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.
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.
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.