Exponential growth

I think everybody would agree that the RTS genre is pretty unique, particularly because of its divisive nature, you either love it or hate it. Easy to learn, impossible to master, even for the professional players. It’s a genre that lacks any kind of randomness, which results in a very strong focus on player skill, knowledge and strategy, so much so that it has been used for serious competitions with monetary prizes.

Aahhh, starcraft. A game so well known and well regarded that it's still selling after more than ten years on the market.... well, that speaks a lot more about the competition than it does about the game's quality doesn't it?
Aahhh, Starcraft. A game so well known and well regarded that it's still selling after more than ten years on the market.... well, I don't know about you, but to me that speaks a lot more about the competition than it does about the game's quality.

Anyways, I probably should get this over with: I hate RTS games. Still with me? Good, I’ll explain why later, but first I’d like to talk about the most criticized part of the RTS genre: it’s kitchen sink approach. The normal RTS player has to:

  • Decide which technologies to upgrade and when.
  • Decide how to manage the resource gathering.
  • Decide which military units are appropriate to create at the current time. How many of each class? Should I create them now or wait till I have more resources to build a bigger army?
  • Decide where and when to build every building considering its function.
  • Decide which is the best strategy to explore the map. (One dude that could get easily killed, a small army that could face greater threats or a huge army that could destroy pretty much every threat but leave the base unguarded? What if you find the enemy? Do you attack to distract him or run to live another day and explore some more?)
  • Decide where to defend or attack or both. And how, when and with what units.
  • Decide when and how the player should try to conquer more resource mines.
  • Decide how many peasants should be dedicated to cut wood  and how many to mine gold … and farm … and idle, ready to do whatever comes up (mostly constructing buildings).
  • Keep track of every battle going on in the whole map.

That’s… kind of a messy list, so lets break it down into 5 main categories:

  • Resource gathering and management.
  • Military Strategy.
  • Building Placement.
  • Technology tree management.
  • Population control.

I’m not that great of a multitasker, so most of the time I make most of these decisions without thinking much, going with the flow and then hoping for the best. Now, I don’t hate the RTS genre for being really demanding. It’s not my cup of tea, but that isn’t the designer’s fault. No, my problem with the genre, and why I “hate” it, is the exponential growth of resources.

So, of all the mechanics in the game there’s only one that bothers me. The problem is, it’s the driving force of every RTS: the resource gathering and how it feeds on itself, resulting in exponential growth.

“What? What are you talking about?” I hear you say. It’s easy to explain and I think an example is the best way in this case:

You and me, we both start a game of Empirecraft 3 with the same amount of resources and the same strategical positions on the map. The only difference between both of us is that you are a little bit better than I am at resource gathering. Alright? So, that small advantage you have is going to net you, let’s say, 100 more gold than me in the first 10 minutes. Not much right? Well, let’s say that you use those extra 100 to create another peasant that can help you collect gold faster than me. Now you have 500 more gold than me in 2 minutes. It’s still not that much of a difference but you spend those extra coins in more peasants, which get you more gold which get you even more peasants. See where I’m getting at? In 20 more minutes that small advantage you had at the beginning piled up to an overwhelming difference in the amount of gold we both now have. This then translates for you into a much better army than mine, with better technologies that could simply steamroll me whenever it feels like it.

That’s what I don’t like about the RTS genre: On top of being really demanding, it awards the slightest difference in skill with overwhelming victory.

Age of Empires 2. Man, this game gave so many fond memories. Like that time when I ... no. But there was that time when I ... no. Man, I don't think it was so awesome anymOH! now I remember, there was that time when I played against the AI on easy mode. Man, I was like playing cat and mouse with it, playing with it's life, letting it recover and so then I could beat it again. Good times.
Age of Empires 2! Man, this game gave so many fond memories. Like that time when I ... no. But there was that other time when I ... no. Man, I don't think I remember why it was so awesome in the first place... OH! There was that one time when I played against the AI on easy mode. How could I forget? I was like playing cat and mouse with the bot, trashing it's base, then letting it recover, so then I could beat it again. Just like my friends used to do to me when we ... *cough* yeah, maybe the game wasn't so awesome after all. For me that is. For my friends? Oh boy, they never shut up about it. Ever.

When you’ve played enough RTS games, you start to notice a pattern. The first 20 minutes are always kind of calm, with a few attacks over here and a few other ones over there, but not much in all, at least compared to what’s coming next. It’s in this stage that it’s decided who wins (that is, if there’s a sufficient enough difference in skill between players). It’s in these first 20 minutes that every player is gathering resources as fast as they can, so they don’t get steamrolled later. It’s in these 20 minutes that the game is fun for every player, that nobody complains or shouts in frustration. It’s in these 20 minutes that every player is on their own, minding their own business, trying to grow an army and defenses for the eventual war.

Then it all goes downhill. When one player discovers the true force of it’s enemies, he discovers if he’s going to win or loose. Sure, “size doesn’t matter, it’s how you use it that counts”, or in other words: strategy is king in these games, which is partly true. But ultimately it’s false in the majority of the cases. Size does matter because most of the time the difference in size is going to be huge, due to exponential growth, and no matter what’s your strategy, your fate was sealed when that one peasant got stuck for 2 minutes on his way to the gold mine.

So, at the end of the day, enjoying a RTS game depends on two things: If you are the better player or if you play just to enjoy a mutual activity with some friends (through, oh, I don’t know, maybe LAN play?).

——————————–

Alright, so, I was going to analyze games like Demigod and DoTA which change things around, but I think I’d better do it in another post.

Oh, and for the record: That extremely long caption under the Age of Empires 2 image is fiction, ya hear me? FICTION! I can play against the AI on the hardest difficulty and win, thank you very much.

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6 thoughts on “Exponential growth

  1. I’ve been thinking about RTS’s a lot recently. Age of Mythologies was mine. For years me and my brother had it in our game rotation, and we’d lan it constantly. Then there was C&C Generals, and a friend of ours would come over to join in, and it’d be crazy.

    He was way better than either of us, though, and his base was so well defended, he had the time and energy to build up 10 orbital laser batteries.

    Which meant he could write “JAZ IS A GIMP” on my actual base. Dick.

  2. Novack

    I think your description is limited to certain type of players, and certain number of players.

    For example, if the number of players is above 2 or 3, the whole “problem” gets solved by just smartly split the players to get equally skilled teams.

    Also, I can tell you from a RTS fan perspective, the stereotyped description of a match vary depending circunstances. Following the commenter above example, the C&C Generals, a 1 vs 1 match was defined within 2 minutes of play among my friends. On the opposite corner, a match of LotR BfmE (same company, same engine) can last for hours.

    Is like every other game where the skill of the player counts for real! The fun is on playing with friends, obviously, but its important to keep the equal level of skills among the recurrent players.

    Thats why I think your exponential growth theory is a bit flawled: if a player is better enough to get one more peon, and then explode that advantage to transform that into a win, thats nothing to do with the design, it has to do with the difference between player skills: much wider than you initially thought.

  3. Diego Doumecq

    “For example, if the number of players is above 2 or 3, the whole “problem” gets solved by just smartly split the players to get equally skilled teams”

    Alright, now, tell me, how are you suppossed to know the amount of skill that each player has? First, you need to have every player play around 20 matches with the AI in all the difficulties. Then, group all the players that can beat the AI on the highest setting and play another 20 matches between them. Then, set them on a scoreboard and you would have a somewhat accurate level of skill of the players in relation to each other.

    ….

    I don’t know about you, but that’s a whole lot of preparation for something as simple as “make balanced teams”. Of course, I’m talking about LAN play and a group that hasn’t played this particular RTS game before. In online play the game secretely measures your skills and then sets you up with complete strangers with the same level as yours, which goes by the name of “matchmaking”. It sounds perfect! Except for the fact that I’ve never, ever heard of a matchmaking system that didn’t “suck balls”.

    “Is like every other game where the skill of the player counts for real!”

    No, it isn’t. And that’s a fact!*

    (*not actually a fact, it’s just an opinion, just like yours)

    “it has to do with the difference between player skills: much wider than you initially thought.”

    I already explained this >_>
    The reason why the growth of resources is exponential is because resource gathering feeds on itself. It magnifies whatever insignificant difference in skill there is at the beginning… regarding resources, of course.

    Look, what if you could only have 2 peasants mining gold on every goldmine, there’s only one gold mine per player and you start with 10 peasants?
    Granted, it sounds restrictive but it would completely destroy exponential growth of resources, effectively leveling the field a little more.

    Either way, there’s one even bigger reason why I don’t like RTS games and other chimeras like Demigod, but that’s a subject for another post =)

  4. Novack

    I will hijack the post a bit (sorry), to mention something a *bit* deeper than the main topic.

    No, it isn’t. And that’s a fact!* (*not actually a fact, it’s just an opinion, just like yours)

    We are a bit biased when debating topics because of that concept. With that reasoning, everything in the world is justifiable, because everything is valid as an “opinion”.

    It is not.

    An arbitrary assertion is not an argument per se. An opinion is only different from a mere whim, when is founded in something else than itself. Some insight information on the matter is the very least requirement, some experience on a given matter, enough to conform a criteria on that topic, are the minium to throw the word ‘opinon’.

    Now you stated that you hate the rts games. I could assume you played not that much of rts games if you hate them.

    Then I ask you, beyond your assumptions, and facts, are you really interest in knowing about those?

    If my assumption is wrong, and you somehow played a lot of rts games despite your hate to them, then you could back that sarcasm that you throw about facts and opinons.

  5. Diego Doumecq

    God knows how many hours I have “wasted” playing Age of Empries 2, Warcraft 2, Warcraft 3 and Demigod. It’s a fun experience when playing with friends or just to goof around. They are great sandbox games when the AI difficulty is turned all the way down. But my opinion about them and all I’ve said in the post and comments still stands. It’s a design philosophy that doesn’t take into account … let’s just say “something very important” for now (since it’s the subject for another post).

  6. Mikhail Soumar

    Well, growing up with StarCraft, i can say that it’s very heavily based on macro (base management) but it has enough of micro (unit management) that if one has sufficient knowledge of game mechanics, etc. etc. that they can take a few small, weak units, and take down a very large, strong unit, based on moving around the unit. Unit management is also important in RTS games.

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