Real time strategy games now have an established precedent for their design, brought about by games like Dune 2, Age of Empires, Starcraft, the list goes on. While such classic titles did a lot to bring the real time strategy genre into widespread exposure throughout the 1990s into present time – there are a number of features and design possibilities that still await to push the genre forward.
Conventional modern RTS design, whether we’re looking at titles like Grey Goo, Servo, or others – are all designed based off what has been done before. Of course, there are many good reasons for this, not the least of which is commercial success. It is less risky just to make another Command & Conquer or Starcraft clone than to invent something entirely new. Some design teams still attempt to accomplish this, of course, but the evolution of the genre is still a relatively slow process.
In the case of historical precedent, this usually means not only do you control a potentially infinite number of game pieces (or units) but the gameplay mechanics revolve around the collection of resources in an economic system, which brings about structures, and produces the options for many tactical elements in combat.
All RTS need not perpetually follow this formula, though, or if they do – there are still unexplored areas even within this construct. We have still yet to see maps that dynamically flex in their resource composition (think growing forests), unit limits that increase far beyond 1,000 to 2,000 units per game, AI that can consistently, truly learn from player actions and become endlessly difficult, the list goes on.
These are all still core features to the structure of traditional RTS. However, we know that a lot more is possible with modern computing hardware. We know AI can improve and with it more complex unit behaviors are possible. We know that even something as simple as the user interface has a lot left to be done in terms of innovating for touch interfaces, allowing better macro level control over resource gathering systems, or perhaps mechanics for more complex combat.
So why has a lot of it not happened yet?
Is it possible that players do not want to see these pieces improve? Will it require reductions in graphical quality in exchange for hardware power?
Truth is, most players are encountering experiences in modern titles that take the traditional RTS formula and simply polish it a bit beyond where it was. In any given genre, though, there are usually ways of reinventing that genre. RTS cannot be excluded from this. So where is RTS’s innovation? To sell another game at StarCraft level sales, or 20 million copies like Age of Empires 2, will that require both massive innovation and a major publisher? How many copies in sales will be required for a developer and/or a publisher to consider these kinds of changes viable?
Maybe we shouldn’t hold our breath. The indie game movement has had a number of important effects, and its effect on RTS games has not been invisible. Indie RTS has a chance to take these games to a different place entirely the same way it has with other genres.
Specifically, what are some of the features that players have never gotten, but have always wanted to see? Here are 5 areas I think are key for RTS games in the coming years.
- Minimaps, or maps in general. In all the time RTS has followed a largely base building, resource collecting style – we have often been limited by the use of a tiny minimap. Supreme Commander attempted to offer something different in this area by allowing the player to zoom in and out, and the map would seamlessly change level-of-detail to show either a close up of a single bush on the ground all the way to the entire battlefield. Still – this lead players to experience the game in a particular way that diminished some of the graphical glamor that had been done so well – players often spent much of the game zoomed out and staring at 2D unit icons instead of seeing explosions and mayhem up close.
- Complex unit behaviors and better artificial intelligence (AI). Units generally only have very basic behavior, whether that be attacking a nearby enemy automatically (which was something you even had to work towards in old games like Total Annihilation) or gathering another nearby resource after finishing the consumption of another. Truth is: advanced pathfinding algorithms or the intelligence to, say, retreat once the rest of an attack wave is defeated are simple kinds of behaviors that AI often does not imitate well in any genre, but especially in RTS. Some of the challenge behind this comes from the fact that RTS maps are so broadly open, and not narrowly controlled as some FPS games might be. There is no linearity whatsoever most of the time, unless found in something like a single player campaign.
- Multiplayer too, really, as multiplayer is what RTS is often all about anyway. Multiplayer used to be terrible hilst still being impressive in a way; we have come a long way from trying to accomplish so much in multiplayer while playing on 56k dial-up Internet speeds. Still, there are some elements that are awaiting a more social, or political element to multiplayer that consist of things that only human players could enact with one another.Will there be a future title that brings about the intricacies of diplomacy, and offers a true simulation of just how grey, or uncertain, those interactions can be? Moreover, diplomacy in RTS has the chance to not only be ridiculously fun as a mind game to play against opponents, but can offer new insights. I can recall Civilization and Sid Meier games in general barely scratched the surface on some mechanics like this and hey – those are turn based, not real time.
- User interface in general, really, not just maps. This is a big one, and it has been talked about at length with legendary programmer Dave Pottinger of Age of Empires and Servo here before. Astonishingly, even as hundreds of thousands and millions more apps exist for iOS, along with many, many thousands more for the Android platform: no stand out RTS titles for mobile seem to really emerged in the same sense that they have on PC. With maybe the rare exception of Pikmin, console games have never gotten the full glory they deserve, even with worthy attempts like Halo Wars (which has finally warranted a sequel).Still, there is a lot to be done. We need a better way of interacting with tablet-based strategy games via a touch interface. Players want to see simplified ways of controlling their units while still allowing for complexity in those units’ actions: I want to be able to simply tell my armies to flank an enemy base without having to queue up move orders. The list here goes on but I suppose an important thing to think about is: when you combine better UI with better AI you can have a completely groundbreaking experience in terms of gameplay.
- Better implementation of how music mixes with gameplay. I will never forget some of my first days playing Total Annihilation, and hearing that gorgeous soundtrack composed by Jeremy Soule. The tone of the music was a slow, solemn ambiance during times of construction and exploration. At the time of combat, the music shifted into grand, exciting battle tracks inspired by World War II era orchestral scores. The game by itself was groundbreaking, but the soundtrack was so good that I think some would argue it launched Jeremy Soule’s entire career, who went on to compose music for games like Neverwinter Knights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Skyrim, Supreme Commander, Dungeon Siege, and many more.But back in 1997, not a lot could really be accomplished in terms of integrating music by small development teams who were so preoccupied with making a great real time strategy game. The orchestral tracks were literally entire musical pieces: they could not very well be transitioned. It was all or nothing. So, what if you had a soundtrack that dynamically picked up, beat for beat, with gameplay elements? Something that builds on that idea could really change the way players experience RTS, and it’s something we probably do not often think about.
RTS is a tough genre to get right. Developers will continue tweaking the concepts of conventional RTS gameplay for many more years. Even within the immediate space of base building games, or semi-civilization-simulators: a lot of experimentation has yet to take place. This leads to some important questions about who might actually take up the struggle of perfecting RTS, and who is most capable of doing so.
A lot of events have happened in the gaming industry and it is far more common for publishers to stick around far longer than the developers they fund. Westwood Studios, which created Command & Conquer, has ceased to be, and some of its talent has moved on to work on titles such as Grey Goo. Ensemble Studios, which created Age of Empires, was disbanded by Microsoft and some of their previous developers moved on to form companies like BonusXP which now produces games like Servo. In addition to small indie developers (like me!), many major studios are no longer at the game of producing some of the classic titles of past.
But all hope for the mainstream is not lost. Blizzard thought it was worthwhile to produce StarCraft 2, even when they probably had bigger fish to fry, and with it: some of the best innovations in modding for an RTS game anywhere. Modders have the potential to take gameplay to brand new places all on their own. Beyond that, reviews seem to contend that StarCraft 2 managed to perfect what was already a solid formula for mainstream games. There are still lots of great things happening in the RTS genre.
Perhaps one of the differences in modern time is that smaller developers might end up producing some of the largest innovations in gameplay. Generally speaking, we still need AAA studios to give us titles with AAA graphical innovations, but imagine what is now possible when single individuals can create games that meet or surpass the quality of the 1990s. Teams have long consisted of 15, 20, or more employees collaborating on what were previously considered massive projects. These same experiences are now attainable by small teams working with things like the Unreal or Unity game engines.
What is the big key feature you are still waiting for in an RTS? Please leave us your feedback in the comments below.