Hello! This is a subject I thought and talked quite a lot about in the last years, and the first entry in my article format. It is a longer read, but it contains exclusive insights and critical thinking about the genre, accumulated over a long time. It is mainly aimed towards game designers or people actively working on RTS games mind you. I also have to note that
english is my 4th language so don't be too harsh with me here!
A little anecdote to get started;
In the early days, my friends and I were big real time strategy fans. We were playing Command and Conquer (Earth, later Ground Control, Age of Empires, Act of War and so on) like no tomorrow. We loved RTS games. The missions, the story, the units. One big part of the hype came from the fascination of military tech, but building units, commanding them and steamrolling the opponent was our thing so to say. I even started mapping for some of them.
We would share (verbal communication in real life) what we played all the time, details about missions, the difficulty level of the bots we crushed, or the biggest bases we built, and that over the years. Many years later I suddenly realized something when picking up Dawn of War 2 from Relic Entertainment.
I had never really played any of all those RTS competetively, and neither of us had.
Saying that, I mean multiplayer, versus other players (E-Sports was not really a thing back then) Sure, we played against each other from time to time when possible, or we even played online multiplayer in the newer titles, but from that really huge chunk of playtime, It was nearly nonexistent. The next question in line is obviously: Why ?
23 June 2014 by Eric Krutten "Shrike"
Thinking back, trying to leave nostalgia aside, multiplayer was awful, and even although nobody even dared to think such a thing, nobody was all to keen about playing multiplayer, let alone playing it alone on the internet versus strangers. Then, if you think back, and try to remember the matches you have played in the past versus friends in the early days (Ignoring Starcraft and Relic titles for now)
How fun were those matches?
And the more important question; how much of that fun was based around playing with/versus friends? How fun were the online matches alone versus strangers?
Thats a question for yourself. My answer is: Not much fun. The fun I had was caused by the players, not by the game. However, my sample size here is small, and this is sure pretty subjective, but the problematic exists no matter how the answer. Thinking about RTS itself, I am pretty sure it came to life out of the desire to be a general, and fight big honorous fights, versus an opponent and win by tactical superiority and strategy.
The Art of War.
It was just a bad experience.
But how do RTS actually play?
The first thing that should immediately tingle designers alarm sense is custom rules. Nobody even dared to play without giving very specific constraints before the match started. The famous "20min no rush" and many other rulesets people were giving in real life or online in lobbies. This may not be so apparent anymore, but the core of these games did not change. Here are the 5 core playstyles that you will find in traditional RTS from my experience:
1. Turtling / Steamroll
Picture: Cossacks - Have fun getting through that.
You play very defensively, build a defense that nobody can penetrate, and steamroll the opponent lategame with a giant mass of units, which usually leads to an instant win if not disrupted early. This is the tactic every new user starts with usually. Often new players don't even build units until very late into the game and just fortify themselves with base defense.
Why ? Because there's no obvious incentive to do anything. Why would someone build units and fight early and midgame if you can simply choose not to, and stay in your base for 15-30 minutes until you're comfortable doing something with a giant mass of piled up units (usually spam of 1-3 unit types)
Thats a big problem right there. How can we bring new players right into action without overwhelming them or stretching matches for ages ? Having sessions, where nothing happens for 40 minutes, and then are ending in the first attack is probably not what we want.
In Planetary Annihilation, you can get to a point where the turtling is so excessive, that you
can not even land at the planet anymore, and have no choice but to destroy it fully by crashing a comet into it. (well its extremely difficult to land on it at least)
Rush/baserush is a tactic where you take the fastest possible way to get a couple units out, that will disrupt the enemies resource gathering, and very often leads to a instant win in under +-7 minutes. The pro's may not fall to this, but theres 85% of the playerbase that will.
The picture shows the famous Starcraft zerg rush. Please note that the entire Starcraft leveldesign is built around this very issue by making you able and requiring you to block the paths with buildings (Placing caserns on the road to block the enemyrush, (just like you would in real life, hah!). In the newer C&C, they gave the resoure gatherers either small turrets or stealth, trying to fix the symptoms without solving the issue. Its going that far.
Please note that many other games do nothave an answer and unending iteration around this (SC), leading to a lot of frustration for players in nearly all levels of play.
Not as important but interesting variant: C&C Engi rush. Build 2 engineers and a transporter, race to the enemy base, and take over their main building. Instant win. Extra fun, if you waited 5-40 minutes in a lobby for this. Not to forget Tower rush, where players build defense towers of their own, in the base of the enemy, easy win.
Building 3 units that chew on the enemys resource gathering in the first 3 minutes, while he can barely do a thing to counter it, is not how I imagine a fun game of war tactics.There is often no real tactic and no skillful gameplay behind, and a waste of a potential exciting match in my opinion. Also the ratio between searching games and game-length is out of sync, and its a big flow breaker. Starting to search for every new match takes commitment.
2. Baserush / Towerrush / Engirush [Etc]
Often part of steamroll, but applicable in early mid or lategame. The player builds so much of one particular unit, that its natural weaknesses are levered by their pure mass, while the enemy is never having a equal mass of counters, due to the (often random) choice of units. The principle works in nearly any RTS game.
Picture: An Example from C&C Tiberium Wars
Nod helicopters. They had medium armor and cost, but only a very weak laser that did very little damage. People just build so many of them, that their weakness, the low damage, was levered, and in a group of 30, they shredded through everything in seconds, while tanking everything thrown at them easily, as there was only single target AA (Anti Air). They could not shoot air units, but even if the enemy had something on field, the cluster would do irreplaceable damage, faster than you could shoot them down.
Pic: In that match, I could amass them in 9 minutes playtime while not leaving my base an inch. After 10 minutes of doing nothing, I simply crushed his base in an instant. What a forgettable experience.
If you don't have constant vision of the enemy, you cannot predict and counter such a thing with a balanced army that is supposed to be built. This is mere rolling a dice. Spamming a particular unit becomes favorable if a mass of them leverages their natural weakness, or their role is too versatile to begin with.
3. Spamming / Spam
Usually combined with steamroll. Player turtles and tries to disrupt enemy forces and base with barrages of special skills, super units / weapons, bombers or similar until the enemy is at a point where he simply can't keep up rebuilding things, or loses them faster than he can build. If the enemy gets a slight amount of units to fight, it simply is getting deleted by removal skills, leading to a very stale playtime.
An example from C&C Generals: Zero Hour, which was probably the least balanced game I've ever played, but I learned a lot from its problems. People were banning whole factions in multiplayer! It was ridiculous.
While Generals had 3 Factions, USA, Terrorist-GLA and China, the add-on brought 3 Generals to every faction, bringing special exclusive additions. Alone the names should tell you enough. Stealth general. Explosive (suicide) general. Super weapon general. Sounds fun right ?
The super weapon general was build around spamming the Particle-Beam superweapon, which wasn't the greatest concept as you may imagine. But our example is the USA Aurora Alpha bomber, an upgrade of the USA Aurora plane.
It did cost a bunch, but it did fly supersonic until it dropped the bomb, making it untargetable for anti-air until after fulfilling its purpose. The basic aurora bomber was strong and annoying, deleting super-weapon buildings without a chance to be stopped (per example), but the Aurora Alpha had a highly upgraded bomb with very high splash
4. Excessive barrage / Poke
Picture: Middle is the explosion, one single bomb causes, right an example of how much damage it can possibly do. If we count black spots, we have 20 destroyed tanks at the cost of 1600 each =32000 damage for 2000 cost without counterplay. If the plane survived you could do it again in around 30 seconds, while potentially having 4 simultaneously on an airport.
The explosive general could detonate all his units to great effect, centering the whole faction about easy removal and was obviously extremely frustrating, as a couple 300-cost Bikes could wipe out your expensive army. While poke is not always a full strategy, it is however a big hindrance to the core dynamics of a game if done wrong. Removal is becoming a problem when it is easier than fighting, or just very convenient in general. (Heartstone Mage?)
Barrage tactics are more on the rare side, and not as many games support them, but they can be some of the most frustrating. If you want to know where that caused lots of problems, look up World War 1.
All sides were turtling and barraging 24/7. Borders barely changed, as nobody could really advance, leading to extremely stagnant and frustrating fights over weeks and months without real accomplishment.
Player builds units in a regular interval and fights versus other units. The player that built the smarter counters to the enemy units and maneuvers the best wins the fights over control of the battlefield, gaining more and more power, if he can hold his dominance up. Player armies clash, get ambushed or outmaneuvered and the winning force goes out victorious in small fights, that will change the outcome dynamics of the overall match/war.
This is a very rare sight.
You will see more of this in Starcraft 2 and in very slow paced games like Age of Empires due to the simple fact that there is more time to react to enemy movement or due the amount of balancing and refining in the case of Starcraft. You will also see more of this the higher the level of play, as players confront themselves regularly, in knowledge (or hope) that the enemy does not have a good answer to the current attack, in combination with a lot of scouting. Surprisingly our expectation of war, the confrontation of two forces, is the thing we see the least.
5. Direct confrontation
Picture: Retro C&C Generals Lan photograph
So our core gameplay is pretty much everything
BUT what we would expect from a RTS game.
Does a game have to be according to the desire it was created for ? Certainly not.
But do we really want our gameplay to be like that ? "Cheese" strategies all over ? Finding the most one-sided way to win, dragging-on matches without reason or cutting them off before anything can happen, while having no reason to fight at any particular point but at a point where you want to end?
It is important to note that humans are drawn into using the easiest method, which we call
foo strategies in game environments. No player will ever lay away his super strong weapon, even if it makes all fights trivial and robs the game of all challenge (fun), while perfectly being aware of that. The player will simply not lay it away, he will rather stop playing the game. It is our job to lead the player towards the fun.
The root of all this is simple. RTS did not really evolve a lot from the original design. Westwood was a brute force on the market, and set the standards for many to come, just that the core game was a big sandbox with nothing but 2 players building a base and units, set free upon each other. What changed were units, buildings, graphics and settings, but the core remained the same for the sequels, and most other RTS to come.
A sandbox with one main objective.
Destroy the enemy base. No other rules or constraints given.
Sounds pretty good at first, but games are about rules. Rules sounds like such a bad word, but for us, rules are the great tools of creation, that allows us to shape experiences. They allow us to create unique dynamics that make the game the most enjoyable. Rules are what define sports or any form of game. Without constraints, how to measure success ? Tiberum Wars or Starcraft 2 dynamics are largely the same as Dune 2, which came out back in 1992. Its literally the first playable prototype gameplay that emerged as the final gameplay.
As soon as you could build units and fight, the game did exist. As there were no demands
and this was already groundbreaking, nobody thought about doing more. But now its 2014.
Starcraft manages to get the curve by having really good balance, and a more predictable set of options. Cheese strats are so deeply integrated that they are the main way of playing the game to a degree, but that's what players expect from the franchise and there's nothing wrong with that, as everything is balanced around those things, while strengths and weaknesses are very pronounced. But that is what Starcraft is meant to be, and what people demand Starcraft to be. This does not mean it is the right thing for any other game. Starcraft put unending iteration around all those problems and integrated them, and while it looks very similar to traditional RTS, the dynamics are vastly different.
The downside is that you will only encounter a oversee-able amount of options as the game follows a really strict ruleset in their unit archetypes and possible strategies, that can be learned and applied up to the exact seconds of a build order. Starcraft's focus lies heavily on micro management and chess-like countermeasures. The dynamics are very specific in
how they play out, and hardly comprehensible from outside. Just like Pac Man eats points
and does harsh 90° turns, is Starcraft very special on its own and dosn't deliver on common expectations.
About the broken dynamics of the RTS genre, and how we can
Improve the experience for everyone.
How we play RTS and what is wrong.
Please keep in mind that English is my 4th
Language and there will be errors.
The problem lies in the objective itself.
Relic entertainment seem to be the first to see all the issues in the core dynamics and they made very heavy changes to the classic formula. This started in Dawn of War 1, evolved in Company of Heroes and reached its peak in Dawn of War 2. The most important changes for our matter are:
A) Removing or simplified base building, giving more focus on units and the fighting itself
B) Base defense structures are less convenient and powerful, making turtling less effective
C) Every player starts with base defense structures, removing base rush completely
D) Units became important, where every loss hurts, as opposed to build and throw away
F) They added real tangible objectives that players had to control and fight for! (This!)
Players had something to actively contest, something that everyone instantly understood is important to have and could judge perfectly of its value. To build units, you had to have requisition and to build the special things, you needed to keep control over generators that were located at heavily contested locations. (Taking Dawn of War 2 as example, but Company of Heroes acts nearly the same) relocating the fighting areas to points of interest.
Before you start to flame me, Yes it works with base building aswell.
Please keep in mind that capture points demand a certain amount of vision on the map, else you will get constant ninja capping, (learned from Merc Elite) which is just annoying for everyone. League of Legends dominion does this very well.
Eleminating Steamroll, Baserush and Turtling
once and for all.
The listed additions resulted in drastic changes in the dynamics of their RTS titles,
eleminating nearly all of the toxic cheese strategies completetly.
This was the first time ive seen players actually fight against each other,
and it was glorious. Capture points were not only interesting by themselves:
- Tension while capturing
- Accomplishment by completion
- Indirect control of landscape
- Giving vision
- Giving new points of interest
- Making every location in a map count
- Changing paths and routes
- Giving active control over game flow
- Giving players decisions to make
They were also changing how players interacted with each other. People were actively fighting over something all the time. There was no incentive to stay in base and do nothing, or rush the enemies workers. Fighting over resources and control points became the core of the game, and having energy nodes at exposed points of the maps was exciting and holding them felt like an achievement alone. You now could sabotage the enemy's resources or take them over while fighting over land and control, without ending the game instantly or having to rely on cheap tactics. You would have multiple small fights constantly all over the place and big clashes of gathered player armies, to control a central point for a while. You could not find a minute without anything noteworthy happening. There was more strategy and playmaking than ever before. You could still rush, but you would rush to a certain point of interest with great reward, you could still sabotage, but without breaking the game.
With the addition of heroes with items and units having upgrades that could be equipped on the fly (if you had the resources) the game constantly evolves within a match and you had many possibilities to counter something without compromising on strengths and weaknesses of the units, bringing a lot of variation to every new game, (very similar
to the unending possibilities of the Moba genre) compared to the oversee-able options
the matches and counters the traditional RTS bring.
Please note that while Company of heroes (2) is a remotely similar game, the dynamics and how units interact are a lot more defensive and counters are often extremely specific and stiff, which is a step back from DOW2, but still a huge improvement over the traditional formula in my opinion (and certainly they were limited by RL constraints and logic - Tank vs Small arms..)
It is also important to note that the reintroduction of melee combat in a ranged game brought a lot of possibilities to balance around units, bring counters on a whole different level, and offering many new ways to play.
Please just have a short look at this random gameplay video. Its the first I found. It is 28 minutes long, a full match, but do not watch that, instead, randomly skip through the video, see how many different things are happening, and how there is always something going on on multiple levels. You also get a good impression how the 3 different capture points work and the dynamics they bring.
But all these new dynamics were not as important, as the fact that this all was
happening all the time, in every single match for every player of any skill level.
And all this while eliminating nearly all of the previous problems.
Just see how rich the interaction between all those units is. And the game starts 1 minute in.
You wouly previously only see similar dynamics in high level starcraft play, but with a lot less
diversity, a lot more predictable results and only at certain points of a match. Now we get this for 100% of the playerbase for easily 80% of the match, a ridiculous increase.
This is absolutely huge. Sure, some games are one sided as the skill differences are too large, and the game certainly isn't perfect and has issues, but they managed to improve the dynamics by an extreme amount, and relocate the old reasons to fight on more interesting places and time-frames of the map, give many new reasons to battle, while making fights and units feel a lot more meaningful and precious in the process.
Below is a very rough chart I made from various matches played, watched and past experiences. Its not accurate nor does it give any real data, (+ interaction between matches varies heavily), but it gives you a impression how many of the matches played tend to run, and how big the differences are. Please note that Starcraft and Company of heroes have pretty high player interaction for RTS in general.
All the time, for every player of any skill level.
I find it sad, that DOW2 seems to be all forgotten and disregarded. Likely because of the
very specific setting that also happens to be sci-fi (Sci-fi is not as popular as it may appear).
We seem to be stuck with the very first relization of real time strategy, and nobody but Relic seems to question or dare to touch it. People think so much about units and buildings that they forget the game itself. What is the objective ? What do we want the player to do ? Is what we want them to do really the most fun ?
If you enjoy how Dawn of War 2 plays or not, please take away the lessons learned and do not disregard the progress in the evolution Relic brought to the RTS genre. Maybe the units, the settings, the damage model and all its parts are not what you may desire or enjoy, the lessons learned about objectives are something universal, that should not slip from our mind because one does not personally like the hull that is Dawn of War 2.
Give your players proper objectives and reasons to fight, and do not take Dune2 as inspiration
for your core gameplay, the anarchistic sandbox core from 1992 does not cut it anymore.
Thanks for your time & see you ingame !
- Eric Krutten
Picture: Dawn of War 2 Minimap
Stars are conquest points that define the match outcome
Triangles and Energy signs are the resources to build