The Future Evolution of RTS

What ive found interesting about the direction Blizzard is taking War3 in the expansion is that it underlines what players are expecting RTS’s to be. Their lofty ideals about simplifing economics to focus on tactical combat was pretty much rejected by every hardcore RTS player, and the games’ success was mostly upon Blizzard’s irresistable inertia (almost every ‘named’ player panned the game even if they played it). Aside from some obvious imbalances which lowered the bar on vanilla war3, the expansion is trying to re-include many of the macro ecnomic decisions that most have come to expect from the genre, even if these contradict their original vision.

  But juggling AoM and War3 TFT recently ive begun worrying that RTS really has grown stale because of limitations imposed fans' expectations.  Players just don't want major innovation on the micro side of control.  It seems that players expect and demand a certain amount of bell curve in the micro/macro because thats one attribute of smart expert-ishness, being able to juggle 20 hotkeys like a secretary.  Anything else means the game is playing itself.  So, if we can't streamline controlling the game, where can innovation take root?

  Ive also been seeing a certain lack of inititive from developers to really shake up the forumlas that have worked so well in the past.  Even AoM which i love is still the infantry/archer/cavarly affair every Ensemble game has ever been.  War3 has many more ideas but most are just borrowed from another of their games (diablo 2).

  So... here is where RTS must go in the future.

Unique Loss Conditions

  All RTS games today use multiple factions with the conceit each has certain specilizations such that they play somewhat differently from one another.  But because they all have the same goals their overall strategies are always the same.  In an Age of Empires game one civ has stronger buildings and another stronger cavalry, but both have the same objectives, the same resource limitations and need for expansions, the same basic economics.  So the first civ uses more towers and the second more cavalry and thats the extent of their individuality.

 I haven't played Generals but i can all but guess exactly how it play out.  FYI, it includes American, Chinese, and Terrorists as playable factions.  Now you as designer want to make the Chinese use human wave tactics, the Americans have massive firepower and the Terrorists insurgents.  But how do you actually make these civs actually play that way if the path victory is the same for them all?  You can quarter a heavy tank and call it a light tank and sell if for 1/4 the cost, wave your hands, and have your human wave, but is that a meaningful decision?  Not anymore, with such things having been done for years.

  What would be better, and would give designers much more liberty in other places, is create faction specific loss conditions.  So for the game above imagine an American civilization that loses if it takes more than 50 casualties.  Now, the players are forced into a wholly different playstyle that doesn't reside in superficial balance accentuations.  Such a player would be far more vigilant, deliberate, and take extra care to heal or preserve each and every unit.  Or imaging giving the Chinese only one hour to win; instead of just masses of cheap units you force the player to be as aggressive as possible since the only thing that matters is time.  Or make the Terrorists lose if their "Imam" is killed, or their all their cloaked training camps destroyed.
 The alternate victory conditions in AoE games haven't done this becaue no faction is dependant upon them, and because to win an 'economic' victory means essentially controlling the majority of resources on the map and can't be done without winning militarily.

  In AoK terms think about a Byzantine faction that loses if its starting capital is destroyed, a Saracen if it fails to convert 100 units in two hours, or a Persian if more than 100 of its units are converted, and how much more intersting the game would play.  The Byzantines would really want to make the Theodosian walls.  

  The other major advantage of this method is that it allows the developer to use much more radical and aesthetic forms of balance; instead of 10% with different loss conditions bonuses might still be balanced at 60 or 100% compared to the next faction.

Improving UI and interfaces

  No game has really approached this complicated problem because their isn't consensus as to what needs to be improved.  Most of the time new games incorperate small innovations to streamline control, but generally there hasn't been a real revolution here from any corner.

 It has much to do with the 'herding cats' style of gameplay, where units pop out unassigned and you have to bandbox select them, sort them out according to whim, then send them on their merry way.  Some developer is going to make some real improvements here; perhaps pre-assigning units in queues to groups, perhaps having 'groups' of units being built instead of one at a time.  Ground Control did this rather well but it had no ecnoomic component.  

 Then once band-boxed manipulating this group is rather cumbersome.  Moving it around is easy, but adding or subtracting from it, or selecting different parts of it easily are functions that are still underdeveloped.  Only War3 has made decent progress here with tabbed sub groups.

  Managing your economy with your military is also something that becomes increasingly difficult as time goes on.  Oddly Westwood games, for all their other flaws, had native support for this better than all other developers with their build task bar.  Now you can do this by hotkeying production buildings, or cycling through 'select X building' hotkeys but hopefully there is room for streamlining.

Interactive Environments

  Deformable terrain, weather or terrain penalties, elevation, time of day, all are standard wargamer fare that trickle into rts every so often.  The toughest part is transparency to the player and to make regions instead of tying it to textures.  Many games have tried this, and most RTS have failed to the point where its never even considered anymore.  Its definately something that could potentially add strategic decisions but its greatly dependant upon how well its incorperated into maps.

Micropayments?

  This is not my idea btw, its something i read a while ago.

  RTS games, done well, provide years of enjoyment, yet the cost just the same as any old POS that no one cares about in a month.  How can developers' recover costs?  Currently the model is to create less expansions as a form of 'profit taking'; EVERY successful RTS has an expansion (if not every successful PC game).  
 But RTS also has discreet units, and most have viable multiplayer components.  Like Cavedog so many years before its possible to add small amounts of interesting content post release.  Perhaps, a year or two later, this content can be sold online to help add profit.  Whether adding more units, a new campaign, or whatever.  

  This is the fuzziest idea but the principle you pay what you get is followed a successful RTS might be (along with Half Life) the cheapest game, per hour of gameplay, imaginable.  And developers at some point have to figure out a way to make long term gameplay pay.

Damn can’t i just STFU. When will the day come when i can post less than one page on internet forums? When it rains it pours ^^.

Kohan…

Brian,

Micropayments?

I guess you missed all the money games like starcraft, AOM, and C&C made? Make a good RTS and brinks lends you a truck. They need more per game?

Chet

Damn it, that’s what popped into my head 15 seconds into reading the original post.

Anyone who writes/complains/analyzes the RTS genre and its lack of innovation or over-reliance on micromanagement should be required to play Kohan and Kohan: Ahriman’s Gift. Hell, Kohan: AG is <$10 US in stores nowadays.

It’s a goddamn crime that the Kohan series has probably less than 1/10th the audience of Command and Conquer.

I know that Kohan did it (and did it well), but I think group control is a key element that could improve the whole genre. The idea is to give the player some sort of chain of command that helps simplify unit micromanagement. In most RTS games, the game lets you play commander-in-chief while expecting you to juggle each individual soldier like a squad commander. Kohan let you manage troops at a strategic level while letting the AI handle most of the tactical choices, and it played fantastically.

Kohan wasn’t really the first game to do this, though I think it was the first “build and fight” RTS that used this approach, and the only game I’ve seen that let you create your own groups. I’d love to see more games explore this approach, but based on Kohan’s success, that’s probably wishful thinking.

Kohan let you manage troops at a strategic level while letting the AI handle most of the tactical choices, and it played fantastically

. I’d love to see more games explore this approach, but based on Kohan’s success, that’s probably wishful thinking

Its difficult to innovate when the player base doesn’t really want innovation. Also while this Shogun style of squad based combat was easy to use and had alot of depth in many ways, it also prevented ‘perfect’ micromanagement that most players demand. Like, a supprt caster firing on the wrong type of unit, ect. Considering how poorly AoM has done amongst the multiplayer crowd (i hear all the time phrases like “AoM has failed” “AoM has no micro” around hardcore sites), hands-off isn’t what people want. So the trick is to make hands-on more streamlined and more integrated into the basic gameplay. Other forms of management like what was used in Ground Control were also pretty much loathed overall.

Micropayments?

I guess you missed all the money games like starcraft, AOM, and C&C made? Make a good RTS and brinks lends you a truck. They need more per game?

Er, so its ok that some dork whom spend 20$ on Diablo 2 can play it for free for two years in a semi-MMORGP environment and not pay anymore? Then he buys MoO3 for 40, says it sucks after 10 hours and never plays it again? Isn’t Blizzard’s sudden console interest related in some ways? Good RTS give you tons more bang for the buck and put in lots of hard work in often less obvious ways, like months of balancin or providing free matchmaking services. Sure Counterstrike is more popular but then you have individuals willing to spend 500$ a month in bandwidth fees; you can still play Starcraft online against thousands of people for less than 10$ today, and probably forever into the future. So, are good RTS companies recieving a ‘just’ return compared to other genres in the industry?

Er, so its ok that some dork whom spend 20$ on Diablo 2 can play it for free for two years in a semi-MMORGP environment and not pay anymore?

Yes.

I suspect that Blizzard has accountants who’ve crunched a lot of numbers in order to answer this question. And that answer probably involves, “Well, we did sell like 4 million copies for a few hundred million in revenues, and only 20,000 people play it online.”

The best UI goes to Total Annhilation, I cant see much of an improvement over that.

For those of you who have not played it, it lets you do things like:
Ulimited team sizes (Starcraft/warcraft 12 unit teams is very annoying)
Any buildings that produce units can have them automatically assigned to a hot key or teams.
Ability to select all units of the subest type either on screen or globally.
Build ques for constructor units allowd you to assign many buildings to be made at once.
Build ques for units allowed complex mixture builds of ulimited units.
Many overlays, like unit radar ranges vs weapon ranges.
Auto team resource sharing with limits such as share any extra metal over 5000 units.
Giving units to each other.


What I want in a new RTS is simply new gameplay mechanics. WC3 brought some new mechanics to the table, although they were fairly minor. I do have some ideas for some completly new RTS mechanics, such as unlimited unit types (not just a stick gun x on chassy y type stuff) that oneday I hope to be in a position to make.

Victory conditions really do not matter to me that much. Having wonder victory vs killing everyone doesnt add that much to an RTS’s fun-factor for me.

I like the idea of different goals. I would like a CS bomb defuse map type situation in an RTS where you have to get to a certain point and hold it for x number of seconds before you win. I know single player missions do this but is there anything like this in a multiplayer environment? It could be assault and defend where you play it then switch sides and play again. Since I prefer to build and defend in RTSs (that WC3 creep thing is the worst idea ever IMO) it would be interesting at least half the time.

– Xaroc

Why would you encourage game makers to charge us more for what is currently nice and cheap? Are you sick? Do you just like to spend money?

The unique loss conditions is a cool idea. What about different resource needs? Kohan did this to some extent, since the different factions need different resources for their “unique” units. I vaguely remember that Starcraft was originally supposed to have different resources for the various races as well. Ultimately, we got Zerg requiring creep (purple-oozy stuff), and Protoss limited by psi/pylons (blue-glowy stuff), but not the same as having unique or even semi-unique resource requirements.

With respect to win/loss conditions, part of the difficulty is in balancing such a mixture. I mean, how do you tell if “building 200 peons” is easier or more difficult than, say, “converting 100 enemy units” or something?

  • Alan

Yeah, talk about a playtesting nightmare…

Why would you encourage game makers to charge us more for what is currently nice and cheap? Are you sick? Do you just like to spend money?

Well from the developers’ perspective you see. I butterfly between different bbs and they all have their own unique lingos, so i probably used stronger language than i should have here (otoh, at a fanboy site, i would’ve had made liberal use of WTF n00b dude and gay). Since they are providing matchmaking service its not quite the same as a ‘perfect’ single player game like Alpha Centauri that you can play for years because it costs them money over the long term.

Its just a way to eek out extra profit. Whats is Blizzard’s next game after WoW? All those who say “not Starcraft 2” get a gold star.

Its also how cheap the hours played/cost ratio is on a good game; shouldn’t the guys who make the best games make oodles of money? I have no problem turning Blizzard into another LucasArts.

(btw im almost completely sure War3 didn’t sell as well as they had anticipated. Maybe 1.5-2 million copies is a blockbuster for another company, but Vivendi printed 4.5 million. Its definately a factor imo why they moved to consoles.)

Victory conditions really do not matter to me that much. Having wonder victory vs killing everyone doesnt add that much to an RTS’s fun-factor for me.

Well yea, the conditions would have to be creative and carefully balanced. But the point of Loss vs. Victory conditions is that a Loss cond. forces you to play a certain style throughout the game, but a Victory cond. doesn’t add any more depth to the factions. For ex., if you made a faction that lost if it took 50 casualties, you could make it insanely powerful but still balanced. So the super-advanced space aliens could really kick everythings ass, like 30/1 loss ratios, and yet still be beatable in a competitive game. Instead of just boring “medium tank 400 hp, heavy tank 600 hp, light tank 200 hp”.

More about unique victory conditions- I’d also like to see asymmetrical startup/development capabilities. e.g. Japan vs USA in WW2- Japan had an initial superiority in forces but had an economy that was slowing down, whilst the USA started with a small force and had to make sure that its possessions weren’t overrun before it could get a wartime economy going.
Most RTS games work on the basis that both players start small and develop through the game. It’d be nice to see an ability to customise your nation to get advantages/disadvantages at setup. Maybe gain extra territory but lower the quality of your forces (USSR/China) or gain a technology bonus at the expense of resources (Germany).
It’s a pity RTS games don’t incorporate some of the gameplay ideas from card games- random setups from a controlled source (deckbuilding) and developing tactics from what you have rather than having a perfect build order.
There’s probably quite a few other things that could be included but unfortunately the current fanbase seems to be dominated by people who like to have their build orders and micromanagement. I’ve always thought that there was a definite link between computers and autism and I think the current game styles reinforce it.

What about different resource needs? Kohan did this to some extent, since the different factions need different resources for their “unique” units

:)

I’ve thought about this one a great deal too, but i didn’t want to swamp my original post. I think it would be very easy to customize resources if (taking a page from the AoE community) you translate all costs into a single time dependant expression; like the cost of a tank = work/time. Then you can just use formulae to retranslate that back out into whatever resource you want. So a unit could cost 0 resources, but take 5 minutes to build, and it could turn out to be the exact same ‘cost’ as a 200 gold unit that takes 30 seconds to construct. You could use this principle to create virtually infinitely different resources, with every faction using a different one, and have it still be playably balanced.

In a modern game what they should create are pre-fab orders to skip resource gathering. The Dropship only has enough room for X units, and it makes runs every 2 minutes. Fill out a order screen and hit ‘send’, and the next load will bring whatever you wanted. You could also make it more complex, like having to fill it at least 1 min before it arrives, ect. Of course the resource for that faction would be a units’ size.

[quote=“Peter Frazier”]
Most RTS games work on the basis that both players start small and develop through the game. It’d be nice to see an ability to customise your nation to get advantages/disadvantages at setup. Maybe gain extra territory but lower the quality of your forces (USSR/China) or gain a technology bonus at the expense of resources (Germany).

[quote]

Empire Earth did this decently with its ‘on the fly’ civilization bonuses. Cheaper villagers, cheaper buildings? Stronger buildings, stronger tanks? Faster tanks vs. faster builidng tanks?

Theres a Russian Developer K-D Labs bringing out a RTS game called Perimeter (which I think they will show at E3?). One of the things its meant to have is terraforming of terrain - ie. you send your troops out and they change the environment to best suit their abilities and hence some units fight better in diferrent terraformed environments. Whether they can make this potentially good idea work in practice and still be fun remains to be seen. Seems like it will have some other oddball elements as well. I’ve only seen a small video of it but it looked like Ants or Termites at work when the terraformers were let loose. :)

They were also responsible for the mostly incomprehensible yet somewhat stylish “Vangers” and this other game called “Spanking Runners” which I think deserves credit for its name alone. :) I think they might release an English version of that because it was previously available only in Russia.

I look with interest at Savage to see whether that game can successfully add the RTS component into the Team FPS genre. I have my doubts.