Interview: RTS Accessibility 'Very Much Worth Trying For' - Relic
Back when Relic Entertaiment's PC real-time strategy game Dawn of War II launched in 2008, it polarized its fanbase -- some welcomed the sequel's focus on fast-paced gameplay, while others damned the game as being "dumbed down" from the original.
It's just a single example of one of the greater challenges for the RTS genre and many other game types -- to cater to a wider market without alienating a genre's core fanbase.
"The goal was to try to make RTS more accessible," Relic's Daniel Kading told Gamasutra in a recent interview. He's the co-lead designer on Dawn of War II expansion Chaos Rising and the lead designer for recently-released add-on Retribution.
"Typically RTS games have a steep learning curve. You can't really just jump in and start playing online," he acknowledged.
Kading wasn't the lead designer of the original Dawn of War II -- that credit goes to Jonny Ebbert. Kading was however a senior designer on the original Dawn of War II and is also credited on expansions for the first Dawn of War.
One of the major changes to Dawn of War II that didn't sit well with some fans was the decision to take out base-building in order to create a slicker RTS.
"A lot of people thought it was great, and a lot of people did not care for it," said Kading. "It was more or less a situation where we traded [away] some people, and we got some others. ... As a mechanic change, it hadn't really been done before, to an extent."
Relic isn't the only company that has caught flack for streamlining its strategy game -- some vocal gamers accused Gas Powered Games' Supreme Commander 2 of lacking depth compared to the complex original.
And developers of strategy games that are ported from PC to consoles are often accused of "dumbing down" -- or even worse, "consolizing" -- their games. It's all part of the challenge of creating a game that's "easy to learn, hard to master," or as StarCraft II lead designer Dustin Browder told us recently, making a game that's "easy to learn, impossible to master."
"I think that [accessibility is] something that's very much worth trying for, but there's a point where you potentially end up sacrificing some of the tropes of the actual genre itself if you go too far," Kading said.
"In a way, that was one of the things Dawn of War II did," he admitted. "It gave up some of the traditional tropes such as base-building and branching tech and the like with the intent of streamlining."
But to Kading, "streamlining" doesn't have to be a word that means less depth. "I do not want to dilute the experience for core RTS fans -- streamlining doesn't refer to 'dumbing down,'" he said. "Instead, improvements to interface, controls and AI are always worthwhile, and I believe there are game modes and reward schemes that can appeal to both newcomers and veterans alike."
He continued, "Dawn of War II's 'The Last Stand' was an example of a mode developed with the intent of accessible multiplayer, without treading on traditional skirmish or PvP," Kading said. "When it was introduced well after Dawn of War II had shipped and most people were through with the campaign, we saw an increase in our overall concurrent players: it had brought back people who previously were not participating in multiplayer."
Accessibility doesn't stop at game mechanics and additional modes. Relic animator Michael Moore explained, "With art and animation in mind, making the RTS genre more accessible means being more intelligent about what and how we show the events on screen; as much fun as it is to watch a purely chaotic slurry of orgiastic violence, ultimately itís not very fun to play if the player canít tell whatís going on."
Readability of units, structures and movements is crucial in a genre that can show dozens to hundreds of units from a top-down perspective. "When you canít assess the situation, you canít make calls on what orders to give in order to swing the battle to your favor," Moore said. "So many elements like how the individual units are modeled and textured, to how they move and stand, to higher-level things like how the whole squad moves and responds will be important in improving readability and giving more control to the player."
He said, "As for me, accessibility is not antagonistic to complexity; rather how the delivery of the rules and information of the game has a direct affect on how accessible it is."
Kading added, "The comparison is between an RTS and a first-person shooter. With a first-person shooter, you jump into Team Fortress 2, or a game similar to it, and you know that pushing the left-click button on your mouse is going to shoot your gun, and you now know how to play the game," he said. "You have everything you're going to need to play the game. You're going to get better as you go, but that's the extent."
"The first time you sit down to play an RTS, you have any number between nine and 12 different units, all of which do different things, each having somewhere between zero and four abilities apiece. They counter different targets, they belong to four or more different races that are filled with [other units]."
"There are mechanics ranging from reinforcements to harvesting to capturing locations. They're very complex," he continued. "They're not really a drop-in type game if you're not someone who is familiar with RTSes. And even if you are familiar with RTSes, the toolkit that's given to you in a brand new RTS is fairly elaborate."
Making RTS games less intimidating while preserving depth is the ideal scenario. "I do think [greater accessibility] is something that can only benefit RTSes," Kading said.