Let's talk tax.
Now that I have your attention with such a riveting topic, I would like to discuss the humble Upkeep system and why it is critical for the game we know and love today. Why it deserves credit for its contribution to the tight game play loop that has kept competitive players interested in this game for 15 years, and why it's something you should pay attention to in your own games.
So first of all, let's talk about what the Upkeep system does.
When you go over a certain population your gold income reduces. That's it.
When your upkeep level changes you will hear a sound play to alert you, and you should notice that the gold ticking from your gold mine will change.
Note: Creeping, selling items, gold received from an Ally, and the Transmute spell are ALL affected by Upkeep, however they always show their initial No-Upkeep value. So be sure to do the math yourself!
To understand it's intent, I'm going to take a few quotes from Blizzard themselves, firstly, let's see what the website has to say about Upkeep.
"Upkeep has been included to improve tactical management for players while fostering a more aggressive style of gameplay. Players are more aggressive and turtle far less in their bases, and it gives players real strategic decisions to make about how many units they wish to control with pros and cons to each. Upkeep is also instituted to focus the game on smaller numbers of units. The more units that are allowed in the game, the less powerful Heroes will be relative to your army. This is simple math. High Upkeep is MEANT to be very punishing. Players should not be in it for long, but we didn't want to set the harsh unit cap at 80."
There are a few things to take away from this:
Next I'd like to quote Rob Pardo, the Lead Designer on Warcraft 3, here's what he had to say to Soren Johnson of Designer Notes on the topic:
"Now the other [decision] was when we put Upkeep into the game. Which again, was one of these really tricky problems for us to try and make the hero concept work, because when Upkeep wasn’t in there, then all you really had to control the players was population cap.
What would happen, what was always happening in play test, is people would get up to their pop cap, they’d have a big army, and then they would stockpile all their gold, they’d have a ton of gold and then what would happen is we’d get in combat with each other and if it ended up not resolving the war, then both of us can instantly rebuild our army, there was just no economic tension."
For a slight aside here, keep in mind what he says about stockpiling. We shall come to that later. For now though, you can see that Upkeep was included to add tension to the game, to encourage players to fight each other, while keeping the armies small enough that heroes play a big role.
Above I mentioned that there are four considerations of Upkeep, and now we can look at how that affects the decisions made by the player:
Turtling is a popular strategy in RTS. Build up a force behind strong defenses and push out once you get the big army. Upkeep means this becomes less effective as the game goes on it takes longer to get to 100 food, giving your opponent time to either organize the siege to push your base, or expand and take the map.
It absolutely must be a conscious decision you are making to break 50 food. New players must not allow themselves to float just over the Upkeep barriers into 53 food, or 85 food. Trust me that the loss in income isn't worth that small army advantage! Make sure that you are breaking Upkeep when you decide to.
Warcraft 3 is all about the Hero. With Upkeep nudging the game into low-population battles, the Heroes become all the more important, and Heroes love map control. In addition to the expansion options you get, Warcraft 3 maps are full of another two resources that you need a Hero with to access: XP and Items. With Upkeep, you benefit from fighting for map control rather than sitting and building your tech or economy as is often the case in other RTS games.
I know I said you must be wary of breaking Upkeep, this is especially true of high Upkeep. It's very hard to recover from losing a 80 food army, so you have got to make sure you're using the army if you have it. You should aim to never accidentally break upkeep, and if you have to kill a worker or two in the late game, that's often fine!
This system is the unsung hero of Warcraft 3. Adding an additional dimension of strategy, as well as encouraging a fun and aggressive style of play. It's a system so good that it often goes totally unnoticed by new players, yet it's there, guiding you to that exciting and tense gameplay that has kept veterans coming back for over a decade.