A Glimpse into Modern Real-Time Strategy (Part 2)
The Introduction — House Mix
I’m always amazed at the kind of great feedback some of you folks give to these articles; so, for those of you who read the first part and commented in some form (in-site/e-mail) and showed the thing to your friends, I do thank you. I enjoy writing these kinds of things, and hearing all you folk get some form of digitally strategic education or just plain interest is icing on my metaphorical journalistic cake.
From left: LOTR: The Battle for Middle-Earth 2, Act of War, and WH40k: Dawn of War.
Anyway, in this part of the series, I’m going to focus on general innovations that have either changed or heavily impacted the real-time strategy genre in some way, shape, or form since 1994 where my genre timeline finished off. You’ll see specific examples of what I consider to be a kind of “breakthrough” in a moment, but for the most part, I’m talking fairly overarching changes that have obviously shaken things up a bit. My original intent for this article was to focus on some specific gameplay features which really changed the way that the games released afterwards were received or changed to match the growing desire of gamers (this is sometimes called feature bloat or creep)â€¦ But once I started, I realized that I had a far better opportunity to do that kind of thing in part of the series where I was already planning to take a look at specific games which have already been released on a case-by-case basis. So now this article is devoted to a handful of what I consider to be the greatest changes (or, in one case, a change in the RTS formula which evolved into a genre of its very own) that have occurred over the last twelve years.
One last note, before I lose you to my endless preface notes: this particular part of the series isn’t focusing on particular games so much as it is the ideas which have really powered and imbued the genre with additional life throughout the years. The next part in the series will focus on more specific examples from the current generation of RTS titles to an extent that will make you wish I hadn’t.
The Real-Time Tactical Evolution
The largest change that was experienced in the RTS genre was the eventual sub-genre that was seemingly established that completely removed one of the very foundations for real-time strategy titles: base-building. Real-time tactical games do away with the generic starting point for nearly every RTS game: a worker and the primary structural center point for whatever faction the player is using. Instead of starting from the bare minimum of units, a base, and the minimum advances up a game’s tech tree, real-time tactical games instead provide the player with a central force of units (which may or may not be bolstered as the player advances through a mission/skirmish) that he is required to utilize efficiently to the best of his abilities because that’s it — no reinforcements may be coming, you can’t pump out more units from the barracks in your main base, or anything else of the sort. Whatever you have to work with is what you have to focus your entire strategy around. So, essentially, the player must micromanage his forces well or else he’s digital toast.
Now, before I go further here, let’s make sure we understand the idea here. Utilizing a more micromanagement-focused gameplay design isn’t something distinct to real-time tactical games whatsoever; a lot of more traditional real-time strategy games give the player a meager max unit count and, instead of large armies, intend to focus on small squads of units which the player needs to use very closely on a near per-unit level in order to succeed. The opposite of micromanagement in a gaming sense is, as you may guess, macromanagement. In games where macromanagement is the primary gameplay mechanism, it is the player’s goal to create his squads of numerous units and, instead of controlling each and every soldier/unit, he uses his squads to execute a well laid-out grand strategy in order to achieve victory. As far as this most basic of discussions is concerned, the difference between micro/macromanagement is simple: in micromanagement, you have little to work with, so you need to make sure that every single unit you have does its job and does it well; you may be able to win a few meager fights due to numbers alone, but even a single casualty or two could ruin you. In a more macromanagement sort of way, a game may not really reward intensely-focused per-unit strategy so much as it would some decent unit variety and a high number of units.
The difference between these two designs (micro- and macromanagement) is generally very flexible; a lot of games reward decent macro as well as decent micro, and don’t often focus on either school more specifically. Real-time tactical games, though, are all about the micromanagement. If you have a large mass of units and simply walk through a few fights paying no mind to decent tactics, it’s going to catch up to you fast. In a more traditional RTS setting (unless you’re playing against any opponent at a decent skill level), you could ride the numbers to victory and, if you have a bad battle, just stall until the reinforcements come.
I’d wager that Bungie‘s (yes, the Halo developers) Myth was really the leading force in this department. Despite the fact that Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat and Sid Meier’s Gettysberg! came out first (the former just being horrible and the latter preceding Myth by a whole month), Myth was really the title that I believe made the fixed-unit strategy movement a big Go!. It’s also had an immense community following since the day of its release that has really made the game one of the most memorable titles of its time. The RTT game has seen a huge surge of activity over the last few years, particularly for games set in the World War II era. Such WWII titles are: Codename: Panzers, Soldiers: Heroes of World War II (my personal favorite of the bunch), and Desert Rats vs. Afrika Korps. Outside of the realm of World War II, though, I’d say that two of the greatest RTT games I’ve played have been Mechcommander and Ground Control.
Myth: The Fallen Lords, Ground Control 2, and Codename: Panzers (Phase 1).
The Real-Time Tactical is sometimes considered a subgenre of the Real-Time Strategy genre. Now, despite my calling it that throughout this segment, I’d like to say that I honestly do not consider it to be any such thing. The fact is that a lot of RTT games are labeled as RTS titles, but are not really anything of the sort. They certainly are an “evolution” of the traditional real-time strategy design, but other than the fact that they generally share some gameplay mechanisms and UI/perspective similarities, the two genres don’t have much else in common. Some RTT games often (especially in the case of Soldiers: HoWWII) even include a feature to “pause” the action in order to plot out the next move of your units. So, in essence, we’re talking about Real-Time (Except On Command) Strategy titles here that lack the resource management, base-building, and tech trees that are really some of the most recognizable foundations of RTS titles.
The shooter realm is generally what first comes to mind whenever the topic of modability (henceforth known as: modding) due to its ridiculously large impact on the first-person shooter world along with the fact that id Software really catalyzed the user-created content craze with DOOM. Blizzard took id’s “so simple it’s genius” move to facilitate game modability to the RTS realm with the sequel to their first immense hit: Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness.
At first, the tools included with the original version of Warcraft 2 were fairly meager; a minimalistic map and scenario editor. Soon after the release of the game a clever (or devious) gamer reverse-engineered the PUD map file specifications which he later published, despite never releasing the source code that he used to create the game’s first unofficial map editor, War2xEd (still downloadable), which extended the included editor’s abilities. According to some of my sources (aside from the Wikipedia entry, thank you very much), Lamberg’s editor was eventually used by Blizzard itself. This is very apparent if you’ve ever taken a look at the incredibly well-done editor included with Blizzard’s next RTS title, Starcraft. The Starcraft editor was so easy that even a younger, and far cuter, version of myself who had only a meager understanding of the workings of BASIC was able to complete a fantastic one mission mini-campaign where the player attempts to save an Archon from mobs upon mobs of assassin Dark Archons. It was a riveting mission that could have changed the very world as we know it had I released my opus upon the masses.
Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness.
Jumping back to a bit under a year before Starcraft was released, though, we reach a game developed by industry legend Chris Taylor, then of Cavedog Entertainment, and now of Gas Powered Games (who are currently working on Supreme Commander; which I rave about constantly to anyone with ears/eyes). Total Annihilation, while perhaps not considered to be the greatest real-time strategy game ever created, was a game which was so far ahead of its time that it seems unfair to consider it anything but brilliant. Total Annihilation brought an abundance of new ideas and designs to the table, but was quickly eclipsed by the far less original (albeit far more polished, balanced, and came with a killer multiplayer system) Starcraft seven months after its release.
You’d be hard pressed to come up with a game which came more ready for user-created content than Total Annihilation. If you want to add something to the game (new weapons, improved AI, units, entire races, maps, the kitchen sink, etc.) all you had to do was create/modify an appropriate data file, throw it in the game directory, and you’d be good to go. I don’t really consider Wikipedia to be anything but a decent “starting point” for information, and its gaming entries can be relatively weak at times, but one look at its list of Total Annihilation mods and the gambit of variety in which they run is just a single testament to both the game’s modability and the new bar which it set for games supporting modding. One of the most impressive mods, though, is that a 3D engine was being developed as an open-source project for the game which gets the entirety of its non-graphical information from data files taken straight from the game itself.
And there are even more examples of projects of this caliber occurring for a wide variety of games. Some of the best examples I can think of are ongoing projects for Blizzard’s Warcraft 3: The Reign of Chaos and its expansion pack. One “mod,” which uses all in-game assets with an incredibly detailed multiplayer map scenario is called The Defense of the Ancients; players take control of one of the game’s hero units (discussed further in a separate section in this article) and upgrade that hero through a multiplayer match supporting up to ten people. This map scenario has gotten so popular that there are even competitive leagues that are organized solely around it. On the separate end of the spectrum is a total conversion mod for Warcraft 3 which utilizes some of Starcraft’s own assets to create an unbelievable well-done 3D version of Starcraft called Project Revolution.
In short, as has been proven over time with shooters, strategy, and other titles is that whenever developers go that extra mile to aid their customers with tools and/or game design that facilitates user customization — and what I’m about to say hurts me to actually type out despite the truth of it — the players are the real winners. Yeah. Ouch.
Let’s follow a simple equation for a second. If you’re not new to the genre of Real-Time Strategy, you’ve heard of Blizzard. If you’ve heard of Blizzard, the chances are that you’ve played at least one of their games. If you’ve played one of their games released anytime after Warcraft 2 and its expansion and you haven’t heard of Battle.net, you’re doing something wrong. Stop reading this now and go back to any game which satisfies the previously listed requirements — go to Diablo if need be, just give it a go. Just, you know, make sure you’re not playing a single-player game and instead are giving Blizzard’s proprietary multiplayer solution a go in its place.
Battle.net is, by and large, one of the most crucial features ever to be introduced to the realm of the RTSâ€¦ Which, if you think about it, is kind of sad; the feature was first introduced in a genre outsider; fear not, though, my budding digital strategist. While the service was first introduced in the hack-n-slash world of the computer action/RPG arena (which is, kind-of-but-not-really coincidentally, my third favorite genre), it was flawed in the most unsexy sort of way: there was really no way to prevent cheating in the game as, at the time, all BNet really did was provide a medium for gamers to get together and beat the devil into an evil, evil pulp. All BNet stored at the time was user account data — what happened to that data, as far as I understand it, was dealt with on a “what happens in the party stays in the party” fashion. That is, it stayed there until the player quit out and the account data was saved on exiting. No in-game data was analyzed or monitored through Battle.net. This, my ever-so-honest readers who would never even dream about how this could be abused, is bad. Players could simply cheat to their hearts content in parties of random Warriors, Rogues, and Sorcerers who simply wanted to enjoy the game as it was intended.
Now, the first link I gave you to Battle.net was pretty useless. I wanted to point out that it exists. I’m not making this up as I go. I actually want to draw attention to the Wikipedia link for Battle.net. I know I usually just link every important thing to Wikipedia or some other site where you can go for further information, but I found this entry particularly enlightening if solely for the reason that the mere evolution of the look of Battle.net. The look gets continually cleaner the further we move to the current look of the system which shipped with Warcraft 3’s expansion pack (which included fairly mild differences from the original interface when Warcraft 3 was released).
With the release of Starcraft, Battle.net became huge — and it grew even more with the release of Starcraft’s expansion pack. There were a few possible reasons for the surge in its popularity: the interface was cleaner, Starcraft was the next “generation” of the most influential and popular real-time franchise at the time (possibly even of all time, but I won’t go that far without great hesitation), or that the marvel known as the Intarweb had become even more commonplace in homes of the average gamer in more rural areas along with continual expansion in the urbs of the nation. All of these are great and perfectly plausible possibilities for the influx of games into Blizzard’s sophomore attempt at the service, but I have a theory that surpasses all of the previous: player stats.
All of the sudden when gamers give the multiplayer a try, they’re greeted by a user-friendly interface for playing their favoritist game in the whole wide world with other eager-beaver gamers. That’s the first step to increase popularity. The next, and far more difficult part of the process is keeping these same Starcrafters interested in playing online. I mean, let’s face it, I love the genre, but playing RTSs online is damn hard. Every player has their horror stories of how badly they were annihilated in their first ten, twenty, two-thousand and forty five games online with their favorite strategy title. It’s simply not an easy type of game to really compete against others with until you fine-tune your understanding of the mechanics of the game, learn some simple strategies to get your beatings in on the same inept gamers that you’re attempt to depart from, and then continue up the ladder to the supreme ruler of the Battle.net Starcraft galaxy. And, yup, there it is: competition. With Starcraft, Blizzard introduced players to a system which did a decent job to keep the dishonest cheaters at bay (kind of) and allowed the players to increase their victory ratio and climb up into the nosebleed heights of the digital ladder — thus forming their own unique Battle.net legacy of their own.
Interestingly enough, Starcraft was also Blizzard’s first title to use copy-protection; prohibiting players from using a pirated copy of the game to play on Battle.net. This was a change from the days of Diablo, where a copy of the game that wasn’t so much “on the level” as it was “stolen” really carried the same benefits of a legitimately purchased version of it. Huh.
The specifics as to the success of Battle.net don’t really matter in the grand scheme of thing. What really does matter is that other developers took notice of Blizzard’s increasingly reliable, constantly growing, and highly praised multiplayer service. The notice may not have occurred immediately — and, if it did, not a lot of other developers came anywhere close to pulling off a BNet clone whatsoever — but it did occur. Over the last four-five years, in particular, I’ve seen a number of real-time strategy games ship with multiplayer services which offer a lot of features and benefits strikingly similar to the real RTS matchmaker from heaven. Off the top of my head (or a list compiled in a notebook near my computer), some of the best recent attempts have been featured in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, Age of Empires 3, Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, and Command and Conquer: Generals. So, a lot of developers and publishers are quickly (kind of) learning how best to combat Blizzard’s formidable Battle.net system, even if they’re not met with the best of luck. And while I’m sure you’ll hear stories about how some gamers have had their absolute best RTS games via a LAN game back in days of the games which started the franchises I’ve just referenced, keep in mind that as great as those particular games may have been, they weren’t able to happen with the same frequency. That and they required interaction with actual people before, during, and after matches.
Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends.
I mean, seriously. People are so twentieth century.
Graphics and Physics — Pretties and Bouncies
Sure, it sounds shallow and fairly unimportant as far as the actual gameplay of all of these supertastic strategy titles are concerned, but I’ll say it and stand by it: appearances matter. They matter a whole lot.
Though I should probably clarify that I mean, while graphics are nice and everything, it’s really the increased emphasis on a realistic modeling of physics that are going to, and in a sense already have become a huge part of real-time strategy games. I don’t mean really useless things like parts of buildings now falling to the ground and bouncing around realistically. That kind of presentational flare makes for great trailer fodder and “oohs” and “aahs” of the gamer for a few minutes and then the gamer’s occasional captive audience. No, what I mean here is when physics modeling actually begins to affect the actual gameplay of the games we play. The denizens of the first-person shooter arena were treated to such a treat in the incredibly overrated Half-Life 2 when physics became less of a gimmick and more of an overused puzzle prop with the game’s gravity gun.
And now, the more enlightened gamers of the RTS variety are beginning to see the light of the real world mechanical movement (see what I did there?) with two of my favorite RTSs around right now: Age of Empires 3 and the upcoming Company of Heroes (you can grab the skirmish-enabled, completely fantastic demo over at Fileshack). Another game to really utilize a decent physics implementation was Rise of Legends, though it used physics for modeling the movement of some of its larger units realistically and other pieces of graphical fluff. The specific implementations of these kinds of genre-changing features will be discussed in far more detail in parts three and four of this series; so, for now, I’ll stick some generalities and theories.
Thus far, physics in strategy games have been primarily cosmetic. The first real useful implementation of a physics solution which has actually had an effect on gameplay was in Age of Empires 3. I’m sure there have been attempts to make something physically crucial in games previous to this, but as far as I’m concerned, AoE3 was the first game which appeared to actually utilize a dynamic solution that wasn’t just a useless fluff effect for the back of a game box or a press release. And it’s really not even that complicated of a feature: modeling the momentum/trajectory of a fired cannonball and, depending on the momentum of the massive lead ball at the time of impact, bowling over a squad of infantry if they were grouped closely together. The cannonball even seems to react fairly decently to the amount of units it hits; if one measly musketeer is bowled over, the thing continues at a decent speed, but if three or four guys in a line are nailed, the ball will lose momentum quickly (almost instantaneously), fall to the ground, and roll a bit before coming to a stop. The effect is made even cooler if you blow some units into the sea, watch the ragdolls fly through the air and into the water, and then watch the ball roll off a cliff into the sea to join its victims — though this part is purely just for a “Wow” factor, obviously.
Age of Empires 3.
Now, almost a year after Age of Empires 3 is released (AoE3 coming out on October 18, 2005), a new World War II RTS developed by Relic Entertainment will hit the retail shelves on September 14, 2006. By this point, I’m actually calling Relic the “Quasi-Blizzard” after their virtually flawless real-time strategy pedigree — Homeworld, Homeworld 2, and WH40k: Dawn of War (and its expansion) — are releasing their latest strategic opus: Company of Heroes. Here’s a game where, after a single mission of the fifteen-mission campaign and fifteen or so skirmishes on the same small map in the span of two days, I’m already prepared to admit it into my on-the-spot Top Five List of Real-Time Strategy Games. This game is introducing so many fantastic things that I feel it’s almost a crime to unleash the thing upon the gaming masses without some kind of real-life Gaming Coach to ease them into the shoes of Able Company in the game. Sorry, I’m gushing.
Company of Heroes.
The game looks great, sure, but the most interesting aspect of the game is how it handles the battlefield during a match; nothing is sacred. Heavily shelled terrain can create mild cover for squads to use as they creep into a key position. Nearly every building can be occupied by a number of unitsâ€¦ That is, until a tank, artillery, or mortar barrage tears the thing apart piece-by-piece (revealing the units inside) and bring it to the ground — where it becomes even more cover for infantry squads. Demolished tanks can either be salvaged or used as — you guessed it — more cover (you’ll need it, believe me). The location of thrown grenades or timed bomb packs make a tremendous difference in how much damage is dealt to the tank/building/unit they are aimed at. And all of this is as unscripted and dynamic as I have ever seen in game of this scale; I’ve seen it attempted and pulled off fairly well in other games, but never to this degree of success. For instance: X-Com is impressive, especially for its time, but as proven by a few of its remakes it doesn’t make the transition to the third dimension very well whatsoever. Soldiers: Heroes of World War II is probably the most successful attempt I’ve seen, but the landscape is far more volatile and useless for anything but fantastic demolition material unless you’re up against an opponent with a pea shooter. And Silent Storm falls under a similar category, except you just have to pretend that it’s not “really” a real-time game as it creeps along at a rate of about fifteen to twenty frames per second (it’s also turn-based).
X-COM: UFO Defense, Silent Storm, and Soldiers: Heroes of World War II.
What Relic has accomplished with Company of Heroes is, really, nothing short of amazing — and something which I’ll go into greater detail and hopefully a bit more objective analysis and less fanboy raving in part four. Almost more important than that is that it raises the bar for real-time strategy titles in a way that hasn’t been done since Warcraft 3 was released in 2002 (I’m not just talking about the technical achievements). The increased emphasis that Relic took in making CoH play as realistic, chaotic, and unpredictable as some of the more intensely fought battles of World War II should open some doors that other developers may have been wary to take for either design or technical reasons. Dynamic environments, when handled correctly, are a major step to ensuring that the battles fought in real-time strategy games no longer are purely dependent on force size and power as much as they are about the player’s ability to plan his units organization and variety while adapting to constantly changing situations. Instead of holing up in your main base while you tech to tier three nuclear silos that can annihilate your opponent, a game like Company of Heroes will make you susceptible to long-range attacks by artillery and mortars that will make such short work of your base that you’ll end up weeping in the corner crying like a boy scout. As a CoH player, you’ll quickly learn that the most important thing isn’t the size of your force, but rather how well you can adapt to the fact that your defenses won’t last long; instead of fighting for a single point, utilize the enemy’s insistence on a large point to your advantage — steal a few of the lesser points around their target location, surround them, and then push inward after a particularly strong offensive burst of long-range attacks.
I’m getting all hot and bothered just thinking about the last skirmish I played in the Company of Heroes demo in which I did just that to pull out a victory in a point-control game where, by all means, I should have lost.
Conclusion and Temptation
Sorry folks; I once again went completely overboard on the amount of writing I did for this part. I had to cut a lot of great innovations that have occurred over the last twelve years that, by all means, deserved my coverage. Unfortunately, once I reached a certain point, I just had to cut my losses and focus on some of the most important, most critical evolutions and features which have influenced the real-time strategy; I mean, RTSs spawned an incredibly popular “sub-genre” of the real-time tactical game and the introduction a multiplayer matchmaking solution with Battle.net which so many other developers have since measured their own similar systems to.
Some of the other high-scale topics I really wanted to cover were: genre assimilation, macromanagement and micromanagement designs, in-game army/unit customization, and a few more. These are things that I’m definitely going to work on including, if only slightly, in part three of the series where I plan to take a look at nice chunk of the most crucial games released in the genre since 1994 on a one-by-one basis. Instead of making generalities and theories like in this article, I’m going to take a look at some of the more specific features which these games have included that have either been adopted by other titles or are simply too fantastic for many games to ever even bother cloning.
I’m also currently in the process of getting some special, original content from people of a much higher and more influential place in the gaming industry than I could ever even hope to be for part four. So that’s all to look forward to for the next two parts for the series which, and I’m putting out this warning now, may take a bit longer than the first two installations to complete. I’ll continually be making comments to this article as time goes with information about the progress I’m making and the projected release date for the next part like I did with the first one, though.
So, your homework for next time is to devote a nice chunk of time to at least one RTS title which has been released in the last year and a half and see how it compares to some of the older classics. And if anyone actually does this, I’d love to hear some e-mails or in-site comments about your thoughts and experiences.
For now, I’m going to try and wash the nerd off while pretending that I didn’t just write an article this ginormous about a single genre of games.