On Supreme Commander, the RTS that challenged its genre to go big or go home
Picture a land covered almost entirely with glowing buildings. In the small gaps between them sit robots, which are firing lasers into the structures to boost their efficiency. Above the base hovers an enormous flying saucer called the Czar. It’s firing a thick laser of its own towards the ground, but this one is destroying everything beneath it. Yet time is running out and there’s a quicker way to achieve its goal. A self-destruct button is pushed. The saucer falls from the sky. What few buildings below survive the initial blast are destroyed when the Commander – a particularly tall, bipedal robot – explodes with the force of a nuclear blast. Welcome to Supreme Commander.
When designers approach the realtime strategy game, they all seem to ask the same question: how can we make it smaller? Let’s remove the base-building, they say, or make it about a squad of only a handful of units, or better yet just about individual hero characters. Perhaps the player could just place turrets while the enemy advances along a fixed route. Or if players fight one another, then the winner can be determined by whoever has the best ‘micro’.
Supreme Commander’s designer, Chris Taylor, asked a different question: how can we make the realtime strategy game bigger? The answer begins with enormous maps and hundreds upon hundreds of robots.
SupCom, as it’s abbreviated, has three factions, each of which has its own unique set of units, and each unit comes in three flavours of power unlocked by upgrading your factories to different tiers. This stretches from simple differences – light, medium and heavy tanks, for instance – to vastly different tactical options within a single faction. You can shoot for an army made up of hundreds of tier-one assault bots coupled with some mobile shields, or an army focused around just a few tierthree Demolisher artillery weapons. You can ignore land units entirely in favour of dominating the skies. You can focus your strategy around upgrading your Commander, the sole unit you start out with, which essentially represents you on the battlefield. In the standard game mode, to lose your Commander is to lose the game, but if you want you can still upgrade him with weaponry and send him walking slowly across the bottom of oceans to reach your enemy head on.
Why does scale matter? Because it offers variety. SupCom is a game you can play steadily for a year and still be encountering units you’ve never seen before.
Considering its scope and size, it’s remarkable SupCom remains legible. That’s thanks, first and foremost, to its zoom function, which lets you smoothly transition the camera from down near the ground to high above the entire map. Reach the farthest extent of the zoom and the world turns to icons like an enlarged version of the minimap. No matter how enormous the area you’re fighting over – the largest span 81 square kilometres – you can always easily and quickly see everything that’s happening on the battlefield.
And there will be a lot happening on the battlefield. Among the aforementioned factions and tiers, SupCom features land, sea and air units. Some can transition between the two, such as boats that sprout legs to stomp over shorelines. You’ll have to fight on all these fronts to expand across each map, setting up forward bases and capturing resource points to fund your economy. There are neat pieces of functionality to help you do so, including flying vehicles that can carry smaller units, and setting automatic pickup points to handle not only the production of units but also shipping them off to the frontlines.
Again, why does scale matter to an RTS? Because it gives you more to occupy your strategic brain. Whatever SupCom can’t physically enlarge, it makes more complex. It’s a game that expands in the mind as much as on the screen.
It’s the economy that will require most of your brainpower. There are only two resources – energy for powering buildings and mass for constructing buildings and units – but where most strategy games let you start building only what you can afford in full at that particular moment, SupCom lets you start construction of anything at any moment. That’s because your resources are measured not only as a collected pool, but also in terms of income per second.
So long as the cost-per-second of the unit during the build process is lower than what you’re earning per second, you’ll be able to build units even if you don’t currently have enough to fund it outright. If the resource consumption is greater than your earning rate, however, then you’ll run out of funds, your economy will crash, and all production will halt across your entire base.
This one small change ripples across the design of the entire game. Previously binary decisions about whether to build something become a kind of gamble, as you start production on a unit far larger than you can currently afford with the hope that your planned economic expansion can keep ahead of it. You might go even further and launch experimental units – the game’s ultimate superweapons, such as the aforementioned Czar flying saucer – before they’re completed. There is a chance they will fail and crumple or fall limply out of the sky before reaching your opponent, but there’s also a chance you can rush them out and use them to destroy your enemy before they have a chance to get on their metallic feet.
Like most strategy games, keeping your economy fed means capturing nodes across the map and, here, placing mass extractors upon them. Unlike most strategy games, there’s lots to consider about how to set up your base. Mass extractors operate faster when adjacent to power generators, for example, and faster still when adjacent to four power generators. They can also be boosted further by telling your small builder units to fire their laser at them. It’s a valid strategy to begin your match by building five factories and dedicating each of them to producing nothing but the most basic worker unit, so that those units can in turn supercharge your factory’s production of all future units.
All of this would just be pleasing brain fodder were there not worthwhile opponents to fight against. SupCom’s AI provided a challenge at release, particularly when you pit yourself against the hardest difficulty levels in the game’s Skirmish modes, where it had the ability to cheat. It was also heavily flawed, however. Opponents would frequently mismanage their own economy, gathering far more resources than they were spending. This would eventually be fixed via a mod, Sorian AI, that is now the only way anyone plays the game. Developer Gas Powered Games later hired Mike Robbins, Sorian’s creator, to work on future games at the studio.
Sorian makes your opponents ruthlessly efficient and frighteningly responsive. Build long-range weaponry within range of a Sorian AI’s base and they’ll build shield domes to protect themselves. The bases they build are designed for maximum efficiency. They’re wonderful to look at, like beehives made of metal and lasers, and a delight to pit yourself against, though you might want to bring a friend for help. On the highest difficulty levels of the Sorian AI
THIS IS SUPCOM AT ITS BEST, SITTING AT THE VERY LIMITS OF WHAT YOUR BRAIN CAN REASONABLY KEEP TRACK OF
mod, they’re likely too much for a single person to handle.
This is SupCom at its best. In skirmishes, with the AI, the hundreds of units, the size of the maps, and the complex economic model, it sits at the very limits of what your brain can reasonably keep track of at any one moment. You’ll be fighting battles on multiple fronts, zooming and scanning across the map, frantically trying to keep up. One moment will be spent defending your home; the next you’re establishing a new forward base. Then you’re increasing power efficiency and building an experimental unit, then keeping track of your enemy’s progress. To suggest that Skirmish mode is
SupCom at its best might imply that the singleplayer campaign mode isn’t up to much. Let’s make that explicit, then: the campaign is dreadful. Its early missions function as a capable tutorial for the game’s concepts, but its mission design is ultimately too restrictive, in that it prevents you from building at the scale at which the game thrives, and too repetitive, in that a single mission might ask you to build a new base again and again as it advances. When coupled with a nonsense story about the war between its three factions, there’s little reason to play it when you can just skip direct to the Skirmish mode and play with the game’s toybox to your heart’s content.
SupCom was a spiritual successor to another game, Total Annihilation, and was followed by a standalone expansion called
Forged Alliance. This added a fourth faction with all-new units, new units to the existing three factions, and expanded the scale even further by including orbital weaponry. With the Sorian AI mod installed, it’s the best way to experience SupCom’s maximalism today. There was a sequel, but while
Supreme Commander 2 is a capable strategy game, it throws away most of what made the original ambitious by shrinking the scale and simplifying the economic model.
Unfortunately, SupCom was not a huge commercial success. Few games have followed in its footsteps, and none have done so successfully. The studio has since been acquired by Wargaming.net and is now known as Wargaming Seattle, but it’s yet to release a game of its own. It’s a sad end for a company that suggested a more exciting future for the RTS than came to pass.
The terrain is modified by nearly every action, from craters being formed by falling robots to footsteps marking beaches
SupremeCommander’s maps are so vast that they require you to set up trooptransport routes to ferry your units to the frontlines
The scale meant it was easy to lose track of units. That could spell disaster, as planes like these would hopelessly attack stronger opponents
SupCom’s excellence extended to its trailer, selling the game’s scope in four minutes and featuring this spiderbot at its climax