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Can the developer of Monaco solve the gamepad RTS riddle? Exclusive
Can the developer of  Monaco  solve the gamepad RTS riddle?
August 7, 2014 | By Kris Graft

August 7, 2014 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Exclusive

Learning how to play a real-time strategy game takes dedication. And so does developing one, particularly when your goal is to make "the first great gamepad RTS."

The genre, rooted in mouse-and-keyboard control schemes, is notoriously intimidating to even players who consider themselves "hardcore": tech trees, build times, varying maps, various units, strategies and tactics for different races, unit micromanagement, and so on and so forth, all contribute to the real-time intimidation. Once a player gets these "basics" down, they might be brave enough to commit 30-45 stressful minutes at a computer desk for a multiplayer match, which, often in my case, ends in defeat.

All that said, RTS games are among the most satisfying games you can play with other people. But inaccessibility turns away players. It's been sort of a holy grail for RTS designers, to bring the joy of the RTS to a mainstream audience.

Read about the gamepad iterations at the bottom of this article. Click images to the right to enlarge.

For the past five months, Andy Schatz's Pocketwatch Games, makers of the excellent stealth game Monaco, has been working towards breaking down the high walls that surround the RTS genre with a new gamepad-based RTS game, with LEADtoFIRE, previously code-named Armada, which he's developing out in the open and with input from players.v1-Rally.png

"The main impetus behind building this game was to make a real-time strategy game that was fun to play at the end of the day, that didn't feel like something that was stressful to play, or physically exhausting to play," Schatz tells us, "but with the same hallmarks of a traditional real-time strategy game. I think we've accomplished that with the controls and the gameplay design."v2 - Unit orders on Trigger.png

LEADtoFIRE will still be heavily-influenced by classic RTS design, and is rooted in attack, defense, and economy. But the game will have a main character that players control directly (not typical for traditional PC RTS games), and have play sessions that will last 3-15 minutes -- considerably shorter than what a StarCraft player might be used to.v3 - Manual Unit Production.png

"We've really focused on making sure the player is doing something all the time, and making sure the player is doing something that's actually fun to do," says Schatz. "Controlling a character around the world is kind of an inherently fun and interactive experience. It's a lot more visceral than scrolling around a map and clicking to tell your units where to go."v4 - Move+AttackMove.png

Schatz said from a game design perspective, a guideline he has followed for some time has been to focus on what players are doing on a one-second interval, 10-second interval, one-minute interval, and a 10-minute interval. This method keeps Schatz and his team focused on refinement of the game's rhythm, while tuning repetitive tasks that the player is doing over specific periods of time.v5 - Unit Orders on RAnalog.png

Breaking the arc of a LEADtoFIRE session into time-based chunks helps keep the focus on giving players interesting choices, interactivity, and fun within specific timeframes. "In StarCraft, the one-second interaction is not particularly fun," he says as an example.v5.5 - User-Defined Groups.png

At the center of LEADtoFIRE's quest for accessibility is the controller. Instead of clicking around to command units, and scrolling around the screen like a traditional RTS, they'll have direct control over a main character, the center of the actions and the commands.v6 - Class Control (Current).png

He has said it will be the "first great gamepad RTS." And yes, there have been a few gamepad RTS games in the past. "That was probably a mistake, saying that, because for your initial game announcement, the last thing you want to do is go out and insult a bunch of game developers [who've worked on controller-based RTS games]," Schatz says, smiling. "I felt a little bad about that afterwards."

Saying something and actually doing it are two different things. Just as game developers have been challenged by converting mouse-and-keyboard-focused RTS games to the game controller, Schatz has run into challenges converting a controller-based RTS to a mouse-and-keyboard PC. That's an important problem to solve, because even though this is a gamepad-based RTS, the game is, for now, only slated for the mouse-and-keyboard-centric PC.

"We had faith that we could make it for a controller, then just work backwards to a keyboard," he says. "About a month ago, we actually thought we had the controls locked in, but then we discovered the keyboard version of controls was absolutely terrible."

"It was kind of ironic," he added. "We were building this controller-based RTS to fix the control problem [in RTS games], then we ended up with the exact problem in reverse. We had to reinvent the controls again. But we've got the controls to an even better place since."

To help get to that better place, Schatz and his team are embracing open game development, doing regular Twitch streams of LEADtoFIRE, and taking in feedback from the game's small initial audience of early supporters.

Schatz hosting a LEADtoFIRE session on his studio's Twitch channel

In Schatz's experience with his previous game, Monaco, that core group of enthusiasts sets the tone for the community as it grows. "If you empower the people within that [core] community, those people actually become the seeds of the broader community," he says. "I've seen that so far with LEADtoFIRE."

The game is about ready for full-production, though when asked if he had a release window in mind, he only referred to his track record when it comes to long development times. "Oh please. Oh please! Were you not paying attention to Monaco?!" he replies.

Iterate, iterate, iterate

Creating a gamepad-based RTS that's in the vein of classic RTS games takes some trial-and-error. Above, you'll see various versions of LEADtoFIRE's gamepad control scheme. (Click to enlarge those images.) Here's a quick synopsis of the evolution so far, according to Schatz:
  • v. 1: Players set a rally position that all units would AttackMove to. (Image)
  • v. 2: Players could choose to retreat and attack by holding and releasing the trigger, allowing players to kite. (Image)
  • v. 3: Players had to manually queue up production of units, so that unit production wasn't a passive drain on their economy. (Image)
  • v. 4: Unit production is back to passive, but players can pause production of classes of units. Move and AttackMove are now on individual triggers. (Image)
  • v. 5: We tried moving all unit orders to the right analog stick. If it was in a neutral position, no orders were given. Turns out this didn't work on mouse and keyboard. (Image)
  • v. 5.5: Players could assign each unit class to group 1 or 2 and then control those groups exclusively with the triggers. (Image)
  • v. 6: Our current iteration allows the player to split their army by controlling individual classes. (Image)

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    Kujel Selsuru
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    To be perfectly honest Ensamble Studio already showed the pwerfect console RTS controls with Halo Wars.

    Alejandro Gonzalez Fiel
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    Red Alert 3 had pretty decent RTS controls on the Xbox 360. Anyway, I don't think the problem is in the controls but in the amount of orders you need to give. Having to micromanage unit orders sucks.

    Stephen Korrick
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    Short gameplay sessions and a player character kill a lot of what makes RTS my favorite genre, so I guess this isn't for me.

    I also find it questionable that the desire to make the game accessible is immediately translated into a desire to make the game run on a gamepad. Traditional RTS games can be inaccessible for a lot of reasons, but I feel like most of them are related to economy design and to the heavy importance many of the games place on micromanagement, rather than the mouse and keyboard themselves.

    Still, it will be interesting to see what happens to this in the long term.

    Andy Schatz
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    In practice, the short sessions have had all the drama of a longer sc2 game, just condensed. The nice thing about this is that it allows for rematches, which allows for more meta. Check out the twitch stream if you wanna see for yourself!

    Nick Harris
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    I was more interested to see the many iterations of your logo:

    Personally, I liked the one in the bottom right corner best - although I would have flipped the direction of the flag around so that Lead to Fire turned into rippling ripped fabric / flames. Unfortunately, I can't offer any constructive criticism of your "great" control scheme without the context in which these buttons are used. I would have thought that Pikmin had a "great" gamepad control scheme on the GameCube:

    Andy Schatz
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    Hi Nick! We actually like Pikmin's controls too, but they feel very specific to Pikmin. We wanted controls that felt like you almost already knew them, the intention was to try to build genre-defining controls (arcade RTS) rather than controls very specific to the particular game. Of course only the players will determine whether we've succeeded! Come check out our twitch stream and see for yourself! (that's generally where we invite new players to our pre-alpha)

    Nick Harris
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    I looked at a couple of streams and the main thing that struck me was players passing right by each other. I would find it more authentic if they had 'escorts' constantly defending them, indeed the number of escorts could replace all the health bars in use for every major unit. The use of beehives suggests that bees could serve as these escorts - i.e. drones.

    Zoom could be on the left trigger with the close-up view of the tilted plane then angling up and shrinking in detail so that you could dispense with the map in the right hand corner of the screen.

    A bumper button could be temporarily held to reveal the unit selectors along the bottom of the screen, further reducing clutter and possibly making it fit for a handheld device - this would be a Quasimode, like the ALT key on a keyboard.

    Having wind change direction and force (as conveyed by the flapping flag your character prominently carry), could explain why sometimes your drones were having difficulty keeping up with you as you traversed the map.

    Without a better understanding of your feedback loop it is hard for me to offer anything definite about the efficacy and ergonomics of your controls. As a rule, it is best to rank everything you need to be able to do in order of frequency of usage and put the most often required actions in the easiest to reach positions. Indeed, face buttons should be almost avoided completely so you can operate the game with dual-thumbsticks, bumpers, triggers and (if need be) thumbstick clicks. Accelerometers in the DualShock 4, etc. should not be overlooked as you could control your character or the overhead camera by tilting away from zeroed initial position on resuming the game from a pause.

    Just my 2

    James Margaris
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    "We wanted controls that felt like you almost already knew them, the intention was to try to build genre-defining controls (arcade RTS) rather than controls very specific to the particular game."

    I get what you're saying, but really all control schemes are particular to their type of game. It's just that some genres are extremely narrow.

    IMO "genre-defining controls" are often a bad thing. If you stick to a set control scheme you are extremely limited in what you can do differently. If you're making an FPS and you have run, duck, throw grenade, aim down sights, etc, now you're out of buttons and can't include a new mechanic. And does aiming down sights even make sense for your game?

    Most PC RTS games control very similarly these days, but that's because they're mostly Blizzard game derivatives. The RTS genre on PC is as far as I can tell on the decline, probably not coincidentally.

    Joshua Dallman
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    Gamepad RTS arcade was done perfectly 25 years ago by Technosoft's Herzog Zwei, which included the at-the-time innovation of controlling an in-game character in lieu of a cursor. I will be interested to see if this title can match that one's elegance, usability, and fun a quarter century later and with twice the buttons.

    Andy Schatz
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    Twice the buttons? Our current iteration only uses Left Analog, Right Analog, A, B, and Right Trigger. :)

    Peter Angstadt
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    I'm working on Cannon Brawl, which also is very much an answer to the question of how do you make an RTS with the gamepad. Using 4 buttons and one analog stick, we ended up with some definite similarities to Herzog Zwei (and Airmech, another console 'RTS') but the resulting gameplay feels really different from anything I've played before. It's been an interesting exercise to see how much complexity and intensity we can pack into just a few buttons.

    We weren't explicitly trying to match the way a PC RTS works, and the gamepad tended to push us towards an avatar in-game who directs control over the battle and sometimes actively participates, rather than the abstract 'cursor' in mouse based RTS games.

    Andy Schatz
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    man oh man did i regret the way we announced the game. Sorry I was a dick :)

    Ara Shirinian
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    Joshua beat me to the punch but Herzog Zwei is important enough to deserve writing out a whole sentence. FYI it relied on only 3 buttons + Dpad.

    Jimmy Alamparambil
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    Hi Andy,
    Nice to see your new Opus :) You should check out the recent Airmech Arena (
    77fe-1000-9115-d80258411426) which is a modern spiritual successor to Herzog Zwei running on xbox360. They have dealt with both the in game controls and UI as well as other menu usage with gamepads.
    Good luck!

    Andy Schatz
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    Yes! Airmech is awesome! It puts much more focus on player character action than we do, but I do think we are two sides of the same coin :)

    James Margaris
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    "Can the developer of Monaco solve the gamepad RTS riddle by copying the solution from a game 25 years old?"

    I'm guessing yes.

    Jason Chen
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    RTS games are complex in controls and that is something a console controller can not provide. I would never play a RTS game on console because it just doesn't work! it is the same as play a fighting game using keyboard an a mouse.

    Luis Guimaraes
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    Everything is possible.

    Chris Grey
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    GrimGrimoire on PS2 was a great game, too. RTS on gamepad. I love the indie scene, but the sense of history and hyperbole is pretty distorted. I get that you're building marketing, but couldn't you have done a tidbit of research before coming up with the tagline? It's a little insulting in this form.

    Andy Schatz
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    Yeah like I said in a comment above, I totally regret the way we originally announced it (with the "first great gamepad rts" image). It was insulting to lots of other developers. There's a number of hybrid-RTS games that I've enjoyed, I've just always felt, and I'm not alone, that of the TRADITIONAL RTS (starcraft/C&C style) on controllers, no one has ever really gotten it right. Of course, if this were coming from a game critic this would be a pretty normal thing to say, but when coming from a game developer, it's kind of egotistical and insulting. :) So yeah... pretty bad misstep there. Unfortunately you can't really take things back on the internet!

    Will Hendrickson
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    Lots of great possibilities here! I actually experimented with gamepad RTS controls very early in my development years. It's definitely a challenge, especially since there is far less precision on a stick than a mouse, but it can be done!