尽管许多武装力量都是一样的，但是这些不对称性却真正改变了我们基于敌人的基地接近他们的方式。就像玩Ordos vs. Atreidis与玩Ordos vs.Harkonnen是完全不同的。
《魔兽争霸》的主要创造性在于多人游戏概念。在暴雪最初关于RTS的想法中，这是一种突出竞争性的游戏。迫于当时的技术限制，它只能想办法呈现一种基于调制解调器的多人游戏系统。这甚至能在不同平台上（PC vs MAC）交叉进行多人游戏。
这一过时的处理游戏内部单位能力的方式存在了很长时间。例如基于回合制的策略游戏《VGA Planets》最初便使用了同样的方法：游戏中最多单位是500个，不管是什么。一旦到达了这个最高值，游戏便会基于不同方式去处理它（例如在《VGA Planets》中，它便使用了受到你所破坏的单位数量影响的点数系统去决定谁将在位置被掏空时创造单位）。《沙丘2》则较为简单：不管何时当单位遭到破坏，任何当前“已经准备好部署”的单位都将填满那个位置，但是会使用哪种算法则是随机的。
例如，Terran SCV（建筑者）是主流（在建造期间将留在建筑工地，之后会恢复其职责），而Protoss Probe则可以开始建造建筑并在Zerg’s Drone需要为了创造生活楼而做出牺牲的时候离开。
《星际争霸》拥有“分层逻辑”，即为了绕着技术树的任何轴前行而采取的逻辑步骤。其中的一个关键工具便是分层资源的整合：Vespene Geyser（Vespere Gas）。
Retro Mortis: RTS (Part 1) – It was found in a Desert…
By Michel Mony
(You may freely skip this Preface without risk)
Let me preface this by saying that I realize a lot of what is to follow will be built upon conjectures and subjective observations. Regardless, I believe there is sufficient truth or at least food for thought that it warrants being written (and read).
The primary objective of this article is to promote a critical analysis of old “dusty” games and determine the mindset in which they need to be approched in order to be relevant to modern development. It seeks to identify interesting design decisions that have not been replicated since or served as the origin to a more widespread usage. In better understanding how things have become, or the path not taken, it is easier to identify key elements that could be worth (re) visiting.
It is to be noted that, while this article is written in the mindset of establishing a series, it could end up being an orphan. I’d like for this article to stand on its own, but it would greatly benefit from others.
Retrogaming, “is the playing or collecting of older personal computer, console, and arcade video games.” Such activity has gained in popularity over the last decade to the point where several modern games are developed leveraging this mindset. It is not uncommon to see a series reboot by going back to their roots, or implement interesting twists that link back to earlier titles.
I was at the front seat of one such experiment a few years back, when developing a AAA game with a major publisher. Insodoing, the game ended up showcasing short 2D gameplay segments as a reverence to its own origins.
Retrogaming is often taxed with being a phenomenon anchored in the player’s sense of nostalgia, arguing that these games have been idolised based on the memories of childhood that come with. While I agree there is truth to that, I believe this would be grossly underestimating the value of older games.
It is true that games developed 10-20 years ago were limited in scope by technical limitations that could be unconceivable to the modern observer, but such limitations also forced developers to be more creative.
Back then, several of the genres we now know (MOBA, RTS, 4X) simply did not exist. Some visionaries had a rough idea of what gaming experience they wanted to achieve, and it so happened that a game genre would be born from this.
The most common misconception I’ve seen modern players and junior designers exhibit about these precursors is the belief that they were barebone/simple experiences without much depth. From my experience, this could not be anywhere further from the truth, and oftentimes, I have come to realize that having a look at one of these “ancestors” humbles me.
As an example, one of the earliest games, Spacewar! (Released officially in 1962, but in development as early as 1953) was actually a very complex arcade game. For starters, it was a multiplayer real-time game where two ships would fight one another while using their thrusters to prevent collisions, fight against gravity, and attempt to out-maneuver their opponent. It introduced all basic concepts of firing missiles and lasers (projectiles) and damaging the opponent. It had a concept of health points, shield points, and rather complex controls.
But there’s more to an analysis of retrogames than merely tossing random facts about Spacewar! There is actionnable knowledge that has been forgotten, especially in decade-long genres that appear to have an existential crisis and are unable to reinvent themselves. Oftentimes, this answer lies in their early installments.
Today, I’d like to discuss one of these genres: the “RTS” (Real-Time Strategy Game).
There were a number of games that led to the modern appelation of “RTS”, but most agree nowadays that the first stepping stone towards the modern RTS was “Dune 2″. This begs to question what Dune 1 was really about, but it was actually an adventure game (turns out there’s an origin to mismanaging brands earlier than the 21st century!).
Dune 2 would be the first title of many during the “conflict” that opposed Westwood Studios (Now defunct, formerly under EA leadership) and Blizzard Entertainment (now part of Activision Blizzard) between 1992 and 1998.
In a way, a lot of what RTS games are and are not today was forged by Dune 2, and the war that followed. Since the competition for this market was severe (and the demand quite high), production costs had to be minimized and feature creep restricted.
Given the history and ferocious competition for that market share, it is somewhat puzzling that a very popular game such as Starcraft II (2010) would hardly differ from a game made almost 20 years prior. The “RTS War” fell prey to the greater conflict: the war for the best visuals. And for the longest time, we haven’t seen much movement on the RTS scene. Some titles have had better execution than others, but most were cast from the same mold.
Though RTS is a mainstay of game development nowadays thanks to that “war”, a more educated observation is warranted to understand what was earned or lost along the way, and how it can be used today.
There’s a reason why Dune II coined the RTS genre. It was not only because it presented the core of what an RTS should be, but rather because it provided a complete experience and terrific scope. It was, in many ways, a complex experience that needed to be broken down to understand. It even took a while for Westwood itself to break it down to its essence (C&C) before realizing what they had created in the first place.
A number of constants were designed during Dune II, but there were also several concepts that were grafted to it. In a way, it was much more than a MVP, and for the most part, it worked brilliantly.
Dune II established the core of the RTS genre by laying resources on the ground and asking the player to harvest them to fuel military unit production. While this mechanic feels natural to the genre, in the case of Dune II, it is actually there out of necessity: the Dune brand (novels, series and movie) is based around the concept of harvesting spice. Unlike most RTS games, harvesting this precious spice is the primary focus, much moreso than actual combat. Armed conflict is only a byproduct of that race for the spice melange.
While most RTS titles have inherited this mechanic, they’ve all done a relatively poor job at putting this mechanic in context (including Tiberian Sun that blatantly mimicked Dune in that regard). For example, in Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, the player is taught that he needs to harvest from local resources (wood and gold) to erect their outpost. For the first outpost, it makes a lot of sense as this is a new settlement, but as the conflict proceeds, the player ends up building various outposts. While it is fairly understandable that it is more efficient to use lumbers where they are available (than say, bring them from another outpost a few leagues away), it is a bit puzzling that the player can’t bring along currency and is never explained. While in Dune 2, all spice is sent back to the motherland in-between mission, and a new colony/mining site is erected during each mission, this feels artificial in any other context.
Several offenders have simply imported the gameplay “as is” because it was proven to work, but never managed to make it stick with the theme (Command and Conquer, Warcraft, Starcraft, Age of Empires, Empire Earth, and the list goes on).
This is where Dune II excels. Not only has it created an interesting resource acquisition mechanic, but it has actually made it a core part of the game. In Dune II, resource acquisition IS part of the MVP and is not a design mechanic that supports it, and this is a big deal.
As an example, one of the early missions is to simply gather up resources. The player has to realize that creating military units only delays his ability to reach this objective. While many other RTS games have used this as an introductory mission, Dune II comes on top here because the game has made it clear from the very first cutscene that this was to be the primary objective. Only much later in the campaign does this turn into a more global conflict, and the player is told that, in order to secure the resource, it will not suffice to try and harvest it faster, but that elimination of other houses is necessary. Thus, the war is explained as an economic decision.
The legacy of this resource system can be found in various games (namely the C&C series). It has evolved in most cases however, as we’ll be able to cover in a future article. Here, Dune II has only the merit of creating the vanilla concept, as a theme-centric necessity.
Another mechanic that became a staple of the genre (C&C and its derivatives mainly) is the concept of energy. Unlike the concept of “food” which we’ll discuss with our next game, the energy mechanic was used as early as Dune II to limit rapid base building, introduce a concept of logistics, and provide strategic weaknesses.
The Windtrap can be perceived as just “another building to build”, but it achieves a lot more than that. It requires resources to build, which in turn reduces the player’s ability to construct buildings quickly. This form of investment may lead the player to end up investing in units instead of buildings as a result.
Furthermore, it gives a sense that the base is not self-sufficient “as is” and gives the player something to keep watch over. They need to determine for themselves whether they want redundancy or can live with the risk of being short on energy (and the consequences of that can be quite drastic).
More importantly yet, it introduces the concept of base weakness. The enemy AI in this game is not great, but it understands that power is key. As a result, if a Windtrap is located on the edge of a base, and relatively undefended, they will risk a dedicated attack on it just to cripple the player economically. At this point, losing a few units is deemed an acceptable loss given the economic damage involved.
Since Windtraps’ energy generation scales with the building’s health, they don’t need to destroy it completely, just damage it enough to put the base below its requirement level.
Though the player can end up repairing the damage for a fraction of the cost, it’s often enough to compensate for losing units (cost of repairs + time spent under power level).
C&C carried this system along for a bit, and quite a few RTS have revisited it without much improvement to this day. While this implementation wasn’t the most “fun and engaging” mechanic, it showed the potential of having to manage base logistics.
This is where Dune II starts to differ from most of the titles that followed. While the game had a straightforward unit acquisition system (all units have their own individual cost and time to train), it also boasted a “stock-market” mercenary system to supplement it where unit availability and price would vary, and ETA to delivery (shipping) would be a constant.
It allowed players to pay a variable amount of spice (depending on global demand) to field quick reinforcements in numbers. Because the ETA was fixed for all units (marginally lower than actually training units) and that it allowed to field more than one unit in the same delivery, it would be possible for a player to field 4-5 tanks in the time they’d normally produce only 1. The big downside was not knowing how much it would cost them ahead of time, though in “very heated” combat, one may resort to paying a hefty amount for Quads or Trikes (some of the weakest units).
This system was a great tactical addition as it provided players with resources to spare with a means to quickly replenish their armies without having to build very complex infrastructures. It did introduce however a bit of unknown (risk) without it being random (based on player demand). Prices would shift, unit availability would differ, etc.
Even more importantly, these mercenaries were unique in that they allowed every player access to some faction-restricted units on occasion, which gave them a unique reason to exist.
As the time to delivery was fixed, it also allowed to hasten production of “high tech” units or economic ones. Building a harvester, for example, was a long and tedious task that would prevent building tanks. If harvesters were available from the Starport however, they would quickly be shipped and free your production centers for more military units.
In addition, players could save up on “upgrades” by creating defaut units from their production centers, and supplementing their forces through these mercenaries (missile tanks for example, which were generally required in fewer numbers).
Furthermore, the player could build units from the Starport only to ensure that their enemy would not have access to those. For example, if several siege tanks were being sold, the player could choose to buy all of them to deny their opponent a chance to reinforce quickly, and ensure that their ongoing attack would not be met with surprise resistance.
This is a mechanic that has scarcely come into usage, but ended up appearing as a prominent feature in some RTS games much later. In Ground Control, for example, the only means to acquire units is to send out an order to your mothership and await delivery. As a result, all units have a fixed ETA, and unit production is determined only by resources (not actual infrastructure capabilities). While prices do not vary based on demand and remain exclusive to the player, the core principle behind the mecenaries sub-system is still a chief influence of this approach.
Dune II made extensive use of terrain. Unlike most RTS that would follow, it was critical to understand how terrain affected options:
On the one hand, bases could not be built anywhere. They needed to be built upon “rocky” foundations (and ideally, be built upon concrete). This greatly limited the possibilities and allowed the level designers to control base construction. Some levels were harder simply because the player was limited in the amount of space (thus, buildings) they were allowed. The challenge was to make more with less, which was a good means to ensure players understood key concepts of efficient base building.
Furthermore, there were different types of sand. Units would react differently to different terrain types. Some units would roll faster on “hard” sand than they would on regular sand, while others were unaffected. It was important to sync your forces when attacking, and misjudging terrain could result in forces reaching the enemy base out-of-line only to die very quickly.
The inclusion of higher ground also introduced strategic depth. Since most infantry could be rolled over by most vehicles, they would rarely provide reliable firepower, except that they were the only units that could go on higher ground, and then became immune to instant-kill from tanks.
That, coupled with the fact that most infantry would resist big bullets (aside from the anti-personel siege tank) allowed players to put troopers (rocket launchers) on higher ground to guard against tanks and air units, making them a potent addition to any army. It is to be noted that, without higher ground, infantry would’ve been close to useless.
Though the concept of high ground has been used in a variety of RTS games, it was usually mostly employed as a modifier to give advantage to units on the higher ground (better shot accuracy, visibility, or preventing counter-attack). In Starcraft (1), units on the lower ground had a negative accuracy modifier against units on the upper ground, whereas in Starcraft: Wings of Liberty, they simply could not shoot to higher ground unless they had vision to that part of the map (flying unit, or another ground unit in proximity of the target). In the Warhammer 40k franchise, there were terrain modifiers applied to specific chunks of the map that would increase or decrease a unit’s survivability to enemy fire (cover).
Most RTS have however done a relatively poor job at implementing interesting terrain features or modifiers beyond damaging terrain (C&C Tiberian Sun) or terrain that slows down units (C&C: Red Alert (ore fields)).
Dune II introduced some faction asymetry. While the bulk of the units were the same, a few “tweaks” were introduced (namely, a faster/weaker version of the trike for the Ordos, a tougher quad for the Harkonnen, stronger infantry for the Harkonnen, etc.) as well as two unique units per faction.
The Atreidis were the only house with offensive air support which forced their enemies to drastically re-think their defenses (more rocket turrets and troopers, less tanks). They also had a Sonar tank which did AoE damage which was particularly efficient vs enemy concentration of forces (such as infantry) but could also cause friendly fire.
The Ordos had a terrific tank that could confuse enemy troops and temporarily mind-control them. It could also field a stealth unit called the Saboteur to cause critical damage to structures (later re-used as the engineer in the C&C series).
The Harkonnen had a devastator tank which was simply a buffed and extremely costly version of the tanks. It also fielded atomic missiles which allowed it to strike without fear of retaliation.
Though the bulk of the forces were the same, these slight asymetries really changed the way one would approach an enemy depending on their house. Playing Ordos vs. Atreidis was nothing like playing Ordos vs. Harkonnen.
This was leveraged by later titles, originally only under a cosmetic form, but eventually led to the much acclaimed design of Starcraft 1, where each faction was entirely different. It is but one of the latent concepts brought forward in Dune II that eventually saw the light of day (with resounding success!).
Possibly the single most significant yet often misunderstood feature of the game is the Sandworm.
The Sandworm generally lays dormant on the map until it is discovered by either player. It is a random force of nature that will hunt down whatever it considers food. Generally, it tends to eat whatever is the biggest, strongest yet nearest unit it can see. Oftentimes, this is a harvester (Economic unit) or a big big tank.
While it could be perceived as random (its AI actually has some randomness involved), it is actually a balancing tool. Despite the fact it was mainly added to support the theme and that it is an important aspect of the lore, it actually plays two important roles from a gameplay standpoint:
1 – Balancing: While the AI is random, the trigger is not. Whichever player discovers it first triggers it. The most likely player to discover it is – generally – the one that’s doing “better” (economically). There are two main ways this worm will get discovered:
- either a player mounts an offensive and stumbles across the worm by accident
- a player is looking for resources beyond the ones that were available close to their base.
In both cases, this means this player is doing well: being on the offensive, or looking for more resources means you’re doing better than your opponent, otherwise you’d be dealing with their attack, or they’d have already secured this new resource location and met with the Worm.
Since the player that’s doing better is more likely to end up losing the first unit, it can lead to a dominant player losing its momentum, putting both players back in a situation where everything is possible: it keeps it interesting.
2 – Threat: It gives a sense of threat. The environment is dangerous, and you can’t just scatter units around to get a better view and coverage. You want to pack tight defenses and mobilize your forces only on solid ground. When you do find a worm, you want your formations out of harm’s way, and you’ll want to protect your harvesters and keep a close watch on them. If you’re crafty, you might even attempt to lure the worm to your enemy’s base (I sure did!).
The Sandworm is much more than a random NPC. While the core concept was somewhat recycled in Warcraft 3, it was mostly used as a means to slow progression and level up your heroes. It didn’t quite capture the depth of the original sandworm. To this day, I am unaware of any concept that plays the same role the Sandworm did, as a form of neutral adversary that keeps the match closer to an even-force fight to keep the players on their toes.
Between missions, the player was prompted with a map where they would need to choose the next theater of operations. It was more than a mere cosmetic gesture, it actually changed a lot. In most cases, the enemy would be the same (given the choice to strike at 3 different Ordos territories for example) but the level design would greatly differ.
This allowed for a lot of replayability, and actual decision-making. If you did poorly on a specific map, you could try another and get away with the victory there because it worked better with your mindset.
It also gave you an impression that there were other military officers working with you. Whenever you completed a mission, your team did not claim 1 but 2 or 3 territories instead, but you could also lose some. It was interesting to see the map progression differ depending on your actions.
On a few occasions, in later levels, you were even provided with a key decision: do you want to fight this house or the other? If you felt you had a better chance against atomic warheads than deviators, you could pick the former (House Harkonnen) at your convenience. Although ultimately, you’d end up fighting both opposing houses AND the Emperor.
This mechanic took a fair bit of time to resurface, but it was well executed in the campaign system introduced by Dark Crusade (an expansion of the Warhammer 40,000 RTS). It was successfully supplanted in 2006. It may be surprising that it took 14 years to revisit this mechanice and improve it, but it goes to show how much unexploited potential Dune II has generated with this feature alone.
There is not much to be said of the Fog of War except that it first originated in Dune 2. The concept of hidden information, critical to a good tactical game with high replayability and risk management, was present in this first installment. Exploration had value early in the game. To try and scout the enemy base and get an idea of what would be coming your way was a big part of every good player’s plan.
While exploring the map was critical, the concept of a shroud that regrows when the player does not have “eyes on” a part of the map was not present then. With the advent of multiplayer (which we’ll discuss later) the need for shroud that regrows became prominent, and ultimately supplanted the need for a lay of the land. In Starcraft II for example, competitions reached a climax where all players were familiar with all ladder maps to the point where the original Fog of War was merely a nuisance to inexperienced players alone. One could argue that the Shroud (that regrows) surpassed the Fog of War in almost every regards, but its concept was only brought forth as a response to Dune II’s implementation of the concept of hidden information.
All in all, Dune II was a very strong precursor of the genre. Many of its ideas were re-used, and the few that lay dormant still have a lot of potential.
Its approach to resource gathering is probably out-dated (a bunch of games did better) but it was the most on-theme.
Many of its core mechanics (Mercenaries, Energy, Landscaping and Worms) are still interesting sources of inspiration to introduce a bit of “crazy” in modern designs.
A key element to bear in mind is that Dune II was the result of top-down design, a rare case where building a game from an established media (books / movie) and leveraging from its lore resulted in creative and effective gameplay.
On the other hand, Dune II suffered from the limitations of its time, particularly in terms of UX. A number of innovations that were yet to come were simply not present at the time Dune II was made, and simple concepts such as multiple unit selection, dragging to select unit, and quick right-click action did not make it in. However a number of remakes have allowed to keep the game intact all the while implementing simple UX improvements. (I believe my favorite was Dune Legacy).
Given its Patriarch role, it is hard to compare Dune II with its own ancestors all the while staying within scope of a RTS discussion. Hopefully our next stop will allow me to bridge a more in-depth analysis of the evolution of these concepts.
Retro Mortis: RTS (Part 2) – Then a Blizzard came…
By Michel Mony
While not mandatory, it would be advisable to have read the first part of this article before proceeding.
During my last article, I’ve entertained that Dune II was the original precursor of the RTS genre, and have argued that it had led to a “conflict” that opposed Westwood Studios (Now defunct, formerly under EA leadership) and Blizzard Entertainment (now part of Activision Blizzard) from 1992 to 1998.
The fierce competition during these years helped shape what would become of the modern RTS. I thought it only fitting to take a look at Blizzard’s response to Westood and see where things went from there.
Please note that without Patrick Wyatt’s invaluable recollection, this article would not have been made possible.
Warcraft: Orcs and Humans
Warcraft was a great game that received positive reviews and generated a lot of traction back in the days. When broken down to its essence however, it differs slightly from Dune II. It shines by its ability to condense and simplify the genre, through execution, not feature-creep. In many ways, what makes it great is also a big part of the reason why RTS became streamlined (for better and for worse)
Warcraft’s primary innovation is the concept of multi-player. In Blizzard’s original vision of the RTS, it was a game that was meant to be played competitively. Limited by the technology of its time, it still managed to boast a modem-bound multiplayer system. It even allowed crossover multiplayer on different platforms (PC vs MAC).
Since this was the first foray into the RTS multiplayer experience, it was provided “as is” with limited support. There were no specific gameplay features attached (ladders would only come with future installments).
To make room for its multiplayer, Blizzard also helped define the core differences between the Single and Multi player experiences.
…has an engaging storyline (much more characterization and context than Dune II).
…has a variety of threats and encounters (mirror matches (human vs human), npcs (scorpions, ogres), etc.)
…has a variety of objectives (rebuild a town, survive for a given duration, limited forces (no base), etc.)
…is a head-to-head match-up where both forces have an equal chance of winning.
…places the burden of “fun” on how players seek to defeat one another and assumes balanced opponents are facing off.
Obviously, multi-player would still need to come a long way before it became anywhere close to balanced. Multi-player match-ups in Warcraft: Orcs and Humans were generally one-sided where the player that better understood the game mechanics would quickly come on top. There were no “league” systems or any regulation of any kind.
Though Warcraft: Orcs and Humans was possibly the first serious foray in multiplayer RTS games, this game mode would be honed by future installments, especially Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, Starcraft and Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty. (Warcraft III being left out intentionally)
Resources changed a lot with Warcraft. From mere “spice laying on the ground” they’ve evolved into two distinct sources: Trees (Forest) and Gold (Mine). Yet, the biggest change in the economy is the introduction of the complex economic units: Peasants (Peons).
Peasants are “complex” because they provide the player with meaningful decision-making (and cost of option). They’re both able to build structures (using resources) and harvest resources (acquiring resources). They affect the resource flow positively AND negatively. Choosing to order a peasant to build a structure has several implications:
It removes the peasant from the task it was performing: this is a cost of option as the player is accepting that the ongoing labor will no longer result in resources being acquired. Since the unit is immobilized for a certain duration, the effect can be quite dire.
It consumes resources based on the structure cost. This is another cost of option as these resources cannot be used elsewhere from here on.
It provides the player with a new structure (when construction is completed). Depending on what that structure is, it can help the player economically or militarily, but generally will require further investments. The building generally provides further cost of option (building a footman? at what cost?).
The complexity of these units, and their relatively inefficient collection rate (compared to Dune 2) insured that players’ armies would now have a significant portion of “civilians” (peasants/peons), which in turn introduced a higher level of vulnerability but also some redundancy.
Unlike Dune II, where the base economic unit was armored, and focused, peasants are extremely frail and can be everywhere (and often need to be scattered). The loss of a peasant, though not as threatening as an harvester, was much more common. While the Dune II harvester could be escorted by big guns, the peasants cannot be escorted individually, instead, peasants need to be thought of as “supply lines” which we’ll discuss below.
The concept of complex economic units was upheld and refined through various Blizzard games but also many others going so far as to put a lot more emphasis on these units in games like Supreme Commander.
In Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, resources are a physical entity which adds tactical depth. For example, trees also act as collisions which means that players need to be particularly careful about where they get their wood. Opening their flank in the early game before proper forces are made can lead to unwanted encounters.
Wood thus acts as a natural protection barrier which thins out as one’s base grows, but it still requires proper management to avoid a few obvious pitfalls.
Likewise, proper harvesting of wood around an enemy base may reveal a particularly “weak spot” to invade from, so it is not uncommon to employ peasants to cut lumbers nearby the enemy base to provide more opportunities.
Mines, on the other hand, are extremely focused. They represent a narrow object on the map that needs to be controlled at all costs. Securing a distant mine becomes a critical objective as the mines are finite in nature: whatever gold your opponent gets you won’t be able to get.
Furthermore, mines require peasants to harvest and return home without any “proxy” base to gather from. This results in rather long supply lines that need to be defended from enemy incursions. As a general rule of thumb, the further the mine, the harder it is to defend that supply train, and the more casualties the player will register.
Several series have made good use of complex resources. For example, the Age of Empire series retained the “trees” aspect as most resources occupy physical space. The gold mine system was also refined in various ways, namely by Starcraft which added the concept that a focused resource should require a dedicated investment (refineries need to be built upon Vespene Geysers in order to be controlled).
An often forgotten mechanic from Warcraft: Orcs and Humans that was not present in either sequels was the inclusion of “roads”. These were mandatory to construct buildings and expand the base. In a way, they played the same role as energy, minus its vulnerability. One would have to pay good money to have roads established. This emphasized the need to keep a closed base (use as few roads a possible given the cost).
In a way, roads are the children of the concrete slab in Dune II. The slabs were initially established to insure buildings would be sturdy, but ultimately, it was a means to build proxy bases cheaply (without the use of a MCV).
Unfortunately, the roads pale in comparison to the slabs, and did not add much in terms of gameplay. What it did however is provide a sense of community and strong lore: the players are building encampments, not just buildings here and there. Though the implementation was relatively poor, it was found to be lacking in later installments.
A number of RTS games with a bit more focus on city building have used the roads to great effect afterwards by merely assessing the UX aspect. Having the ability to drag in order to build more than one road every 3 clicks turned out to greatly diminish the negative frustrations associated with road building, and adding a speed boost on units that walked over roads gave it a gameplay purpose.
It is unclear why this was truly added to Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (perhaps playtesting revealed the dangers of “proxy barracks”?) but though its implementation suffered, it remains one of the most under-utilized mechanic in common RTS. Most games that have employed them had a direct link with Roman lore (roads were critical to their multiple campaigns) and I remain perplexed that logistics are not playing a more important role in modern RTS. That being said, its original potential was probably overshadowed by poor UX implementation and lack of tangible purpose: the roads were, essentially, a pain to build, and did not provide much advantage beyond cosmetics.
While Dune II sported a flamboyant limit on building construction, Warcraft: Orcs and Humans decided to put emphasis on units. Dune II had a loose text message to determine that the max unit count for the entire game had been reached which basically pooled all in-game units into a zero-sum game: you would have to kill units if you were to build more of them.
This archaic form of handling unit capacity in games was around for a fair bit of time. For example, the turn-based strategy VGA Planets originally had the same approach: there is a maximum of 500 units in the game, no matter what. There comes a point where the max is reached, and the game handles it in a different way (in VGA Planets, it uses a system of points, which is mostly influenced by the amount of units you destroy, to determine who gets to build units when a “slot” frees up). Dune II was simplistic: whenever a unit would get destroyed, any unit currently “ready to deploy” could fill that slot, but the algorithm that determined which was arbitrary.
Warcraft fixed this design issue by implementing a “by faction” cap. Assuming the maximum amount of units any game could have was, say, 100, this was split across both factions (50 for orcs, 50 for humans). In Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, each “farm” building provides a few units of food (4 if I remember correctly) which means you can create 4 units for each farm. Likewise, your army can never be larger than 4 times the amount of farms you have, or larger than your ultimate faction capacity (half of the game’s units). You can, technically, construct more farms than your actual cap, but they will only serve as redundancy in case other farms get destroyed.
What Warcraft recognized is a flaw in Dune II’s (and many other games of its time) design: because base construction was limited, but not unit construction, it could lead to very aggressive build-ups. Since Warcraft insisted on competitive play, they couldn’t allow it, and farms were a means to favor the defender: Assuming both factions always have the same amount of farms, the faction with the fastest reinforcements will be the one closest to the fight, de facto: the defender. This ensured that no amount of early aggressiveness could fully annihilate an opponent in the early game (unlike the “4pool” in Starcraft for example).
Also, since all units consumed exactly one “food”, players were encouraged to build their tech tree and get the “best units” to fill these slots as quickly as possible. Having a fully capped army of footmen was not desirable when facing off against several raiders (orc knights).
The food system, however, left base growth rampant. Though limited by the construction of roads, a base could freely expand limitlessly.
Food was also very abstract when compared to energy. It was “just a number” and a very static resource. It worked well in its own right, but did not provide much depth.
In many ways, food was not necessarily the best solution, but it was certainly the simplest. It allowed to handle several of the design flaws of the original Dune which simply had no means to handle unit capacity properly, and prevented early rush tactics from being too efficient.
A quick aside here on the feature that “almost was” (as was recently revealed through Patrick Wyatt’s blog): farms were originally meant to be part of a drastically more complex approach to unit development which would’ve resulted in peasants being “spawned” from farms over time, and then trained at the barracks into military units or used as is as economic units. In what he calls a “design coup”, the concept was drastically simplified into this abstract concept. One can’t help but wonder what might have happened should the original system had been implemented.
This barebone “Food System” has been used extensively by the Warcraft and Starcraft franchises, but also in other games such as the Warhammer series. It represents a very abstract means to achieve growth limitation and regulate army sizes. Though somewhat mainstream nowadays, it is important to note that it was found accidentally as a means to simplify an existing design that was deemed too complex at the time. It feels it has become the defacto common denominator of the RTS genre, though that may be a questionable status.
Warcraft: Orcs and Humans’ assymetrical design is much more smoke and mirrors than gameplay. All orc units look drastically different than their human counterparts, but they serve mechanically the same roles. Though some units vary slightly (archers have a slightly longer range but lower damage output than spearmen, and magic units have a slightly varying range) they are fundamentally the same.
The only real mechanical differences comes in the form of spells, and despite this, most are actually the same (they only look different). For example:
Both sides have a spell that allows them to reveal portions of the map (Dark Vision vs Far Fight)
Both sides have a minor summon spells which summons creatures that are fairly similar (the spiders’ damage is a bit more random)
Both of them have a spell that can deal damage to a 1X1 area (over time dmg of 10) (Poison Cloud vs Rain of Fire)
Both of them have a major summon spell which summons a powerful mob (The Demon is strong in melee and random, whereas the Water Elemental is ranged and has flat dmg)
The only spells that trully differ are these:
The Orcs can raise the dead (temporarily) to add a few skeletons to their army and increase their damage output when there are fresh corpses nearby
The Orcs can sacrifice half the life of a unit to make them temporarily invincible (tanks).
The Humans can use “healing” which is particularly helpful economically as it allows to maximize the use of “surviving units” and give an extra boost to forwards in the fray.
The Humans can use “invisibility” which allows them to hide units so long as they don’t attack and allow them deep into enemy lines.
All things considered, orcs and humans play much more alike than the different factions in Dune II, but because they are aesthetically different, it is easy to fall prey to this ruse and choose sides. What Blizzard brought forth with this installment is that it was equally important to support faction identity with pieces of lore and cosmetic overhaul. This is a thought they would build upon when designing their highly-acclaimed Starcraft a few years later.
Dune II had a system for upgrades which allowed players to unlock further units in the tech tree, but it never really capitalized on this system. Warcraft: Orcs and Humans built upon it by adding upgrades that would affect units directly. They went so far as to having buildings that would only be used to improve units as a whole (loosely based on the House of IX building in Dune II).
From upgrades that would improve units’ defenses and attacks up to outright new spells unlocked for spellcasters, these upgrades could easily lead to victory and defeat when misunderstood.
They added an economic layer to the game where knowing when to make units more powerful vs creating a new unit was necessary. Because an upgrade’s value could be measured by the amount of units it would be applied to, it was possible to min/max this strategy when weighting the upgrade’s cost, and a number of players started to understand that it was fertile grounds for very advanced strategies.
Random Map Generator
Borrowing from the Civilization series, the “Skirmish” mode had a random map generator which could potentially result in unlimited replayability.
As time would prove however, the value of this random map generator was limited in that it did not necessarily generate “fair and balanced” scenarios. Later installments would use “ladder maps” instead which had undergone serious level design efforts.
Patrick Wyatt himself, lead programmer and producer of the game, would say that the feature he’s ever been the most proud of was the multi-unit selection created for Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. He could very well be coined with the invention of that feature altogether, which no RTS has shunned ever since. Dune II was simply cumbersome to control, and it called for grouping. Though initially the feature was developed without limitations, some design constraints eventually led to multi-selection affecting only 4 units, thus making the feature much less useful, but nonetheless stellar. Suffice to say this one achievement was to become a staple of the genre.
Yet he also created the control groups (using control + numbered key) which would also become yet another staple, allowing players to command specific groups of units to improve the player’s grip on the game.
As Patrick puts it, the player’s attention is the rarest resource in a RTS, and these additions came a long way to minimize the burden put on their shoulders and allowed them to better interface with the game. One could argue that, aside from multiplayer, Warcraft: Orcs and Humans’ greatest legacy was its sheer focus on User Experience, which given the case, was no small feat.
Warcraft: Orcs and Humans started a process that several other RTS would refine which I like to call “streamlining”.
The good about streamlining is that it makes things easier to use and understand, it lowers the barrier to entry and minimizes the amount of fore-knowledge one has to have in order to learn and play the game. In most cases, this is desirable as it effectively allows to do more with less.
The con with streamlining is that it sometimes eliminate depth. This often occurs when features were not implemented properly. With new installments, designers look at what worked and what didn’t work and they axe features that didn’t work without stopping at “why” they did not work. While this undeniably improves the quality of each subsequent installment it can also kill under-developed ideas that might have truly improved the game significantly.
Warcraft: Orcs and Humans removed the concept of mercenary units which was present in Dune II’s starport (and would later be re-discovered by Ground Control).
It removed the sandworm.
It removed energy (though that’s one system Westwood would not let rot).
It gave up on a lot of the subtleties of landscaping.
It simplified (and almost removed) faction assymetry.
It greatly simplified the campaign map.
It made the minimap visible de-facto (without the need of a specific building).
It reduced the amount of units per faction from 13 to 7-8.
It reduced the amount of buildings from 18 to 8.
Many of these decisions were for the best as it reduced unecessary complexity and resulted in a better management of “depth”, but a few inevitably resulted in the loss of mechanics that could’ve been expanded instead. (I’ve put an asterisk next to the ones I humbly believe would’ve been worth revisiting). Some of these, such as the need for more assymetry, resurfaced years later with resouding success (Starcraft, for example).
I postulate that Warcraft: Orcs and Humans was instrumental to the evolution of the RTS genre. Its legacy is twofold:
On the one hand, it brought the RTS genre to the then rising multiplayer scene, forever associating RTS with PvP competition, and implementing the user interface tools to support that experience (multi-selection, control groups).
On the other hand, it streamlined the original RTS design, focusing on very specific elements of the core gameplay to lower the barrier of entry to the genre, democratizing its use. However, it may have inadvertantly crystallized the core gameplay mechanics for titles to come along the way (sometimes relegating fresh ideas to the oubliette as a result)
Warcraft: Orcs and Humans is not an exercise of originality, it’s an example of execution. Given the risk associated with making this game PvP, the developers chose to stick with simpler designs to create a new dimension: competitive gameplay.
In many ways, this streamlined experience is also largely responsible for establishing the RTS as a genre. Had the game explored many new features, people might have missed how “alike” the core mechanics were and never made any subsequent installments, but Warcraft: Orcs and Humans insured that Westood, Blizzard (and others) would duke it out to figure out who could come up with the best game in this vein.
Retro Mortis: RTS (Part 3) – Forged in Steel…
By Michel Mony
Disclaimer: When I started Part 3, I was hoping to tie the knot with RTS right here, but I already knew there would be too much to add and that a Part 4 would be required. Instead of cutting corners, I’ve decided to stick with the highlights and leave “everything else” for future parts. Sorry if you thought you’d be done with me by now!
There are many ways to classify RTS history. For the sake of this article, we’ll assume that by “second age”, we refer to games that were released several months after Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. These were developed with sufficient observation of the multiplayer interactions that were first showcased in Warcraft, and come with a (perhaps naive) understanding of how multiplayer has affected the RTS as a genre.
In many ways, changing the focus of the RTS genre from that of a conventional single player experience to a competitive e-sport started when players had a chance to play games against one another, and how game developers reflected upon this experience. It shaped and defined new visions and new objectives for the developers, and was the underlying metric against which most decisions to come would be matched.
We’ve already observed that Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty was quite a strong precursor that spawned an entire genre, and it was so meaty there was little a single player game could hope to further achieve. Warcraft: Orcs and Humans was built as both a testament to Dune II (revered by all of the development team if Patrick Wyatt is to be believed) and as an attempt to stretch the possibilites of this game to the multiplayer scene, without fore-knowledge of just how much untapped potential there was along that thread.
Building upon the Multiplayer experience and shifting production focus made sense: On the one hand, there didn’t seem to be that much that could be added/changed to the then-winning formula of the RTS, and multiplayer had already proved it could garner its own share of the sales pot as a retail box feature.
It wasn’t a lack of inspiration, but an actual opportunity that helped crystallize the RTS as it was. Developers did not seek to be inventive in how the RTS mechanics worked because there was simply too much work to be done to fully bring multiplayer to the next step: making it a sport (or Chess 2.0).
Warcraft II is a very interesting installment of the RTS genre. Unlike all previous games, it was built with about 1 year of experience observing players interacting with the first multiplayer RTS. Blizzard’s bet clearly paid off by then: competition had brought a whole new dimension to the RTS genre. They were probably the ones with the best insight into how multiplayer had modified the RTS scene and quickly capitalized on their advantage by launching a title that was clearly a defining moment in the RTS history.
It is worth to mention that Command & Conquer was released earlier and received much praise for its multiplayer support, and storyline implementation (actual movies showcasing then-Westwood employees). To justify my choice of moving forward with Warcraft II, I’ll only quote this:
” By all accounts, Command & Conquer (C&C) was an immediate and unmitigated success when it was released in late 1995. It spawned one of the most lucrative series in videogame history, and its title has become synonymous with real-time strategy (RTS). Yet, the basis of the game was not original. Dune II, from the same developer, had previously established the RTS genre, and C&C was almost identical in many respects. What made C&C such a sensation was its refinement of Dune II’s gameplay ideas with the addition of several key innovations, which set the standard for all games of the genre to come. Internet play and varied styles of play between the different armies in the game were some of the important advances that are now fundamental to RTS. Furthermore, C&C’s flaws clearly showed some areas in which improvement was possible.”
With people setting up for multiplayer sessions, it soon became apparent that Warcraft: Orcs and Humans took too much time off people’s phone lines. Blizzard felt they had a chance to increase popularity of the genre by making the game faster (allowing more players to play, and more games to actually be completed).
As a result, they’ve made the game faster in many ways, most notably through unit movement (which had both an effect on economy and combat).
The expected outcome was to make games shorter and insure people could play more often, but there were also a few byproducts that were introduced by this new “pacing”:
Because the game was faster, player mastery over the input became critical once more. The game slowly shifted away from a tactical game (such as Warcraft: Orcs and Humans) and entered the realm of the dreaded APM (Actions per minute). Here, the problem was not necessarily UX (such as in Dune II), as the game effectively provided tools developed during Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (multi-selection, command hotkeys, control groups), but the effect was similar: an average player would feel there was too much to do and would need to prioritize the most meaningful micro-management-intensive actions at any given time.
Another byproduct of the increased pacing were the strategic implications that came along. Since units still took a fair bit of time to be created, but units moved faster, it meant that the ratio of time to create a unit vs moving it somewhere on the map increased. In essence, it diminished the defender’s advantage significantly: units would take the same time to be created, but it wouldn’t take as long as before to bring these units as reinforcements, insuring the defender wouldn’t benefit as much from having a “higher unit count” when defending his base.
As the defender’s advantage was diminished, turtling became much less potent, and the game really became about projecting one’s force across the map and control it as early as possible (both to see enemy incursions before they occured, and to control resources).
These considerable changes to pacing, though they may not appear to be much, are one of the key elements that would stick in future installments and one of the last cornerstones of a “Blizzard-style RTS”. All future Blizzard RTS followed in Warcraft II’s wake (Starcraft I & II, Warcraft III) along with several other competitive RTS.
In Warcraft 2, time is streamlined. Actions are meant to be fast-paced, putting more emphasis on player execution than strategy. It puts the player under rush and leads the player with the most nerves to victory.
Units are more expandable, and the unit cap has been raised, shifting focus to constant streams of military production.
Economic upgrades also reduce the need for peasants by a bit, further focusing on military production.
To accommodate this slight shift, the multi-selection tool is extended to 9 units to improve maneuverability, and single-click actions (right clicking) allows for quick orders.
The concept of Roads is removed from the game altogether, removing building placement restrictions. With the inclusion of watch-towers, which are defensive buildings, it is now possible to guard any specific position on the map with extra support. Even offensively when needed.
To support “free-building”, it is now possible to erect town halls and some proxy-buildings that allow resource gathering, reducing/annihilating the need for supply lines at a very cheap price. Concentration of forces becomes more prevalent as a result.
Although most of these changes appear simple, they change the game’s nature: Where Warcraft: Orcs and Humans was all about trying to protect long supply lines of peasants cutting distant forests or fetching gold from remote gold mines, the game now starts to look more like “expansions” (small bases) with economical or military focus. It teaches the player that this is the way to play the game now, and it looks nothing like the previous game.
Fog of War 2.0: The “Shroud” regrows…
Yet, there are a few innovations in Warcraft II. One of the most important is the Shroud. Up to this point, most games dealing with “fog of war” only gave the impression of the unknown. The map was covered in darkness, but as soon as a unit revealed a portion of the map, it would remain visible forever.
The original fog of war was more about discovering the “landscape” and much less so keeping tabs on enemy movement.
The Shroud, or fog of war 2.0, actually regrows when there are no units with line of sight to a portion of the map. The landscape itself remains, as this is fairly static, but the knowledge of enemy troops and buildings becomes vague: units are no longer shown, and buildings only reveal the last known status of a given area (disregarding any changes that may have been operated later).
This is an ideal inclusion for a multiplayer game as it forces players to spread their forces to have the information they need. They are likely to spy on their enemies to know what’s coming their way, and it makes it that much better. It is such a good system in fact that it will remain largely unchanged until Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty (but more on that later).
One too many resources? – The Black Gold Case
Since the dawn of time… well not really, but since Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, the idea of more resources had been considered. Dune II had only 1: spice melange. Warcraft: Orcs and Humans had 2, but actually had 3 during development (the third one being rocks I believe).
The development team behind Warcraft II chose to move forward with the idea of a third resource, one that would unlock another facet of the game. Their choice was to have an “advanced” resource only available in the mid to late-game that would provide access to more advanced units (naval) and unit upgrades (some of which affect non-naval units).
Unlike Age of Empires, in order to erect a fleet, a player would need to have control over water before being able to claim their right to it, and tentatively, the first player to dominate the seas could deny access to his opponent and perform interdiction missions to raid its borders. The only means to escape this would be to utilize air units.
This was a tricky move given that oil was not necessarily employed to build more powerful units, but rather, to unlock a different layer of the terrain which was, in several maps, optional. This rendered oil somewhat superfluous. Its legacy however, is that it inspired the concept of a resource that would only become available with some form of investment, and would be helpful for more advance units. Though this can arguably said of lumbers (used to build archers) there was no real form of investment, and it was already necessary for building construction. This concept would later become used in other games such as Starcraft (Vespene Gas).
The Z Axis! – Air units
Air units really made their debut in Warcraft II. They allowed to trade high amounts of resources to take advantage of free-movement. This allowed both access to very efficient scouting units (Zeppelins) and all-terrain capable strike units (dragons, gryphons).
The air units also helped counter-balance the naval units’ economic issue (can’t build some if you can’t control the sea first), but they also allowed to bypass terrain collisions and strike from unexpected angles, fast, and relatively unscathed when desired. This greatly diminished the value of ground units (though they were still stronger on average in 1v1 encounters) and improved the value of mixed arms tactics.
Air units have since been included in many RTS games (specifically those that value mixed arms tactics over maneuverability).
One of the key elements bundled along with Warcraft II was the Level Editor: a simple yet very efficient means to create additionnal levels for the game (playable in multiplayer) which would make the game last much longer. In a Blizzard-style RTS, the level-editor became de-facto (Starctaft, Warcraft III and Starcraft II replicated this) often leading to very popular maps that would evolve into spinoff games/genres (DOTA/LOL or the MOBA genre is often said to be born from a Warcraft III mod).
Starcraft is a personal favorite, so I’ll do my best and try to remain grounded. It was a great, acclaimed game when it was released, and to this day, it spawned the only Blizzard RTS series that is still active (Warcraft’s last installment was Warcraft III, and Blizzard has demonstrated no interest in pursuing the series, finding its RPG elements much more interesting to exploit).
Starcraft’s obvious legacy is pure assymetry. Unlike previous installments of the RTS genre that used a set of similar units or at least economic precepts, Starcraft breaks several rules to bring alive 3 radically different factions (which must’ve been a nightmare to try and balance, as would attest all of the patches it has endured).
This metamorphosis is so deeply encroached in the design that even the “builder” or “economic” units vary greatly.
For example, while the Terran SCV (builder) is fairly mainstream (stays at construction site for the duration of the construction, and then resumes its duties), the Protoss Probe can start the construction of buildings and immediately leave while the Zerg’s Drone actually needs to be sacrificed in the process to generate a living building.
Furthermore, each faction has placement limitations that are unique to them (Terrans can build anywhere, Protoss need to setup a power network of Pylons, and Zergs must extend their creep).
Their Unit capacity is also determined by different means. The Terrans must build a structure that is specifically used to improve their food count, whereas the Protoss have bundled this ability together with their Pylon (already used for placement limitations) and the Zerg have simply tasked one of their units (the Overlord) with production the necessary sustainment for their army.
Lastly, units from each faction differ also in how they handle damage:
The Terrans take damage, and beyond a certain threshold, their structures will start to burn. They can repair damage with their builder unit but only for structures and vehicles, and they have a dedicated medic unit to heal wounds of their organic units.
The Protoss have shields which regenerate very quickly (particularly useful between encounters), but once their life is damaged, they can’t heal it back to full.
The Zergs are all Organic units and have a persistent (although slow) regeneration rate which allows them to run interference and perform hit-and-run tactics more efficiently.
Not only do they not share any unit, but all of their units are functionally different:
The basic Terran unit is actually a ranged unit (the Marine) whereas the Protoss field a formidable melee unit (the Zealot) and yet the Zergs resort to quantity (2 Zerglings in the same egg).
Their tech-tree is altogether different, and “Tiers” are experienced through different means:
The Terrans can attach specific add-ons to their buildings (comsat, machine shop, etc.) to unlock specific upgrades and units.
The Protoss rely strongly upon building inter-dependancy (need X to build Y).
The Zergs must upgrade their Hive to higher levels in order to unlock further buildings.
Overall, each faction feels nothing alike, and it is very hard for a player that has experience with a single faction to know what to expect from his opponents. It emphasizes play experience and planning over tactics but is still largely thrumped by APM…
A small case can be made about “food cost”. Though each faction deals with it differently, the system itself actually changed across the board. Unlike previous installments, each unit has a unique food cost. A Zealot, for example, is worth 2 food, whereas a Marine is worth only 1, and Zerglings are worth 0.5.
Though this may appear as a small change, it changes the game by a wide margin. The problem with earlier titles is that it was actually preferable to save on resources and max the food count with higher tier units (just ogres or knights in Warcraft II, for example, was strictly better than just grunts or footmen).
An adjusted food count changes that by making each unit worth exactly what it should be, and this encourages players not to hold back: when a player fields a 200 food count army he is a formidable opponent, regardless of what tier they are in. And just because his opponent can field 150 food with strictly superior units doesn’t mean he has any chance to win the encounter.
The main advantage of this system is that lower-tier units remain relevant throughout the game match, and the encounter feels less like a tech-race to the best unit and more like a game of blitz rock-paper-scissor. Players need to open up their options and retain an ability to shift production focus at a moment’s notice to better counter their enemies.
Siege tanks, for example, are a formidable threat against ground units and can be fielded in numbers to secure a win, but they still need the support of marines to prevent zergling swarms from rushing in, or air units from dispatching them.
No unit thrumps it all.
Starcraft has a “Tiered Logic” where there are logical steps to take in order to progress along any axis of the tech tree. One of its key tools is the inclusion of a tiered resource: The Vespene Geyser (Vespere Gas).
Unlike previous installements that included secondary resources such as “Wood”, the Vespene Geysers require a hefty investment in resource and time to unlock (Refinery) and have a much more limited income (maxed output with 3 worker units) capacity. The ramifications of these limitations are numerous, but at its core, it permits (and dictates) the concept of a Tiered Logic.
Units that require only minerals to build (and are built from buildings that require only minerals) then obviously become the most readily available (tier 1) and any unit that requires a single building investent of Gas or has a limited Gas cost itself becomes a slightly more important investment (tier 2).
Likewise, further investments of Gas (either through multiple buildings, or higher gas cost) relegate units to further tiers along the tree.
These tiers are a balancing tool that players can learn to rely on: they know, for a fact, that unit X cannot appear before Y units of time into the game, simply because of the logical steps that need to be taken towards getting the necessary gas investment to get there.
Furthermore, it ensures that player can strategize and optimize their resource collection to take advantage of this: a well-prepared player can shift to tier 2 units much more efficiently than a rookie, and can oftentimes claim a decisive advantage for doing so at the right time.
Knowing “when” to build a refinery, and how many to build becomes key to mastering that tiered logic. The elaborate tech tree of each faction creates a large number of permutations and an acute observer may be able to tell a player’s strategy just by the timing of refineries being built, or the amount of units shifting from minerals to gas.
While previous installments sometimes had forced tiers (upgrading the townhall in Warcraft II for example) the tiered logic approach is much more organic and opens up more possibilities. Coupled with actual unit food, this gives players several opportunities and freedom of choice on whether to evolve at all or use of the lower-tier tactics (bio-ball for example).
Starcraft, unlike its predecessors, was released through Battle.net, Blizzard’s online gaming platform. It allowed several multiplayer “metagame” features such as ladders (which would keep scores of win/losses/draws for individual players).
It was also a very efficient platform to match-up 8 players together and provided a number of game modes (including custom scenario).
From simply joining up with a friend through dialup, players could now jump into the fray and faceoff with up to 7 random strangers (or friends) from the internet without having to wait. There was always someone online to play against and playing Starcraft no longer required tuning one’s agenda with friends’.
This contributed to the then rising phenomenon of playing against or with strangers. This also confronted more players to the “online norm” as far as playing skill was concerned, instead of focusing on small pockets of players that would play locally against one another. In essence, this contributed to strategies emerging at an alarming rate, then shifting what many would refer to as the “metagame” (strategies that tend to be dominant solely because certain strategies are in vogue amongst the large populace).
For example, building a supply depot close by a ramp to limit access was not necessarily considered a “good move” by gameplay mechanics’ standards, but after a lot of players followed the 4, 5 or 6 pool rush tactics, it became an invaluable means of breaking early zerging rushes. Likewise, dark templars are a very circumstancial unit, but they became much more potent against volley of protoss players that would play “4 Gate Goon”. Devoid of the metagame that came along with Battle.net’s existence, all of these are doubtful approaches, but in the context of a globalized gaming hub, players were much more likely to face similar strategies reccurently and devise plans to defeat them rather than optimize their “general” strategy.
Balance & Execution
There’s an undeniable portion of “new” in Stacraft. The unique brand, assymetrical design and tiered logic prove this. But Starcraft shines mostly by its brilliant balance.
Coming along assymetrical design came the arduous task of unit balancing: How could matches be kept “balanced” all the while offering drastically different options?
Never before had an RTS put so much emphasis on its Patches. Frequently, patches would be released to counter emerging strategies in the metagame, and insure that skillful play was always encouraged. But the core release itself was already quite a piece of work.
The player community helped shape this balance, always seeking ways to break it (reverse-engineering the exact calculations behind the game). In the end, though Starcraft remains imperfect, it is very close to an evenly matched game, and player input has so much power on that balance that it is almost impossible to abuse dominant strategies: there’s a counter to everything, you just need to have sufficient experience to know what it is.
As a result, Starcraft is another shining example of execution. I would even argue that its popularity stemmed from the mere fact it was closer to chess than any other RTS before its time (although, arguably, an asymmetric version of chess such as Tafl).
Unlike most predecessors, Starcraft handles damage in a very deterministic way, making each outcome known, and limiting hidden information to the fog of war / shroud. This minimizes the amount of gambling and emphasizes the value of min/maxing.
One needs only venture at TeamLiquid to notice how much thought has been put towards trying to find the best counter to everything. Determining when to get these precious weapon upgrades, for example, can be quantified almost easily!
The following years would bring us many quality games, and exciting experiences.
For the most part, however, it is hard to determine what trully distinguishes Starcraft I from Starcraft II, Dune 2000 from Emperor Dune, or even Ages of Empire from most of the aforementionned games. Though the branding, visual quality and feel of these games would feel drastically different, they would remain mechanically the same.
It is true that Stacraft 2 introduced Xel’naga towers, removed fog of war (in multiplayer only: keeping only the “shroud” as most pro players knew the maps by heart anyway) but overall, it is still the same game.
It is true that Emperor Dune introduced new units, making each faction more asymmetrical, but it was still Dune 2(000) at its core.
Even Age of Empires II did not bring much to the table despite being one of the most well-executed games in the genre. It had more resources, which, much like Vespene Gas, affected how players would go about securing them.
Though game balancing kept evolving, the mold of what an RTS was supposed to be appeared to be crystallized in such a way that very few risked venturing away from the conventions. To a degree, the genre became stale.
The Second Age of RTS is still present to this day. Successful titles such as Starcraft II are nothing more than well-executed “second age” RTS games, but they do it well. As their tech tree would allow, they’ve chosen to remain at a lower “tier” but came up with fierce strategies to dominate, and are alive to this day simply because they keep getting better.
An acute observer might rightfully point out that I’m – intentionally – leaving several poignant examples aside. Up to this point, I’ve assumed that all development studios have focused exclusively on the “race for multiplayer”, never attempting to introduce different core mechanics to the game.
This couldn’t be further from the truth, but it helped me separate these games that do fit the mold from the “others”, which I’ll discuss in Part 4. If you’re into that sort of thing… stay tuned!