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The term "Sidebar" refers to a unique real time strategy (RTS) control interface designed by Westwood studios for its various RTS franchises. As its name implies, the sidebar interface is a vertical bar display that is usually located on the right side of the game screen. It serves a variety of functions, most notably the queing of buildings and units.
The term "sidebar" has two separate meanings that are interconnected. On one hand, it refers to a unique command interface that takes the form of button laden bar on the side of the game screen. On the other hand, it refers to a unique system of gameplay that was founded by Westwood studios for RTS games, a system commonly called "the sidebar system."
Command and Conquer games that make use of sidebars typically have them placed on the far right of the game screen. In most cases, the sidebar itself will have the following interface details starting from top to bottom:
- Repair button (right side)
- Sell button (left side)
- Building Queue
- Defensive Building Queue (Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 and onwards)
- Unit Queue (until Tiberian Sun Firestorm
- Infantry Queue (Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 and onwards)
- Vehicle Queue (Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 and onwards)
- Power Meter
The various buttons on a queue will commonly display a unique building or unique unit, depending on which queue the button is listed under. Clicking a button will divert funds from a player's bank account, draining the funds until the building/unit is fully purchased.
Once a building is fully purchased, the player can select a place to put it on the game map, though the radius in which buildings can be placed is typically centered on a Construction Yard or its equivalent. Notable exceptions to this rule include buildings captured by Engineers, which boast a small radius in which buildings can be placed. Once a buildings' location is selected, the building will instantly sprout up from the ground, adding its own abilities/attributes to a players’ greater base.
The purchasing of game units differs slightly from the purchasing of buildings. Like with buildings, the clicking of a button on a unit queue will divert funds from a player's account until the unit's cost is fully paid. However, unlike buildings, units do not require placement on the battlefield once they are fully purchased. Instead, the unit will automatically emerge from a unit producing building, should the player have one constructed. If a player has more than one unit producing building that can produce the unit in question, the unit, and all other units from that queue, will emerge from that building at a faster rate than if there were fewer buildings like it. In other words, the more producing buildings a player has, the faster the units will be produced. The building in which units emerge is called a "primary building."
Building and unit production differ in another significant way. Whereas the construction of a building under a specific queue will render all other building buttons unusable until the building is finished, the selection of a unit for construction will not. Multiple units can be purchased at any time, even if another unit is under construction. Construction will then follow the order in which the unit types were selected; when all of the units of a specific type are purchased and deployed, the units of the next type will be deployed afterwards.
Above the building/unit queues are the repair/sell buttons. Repair buttons typically have a wrench symbol emblazoned on them, while the sell buttons have a dollar sign (in Red Alert 3, variations with the Russian ruble and the Japanese yen exist).
Selecting the repair button will change the game cursor from the standard pointer to the "repair" pointer. Afterwards, any friendly damaged building selected by the pointer will slowly repair over time, while at the same time diverting funds from a player's account for each hit point restored to that building. Buildings that are being repaired will display a wrench symbol above them until the building is fully repaired.
Next to the "repair" button is the "sell" button. The sell button, when selected, will change the standard pointer to the "sell" pointer, similar to the repair button. Any friendly building selected by the player will instantly de-construct, with a portion of its cost being refunded to the player's account.
At the top of the sidebar is the radar screen, a square display that serves a variety of functions. During campaign missions, the radar screen can serve as an in-game video screen, displaying character interactions and crucial story points that can’t be shown with the game engine alone. In all game modes, the radar screen serves to display all locations visited by units controlled by the player. Various items of interest, like resource deposits, topography, units, and buildings are all displayed here for the player to better coordinate his forces. Forces belonging to different armies, be it friendly, allied, and enemy, will often be color coded for better discrimination.
Radar screens are typically dependent on a radar building of some sort to be constructed by the player in order for them to work. When a radar building is not constructed or functional, the radar screen will deactivate, displaying the player's affiliated faction symbol instead. Once a radar building is restored, the screen will display radar again.
The power needs of a player's base are displayed on the far left side of the sidebar, commonly as a thin vertical meter. Power consumption is shown as a red series of lights rising up past a green/yellow series of lights. Should the red overtake the green/yellow, the base’s power needs will be exceeded, with new power supplies needing to be constructed/repaired in order for power to be restored. In the games between Tiberium Wars and Red Alert 3 Uprising, the power bar is either red or green (no yellow indicator), while in Tiberian Twilight, the coloring of the power meter is eliminated altogether and is replaced with a numeric gauge.
When a base loses power, unit and building construction will slow down significantly, sometimes coming to a complete halt depending on the game.
Pre-Command and Conquer
Although the sidebar is mostly known for it's prominance in Westwood Studios' Command and Conquer series, the gameplay feature can trace it's history to an earlier game created by the same company, namely "Dune II" released in 1992.
The Dune II iteration of the sidebar was, in many ways, a "Mk. I" of the sidebars that were to come. Like future Westwood titles, the sidebar of Dune II was on the far right of the screen, had a radar display at it's top, and building/unit selections. It also displayed the player's monetary account, which was composed of money garnered from gathering "spice," which would later serve as the inspiration for Tiberium.
Being a primitive early draft of the sidebar idea, the sidebar in Dune II lacked many of the nicities that would appear later in it's evolution. Buildings and units could only be selected for construction by clicking on a specific construction building (a construction yard in the case of buildings) and a sizeable chunk of the bar was used to display unit information and buildings currently under construction. In addition, the selection of new buildings for construction required the player to open an entirely new menu for selection, an action which effectively paused the game.
These cumbersome features would be dropped by the sidebars next evolution.
Released in 1995, the original Command and Conquer, which would retroactively be titled Tiberian Dawn, built upon many of the pre-established gameplay mechanics Westwood had constructed with Dune II. The sidebar was one such mechanic. The new version of the sidebar included most of the features that would remain constant through the series, such as a building/unit queue and a power meter. Players no longer needed to select specific construction buildings to build specific structures/units. Instead, players simply needed those buildings to exist. This allowed for a much more streamlined and smooth gameplay experience that would set a standard for the budding RTS genre. Building queues were not possible for either buildings or units.
These concepts would remain unchanged in Tiberian Dawn's quasi-sequel, Red Alert. Built on the same engine as Tiberian Dawn, the sidebar for Red Alert was identical to its predecessor, albeit with different buildings and units to select.
1999 would see the release of the second game in the Tiberian series, Tiberian Sun, which would include the third iteration of the sidebar system. The new sidebar was identical to the version seen in Tiberian Dawn/Red Alert with one major exception; the selectable units and buildings were much more numerous, the new features of scrolling down the list using the wheel of the mouse and more boxes availiable with a higher resolution was to lessen this problem. However even with this the over-abundance of units would prove problematic for many gamers, as it made the selection of specific buildings/units more cumbersome than it needed to be. However, a building queue was possible for units of the same type, which means that a player could order up to 5 infantry units, vehicles and/or aircraft at the same time.
It was clear that the sidebar system was in need of another evolution in order for it to remain viable in the now competitive RTS game market. Westwood would address this problem in their next game release.
2000 saw the release of the next entry in the Command and Conquer series, Red Alert 2. Although the second Red Alert game would mimic its predecessor by using the same engine as the preceding Command and Conquer game (Tiberian Sun), it would differ in that it would evolve the sidebar system to the next level.
The Red Alert 2 iteration of the sidebar, essentially a "Mk. IV", addressed the problems of its predecessor by dividing various unit and building types into four individual queues. Instead of there simply being a building and a unit queue, there was now a building queue, a defensive building queue, an infantry queue, and a vehicle queue. This simple organization made the selection of buildings and units vastly easier, with the need to scroll down queue lists being made into an exception rather than the rule. On top of this, each queue could be quickly selected by using the q, w, e, and r keys as hotkeys, making the selection process even faster.
This fast and easy system would prove a huge boon for Red Alert 2 and the games to follow, as it would allow for a speedier gameplay experience that emphasized both strategic thinking and acute reflexes. The action of Command and Conquer would become more adrenaline filled, leading to a visceral experience that would once again set a new standard for gameplay quality.
The sidebar would return with new upgrades in the third Tiberium game, Tiberium Wars (as well as it's expansion pack, Kane's Wrath.) The new sidebar was a modernization of the Red Alert 2 iteration, featuring the same organization strategy and hotkey system. Two new queue tabs were added; one specifically dedicated to the production of aircraft, and another, located on the bottom right of the screen, that displayed the status of the units currently selected by the player. The latter was a feature that had similarities to the HUD design of Westwood's former competitor, Blizzard Entertainment. Special weapons were shown at the left border of the screen.
Perhaps the most important evolution of the new sidebar was it's transparency. Unlike in previous games, where the bar constantly blocked the right side of the screen, even when most or all of it's "buttons" were blank, the Tiberium Wars sidebar would only display as many buttons as were currently available to the player under individual queues; the "empty boxes" of the past queues were now non-existant, giving a more complete image of gameplay. The queues could also be collapsed upward into the radar screen, providing even more visual information.
For the first time, the interface could be switched on and off, with the hotkey being assigned to the "End" button by default.
The Red Alert 3 sidebar was based off the one used in Tiberium Wars, and added a seventh tab - the ship queue. The build queue tabs in Red Alert 3 were limited to nine units, while Uprising expanded the limit to twelve.
A new element was also introduced - the Danger Meter. It was an indicator of "danger" in which the player's units were found at a given moment, which would increase the speed of obtaining new points used for upgrading or obtaining new special powers.
In the Commander's Challenge mode in Uprising, the Danger Meter could also show a new, "Red Alert button" if the meter was full. This power could only be used once per game, and would make all active units of the player elite and set the fund reserve to maximum, but would log the length of the game as if it were played for 100 hours as a penalty.
Pros and Cons of the Sidebar System
The sidebar system is one of the oldest systems of RTS interface, if not the oldest. It's popularity and longevity are attributed to it's ease of use and minimilizing of micromanagment. Unlike most methods of RTS unit production, which require the selection of individual buildings to produce individual units, the sidebar system does not require any building selection whatsoever, with all buildable units being selectable on the sidebar itself. This allows for the much faster, rush friendly games the Command and Conquer series has become famous for. Command and Conquer fans enjoy the series for it's emphasis on adrenaline, unpredictability, and brutal combat, all of which can be attributed to the sidebar and it's many evolutions.However, the system does come with a few disadvantages. Because the selection of buildings doesn't have any purpose outside of the choosing of primary buildings, repairing, and selling, the numerous selectable options found in other RTS games, such as upgrades for example, are rarely present. In addition, because units will only emerge from one primary building no matter how many other buildings of the same type are present, the production of two or more units at once is typically impossible (though some games, like Command and Conquer 3 for instance, are exceptions to this rule.) As such, the sidebar system is not well suited for the more complicated RTS game design found in games like Starcraft (Blizzard Entertainment) or Rise of Nations (Big Huge Games). It is designed for fast paced gameplay with emphasis on troop management and battlefield tactics.
Games That Use the Sidebar System
Command and Conquer Series
As the series that popularized the sidebar, the Command and Conquer series includes many games that make use of it.
- Command and Conquer: Tiberian Dawn
- Command and Conquer: Red Alert
- Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun
- Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2
- Command and Conquer: Tiberium Wars
- Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3
Westwood Studios Games
Westwood studios, the company responsible for creating the Command and Conquer series, also included the sidebar system in many of their other franchises.
- Dune II
- Dune 2000
- Emperor: Battle for Dune
The sidebar system's popularity would see it's share of imitators. Many games would copy the system in the years following the release of Tiberian Dawn, with most making a few small tweaks to make it "their own". The core mechanics, however, rarely changed.
- Krush, Kill, N' Destroy (Beam Software)
- Krush, Kill, N' Destroy 2 (Beam Software)
- Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (Blizzard Entertainment)
- Warcraft II (Blizzard Entertainment)
- Total Annihilation (Cavedog Entertainment)
- Machines (Acclaim Entertainment)