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One Man War: Examining Single Player RTS Design.

Continuing my look at RTS design, this time: the elements of single player design and why Starcraft 2 got it right.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

August 20, 2011

5 Min Read

This is a continuation from my previous entry on why RTS games need to stop developing titles for the e-sports craze. One of those ways is looking at the single player campaign and how to improve them. Honestly, most RTS single player modes... suck. The reason is that designers try to use it to teach the player about multiplayer which doesn't work, as an AI is not a good substitute for a player (with rare exception.) Over the years, the structure of mission design has changed and can be broken down into several categories.

1. Skirmish: The oldest and still used form of mission design. Essentially this is a multiplayer battle minus the multiplayer. The designer may spruce things up such as giving the enemy a bigger base, or a unique advantage, but the player will be performing the same actions here as they would when playing online.

2. Puzzle: These missions are battles where the player must complete a specific objective that is different from a normal map. Missions where the player has to collect X amount of resources or create X amount of troops are examples. Some missions may have the player only controlling a limited amount of forces to accomplish a goal. The covert ops missions from the Command and Conquer series are a good example. These missions are less about strategy and more about figuring out what the designer wants the player to do, but they can be refreshing after a long string of normal battles.

3. War: A newer type of design, these are games that try to tie the battles into a larger scale. Instead of having a strict end point to the campaign after X amount of battles, here, the player has to conquer a world map or complete a specific objective. Many games that go this route, tie the available units and abilities to the map mode, such as having to conquer an area before gaining access to it.

Games like Battle for Middle Earth and the last Star Wars RTS are examples of this, as well as one of the expansions for the first Dawn of War. Rise of Nations took things a step further, giving the player different map scenarios that took place at different periods of time like: The Cold War, French Revolution and so on. These different scenarios changed the context and rules for the map mode, but did not affect the RTS mode, but each time the player choose to fight, they would be given different missions.

In a sense, the line between turn based and real time blur with this category, as to succeed the player has to be familiar with both modes and the Total War franchise could also fit into this group.

4. Story: The rarest and arguably toughest way to design is developing missions that combine elements from puzzle and war into something else. Missions are part of the plot and while the player will still be using a base, the situations are different then in a multiplayer game.

Starcraft 2 is a recent example of this type of design. While plenty of the missions involve the player building a base, as they would online, but the conditions for the maps were radically different. One map required players to deal with lava rising up at specific times, destroying anything caught in its path. Some of the maps were pure puzzle style, requiring the player to control a small group of units to complete an objective.

The story allowed the players to choose what order to tackle certain missions as well as making decisions about who to side with. This determined what units and researches would be available. Many of these upgrades that were available in the single player campaign were not put into multiplayer for obvious balance reasons. All the maps were tied to the overarching story of the game which lends some weight to the missions.

While Starcraft 2's story was on the cheesy side, the campaign was still better developed then most campaigns out there. By not having to rely on multiplayer conventions, the designers were free to experiment with a variety of mission structures. However, even though the missions were not the same as a multiplayer match, the choices made during play still followed the same mindset as multiplayer. This meant that while the player can't use all the tactics they learned once they switch to multiplayer, but they could use their understanding of the mechanics and UI to make the switch easier.

The same could not be said of Dawn of War 2's campaign. The campaign and multiplayer were radically different. The single player campaign focused more on individual units and had an action-rpg feel to it. While the multiplayer was more in line with Dawn of War 1's style or Company of Heroes. My complaint with this is that unlike Starcraft 2, where the player has at least some knowledge that would transition between single and multiplayer, here there was none. The first time I tried a multiplayer match, I had no idea what I was doing or what anything was and felt overwhelmed.

Awhile ago, I started thinking about how I would design a purely single player RTS. I came up with several ideas, one being a”choose your own adventure” style, where the player controls a military adviser in a fictional world. The player has to decide what sides of major conflicts to lend their talents to and this in turn affects the outcome and development of the world and future battles.

There seems to be a drought of good single player RTS campaigns. Many designers create their games exclusively for the multiplayer component, leaving the rest in the dust. The first step in creating a good single player campaign is getting as far away from multiplayer as possible. Of course, that doesn't mean you can't have your cake and eat it too, as Starcraft 2 is a perfect example. Personally, I would like to see someone design a RTS without worrying about multiplayer and go crazy with developing the mechanics. Which I'll once again reiterate my desire for a Rise of Nations 2.


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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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