Real Time Strategy

And here we are, seven articles later. As I said, the original articles were written in 2004, but remain fairly startlingly relevant today – the RTT genre has undergone a massive renascence and is more popular than ever, but RTS games have sadly stalled and come up against flawed efforts such as Planetary Annihilation and Grey Goo.

As I also said,” This series is not intended in any way to denigrate other genres, or to insult game developers. It’s about broadening horizons and exploring possibilities”. I hope that the possibilities and concepts discussed in these articles will have given RTS developers ideas – and in fact I know they have, thanks to the forums, still a little active after all these years!

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Supreme Commander introduced an extremely useful “strategic zoom”. While it certainly doesn’t replace the minimap, the ability to have a full-screen view, with icons for unit types – both yours and the enemies – adds new dimensions for strategic play.

This isn’t to say that it’s perfect, by any means. It perhaps provides too much information for the enemy – for instance, informing them of the type of ground units you have. It also seems, on many configurations, to display icons rather than units too early as you zoom out. This is also down to the need for distinctive unit shapes and side colours – something Total Annihilation did well – but also to design choices. In addition, it could provide you with more detailed information at some points – for instance, your high-tier structures/superweapons could all have distinctive icons. One area, in fact, I am extremely sceptical about is requiring “zooming” out to the strategic level. Instead of tapping a key, you need to go out with the mouse wheel. Add the use of a key – perhaps tab – to jump instantly to the full-screen, full-battlefield strategic view.

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Be warned that this will be a relatively long and detailed article, looking at weapons and their characteristics, the design philosophy of weapons and considerations of shields, point-defence and a number of other relevant factors.

Let us begin with examining the characteristics of weapons. Weapons in RTS games can quickly be simplified down to three types. These are direct fire – “scan-hit” (lasers and kinetics), ballistic (rockets and artillery) and guided (missiles and torpedoes). In some games, space games, there is also little difference between the first two, but for other games there’s an important difference there. Direct fire weapons can also be either instant-hit (lasers) or merely fast (kinetics), but there is often little difference in practical effect. On the other hand, ballistic and guided weapons may well behave differently, depending on things like point defence systems (discussed later in this article), and considerations such as gravity and wind.

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The concept of supply lines in RTS games has a mixed history. Many of the more popular RTS games abstract away the concept of a supply line, using a numerical “support” figure, which is built up by building “support” buildings. While effective in limiting army sizes, it also removes the chance of using supply lines to influence the actual gameplay. On the other hand, “realistic” attempts at doing supply lines have, like “Hard Vacuum” either simply not been repeated and/or have failed in execution.


Hard Vacuum

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In several previous portions of Building A Better RTS I’ve talked about templates. But what, exactly, is a template. In short, they’re a pre-stored collection of buildings (or units, in which case they’re a group) which can be saved in a library. You could save them either from battle (perhaps with a shortcut key), but the primary editing would be done in a “sandbox” mode, with no enemies. They can be shared between players (they would be XML files), and have a very simple UI –

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Artificial Intelligence is fairly dismal in quite a few RTS games. Instead of trying to play as if it were a Human player, the AI uses “brute force” tactics – in other words, cheating. It gets boosts to productivity, to resources and in some cases even to the damage done and taken by its units!

It is helpful to the AI if units are more “generic”, if there’s lots of overlap, but that has obvious gameplay consequences. On the other hand, choosing the wrong units in R/P/S games, where you need “counters” for the enemy units quickly leads to defeat. This leads to another form of cheating – where the AI knows what you’ve built and works to counter it. This is often mis-sold as some form of “learning” in the game AI.

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RTS user interfaces have stagnated. This is perhaps the main thrust of this article series, and while I won’t discuss all the concepts today – part 3 will deal with AI integration into the user interface, and part 4 with templates and AI and part 7 with strategic zoom. However, the basics if the user interface such as control mode (the mode with visible commands, when you hold down a specific key) will be discussed here.

One particular note here is the usage of vertical and horizontally-orientated UI’s. Not only do vertically orientated UI’s lend themselves to more natural “scrolling”, whereas in the past screen screens were commonly i.e. 1024*768 – which is 4:3 – modern “HD” 1080p screens are 1920*1080, which is 16:9. In other words, between those resolutions you have 78% more width, but only 41% more height! Thus, vertical screen space is “cheaper” than horizontal.

In any case, Total Annihilation’s interface remains an interesting case study. It, while certainly showing its age, is reasonably clean and uses a fairly low amount of real space – while more modern interfaces “float” some UI panels over the main window, they do not actually make a huge difference to the actual view area. You can easily see your resources and resource flow, and you can view and manipulate many things a unit has been previously commanded to do, in a control mode accessed by pressing shift – now a standard in RTS games.

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The original article series was written for a long-defunct Total Annihilation fansite in 2004. Ten years on, the article series is being mildly updated for the current era, when computer games are more popular than ever, and there is a variety of highly interesting RTS games not thought of in 2004 are on the market – among others, AI Fleet Command, R.U.S.E., Creeper World, Sword of The Stars and Eufloria – although I note most of these are primarily 2D. It still retains at it’s core, however, the concepts which it was originally built on.

The primary focus of this series was and remains on a field which unfortunately still lags, isometric-view 3d RTS games. One recent example is “Grey Goo”, which while it has some interesting unit and side concepts is still tied to much the same paradigm as the RTS games of 1997, when Total Annihilation was new and the C&C series current game was Red Alert and it’s expansions – and it has little to offer in terms of advancing the genre.


grey gooGrey Goo

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