Why combine the MMO and RTS genres, and why aren’t there any strong games combining both genres currently on the market?

There's some major design challenges you run into when combining MMO and RTS gameplay. Can it be done?

Hi, I'm Jennifer Ketzl Brame, the COO of Animus Interactive.  We just launched a Kickstarter for Avalon Lords, a seamless open-world MMORTS.  


Combining RTS and MMO play is a natural extension of both genres.  In RTS games you take the place of an army general, manufacturing and training troops then directing them in the battlefield.  The scope of traditional RTS games is limited to single battles or a series of battles, but every armchair general dreams of conducting an entire war.  The competitive nature of RTS gaming lends itself naturally to a setting where players can test their skills against hundreds or thousands of other players in massive war-fronts.


The MMO setting is also well-suited to having RTS combat added to it.  In MMOs people traditionally role-play as virtual characters inhabiting an online world. They build up their character’s skills and power, fight with other players, build up the character’s house and equipment and even acquire pets and henchmen.  Exercising that urge to acquire power and build up, why stop at owning your own house, henchmen and pets?  Founding a kingdom and leading an army of henchmen and dangerous mythical beasts against foes is a logical extension. A good MMORTS should be the ultimate fantasy world, where virtual generals and online royalty can build up their virtual kingdoms and clash in epic, empire-shaking wars.

So why hasn’t it been done successfully already?

Many games have attempted to fill this niche but failed.  Age of Empires Online made a number of mistakes, including their decision to only release the game on Windows Live in 2011.  Public protest quickly convinced Microsoft to put the game on Steam, but damage had been done.  The game was initially pitched at casual gamers, with free-to-play pricing, cartoony graphics, no guilds and easy-to-play, quick-to-master content.  Traditional RTS gamers rejected the pricing model and demanded more content.  Microsoft lowered the prices of additional content and increased sales, but ultimately cancelled development in 2013.  The revenue from the lower priced content was insufficient to cover their costs.


Dawn of Fantasy (released 2011) was originally not developed as an MMO.  Their initial launch was marred by quality issues.  Subsequent updates improved quality and have added a superficial MMO layer but supporting multiple players’ troops in the field is not within their system’s capabilities.


A large number of mobile and browser strategy games give players the opportunity to build online kingdoms in an MMO setting, but don’t support real-time combat for technical reasons.

“The first seamless persistent MMORTS game”, Novus Aeterno

EVE Online isn’t an RTS, but it has successfully dealt with some of the technical challenges facing Avalon Lords.  It has been quite popular, winning E3 Game of the Year in 2013 and gaining other accolades.  It lets you build up your spaceship and guild bases, and is well-known for having massive battles involving thousands of other players.  Their technology is unique and has evolved over 10 years to support their growing player base.  Taitale Studios’ Novus Aeterno aims to follow in their footsteps but focus squarely on RTS aspects with extensive base-building and squad combat on planet surfaces.  Taitale Studios claims to be making one of the first persistent, seamless MMORTS games.  Pre-release reviews are quite favorable.

Must successful MMORTS games be set in space?

There are several technical challenges that must be overcome to successfully create an MMORTS game.  Setting games in space solves two of them.


One of the major challenges in game development is displaying many objects on screen at once.  Network latency and congestion limit the amount and speed of information that can be passed from client to server.  In space games, displaying a few spaceships against a black background demands a lot less from a PC than displaying a lush terrain and thousands of troops.


Another issue is game balance.  New players in a space MMORTS spawn in a starting area, get a spaceship and sail around, building up their ship until they’re powerful enough to go on to tougher zones.  If an area of space is boring, players can fly to more interesting spots.  But in a land-based RTS, players build up cities, not ships.  If a new player starts near someone who’s already built a powerful city, they’ll simply get wiped out.  Cities can’t move out of boring areas into more exciting ones. Over time, players conquer their neighbors or get wiped out and eventually the online world becomes stale.


The last major issue is also related to game balance.  What happens when you log off?  With an MMORPG, your character simply disappears from the world and is safe until you log back in.  Land-based kingdom-building MMORTS games are challenged here since players’ kingdoms can’t just disappear or the reality of the game world is broken. Players’ cities could be attacked and destroyed while they’re offline.  But with an MMORTS world set in space, players can send their spaceships into an isolated quadrant and retrieve them when they return.

Why set an MMORTS on land?

With all these issues, why even try making a land-based MMORTS?  Space is neat, but humanity grew up through the centuries building cities and warring over them.  The fantasy of being a king is richest when you can relate to your kingdom.  From a strategy-gaming perspective, having territory and fixed cities to fight over increases the depth, complexity and stakes of the game.  You can’t just hop in your spaceship and fly away. From a marketing perspective, fantasy is the most popular MMO genre by far, and almost all popular RTS games are set on land.  Space comes in a distant second.

How to set an MMORTS on land

Displaying a massive land war is a tough technical challenge, but our development team is cognizant of the issues involved and are executing a plan to deal with them.  Without getting into too much detail, we will simulate large numbers of troops by using client-side deterministic logic, but on an object level only squads, not individual troops, will be instantiated.  We will limit the field of view by keeping the camera angle limited.  We’ll allow players to zoom out but collapse objects on screen from individual units to squads to armies using levels of detail.  In this fashion users will be able to see vast stretches of battlefield, but at a level of detail where armies appear as easily rendered icons.  Additionally we are using scalable server architecture and will dynamically allocate new hardware where needed.


Competitive balance over time with limited-duration persistence

Must MMORTS games inherently become imbalanced over time?   In Avalon Lords, we won’t have worlds that go on forever.  We’ll open new worlds on a regular basis.  Each world will challenge player groups to race to a challenging, complex goal that will take six months to a year to meet.  The world will close a few weeks after a victory condition has been achieved, and players will be given the opportunity to start a fresh kingdom in a new server.  This will give new players the opportunity to start on an even footing and keep servers from becoming stale.

Closing worlds after player groups have raced to victory will also increase the stakes of the game.  Competitive RTS gamers already enjoy winning fights and battles.  The satisfaction of winning a server-wide, world-ending race that took at least six months of concentrated, coordinated team effort will be tremendous and addictive. Strong drink compared to light beer!

Many MMO strategy games use this approach.  Tribal Wars, Travian, OGame, Grepolis, Stronghold Kingdoms and Civilization Online all use this tactic to keep worlds balanced and dynamic.  It is unheard of in traditional MMO games, however.  Shutting down an MMO server is equivalent to death.  Perhaps that is why most major MMO games haven’t gone down this path.  With Civilization Online adopting this mechanic, it will surely get more attention in the future.


What happens when you go offline

The last issue is the most crucial; what happens when you go offline?  For this, we have engaged one of the top game AI and military AI scientists to help write AI for players’ troops, so when they go offline they will know their cities will be competently defended.  Players will even be able to script their own AI using our unique AI control system.  With these tools at their disposal, players will be able to exercise their military skills even when they’re not logged in.


We have other mechanics to make offline players harder to defeat, though not impossible. We will strike the perfect balance between encouraging people to addictively nurture their online kingdom in the world of Avalon and allowing them to walk away when they want.

Victory is Within Grasp

The fact that other games have tried to fill this niche and more or less failed for design and technical reasons is a testament both to the allure of the idea and the challenges involved.  We have researched and learned from others’ mistakes and studied other successful game development teams’ solutions to them.  By capitalizing on the opportunity, we can and will build the first genuinely immersive MMORTS fantasy world.  


This is my first blog on Gamasutra (and my first Kickstarter!).  I'm eager to hear your thoughts. 

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