Earlier this year I wrote up some first impressions when I got my hands on Command & Conquer Rivals. The article overviews of why I like it, but I’m still in shock about enjoying a mobile RTS as much as I am. Rivals has challenged my assumptions about RTS design, and I’ve been trying to understand why exactly it still has me hooked after several months. This rant is my attempt at explaining why Rivals is so successful and resonating with so many people.
Short Game Length
The game length of RTS has remained mostly stagnant over the decades, with an average game length of about 15 minutes. Large-scale RTS games such as Supreme Commander can go for much longer which is where they shine, but I can’t think of any RTS that has experimented with shorter match durations. Rivals as a mobile game needed to have short game lengths of 3-4 minutes to make it accessible for on-the-go play sessions such as commuting. Though, when I play Rivals I typically do it at home for extended durations even though I have my PC next to me. Convenience aside, having such short game length means there’s no slow and repetitive prelude, the action starts up immediately.
Likewise, there’s no long slog at the end of the game when you know your opponent has clearly won, but you have to sit around waiting to lose. In Rivals, the feeling of inevitable defeat can still happen, but only for a matter of seconds not minutes. In Rivals, so much happens in such a short time. So much action, so many maneuvers, counters, stalls, and harvester snipes. What separates Rivals from other mobile games is that it’s not a game you can play while watching TV or having a chat. it requires 110% of your concentration. The sheer amount of things happening in such a short space is part of what makes Rivals an exhilarating rush. Short game length also has an added bonus of taking away some of the frustration of losing, you can play again immediately after and have another win in several minutes.
This isn’t to say that short game length is the correct thing to do and that longer game lengths are bad, but it’s something to think about. The typical RTS match length shouldn’t just be taken for granted. For that same reason, I’ve also enjoyed how the recent RTS/MOBA hybrid The Maestros has a single match broken up into several shorter rounds. Round-based RTS creates a sense of metagaming your opponent “my opponent did this last time so I should try this other strategy.”
Interaction is key
Gamers play RTS games for different reasons and get different things out of it, but ultimately, what separates RTS from other strategy game genres like 4x or city builders? Interaction. Interaction is the key to good RTS design and comes in many different forms. Rivals has more emphasis on player interaction than any other RTS I have played. Not that Rivals has more ways to interact with your enemy, but everything you do in the game is about interaction. There are no solo activities to perform; no macro cycle, no building supply depots or rallying workers. In Rivals there is only combat: fighting over the launch pads, harassing and defending harvesters, repositioning to make use of counters and using commander abilities. Beneath that is the strategic layer of countering the enemy army composition both reactively and preemptively.
Command & Conquer has always been more of an action RTS than other franchises, so Rivals has been able to distill and emphasize that interaction in a way that wouldn’t make sense for other franchises. It’s not an exaggeration to say that in Rivals you begin interacting with your opponent within the first second of the game. In that first second of spawning in you can hear through the fog of war whether your opponent has gone for a harvester first or a building because they play different sound effects. This information can be used to inform a strategy such as a bike rush if you know your opponent went double harvester. A full match of Rivals can be played in the time it takes for other RTS games to wind up and start getting interesting. Every second in Rivals is meaningful and deliberate.
The missile objective is the heart of why Rivals works so well. The main way players win a game of Rivals is by taking and holding the launch pads that charge up a nuclear missile and fires it at the enemy Command Center. Two nukes and a Command Center is toast, but direct attacks are also an option. The missile pad objective is analogous to the Victory Points popularised in Company of Heroes and has all of those benefits. Territory-based objectives incentivize map control which forces conflict and ensures the game flows. Multiple victory options create more strategic diversity and opportunity cost for positioning. While similar, there are three fundamental distinctions between the classic Victory Points mechanic and the missile pads found in Rivals:
Victory Points are a contrived concept that doesn’t make any sense, whereas firing a nuke at your enemies base is obviously a good thing. The visual feedback is a lot more intuitive and gratifying than seeing a number at the top of the screen countdown to 0. Instead of gradual point increments, there’s a maximum of 3 missile launches that are built up with anticipation. Fighting over the launch pads creates an escalation of tension until one player finally gains the upper hand and feels a sudden rush of excitement as the nuke heads towards the enemy Command Center. Players then get a brief respite while the nuke begins to charge up once again, though they’ll still want to outmaneuver their opponent. While predictable, the missile dynamic creates a roller coaster of stress and excitement which is extremely fun, especially as a shoutcaster feeding off the hype.
Even more significant than both of those distinctions is the dynamic nature of the launch pads. Missiles don’t charge up for a specific player; they charge up for either. The missile can be charged up by player A only to have it stolen by their opponent last minute, redirecting and immediately launching it back at their own Command Center. The universal charging means players are never safe, they need to be on edge at all times even if they currently hold the pads. If a player is massively behind, they only need a momentary gain at the perfect time to swing things around and knock the enemy out. The universal charging creates additional tactical options such as deliberately stepping off the launch pads to charge them up for your enemy then rapidly stealing them back with air units or an Ion Cannon. Rivals also has a crucial anti-snowball mechanic in the form of the unit upkeep which exponentially increases the build time of subsequent units.
On the surface, Rivals is a simple game of Rock-Paper-Scissors to hold launch pads. It’s not complicated conceptually, new players and spectators can quickly wrap their head around it. As a player, you always know what you should be doing and when you lose it’s obvious why. You never get stuck thinking “What the hell was I supposed to do? I suck at this game!” When I lose a game of Rivals it’s rather obvious why. Losses can result from a strategic weakness such as not having a good way of countering the Obelisk of Light, which can be fixed by going back to the drawing board and adjusting army composition. Losses could also be tactical, such as whiffing an Ion Cannon or not sending in my harvester to stall a launch pad when I already was floating Tiberium.
The only time I feel helpless and frustrated after a loss is when my opponent has stronger unit levels than me which can especially skew certain interactions. That’s definitely not fun, but fortunately, large level disparities don’t happen often as there’s tight matchmaking due to the massive mobile player base, something that PC RTS games suffer from.
In most RTS, when a player loses they’re left in the dark about why the enemy has twice as many units or why they lost a big fight. This saps the motivation to continue playing as there’s no clear roadmap of what to work on and how to improve. The waning player base of RTS games has been misattributed to the steep learning curve, but that doesn’t explain why MOBA’s have risen in popularity. My diagnosis for the decline of RTS is their delayed gratification and lack of player feedback, making it challenging to get new players hooked and persevere through losses. In Rivals, the launch pads and related action gives feedback at all times to the players about what they should be fighting over, and makes it clear what success and failure look like. Rivals also lacks complicated resource management, so there are no massive armies that surprise and promptly murder the player because of better economy optimization.
Direct gratification and presenting feedback are both related in that they stem from the game having intuitive gameplay and objectives. RTS games can be immensely gratifying, but only after developing a deep understanding of the game because the gratification is self-directed and not externally presented.
You blatantly know you are doing well in a first person shooter when you run around the corner and get a double kill, especially as it shows up on the player feed and goes towards your score. That double kill generates an exciting rush even if the player got lucky and shot both of them in the back. There’s no equivalent of individual gratifying moments for beginners in RTS games, making it hard to get new players hooked. Rivals flips this on its head, the missile launches provide clear success states, whether it’s launching them or just managing to stall a launch against your base. Even if you are new to the game, getting a successful missile launch is an exciting rush.
The missile launches can be stalled indefinitely, creating the potential for prolonged moments of intense frenzy where both players desperately throw units into the meat grinder to try to get the upper hand. Sometimes a prolonged missile launch can be so tense I end a game of Rivals feeling a rush of adrenaline and need to unwind before I can continue playing. While I can also get that peak experience in other traditional PC RTS, only Rivals through the missile mechanic is able to deliver that to novice players reliably. The frantic shenaniganry involved in deflecting a Cannon Rush or other cheese is what I find the most exciting in StarCraft 2 and goes far beyond what is capable in Rivals. For most new players, however, being on the receiving end of a Baneling Bust all-in is just going to make them rage quit multiplayer because they have no idea how to see it coming, let alone defend against it.
The power of audio queues
The power for audio to influence is obvious, but it’s underappreciated. Watch your favorite horror movie on mute, and it’ll be laughably awkward. More than anything else, it’s the eerie, suspenseful music making you scared of the axe-murderer to jump out. Likewise, music and other audio queues have the power to make RTS gameplay epic. Rivals utilizes a dynamic soundtrack which seamlessly shifts to match gameplay. The game starts with a gentle track which will persist as long as it needs to, but shifts to other tracks with higher tempo and energy as the missile gets more and more charged up.
The dynamic music is effective but nothing new and special, however it’s part of an audio sensory overload that helps make makes the missile launches so intense and exhilarating. Rivals bombards the player with a constant stream of voice-over lines, combining the standard unit responses with the faction announcer’s steady stream of “Unit lost, unit ready. Harvester lost.” Unit responses have been in Command & Conquer and other RTS for decades, but the fast pace of Rivals gameplay results in a higher concentration of voices than what players are used to. The audio overload seems deliberate and is further achieved through superfluous voice over and incredible audio design. Spawning a Gatling Turret has the faction announcer say “Defense Online” and “Defense Offline” when it’s destroyed. Likewise with the “Unit Enhanced” buff ability. These voice lines are unnecessary as each ability also plays a loud and distinct sound on top of the visual response.
When a missile fires as your base, not only is there the initial “Nuclear Missile Launched” voice line but then shortly after “Major Structural Damage Received.” The nuke missile causes a massive mushroom cloud on your Command Center with the health bar clearly dropping, but the voice line still plays. Lastly, when expensive units are destroyed you can hear them announce their death with a line like “Titan Falling!” There is so much superfluous voiceover that has no gameplay impact so one might think it’s distracting and drowning out what’s important. In reality, the constant blasting out of voice over lines makes the game feel even more fast-paced and helps generate the frantic experience that’s so fun to play.
Despite this, there is one case in which Rivals limits the voice responses. If you issue three subsequent move orders to a unit it will not continue to play lines until you first select something else. This means there is always a variety of the voice over you are hearing alternating between the different unit types and the announcer, which I think adds to the feeling of there is so much happening. The hard-counter nature of the game means you are always going to have at multiple unit types on the field and the dry, robotic announcers juxtapose the emotive units.
The last point I want to mention about Rivals’ sound design is the over-the-top goofy sound effects. The sound effects are all so distinct and loud; Rivals is not making an attempt to create realistic representations of what warfare sounds like. I miss the badass goofy sound effects from 80’s action movies and old school games. I much prefer the comical weapon and explosion sounds from the original Red Alert over the more accurate Command & Conquer 3. The culmination of this audio style is when the dreaded BEEP BEEP BEEP as the missile is pointed at your base and ready to fire. That whirring of death adds to the stress of the situation especially as you hear the KTHUNK of it launching only for a sudden clutch stall to trigger the calm announcement of “Warhead canceled.” Playing Rivals without sound doesn’t deliver the same experience, the fantastic audio design is the icing on the cake for why the game can be such an adrenaline rush.
In Rivals there’s no single-player, no team games, and no skirmish AI. All you do is competitive 1v1, though there are other features to support that such as replays. This extreme focus on a single game type allows the designers to craft an experience that’s a lot more focused and balanced. There’s no compromises and identity crisis for units and mechanics. RTS is a waning genre so traditional PC RTS can’t risk neglecting certain player types by focusing on a single experience, but the mobile market is different because it’s so huge compared to PC. The popularity of this entirely competitive 1v1 game blows a hole in the traditional conception of the casual/hardcore player dichotomy.
Limited scope is what makes MOBA’s work so well; they have a single map with a fixed amount of players using premade heroes and items. The only variable that changes in MOBA’s is the mechanical execution of the players. MOBA’s have alternative game modes such as ARAM (All Random All Middle) in League of Legends, but they’re casual game modes to relax, warm up or learn new heroes. They don’t have the substance to keep players engaged for a long time. Modes like ARAM are not intended to be alternatives to the standard game mode, they’re complimentary. If more RTS games could afford to focus on a single game type or mode, we would see more refined and polished experiences.
You may not be wrapped about the platform or business model, but there’s no doubt the gameplay of Rivals has struck a chord. Distilling Command & Conquer for mobile resulted in a refocus of gameplay around a really fun formula. Short game length combined with a focus on player interaction to contest the universal charging of launch pads creates frantic tension. The missile launch mechanic provides player feedback and moments of gratification that even new players can enjoy and get hooked from. The intensity of the gameplay is heightened by the incredible audio design which creates a fun sensory overload. Not all fans of Command & Conquer will be drawn to the type of gameplay in Rivals, but its limited scope allows it to deliver a hyper-focused and refined experience without trying to appease conflicting audiences. I have learned a lot about RTS design from the success of Rivals, and I hope to see premium PC RTS experiment with incorporating some of these factors that make Rivals work so well.