole room?
What is Commander Reclaim?
Some of you may have noticed strange things happening in your games. All of a sudden, certain players have become seemingly unbeatable. They somehow build way more units than you thought possible, have unbelievably high metal income, and their Commander looks to be damaged even though you never attacked him. What’s going on?
Here’s the secret. Even though the Commander cannot be built by any factory, it still has a defined metal cost in the game files that determine all the properties of a unit. That metal cost tells the game how much health is gained or lost when you repair or reclaim that unit. The higher the cost, the more metal is gained per health lost and vice versa.
The game files give the Commander a metal cost of 25,000. A third goes into wreckage when he dies, leaving the other 16,500 metal in life. The Commander is a giant walking battery of untapped metal accessible with combat fabricator reclaim. This is also true for Commanders in the Legion Expansion.
This virgin metal is an addictive drug, sometimes claiming the lives of those so blinded by power they end up reclaiming themselves to death. However, you don’t need to overdose in order to start seeing significant advantages. 16,500 metal is a lot. Reclaiming just 20% of that gives you enough metal for a T2 factory!
The energy pipeline limits the amount of metal we can spend. The more energy you have the more raw metal you are able to turn into units. Normally, just adding a combat fabricator to your build order to Commander reclaim gives you extra metal that gets wasted because there isn’t enough energy to use it. But what if we use our first few fabricators to build more energy instead of metal extractors, then use commander reclaim to make up the difference in metal income? The results are telling.
Commander reclaim is like an economic supercharger, giving us at minimum 20% increased production. The cost? Only 35% Commander health. Put another way, would you be willing to take 7 leveller shots to your commander in exchange for 350 extra dox over 10 minutes? Most would consider this a bargain too good to pass up.
The same trend shows up with T2 rushing where we use about 25% Commander health to get a T2 factory and transition to a T2 economy much faster.
Extent of Use
Testing is all well and good, but how many people actually use this tactic in a real game? And is there an observable knowledge gap between experienced and inexperienced players?
Below are games from the last 6 Planetary Annihilation: TITANS tournaments with a percentage of games where commander reclaim is:
- not employed
- employed by one side
- employed by both sides
|Commander Reclaim Usage|
|Date||Tournament||Type||Total Games||Neither Side||One Side||Both Sides||No PA Stats Data|
|21/05/2016||SuperCommander Legion 1||1v1||15||0||6||7||2|
|24/04/2016||Clan Wars Showdown 2||4v4||8||1||6||1||0|
|9/04/2016||SuperCommander Weekly 14||1v1||10||0||5||3||2|
|3/04/2016||Andreas G Pro 3||1v1||22||4||9||6||3|
|3/04/2016||Andreas G Casual 3||1v1||32||16||9||4||3|
Commander reclaim has caught on quickly, but only with experienced players. Casual players are much less likely to know about the tactic and we see this when comparing Andreas G Pro and Andreas G Casual.
We’ve found that Commander reclaim is a dominant choice both in testing and observation. But what about the direction of its impact? Is it good or bad? Let’s evaluate based on a set of relevant design goals which are good describers of a healthy game.
1. Clearly Communicated Unit Roles
Good unit implementation makes sure the intended unit role matches its observed utility in the wild. Mismatches are a problem for new players trying to divine a unit’s purpose and when to build it.
Based on previous design decisions by Uber relating to combat fabricators, we can reasonably conclude that their intended unit role is that of a combat medic. For example, they are selected as combat units, they auto repair, and their unit description only lists the following functions:
- Repair damaged units
- Build and detect mines
Economic boosting through Commander reclaiming is not a subset of these activities.
2. Facilitate Meaningful Choice
Commander reclaim is not a choice but a mandatory action due to the significant metal income advantage that results from its use. A healthy game should present the player with a number of interesting options, all of which are equally viable. The game should,
- Avoid presenting choices that are weaker or stronger than other choices in order to prevent ‘newbie traps’ where a new player unwittingly picks weak choices.
- Maintain a healthy decision tree with meaningful and unique choices in order to facilitate player engagement
- Maintain exciting decision risk/reward trade offs
New players with limited information fall into newbie traps, negatively affecting objective 1.
Informed players avoid weaker choices. The introduction of a dominant mechanic negatively affects objective 2 by narrowing the set of viable build orders to those that specifically take advantage of it.
Commander reclaim can potentially add exciting decision making, benefiting objective 3. The ability to trade commander hp for economic boosts has an element of gamblers delight. With appropriately high risk, it can be tuned to only be favourable for losing players looking for ways to come back into a game.
3. Intuitiveness and Internal Consistency
Victory and Loss conditions are one of the first core pieces of information a player learns. The player is trained to view his commander losing health as bad and the enemy’s commander losing health as good.
Commander reclaim reverses this internal rule assumption, where a reduction in health actually means a better chance of winning. It sits in a blind spot. The chance of natural discovery is small, which results in a large ‘skill’ gap characterised by arbitrary knowledge. People naturally look for something to blame when faced with negative outcomes, and when the cause is not readily apparent they blame the game or emulate toxic behaviour towards others.
4. Smooth Skill Curve
A smooth skill curve allows players to progress comfortably by comparing themselves with their peers. Large jumps in power present themselves as accessibility barriers.
Throughout a game the level of metal income received from commander reclaim is fixed at +30 or +60. Because it doesn’t scale with time, early phases of the game see very large skews in performance due to the large relative boosts. For example the difference between experienced and inexperienced players in a 1v1 may be something like 76 to 62 metal with a difference of 14 income. With Commander reclaim, this difference increases 300% to 44, which itself is a significant portion of the other players income.
Team games suffer even more from this skill gap because Commander reclaim scales with number of Commanders. For example a 5v5 sees a 150 metal income advantage to experienced teams right from the start. Where base income without reclaim is only 150, it would be as if one team was playing with a 2.0x economy modifier.
Map creators also suffer from this when they try to balance their maps across all skill levels.
5. Clear Expectation of What Constitutes a Valid Move
Players accept losses where they see opposing moves as being consistent with the spirit of the game. We enter games with certain unspoken contracts about what are accepted moves and what are unacceptable moves. For example, the bug exploits are deemed unacceptable and players are great at recognising one even though they may never have seen it before.
While it’s hard to come up with an underlying definition from which accepted moves can be derived, we can ask certain questions to probe whether a move is indeed within the spirit of the game:
- Does the advantageous move require player investment, such as mechanical skill, decision making, creativity, or some kind of mental aptitude?
- Is the player investment to reward relationship in line with other possible moves within the game?
- Does the advantageous move have risks and rewards in line with the bulk of other choices within the game?
Commander reclaim fails all three tests. Players who lose against the tactic tend not to feel outplayed in an agreeable manner as much as they feel cheated. This affects player retention and creates friction that can lead to toxic player behaviour. No one likes feeling cheated.
6. Increase Spectator Enjoyment
Spectator enjoyment is important for sustaining a casual player base that in turn supports the health of the game’s overall community. A dead or dying game is one without a casual player base.
Dominant strategies like Commander reclaim act as powerful signals that tell spectators who is winning and who is losing well before the game is over. When the weighting of particular moves significantly over power the weighting of other moves, results become more predictable and spectator enjoyment decreases.
7. Dynamic Use of Units
When a unit can be used creatively both in attack and defense in response to a variety of conditions we can say that the unit is more exciting to use. We want to avoid fire and forget when it comes to units that players use to directly interact with each other. There is no player engagement when it is built, issued an order, and forgotten about for the rest of the game.
This comes into play with Commander reclaim when we look at the flip side of repair effectiveness. Where reclaim has a big advantage, repairing has a big disadvantage. Unintuitively, repairing the Commander is more often game losing due to the vast amount of metal required. When repair effectiveness is low, the Commmander cannot be used to fight and retreat multiple times.
Commander reclaim is powerful, many people use it, and it tends to have a negative impact on enjoyment. What can we do about it?
- Disable reclaiming of Commander, or
- Reduce Commander metal cost
1. Disable reclaiming of Commander
Adding a special rule that prevents the Commander from being reclaimed cannot be done through modding – only Uber can implement this. It must be noted this removes the potential choice of reclaiming as a risky gamble. This will depend on your own judgement of whether the benefit of a risky, short lasting economic boost is worth other costs such as intuitiveness of valid moves.
2. Reduce Commander metal cost
A good metal cost target is one that makes Commander reclaiming an interesting choice that can be employed situationally with high risk. With this goal in mind, what are the min and max values that define the range in which our ideal solution resides? Below is a scale for how much we could possibly reduce Commander metal cost by.
|Option||Reduction||Gross Metal Cost||Metal in Life (2/3)||Metal in Wreckage (1/3)|
I would set the minimum metal cost value as the bare minimum that allows us to T2 rush with commander reclaim. You might have a different performance benchmark. To do this costs us approximately 25% Commander health from the T2 rush test we did above. Therefore, our minimum value is C, a 75% reduction.
I would set the maximum metal cost value just below the bare minimum required to achieve what we saw in our 10 minute test above where we saw a consistent 20% increase in economic output. We needed 35% Commander health to do that, so our max value is 65% (between B and C). Again, you might have a different performance goal to base a max value on.
Reducing unit metal cost without also reducing health increases repair effectiveness. Given our min and max values for metal cost, let’s make sure repairing is still reasonable i.e. not super effective.
Unlike reclaiming, repair uses gross metal cost and not metal cost in life. Mapping it out against several standard units, we get:
Between B and C checks out. It would make the commander about as efficient to repair as an Ant.
What’s The Solution?
The True Economy mod – which you can find in Community Mods – sets Commander metal cost to option C (75% reduction). You can try it out in your custom games and see whether it makes the game fairer and more enjoyable for you.
An alternate approach is the Com Reclaim Fix mod which changes the metal value to option B (64% reduction). It also increases the Commander’s speed to 10, the same speed as an Ant. The idea behind this mod is to increase the Commander’s value as a proxy base builder and frontline unit, thus giving you a reason not to reduce its health through reclaim.
Com Reclaim Fix
Maybe you prefer another value between B and C, maybe you have other ideas for min and max values, or maybe you think it’s better to remove Commander reclaim entirely. Whatever approach you favour, it’s clear consensus is growing that Commander reclaim as currently implemented is having a toxic effect on the quality of PA gameplay.