[Inspired by a conversation with Gas Powered Games' Chris Taylor, Gamasutra senior news editor Kris Graft says RTS designers can reach a wider audience by utilizing players' common sense.]
I really like seeing a real-time strategy game do well commercially. I love the genre, but PC-style RTS games tend to be some of the most inaccessible games around. So when someone can actually make an RTS that is both deep and accessible, and it sells well, good for you.
I recently spoke with Gas Powered Games' creative director Chris Taylor, and we talked about accessibility in Supreme Commander 2. Gas Powered really wanted to make the sequel more accessible for new players, as opposed to the 2007 original, whose players have "Hardcore" emblazoned across their chests.
At the same time, he wanted the game to have at least as much depth. One thing Taylor said really struck me when talking about the SupCom sequel:
"We wanted to solve some of the [in-game] economic problems where people who were brand new would come into the game and be turned off because they found the economy model overwhelming.
"But [the problem] was more than having a steep learning curve, in that [new players] would get beat by someone who knew the economy, and they weren't able to use their common sense skills to play the game."
Good game designers are proponents of establishing a clear ruleset for gamers from the outset, which is great and they should continue to do that. But what about utilizing the ruleset that everyone (supposedly) already has? Keeping players' common sense in mind when designing a game could make it more accessible, expanding its audience and commercial viability, without necessarily sacrificing depth of gameplay.
Relic Entertainment's Company of Heroes does a great job of leveraging players' common sense in its unit selection, and this is one of the reasons why it's one of the best RTS games around. I'll admit though, unlike many RTS games, the World War II-themed Company of Heroes has the luxury of being based on real-life.
So it's not like Relic ever had to consider whether or not American troops could summon giant Panzer-eating bald eagles or an off-map army of Uncle Sam robo-soldiers which are vulnerable only to a one-time-use-per-match magic-casting zombie ghost of Hitler, as badass as that would be.
No, instead anti-tank guns take out tanks. Snipers can stealthily pick guys off one by one, but are easily killed if found, for instance. A single MG nest can suppress multiple squads of charging infantry. It all makes relative sense.
In later parts of a match, it actually is more difficult to immediately tell what unit is most effective against what unit, but you do have to leave something for the more hardcore players who are willing to really dig deep into a game's nuts and bolts. I won't argue against the idea that there needs to be depth, but easing players into a game with some consideration for common sense helped Company of Heroes's fun factor immensely in both single and multiplayer games.
On the other hand, when I'm playing the StarCraft 2 beta and my armored tank is getting completely schooled by a guy with a little sword, I don't know what the hell is happening. Yeah I'm a newbie, but still, I typically wouldn't bring a sword to a tank fight, because that's counterintuitive. (Although I will say now that I would bring a plasma sword to a tank fight.)
I don't want to sound like my whole point is that an RTS games' units have to be grounded in some sort of reality in order to "make sense" for new players. It's great that a sword can beat a tank. After all, chess is an abstract game, but you have to learn the rules of movement (which are actually quite basic -- one reason why chess is so enduring) and develop complicated strategies from there.
Supreme Commander 2's new tech tree is a good example of Taylor taking his own advice about utilizing a player's common sense. Instead of having to upgrade factories to new levels to access new units, SupCom 2's tech tree lays out the upgrading process right before player with a visually branching tree. You can see that powerful experimental unit at the end of the branch, and spend your research points accordingly. If you can understand a business organizational chart, you can understand you'll have a King Kriptor unit in about 15-20 minutes.
The game did take some initial flack from some original Supreme Commander fans who accused Gas Powered for sacrificing flexibility for accessibility. But judging by strategy gaming forums, the anger about the alleged "dumbing down" of the series has faded away to make way for best strategy sharing. Maybe it's because the angry people went back to SupCom 1, or maybe they just took a while to "get" SupCom 2. I'm not sure. Taylor argues that the sequel is even deeper than the first.
I'm absolutely not advocating "dumbing down" RTS games. I love deep, involved strategy games like StarCraft (despite my earlier example, the series is relatively intuitive - I mean, Blizzard is doing something right), Company of Heroes, SupCom and others. And not every strategy has to be blatantly obvious, because what's the fun in that? But the RTS genre overall needs to be more inviting in terms of aesthetics, story, control and intuitiveness if it is going to reach more people.
The single-player campaign can also do a lot to introduce the basic hierarchy of units and how they relate to one another on the multiplayer battlefield in a "safe" environment for the player. Blizzard has promised this for StarCraft 2, and developers of the more accessible RTS games keep this in mind.
There are a lot of gamers who are intrigued by the RTS genre but are intimidated by it. They want to get hardcore into these games, but the initial barrier isn't worth the trouble. With common sense as a starting point, a game can, in its later stages, encourage more players to dig deeper to find the less-obvious nuances in an RTS game.