As I'm playing through Civilization 5 and not falling in love with it, I felt an urge to play a RTS again. I could feel my blood pressure rising over the thought of playing Starcraft 2 again. In these last few years, I found myself drifting away from the RTS genre. As I started to think about one of my favorite RTS games: Rise of Nations, I started to realize why I've felt this way towards one of the first genres I enjoyed, and it has to do with E-Sports.
One of the key foundations behind Starcraft's popularity came from South Korea. The game's tight balance and the need to be fast at the keyboard, made it the perfect competitive game to be adopted by the World Cyber Games. In South Korea, Starcraft became as big as professional sports in the US. Professional teams were created, gamers became celebrities and the whole thing took off. Since then, it feels like the majority of RTS designers are chasing the dream of having their game included in the craze, and this is where my problems lie.
To me, making your RTS "E-Sports worthy" takes away from the design instead of adding to it. With RTS games aimed for the E-sports market, there is a definite pattern to their design. These games seem to be more about being designed for someone to watch, rather than for someone to play. This also figures in to their less then useful UIs, because they want experts to have to get their APM up (actions per minute).
Concepts like: flanking, unit promotions, territory and so on, have become a thing of the past. Instead of having battles with massive armies, the RTS scene has moved to smaller skirmishes. The only recent RTS I can think of that went for massive scale was Supreme Commander 2 and it turned out to be a surprise hit for me. I just downloaded R.U.S.E and getting into that. The part that really pisses me off is what this has done to UI design.
Instead of developing UIs that aid the player and leave them free to focus on the game, many designers create less than adequate UIs which force the player to concentrate on it instead of playing. One of the best design mechanics I saw in a RTS UI came from Rise of Legends, when they implemented the ability to set the rally point for unit constructions directly to control groups. After using this in ROL, I expected every RTS game from that point to feature this functionality, except they didn't.
I know it can't be a matter of complexity after all this time, instead it's because that would take away from having players focus on the UI and their APM. In Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3, every unit has a secondary attack or use that has to be activated through either a mouse click or hot key. This meant not only having to deal with activating multiple abilities in the middle of combat, but also having to find the unit on screen at the same time. There were no ways around this, such as in Warcraft 3 with being able to toggle some skills to always be used.
I'm tired of playing RTS games as click-fests. What I want is to command my army and focus more on the macro level instead of having to quickly bounce between my army and base to set up rally points and making sure I don't have any idle units. What I'm saying is that I want to wage wars, not skirmishes.
Rise of Nations was not perfect, but it did so much right for the genre. The big reason was that developer Big Huge Games, adopted TBS concepts into RoN's design. Mechanics like supplying units in enemy territory, cities becoming self sufficient once full of citizens. Making it play more like a real time version of Civilization, even with how the game changes once you hit the modern era and oil becomes a needed resource.
I'm really getting tired of RTS designers trying to design the next great e-sports game, as that just means copying Starcraft 2, which in a sense is copying Starcraft 1. In other words, someone please f#(king make Rise of Nations 2 so that I can cross that off of the list of "things that I can die happy from". I've gotten to the point that if I see anywhere in a game's preview the mention of "e-sports" or "cyber games", I know to skip it.
To be fair to Starcraft 2, it did feature one of the best single-player campaigns I've seen in a RTS, simply because it made no attempt to teach the player multiplayer through it. Good RTS campaigns are hard to come by and that is a blog entry onto itself.
Lastly, in regards to smaller scale RTS games, I did enjoy Company of Heroes. Even thought it was about skirmishes, it did have those concepts I mentioned above such as flanking and unit promotions. Although I tried Warhammer Dawn of War 2 and did not get into it, the UI really bugged me for some reason.
Strategy games have been put on the back-burner lately with the only two big name games I'm aware of being the next Starcraft 2 expansion and Stronghold 3. For the genre to advance, designers have to stop thinking in terms of how people will watch the game, and instead how will people play the game.