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The Designer's Notebook: Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! XII
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The Designer's Notebook: Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! XII

December 26, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Poor Defensive Controls in RTS Games

History lesson: When Duke William of Normandy invaded England in 1066, he met King Harold's armies at the Battle of Hastings. Harold's men formed a tightly packed wall of shields that neither William's infantry nor his cavalry could breach. After a few hours of trying and failing, William ordered a feigned retreat. Harold's armies, thinking they had won the day, broke ranks and chased them. With the shield wall down, William's men turned around and destroyed them. This is why, nearly a thousand years later, the motto of the British monarch is still in French.

The same thing happens in StarCraft. Someone named Ilya tells it:

You can either tell your units to hold position or stop. If they stop, and they get attacked, they're going to run after whoever did it, kill them, get attacked again, run after it, etc., until they're in the enemy base. Then they all die.

If they hold position and they get attacked, only one or two of them is going to do anything about it and the rest stand around. And they die.

And there's no hold fire mode. If you're trying to spy on your enemy, you leave your spy alone for a second, and he shoots something automatically, then your enemy will know what happened and will send a detector over and your spy dies.

There are actually two separate issues here: engagement and pursuit. A reconnaissance unit should never initiate engagement until explicitly ordered to.

A unit that has been ordered to stay in one place should never pursue until explicitly ordered to. If you have two engagement policies (fire on sight and fire when fired upon) and two pursuit policies (pursue and don't pursue), the combination yields four types of defensive orders:


Fire on sight

Fire when fired upon


Engage on Contact


Don't pursue

Deny Passage

Defend Position

Firing only when fired upon enables a unit to defend itself but doesn't let it start fights that you don't want to get into unless you have to. As for spies, the simplest way to handle this is not to give spy units any weapons, or instruct them not to initiate engagement.

Obviously you can complicate things further if you want to. If a unit's range of vision is greater than the range of its weapons, should it move to get in range, or not? Do you want to make that yet another pursuit option? On the other hand, if you're making a fairly simple game, I would restrict the defensive orders to Engage on Contact and Deny Passage.

One other item -- Ilya's complaint about units that just stand around when their fellows are under attack shows that Starcraft fighters haven't bonded well. Implement a three musketeers policy: all for one and one for all. When a given unit in a defensive posture is attacked, it and every unit that received the same orders at the same time (in other words, the whole group that received the order) should respond together.

I realize this isn't trivial to do; you have to keep track of more information. Still, watching one unit twiddle its thumbs while his buddy ten feet away gets massacred is infuriating. We know that's not how soldiers should behave.

Small Objects That Don't Stack

Mats Ohlsson sent a hilarious rant that speaks for itself:

These are some design flaws from MMOs and CRPGs. They are collected from the Regnum Online and Shaiyia free online games, The Witcher, Neverwinter Nights, Dimensity, Guild Wars, and many more.

You are going to do a quest to kill 200 Silvercrest Soldier Chickens, so first you run around, roaming a huge landscape to visit several chicken lairs, where you will find Ranhar The Super Strong Chicken and Average Joe Chickens but no quest chickens. When you have been running for two hours or two days you ask yet another time "Where are the chickens?" and you get an answer that you can teleport into that area if you find the portal behind the church.

So at last you are at the correct place and start to slay chickens, and when you have been killing chickens for 2 hours you find out that only one of them is a Silvercrest Soldier Chicken. The rest of them are Silvercrest Warrior Chickens that you don't want for your quest. The NPC who gave you the quest was really picky about the ingredients for his soup. You finally get 200 chickens.

You start to collect loot, and you get 100 chicken feathers that fill every slot in the inventory. They are useless, and you can't stack them, but still worth 1 gold each. So you can't get the really nice +3 Rainbow Armor that one of the chickens was carrying because you get a "inventory full" message box all over the screen before you can get rid of a few feathers.

While you're fiddling with this, you don't notice that chickens spawn all around you and when they do, you go from idle to battle mode. This closes the inventory and you can't open it again until all the new chickens are dead. You see your new armor slowly disappear while you get all sweaty fighting a bunch of chickens.

So you teleport out to sell all your new feathers. You go to the market in the nearest town, and the NPC says: "No, this is the pig skin market, we don't deal with chicken feathers here. The chicken market is on the other side of the map." So you go to the player market, a huge auction database where you spend the next hour filling in forms for each and every one of your feathers because they don't stack.

Of course chicken feathers should stack! Anything small should stack. Kobold daggers. Wolf claws. Athelas cough drops. Locks of naiad hair. But not Rainbow Armor or Greater Voulges of Impressive Whooshy Noises.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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