A good campaign should give you the feeling like you are in that world. Immersion is often viewed as vital for an FPS or RPG but I feel it is just as just as important for a real time strategy game. When you think of your favorite real time strategy campaigns they tend to have this strong sense of immersion. Wayward recently wrote an article for PC Gamer where he listed the 10 best RTS campaigns and I’d say nearly all of them have strong stories, worlds, mission design, characters and writing. This is a hard thing to do for, obvious reasons, but today I want to focus on three things good campaigns have and how to design around them.
When designing a great campaign you generally first need a story, a reason for players to want to play the game or mission. What this means, in a design sense, is you want to provide a place for players to get drawn into the game, a good briefing screen, in-depth manual (if you remember Blizzard’s old manuals from the 90’s you know what I’m talking about) or area between missions that develop the story. Think the Hyperion/Leviathan/Spear of Adun in Starcraft 2, the map in Ardennes Assault, the cinematics in Red Alert or Alec Baldwin’s sweet, smooth voice in World in Conflict. These periods when the story is explained or explored are vital for a few reasons. Firstly they give the player the chance to get to know the characters and world you are in and interacting with. Secondly they give you a break between missions for the player to relax for a bit before diving back in.
Take Warcraft 3’s loading screens as an example. Prior to each mission you’d get a great voice over explaining what you accomplished in the last mission and the objectives of your new on. But this was all done overlooking a section of a map. I spent more time memorizing the hand drawn map and hoping I’d get to go to all of these interesting locations. We have a similar setup in Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak where you listen to the situational report while you look at a map of your course through the desert as well as the locations of any allies and enemies and hoping you outrun or outmaneuver them. Tooth and Tail gives you this wonderfully morose world to investigate to the incredible music they provide. The best campaigns spend time between missions making you want to learn more about what is going on. Recently the streamer Lowko was playing through Starcraft 2’s expansion Legacy of the Void and noted how he spent nearly as much time outside the mission talking to NPC’s, upgrading and altering his units and learning lore as he did in the mission. This isn’t the only way to do things but a good campaign has more story in it than just what you learn in-mission. Your game is set in a world or universe, make your players feel like it.
Characters that grow, and a great villain never hurts
This one I think applies to nearly all works of fiction and as such engenders itself to gaming as well. One of the biggest critiques Wayward has written about the genre was a lack of iconic characters. There is a reason the Westwood and Blizzard campaigns stand out, great characters. From Arthas to Kane, Kerrigan to Yuri, Thrall to Tanya, these games had characters that ranged from funny and campy to complex and deep. Having the people the populate the world or universe you’ve built fit the setting they are in is also key. Arthas wouldn’t really make sense standing next to Einstein as you plan your next mission. That isn’t to say one if good and the other bad, both are great but you need your characters to fit and feel real within that world.
Once you’ve built your characters the narrative rule sets in, give your characters challenges that force them to grow. Make a characters descent into madness and corruption come from a place of goodness (Arthas in Warcraft 3), have your small faction leader be forced into a revolution by a larger struggle where she will become the pinnacle (Farseer Macha in Dawn of War 3), a wealthy businessman who’s son is killed as part of a ritual must be pressed into war to change the government (Bellafide in Tooth and Tail) or a cowardly captain who makes early mistakes being given the opportunity for redemption (Bannon in World in Conflict). When your main and side characters are weak or fail and are compelled to change, for good or bad, players will be drawn in. Reality is generally one with change, if your characters never change, are never faced with decisions that force them to show who they really are, your story and characters are just in a half hour sitcom where things return to the status quo when the player logs out.
Oh and as the title mentions, a great villain is always nice. When I listed off some of my favorite characters there is a reason most were villains or anti-heroes. A great villain gives your characters a Goliath to take on. One reason I gave Halo Wars 2 my award for best campaign last year was, in large part, because of the villain. Atriox was powerful, not just in a hit point or activatable ability way, but because the player felt his power before they ever saw him on the game screen. A great villain should scare, intimidate or impress you before they ever face you on the battle field and a good campaign sets them up to feel that way. Instilling power into a character through world building is a fantastic way to make a player remember them.
Missions that reinforce the story and world
Now with all the work you’ve put into building a world and populating with characters and a plot to make them grow and be challenged, time to put those pieces to work. For me two games are the peak of this design idea, Starcraft 2 and Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak. These two games stand on the mountain top for me for different reasons, I’ll speak first about Deserts of Kharak. Drawing players into your world is the goal of nearly all forms of entertainment and this is one area DoK succeeds. While it makes does not make a lot of character growth or engaging plot points (though I do love K’had Sajuuk) it truly makes you feel in that world. You, as the player, are passively and actively reminded that your are on a desert world, your ship is barely functioning, you are racing full speed to an objective at all costs. You feel that in the mechanics of the game. Overheating is real, the graphics reinforce the heat brilliantly, you know that both you and your characters want to escape the heat. You just want one mission where it isn’t always tearing you down, so do your units. You want a reprieve, reinforcements and supplies, so do your characters. Each mission and each objective pushes that reality on you and the units. This is a game that truly pulls you down to your characters level and makes you feel their troubles and it is wonderful. I do have some issues with mission design but in terms of immersion, few games can rival Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak.
Secondly we have the Starcraft 2 trilogy of games. In terms of production value they are fantastic but that isn’t what makes them great, I want to specifically discuss how they design their missions to push the story and world onto the player. For most of the 1990’s and early 2000’s RTS mission design consisted of “Defend base until max supply then push across the map and win.” While a number of RTS games broke that mold through a variety of techniques it was Starcraft 2 that shattered that paradigm. Outside of the early missions of each campaign, which usually operate as a minor race tutorial, each mission has a gimmick, so to speak. These twists on the mission can vary from taking down speeding trains to being locked on a small platform you can move around on a track. But the truly great missions in this sense are ones that the objectives are part of the story. Collecting ancient alien artifacts? Well this planet that holds one is about to be destroyed by a super nova so a wall of fire is pushing you forward. Invading a hostile home world and your landing forces separated? Well this mission’s objective have you weighing the cost of rescuing survivors versus shoring up your home defenses while clearing a path to the downed flag ship of the general. On a frost world as the Zerg and constantly being caught in flash freezes? Well kill some freeze-proof beasts and absorb their DNA! Starcraft 2 missions are so well crafted with minimal overlap (there is some by the 3rd campaign but it is limited) that each new one is something new. But newness is even less important to me because these objectives are tied to the story or world. From feeding an ancient monster so it can give you information on the world you are on to fixing a crashing space station so it won’t crash and crush an item you need to even supporting an allied commander in a 1 on 1 battle for control of his faction while fending off hostile species and enemies alike. These missions aren’t there to fill the void until you learn more lore, they are the lore.
Designing a great real time strategy camapign is hard and there is no firm template. The Company of Heroes series has wonderful campaigns despite not meeting most of these points. The Ardennes Assault has incredibly limited story but is still fantastic due to the unique nature of how it is designed. Tooth and Tail has incredibly world and characters but the missions are on randomly generated maps and as such are not always well designed. The 8-Bit Armies series has horrible mission design but how you can unlock more starting units and structures based on achievements is kind of genius. Few campaigns are perfect but creating a great one will cause your players to remember you for decades and make players keep coming back.
There are many ways design a great single player experience for your players, this isn’t a set of rules to live by and isn’t meant to make it sound like “just do what Starcraft 2 does, it is easy” but rather to show the threads that link many of the great real time strategy campaigns that we’ve seen built over the years. So sound off, what are some of your favorite, or least favorite, campaigns and why.