Searching For The Young Strategy Rebels

By Alec Meer on April 14th, 2008 at 12:36 pm.

Presumably because I’m still heavily damaged by a weekend of hard boozing and harder dancing in the company of those elements of RPS who enjoy fun, the loose connection between my brain and my typing fingers has dribbled out some stream of conciousness about RTS.

That strategy is on my/RPS’ radar so much at the moment is probably an inevitable result of an Autumn and Winter spent happily gorging on first-person shooters, followed by the early months of 2008 being distinctly short on big-name games. In the sudden absence of fast action snacks, we turned to our long-lasting strategy game rations for survival. It seems to be a trend within the microcosm of PC gamers I know. Where not so long ago there was this daily pile-on into Team Fortress 2 servers, now my taskbar fills with instant messages about playing Dawn of War or World In Conflict. And it’s been ace, not just for the actual playing, but also the post-match analysis, which reaches the sort of insane blow-by-blow detail that would be reason enough for the rest of the world to demand that all PC gamers be rounded up and executed for the good of humanity.

Soulstorm’s a game that score 6s and 7s, and yet we keep playing it, keep talking about it. Couple that with the slightly surprising success of Sins of a Solar Empire, and clearly strategy is on a lot of folks’ brains. Looking at the months ahead in the release schedules, RTS also offers the most obvious talking points, outside of Fallout 3. Starcraft 2, Empire: Total War, Red Alert 3 and Dawn of War 2 loom, versus what’s a comparatively weak FPS hand – Project Origin? Tiberium? They’ll probably be fine, but I can’t see ‘em being RPS’ most-read posts, somehow.

Tellingly, the PC-specific FPS is conspicuous by its general absence of late. Crysis and UT3 (if you excuse its presence on PS3), the most definably PC of late 2007’s many shooters, were somewhat lost to the multi-format thunder of Call of Duty 4, Bioshock and The Orange Box. Outside of Stalker Clear Sky, It’s hard to see that trend changing, which means strategy is something for PC gamers to cling to as a genre that’s palpably theirs, something meatier and deeper alongside the MMORPGs and match-three casual games that increasingly characterise the PC.

But will it stay ‘ours’? There’ve been renewed efforts to realise strategy on console of late – notably C&C3, and upcoming rethinks of Supreme Commander, World in Conflict and Civilization. Mouse – gamepad has historically been an awkward transition, but sooner or later someone’s surely going to nail it. We can be confident in a sustained, healthy dribble of SOASEs and Armageddon Empireses, but in parallel to that I’m absolutely convinced the Team Fortress 2 of RTS is coming, and soon.

I don’t know what it’ll be or who’ll make it, but there’s a desperate need for it. Much as I enjoyed the mammoth five-man bouts of Soulstorm we waged over the weekend, I was bothered by the frustrations of just how well you had to know your side and each unit within it, the need for all those minute tech upgrades, the ease with which one player could gain the upper hand, the intense stat discussion all across the fan-forums. I’m fine playing with chums I know are around my skill level, but it’s very rare that, outside of nosing at the multiplayer modes for a review, I’d dare venture online to play randoms. I know how quickly and brutally I’d be destroyed. I wouldn’t have fun.

To put it another way, I’m scared. I am, it’s true, a lily-livered wimp with a yellow streak as wide as a rainforest, but I can’t imagine I’m alone in this. (As a games journalist, I’m also worried about the growing divide between what my necessarily omnivore nature picks up on, and that extra degree of numbers and imbalances and hotkeys the dedicated RTS fan sees.) World in Conflict makes some decent strides in terms of ripping out the knotted mess of wires and circuitry that make most RTSes so inaccessible to a rank newcomer and to less frenzied players, but it’s hardly a level playing field.

So what will be the great equaliser? Perhaps a class system of sorts – Tanks Guy, Anti-Tanks Guy, Planes Guy, placed into a many-playered co-op structure. Give people just a couple of things to worry about rather than the whole gamut (again WiC plays with some of those ideas), plus the presence of comrades makes the whole affair a little less threatening. The most enjoyable of our DOW bouts saw a couple of us teamed up against a phalanx of angry AI; it’s perhaps less of a challenge, but the sense of shared excitement amplifies every skirmish into something that much more thrilling.

I dunno what will happen, but I just get this itch at the back of my brain whenever I play an RTS, this feeling that, much as I enjoy it and certainly don’t want it to be replaced by some Nu-RTS, it’s high-time for an optional alternative. Videogames are getting so hard these days, to coin a phrase. TF2 and Battlefield Heroes are the apparent vanguard of a new trend in accessbility and all-welcoming entertainment, and I simply can’t believe there isn’t someone out there applying the same values to an RTS. Someone’s gonna come up with something that lets everyone playing have a great time, whether they win or lose.

However good is turns out to be, Starcraft 2 is certainly not going to be that something.

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102 Comments »

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  1. Mo says:

    My two cents:

    * Rushing should be out. Limited troops make more sense, as you genuinely need to think about what your tactics will be. Less is more.

    * Base-building also out. What frustrates me is the 20 minute build up to the 5 minute battle that I didn’t stand a chance of winning anyway.

    * Why can’t the game tell you what works against what? I don’t want to build units and “guess” what they are most effective against. Just tell me and get it over with!

    * Shorter, but more, battles. Why play a single match for 30 mins? Wouldn’t it make more sense to take a counter-strike-esque approach? That is, instead of 1 match lasting 30 mins, make the game consist of 3 matches that take 10 minutes each. The faster the player goes through the build-fight cycle, the more he’ll understand.

    * RTSs come with three factions standard these days. I say screw that, just have one! One faction which everyone can use, everyone can study, and everyone knows how to play. The problem with multiple factions is that you don’t know what the others can/will do without investing alot of time into the game.

    Mo

  2. Fat Zombie says:

    Mo’s ideas sound very good. I like the shorter battles concept; I often don’t have much time to play games, so RTSes tend to suck up too much time to be playable. Short games would be great.
    I also agree with the game telling you what units would be good against others, although I think some games already do this.

    For me, easier + quicker would definitely suck me in.

  3. Jackanator says:

    @ Mo’s post,

    For your complaint at number of factions, do you think people will still play DOW if there was only one faction, say the Eldar? Hell, even counter strike have 2 sides.

    And at your quicker matches idea, this is RTS we’re talking about. Quicker time might work for RPS, but I doubt anyone will want to play 3 matches in a row. Build-fight cycle does get repetitive faster than buying guns and shooting terrorists.

    So what you are basically saying is “Let’s take out all the RTS defining elements and stuff it with components from other gaming genre.” Strategy isn’t for everyone, and if you find it too hard, play neverwinter nights or sims or WoW. Surely there aren’t a lack of players and no one ever complain they’re too hard.

  4. Lanster2008 says:

    @Jackanator
    I found it amusing that you will compare an awesome game like counter strike to a shitty game like dow .even though you are a world renowned ak-awp whore. surely you have more class than that. anyways. i’m busy writing up my presentation for international business. so yeh jackanator..stick to cs. tats the only game u can pwn. peace out dawg.

  5. Lh'owon says:

    Either there is an excessive amount of irony in these comments or puerility is the new cool.

  6. Noc says:

    Slippery slopes are slippery.

  7. Mo says:

    @Jackanator:

    For your complaint at number of factions, do you think people will still play DOW if there was only one faction, say the Eldar? Hell, even counter strike have 2 sides.

    I don’t know so much about your specific example, but yeah, why not? Obviously the faction would be designed to have variety in it, but it doesn’t seem inconceivable to me.

    CS had two sides but they are largely the same, save a couple of weapons. I describe my first game of Starcraft as, “I built up my army and then the ground ate me”. My friend sent an army of underground units to my base, brought them to the surface, and killed me. Amusing? Hell yes. Intuitive or fun? Not really. CS never had differences this significant.

    Basically, having one faction allows us to focus on tactics, not on learning what each faction does. How the heck was I suppose to know the ground could eat me? :)

    And at your quicker matches idea, this is RTS we’re talking about. Quicker time might work for RPS, but I doubt anyone will want to play 3 matches in a row. Build-fight cycle does get repetitive faster than buying guns and shooting terrorists.

    That’s the point. RTSs are tedious/repetitive. They shouldn’t be. If we could make them faster, more dynamic, more emergent, people would play a couple of rounds at a time, and learn more about the game in less time. I hate the idea of investing 30mins of my life into learning a tiny portion of the game. Games made of shorter rounds means that the player can grow over the course of the game, not once every half-hour.

    So what you are basically saying is “Let’s take out all the RTS defining elements and stuff it with components from other gaming genre.”

    Not really. I’m not sure any of what I’ve said is specific to a genre per-se. I just propose getting rid of these “defining elements” and filling them with other elements. No better, no worse, just … different. And you know, more accessible.

    Strategy isn’t for everyone, and if you find it too hard, play neverwinter nights or sims or WoW. Surely there aren’t a lack of players and no one ever complain they’re too hard.

    Yay for elitism! *rolls eyes*

    Why shouldn’t strategy be for everyone? Why isn’t it for me? It’s not that I can’t think strategically, or I find it “too hard”, I’m just unwilling to spend a large amount of time “learning” the game. There’s a difference between complexity and depth. I want to play an RTS that is low in complexity but has plenty of depth. I want to be able to jump into an RTS and have a fighting chance without spending months of my life learning the game.

  8. sigma83 says:

    I sense deletebots.

    On topic: You have completely nailed why I don’t play strategy as much as FPS/RPGs. I’m simply crap at them. I like them, very much, just that online I get stomped, and fast. Like ‘ho dee hum, let’s have a squad of footmen HOLY HELL WHERE DID THOSE FLIERS COME FROM ARGH ARGH ARGH’ kind of pwnage. I don’t learn anything, not fun.

  9. Saskwach says:

    Defcon is a good example of an accessible game imo. Sure the difference between novice and expert is frightening but the unit types are limited and pre-constructed (you just need to place them), plus with the number of nukes you’re given you’d have to be a total buffoon to not hit something (like I did in my first game). After all, the central theme of defcon is that in thermonuclear war both sides will be hit without a doubt.
    Hell, defcon is a great example that RTSes (The emphasis is on Strategy not Tactics or Base-Building as Jackanator seems to think S stands for) can work with one faction of the same units. Jackanator, I think you’d find that strategy actually CAN be for everyone but the non-strategic cruft that’s been added to RTSes isn’t intuitive and is boring and slow. That’s an unfair generalisation but I don’t see why 90% of RTSes should have base building and single units tactics not strategy when that seems like the remnants of older technology, when such things were the only solution. Such games shouldn’t die but it’d be nice if there were more strategic RTSes. I like leading giant flanking attacks where consideration of unit-to-unit match-ups isn’t absolutely vital.

  10. Andrew Doull says:

    I’ve got to second madness’ mentioning of Defcon… of course it’s a little more sedate a pace than you’re imagining.

  11. ExitJudas says:

    Interesting main point: When does someone make an RTS where you can enjoy a match against a pro, even though you are a noob?

    I think the answer is rather complex and multi faceted.

    first off, it seems one of the things that you dislike in multiplayer games, is when a game has a steep learning curve, and the power to knowledge relationship increases exponentially.

    In these kinds of multiplayer games you simply cannot win as a beginner against a trained opponent. But when you think about it, this is a problem in all interesting competitions , to a certain extent. The issue is therefore probably whether the game design helps the noob or rewards the expert, i.e. does the game has classic catch up functionality or is it a classic slippery slope design coupled with a micro management overflow, rewarding extremely fast button mashing and click-festing. It also poses the question whether a multiplayer game should be a competition or maybe more of a cooperative experience where you just happen to control different sides of the battle and the competitive aspect is secondary.

    Im surprised that Company of Heroes haven’t been mentioned more extensively in this thread. IMHO it adresses a lot of the issues that you touch on, although it keeps the skill centered gameplay firmly in grip.

    CoH has a pretty cool catchup logic built into the game design. The more units you lose, the more resources you gain to buy new ones.

    It also has a lot of semi random events built into the system. A tank can survive 5 anti tank hits with just a sliver of health left, simply because relic found it a cool feature that would make more interesting battles! a lot of competitive players hate this, calling it imbalanced or lame, naming it the 5 % bug. The thing is, its probably implemented as a fun feature.

    CoH is also different from i.e. Starcraft and warcraft in that you have very few units to take care of, thus lowering the requirements for über speed micro.

    So IMHO CoH has a lot of what you are asking for, while remaining an RTS designed for competition.

    An RTS with more focus on the fun experience off all involved and less focus on competition sounds like a great idea, the question is who dares make the first one. :D

  12. sigma83 says:

    the problem is that CoH is still very skill-intensive. A person with a decent grasp of basic mechanics and unit balance (like myself) is still likely to be annihilated at the hands of an expert. Not just beaten, crushed. Crushed, says I.

    World in Conflict is a better example imo.

  13. ExitJudas says:

    Sure WiC has an even stronger catch up mechanic.

    I think maybe the issue is more whether its fun to lose, and whether the game can maintain the illusion that you have a chance of winning even when you really don’t. =)

  14. Jackanator says:

    @ Mo,

    [quote]I’m just unwilling to spend a large amount of time “learning” the game[/quote]

    Well that is the whole point isnt it? You can’t expect to be good at something unless you are willing to spend time on it. Same goes for everything else, so I don’t see why you just don’t get it. It is the fundamental difference between pro and amatuer.

    And stop trying to turn RTS into something its not. If you take out base building from RTS, what the hell would you call games that have base building? I think what you are looking for is RTT, Real Time Tactics game. Go read some articles on RTT, then go play WiC or GC, and stop complaining like a noob here.

  15. sigma83 says:

    Base building adds another layer of skill on top of what can already be a difficult game. It’s not _bad_, some people certainly enjoy it, it just makes it less accessible (which I thought was the point here?)

  16. Jochen Scheisse says:

    When I started playing DOW online, DC had come out. Initially I just played, and I was ok when sticking to the noob or FFA games. But then someone told me about the forum strat discussions, and I read up about techniques, races, balance and timing, and all of a sudden I was a little scared too because these people obviously had put a lot of time into this, and most of them had developed a complicated superstructure to measure the progress of the game, your own position and the opponents strategy by a very small number of hints. It felt a little like when I met some guy who was very much into Day of Defeat, to a point where he actually played the maps on his own, without any other players or bots, to measure the time he’d need to get to different points of the level. For hours.

    It is actually not that bad. Few people will put that much effort into a game, and as long as you largely stay out of 2 player games, you will also have fun as a casual player. And it’s really unavoidable that you learn about harassment vs rush, predicting build orders through intel, scaling of troops and general build orders to avoid total predictability and stuff like that, as long as you keep on playing the game. Because a lot of these things have not really changed since Dune. Really, dude, just watch some replays ^^

    Also, the main reason why FPS are more fun for noobs is that they are much more massively multiplayer. These games are to a large degree total luck. Play a 1on1, pro vs. noob, on any FPS, and if the pro wants the experience will be so humiliating that the noob won’t ever touch an FPS again.

  17. Lh'owon says:

    I’m a firm believer that strategy games can be (and should be) made more accessible while losing none of their depth.

    Actually, I’m not sure accessible is the word I’m looking for… what I mean is every action you make in the game should meaningful. That means physically and visibly a change occurs. Not just “You have completed generic upgrade no 256 out of 523″ which plagues even the best RTS games.

    Intuitive, I suppose.

  18. Jackanator says:

    @sigma83,

    They’ve already invented another breed of RTS games without the base building and thus plays faster. It’s called the RTT, such as World in Conflict, Ground Control etc. What you guys are basically whinging about is “We find RTS less accessible than RTT!” and “We want RTS to be more like RTT!!” You don’t like RTS, go play RTT games and stop complaining on a article which is on RTS.

  19. sigma83 says:

    Ah, personal attacks! Always fun.

    @Lh’owon: That is the style of thing I’m talking about. Memorizing build orders, currently one of the cornerstones of most strategy, should either be taught in tutorial or else made into a formative part of the game. Most RTS single player campaigns, which is where our time is spent ‘learning’ the game, rarely talk about this and focus on plot or interesting scripted battles.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I love it personally, but a ‘lrn2play’ portion can go a long way. Forums and strat discussions shouldn’t be the way to learn, the game should teach you, that’s it’s job.

  20. AndrewC says:

    Jackanator,

    Just to take you seriously for a moment. We’re talking about games where you fight an enemy but don’t have direct control over your units. Getting too dogmatic about specific labels is to lose perspective. And what is being argued here is not the entitlement of the noob who wants to win without trying – which would lead to an RTS with two buttons – ‘build army’ and ‘attack’ – but that the development of RTSs towards adding more detail to an old template, with the result of micromanagement, is negative, and should be looked at, shaken up, changed.

    And if you worry about the ‘S’, perhaps you should look at the ‘RT’. do tanks take a week to build in these games? If not, then they are not ‘real time’. The point being, there are abstractions, simplifications, compromises and outright cheats in every game in order to give the player ‘fun’.

  21. Lh'owon says:

    @sigma83: Yes, any step in that direction would be welcome.

    My fundamental problem with strategy games (and this is coming from someone who like them very much) is that I feel as if I’m simply fulfilling a poorly hidden mathematical framework.

    I’m being led along by a carrot on a stick – if I run fast I can get in a nibble, a quick bite now and then, but I must keep running or be destroyed. And finally, near the end game, I finally manage to eat the carrot – only to realise it was made of cardboard. Tasty cardboard, at times, but fake all the same.

    I want freedom – to manipulate and change the world, to make decisions that aren’t pre-defined, to create for the purpose of completing my own objectives, not only for the ubiquitous carrot.

  22. Ian says:

    Has it really been suggested that ALL RTS’ have to be made simpler just so that the uninitiated can give the experts a run for their money? That’s nonsense, and I (as previously admitted) am Not Very Good at RTS games. I’d agree that some of us could do with more games sitting in a middle ground of RTS to help us jump up a notch (harder than something as simplistic as Battle for Middle Earth but not as hard as the games at the other end of the spectrum) but to suggest the genre itself needs to be redefined seems daft.

  23. Alec Meer says:

    I’ve only suggested that an RTS try a new approach. In the same way, I don’t want all FPSes to be TF2, y’know?

  24. Jackanator says:

    [Constructive debate welcome, but that’s enough flaming. – admin]

  25. Okami says:

    EDIT2: *sigh* The whole post was flame bait, I guess. I apologize.

  26. Jackanator says:

    [removed – admin]

  27. Alec Meer says:

    Whee! PC gaming!
    (All further personal attacks, from either side of the argument, will be delete-o-tronised).

  28. ExitJudas says:

    To be honest I think one of your issues is not with the game per se, but with how you choose to percieve it. Sure there are a mathematical framework of some kind in all RTS games, but the core gameplay stems from the fact that that framework is so complex and has so many permutations that nobody can find the one true game winning strategy.

    Take a look at chess: good players study openings (build orders) and discuss in which situations these are useful, what openings counter each other etc. And chess is a simple game compared to RTS, at least when it comes to the number of choices for the player.

    Chess and all other strategic games can teach us that it is basic human nature that leads to us trying to capture the essentials of strategic decision making in doctrines and sequence.

    This leads to the fact that the simpler the RTS is, the easier it is to find a cookie cutter strategy, a predefined sequence of actions that leads to victory. I guess thats why computers are good at chess but lousy at RTS games. Its also very normal that pro RTS gamers whine about imbalances and overpoweredness, imbalanced maps,etc. What they refuse to understand is that you cannot balance complex RTS games in any mathematical sense unless you completely mirror every facet of the gameplay, i.e. all units actions and maps. So balance is actually a continous countering of all cookie cutter strategies that a gaming community finds, to keep the gaming experience fresh, the players playing and trying out new aspects of the hugely complex format that most RTS games are.

    What I’m saying is that its an illusion, that RTS games are “just” a hidden mathematical framework, and that some people have it all figured out. Its way too complex for that. Sure player 1 can have a really good plan/build/strategy for map 1 playing race 1 against race 2, but thats just a tiny part of the overall game he has nailed pretty good, and there is very often a counter to his build anyway.

    When it comes to running fast, I agree that RTS games can fall into the warcraft 3 trap where its all about practicing your button mashing skills. Speed kills because a normal player hasn’t got the time to use all the skills he would really like to use, simply because he is not fast enough. CoH and WiC are both designed to not fall into this trap, WiC more than CoH. Warcraft 3 is the epitome of this kind of RTS. This IMO destroys the strategy part of the game, because it caters to a simplistic game play. Warcraft 3 ended up being to big armies running around the map in big blobs of color and sound, very rarely was multiple important things happening across the map, simply because the micro was so incredibly important and the player could only micro in one place at a time. Again CoH has a tempo that allows you to fight effectively on multiple fronts, so this is also something that some RTS designers are actually into.

    The Old Total Annihilation was the same. Despite its flaws, the gameplay encouraged decision making and multi tasking strategies as opposed to speed clicking.

    I think these are your main issues, not the fact that practice gives you a competitive advantage. The only place in the world it doesn’t is when tossing a coin. While good RTS games have a modicum of cool coin tossing built in, it still has to be moderated :D

  29. Okami says:

    GameSetWatch has a very interesting article about the evolution of the modern RTS.

    It’s basically a comparison of the original StarCraft with DoW and CoH, in terms of how certain evolutions the Relic games have added to the genre (individual unit AI for example) have made the games less interesting for competive play.

    Go check it out, it’s really a rather interesting read.

  30. AndrewC says:

    A friend of mine would complain that all RPGs, like say Oblivion, were just spreadsheets too – enemies just long lists of numbers, NPCs just lists of canned responses. I would argue that you could still wander around the world, enter into the imaginative game of ‘being’ there.

    So perhaps this comes down to the human factor. Some will approach games as pure abstract mechanics – like chess -and some will want to enter into the imaginative landscape of it – those that would find it more ‘fun’ to be a space marine than a normal marine, for example.

    For the former, the suggestions in this thread will seem like compromising the game, but for the latter, the emphasis in RTSs on pure mathematical grinding remove the fun.

    Most people will wobble between the two, of course, but i’ll fall in the latter – wanting the thrill of controlling battlefields full of sweeping armies rather than the thrill of crunching the numbers most efficiently.

    But surely both types can get along, right?

    Right?

  31. ExitJudas says:

    Spot on AndrewC.

    However you cannot remove the story from the game, it wouldn’t be an RTS without it. You can’t remove the “rules” either since they are what makes the game interactive and not a dynamic movie.

    However i think the reason many pro players like original starcraft design philosophy is precisely because the rules seem simple and visible. What they refuse to see is that a lot of the rules are not visible, for example map layout and race balance. Blizzards reputation as good balancers is based on the fact that their RTS recipe is simplistic, and the fact that they frequently patch their games so that the gameplay changes.

    Okami: There is unit AI in starcraft aswell in the pathing of units. Does this ruin competition aswell? imo Its all in the persepctive what you see as a competitive environment. I must postulate that its a question of getting the player to feel in control by having him make interesting decisions all the time, since creating a mathematically balanced game is not possible.

    Even chess is considerably skewered in favour of white.

  32. Kieron Gillen says:

    Okami: What I find fascinating about the lionisation of Starcraft is when they say “It requires fantastic micromanagement” they primarily mean “You have to move every single person exactly where you want ‘em or you’re screwed”. I get it, but I don’t quite *get it*, y’know.

    Starcraft 2’s gonna be an interesting one.

    KG

  33. ExitJudas says:

    Okami: just read the article:

    I agree with the analysis to a certain extent, except on the most important issue. The author postulates that Starcraft takes more skill and AI removes the possibility of skillfull play.

    Unfortunately that analysis is way too simplistic. He only focuses on the micro management part of the game, and to that extent he is right: if you get AI support for micro management tasks as in CoH and DoW, that part of the game will be less skill based. Correct, but only important if you think that the heart of RTS is the micro management of the positioning of your individual units in the microcosm of a battle somewhere on the map.

    IMO CoH especially has lifted the RTS to another level of abstraction where you do not win by understanding the exact pathing of an individual units – which for many people is not an interesting choice/gameplay mechanic – but by making more abstract decisions like, should i upgrade this unit with bazzookas and send him into that house and then spent my ammo resources on an arty barrage, while wiring of this field with barbed wire. You may say starcraft has these choices aswell, and i agree it does, BUT it only has 1/3 of those choices since 2/3 is spent on micro management, and many people think that the micro management choices are boring and the other choices are cool. I’m one of those as you might have guessed :D

    I don’t think the cool thing about the RTS is the micro management of clicking quickly around the map running your units in circles often in ways that look completely ridiculous in game and is borderline abusive. I prefer spending my time on cool and interesting decisions constantly, not just 1/3 of the game, and I want those decisions to win me the game, not my really fast mouse hand.

  34. AndrewC says:

    Interesting article, but it is based on the assumption that chess-style absolutely predictable play space is the only (or, at least, the supreme) format of competitive gaming. This ignores things like sports which have loads of random factors – and it is the dealing with the random (wind or a divot in golf, injuries, coked up players, the luck of the bounce and lord knows what else in football) that gives the competitive play its heart-in-mouth qualities. It’s being able to deal with and constantly adapt to the not-quite-in-control situations that is the skill set.

    It is perhaps not a surprise that the players that utterly immersed themselves in Starcraft’s skill-set would not then take to a different skill-set.

  35. ExitJudas says:

    I agree AndrewC,

    Not to be too provocative, but the Starcraft model caters to people with a tendency towards OCD. For them all loss of control is a major pain, since it screws with the perfect universe feeling :D

  36. Okami says:

    Yes the article really focuses on one of the skills that are important in RTSs: split second decision making and micromanagment (ok, that are actually two).

    I myself prefer Relic games over Blizzard style games, mainly because I really really suck at microing and I’m much more concerned with overall strategy and seeing the big picture than I’m with managing every single unit of my army all the time. (This of course means that I prefer Total War games to Relic ones as well. That and I really love the sight of hundreds of knights charging down a hill into a line of peasants..)

    But I can see the author’s point when it comes to competive play. You really want to remove as many elements of chance from the game as possible. Imagine a finale in the world cyber games where one player loses, not because he lacked the skills needed for the game, but because his tank buster needed four missiles instead of three to stop that enemy tank.

  37. Okami says:

    @ExitJudas: So what are you like, when you are beeing provocative? :P

  38. Kieron Gillen says:

    Okami: My general take on games is “Who really cares about competitive play?”.

    KG

  39. Okami says:

    Kieron: Ummh… cyberathlets or pro-gamers or whatever they are called. And Koreans, I guess..

  40. ExitJudas says:

    @Okami

    Hehe much less tongue-in-cheek!

    I hate it when you must control everything in the RTS because it sets a limit to the coolness and complexity of the action that can happen on screen. One person with one mouse and keyboard can only do so many things at one time.

    With AI support for the most basic actions “like moving units to cover”, shift queueing, resource gatheringm basically everything that does not add to the coolness and narrative of the game, the player can focus his time on doing cool things like flanking and grenading a machine gun position, jump jetting a squad of marines into melee, calling in artillery, microing your monster tank in a cat and mouse game with the enemy tanks, and the game can be designed with that in mind.

    What the designers should do is rigorously count what actions players in their games spend their time on, down to every mouse click and every decision, then put those into a spread sheet and ask themselves for each and every action:

    Is this a cool action that requires strategic or tactical thinking and is not “ROTE” to such an extent that the computer can do it, freeing up the players attention span for other cool actions.

    And then simply removing those boring rote actions from the gameplay.

    I think thats what relic does, and personally i adore it :D

  41. Okami says:

    I really loved the way the Kohan series handles unit micromanagment ie. there is none. Just create a new company, select a leader (Hero with special skills or just a Captain) basic, flanking and support troops and leave the rest to them.

    If you included somebody with healing spells in the company, the healer will heal. You included somebody with a fireball spell or a buff? They will cast the spells themselves.

    Kohan really is about getting the right troops together for the right tasks, controlling territory and knowing when to retreat your troops to safety so they can regenerate.

    Even the base building process is very streamlined. Just click on the building you want and it will get built, no need to select it’s spot. You can even queue buildings and then do someting else. There’s strategy involved in deciding which buildings to build when, but you don’t need insane mouse clicking skills to build your base a milisecond before your opponent.

    It’s a shame Timegate suddenly decided to develop FPSs instead of RTSs..

  42. ExitJudas says:

    I’ve heard a lot of good things about Kohan but never tried it. I guess I’ll have to check the net for a used copy and give it a go!

  43. Kieron Gillen says:

    Okami: And I’m none of ‘em. It’s just not something that makes a game better than another for me.

    One odd line in the GSW essay is a very hard line he draws between strategy games and real time strategy games.

    KG

  44. Fraser says:

    @Lou, re “exception proves the rule”: oops! I had that one wrong. But since respected experts before me have made the exact same mistake I won’t feel too bad. :)

    Every point that GameSetWatch article described as a fault in Relix RTSes made me want to play them more. Intelligent AI! Units that try to save themselves without you having to tell them! Unpredictability, oh my! Of course it was talking about competitive play and I’m thinking about single player; I guess online play shares more values with competitive than single player.

  45. ExitJudas says:

    unpredictability my ***. Even in starcraft the units do random damage within a range. Thats unpredictable too!

    I guess what they are really whinging about is the fact that they don’t like to improvise in a game, but really like the games where you can train the exact same move or build 1000s of times and then just spam that Rote again and again.

  46. Saskwach says:

    @ Alec
    If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this series of tubes it’s that “You know, maybe we shouldn’t all be like X; it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.” will be interpreted by SOMEONE as “X is shit and I hope we never see it again.”
    People blame this on the internet but the problem is really that the internet lets you talk to more people, some of whom are unreasonable and won’t hear anything against X.

  47. James Lantz says:

    Hi,

    @ ExitJudas’ first post:

    “I prefer spending my time on cool and interesting decisions constantly, not just 1/3 of the game, and I want those decisions to win me the game, not my really fast mouse hand.”

    I personally, think CoH and DoW (CoH) in particular are very good RTSes at doing what they set out to do. However, I do think having a lasting, deep competetive scene is important in an RTS.

    I agree with you in some of your points. Although micromanagement decisions are often interesting, (which unit do I attack, the carriers or the interceptors? Do I take out the weak units first or take out the strong units that are harder to replace?) a large percentage of them are fairly obvious. For example, in 99% of situations you want your dragoons to dance backwards while shooting in Starcraft. However, there may, in the future, be innovating in that micromanagement task. Perhaps someone will invent a new, more effective way of dragoon micro that the original designers couldn’t predict. In that case, intelligent AI (AI that would run your dragoons away and then pause to shoot and then run instead of forcing you to micro it yourself) would prevent innovation in micromanagement because it forces the player to play with a less precise level of control over their units. When one can become more precise, interesting tactics evolve that weren’t there before.

    However, there are decisions that are obvious and will always be obvious, so those should be automated, right? Well, I think someone commented about the distinction I drew between RTS and TBS being a bit odd. Here’s basically what I’m saying: in a TBS, everything is strategy. In an RTS, there are simple skills – how fast you can click, for example. Micromanagement does not always present interesting decisions, but it is an interesting skill. To draw a comparison to a seperate game, Guitar Hero is a great game that has a single interesting decision: when to use star power. Besides that, everything in Guitar Hero is a skill; there’s no strategy or tactics or anything, it’s just being able to fret the buttons quickly and strum them on time, a physical skill. Yet, because the skill is difficult to develop, it’s still a great game.

    Micromanagement is similar. Part of it involves making interesting decisions, but on a different level it’s just a skill that you have to train. Just like playing guitar is partially expression and style and partially the simple ability to move your fingers quickly, Starcraft is partially strategical decisions and partially micromanagement. The fact that it’s a physical skill helps make Starcraft into a competetively successful game and spectator sport. In the same way that it’s awe-inspiring and entertaining to watch someone tear through a final tier song on expert in Guitar Hero, it’s amazing to watch a professional Starcraft player play the keyboard as if it was a piano. And despite the fact that playing and getting better at Guitar Hero invovles very few strategical decisions, it’s still a rewarding experience – similar to getting better at micromanagement in an RTS.

    Of course, to sort of respond to Kieron Gillen, why does competetive play matter in the first place? I have a few long posts about this somewhere, but I’ll basically boil down my opinion: all multiplayer online matches in which one player is trying to win over another is competetive play. You may make up rules for yourself, e.g. no early PE rushes because they’re cheap, but then you’re still playing the game to win, just to win without using PE rushes.

    You’re always playing competetively, because one is always playing to win within their own set of rules; that’s the definition of a game. Moreover, competetive play is incredibly important to the longevity of a game. As I see it, there’s a trickle down effect. Because everyone is always trying to win, everyone is always trying to get better; maybe they’re not aiming at being professional, or even very good at all, but everyone is trying to get at least a little bit better every time they play by mere virtue of the fact that it’s a game and therefore they are trying to win. If the very best players decide that the game is broken at a high level, they’ll stop playing. Then, the players who were striving to be competetive will see all the competetive players quit and they’ll quit as well. After that, the players who were close to their level will lose the will to get better (why get better if the game’s broken if you get good enough?) This continues down the line until the game’s multiplayer community is more or less dead.

    Therefore, competetive play is important to any RTS that has multiplayer.

    Additionally, ExitJudas, Starcraft units don’t deal damage randomly within a number range. You’re probably thinking of Warcraft 3.

  48. Fat Zombie says:

    Interesting points, James Lantz. However, in your point that everyone plays competitively, there are different layers of competitiveness.

    For example: In a game like TF2, I usually just try to kill anyone that comes across my path; usually, the goal (be that CTF or point control) never really crosses my mind that much.
    Similarly, in World in Conflict, when I do play online I pay very little attention to the standard win mechanics; my goal is to kick the ass of the people that I can, usually without course to the main strategy. (I’ll target a group of light tanks with my helicopters, even if they’re not strategically important; just being able to make a difference is fun)
    Yes, my side often loses, but the important thing is the fun, in my mind. Concentrating on the win too much tends to get demoralising for me.

    This may be why I’m not too much of a fan of RTS; there’s very little fun to be had aside from trying to win.

  49. AndrewC says:

    James:

    You’ll probably have to point us at those long posts because your reasoning here doesn’t work. ‘everyone is always trying to win’ is a huge generalisation and nest of assumptions. It implies winning is the only reason to play, it suggests sociability, human interaction, ‘the taking part’ or just pissing about are not real reasons and just excuses for losers.

    Saying people play competitively is one thing, as the extra thrill of competition can provide extra adrenalin, extra fun, but it is a massive leap from this to saying that the only reason people play is to win – it is simply to assume your conclusions.

    ‘it is a game, so everyone is trying to win’. It is a game, so everyone is trying to have fun while playing it, with winning conditions being contributary to that fun.

  50. ExitJudas says:

    “it is a game, so everyone is trying to win’. It is a game, so everyone is trying to have fun while playing it, with winning conditions being contributary to that fun.”

    Spot on again AndrewC. The competition is only part of the fun of a game.

    @James Lantz.

    Interesting POV. However again I must disagree with your analysis. In my view it is far too simplistic. You do however offer a good description of what micro management is; namely a skill that you can develop and that is, to a certain extent, based on strategic or tactical thinking.

    You defend micro management as an integral part of the RTS genre, by connecting it intrinsically to the pro gamer. I think this is faulty logic. I do agree that in Starcraft, the biggest rts currently, when it comes to prof. players, micro is a primary skill of the best players, but that is simply a symptom of the way starcraft was designed and is not in any way a necesarry core concept of real time strategy design. The key issue here is if you want an RTS design where micro SPEED is going to be the most important factor and therefore will become the most important skill for the professional player.

    Its like talking about Speed chess versus normal chess: how much time do you have to make your decisions. The balance that must be struck is essential to the gameplay, and I disagree completely that you can only have a pro game, if speed is a key ingredient. Its a question of what kind of game you want to create, and what kind of players you want to play it. If you value speed, you will get a game where you must focus on doing the same thing over and over and over again to speed perfection. On the other hand, a game with less focus on micro, i.e. more time to think about your actions and react, will become a game with more elaborate strategies and tactics, simply because that kind of play will be most efficient.

    so we are back to the basic premise again: it’s a question of what kind of gameplay you like, not one is better than the other.

    I understand that people who are very quick at the keyboards (usually teens with a lot of time on their hands) like micro intensive games, because they have a big advantage. Fortunately, they get their asses whipped by older gamers in slower more cerebral games, where skills like reading your opponent, improvising and forming a long term strategy is more important.

    I happen to be 33 and therefore i value the slower games.

    If I was 18 and a student with too much spare time, i might think differently,.