Real Time Strategy games suck!

If you aren't designing a pure twitch game, it can be hard to marry physical challenge with higher-brain-function decision making. They are somewhat incompatible. How can you zone-out into a bullet-dodging state of consciousness and be making high-st

I was brought up on arcade games where you went to a slightly shabby, disreputable place (kind of like how tattoo parlours used to be regarded - or anything ending with 'parlour' for that matter), plonked your coin on the cabinet screen, and waited for your turn to play these amazing, wonderful, mind-blowing things called computer games.

Arcade games were mostly about physical challenge.  The goals were not much more than survival and high score -- (you played in front of an audience!)  The choices mainly moment-to-moment spatial and timing decisions that meant the difference between life and death.  Real lizard-brain stuff.  The self-improvement goal was real self-improvement - to get better at the game you had to develop better hand-eye coordination and reflexes.  I suppose first-person shooters are a logical evolution of those games -- blurring the line between game and sport.

Physical challenge is appealing in games because the goal of self-improvement is innate to the player, and in 'twitch' games it encompasses both game and gamer in the most direct way.  It is also a common way to achieve flow in games -- the pleasurable feeling of synchronicity and effortless accomplishment.

But if you aren't designing a pure twitch game, it can be hard to marry physical challenge with higher-brain-function decision making.  They are somewhat incompatible.  How can you zone-out into a bullet-dodging state of conciousness and be making high-strategy decisions at the same time?  Maybe Ender Wiggins can, but what about the rest of us?

Spelunky manages to combine the two by making the physical challenge more about risk-assessment than reflexes.  To get good at Spelunky, you have to master certain physical challenges, but its rarely a stream of moment-to-moment decisions that are being made.  Jumping, climbing, flying and bomb-throwing all require dexterity and timing, but the game generally gives you time to consider which of those activities, if any, would be best, and if what you gain by succeeding is worth the risk of losing health if you fail.

It manages this by allowing the two concerns to be seperated.  The pace of the game is such that you have time to make high-level decisions and decide on a strategy - do I jump down here, blow up that wall, kill that frog and then use a rope to rescue the girl?  Or do I just leave that in the too-hard basket and go for the exit?  Having made the decision to rescue the girl, you can safely spend some time performing those physical challenges before deciding on further strategy.  In fact, a lot of the decisions you make when playing Spelunky revolve around how to arrange the situation so you have that time to seperate those two concerns.  How to buy time to plan your next move.

Which brings us to the suckage of RTS games.  OK, Im being somewhat disingenuous here -- It's my personal experience Im talking about.  An RTS game seeks to marry these two styles of play, and for me, they tend to fail.  I really enjoy the planning and self-improvement involved in building my position, but invariably there comes a time when my brain is overwhelmed by the need to click rapidly on things in a semi-physical challenge sort of way, and I fail, and am destroyed.  You could argue that is entirely the point - I havent managed to do unto my opponent before he has done unto me.  Or I haven't been sufficiently skilled at buying 'time-out' by launching skirmishes or building defences to avoid descending to physical challenge when I'm not prepared for it.

Well, fair enough.  But I have a couple of points to make in my defence.  The first is that the physical-challenge involved isn't real physical challenge.  Its not about dexterity and timing, its about micro-management at speed.  It's like all the potential downside of physical challenge without any of the benefits.  Unless you are controlling individual units in any given battle, you are at a severe disadvantage, so micro-management is a must.  I suppose you could say a key activity of RTS games is resource-management decision-making where the resource in question is the player's time and focus.  But where is the fun in devising a plan and executing it by sending units off to battle, if you can't afford the time out to watch it unfold?  I find that to be very unsatisfying.

My second objection is about micro-management itself.  Again, it's unsatisfying because it forces the player to switch their focus between high-level strategy and low-level tactics.  It's a flaw that is not confined to RTS games.  Civilization has this flaw.  At the start of the game, the player is concerned with low-level tactics as they nurture a few units around a small part of the map, focussing on the occasional tiny battle or expanding their influence to aquire a single juicy resource.  And its loads of fun.  But invariably the empire grows to the point where the player has bigger issues to worry about - battles involving multiple cities, building railroads to cross a continent, etc…  The players focus naturally changes from the micro to the macro, but the game doesn't facilitate that shift.  You still need to move individual units, and obsess about individual resources, and it's unsatisfying to have to churn through all that stuff every turn because each one is no longer an engaging, consequential decision, its just a chore that needs doing.  And so it is with RTS games - you make a lot of micro-management decisions, but they aren't satisfying decisions.  Each one isn't consequential enough in it's own right to be fun, yet collectively they are too important to ignore, so you work at them anyway.  Like grinding to buy a sword.

Obviously RTS games are very successful and must be doing heaps of things right.  Lots of players love them.  But I think its despite of the micro-management and player-focus resource management elements, and they could be made even better by eliminating these aspects from the overall gameplay.


Armpit Games Steven is a game designer and developer at at ARMPIT GAMES (game design blog) 

dungeonbash  currently working on ​DUNGEON BASH for IOS and Android mobiles.

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