I might spend most of my time gushing over story-driven role-playing games and shooters, but I’m still partial to a real-time strategy every so often. I like building up a base and training all the little people and sending them off to conquer in my name.
The thing I don’t like about RTSes is that they’re all designed to be played against other people in fair and balanced short-form matches, whereas I like sinking into stories and experiencing them at my own pace. I want an RTS without that multiplayer pressure, one that has the time and space to ride all the way into the sunset.
I’m too busy building Exon to even consider a different project, let alone one of such magnitude, but it’s fun to think about these things now and again. So let’s talk about the RTS that I’ll never make…
The RTS I’ll Never Make
My first RTS game was Age of Empires II, so that has always loomed large in my thoughts. I enjoy a two-hour slog against the bots on the biggest skirmish map possible, and I’ve always wondered how that format could be turned into a campaign with a real narrative — not a sequence of discrete mission levels, but a single world map that steadily expands as you take raw, real-time control of more territory by establishing resource-gathering outposts and defensive bulwarks.
There is small answer to this in my other childhood favourite, Earth 2150: Lost Souls. The campaigns of Lost Souls allow you to seamlessly jump between your current mission and a home base at any time, giving you a place to store money and units and perform research safely away from the battlefield. However, that’s the rub for me — the home base is safe, never threatened and never expanded, so you never have to beef it up in any meaningful way.
After all, the true way to personalise a base has always been to fortify it. Warzone 2100‘s expanding home map, which includes episodes of both offence and defence, gives you concrete reasons to invest in and grow attached to your persistent base, and though it’s a small game, it shows there’s value in this format.
The downside to a long skirmish in AoE2 is that it’s still ultimately a multiplayer game, so there is an initial rush to get to the top of the tech tree and then attack with the most powerful units. Even as a human player versus the bots, you have to rush too as falling behind leads to being overwhelmed by superior forces.
A narrative that could gate progress and make incoming attacks more digestible would do much to pace things more evenly across such a huge map — so you could actually enjoy going on that journey up from the Dark Age, instead of spending most of the match at the height of Imperial power. (Of course you need to have some time at the top to enjoy your maximum powers, but it shouldn’t be too much of the game.)
Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance does lean in this direction for its campaign missions: they start out small, against a subsection of the enemy’s forces, and then expand once you’ve had a chance to get established. But SupCom doesn’t have the unit designer that makes Earth 2150 so much fun, nor the varied resources of Age of Empires II, nor research centres and transparent upgrades of either. The rush to the maximum tech levels (and the only genuinely fun units in the game) is thus very clinical and doesn’t give you much of a chance to form an emotional attachment to your base.
The other major thing I think I’d want to do in my hypothetical ultra-RTS is to not have factions at all, instead having a single mega-faction from which all technologies can be achieved — assuming you can find them in the world first.
That’s not to say enemy groups would be indistinct. The more obvious unit type splits like tanks versus walkers, and weapon types like rockets versus lasers, would allow factions to be more focused and cohesive while still allowing the player to create their own personal mishmash from the stolen ashes in the unit designer.
I’ve always liked the conventional/energy weapon versus armour/shield split of Earth 2150 which encourages you to design different types of unit depending on whom you are facing — for example, a well-shielded but weakly-armoured faction would fall to conventional weaponry, but a poorly-shielded and well-armoured faction would suffer worse from energy weapons, so these groups could still have a mechanical flavour as well as a visual one. (Though I’d want to throw some extra paintwork choices and decorations like spoilers or neon underlighting on top to seal the deal.)
I would, however, have no air units. Air units always annoy me because they tend to introduce arbitrary restrictions. It’s one thing for a machine gun to be less effective against a tank than a cannon, but it’s quite another for a unit to somehow be unable to point that machine gun up at an aerial attacker. Too often weapons are totally useless rather than merely sub-optimal: whereas I would want to ensure that the margin of error in any situation was never zero.
(Of course Earth 2150 has a counterpoint — more advanced vehicle bodies have multiple mount points, so it’s easy to design a unit that is a good balance of anti-air and anti-ground armament, or to pick weapons that can hit either. Supreme Commander in particular, on the other hand, seems completely random in whether or not a given unit can hit air or ground, with no discernible justification beyond “the balance”.)
Air units also short-circuit the landscape, as they can go anywhere. I enjoy the act of exploration and I think it’s a crying shame to flatten the landscape by giving you units that can bypass all the interesting terrain features. Warzone 2100 in particular has some great moments of gently working your way through narrow canyon systems, with the fog of war hemming you in on all sides.
A different short-circuiting feature that I find interesting is map-spanning artillery. It’s one thing to have siege engines that can out-range defensive towers and whatnot, but Supreme Commander provides artillery that can shoot from your base right to the enemy’s. As long as you’ve seen something once, to mark its location on your map, then your huge artillery buildings can just pump shells into the fog of war until there’s nothing left.
On paper, this seems like a great feature to a commensurate base-builder like me: you can focus entirely on defence, hide behind your own walls and yet still win the game. In practice, it kind of kills the game, as you can be busy building stuff and then suddenly win out of nowhere.
It’s an absolutely horrible feature when the boot is on the other foot, as well. Warzone 2100 introduces Ripple Rockets about half-way through its second campaign, which rain down on your troops and your buildings with every foray or enemy incursion. The crucial difference is that Ripple Rockets require spotters: you can’t just rain into the fog of war, you have to have a specific sensor truck painting targets. I think this is a good balance, meaning your ground assault gets some pounding support, but you still need to send something out to aim it (something which can, needless to say, be prioritised as a target).
Of course it’s awful if the enemy have super-artillery and powerful ground forces, making it an impossible slog to break through. Any micro-faction that had such artillery would have to have much weaker troops to compensate, so you could, for example, rush fast but lightly armoured raiders under the pounding howitzers.
As an ultimately story-driven game, the question of named characters does come up. I don’t actually like the heroes of Warcraft III (in the context of an actual RTS, I love them in an RPG), but I do like more general veterancy mechanics, where individual units get better the more kills they’ve scored and therefore acquire their own personalities in the player’s mind rather than having it forced upon them. Supreme Commander‘s most fun feature is the ability to name any unit, a thing one tends to do with the giant “experimentals” as those are the only units that ever last long enough to earn their stripes.
I don’t think I would want to embody the player as any particular unit, though. Talking heads and cinematics should convey the plot well enough, with characters joining as named and souped-up versions of normal units if necessary for (hehehe) escort missions and the like. Ideally, the player remains totally nameless too, so we can utter the timeless catchphrase “Welcome back, Commander.”
Finally, we need to consider resources and their gathering. This is another thing I like about AoE2 — there are four different things to collect, and though you tend to start a match with plentiful supplies near your Town Centre, exhausting these means you need to start roving further to continue building and researching. I like how they change in importance through the game, with stone becoming more necessary as you reach the top of the tech tree and start plopping down castles everywhere. Resource availability also shapes what forces you can build — I can’t be the only person who has noticed how once the gold has all dried up in the late game, armies become composed entirely of Skirmishers who only cost food and wood.
All resources in AoE2, however, are gathered in the same way: you send a villager out, they do some digging, then carry their load to the nearest drop-off building. That’s nice, but I’m also taken with the different gathering mechanics of each faction of Earth 2150. In particular, the Eurasian Dynasty build mines on top of resource patches, which produce crates of ore that must be carried to factories for processing into actual cash for spending. In practice this is usually let down by the awful unit pathfinding and how you simply never build a factory anywhere but facing a mine directly, but I love the idea of having little production lines chugging along in the background.
So depending on the resource, I’d want to invoke different gathering systems. Maybe electricity has to be carried by wires or wireless relays. Maybe oil has to be piped. Maybe ores have to trucked and then processed. Either way, I’d want to have at least four, if not more, different resources, with each required for different paths up the tech tree. Once again, the desire for particular resources needed for your favourite units would shape how you built your base and its gathering stations and exert enough subtle pressures to keep things interesting without forcing you into any particular optimal path.
I think what I’m describing is an “open-world RTS”, where you’re given a branching set of missions that drag you and your warriors across the landscape, expanding the mission area as appropriate or sending you off to self-contained external “dungeons” for more focused fun. With a long-form campaign I reckon there would be ample space to include all these extra features and measured explorations, unlike a traditional RTS which is ultimately bound to 20-30-minute sporting skirmishes.
What would the story be? Both Warzone 2100 and Earth 2150 are post-apocalyptic and that seems to lend itself to this style of game, where acquiring or re-acquiring technology is of critical importance. However, with a need for such an expansive tech tree, I don’t think the planet could be quite as depopulated as in those games… maybe the aftermath of an alien invasion where we repelled the aggressors, but at terrible cost? I’ve always had a thing for Tiberian Sun‘s Scrin Ship, after all, and rebuilding civilisation (and making peace with the leftover aliens) would at least be a more worthy goal than conquest for the sake of it.
So there you go: no lofty ambitions here, no sirree. If I was to explore the RTS genre, I’d definitely build a very normal, sensibly-scoped one.
(Needless to say, in another universe, I am working on this RTS instead and have written an opposite post about how I would pour the entire RPG kitchen sink into a top-down hack ‘n’ slasher…)