As Mr. Loranger stated in his overview, mechanics, strategy, and the social experience are critical elements that define the inherent strengths and challenges of designing a compelling RTS experience. We strongly agree with HuK’s arguments, and we also believe we can shed some additional light on the nature of the “three evils,” and offer potential solutions to the problems they cause.
By addressing the problematic elements of the dynamics native to the traditional RTS experience, developers can unlock the latent potential of the genre, forging the next generation of hyper-successful and fun games across the competitive and casual spectrum. To aid in this dialogue, we will summarize how we meet these challenges in our own RTS, “IMMORTAL: Gates of Pyre.”
The upcoming competitive RTS!
The Double-Edged Sword of RTS: A False Dichotomy
There is a longstanding and persistent myth that surrounds RTS, that the genre’s inherent strengths are also its greatest limiting factors. Time and again, RTS has been held as the zenith of hardcore gaming, the epitome of professional glory, and the bane of casual play.
Most old school RTS devs, probably
While there are data points that support this narrative at a surface level, the truth is much more complicated (and promising). We have researched the historic strengths and pain points of strategy titles, explored more solutions than we knew existed, made more mistakes than we could count, and found viable solutions for each one. To be clear: our team doesn’t have a monopoly on truth; we just figured out some stuff that works for the game we are currently making: an esport viable, games-as-service, team-friendly strategy game. For our purposes, we will focus on these three key areas that have defined the strengths and challenges of RTS design and why they don’t have to be double edged: Mechanical Depth, Strategic Depth, and Social Play.
The depth of gameplay in RTS is generally regarded to be the greatest “double-edged sword.”
When people think of RTS, people tend to imagine Korean Bonjwas wiping the floor with everyday players. This trope of pros taking on teams of noobs and effortlessly winning (pros vs joes), Thousands of youtube videos and influencer streams will attest to and reinforce this false understanding. This trope is so ingrained that Blizzard played off it in a promotional video for SCII’s “Archon Mode'' where two players teamed up against a Korean progamer. This dynamic speaks to the incredible depth the genre can offer, where a person’s excellence is extensively recognized by the game’s core rules. Unfortunately, this has produced a damaging and ultimately unnecessary narrative: that RTS is only for the top 1% of its player base.
Contrary to popular belief, casuals do want to play strategy games.
Years ago, when we were speaking to a publisher, they said that until meeting us, they had assumed that competitive strategy games HAD to be hard to learn in order to have a sufficiently high skill ceiling to play. They were not the only ones. The myth that a game can either be profitable or deep and rewarding to play has been deeply entrenched in a funding landscape and for good reason. Investors and publishers have been burned because developers and players often make this same fatal assumption. It is hard to measure exactly how damaging this false dichotomy has been. Many RTS titles have struggled to find a balance between accessible play and the rewards of a high skill ceiling, often dying within months of release, or never reaching the market at all. If we are to move forward as a community, we must let this myth die.
Here is the good news: it really doesn’t have to be this way. This hostile dynamic has been solved by other genres time and again, including genres adjacent to RTS like MOBAS (Dota 2 originally branded itself as an “Action-RTS”). Developers in other parts of the industry have shown that games can be accessible to a wide audience and still support a vibrant competitive scene. Additionally, our efforts in the modding community have shown definitively that these lessons can be applied to RTS.
To streamline this discussion, we are going to divide “Depth” into its mechanical and strategic components. These are different requisite skill sets a player must learn to engage with in any given match and their effect on the end experience.
It is true that mechanical depth is one of the defining elements of Real Time Strategy. Watching professional RTS play is the stuff of highlight reels, each feat of reflex and positioning a unique blend of the best of Poker, Chess, and MMA. Esports simply would not be the same (hell, it might not exist) if it weren’t for NaDa’s vulture micro, Jaedong’s overwhelming mutalisk control, Boxer’s immortal marines, and the godlike game-sense that is Flash.
This is your wraith on micro.
Strategy titles that eschew this mechanical depth often suffer because they lack the fundamental magic that makes RTS exciting to watch. What purpose is there to playing a game that doesn’t reward mastery? Why invest one’s time in watching others learn a flat game? It is our sincere belief that a successful RTS should have an impossible mechanical skill ceiling, otherwise, the game will get solved and, subsequently, die. Conversely, many classic titles are considered unplayable today due to the game demanding the player learn, then master, an overwhelming number of tasks before participating in the core experience.
At the core of RTS, the player is promised that they will make meaningful decisions in real time against one or more opponents. Games that fail to deliver meaningful decisions are abandoned or die on arrival while titles that gatekeep players from being able to make meaningful decisions radically limit their potential player base. Between and within these well-explored extremes lies a habitable zone where the genre can thrive. The question then becomes, how does one build a game with an impossible skill ceiling and a low enough skill floor to acquire and retain a large player base?
Well, these are the lessons we learned during the development of our Vanguard Prototype mod:
1. Keep the magic: We started with a game that prioritized and disproportionately rewarded fine unit control and multitasking over a-moving. Throughout development, we used Lalush’s “Depth of Micro” as a compass for building and testing units which were easy to command, but challenging to command optimally. As a result, our game, IMMORTAL is built and balanced around mechanics like Brood War’s moving shot, slop range, backswing, and pathing that rewards micro on both sides. These elements make the game harder at higher difficulties, but don’t really affect low level play experience. Mid tier players are also given concrete and obvious goals for mechanical improvement.
2. Optimize for fun: Traditionally fun elements of building and commanding an army are locked behind archaic interfaces. The experience of commanding an army with one or more active abilities often involves a lot of clicking and tabbing just to aim abilities. While this definitely raises the skill ceiling, it does so at the cost of a much higher skill floor. New players see exciting abilities they will not be able to play with for weeks or months, get frustrated, and leave. Removing these artificial barriers and allowing players to cast the spells they want when they want has proven to be a win from the pro-level to the bottom 20% of players and has universally resulted in higher quality games.
3. Cut the Chores: Remember the kerfuffle over SCII’s design decision to introduce Multiple Building Select, Automine, and Unlimited Unit Selection? We do. In hindsight, this controversy may seem quaint or silly; it was anything but. The traditionalist camp thought that removing these artificial difficulty gates (having to manually assign each and every worker, town hall, production structure, and platoon of soldiers etc), would erode the difference between skill levels and erase styles of play (like TTI’s 4 base macro technique) while the reformist school of thought said that lowering the skill floor would make the game more accessible and open up the community to a wider potential audience. History has proven both camps correct in many ways. Hyper-macro styles were diminished at higher levels of play due to MBS and more consistent income. SCII was the game that brought the eastern esport scene to the west and boasted a staggering 3 million concurrent players at launch. However, as games like LoL and Smash Bros. have proven definitively, not all difficult mechanics are equal, at least for most players and viewers.
“Chore” actions are repetitive actions that don’t inherently offer any decisions of strategic import and are of poor value compared to visually intuitive and strategically dynamic actions (like unit micro or decision based-macro abilities like Chronoboost). It turns out, relatively few people care about optimal worker splits or managing rallies when their attention could be taken up by early unit interactions. In the Vanguard Prototype and IMMORTAL: Gates of Pyre, we aggressively culled chore actions. Worker production is automated by default, with the ability to toggle production at each town hall. Additionally, production structures extend the army population capacity, meaning players have one less step to produce the army they want to fight with.
By putting these lessons into practice, developers can make their games fun to a much larger potential player base.When the barrier to entry is reduced, the competitive scene with a more invested and robust viewer base. Commanding a larger player base also means more revenue for prospective publishers and investors. Players get a fun and deep game they can actually get into, pros get an ecosystem to support their careers, developers and investors get the income they need to flourish.
Taking out those rote tasks really ruined the competitive scene, huh?
By freeing up player attention, skill can move from invisible to intuitive, from routine to dynamic, and from a list of chores to strategic execution.
Strategic depth refers to a game’s ability to resist being solved. Typically, once a game is sufficiently optimized, it ceases to be a compelling play experience. This is especially true in competitive modes, where many players are working together and against one another to find the most optimal path to victory. As with mechanics RTS is uniquely gifted with incredible potential for strategic depth. Between compositions, build orders, engagements, and economic management, the capacity for an endlessly compelling experience is, well, endless. To fully realize this potential, developers should look to other genres to address challenges inherent in any information dense experience: burden of knowledge.
All deep strategy games possess a lot of information in order to play optimally. However, not all games and genres distribute this burden the same way. The more knowledge that is required up front to participate meaningfully, the greater the burden is to a prospective player. When a burden is too great, this can cause “bounce,” where a would-be player feels too overwhelmed to participate in a game, or tries and ricochets off, never to return. Bounce can kill good games before they have a chance to take off.
The good news is that RTS has a big advantage over other genres regarding its burden of knowledge. With its bird’s eye view of the battlefield and streamlined unit design, strategy titles like BW and SCII can communicate a lot of information intuitively to the human eye. Let’s compare that to some other competitive frontrunners: the FPS and the MOBA.
The magic of FPS games are inaccessible for many would-be viewers due to involuntary motion sickness. Additionally, in FPS, viewers have to choose between optimally following the mechanical execution of star players or the strategic depth of the match.
MOBAs benefit from the isometric gameplay perspective, but due to the focus on heroic characters, they are bogged down by the innumerable abilities, synergies, and interactions each individual character has with every other character. To understand a game’s state, MOBA viewers need to have memorized spreadsheets worth of information. For similar reasons, games like LoL and Dota 2 struggle to communicate who is ahead at a glance. Gold income, objectives taken, and towers felled are all factored into which team is ahead, but nothing is as intuitive as seeing a baneling connect with a blob of marines or a nuke land on an unwitting army.
Despite being harder to grasp than an RTS, FPS and MOBA titles are able to overcome the massive burden of knowledge by allowing players to discover how their selected strategy unfolds over the course of a game, at their pace, with friends. Counter Strike is a brutally difficult game, but because of its round/match structure, players can fiddle around the map, experiment with multiple guns, and spar multiple times before the experience is over. Defeated players can watch their surviving team mates finish out the match, usually learning by example in the process. League of Legends has a dedicated laning phase where players learn critical skills like tower aggro, last hitting, and ganking alongside an ally. Compare these experiences to an RTS where often a simple, easily overlooked mistake straight up kills a player. To learn what killed them, players then have to stop playing, boot up a replay, and watch themselves lose all over again while looking for a few specific mistakes, among many, that cost them the game. The difference is as stark as it is unnecessary.
Sometimes it do be like that tho
For players to fall in love with real time strategy games, there are a few things that need to be done differently:
- Allow players to learn from their mistakes over the course of the game: This can be done a number of different ways. We accomplished it with a combination of factors including a strong defender’s advantage, lower lethality in the early game, a greater ability to retreat armies in the early and mid game, and a greater emphasis on telegraphed spells. Cumulatively, these features result in a game experience that inspires curiosity in our playtesters and allows new players to get into the meat of the game.
- Embrace “Opt in Complexity”: Games that let players play with a portion of the strategic sandbox and learn at their own pace tend to manage the burden placed on new players well. As stated earlier, RTS’s architecture is great for this. Players can stick to basic units at first and opt for more complex compositions as they feel comfortable. We have found that players are more keen on exploring the complexities of our game when they feel like they can do so without risking the outcome of the match. Designers have a lot of flexibility when it comes to giving players this kind of space. Unfortunately, we can’t talk about all the features our game uses to empower players to get creative just yet, but we can say a lot of it is tied to making the mechanics intuitive and the game’s pacing manageable in the early game (for example, our game’s economy grows more linearly and less multiplicatively over time). Basically, if you have a fun game and let players take the odd risks, they will usually do so.
- Give players easy to understand starting points for formulating strategies: Instead of dumping players in a dark and dangerous map with a handful of resources and workers, RTS titles can and should give clear goals and intuitive tools to reach them. Fortunately, this is an area where squad-focused titles like DoW II, CoH2, and Iron Harvest excel. Players are given clear, easily achievable objectives that guide them to confrontations with the opponent. IMMORTAL accomplishes this using a map flush with neutral camps and other interactive features.
- Give players tools to strategize before the game starts: Ideally, players should go in with a basic understanding of what their options are. Fighting Games are great at communicating playstyle with clearly themed character art. The guy with long stretchy arms is going to be a skirmisher, the giant hulking character is probably a grappler etc.
Guess which fighter is the slow grappler…
Our game uses godlike commanders called “Immortals” that skew their faction towards a certain playstyle with unique units and abilities. If a player wants to focus on harass, they can look to Dekker, a diesel punk desperado, or the sylvan assassin Xol. If they want to lock down territory and play a drawn-out macro game, they can play Orzum, an archangel that specializes in annexing and fortifying territory for his empire. On the UI front, our game takes great care to provide ways for players to easily communicate their strategy with one another before a game starts.
It is important to note that the power of all of these lessons were magnified by the introduction of team play as a main mode. More on that below.
The Social Experience
Oh boy, where to begin? This is probably the most frustrating issue because this is entirely a self-inflicted wound and it is one of the easiest to fix. Ironically, social play is an area where RTS has traditionally shined. In the golden era, Spawn LAN parties, Bnet 1.0, and BW’s USM scene were synonymous with social play. A lot of this success was contextual: online consoles were not really a thing, the market was still focused on retail, and player tolerance for poor UX was much higher. RTS was perfectly positioned for this world of emerging online play, laying the groundwork for a market that would replace it with other titles. The most high-profile example of this was how BW essentially founded the world esports scene as we know it (there is an awesome master class on the history of BW linked HERE if you want to do a deeper dive). This initial success created a focus on the competitive aspect of titles to the detriment of other important demographics within the greater community. This is a problem because…
Launch Wings of Liberty: A stressful, unpaid job where you lose to strangers, alone, alongside millions of other people.
1. Over 50% of any competitive game’s player base is strictly casual. League of Legends started advertising skins on their Coop vs AI because there is a massive population of players that never queue up against human opponents. When Legacy of the Void introduced its own Coop mode, it increased player traffic significantly according to Mr. Morris. The lesson is clear: if you create compelling gameplay, make sure you allocate space for dedicated casuals to experience that gameplay.
2. The vast majority of casual players like to play games socially. Let’s look at the top grossing competitive games of 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 (See sources at the end of this). See a pattern? PC and BW are mostly team games. There are a lot of reasons for this but namely it’s because humans are an inherently social species. Our behaviors are a result of selection pressures millions of years in the making. People, it turns out, like playing with their friends (the events of 2020 are particularly poignant examples). So when the market’s leading RTS (with a $30+ million budget) launched without chat channels, coop friendly experiences, and a sabotaged custom game scene, it sent a clear message to casuals: “Play the campaign and move on.” Millions of players listened, and moved on to games like Dota 2, Counter Strike, and League of Legends, even if their preferred experience was Real Time Strategy.
To be clear: there are plenty of RTS titles that did not fall into this trap, but few had the clout of a flagship Blizzard product. Each expansion made the game harder for new players to survive. Heart of the Swarm introduced Oracles, Widow Mines, and Medivac boost, making game ending worker harassment a required strategy. Legacy of the Void doubled down on this direction with units like Adepts and Liberators while requiring players to expand more often. While this made for some incredible professional metas, it ensured that casual players would never be able to access the core fun that competitive RTS offers. The number of players we personally know that play SCII coop but get their competitive kicks from MOBAs is significant, and our research suggests this trend is not anecdotal, but systemic. If the next generation of strategy titles want to avoid this fate there are a few things that should be considered:
1. Support team play as a competitive standard: As we said earlier, the most successful competitive games across the board tend to be team-based. Coordinating with other players is a distinct, rewarding, and visually intuitive skillset that has a proven track record in the RTS space (WarCraft III is a particularly good example). Designing and balancing for 1v1 and 2v2 is tricky, but it has been done before and we have done it for IMMORTAL. It’s worth the time to study, test, and master.
2. Provide COOP PvE modes: This is relatively easy to do if your game is campaign focused, since you will have the assets lying around. Coop PvE provides a way for casual players to engage in the experience they love after completing all single player content. Better yet, they can do it with their friends, making their experience more fun, and extending the life of your game. Just be sure to add some fun meta progression elements. We will be adding on PvE content regularly in IMMORTAL through a mixture of free updates and our variant of a battle pass system. We consider it to be half of our total game.
3. Make sure your UX/UI is built with social play in mind: While everyone tends to agree that social features are important, they often get implemented as an afterthought due to the many competing demands of game development. This. Is. A. Trap. Chat channels, groups, fan clubs, clans, teams, etc., are insanely useful for guiding players to play your game and have fun during downtime. A well-executed and maintained UX is a huge contributing factor to retention. We are still in early days on this front, but we are very excited to show you all what we’ve got cooking in the future.
4. Invest time and effort into building a positive and welcoming community: We live in unusually tense and frightening times. Historically, during these periods of instability and uncertainty, people tend to bond over common interests and passions. Online communities remind us all that we have more in common than we might think. That kind of bonding is powerful, important, and we would argue, necessary for navigating the challenges facing our society. Best of all, strong social bonds drive prosperous and successful communities, encouraging additional investment in the space. Make sure that people from different parts of the world and different walks of life feel welcome. As members of a community know the difference between being a critical and being a jerk. Be open, be honest, be supportive, be fearless, and as Sean Plott once said, “be relentlessly positive.”
Before we sign off, we want to give a special shout out to HuK for kickstarting this dialogue; the only way we get to this next golden age is by talking openly and directly. Thanks Chris!
Despite the challenges, Real Time Strategy defined a pivotal era in gaming and forged the modern industry as we know it today. The conception that RTS is inherently niche and backwards is false and has only been perpetuated by missteps in design and marketing. RTS is a beloved genre for many good reasons. RTS games are among the most intuitive, rewarding, and viscerally exciting in the industry. By looking to other successful titles and trends within gaming, by pushing for introspection and innovation, developers and communities can come together to move past these artificial limitations and forge a new golden age that will benefit everyone. Together, we can revolutionize strategy. We are grateful to our fellow trailblazers, indie and AAA alike (Frost Giant, X-Box studios, Relic, Kiwi Brothers, King Art, Zero-K, and many others) for pushing towards this noble goal.
GL HF everyone!
Sincerely, the SunSpear Games team.
Co-written by Tom “JaKaTaK” Labonte, Travis “Decemberscalm,” Toler, Colter “FoxyMayhem,” Donovan “DoctorBoson” Bailey, and Dylan “ItWhoSpeaks” Kahn.
P.S. Disagree with something? Want to be part of the dialogue? Want to wreck us on Destination? Join our Discord server!