从那时候起，似乎所有类型和大小的游戏都试图将史诗般的故事和出众的角色作为卖点，Gabe Newell和Co.则让Take Two、EA等发行商开始认识到“叙述”这个新词不容忽视的重要性。
RTS是史上最易辨别的游戏类型，Westwood Studios推出了世人公认的现代战略游戏开山之作《沙丘2》，该工作室后来开发的《命令与征服》系列也成为现代游戏的鼻祖之一。开发于1992年的《沙丘2》是RTS/冒险游戏《沙丘》的继作，但所涉及的Frank Herbert（美国作家，原《沙丘》系列科幻小说作者）小说内容并不多。
不同公司所运用的游戏设计方法各不相同，例如Free Radical Design会专门挑选一名文案根据开发团队已经敲定的想法撰写故事内容，充实角色形象。Telltale Games则拥有不少擅长写作的主设计师和创始人，他们可负责完成《妙探闯通关》搞笑的剧情。Quantic Dream（游戏邦注：代表作包括《暴雨》、《Omicron》和《Fahrenheit》）团队则由David Cage这名自诩为导演而非设计师的多面手，全权负责游戏项目的各个层面。
“我们与小说作家Larry Bond和电视剧本作者Ed Zuckerman共同开发《冲突世界》，说实话我觉得跟他们共事真的很愉快。我认为与这种作家“大腕”合作正是我们开发过程中的一大动力。”
“对公司上级管理层来说，这意味着我们的游戏多少拥有一些“品质保证”。对我们开发者来说，我们关心的是制作一款好游戏，而这两者的专长和经验恰好有助于我们实现这一目标。Larry Bond帮助我们重现具有极高可信度的战争场景，Ed Zuckerman帮助我们完善了角色和其他写作细节。”
How to write…a Strategy game
by Joe Martin
I have a confession to make. When I first started writing this continuing feature, which happened shortly after I started working at bit-tech, I didn’t really have a long-term plan of what to write about. I pretty much just wanted an excuse to show off to Tim that I could write a gamers equivalent of a technical review of a graphics card. Something long, credible and as technical as possible.
Still, by the time the first instalment was complete I had realised two things. The first was that it didn’t matter how clever I tried to be because I still would never be able to top Tim in a jargon-off. The second was that I may have actually stumbled in to a topic which was both interesting and important.
Ever since Half-Life first managed to show the mass audiences that computer games could tackle story in an intelligent and immersive manner without becoming one of those scary Dungeons and Dragons adventures that endless horror stories are told about, “story” has become a big buzzword in the games industry. It’s something that Half-Life 2 would later re-enforce, making “physics” the next big buzzword for publishers.
Magnus Jensen was lead designer on World In Conflict
Since then it seems like games of all types and sizes are trying to claim that they have epic stories and fantastic characters. Gabe Newell and Co. managed to teach publishers like Take-Two and EA a brand new word of supreme importance: Narrative.
The problem though has been that not all games have actually delivered on their promises and that not every type of game can realistically provide a vehicle for the telling of stories. Some genres can do story really well and others can’t – it’s a plain fact and you wouldn’t expect to see a Breakout clone with a romantic tragedy for a plot, would you?
So, in this third instalment in my now re-focused and less selfish series I’m going to be looking at Real-Time Strategy games and try to see how they are written, what stories they can tell well and how they may change in the future. Helping me out along the way is Magnus Jensen, lead designer on the fantastic World in Conflict.
There’s only one man more important than Magnus in RTS games, y’know…
World in Conflict is an especially interesting game to use for a case-study since it basically re-wrote a lot of the rules for how stories are told and what stories are told in RTS games. In a time when most titles in the genre are still using talking heads or, at best, acted-out FMVs between missions, World in Conflict used a mixture of scales to engage players. During gameplay players will be fighting in battles which determine the course of a war, but in between you’ll be embroiled in the much more claustrophobic side of the war – up close with the troops, exposed to their personal battles.
What goes into an RTS game? Do well-known authors like Tom Clancy bring anything worthwhile to a developing title and can any RTS game win our hearts without Joe Kucan? Enough with the questions! It’s time for answers!
Getting to know you…
The Real-Time Strategy is one of the easiest game genres to chart the history of because, although the genre does disappear back into obscure titles like Stonkers on the ZX Spectrum (don’t fail me now, Wikipedia) the first real RTS games as we understand them now didn’t appear until much, much later.
It’s no surprise that Westwood Studios was responsible for inventing what many regard as the grandfather of modern strategy – Dune II: Building a Dynasty. The very same developer would later go on to create the Command & Conquer series, which still stands as one of the forefathers of modern gaming. Developed in 1992, Dune II was the sequel to the RTS/Adventure hybrid Dune and was only loosely based on the Frank Herbert epic of the same name.
Being a massive fan of the book and the first game, Dune II was also one of the first games I played on my Amiga A500+ as a geek-in-training, so naturally it’s one which I know intimately.
As a franchise, Dune contains all the important elements needed for an RTS game too and Westwood couldn’t have picked a better novel to use as a basis for their game – the novel easily supplies the resource players must gather (Spice Melange), clearly defined foes to defeat and a long, epic plot which allows for numerous massive conflicts. The book itself even mentions Kanly, a series of rules which govern the types of allowed warfare in the fictional universe.
From Dune onwards it was a hell of a lot more difficult to work deep storylines into RTS games though. Developers didn’t have the same established framework to cling to – although they had a much clearer idea of what worked and what needed to be there. That simple fact shows in later games too.The C&C story, while admirable and impressive by gaming standards, doesn’t quite compare to the intricacies of the Dune novels. The gameplay of Command & Conquer however is infinitely refined over Dune II.
Dune II was the game that started it all, but RTS come in all shapes and sizes…
So, if we simplify matters by weeding out the lesser games and inevitable Dune II clones, we ostensensibly were moved from a great gameplay style with an awesome story, to an even greater set of game mechanics but with a slightly lesser story. But did it matter? The story was lesser, but the gameplay was infinitely improved and the decreased focus on micromanaging an army opened up later RTS games in a way nobody could have anticipated. The RTS exploded onto PCs successfully and earlier games like Stonkers which had taken inaccurate stabs at the format were left forgotten by the wayside.
So, just how important is story to a Real-Time Strategy game anyway? If Command & Conquer could do so well by balancing story and gameplay out like that then how do other designers work to find that balance for their own games? Is it proof that gameplay is more important than plot for this genre? I put the question to Magnus to try and see how important he thinks story is to RTS games in general and how pivotal it was to the success of World in Conflict.
“My initial thought is that RTS games are usually no different than any other games when it comes to gameplay vs. story. The endless discussions and GDC lectures that have been held on the topic in defence of either side applies to RTS games as well as other genres.” Magnus said, though he first chose to lament the impossible scope of my questioning.
“In World in Conflict though the story is extremely important,” he continued. “Single player is very much a linear, emotional ride (compared to the cerebral nature of classical RTS games). If you strip away the story from our single-player mode, you’re left with something quite shallow when compared to most other RTS games offerings.”
FMV mission briefings are considered a staple of the genre by many
Maybe it’s more to do with how the story is told, I realised. How do designers decide to communicate the story and objectives to a player anyway? Mission briefings are the logical way to accomplish this and briefings are more ideally suited to RTS games than they are to some other genres. It’d be a very boring version of Duke Nukem 3D that gave you a five-minute briefing before every enemy! (unless it had strippers giving it – Ed)
Increasingly though RTS games are moving storytelling into the gameplay itself, issuing objectives and narrative in the middle of game events to increase the sense of drama and panic – just look at how many times Jennifer Morrison pops her head up in Command & Conquer: Tiberium Wars if you don’t believe me!
“Cutscenes are typically very expensive to make in terms of development resources, so the story is also sometimes told in briefings with just voices and/or talking heads. Very few games have the budget to tell the whole story in full cutscenes, like C&C3.,” said Magnus. “In World in Conflict we tried to break down as many of the barriers between ‘gameplay’ and ‘story’ as possible. A lot of the pivotal events happen while playing. The fact that this is much cheaper in terms of resources is just a happy coincidence. Generally though in RTSs, yes, the story does kind of stop at the doorstep when the mission starts. There are a few reasons why this is true.”
“First, and this is true not just for RTS games, it’s quite often hard to get the motivations of the characters (story-wise) to translate into good gameplay. In fact, outside of stories that put the character in a ‘get the f*** out alive at all costs’ kind of scenario, the things that are fun for the player to let the character do are generally not what the character would realistically be doing. For classic RTS games, this translates into the problem of ‘the guy commanding the army is usually not in charge of building the hardware itself’.”
Lights, Camera, Action
It seemed to me that World In Conflict was a game which had a more cinematic feel than most other RTS games, but the information I’d elicited so far didn’t really help me pin down why that was.
Sure, World in Conflict makes use of in-game communication, changing objectives and motives on the fly – but so do games like Supreme Commander and Total Annihilation. While those two are still fantastic games which would definitely stand on my ‘Best RTS Games Ever’ list, I didn’t feel that their presentation was as cinematic and movie-like as World in Conflict.
For me, that Hollywood presentation was one of the main appeals of World in Conflict – key to the games success and part of what made it so unique. It frustrated me that I couldn’t pinpoint why, so I went begging to Magnus for insight.
“In World in Conflict we have no base building or resource gathering, so what our characters do during the gameplay parts is much closer to what they would be doing in reality or in a movie.”
Could that be the key? I suspected so and it was clear that there’s a link between how the story is told and the players actual in-game actions. In a real war situation the Generals aren’t likely going to be in charge of erecting tents and casually launching nuclear strikes every ten minutes. Instead, a real General would more likely be found directing troops and units on a large scale and thinking of the battle ahead. Building is for engineers, not warlords.
Realism isn’t important for all strategy games though, as Black and White proved
The fact that the player is a closer mirror of their assumed identity means that they are pulled closer into the action and more fully immersed. Combine this with the dramatic pacing of the story itself and the fact that complex characters are quickly built around the player from the offset, such as Bannon and Sawyer, and the cinematic effect becomes inevitable.
It’s a fundamental rule for game design in realistic games really – to have the players role as close to the reality of that role as the gameplay allows (and while still making the game fun) – but it’s one which many developers seem to have forgotten.
The problem is that the gameplay and the story are often hard to join together. The true reality is that a wartime General may be doing little more than moving pieces on a board in some cases, with troop resources and numbers not only out of his control but very hard to accelerate in the short term. There’s morale, fatigue and disease to contend with in every decision and choice – in short, the reality of war wouldn’t make a fun game.
World In Conflict sought to balance personal stories with focused gameplay
At the same time though, all genres come with their own conceits which are an important and integral part to making the game both fun and accessible. In FPS games players have to be able to heal themselves and the fact that first aid kits are lying all over the battlefield rarely enters into the mind of the player, who accepts that such things are a facet of game design and are needed in order to build a fair game.
I was interested to know if balancing these game issues with story posed any trouble for Magnus and his team.
“You just ignore it, basically. Gamers know that there have to be conceits for a game to ever happen. No matter how hardcore/realistic you make a game, it’s still shock full of unrealism and outrageous compromises.”
Head In The Clouds
The largest design conceit in RTS games is the most obvious one – the viewpoint. RTS games have always used a top-down perspective of one kind or another, from Stonkers and Dune II right through Dungeon Keeper and Theme Hospital into the present day.
Modern games tend to give the player more control over the scene, true, but even though you can zoom all the way in in Tiberium Wars doesn’t mean that you do – nearly all gamers will acknowledge that in an RTS game you generally want to see as much of the battlefield as possible. World in Conflict and Supreme Commander even went the extra step of providing multi-monitor support so that full tactical maps could be displayed on the extra screens.
Although Magnus had already told me that designers basically have to ignore these gaming conceits in order to create a game which is fun to play, I still wanted to know more. I wanted to know how the viewpoint specifically might affect the story. Was the story dictating the presentation or the other way around?
“Most of the genres we’re seeing in the charts today precede the advent of real storytelling, it’s usually the case that the story has to adapt to the presentation and not the other way around,” Magnus admitted. “In RTS games, for instance, you’re flying around high up in the clouds with a bird’s perspective. It would not make a lot of sense to have person-to-person drama played out on the ground (with facial animations, etc.) without taking control of the camera and forcing the player to watch.”
Early RTS games didn’t have such simple designs – in Dune I players had to recruit troops in person!
“Compare that to FPS games such as Half-Life, where you can lock the player into a relatively confined space and have people-to-people drama play out right there in the room with you. Under such circumstances the designer doesn’t have to take control of the players camera since there is practically zero likelihood of players missing the fact that there is something happening unless they do it deliberately.”
Again, finding the balance between story and fun seemed to be the most important thing to Magnus. The birds-eye viewpoint may not be truly representative of the reality, nor does anybody really try to explain it story-wise – but it makes the game accessible to RTS newcomers and familiar to RTS veterans. It puts the whole experience in an understandable context and gives a safe, established point from which the rest of the game can be exposited.
The standard RTS viewpoint is also fitting given the sheer scope of most RTS games. Often in a strategy game you’ll be using your ability to multitask – building a camp, fighting two or three skirmishes at once and trying to monitor your defences too. It doesn’t matter whether you’re laying scorched earth in World in Conflict, directing a giant robot in Supreme Commander or torturing your Dark Mistress in Dungeon Keeper – all strategy games tend to have an epic scope.
Magnus blames real world events for the lack of contemporary RTS games
It turned out that even the scope and setting of the war in World In Conflict was subject to the vs. gameplay tradeoff.
“Yeah, you need a big friggin’ war for starters. And those aren’t easy to come by if you want to use a present-day setting, hence all the historical and sci-fi games. In fact, us going with the Cold War for World in Conflict was dictated by the fact that this was the closest period in time we could find when there could have been fighting on the scale needed while retaining some shred of plausibility,” Magnus told me.
“But you must never lose sight of the fact that it’s an action game and not a simulator. That’s why we had the Soviet invade the US knowing full well that it wasn’t very plausible at all. The fun of blowing up suburbia basically outranked the concern for how realistic a US mainland invasion really was.”
“You can over-do it though. The key missions in the single-player campaign are of course important to the outcome of the war but it’s nice to have missions that high command doesn’t care that much about. If every mission was so important then it would de-sensitise the player, so we chose to focus on the character’s internal conflicts and actual battles instead of the outcome of a global conflict”
“Make a setting that serves your gameplay, and then you make as good a story you possibly can while still enhancing gameplay. In some games the story pretty much is the gameplay, which further complicates things. But that’s basically how most RTS games work at least,” Magnus summed up.
The Pen Is Mightier
So, now we know how the story is designed in terms of the considerations involved for the designers, but what about how the game design is organised?
It’s a tough task to organise a video game – you’ve usually got a large team spread over numerous departments and all of them have to adhere to a singular vision which may or may not be yours. You need writers to write the script, artists to design the characters and locations, programmers to make the levels and characters work, testers to make sure it all works and even then it may not work that well at all.
Plus, that’s just the simplified way of looking at it.
I’ve chatted with writers and designers from a number of companies in the process of writing this feature and I’ve found that approaches tend to vary wildly. Free Radical Design handpicked a writer for their game design to flesh out the characters and approach for an idea they had already settled on (Haze).
Telltale Games meanwhile is lucky to have lead designers and founders who are also the the lead writers for the hilarious Sam and Max episodes. Quantic Dream (Fahrenheit / Omicron / Heavy Rain) meanwhile has David Cage, a man who dips in and out of every aspect of his games and sees himself as more of a director than a designer.
So, how was the development team for World in Conflict organised and how was the story and plot established and fleshed out? As usual, Magnus has answers for us.
Realism is about more than just using the colour brown a lot
“It’s complicated,” he confessed. I settled in for the long haul. “There’s a handful of people involved in the initial crafting of the main events and rough character descriptions. The day-to-day writing of dialogue and scripts for single player was mostly done by our in-house writer Christofer Emgård – but that doesn’t include all the unit dialogue. That, and a lot of other dialogue is created by various people on the design team who all work on a number of areas.”
“The story creation though is something of a chicken and egg situation. You can’t set the locations without a story, but you want the story to come up with suitable maps. Cool gameplay events need to be plausible from a story perspective, but sometimes the story will have to abide if it’s an awesome enough set piece.”
“Everyone, from marketing to upper management to engine coders to community team, benefits from having an up-to-date grasp of the story. So we try to communicate it the best we can, but it’s hard. There is only so much you can take in on any given day.
“The art and level teams synchronise with the design and story guys on a daily basis though, to avoid wasting time on levels that get cut.”
War may be a popular topic, but it turns out that compromise is the key to good game design
I wondered why the development team was organised this way, with multiple writers on the project juggling responsibilities with designers and programmers. Surely it would be easier to have a handful of established writers taking charge of all narrative rather then letting the idea by diluted? Or had Magnus been burned by such an approach in the past?
“We worked with both author Larry Bond and TV writer Ed Zuckerman on World in Conflict, and I’m not lying or kissing ass when I say they were a joy to work with. I think the motivations for getting a “big shot” writer on board differs throughout the organisation though.”
“To upper management it provides some form of “seal of quality”, and who can blame them for not completely trusting Swedish nerds with tens of millions of dollars? For us, the developer, it’s all about creating a great game, and those guys have the skill and experience to help you do just that. Larry Bond helped us getting the war and the scenarios as plausible as possible and Ed Zuckerman helped us with the characters and nitty-gritty writing.”
OK – no fingers burned after all.
Multiplayer and Mass Audiences
One of the main strengths of an RTS story-wise comes not from the singleplayer experience, but the multiplayer experience.
Think about it. In a FPS multiplayer game players often struggle to come away with meaningful stories of their exploits because they are essentially running through the same routes and tactics that everyone else is. In FPS games with a strategy bent – Counter-Strike, Battlefield or Team Fortress 2, for example – stories are easier to create. Players can talk about teamplay, pincer movements, chosen weapons and capture points.
RTS games often take that to the next level, allowing players to form formal yet fluid alliances which can play key roles in deciding a match. Players don’t need to be restricted to the Terrorist or Counter-Terrorist teams. They can team up with other gamers, form nation-like clans and betray one another spectacularly. There are more tools at the players disposal for creating their own dramas in multiplayer games.
When I broached this idea with Magnus though, he seemed to think that RTS games are at the back of the queue in this regard. He pointed out that MMO games are even better at proving that concept and that no matter how much community building features were integrated in the game players would always prefer MMOs for player generated stories.
With a number of developers looking to bring the success of an MMO format to the large, more casual console market though, another thought popped into my head. What about RTS games on a console? C-RTS games are trying to kick off more properly now, with Supreme Commander and a few other franchises attempt to bring the genre to a wider and not as pirated format. Does a change in platform cause a change in style, or just inputs?
Many RTS games are moving to consoles now in a push to capture the larger market
With an Xbox 360 version of World in Conflict set for a 2008 release, I asked Magnus how he felt on the matter.
“There should be very little difference in story design. I can’t think of anything major we’re doing, anyway, when it comes to the Xbox version. Design-wise though, the standard RTS is a poor fit for consoles. A lot of the concepts were born and raised in an environment where the mouse was your main input device.”
Magnus went on to outline a few of the key differences in the overall design of the game – no fog of war and FPS controls for the camera – and it occurred to me that a lot of the challenge lay in simplifying the genre enough. Whether it was being simplified for the gamepad control system or simplified for the more casual gamer console audiences wasn’t something I wanted to hazard a guess about. That said, I think the desire for quicker and more casual games in mainstream audiences is pretty obvious. Looking forward into the future of the genre then, I wanted to know Magnus’ predictions. Would the genre go the way of the point and click, or would it undergo a casual revolution?
RTS game design differs heavily from other genres
“I think that we’ll see very few new RTS games (new concepts) from the big players that are built around the mouse being its primary input device. This of course due to the economical fact that PC sales alone have a hard time carrying a AAA game,” said Magnus.
I raised the idea of possible genre fusions and hybrid games in the future as the boundaries between games broke down more. One of the things which seemed unique to me was an RTS/RPG, but Magnus saw the birth of truly persistent online worlds as being more interesting and possibly having a massive effect on the future of RTS games. Could an MMO/RTS be on the horizon?
Well, maybe. Magnus didn’t give anything away on that front and I didn’t want to press the issue. What was clear though was that not only had the RTS genre come a long way in recent years thanks to the high quality of key strategy games like Supreme Commander and World in Conflict, but Magnus also saw a bright and interesting future for the genre.
“While I’d like to claim brilliance on our part (and I do think we’ve pushed the RTS genre forward), it’s probably got more to do with the general maturing of the industry. Compare the complexity in personality and motives of a villain from 1998 with that of a villain from 2007 in pretty much any genre with story and you’ll usually find improvements across the board.”
Thanks for reading. In the next part of this on-going series we’ll be moving on from strategy games to tackle a wildly different type of game: RPG. How are RPG games designed and written? How are the complex rule-sets used to complement plot and narrative? Those are the questions we’ll be answering.（source:bit-tech）