Learning how to play a real-time strategy game takes dedication. And so does developing one, particularly when your goal is to make "the first great gamepad RTS."
The genre, rooted in mouse-and-keyboard control schemes, is notoriously intimidating to even players who consider themselves "hardcore": tech trees, build times, varying maps, various units, strategies and tactics for different races, unit micromanagement, and so on and so forth, all contribute to the real-time intimidation. Once a player gets these "basics" down, they might be brave enough to commit 30-45 stressful minutes at a computer desk for a multiplayer match, which, often in my case, ends in defeat.
All that said, RTS games are among the most satisfying games you can play with other people. But inaccessibility turns away players. It's been sort of a holy grail for RTS designers, to bring the joy of the RTS to a mainstream audience.
Read about the gamepad iterations at the bottom of this article. Click images to the right to enlarge.
For the past five months, Andy Schatz's Pocketwatch Games, makers of the excellent stealth game Monaco, has been working towards breaking down the high walls that surround the RTS genre with a new gamepad-based RTS game, with LEADtoFIRE, previously code-named Armada, which he's developing out in the open and with input from players.
"The main impetus behind building this game was to make a real-time strategy game that was fun to play at the end of the day, that didn't feel like something that was stressful to play, or physically exhausting to play," Schatz tells us, "but with the same hallmarks of a traditional real-time strategy game. I think we've accomplished that with the controls and the gameplay design."LEADtoFIRE will still be heavily-influenced by classic RTS design, and is rooted in attack, defense, and economy. But the game will have a main character that players control directly (not typical for traditional PC RTS games), and have play sessions that will last 3-15 minutes -- considerably shorter than what a StarCraft player might be used to.
"We've really focused on making sure the player is doing something all the time, and making sure the player is doing something that's actually fun to do," says Schatz. "Controlling a character around the world is kind of an inherently fun and interactive experience. It's a lot more visceral than scrolling around a map and clicking to tell your units where to go."
Schatz said from a game design perspective, a guideline he has followed for some time has been to focus on what players are doing on a one-second interval, 10-second interval, one-minute interval, and a 10-minute interval. This method keeps Schatz and his team focused on refinement of the game's rhythm, while tuning repetitive tasks that the player is doing over specific periods of time.
Breaking the arc of a LEADtoFIRE session into time-based chunks helps keep the focus on giving players interesting choices, interactivity, and fun within specific timeframes. "In StarCraft, the one-second interaction is not particularly fun," he says as an example.
At the center of LEADtoFIRE's quest for accessibility is the controller. Instead of clicking around to command units, and scrolling around the screen like a traditional RTS, they'll have direct control over a main character, the center of the actions and the commands.
He has said it will be the "first great gamepad RTS." And yes, there havebeenafewgamepadRTS games in the past. "That was probably a mistake, saying that, because for your initial game announcement, the last thing you want to do is go out and insult a bunch of game developers [who've worked on controller-based RTS games]," Schatz says, smiling. "I felt a little bad about that afterwards."
Saying something and actually doing it are two different things. Just as game developers have been challenged by converting mouse-and-keyboard-focused RTS games to the game controller, Schatz has run into challenges converting a controller-based RTS to a mouse-and-keyboard PC. That's an important problem to solve, because even though this is a gamepad-based RTS, the game is, for now, only slated for the mouse-and-keyboard-centric PC.
"We had faith that we could make it for a controller, then just work backwards to a keyboard," he says. "About a month ago, we actually thought we had the controls locked in, but then we discovered the keyboard version of controls was absolutely terrible."
"It was kind of ironic," he added. "We were building this controller-based RTS to fix the control problem [in RTS games], then we ended up with the exact problem in reverse. We had to reinvent the controls again. But we've got the controls to an even better place since."
To help get to that better place, Schatz and his team are embracing open game development, doing regular Twitch streams of LEADtoFIRE, and taking in feedback from the game's small initial audience of early supporters.
In Schatz's experience with his previous game, Monaco, that core group of enthusiasts sets the tone for the community as it grows. "If you empower the people within that [core] community, those people actually become the seeds of the broader community," he says. "I've seen that so far with LEADtoFIRE."
The game is about ready for full-production, though when asked if he had a release window in mind, he only referred to his track record when it comes to long development times. "Oh please. Oh please! Were you not paying attention to Monaco?!" he replies.
Iterate, iterate, iterate
Creating a gamepad-based RTS that's in the vein of classic RTS games takes some trial-and-error. Above, you'll see various versions of LEADtoFIRE's gamepad control scheme. (Click to enlarge those images.) Here's a quick synopsis of the evolution so far, according to Schatz:
v. 1: Players set a rally position that all units would AttackMove to. (Image)
v. 2: Players could choose to retreat and attack by holding and releasing the trigger, allowing players to kite. (Image)
v. 3: Players had to manually queue up production of units, so that unit production wasn't a passive drain on their economy. (Image)
v. 4: Unit production is back to passive, but players can pause production of classes of units. Move and AttackMove are now on individual triggers. (Image)
v. 5: We tried moving all unit orders to the right analog stick. If it was in a neutral position, no orders were given. Turns out this didn't work on mouse and keyboard. (Image)
v. 5.5: Players could assign each unit class to group 1 or 2 and then control those groups exclusively with the triggers. (Image)
v. 6: Our current iteration allows the player to split their army by controlling individual classes. (Image)