Wayward Strategy

A couple of quick thoughts about AirMech

I have this rule about RTS design.

I’m not a game designer, but having played my fair share of strategy and tactics games, I’ve come to this conclusion: if your game removes a facet of the RTS experience (base building, for instance) it must include additional mechanics/game systems of at least comparable complexity and depth to account for this removal. Base building, for instance, provides the player with a large array of decisions related to production capacity, unit upgrade level, income and unit type availability, to say nothing of the spacial and temporal decision making involved in choosing which buildings to place, where, and when to construct them.

Base building is a core component of most classic (and, all internet whining on the subject to the contrary) modern real-time strategy games. Any game which would seek to minimize or remove this core aspect of the RTS genre, in my mind, needs to find ways to overcome the inherent mechanical simplification by giving the player more things to think about and do rather than build buildings. A game which fails to do this will feel sparse to the player, who will soon abandon it.

What does this have to do with AirMech?

AirMech is an example of what I have come to call “RTesque” games – games which break apart the RTS genre and throw in elements of RPGs, Shooters, etc. They are differentiated from MOBAs, which tend to follow a very, painfully, similar pattern. Most RTesque games fall somewhere in between the MOBA and the RTS these days, and in many ways AirMech is no exception. There’s virtually nothing in the way of base building, resource production is largely dependent on combat, the character is represented in the game by a single avatar that has abilities and respawns when killed…

But.

But AirMech is in many ways similar to an RTS, and it distinguishes itself from the MOBA genre is important, though perhaps more subtle, ways.

See, one of the core truisms of AirMech is that the player has to channel virtually every action they take in the game through their AirMech avatar. Anchored to their AirMech is the burden of ordering units, producing units, placing turrets, and engaging in combat. While they’re doing this, they are upgrading their attributes, but more like a unit in an RTS than a hero in a MOBA – they’re purchasing armor bonuses and damage bonuses alongside unlocking abilities. It feels more like researching +1 Attack in StarCraft than buying a Heavy Magical Skullcrusher Whatever for their hero in LoL.

Since the player’s list of tasks is geographically diverse (units and turrets are produced at command hubs that can be captured, and must be ferried around the map) and incredibly time-sensitive, the player must hurry themselves breathlessly around the map being economist, logistics manager and combatant by turns, and shirking any of these duties is detrimental to their overall game state.

Leave your build queue alone for too long, you’re depriving yourself of the support of the at times vital support of artillery, heavy tanks, or harass vehicles. Leave the front lines alone for too long, you’re leaving your units to be free money and levels for your opponent. Neglect your upgrades (which can only be applied at a structure, away from the frontlines) and you’re depriving yourself of tools to get yourself further ahead in the match.

I would go so far as to say, and I do not say this lightly, that AirMech is one of the most mechanically demanding strategy games I have ever played. It is not quite as frenetic as StarCraft 2 can be, but barring that I cannot think of a game that puts this sort of onus on the player to act and think quickly. Making poor choices in game is immensely punishing in a way I am pressed to describe in a way that’d be meaningful to my audience. Just pumping out whatever units you want is giving away money and experience to the enemy. paying attention to the wrong thing for too long can lose you critical momentum and map control.

And the beauty (in my mind) of this all is that the singular focus of the AirMech unit itself means that this game can be meaningfully played on a console. AirMech Arena for the Xbox One is in early access testing right now, and has been on the Xbox 360 for… I think about a year? Maybe a couple of months. The player is by needs a little less able to multitask, but the game is eminently playable with a controller.

This is NOT a comprehensive overview of the game. I have not touched at all on the game’s monetization model, which sells unit types and AirMech upgrades (and could easily be considered to give advantage to players who are willing to drop money on purchasing these things, which is potentially problematic though I personally don’t mind the model) but… I had to take a moment and share the admirably focused design of the core game experience, which I cannot help but appreciate.

I hope to follow up within the next couple of weeks with a more well composed introduction to the game as a whole, but I wanted to share these thoughts while they were fresh in my mind.