The Future of RTS Depends on Staying Connected to Players

Hey folks, I’m brownbear. Today I’ll be writing about the future of real-time strategy and how I think game developers ought to approach it.

It’s That Time of Year

With the launch of Frostgiant, the surprise end to additional paid content for StarCraft II, and the announcement of a new expansion pack to Age of Empires II, the time is ripe for our bi-annual discussion of “what’s wrong with real-time strategy”. Most recently I’m thinking of a post from HuK reviewing his favorite RTS games of all-time and offering his thoughts on the genre as a whole, but there’s been plenty of good discussion in this space – for example, there was an episode of the Pylon Show dedicated to the future of StarCraft.

When I tune into conversations on real-time strategy design, I am often surprised by the persistence of certain narratives about the genre. To use a concrete example, here is what HuK says are the three biggest issues facing RTS:

  1. Mechanical/APM requirement
  2. Solo Experience/Anxiety
  3. Learning Curve

The trouble I have with this perspective is that it’s just not supported by real world data. The three most globally popular competitive real-time strategy games right now, as far as I can tell, are StarCraft II, Age of Empires II, and Warcraft III. But all three of these games exhibit HuK’s “three evils” in spades: they’re mechanically difficult, feature a steep learning curve, and are balanced around a solo 1v1 experience. Furthermore, they attract a broad swath of RTS players – in StarCraft II, for example, competitive 1v1 is among the least popular game modes, whereas custom games and co-op attract the bulk of the playerbase.

Age of Empires II and Age of Empires III are a good illustration of this dynamic. Both titles were recently remastered for modern audiences. The latter is a streamlined and arguably simplified version of the former. It’s faster paced but with a lower mechanical barrier to entry, it’s graphically more advanced and features a 3D game engine, and it’s easier to learn thanks to its simplified economy and lack of drop-off points. But as of this writing, Age of Empires II is about five times more popular than its successor. Age of Empires II is slowly growing; Age of Empires III is slowly stabilizing after a steep post-launch decline.

It’s hard for me to accept the narrative that mechanics are a barrier to the genre’s popularity when its most popular games are also some of its most mechanically difficult. But this in turn leads me to another observation: “mechanical difficulty” is often in the eye of the beholder.

Real-time strategy games are often only as mechanical as you choose to make them. A novice player working their way through the Wings of Liberty campaign on Easy mode will find that their slow hands and limited game understanding are more than enough to get the job done; it’s unlikely they will find themselves “exhausted”. An eight year old playing with the AI in Age of Empires II is unlikely to see the need to re-build lumber camps in post-Imperial trash wars as a reason to stop playing; indeed, it’s unlikely they’ll even be aware of this.

Does that mean there haven’t been players who have quit RTS due to mechanical requirements? Of course not! But the question is whether this is a statement about the genre or a statement about the player. The fact that some people quit a real-time strategy game because it’s too mechanically difficult doesn’t say anything about the game’s aggregate popularity if it were to streamline its mechanics. It might attract some folks who were put off, but it would also put off players who were already interested. And by looking at the market, you can see a clear trend: games that focus on “core RTS players” tend to be the genre’s best performers.

The takeaway, from my perspective, is that you need to meet players where they are instead of where you wish them to be. I think this is the best explanation for the stunning success of co-op in StarCraft II; as I noted in my in-depth review of the game mode:

The linear progression tree pushes players to play the game in a fun and effective way; the strongly structured objective design ensures games have a good pacing that flows smoothly from one moment to the next. In terms of level design, the missions use consistent, wave-based mechanics to build an engaging but easy to understand experience, and they leverage a grab bag approach to commander characteristics in order to tease out the complexities and nuances of every single commander. Players are encouraged to cooperate, sometimes through explicit instruction, but mostly through strong implicit incentives that reduce the need for clumsy communication.

Notice how many of these points center on accessibility, but none of them have anything to do with mechanics. The theme of accessibility design in co-op is not making the game less mechanical and more strategic; it is the opposite. A core component of co-op’s design philosophy is that it takes strategic decisions out of the hands of players (when to move out, when to take engagements, what units to focus on at a given progression level, etc) so that they can focus on what’s fun – more basic gameplay like building stuff and attack moving across the map.

In other words, co-op meets players where they are. It takes the issue of “learning curve” – a real problem! – but tackles it relative to how players actually experience the game. It’s for this reason that I describe it as a “real-time strategy revolution” – from my perspective, every major new RTS title would benefit from the game mode (albeit with modifications to conform to that game’s style and mechanics).

The future of RTS depends on innovations akin to co-op, innovations that are grounded in the experiences of real players. And there’s no reason to believe there’s one “right” way of doing this. The upcoming RTS Immortal focuses on 2v2 play; Northgard makes great pains to be accessible to players with poor mechanics; and even Age of Empires II, that twenty year old dinosaur, continues to see innovations like Battle Royale. My point here is not to say that RTS games must be mechanically difficult, or must emphasize 1v1, or must have a steep learning curve. My point is that in order to be successful, they need to be built around a real audience of players.

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 me over on YouTube, and checked out my livestreams over on Twitch. I stream Age of Empires II ladder at the top 2% level five times a week and I post long-form articles and videos around once a month. All the best and see you next time.

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