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The Future Of The Real-Time Strategy Game

January 24, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

Have you ever experienced this feeling after playing a real-time strategy game? You get used to the controls, learn all the hotkeys, become efficient with the mouse, and find that the best way to win is to build units and firepower as fast as possible and throw them at the opponent in successive, inexorable waves.

It's not that the game ceases to be fun, but that it ceases to be fresh: the basic strategy never really changes. Essentially, your only viable strategy -- your overall plan for success -- is to wear down your opponent and destroy him.

I have experienced this feeling. As empowering -- and, at least initially, as fun -- as real-time strategy (RTS) games are, I often find that they turn into real-time tactics (RTT) games after a while. So often, there is no other viable plan for success beyond attrition. Sure, I may construct that building here instead of there, or gain control of those resources over there instead of these here, but I can never really change my basic plan for victory.

I cannot win by convincing my opponent to lay down his arms, since he knows that the only way I can win is for me to destroy him. I must collect more resources than my opponent in order that he not wear me out first. The threat of force or the limited use of force would not convince my opponent that I would win if our military forces engaged one another. Since there is only one viable strategy -- attrition -- victory will go to the best tactician, not the best strategist.

Ensemble Studios' popular real-time strategy game, Age of Empires III

What War Really Means

The reason that RTS games become RTT games is that they ignore one simple fact: "War is the continuation of policy by other means."1 RTS games have done a superb job of simulating war but a lousy job of simulating politics. If RTS games are to be truly strategic, then they need to simulate both war and politics. Why? Because war is politics.

Politics are who gets what, when, and how -- in other words, who has power and who does not. War is about precisely that, just with more drama and a lot more destruction than the everyday politics we're used to. In order to make the strategy of war meaningful, war has to be about more than simply destroying the enemy. It has to be about who gets what, when, and how. Without politics, war games devolve into pointless acts of attrition.

Take, for example, StarCraft, one of the most popular -- and, in my opinion, most fun -- RTS games of all time. The player directs drone-like units to collect resources, turns those resources into buildings and combat units, and then directs those units to seek out and destroy the enemy.

If the player chooses, he can simply wait for the enemy to come to him, trusting in the power of defense to wear his opponent down. But he cannot win unless he finds the enemy base and destroys it. In other words, StarCraft models total war, or war in which a combatant uses all available resources to the very bitter end. In total war, though, there is no second place, so a strictly defensive stance is a recipe for defeat.

1 Carl von Clausewitz, On War.


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Comments


Darren Pavel
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There is a mod for the TBS game Civilization IV called Rhye's and Fall of Civilization. Within the mod there are elements of stability based upon the users choice of resource management. I wonder if you are familiar with this mod and how you feel it stacks up against your idea of interior conflict in the RTS model?



I agree that RTS really appears to degrade to "Build a big army, throw against enemy wall, rinse, repeat," and I furthermore know that there are some games out there that have just turned me off because by the fifth level I have grown weary of building units and throwing them at the other side. It is for this reason that I like your article and am intrigued by your suggestions. However, it would appear to me (not an industry insider, mind you) that navigating socio-political problems while waging a war against an enemy would quickly become overwhelming. Imagine having to split your attention between managing an anti-governmental faction, while simultaneously garnering resources from your citizens with enough fervor to maintain the war machine, and all the while determining the next attack. While these things occur in the real world, are they not also done by governments instead of by singular individuals? Possibly some of these tasks could be automated by the computer, but would still require adjustment - and enough automation to keep focus on the bread & butter of the RTS genre (combat), and you might as well remove the automation required.



I am not trying to be a naysayer, and in-fact I think I would like to see many of your suggestions integrated into a game, but rather I am trying to fully understand your position.

Shaun Huang
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Play the Romance of the Three Kingdom series on PC by Koei. It's your dream game. http://www.koei.com/rtkxi/



The download to this type of hyper realistic and extremely detailed strategy game is that it is very difficult to match up players to compete in real time. After all, problems with this complexity in real life require the leaders and politicians to think for sometimes days or weeks before they make a decision. You can't play a RTS that last for days on end, if you do allow people to spend days to make decision, why not make it turn-based in the first place?

Leo Gura
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Galactic Civilizations II features this type of political gameplay. You can, for instance, barter with your enemies, extort technology from them, forge meaningful alliances, win them over through sheer cultural influence, or disrupt their economies through espionage. It's very addictive turn-based strategy, and actually gives a realistic sense of how alien civilizations might interact.

Bart Stewart
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1. Bravo to Nate Toronto for pointing out that most "RTS" games are actually tactical-level games; they're not strategic in any sense.



2. Several concerns distinguish the strategic level from the tactical (or operational) level:



* international relations (the formation and maintenance of useful alliances)

* domestic politics (e.g., democracy versus socialism)

* economic/production model (e.g., capitalism versus communism)

* asserting control over key resources (e.g., dilithium mines, refineries, transportation hubs, population centers)

* logistics (insuring that materiel is available when and where it's needed)

* synchrony (multiple simultaneous battles) versus linearity (one battle leads to the next)

* scope in complexity (e.g., army/corps versus platoon/squad)

* scope in space (theatre versus battlefield)

* scope in time (years [in the gameworld] versus hours)



Effectively including any of these in a RTT game would give it some strategic depth. Star Wars: Empire At War, for example, includes some synchrony by offering a galaxy map on which battles may occur in more than one location at a time. Winning the war (a strategic-level activity) requires choosing which battles to fight.



3. What about the players? Are the same people who play and enjoy the better RTT games (such as Starcraft) likely to embrace with equal enthusiasm the more cerebral play experience delivered by a good RTS game? Master of Orion III remains the classic cautionary tale (within the 4X genre) of replacing the micromanagement gameplay model of MOO and MOO2 with a more "macromanagement" approach.



Would it be wiser to market true RTS games to a different audience as a uniquely different kind of game?

Mark Brendan
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I haven't seen any evidence here that you can make any of this real-time. As other posters have pointed out, many games in the 4X and godsim mould already have the sort of political management you're talking about, but they're all turn based rather than real time. I can even name one game franchise traditionally thought of as RTS that does it--that's the Total War series, but again, for them all of the political management and actual military strategy (deployment of armies, manufacture of armour and weapons, building of military installations, etc) occurs in a turn-based campaign season between battles. I think that's where that sort of political management belongs, in an abstract turn based form. I agree about the faulty terminology of strategy, when they really mean tactics, but hey, that's just one of those things that most people get mixed up, like using i.e. when they really mean e.g.

As for the future of what are essentially real time tactics games (World in Conflict, EndWar), I think they're getting it right by making the gameplay all about the pell mell, putting the player firmly in the thick of battle rather than managing resources and supply lines. More like the FPSs you mentioned earlier in the article.

Joe Robins
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There is certainly a point to be made regarding the confusion between strategy and tactics. I personally belive that the best design so far in the strategy/tactics genre is within Creative Assembly's Total War series. Prior to getting into the series I was playing Total Annihilation. which, when compared on both a strategic and tactical level is very basic. I personally belive that the model of turn based strategy and realtime tactics is the best approach for the genre as a whole. by dividing the flow of the game in two, you give the player control of the pace which goes a long way towards making the game accessable to a wide range of playing styles.

Having the diplomatic, managerial, trade and grand military strategy in turn based format makes perfect sense too. Battles are fought in hours and days, wars are fought in months and years. So why force these two timescales into one realtime experience?.

Eric Clark Su
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It seems that he hasn't played the Total War series. Strange given how the author used the words "total war" as the lynchpin of the article.

Ivan Atanassov
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The same as Bart Stewart, when I read the article I also remember the Master of Orion games - I like first two of them a lot and they are among my favorite games, but I quit playing Master of Orion 3 after I played the tutorial twice. I try to play it again after an year or two but quit again. That was becouse MoO3, may be more challange, or more strategic or even better in some other way but it was not fun to play. And I think a game should be in its priority a game. And one of the main things games do is to entertain. No need to implement the reality in a game to make it good. any team sport game could be seen as a fun way to represent battle. And yes, they have a lot of strategy behind the scene but what is fun is to see two teams "fight" on the field. That's what RTS games do - they put the player in a specific role of high military commander who has limited powers over a small part of the economy. Yes this makes games Tactical but its the only problem in RTS. I think that adding politics in RTS will not make them better but more confusing and hard to play and will make them less Real Time since as it was mentioned above political decisions are not made within a seconds while battle decisions should be made within seconds else all your squads could be anihilated. And that's what makes RTS fun - fast pace, the need of fast tinking and making fast decisions. And I think in the future designers should think mainly how to make them more tactical than more strategic becouse the main focus should be on the battle field not behind the scene. There should be added different interactions between units, terrain and even weather conditions so the challenge stays. If there are more variables the player should take in account it could help agiast tedious and repetitive gameplay but those variables should be on the battlefield where the mind of the player is. All economic decisions could be good addition only if they are between missions (as it is done in Total War).

Anyway, no matter I do not agree with the author's conclusion, I liked the article as one which arose an interesting discussion. And I want to encourage the author to continue his observasion of games from different angle than the already popular approach. I think its the right way the new ideas to be born.

Tom H.
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Paradox Interactive has some very good "RTS" games where internal politics, social issues (religion) and economics play a major role. I think Victoria: Revolutions and the Europa Universalis series (EU3 most recent version) are the best examples.

Brett Norton
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The division of the strategy genre along further lines began some time ago. Most Real-Time Strategy games have become increasingly tactical in the past 6 years.



The term 'Real-Time Tactical game' became a grim reality around the time of WarCraft 3, whereafter most RTS games began to expand the scope of their games in tactical directions rather than strategic. WC3, used as an example, placed a greater emphasis on unit micromanagement in combat, rather than in strategic positioning, compared to StarCraft. With fewer units to control and more emphasis placed on managing abilities, Blizzard moved away from Strategy and towards Tactics. The industry followed suit.



Not all Real-Time games have moved toward the tactical however. Do not forget Rise of Nations. RoN shines as an example that tried to move towards strategy, and succeeded both critically and financially. The Kohan titles as well, while not as strategic as RoN, defeniately de-emphasized tactics and tried to emphasize strategic positioning.



The current RTS genre is lopsided. Most RTS developers chose to follow the WC3 style of 'more tactics' rather than the RoN style of 'more strategy'. We're now in the state where many RTS titles have eliminated all vestigates of strategy altogether. The elimination of base construction and resource management from many recent RTS titles showcases this.



The RTS genre orignally founded it's roots in the TBS 4x genre, but it's morphed into something else, something with more action. That's not to say that there is not a place for '4x-styled' RTS games, but it's obvious it's going to take a developer to realize that there is a market for more strategically-focused RTS titles and cater to that underserved player base.

Alan Au
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I don't know if Troy Goodfellow has a Gamasutra account (i.e. comment capability) or not, but I thought the readers here might be interested in his critique of Mr. Toronto's essay. Particularly regarding the underlying assumptions about the nature of "strategy" and the games that are classified as RTS games. The full text can be found here: http://flashofsteel.com/index.php/2008/01/25/the-future-of-the-rt
s-its-already-here/

Alan Au
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Bah, pesky HTML tags! My kingdom for a "preview" function.

Nick Mudge
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I took the html out for you.

Peter Vesti Frendrup
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To me this "all new political aspect" sounds much like a gimmick and would probably just be a part of the games such as any other game mechanic. Justifying it by saying it's more realistic, well what does it matter? It's a RTS not a Simulation and I have yet to see a clear connection between realism and gameplay (there's a reason why weapons don't jam in FPS and just imagine Counterstrike with RL aim..)

Ole Steiness
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Mr. Toronto's thoughts and suggestions were interesting to read, but I have to fully disagree: You don't buy a Ferrari and then complain that it does not have room for your mother-in-law and your three kids. Toronto wants the RTS genre to be something that it isn't and shouldn't be. I (and a zillion others, I presume) love the light tactical fun that was initially introduced back in Dune 2 - I am not looking for political simulation or socio-economic priorities - then I wouldn-t be buying a Ferrari in the first place, would I?

No, on the contrary, I am happy to see some titles going the excact opposite way of Mr. Toronto's suggestions, like the brilliant Company Of Heroes series, where tactical control and micromanagement is key. It's a totally different game than Ceasar III and I'm pretty happy about that.

Thanks, Alan, for posting the link to the Troy Goodfellow article, it was nice to read some constructive criticism on the article.

Josh Thompson
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Like the thoughts, depth is always something I look for in games. However, I also think the RTS genre is doing perfectly fine as is. Gamers all have their tastes for games and the tactical, faster paced combat has it's place. The article sounds to me like a boost for more/better TBS games, which would be excellent and they defiantly have their niche. (while reading I couldn't help but think this is like comparing Diablo to Baldur's Gate, or some equivalent)

Aaron Ackerman
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If you want tactics and politics just play Rome: Total War. Starcraft is probably the greatest RTS to date.

James Campbell
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I would like to suggest that the evolution of an RTS is going to require the following elements to be considered:



* Speed of game. To succeed at evolution, the game must be real time but combat is not a single shot killing spree of rock-paper-scissors as has been seen with tech trees. In fact, battles in order to be strategic, must involve the same mechanics as a good story: Introduction, followed by build-up, then the problem, the rise of a hero, and then an outcome. The RTS we have all seen to date moves way too fast for any of these things to occur. The battles must be prolonged, must be thought provoking, and must create a balance that must be broken to find victory.



Next, wars and politics involve one simple thing: SCARCITY. Without scarcity, there is no need for anything else. Scarcity has often been achieved through a finite set of resources. Once those resources are gone, then conflict will occur. I propose that scarcity must flow from those resources and into the very ideas of the game. By having scarcity in resources combined with the scarcity of ideas, true conflict occurs. Within that conflict, you bring forth intense strategy matching your resources and your ideas against others. While the raw resources are capable of leveling a playing field, it is the combination of these resources that expose the greatness of a player's intellect and strategic prowess. In simple form, consider this: in most MMOs, you play the tech tree and the game reaches a climactic conclusion. In real strategy, its never really a super weapon that does it, but comprise and strategic planning.



* Games in an RTS must consider more than the battlefield. It must consider espionage, information, diplomacy, intrigue, and ingenuity to be a great game. Information that your player receives that is readily available in a strategy guide is somewhat stale and just provided through the means of good die-rolls. Information that cannot be found in such guides are the true value. What makes them significant is when the player seeks out the know how of another player and the techniques they have established. This goes from researching and developing great weapons and defenses, to finding locations in a vast expanse, bringing great communitive power to discovering the intentions of your opponents through negotiating spies around building tactics, unit formations, and battle movements.



* For politics, one must consider the evolution of the RTS ready to be an MMO in order to provide the time necessary for full realization of such needs. In this manner, an RTS must solve a primary problem: What makes the player/empire that can do it all themselves really need anyone else. Simply put: SCARCITY. There is a need to provide an RTS that involves all forms of player: This includes the conquerer, explorer, developer, and diplomat. An evolved RTS would require multiple players to control one empire. The fabric of the game depends on too many variables that remain in sync in order to function effectively.



Hopefully, this makes sense and brings about the idea that MMORTS is most likely the evolution of RTS.

Nathan Toronto
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I have been pleasantly surprised by the discussion that my article has engendered. I appreciate the comments, positive and negative alike (in this and other fora). While I canít answer all of the questions raised here, Iíll give a shot at answering two of the main ones:



1. Can you really implement strategy and tactics together, in real time? Wonít such RTS games always be bifurcated into a turn-based strategic portion and tactics-focused, modular scenarios?



Taking the caveat into consideration that Iíve never developed a game (perhaps a tough pill to swallow), I donít see why it would be technically impossible to do so. The reason I say this is that we donít necessarily have to choose between tactics and strategy. Why couldnít you migrate between the ďstrategicĒ and ďtacticalĒ portions of the game in real time? Yes, strategic considerations have tended to be slower-paced than the pell-mell of combat scenarios, but I donít see why it has to be that way. Itís not that a player would have to divert his/her attention away from the tactical to deal/put up with/tolerate the strategic, but would be persistently confronted with problems that have both strategic and tactical implications for the prosecution of war. Basically, states (and players as ďstate actorsĒ in RTS games) make war and prepare to make war. Thereís plenty in war to keep an RTS player occupied beyond the actual prosecution of the war. For example, the player wouldnít decide what the price of food staples would be (while this would be academically interesting, it would be impractical for the gaming experience), but would determine how to allocate state resources between different aspects of his/her war-preparation/war-making strategy (say between whether to invest in research incentives or capital battleships or conscripts vs. volunteers, etc.).



Does that mean that this is the only direction in which RTS games should go? No. Itís just that the tactically-focused simulation of war does not interest meópersonallyóas much as the strategic focus (but with the option to play in the tactical realm if/when I choose). I wonder if Iím an aberration in the gaming market, or if there are lots of other people like me out there. If itís a matter of timing and pacing, it is unclear to me why tactics and strategy cannot be linked in real time.



2. If you combined strategic and tactical considerations into games simultaneously (in real time), would it even be fun? Could you even call it a real-time strategy game?



Would it be fun? Ultimately, that may be an empirical question. Iím not a game developer, just a gamer, so I have a good sense for what I want but not such a good sense for what the gaming market wants. Moreover, what makes these games fun for me is the empowering sense of dominating all who dare oppose, with the added bonus of doing it in dramatic military fashion. The challenge is not in making things more strategically realistic per se (I could have done a better job of explaining this in the article), but in making the empowering domination in war of continual salience to the player in a joint tactical-strategic setting. As a player, I want high-octane decision-making all the time, but I want it to be obviously related to the outcome of armed conflict. If itís this high-octane decision-making that makes these games fun, I do not think that it needs to be lost by having a subset of RTS games integrate tactics and strategy. Maybe this integration has already been done in some of the games that were suggested, but we shall seeóI didnít see it when I played Total War or Rise of Nations, but I would be happy to find myself wrong upon playing the other games.



Would it even be called an RTS game? Thatís a good point, it might be something entirely different from what weíre used to; it may not be true to the RTS family as it has developed over the years. Given this, these concepts might need to be marketed to a different audience and in a different way. The question is, would it sell? I sure hope so, because Iíd want to buy it.



Thanks to all of you for reading and commenting!

daniel berrett
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I like alot of the things you have said in this article and many of the replies. I love starcraft but it is repedative mindless clicking sometimes so i get sick of it. A game that I think comes close to the things you are tlaking about and does it well in my opinion is "Seven kingdoms: Ancient Advecaries" (7KAA) yeh I may have spelled that last word wrong. I can't describe it if you have the oppourtunity try it out, now there are still things to be desired from this game but I believe it is a good start.

Christopher Plummer
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I really appreciate your article but have to disagree with your conclusion. I think you are dismissing that all of these tools are available in Starcraft and that the problem comes down to the stakes and maturity of your opponents.



Starcraft is won and lost the same way wars are; by controlling the supply lines and the real estate necessary to keep your resources safe. That's what makes the game pure genius. It was able to make something so complex so simple. I would argue that more games need to look at that simplicity for inspiration. New games like Rise of Nations did a good job of going in a direction you suggested but the outcome was a game that moved too slow for casual players to enjoy. The new war of "attrition" became who could devote the most hours to the game instead of who was the better general.



To put it bluntly, if you let the game turn into a contest of who can build the most and the fastest then you should look back at the opportunities that you missed and/or chose not to take advantage of. These games, like war, gets extremely frustrating and depressing when both sides have a huge supply of resources and are fighting on neutral ground. If it is not a question of skill then I would suggest you change the people that you play against and the maps you play on. As you increase the number of players and decrease the resources, diplomacy becomes extremely important. Instead of the "political forces from within" playing a part it is your neighbor the yellow team that causes you to compromise your intentions of marching across the map and sacking the blue team.



The biggest downside of good RTS games is inherent to it being a game - immature opponents would rather die like Rambo than surrender or join forces with someone who PWNEd them. No game is going to be able change that without severely destroying the player base it would need to have to get made.

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