Opinion: The Evolution of the Modern RTS
After the huge success of Starcraft and the large success of Warcraft 3, Blizzard stepped off the RTS stage and let THQ nudge their way into the spotlight with Dawn of War and Company of Heroes.
But, despite their commercial and critical successes, neither franchise could hold a flame to Starcraft’s ability to produce and maintain competitive play at a high level.
Right now, Blizzard is probably asking the same question we’re about to investigate: what made Starcraft a huge competitive success while Dawn of War and Company of Heroes have a comparatively piddling competitive fan base? And are Dawn of War and Company of Heroes really an example of where the RTS genre is headed?
The first, and largely underestimated, strength of Starcraft is its visual clarity. In Starcraft, you can glance at the minimap and understand almost immediately where your forces are concentrated, or look at the screen and quickly understand the flow of the battle. In Company of Heroes, however, the visual clarity gets lost amongst all the majestic effects that make the game so beautiful.
At first, this seems like a trivial difference. However, visual clarity is crucial when making the split second decisions that can steal victory from looming defeat.
There are easily half a dozen times in any given Company of Heroes game where you must make a quick decision, usually about retreating, amidst huge clouds of smoke and severed limbs. Looking back on the replay, you’ll often have made the wrong decision when, if the circumstances were clear, the decision would have been much easier.
Starcraft’s second strength is the precise level of control it gives the player. Many casual RTS players see the gradual curtailment of micromanagement as a boon to the genre. However, the more complex AI comes at the cost of precise control at a higher level of play.
As Starcraft evolved, competitive players tried to balance micromanagement with overall strategy and unit production, allowing them to hone a skill as well as push strategic innovations.
In Company of Heroes, however, the unit AI is complex and difficult to control manually. When you try to run a unit back, or micromanage it around to flank, you’ll often find it moving slowly because it insists on running from cover to cover. In buildings, even anti-armor units will often choose the wrong windows to fire from and get slaughtered by circling vehicles, which they could easily have killed if the player could simply tell them where to fire their rockets.
It’s also rather popular to praise Company of Heroes and Dawn of War for removing the micromanagement involved in resource gathering. In Starcraft, however, one of the most interesting choices that defines the course of a game is when to expand and when not to expand, a choice that Company of Heroes and Dawn of War simply remove.
With the same stroke, Company of Heroes and Dawn of War also remove another layer of micromanagement (worker micromanagement plays a large role in Starcraft) and, consequently, another layer of skill.
Some might say, “Isn’t that just purely physical skill?” Well, yes, but the balance between physical skill and strategic skill is part of any RTS – just as the balance between how quickly you can target someone’s head and tactical knowledge is part of any FPS. If there were no micromanagement in real time strategy games then they’d just be turn based strategy games, and we already have a genre for those.
But Company of Heroes’ largest weakness is its randomness. Starcraft has very little randomness, and so the same ambush in the same place will almost always kill the same amount of units with the same amount of shots. In Company of Heroes, sometimes it takes two rockets to take out a tank, sometimes the first four miss and it gets off unscathed. Sometimes a grenade takes out an entire MG squad, sometimes it doesn’t kill anyone.
To most competitive players, this is unacceptable. If the entire course of the game can be changed by a bad roll of the dice, there is no point in learning the subtleties of the game that competitive players use to get slight edges over each other.
In Starcraft, whether or not your dragoons are positioned in such a way that they get the optimal number of shots off is largely inconsequential in a game between low level players, but it’s crucial at the pro level.
However, almost everything in Company of Heroes has a random number generator attached to it. This lends it a sense of realism and tension (you never know what’s going to happen!) but severely limits high level play.
Among random number generators and confusing visual effects, the twin evolutions Company of Heroes and Dawn of War have proved another interesting, subtle point: there is such thing as AI that is too intelligent.
The more intelligent AI is, the less control the player has: when your units scatter and take cover at the sight of an artillery blast, they’ll scatter in unpredictable directions, and sometimes in ways you didn’t mean for them to go at all (like into a tank).
Moreover, the less control the player has over individual units, the less player skill factors into a result. When an AI is dumb and predictable, the player knows exactly what will happen in any given situation and can use this knowledge to pull off difficult and impressive stunts.
However, when the AI becomes unpredictable and intelligent, the player loses that level of precise control over the game, making it a frustrating, slippery and often unintuitive mess, ironically the very thing that intelligent AI was supposed to safeguard against.
So where does THQ go from here? Both Company of Heroes and Dawn of War are innovative, intelligent RTSes. Yet, as both games have evolved, it’s become clear that the elements that make them so cinematic – randomness, visual confusion, lack of precise control – are the same elements that make them unsuitable for high-level play.
The basic mechanics of reinforcement and capturing strategic points are interesting, but ultimately these RTSes need to turn their focus from cinema to gameplay if they want to become competitively successful.
In the long run, Company of Heroes and Dawn of War don’t support high level play in the same way that Starcraft does, even though they are often hailed as the pioneers in the RTS genre and true examples of a “modern RTS.”
Both Company of Heroes and Dawn of War are brilliant cinematic experiences and excellent single player games, but it’s going to take innovation in a completely different direction to compete with Starcraft’s competitive multiplayer juggernaut.