in real time strategy games, units tend to be, well, pretty stupid. They stand around doing nothing, unless ordered by the player. They have no motivations, no drive – shoot, in many cases you’ll find yourself lucky if they shoot back when they’re attacked by the enemy. They act more like chessmen than proud space marines, Mongol warriors or vicious insectoid aliens. Heroes, be they supposedly suave secret agents, supernatural demigods, or hotheaded paladin, are all likewise bereft of actual character and are able to be left, forgotten, in seldom frequented areas of the game map to twiddle their thumbs while their armies do all the work.
Where are the heroes, the free agents? Where are the generals, the mavericks, the characters? Where is the feeling that units are, well, people with a will and mind of their own?
Let’s talk about that, shall we?
In the beginning, there was Dune.
Now, of course, Dune 2 was not born in a vacuum – it was the result of lessons learned from other games both physical and digital, but it gave us perhaps the first truly modern RTS experience and so provides a convenient starting place, as well as an opportunity to make a Bible joke.
Early RTS games were necessarily constrained. They were trying to bring to players an immensely complex experience, even a connected set of complexly interconnected experiences, and processing power being what it was, developers were hard-pressed to execute on their visions in a meaningful way. From computer graphics to game intelligence to the number of units a game could support on the screen or within the context of a match, these games were shaped, forged like diamonds by the technological pressures of the day.
Necessarily, unit behavior was limited, and has improved over time, as processing power and AI design methods have improved to allow more autonomous behavior to be built into unit designs. No longer would tanks or infantry stand around and mindlessly allow enemy tanks or infantry to wail on them unopposed. Processing power and consumer demand met in ingrained unit behavior that improved the play experience in RTS for pretty much everyone.
And yet, now, we still see most RTS games limit the artificial responsiveness and ‘intelligence’ of their units. Units in most RTS games are treated like game pieces, not like, well, people. Why is that?
Virtual Board Game
It all comes down, of course, to the designer’s philosophy behind creating the game. Or the player’s expectations when playing the game. Or, ah, a conflation of these 2 admittedly general categories. To that end, I’d like to look into 2 of what I see as the most common types of strategy game and their respective approaches to unit design, specifically as regards unit behavior and autonomy.
First, and I’m sure there’s exists a better term for this, are what I think of as virtualized board games.
A fairly common assumption behind the roots of the strategy genre is that RTS games evolved from board games or, more specifically, tabletop war games. In these games, the player is necessarily a large portion of or entirely in control of the movements of their pieces. Rules such as terrain or morale could alter piece (unit) behavior, but ultimately players are in control of when, where and why their pieces act.
This has a number of implications. First and foremost, in a real-time strategy game it has become an expectation that a player be able to immediately determine the outcome of a given action. This is why, for instance, RTS games tend to seldom use damage ranges when creating unit damage tables. A unit moves so fast, does so much damage, and behaves in precisely such a fashion, based on circumstances. In a large part, units being ‘playing pieces’ is a consequence of players and game designers intent to provide complete knowledge of game context – clear rules of engagement and understanding of the outcomes of an engagement.
Such niceties as units representing actual, thinking, people or entities is antithetical to the design concepts of most competitive strategy games, just as variable unit damage output (free of other mitigating conditions). This is also a large part of the reason that StarCraft 2 and similar games don’t use unit skins – it’s incredibly important that a player be able to look at a situation and know exactly the capabilities of the units involved in that situation, and skins can throw this off.
Likewise, seeing a unit and not knowing precisely how it will react can throw off player expectations, to say nothing of units potentially putting themselves at risk or being out of position.
But this philosophy is not the only one in games design, not by a long shot. Core strategy titles like Relic’s Company of Heroes and Dawn of War titles edge into seldom-trodden RTS territory, using limited but noticeable unit behavior profiles such as infantry ducking and covering for a brief time when exposed to artillery fire, being ‘smart’ enough to hide behind obstructions to protect themselves, and units having variable damage output.
Not to get too far afield on the subject, but I think it bears noting: while StarCraft is a game of pure, brutal efficiency and economy, Company of Heroes is a game of managing risk, of firing arcs and overlapping fields of fire. It is a game of precise army composition (in, I think, a way that StarCraft is not, by design) and obsessively covering your bases (again, in a way that I think StarCraft is not). While I think StarCraft has a much higher skill ceiling for competitive play, and is a more challenging game to play than Company of Heroes, I think that alternate design models that force you to think in different ways about how you handle your units are often overlooked in a genre that has become obsessed with chasing the rather nebulous ‘e-sports’ cachet seen in StarCraft.
Also worthy of note is that many more casual players of real-time strategy games get downright pissed that their units are dumb. Players of shooters, RPGs etc have come to expect an immersive experience that I think most, if not all, RTS games are not designed to provide in any way. Most RTS eschew physics, many eschew collision, and even line of sight or terrain in subservience to the all-important rules interactions that define these titles. To the designer and the competitive player, it almost doesn’t matter to some extent what the game is portraying – take StarCraft’s rules and put ancient Egyptian character models on the Protoss and you still have the same game.
But some players see a Space Marine and ask why they act more like a Roomba than a soldier, or why their Mark IV Space Chariot in space RTS X doesn’t engage that Flying Space Mutant Frigate that’s 1 px outside of some magical attack radius.
Where most RTS games design is handled pretty much the same way as Chess or any other board game might – that ‘units’ are no more than game pieces designed to interact according to predetermined, abstracted rule sets, that’s not all that we see. Few games take alternative approaches to unit design in the RTS genre, but there are games like Majesty in which the player does not control their units, who act, in that particular game at least, more as independent agents the player can coerce into actions by appealing to the motivations of these virtual entities. Now, in Majesty, the simulation here might not be particularly complex, but the dynamic between the player and the heroes they require to defend their fragile kingdom does represent the notion of the unit as a free agent with its own will.
Typically, strategy games in which the characters are represented as individuals tend to be, or feel like, simulations. Instead of pieces on a gameboard, whose rules could just as easily be a complete abstraction from reality as intended to represent some aspect of warfare, simulation rule sets tend to explore complex relationships. Now, this doesn’t necessarily have to be personal relationships – The Sims series, for instance, attempts to model the dynamics of human happiness – money, things intrapersonal relationships, almost a virtual representation of Maslow’s Hierarchy, come to think of it.
Taking a look at the Tropico series, we see economic and political relationships at play, as the player is asked to manage citizen happiness (to a point), and production efficiency of various cash crops, to a point. And maybe that’s part of the difference: competitive strategy games are all about pure, brutal efficiency while simulation type games are more about balancing disparate factors that may not have simple economics at their foundation.
Certainly, any simulation of human happiness would have inherent within it factors other than domination by force or min/maxing a resource system (not to say these simulations couldn’t be min-maxed: I’m sure in many cases the models that the Sims etc use are able to be gamed like any other mechanic).
The current landscape of RTS design is firmly rooted in providing the player as much agency as possible: full knowledge, should they have the presence of mind to see and process it, of the capabilities and behavior of their playing pieces and full and accurate representation of the outcomes of any action. From unit damage, to behavior to design, most of the current generation of RTS are concerned with boardgame-like interactions between playing pieces and player.
In my humble opinion, as with many other fundamental RTS design elements that tend to go unconsidered, I feel that there is room to play with varying levels of unit agency. Not just for the fun of it or for experimentation’s sake, but in the pursuit of unique and interesting competitive experiences. Or, I suppose, in the case of single-player RTS games, in the pursuit of more in-depth interactions and cohesion between story elements and what’s presented in the gameplay.
While I am unsure that additional unit autonomy would be an interesting mechanic in RTS games, I do feel that some additional behavior modeling and AI systems (see Company of Heroes series here as a for-instance) could produce some incredibly interesting in-match interactions in competitive games. Applications range from ‘convincing’ preexisting populations on the game map to side with your faction to support your efforts in the match, to the challenges of passing orders through a virtual chain of command, to game mechanics which model armed forces under your control gaining and losing confidence in the player’s ability to command (defection etc)
Of course, these sorts of things are easy to say, while the full consequences of implementing them into a game or building a game around these interactions are more nebulous indeed.
Unit agency is a spectrum, and I think there is a huge untapped potential for RTS games to experiment with giving various degrees of autonomy to units. The very struggle to ‘convince’ units to do the player’s bidding, or convince neutral AI on the map that your side is the ‘right’ one to support, could potentially be very interesting mechanics that could make an appearance in competitive games.
eSports’ current obsession with removing random elements and giving the player unfettered control of the workings of their play pieces is understandable but I do not think it’s necessarily the be-all, end all of strategy game design. Moreover, increasingly it is clear that mechanics which make interesting, balanced, and engaging multiplayer experiences do not necessarily make for interesting and engaging single player experiences. Single-player RTS have a lot more room to break the mold than do multiplayer RTS games.
In conclusion, I think it’s fair to say a couple of things about the entire concept of units simulating intelligence and decision making in RTS games:
- by and large, competitive players do not want it
- the very nature of highly competitive RTS games precludes it, though to some degree counter-examples exist
- it is interesting to think about in the context of competitive games, and would be interesting to see competitive games experiment with it more
- there is ample room for unit autonomy and agency in more single-player focused games
- the implications of not being restricted to think of a single player game the same way as a multiplayer game have not been adequately explored, and unit autonomy is one of the largest sources of differentiation available to designers of single player RTS experiences.