Petroglyph’s recently announced Kickstarter campaign to develop an action strategy title called “Victory” got me thinking a little about the real-time strategy genre. More specifically, it’s got me thinking about the types of RTS that we tend to see produced these days, and the type of RTS that gamers seem to want. Allow me, please, to take you on a brief journey across my view of the RTS genre, and explain why I’m really eager to see a game like Victory, or Petroglyph’s other recent title End of Nations, enter the mix.
Types of Real-Time Strategy game
To me, the real-time strategy genre is a spectrum. 2 of the more core facets of RTS games are “micro” or direct unit control, ability timing, mana usage, and exploiting the game’s rules to directly outplay your opponents, and “macro” or research prioritization, base management, expansion timing, and matching income to expenditures. Ultimately, “macro” has a pretty big impact on most RTS games, making unit control mostly about getting your opponent(s) to waste more resources in an engagement than you do, or being able to rebuild your forces more quickly than your opponent can handle. We see this quite often in StarCraft 2 matches, where player’s main goals often boils down to “Gain resources more quickly than the opponent” (more expansions, more workers). Harassment of the opponent’s worker pool, or map control to curtail expansions are common tactics to use here.
To me, games like Command and Conquer or StarCraft 2 sit at the center of a sliding scale of micro(unit control) and macro (economy management). Here’s an illustration, to clarify the concept:
So, from my perspective, games like Command and Conquer and StarCraft tend to attempt to balance between the macro and micro aspects of gameplay, where games like Sins of a Solar Empire or Supreme Commander place the majority of their emphasis on economy management. Company of Heroes and Dawn of War place more emphasis on unit and map control, though they still have some aspects of resource management and base production. But, there’s very little at the far end of the spectrum right now. Dawn of War 2 is perhaps one of the only titles right now that puts almost its entire focus on unit management. But there are very few tactical games, very few games which put the majority of their emphasis on unit management as opposed to base construction and economy management.
I used the term “tactical” with good reason. Most of the time, games at the “micro” or “unit control” end of my spectrum would typically be termed real-time tactics games. This could include games like World in Conflict or Wargame: European Escalation, as well. Typically, the more “tactical” the game is, the more the decisions a player is asked to make differs from decisions in traditional RTS games. Ammunition, directional armor, fuel, “control points” on the map which count up a victory timer, or provide resources for reinforcements, mutually exclusive upgrades… these are the sorts of mechanics you tend to see in tactical games.
It is interesting to me that more people don’t prefer tactical games. Many RTS gamers tend to focus on the economy management end of the spectrum, preferring games where they can spend a lot of time building up an army or large bases… Or, just throw a ton of units at their opponent and watch things explode. But, to me at least, tactical games (and Victory and End of Nations in particular) have some features which can address some of the issues that have stuck with the RTS genre for years.
Ladder Anxiety and RTS Mechanics
One of the most interesting thing about the RTS genre to me is the… fear that it can inspire in its own players. Even the MOBA genre sees this, though I don’t think to the same degree. Of course, I’m talking about ladder anxiety.
For those who might not be familiar with the term, “ladder anxiety” is a phenomenon where players of a competitive game, especially a 1v1 title like StarCraft 2, become nervous to an excessive degree when they actually sit down to play. Quoting from Liquipedia
“This anxiety can occur for many reasons, most of which boil down to caring too much about one’s 1v1 ladder rating. More so than in many other games, the perception in RTSes is that one’s performance reflects one’s intelligence. With no team mates to blame or fall back on, losing a 1v1 for many feels like a blow to their ego.
Regardless of the reasons for it, anxiety causes a “fight-or-flight response” in the body. Epinephrine (more commonly known as adrenaline) is released, directing blood flow away from the extremities and towards the major muscle groups. In actual danger, this allows you to immediately fight or run to save your life. But when there is no need to do either you are left with cold, trembling hands and feet, as well as an accelerated heart rate and breathing, all for no good reason.”
Now, one of the reasons for this is that the game is the fact that StarCraft, and most real-time strategy games, are primarily single player. Also, as mentioned in my Liquipedia quote above, it’s really easy to view your performance in an RTS game like StarCraft as indicative of your intelligence relative to that of other players. It can also easily become a measure of your self-worth, and losing can cause a big hit to your confidence.
What’s interesting to me, is that every genre, including the vastly popular MOBA genre, aside from RTS games, has managed to mitigate this through team play. Think about it. MMORPG multiplayer… the focus is on team combat. Shooters focus on team combat. MOBAs, team combat. Only the RTS genre puts its primary focus on 1v1. And the funny thing about this, is that many more casual or less competitive gamers of these primarily solo queue games prefer to play them with teams. I think, therefore, that there’s a lot of room for team-based RTS games. Or rather, RTS games that focus on or balance around team play.
But, that’s only a part of my point.
Building Extensible Games
Another thing that RTS games have a very hard time doing is adding content over time. It’s a relatively simple matter for an MMORPG or shooter to add content over time: new weapons, classes, zones, game modes… You see this all the time in shooters and/or MMORPGs. But RTS games typically release a slew of balance updates, 1 or 2 expansion packs (rarely do they release more than this) and maybe (maybe) a new faction or a handful of new units.
And, for an RTS, this stands to reason. New units, to say nothing of a whole new faction, are a pain to balance. This video from Extra Credits about MMORTS games includes some great information about the trouble of balancing RTS games, and really helps me make my next point.
Not just for tactical games, but specifically End of Nations or Victory are designed to allow the addition of content over time. Using a system similar to Warhammer, points balancing units and other game elements, and being designed specifically around premade squads, these titles are able to provide rough balancing for new content in a way that more traditional RTS games can’t mimic.
And to me, this is perhaps the most exciting part about Victory and End of Nations (to bring up these games without a lot of direct buildup). They’re designed specifically to allow new units, heroes, maps, game modes, and what have you to be added over time with a minimum of fuss. This is the extensibility of a MOBA, with RTS-style or tactically driven combat. And to me, this is pretty compelling.
The Problem of Microtransactions
Of course, the problem with this (from one perspective) is that this model of gameplay is really conducive to microtransations. If you’re going to take a nod from tabletop gaming or MOBA gaming, and asking players to build a persistent collection over time, you’re almost going to have to give them a way to acquire a collection, which leads (from at least one perspective) to the option to purchase things for real money.
This, in turn, leads to the perception or potential for “pay to win” scenarios, where players who dump more money into a game can defeat more technically skilled players by virtue of having superior content. At its core or base, “pay to win” refers to exclusive paid content which is better than content available for free players. Whether this would be paying players having access to “exclusive” weapons, or being able to level higher than free players, there’s a level at which it’s quite obvious when content is “pay to win” objectively.
The problem, especially with a competitive title, comes in when a game can become “pay to win” through simple accrual. The concern with End of Nations or Victory from a competitive standpoint is that players who continue to put money into the game over time would be able to set up circumstances by which they are able to have a more ideal composition than their free opponents. It’s not that they’d objectively have better units, but that they’d be more quickly able to access the tools needed to build their “ideal” army than their opponent.
And honestly, this is a potential issue with this type of game. Attempting to mimic tabletop gaming, End of Nations or Victory could easily fall into the same trap as Warhammer or similar games: he who has the most funds to spend on his army will have the better army. However, there are some mitigating circumstances here. First, at least in End of Nations (I participated in all 4 betas), the combination of in game fund accrual, account level and rock-paper-scissors balancing meant that:
- Free players were still able to earn units at a fairly reasonable pace
- Players with more time or resources to accrue content (and level up) would not be matched with free players as often, and most importantly
- Knowing how the game works is more important than having a ton of units. Level 1 players with starting companies, if they knew how to play as a part of a team or exploit the damage bonuses of their units could be the top scoring player in an End of Nations match, where players who had spent money on companies were sometimes putting themselves at a disadvantage with ability choices. For instance, Spartan players with expensive, slow tanks and doubling up on Napalm in End of Nations could easily churn through their funds with 1 or 2 bad engagements.
Of course, the reverse was also true. I personally saw circumstances where level 2 players had funds to stack companies of heavy tanks and commander abilities, and wipe the floor with free players. This is a pretty simple situation to overcome however. For instance:
- Start every player off with the ability to fill all battlefield roles (Victory does this, giving each player access to all core companies)
- Start players with the funds to purchase most of what they’d want (a little iffy from a moneymaking standpoint, but really levels the playing field for free players)
- Allow in-game resource generation to meet player needs for units.
What then would microtransactions do?
- Allow players to experiment with uncommon units
- Allow players to purchase skins or other cosmetic boosts
- Allow players to purchase multiples of the same thing to build extra companies for fringe situations
I agree that it’s a controversial topic, and would take dedication to make it as fair as possible, but I think there is room for a microtransaction model in tactical “action strategy” titles like Victory and End of Nations.
Thanks for sticking with me. I appreciate it. Ultimately, what I’m trying to get at is this. Victory and End of Nations are in a unique position in the RTS field (according to my definition, at any rate) and are designed specifically to deal with ladder anxiety, and create a persistent experience that never gets stale. They’re more able to cater to the collector than the traditional RTS game, and allow for more personalization as well. I think this is a very compelling vision for a new subgenre of RTS, and hope to see either (or both) of these games to see their way through to launch.
See you on the battlefield. Hopefully.