Esports Has Not Ruined RTS

Hang around on Reddit or YouTube comments for long enough, and you’ll see accusations that modern RTS games have been ruined by esports, MOBA’ification or that they have become little more than “clickfests.” I recently made a reddit thread asking why people view this to be the case but most of the responses didn’t make sense to me. I find the common claims to be simply untrue or red herrings, and here I’ll be offering my thoughts on why I strongly disagree.

Let’s start by defining our terms, what is esports? An esport is a competitive multiplayer video game that has tournaments with large viewerships and prize pools. A vast skill ceiling and depth is required for a game to develop a competitive scene, while interesting moment-to-moment gameplay is needed for large viewership. In essence, becoming an esport is the consequence of good game design with a passionate community. It can be awkward when developers try to force their games as esports artificially, but they should design games with the necessary substance and product features to support the organic growth of a competitive scene.

Where some potential contention lies is the assumption that to create interesting moment-to-moment gameplay, the game needs to be fast-paced. But interesting gameplay doesn’t just mean always having action; exciting gameplay can be the branching of build orders and strategies found in StarCraft 2. Watching one player delay upgrades for mass units will frame that match with tension because now one player is on a pressure timer to justify the aggression. Gameplay decisions need to have meaningful consequences for it to be engaging to watch. Esports also has other considerations such as game length, visual clarity and inclusion of mirror matchups.

I think designing with the potential for esports is generally a good thing, but it could go wrong if designers and execs only have a superficial understanding of what esports requires and is about. I can see why compromising things like game length or eccentric unit design for competitive play could be an issue, but where are the RTS games that have done this? I certainly can’t find them. Even StarCraft 2 as the peak of competitive RTS has an incredible single-player campaign with a unique range of funky units and abilities. The RTS games that fail tend to do so for many deep reasons, but it’s more convenient to boil it down to some lazy excuse and buzz words.

When players criticize the APM (actions-per-minute) requirements of StarCraft, they claim it is a fault of the game. They’re asserting it’s too fast for the casual players to enjoy and that strategy is neglected in favor of mechanics. Ironically, a requirement of APM adds to the strategic depth because APM then becomes a resource, like any other, that needs to spent carefully. It’s fine to only have 60 APM in Silver League, so long as you’re investing that APM on things that matter like Probes & Pylons rather than macroing drops.

Every time you lose a game on ladder, it’s probably not because your opponent was faster than you, it’s because they were better at StarCraft in its totality. For the majority of players in low leagues like Silver, getting crushed by an opponent’s twitchy APM is just a fiction. The matchmaking works, those high APM players are in Diamond and above. You don’t have to be the best, just better than the person you are versing.

The mechanical difficulty and fast pace of StarCraft isn’t for everyone, but the good news is there’s an entire market ofother RTS games out there. StarCraft 2 isn’t the only RTS, yet people often speak as if it is representative of the whole genre. There might be a case for esports ruining RTS if all attempted to emulate StarCraft 2, but that simply isn’t the case. Despite by far being the most popular, WarCraft 3, StarCraft 2 and Age of Empires are the only major RTS games that require a high APM to play, and they’re all old games now. There’s an entire subgenre of large-scale RTS such as Supreme Commander that deemphasize micromanagement and remove the need for APM due to the scale and automation. Offworld Trading Company has a similar effect but through a different approach, it’s a unique RTS with no units, only market manipulation on the fly. I can’t see how accusations of “twitchy esports” and “MOBA’ification” can be made when the majority of recent RTS games are nothing like StarCraft 2. For better or for worse, most modern RTS games seem to be emulating the Command & Conquer formula. 8-Bit Armies is as simple an RTS as there will ever be.

To quote Brownbear, “RTS players like RTS mechanics.” I don’t understand the fascination with hating the real-time element of real-time strategy; it’s the point of the genre. Turn-based strategies exist, and they are immensely popular. There are entire genres and franchises designed to cater to people who enjoy strategy games at a gentle pace such as the Civilizations and Total War. Meanwhile, every RTS has the ability to simply play large team games or co-op vs AI to throw away the stress associated with competitive 1v1. Ironically, the co-op mode in StarCraft 2 has now made it the best introduction for new players to RTS multiplayer, despite also having the most difficult PvP multiplayer. Perhaps there’s some misattributed problems here such as RTS games taking themselves too seriously, but I think most of this contention can be explained by the average consumer not understanding the real issues.

Here’s what actually “ruined” RTS: shrinking budgets due to changes in the market, competition with free-to-play games, lack of compatibility with consoles, MOBA’s taking some of the market share, stagnation of CPU clock speed, engine limitations, lack of engaging team experiences, delayed gratification, lack of giving players feedback, and competition with legacy titles in a way that other genres don’t. Ultimately, the decline of RTS is a complex, multivariate problem. Many RTS enthusiasts don’t seem to understand that RTS has become a niche genre and it’s not incompetence on the part of developers resulting in fans not getting the games they want. When budgets go down, so too does the quality and quantity of everything else. RTS games are expensive and technically difficult to make. There are ways RTS can try to climb back to relevancy, but “going back to old school” isn’t the solution.

People have nostalgia for the classic RTS games, but frankly, the old games aren’t good by modern standards. When RTS fans think back to the classic RTS from their childhood, their nostalgia goggles blind them to many issues like broken pathfinding and non-functioning counter systems. Those old school RTS are elevated to levels they don’t deserve because it’s associated with reminiscing about all those LAN parties and the fun you use to have with your friends as a teenager in simpler times. Command & Conquer 3 is a much better game than Tiberium Sun, and WarCraft 3 is not even comparable to WarCraft 2. Remastering old RTS games is a challenge because making their gameplay fun by modern standards might require massive reworks. I’m a huge fan of Total Annihilation but I’ll only play it now with mods because the original game is so flawed. It was ground breaking for its time, but 20 years later, things have changed and the expectations are much higher.

Sometimes people criticize how modern RTS games develop strict “metas” where only a small sample of strategies is viable. Metas only matter in high-level play, where the skill of the players is so great that tiny mistakes are punished. For the majority of players, however, abiding by a strict meta is unnecessary, there are so many ways that novice players can improve their play that blaming their loss on not abiding by the meta is just an excuse and a distraction. Regardless, the concept of a limited meta is inherently a balance problem, which old school RTS games suffer from far more than modern RTS games. On top of being from an era where counter-systems wasn’t an understood art, old school RTS didn’t have patching and balance updates in the way we expect and demand today. Old games would have had much worse metas if they were played in competitive ladders and tournaments. Many criticize modern RTS games not for their gameplay, but for the context of which they are played in. That’s not the games fault, there’s nothing stopping you from getting your friends back together and LANing some modern RTS. (Aside from now being an adult with responsibilities.)

The decline of RTS as a genre is a complex problem and I don’t think it’s fair to lay blame on esports or MOBA’ification. Old school RTS games are not as good as people remember, their nostalgia blinds them to all of their flaws.  I would urge fans of old school RTS who view the genre as having been ruined by “twitchy esports gameplay” to look further than StarCraft 2. StarCraft 2 is not all of RTS, it is, however, by far the most popular despite having that type of gameplay. Play some turn-based strategy if real-time isn’t your jam, or look for the many RTS that doesn’t require fast APM. While RTS is sadly in a state of a decline, there’s still a large variety of RTS games that would appeal to many different fans. I hope old school RTS fans become more willing to explore the genre as there’s a lot of great RTS games out there in 2018.

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9 thoughts

  1. I think you make some good points about the modern niceties we take for granted in rts games. However, I think a lot of this article comes down to your word versus the reddit thread.
    Also I think the rts community needs to have a discussion of what we are aiming for when we try to balance something. As this (1) video argues balance is an ongoing process that is never perfect. Indeed the video argues that balance where every side has an exactly even win rate would be incredibly boring, as it would basically come down to a coin toss who wins. The video may seem old hat to you, but it makes clear what people should be aiming for when they talk about balance. All too often I think players get lost in subjective views of which faction or strategy is more skilled and end up talking past one another. When you released the video on rts balance you didn’t really go into what the goal of balance was, and I think finding that goal is very important for making progress to it.

    (1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K3n-Sy2Ko4I&t=317s

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  2. @Callum

    I think you’re right to some degree in that the frustration is somewhat misguided and that people are viewing past games through a nostalgic lens. I’ve had this very useful document pinned for some time explaining much of your argument against old games; https://www.competitivegamedesign.net/rts

    That’s not to say there isn’t a problem here though, the whole thread has actually been fairly eye opening to me as I’ve always been for the ‘moba-fication’ of the RTS genre and completely disregarded any thought for there being a part of the community who might not like this path.

    From what I’ve gathered and at the very core of the argument against the current evolution of RTS is that players perhaps feel unnecessarily stressed by the requirement of their undivided attention when playing and that they miss having more of a casual, laid-back sandbox approach to play… this might be best represented by how people glorify DoW1 over DoW2 despite DoW2’s more refined and modern game play. There’s something there.

    Being a huge Wargame series fan I can kinda see what they might be getting at, as despite ALB being my favourite RTS of all time I don’t feel I played it proportionally to how much I loved it due to the stress involved in playing a real game. I actually got heavily involved in low resource games because it reduced the stress and allowed me to play more before needing a break.

    To conclude, being the types who like to analyze these sort of things, shouldn’t we perhaps consider whether or not there’s a way to take this part of the community into consideration? that to deny and ridicule it might be a result of our own biases? I’ve been playing with a hobby design document for years now inspired by moba/rts hybrids and am already looking for ways to tweak things to make such a casual approach possible (primarily co-op vs environment as a solid base with competitive as a secondary but more personal goal, shouldn’t be too hard).

    Our denial of what people liked about the old games might be part of whats holding back the RTS genre, maybe we need to throw away our perfectionist hats for a moment and consider the less than perfect, at least on some level…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for linking that article, that was interesting. You’re right this article started as a rant that I tried to dial back a bit. 😛

      I agree with your thoughts about trying to understand where the dissatisfaction is coming from, but we can’t do that when the only explanations being put forward are buzzwords that don’t make sense and don’t say much. If people are able to express what it is about modern RTS games they aren’t enjoying in a way that is actually productive, I would be interested. Every RTS has AI that can be played against in a sandbox mode or multiplayer with custom friends games, but perhaps people are missing a sandbox mode that is tied together in a story-driven campaign. Campaigns are generally more and more scripted. (Which I think makes them more interesting.) I did mention it though that I thought there might be a misattributed problem such as RTS games taking themselves too seriously.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Apologies if I may have come off a bit hard, it was only my intention to express the revelation the Reddit thread gave me and mostly my own ignorance/arrogance for not seeing it before.

        Having been a hobby tester, community facing QA and currently analysing focus test feedback/metrics for a document I’m writing I think we have to expect and listen to the ‘non-constructive’ feedback though, particularly if we want to understand more than just a portion of our communities. Even if the players may not know exactly what they’re having a problem with and may express things somewhat incoherently at times there will often be a pattern to identify amidst it all which can be measured against metrics or even just our own experiences to be used to solve a problem that might otherwise be missed. In other words I think its important to read between the lines of what is said instead of taking things for face value, something I feel we do a little too much in the games industry.

        Eitherway, thank’s a lot for doing this article. I’m particularly invested in the idea of making the RTS genre more widely appealing and easy to access. This could be an important step to doing just that 🙂

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  3. I think we can all agree that RTS being ‘ruined’ is hyperbole, there are still cool titles being made even if it isn’t the apex genre that it used to be.

    However, a point I don’t feel you really addressed is that by designing for esports you prioritise balance over variety.

    You mention all the cool units in the SC2 single player campaign. Why don’t we have all them to play around with in skirmish mode? Because it would be impossible to balance!
    You taciticly acknowledge this in your statement about older RTS not beeing to your tastes because they have non-functional counter systems, however I find myself returning to older titles again and again because they are a joyful jumble of ideas without the millstone of competitive balance to contend with.

    I don’t think we will see games like Warzone 2100, Warbreeds or Small Soldiers: Squad Commander being made whilst the genre remains foucused on the competetive side of things.

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    1. Sure, it’d be cool if there was an option to use all the campaign units in StarCraft 2’s skirmish and custom multiplayer without having to go download mods.

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      1. Starcraft is unusual in that we can see a lot of unit ideas that were cut in skirmish because they are in the single player, think about all the cool ideas that never made it into other games because they could never be balanced!

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  4. Great article!
    I personally think the fall of RTS as a genre is also due to the rise of the console market and production costs. It was fine to release PC exclusive games during the PS2 era, but after that production costs skyrocketed and it became very risky to release PC exclusive games.

    The problem being RTSs are very PC focused, and while there have been many attempts to adapt the genre to consoles, it never really worked out (ex: Halo wars).

    Those poor sales installed the idea that RTS games are not popular anymore, or should be made for PC only = very risky, unless with low production costs.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Starcraft 1/2 wouldn’t be fun it it didn’t require skill. People would just “netdeck” strategies like in card games. Any 10 year old who played less than week could do that and reach grandmaster. The only people who would be in bronze are the ones who dont netdeck.

    Because Starcraft requires skill, no matter how many strategies you read and watch youtube tutorials, you’re not automatically get better at game. You can’t “download” skill.

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