Today I’ll be talking about mechanics in real time strategy games and why they’re critical to the genre.
What are mechanics?
Mechanics refers to the execution of physical actions in a real time strategy game. This is a pretty broad umbrella: it includes effective army control and micromanagement, which rely on accurate and quick mouse control. It includes macromanagement, which relies on efficient use of hotkeys and reliably remembering to do things, like building units and researching upgrades. It even includes map awareness, which relies on fast eyes that can quickly see a blip on the mini-map and react accordingly.
Mechanics does not refer to decision making or strategy. Strategy is the plan that a player carries into a game; specifically, it’s the set of decision trees that a player considers viable. Decision making is the path along a decision tree that a player chooses as a game progresses.
A good rule of thumb is that if something requires conscious thought, it’s probably not something I’d consider mechanics. As a simple example, a player may decide that attacking as soon as a set of upgrades completes is a good idea. The player might construct a build order that intentionally lines up several upgrades to complete at once. The player might identify some timing weaknesses in this build and carefully scout their opponent to ensure they’re not exploiting these vulnerabilities.
All of this is strategy, not mechanics. Mechanics refers to the execution of this plan – physically building the units, moving them around, researching their upgrades, and so forth.
In today’s piece, I’ll argue that mechanics are a critical component of the real time strategy genre. Specifically, I claim that mechanical execution acting as the primary differentiator in player skill is an inviolable tenet of building a successful real time strategy game. Note that this claim implies an unreachable mechanical skill ceiling, to ensure this tenet applies across the entire ladder.
I’ll argue this by showing that the more a real time strategy game downplays mechanics, the more important those mechanics become – in fact, the only way to make strategy and decision making relevant is to intentionally design the game around the idea that mechanics are the most important component in player differentiation. I’ll argue that mechanics have intrinsic value and are a worthwhile and enjoyable inclusion all on their own. Finally, I’ll address some common counter-arguments to emphasizing mechanics.
To show why mechanics are so important, I want to first discuss strategic balance – the balance of different strategies in competitive multiplayer. My belief is that no real time strategy game has achieved true strategic balance – a state of play in which each race has multiple valid decision trees that are equally good. I believe all real time strategy games have a handful of extremely dominant strategies that are an order of magnitude better than other strategies.
This is largely due to the sheer complexity of these games. Real time strategy games are asymmetrical, meaning players can select different races with access to different units and technology. There is a near infinite number of possible interactions. It is impossible to effectively playtest and balance even a small number of them – for example, the imbalance of the Adept unit against Terran at the launch of Legacy of the Void didn’t get caught in playtesting, even though this was a brand new unit that received a great deal of attention from playtesters.
Contrast this complexity with Chess. Both players have access to the same pieces and the same starting position. The only difference between the two sides is that White goes first. In competitive play, this translates to a 53-55% win-rate. Even a small difference has a big impact. Note that this win-rate is on the borderline of what Blizzard considers to be a balance problem. A match-up featuring this kind of consistent success for one side would likely be patched.
It’s not necessarily intuitive to think about RTS games in this way, considering the excellent strategic balance in Brood War and StarCraft II. This is because StarCraft has effectively internalized the importance of mechanics to a successful RTS game and has consistently emphasized mechanics as the primary differentiator in player skill. Most players benefit from this design decision without consciously thinking about it. While reading this piece, it is a must that you do. Think about what every interaction looks like when mechanics are completely removed. The truth is that one side will decisively and predictably win, every time. There are very few, if any, perfectly balanced interactions.
Back-to-front: designing a non-mechanical RTS
Now that we’ve argued that imbalance in a real time strategy game is inevitable, let’s try to design an RTS that doesn’t target mechanics as its primary skill differentiator, meaning that a substantial mechanical advantage doesn’t translate into a substantial advantage in-game. Instead, we’ll focus on designing a game that emphasizes good decision making and strategy.
The player base doesn’t emphasize mechanical execution. Competitive players reach the mechanical skill ceiling, the point where no amount of improvement in execution confers an advantage. Casual players can work on their mechanics if they’d like, but they don’t concern themselves with it because it won’t have a substantial impact on their play.
Players instead focus primarily on finding the most dominant strategies, per our original intent. As we’ve already established, such strategies necessarily exist. They are also very easy to find. Differences in mechanical execution don’t confer a substantial advantage, so it’s easy to learn a new strategy and judge its efficacy. Theorizing about the game is straightforward because little consideration needs to be given to how well a strategy is executed – the only thing that needs to be thought about is how effective it is, since optimal execution can safely be assumed. The metagame develops very rapidly until the most dominant strategies are discovered. I’d argue that this is usually just one “super-dominant” strategy.
The metagame now gets stuck in this state. Even if a more dominant strategy is discovered, players simply switch to using it. There’s little incentive to sticking it out with other strategies because it’s difficult or impossible to make a sub-optimal strategy work on mechanics alone. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of incentive to switch strategies because mechanical differentiation isn’t emphasized, so effectively executing a new strategy is easy. Players have very little incentive to develop the metagame, and the handful that do it anyway don’t really change the fundamentals. Players simply switch from one strategy to the next with little thought.
Casual players tend to prefer to do their own thing and don’t necessarily follow the competitive meta, so the result for them is straightforward. Regardless of whatever strategizing they engage in initially, over time they realize that there’s no advantage to picking the less-good strategy. The winner of their games is whoever picks the more overpowered strategy. As time goes on, these players either switch to the best strategy, transition into games with friends who agree ahead of time not to execute the best strategies, or leave the game completely.
Competitive players try to win as much as possible, so they’ll be executing the most dominant strategy from the start. A competitive 1v1 game will consist of two players executing either precisely the same strategy, or at the very least knowing exactly what their opponent’s strategy is and the perfectly optimal counter to it. Decision making and strategy are irrelevant because they’ve already been decided prior to the start of the game.
The game has been “figured out”. The execution of the strategy(s) is all that matters.
We originally set out to downplay mechanics by trying to ensure that differences in mechanical execution were not the primary differentiator in player skill. The result is that mechanics are the only differentiator in player skill and strategy is completely irrelevant.
(Note that another possible, though much less likely, scenario is one in which several dominant strategies counter each other in a rock-paper-scissors fashion. In this case the deciding factor is either mechanics – rock-rock – or luck – rock-scissors or rock-paper. Strategy and decision making continue to be irrelevant.)
The problem now is that we’ve designed our game around lack of emphasis on mechanics, but paradoxically the way it gets played is with a single-minded focus on mechanics. This is a big issue because it’s not aligned with the game’s original design. Rather than thought-through differentiation in player skill in areas like macromanagement or effective army control, “optimal” mechanical execution is unintentional and often arbitrary. Exploiting bugs or glitches in the game to do things slightly better becomes a focus. Minute differences in execution suddenly take great precedence, creating a twitchy and frustrating gameplay experience. It’s rare for a gameplay scenario to work well without intentional design and implementation; there’s no reason to believe real time strategy games work any differently.
It’s not long before we arrive at the point where the game is neither mechanically nor strategically enjoyable to play. The game is “broken”.
It can’t be!
I think some players may struggle to wrap their head around this. What many people get hung up on is the imagery they have in their heads about how real time strategy games should work, even though it’s not necessarily how they do work. I had this problem, too – for me personally, I always think back to the first few weeks of Age of Empires 3. It was a magical time where many strategies were viable, decision making was the most important factor and no one worried about details like perfect marine splits.
The trouble is that such situations never last for very long. When the mechanics are not designed to be the primary differentiator in player skill, they eventually get figured out. This leads players to search for and find the most dominant strategy. The ladder devolves into what I described above – casual players leave while competitive players quickly master the meta. Mechanical execution is all that matters, but it’s not anything interesting like splitting marines or double dropping – it’s exploiting small, uninteresting and unintentional details to get every tiny edge over your opponent.
(For what it’s worth, I observed this pattern across five different game launches: Age of Mythology, Age of Titans, Dawn of War, Age of Empires 3, and Age of Empires 3: The Asian Dynasties.)
Front-to-back: the benefits of mechanics
Now that we’ve argued that mechanics are inevitably important in real time strategy games, it’s worth discussing what value they add in their own right. Designers shouldn’t think about mechanics in terms of avoiding the problem stated above. They should see them as a first-class feature, a worthwhile inclusion that make RTS games better.
The biggest benefit of targeting mechanics as the primary differentiator in player skill is that, paradoxically, this is the only way to enable decision making and strategy to be relevant factors in the outcome of games. This happens in a number of different ways.
One is the impact that mechanics have on the efficacy of different strategies. Engagements are much less predictable when their outcome is based primarily on mechanical control, meaning no engagement will ever go the exact same way twice. This leads players down decision trees that are situationally rather than strategically optimal, creating variation and more opportunities for decision making.
This applies to the entire ladder, too. Casual players are relatively much more likely to want to play the game their own way rather than following the meta. Mechanics make this possible. Players can focus on doing what they like to do and slowly get better at it. They understand that what really matters is how well they execute.
The execution cost of strategies also creates interesting decisions. Emphasizing mechanics ensures that no two strategies require identical levels of mechanical skill. Players’ time and attention is limited, and a more mechanically stressful strategy may be situationally disadvantageous even if it’s theoretically the stronger play. As a result, players focus on what’s better for them, given their personal style, personal strengths and the circumstances of each game. They practice to improve in the areas that they personally find interesting rather than what’s “optimal”. They understand that what really matters is how well they execute.
Competitive players take this to the next level, researching opponents and adjusting their play to compensate. Since execution is so important, players are incentivized to find holes in how their opponent likes to play the game and exploit those weaknesses. While there are more optimal and less optimal ways of doing things, players don’t fixate on this – they understand that what really matters is how well they execute. This furthers variation in the metagame and allows for interesting decisions.
Good decision making is incentivized when practicing and developing new skills, too. Since mechanics matter, players need to consider their own ability to execute when making decisions, meaning their view of what’s viable is dependent on their own level of play rather than the theoretical optimum. They tend to identify their personal strengths as a player and make adjustments to their existing strategies rather than blindly duplicating the best. Higher-level concepts like opening builds and general unit compositions may consolidate in the metagame, but the way in which players execute these concepts and what they choose to emphasize differs from person to person.
Players also have a stronger sense of agency and are willing to create innovative new strategies to surprise their opponents. Again, even if these strategies are theoretically weak, players understand that lots of practice will produce lopsided mechanical results, since their opponent isn’t well-practiced against a brand new strategy. Strategic diversity is furthered, not hindered, by an emphasis on mechanics.
Targeting mechanics as the primary differentiator in player skill also reduces the problem of strategic balance. The advantage conferred by choosing the “slightly more optimal” strategy is easily overcome by a player with slightly superior mechanics. This incentivizes players to play their own game and focus on doing it well rather than fixating on what’s optimal.
Intentional design can help here, too – rather than spending all their time theorizing about which strategy is the very best, designers can make rough estimates and then intentionally make those strategies harder to execute. They can play around with each unit and try to squeeze out as much mechanical depth as possible. The higher they can make the skill ceiling, the better, since this mitigates the impact of any (inevitable) balance problems. Mechanics don’t completely eliminate strategic balance issues, but they strongly mitigate them and make the problem of balancing the game much more tractable.
The key point to all of this is that decision making and strategy only become relevant once mechanics are the most important differentiator of player skill. Without mechanics, they simply don’t matter.
This isn’t a free win – good design of mechanics is still important. A highly mechanical game doesn’t necessarily need to feature strategic diversity. If many strategies are impractical or near-impossible to execute well, the metagame will still devolve into one or two strategies anyway. The benefits of practicing that one strategy never really run out since the skill ceiling is so high, so players rarely benefit from doing something else. What’s critical to realize is that strategic diversity will never happen in a non-mechanical game. At least it has a chance when mechanics are emphasized, depending on the skill of the game designer.
Aside from enabling strategic diversity and compelling decision making, mechanics offer other benefits. They’re highly proportional in their rewards. Playing slightly better almost always confers a slightly better chance at winning. This creates a very rewarding incentives loop with lots of knock-on effects: it encourages lots of play on the ladder, which makes games easier to find, allows players to encounter lots of different playstyles and enables them to come up against a wide variety of strategies.
In addition, mechanics encompass the physical method by which real time strategy games are played. Designing them intentionally and playtesting at high-levels of play ensures that they’re comfortable and enjoyable. I think it’s easy to underestimate how important it is for a game to feel nice to play. If the designer polishes a mechanic to the point that a professional who’s done it millions of times will still enjoy doing it again, then a casual player who only executes it a few times will probably find it enjoyable too.
By this point, we’ve made the same argument in two ways. The back-to-front approach argued that mechanics will inevitably be the primary differentiator in skill, even when this is not the intention of the designer. The front-to-back approach argued why mechanics have intrinsic value in their own right.
I’d like to now address some of the common counter-arguments against mechanics as the primary skill differentiator in real time strategy games. Players frequently cite StarCraft II’s mechanical difficulty and high mechanical skill ceiling as reasons for disliking the game. I don’t think these complaints should be dismissed – instead, I think their focus is misdirected.
Real time strategy games – StarCraft II included – struggle to provide players with incremental rewards. The coarse-grained win-lose mechanic emphasizes winning over everything else, which is uncomfortable for many players. Losing several games in a row can feel like a waste of time, especially when compared to other games. Mechanics tend to take the blame because they are the most visible difference between real time strategy and other genres, but the root cause of the problem is more subtle. Other genres have designed much better rewards systems that enable players to have fun even when they lose. First person shooters are an excellent example, incrementally innovating in this area with each passing year. The combination of unlocks, avatars, skins, skill rating, achievements and so on ensure that it’s difficult to play an FPS for more than a few minutes without earning something, to the point that some players – myself included – argue that it’s too much*. Real time strategy games have made little progress in this area – de-emphasizing mechanics wouldn’t solve this design issue, yet it would simultaneously introduce plenty of other problems.
The appeal of co-op and the arcade are related to this. Players often argue that these game modes are popular because they de-emphasize mechanics. I would argue the opposite – players enjoy these game modes precisely because they enjoy the mechanics. These game modes feature very little strategy and decision making, and often intentionally constrain players’ choices as part of constructing an interesting gameplay scenario. If anything, they often emphasize mechanics more than the competitive ladder, where the player is free to do as they please. What makes them appealing is not their lack of mechanics, but their lack of the intimidation factor of losing. Losing is intimidating because it doesn’t offer many rewards to the player, and this is again a design issue in RTS games, not the fault of mechanics.
Players sometimes cite the desire to out-think and out-strategize their opponent as a reason for disliking mechanics. They don’t like to make better decisions but lose anyway because they miscontrolled their army or forgot to inject. This is a perfectly valid desire: after all, the genre is called real time strategy. The problem is, again, subtle: mechanical games punish players that fail to execute well, even if they make good decisions. But the alternative is worse: de-emphasizing mechanics eliminates the concept of good decisions entirely. The ability to out-think your opponent only becomes a factor when mechanics are emphasized.
Finally, the tenet that mechanics should be the primary differentiator in player skill doesn’t specify how this is accomplished. Mechanical execution is just as capable as any other aspect of a game of being poorly designed and implemented. Blaming the concept of mechanics for this is misguided. The real issue is their design and implementation. Furthermore, it’s also perfectly valid to prefer some kinds of mechanics over others – the differing appeal of Brood War, WarCraft III and StarCraft II is a good example of this.
In future updates I’ll be discussing the design of good mechanics and the identification and effective resolution of strategic balance problems. I’ll also be examining incremental rewards on my YouTube channel. Thanks for reading and see you next time.
*Rewards systems are complex to think about objectively because their result is a feeling, which may differ from player to player. Unlocks, avatars, skins, skill rating, achievements, etc – these are virtual items with no real world relevance. Their significance is in their emotional impact on the player. Meaning, a loss in StarCraft may tangibly benefit the player by exposing a flaw in their build, whereas an MVP award in a round of Global Offensive may be meaningless – but what matters, when judging the efficacy of the rewards system, is how it made the player feel. In that context, it’s also worth noting that many rewards are intangible to the point that the player is not consciously aware of them, such as the satisfying feeling of switching to one’s primary gun and seeing a fluid animation, a pleasing sound, a change in movement speed, etc. This will be covered in more detail in the incremental rewards video.