Hey folks, I’m brownbear. Recently, a group of former Blizzard employees came together to found the game studio Frost Giant, with the goal of building a brand new real-time strategy game. The president and game director of the company, Tim Campbell, recently took to Twitter to solicit feedback on what fans are looking for in a new RTS game.
In today’s article I’ll offer my perspective on how Frost Giant can build a compelling new RTS game.
I have played countless real-time strategy games in my life, but over the past few years I’ve made a particular effort to play titles from independent game developers. I figured this is where I would find the bleeding-edge innovations in the genre. Indeed, I played some great, forward-thinking titles. Northgard was one standout: it was a highly accessible but also highly challenging title, combining aspects of Civilization with several of the mechanics of traditional RTS. Islanders was another great, innovative game; it was mistakenly tagged as RTS when I bought it, a mistake that earned me hours and hours of solid gameplay.
Generally speaking, however, I was disappointed. The independent RTS genre appears to be dominated by one especially uncreative instinct: “I’m going to make famous game X, but I’m going to fix what’s wrong with it.” I’m not here to call anyone out so I’ll leave out specific examples. But over and over, I would load up a new game, play it for awhile, and think: isn’t this just Warcraft 3 with a new coat of paint? Why are all these mechanics copied directly from Age of Empires, in a game where they don’t make sense? Why is this even an RTS game?
The problem I have with this approach is that it is difficult to separate strengths from flaws in complex games – oftentimes, what makes a game fun and interesting is also what gives it its rough edges. StarCraft II is a fast and ultra-responsive game, but to some players it comes across as twitchy, with poorly controlled armies melting in seconds. Age of Empires II features incredibly satisfying economic management, but many of the underlying mechanics come across as drudgery. WarCraft III simplifies the economic side and focuses players’ attention on micro, causing some players to not even view it as a proper RTS title.
On the surface it might make sense to start from a good product and iterate toward something better, but the double-edged aspect of the design is easy to trip over. It is difficult to “fix” what is wrong with these titles without also getting rid of what makes them compelling. I would go so far as to say that most issues players identify with prominent RTS games are not genuine flaws, but rather intentionally designed trade-offs. Things usually can’t be “fixed”, only changed in such a way that the negative trade-off moves to some other aspect of the gameplay – usually (in my experience) to the game’s detriment.
Build A Game You Want To Play
Here’s my advice for Frost Giant:
Figure out the aspects of the game that are important to you and that make you want to play your game. Then, design the rest of the title downstream from those creative decisions.
Should there be lots of different kinds of units, or just a small number? There’s no right or wrong answer, it’s a creative decision. But downstream of this are more practical concerns: if you decide on a small number of units, they need to feature a lot of depth, because there’s just not that many pieces on the board. By contrast, a large number of units pushes you in the direction of specializing them, otherwise your breadth of experience goes unplayed. Specialization itself then leads to another downstream creative decision with regards to teching and the level of commitment you want to get from players; if upgrades are separated out, the game becomes more committed, while if they’re combined, it’s a more reactive, tech-switchy sort of title.
How proactive should the title be vs. how reactive should it be? To what degree should players be able to “play their own game” without reacting to their opponent? Again, there’s no right or wrong answer, but each choice has different implications. A proactive game would suffer in the environment of randomly generated maps, while a reactive game would be a lot less interesting on static maps.
And so on and so on. These examples are certainly simplifications, but hopefully get my larger point across – make the key creative choices first, then make the mechanical decisions that complement and support those choices.
(Note that any of the above choices could be considered creative. For example, you could start with randomly generated maps as a creative choice, and then arrive at a bunch of mechanical decisions that stem from that.)
I’d apply the same logic to the company’s business decisions and prioritization. For instance, we know that co-op is both popular and easily monetizable. That a co-op game mode should exist is a no brainer, and it’s great to see the studio already has a designer dedicated to it. But co-op should slot into the creative vision of the game rather than the other way around. For example, a slower, more economic game would benefit from co-op missions that focus on gathering resources or securing trade routes, while a faster, more aggressive game needs to feature lots of action.
From the campaign to co-op to competitive multiplayer, work really hard to start from a set of creative choices that are fun for you, and then let the rest of the product flow out naturally. Iterate on this and, hopefully, the number of creative changes you make goes down over time as you get closer and closer to a final product. In my view this is also how the best books are written: design interesting characters, put them in interesting situations, and then have each character do what you would expect them to do given how they were designed.
Every day I would ask myself, what do I want to play? What do I find fun, what compelling experience do I wish there was more of – or that doesn’t yet exist at all?
I don’t think the company should worry too much about player feedback prior to release, because players often don’t know what they want. They know what they like, sure, but not what decisions will get them there. I don’t recall where I read this, but there was an interview with a game designer who said something like, regardless of genre or setting or plot or anything else, if you ask players what they want, eventually you will arrive at some version of Skyrim.
It’s much easier to ask, is this fun for me? Is this an experience I would happily recommend to friends and family? Is this cool and unique and something that I get up and actually want to play? Do I feel proud that my name is on the box? When I’m bored on a Saturday, do I see myself playing this title? From my perspective, this is how you build a great product from scratch. The more incremental stuff, like responding to player feedback or looking at metrics and making adjustments as-needed, comes after, when the product is already released and you’re just refining the vision. The vision itself needs to come from you, it needs to be something you want to see exist in the world. I can’t tell you what that is, nor can anyone else.
Thanks for reading! I write about StarCraft and Age of Empires. I’d love it if you followed me on Twitter and Facebook, subscribed to my YouTube channel and checked out my live streams over on Twitch. Thanks and see you next time!