[Article] The Real Time Strategy

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[Article] The Real Time Strategy

Postby IskatuMesk » Wed Jan 07, 2009 3:52 pm

This article is wrote based on my views as an individual. They do not represent the views of CC as a whole and should not be treated as such. This article may not be recited anywhere else, in part or in whole, without my written permission.

The Real Time Strategy
Why the RTS' of today and yesterday are all miserable failures

I am IskatuMesk. I've modded games for ten years, spanning across virtually all of Blizzard's PC titles, to Age of Empires, to Halo PC, to Supreme Commander. I'm a hardcore gamer and an extreme perfectionist in all walks of life. I demand nothing but the best of the best for my entertainment. Laziness and sloppiness stick out like a giant cock in the middle of a rainbow. As a result I am a difficult man to please and these modern titles just don't do the job.

Recently a thread appeared on TL with the title along the lines of, "Why did other RTS' fail?"

Predictably, the majority of responses were along the lines of, "Because they weren't competitive enough, like Starcraft"

This got me thinking real good. And so today, I'm going to rant to you about something other than my personal problems, even though I'm technically not supposed to be posting at all! So, sit down, get yourself enough alcohol to drown a hippo, and get ready for some god damned down-to-earth ranting.


What makes Starcraft a success, and other RTS' failures?

Many dumb, ignorant people will squarely point their crosshairs at Korea when questioned about Starcraft's success. But the thing is, Starcraft isn't just popular in Korea. Starcraft is a highly popular game around the world and represents the finest talents, both in terms of players and in terms of organizations, across games as a whole. Starcraft is the pinnacle of gaming and the pinnacle of professional Esports. How did it reach this level of esteemed glory, and why?

In this article I'll attempt to dismantle the inner workings of the RTS genre as a whole and bring out important points in what I believe to be extremely pivotal aspects of an RTS that makes it fun to play, be enrichly filled with replayability, and age well. To do this, we have to find a point to start off with.

Many stupid people compare Starcraft to games like dawn of war and say something completely retarded like, "Dawn of war is better because the graphics are pretty!" When dawn of war looks like washed out garbage. Some braindead Americans compare Supreme Commander to Starcraft and say Supreme Commander is better because Starcraft is a "clickfest".

Arguments like this bring up dumb and pointless debates with no value to them!

Time is the greatest test

To "succeed" in my eyes, a game must age very well. Financially and as a result literally, games like dawn of war are a success. Companies make games to make money and feed each of their staff's 20 overweight children and repair the holes in their thatch roofing for the next summer rain. These games sold, they were a success. Period. Some games didn't sell, and were a total failure. In the eyes of the majority of developers, this all that matters. As time has passed, those developers who thought otherwise were bought out by evil mega corporations and forced to mend their ways.

So that brings us to a question that we ask outside the box of corporate bastardism. What makes a game age well? What makes a game shine above others?

Why is C&C garbage and Starcraft amazing?

There are so many factors at work, but most of them are rather inane and not worth talking about. So, I'll try to dismantle a few key points that I feel are major factors in deciding why Starcraft has lived so long but looks better than my mother did at her best of years.

I am speaking from the perspective as both a player and a modder. I don't believe that a game that has already reached a state of "Competitiveness" suddenly makes it a success. I think that key points that help it maintain that level of esteem for some time, and help keep the progaming scene from becoming stale, are more important than simply saying WELL LOL 20K PEOPLE ARE PLAYING IT ON RELEASE OMG which if such a point were brought up would be crushed because at any given time there are more people playing SC than there is anyone playing every other RTS combined.

The blending of Engine and Style

Unlike Warcraft 3, Starcraft's graphics have aged extremely well. They are amongst the highest quality "pixel art" you can find. SC's resolution is an offensively miniscule 640x480 and it doesn't represent the strongest technology of 1998, but it looks good and it's believable. It remains easy to read, but is sufficiently flashy to convey key actions.

Another thing about Starcraft is that, unlike C&C, RA, Tiberian Sun, and RA2, is it's engine isn't clunky. It feels smooth, it looks smooth, that's the only way I can explain it. Units respond well, the system is basic but controls all of the finer points.

The system is as important as the graphics. The graphics and the "engine" are the first things you experience and act as your way of communicating with the gameplay. As much as kids like to constantly abuse the over-used line, "Graphics don't matter, only gameplay does!" they fail to realize that it's the graphics that convey the gameplay in the first place. If they look irritating, like 90% of every game out there, are over-done like RA3, or under-done like SC2 currently is, they become stale and lack sufficient strength to hold your attention enough to really focus on the gameplay.

For some reason, only after SC2 was announced, did suddenly everyone become completely apeshit about "Readability". Suddenly, you're judging a game you've never actually played before based on horrible quality youtube videos and saying you don't know what's going on, when individuals who have played the game have clearly stated it's readable. Unfortunately, Blizzard has listened to these retards and completely destroyed the effects in sc2.

I think an RTS should have a lot of effects. In sc1, when a unit dies, it either explodes in a plume or gore or gives off a nice fireball. You know that unit just died. In sc2, they either fall over and kind of vanish after a second, or they just vanish in a cloud of unsatisfying colors. In other games you get various levels of effects, but these are the two opposing extremes and serve well for our comparison.

Next to effects we have style. I don't think styles should be abused. Cartoons don't fit in 3d, especially like how wc3 did it. These graphics do not age well. Starcraft's style wasn't so ridiculous, but it wasn't a full attempt at realism, either. And, face it - SC still looks good. Another game that looks good to date is Earth 2150. This is one of the first true 3d RTS' ever made and it utterly destroys games like Total Annihilation and it's one of the few RTS' that ever came close to Starcraft in some respects.

Earth 2150 was not a terribly graceful game, but it looked good, and it ran good. Ok, I played this game on a 100 MHZ M cyrix II with 4 megs of built-in video memory. Just like I played wc3 on the same machine. I'm a masochist.

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Back to the sc1 vs sc2 argument for a second -

We've yet to see any high-def gameplay except from Blizzard's battle report and other such videos. Basing readability on 300x200 videos for a game designed for a minimum of like, 1280x1024 is fucking retarded and you should burn in hell. Period.

Back to business!

Some of the newer RTS' looked ok, but many of these had extremely poor engines and very poor functionality. Dawn of War falls into this category. It looks decent, pretty outdated for its year, but it runs very well. Except the engine is fucking retarded. Like some other games, Dawn of War felt inclined to force AI-controlled squads into a genre that doesn't need them. Squads with retarded AI.

Let me spell it out for you: Squads do not belong in an RTS. Period. There is a variety of reasons for this, but for the moment, I'll stick to control.

Squads remove control from the hands of the player and, graphically, can get very confusing. I'm looking at you, Dawn of War! Control often became infuriating, especially on a map any more complicated than a giant flat square (which was hard to find, mind you). This difficulty in control pulls you away from the gameplay and more into a symphony of smashing your face into your keyboard.

Everyone has their opinions on what graphics look best, because graphics are all in the eye of the beholder. I hate cartoons and I hate exagarrated proportions and I hate unrealistic and overdone animations. Ra3 is a prime example of how you can take an otherwise ok looking style and fuck it up with miserable animations. Actually, every C&C from generals and beyond is like that. Their animations are wretched. Dawn of war had nice animations. Dawn of war had utterly terrible control and gameplay.

Balancing - The pitfalls of the RTS

The whole balance thing has been done to death, but have no fear. I don't intend to preach on SC's 3-4 year old balancing system and how awesome it is, because we already know that SC is virtually perfect, that map terrain actually has a value unlike in virtually every other RTS, and that even over 10 years it continues to evolve. I won't preach on how SC is amazing because it's easy to learn but challenging to master, providing a degree of depth that can provide for both the casual player and the slanty-eyed calm-faced hero of our dreams.

Nay, I'm going to rant about different, but still related topics.

Balance is one of the most important aspects of an RTS, if not the most important. Even an RTS that is technically fun to play is totally ruined by balance problems.

The largest, biggest, most obvious pitfall in terms of balancing is Hard Counters. Hard Counters are systems like in Dawn of War, also known as Rock Paper Scissors. Hard Counters destroy competitive gaming in every sense of the term by removing the skill factor, removing the strategic factor, removing the tactical factor, and replacing them with predictable, stale garbage.

Someone might get the bright idea to argue, "Well, SC has hard counters, too! For example, vultures can't do damage to dragoons!"

If you're such a person, I'd like you to kindly stop reading, get up, and plant your face into your monitor as hard as you possibly can. Thank you.

Starcraft's damage system seems to resemble a hard counter system, but intuitivity, player strategy, and micro all help round out key units in this argument. Ghosts, vultures, and the like are the primary candidates of showing off that even if they can't directly fight certain units, giving hint to a rock paper scissors kind of gameplay, they can, and will, fuck you up viciously when used correctly. In other RTS', a Hard Counter is a Hard Counter, and you're fucked; ie, Warcraft 3 and Dawn of War.

Although counters are not necessarily a complete paragon of evil, they must be used in moderation, very careful moderation, to promote creative and imaginative gameplay. As Blizzard themselves said, they did not expect SC to become such a huge success - practically founding Esports, along with Counter-Strike and, later on, Halo. The challenge is, now, to recreate that balance of strategy, discipline, and unit flexibility.

By forcing specific activities, like how Dawn of War did by giving half of the units very small hard caps and rigidly defining damage systems, and like how C&C always does with its completely rigid and braindead damage system, these games cause gameplay to become exceptionally stale very quickly. Supreme Commander steps outside the box by instead using a very rigid tier and economy-based system, promoting a clever but still plain and overall uninspired and repeditive method of balancing.

Something hard counters and extreme maneuverability also discredit is terrain value. In starcraft 2, currently the races are so mobile that terrain has lost its value to a degree. In warcraft 3, terrain means virtually nothing. In Dawn of war, there is no fucking terrain to speak of. You can't factor cover areas into this, because cover areas are also rigid and for the most part play extremely little if any role in the grand scheme of the game and are more or less gimmicks rather than worthy features.

In Starcraft, the terrain ultimately determines the gameflow, the metagame, and the overall strategy the players will undertake. Even minor changes in seemingly similar maps can bring out entirely different gameflow, and significantly different maps, say Othello and Plasma, will have entirely different games and ultimately keep the matches fresh and interesting, even if they are in a Bo5 mirror matchup between equally skilled players.

In short, Hard Counters hurt the player badly. Not just the hardcore player, but the casual player. If the game is always going to play out the same way, or if you're simply playing a glorified version of Checkers, what is the goddamn point? Even a game that is clever, visually and aesthetically appealing can murder itself viciously if its developers pull a Relic and utterly mutilate the gameplay.

There's also the whole argument for SC2 on how MBS ruins the macro gameplay which I don't agree with one bit (Even more flawed is using wc3 as an example for this argument), but I think they'll figure it out once they actually get the game in their hands.


The game of numbers, or the game of passion?

I think the best games to compare in terms of unique differences are Starcraft and Supreme Commander. Not only is Supcom a complete and total failure in terms of playerbase and developer support, it's also completely different as an RTS. These differences help us learn why Supreme Commander's Expansion, Forged Alliance, has only ever had a maximum of 1k players on at any given time and why GPG has abandoned it.

I've never played total annihilation but from what I hear, and have seen, it's terrible. Supreme Commander is the sequel to Total Annihilation and I really think they've learned nothing from the failure of their previous game. Supcom isn't all that bad, though. It's decently balanced - until you start factoring in the tiers and experimentals - and it looks and feels fairly good to play. So why did it fail so miserably?

You can't place the blame on the Playerbase being full of retards, because Blizzard's community is unmatched in terms of overall stupidity and brain damage per member quota.

Part of the blame rests on GPG who has shown little support for the game. Although they've proven very helpful to the modding community, an overall first for the RTS market, few patches and massive amounts of problems easily fixed by modders but completely avoided by the developers puts off old players and as a result starts the spiral. Instead of fixing the original game, GPG makes an EA-esque decision and forces out Forged Alliance which introduces a whole new wad of issues. A lot of the new "Features", like the new fog of war rendering system that doesn't make a difference but eats tremendous amounts of computer power, the new range rings which utterly destroy FPS when displayed en masse, and an AI so broken it's unbelievable that even the most horrible of QA let it through, all accumiliated to an otherwise underwhelming release.

While not jumping too deep into the whole "Bad expansion" deal, while FA did add a new race, the new race is terrible in terms of lore and executing, with the voice acting in the campaign being so bad that every time I hear it I get an uncontrollable urge to punch every single member of the game's development staff in the face until my hand is drenched in blood and feces, and overall design so completely similar to the other three races - whose differences are only minor until you reach the 1-hour game units - I really got to wonder how bad TA must have been for them to improve upon it in this direction.

Once released, FA has been left almost untouched. I can't recall most of the bugs off hand, but a few I know of and personally have run into include bombers refusing to fire, builders refusing to build, unholy netcode glitches, Sim bugs, completely broken AI, certain ships being completely and totally unable to hit land targets because their beams go into orbit, and extremely poor projectile CPU performance, commander laser freaking out when building, and others.

It's this kind of support, exactly like the piss-poor support Obsidian gives NWN2, and the rushed nature of the expansions and game content, just like Obsidian gives NWN2, and the blatant copy-pasta nature of development, again NWN2 standing out in my head, that makes games die very quickly. When a developer doesn't care about what he's producing, what he produces tends to be garbage. I guess Supcom had to be a financial success because GPG is still releasing lackluster titles like Space Siege, but from the stance of a gamer, it provided entertainment but isn't something I would consider very successful.

Starcraft on the other hand has never gotten old for me. Speaking purely as a player, I don't give a shit for UMS and haven't since 2001. I mean as a melee player, on a somewhat decent level, who has an understanding of virtually all of the game mechanics, metagame flow, and professional-level gimmicks, who used to play strongly and regularly. As a modder I gained an intimate understanding of the game and the way it works, further bringing into question the levels of stupidity involved with horrible and broken engines like that which Dawn of War and C&C3/RA3 use.

Starcraft's engine is far from good, in fact it's fucking terrible and whoever coded it should be shot, but by God it somehow works and it works well for what it was designed to do.

The way Starcraft's control flows places the fates of units directly in your hands and not in the hands of pre-determined algorithms. Although vultures may die to dragoons in a fight, it may not necessarily end that way depending on what you choose to do with them. In other games, few circumstances will ever change the outcome of a battle, and this level of excitement and demand of skill is what draws people to Starcraft. This level of control places you directly on the battlefield and directly responsible for what happens. It's not a clickfest. It's a game of logic. I had less than a third of the APM of a professional player but my micro was still incredibly good because I played by passion and instinct, like most other players. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but my failures are my own and not because the game restricted me.

High risk, high reward

If you're a starcraft player, you know the Reaver is amongst the most dangerous and awe-inspiring units in the game. Its concept isn't new, or original; nothing about Blizzard's games are. It's fat, slow, squishy, and hits really fucking hard. Its projectiles tend to get stuck on shit. Combine a reaver with a shuttle and you have the recipe for some truly epic gameplay.

In professional Starcraft, the reaver makes or breaks a good protoss, and provides some of the most exciting moments for players and the easiest opportunity for the trio of commentators to go completely berserk. This type of gameplay, called High Risk High Reward, can be directly related to this mechanical slug and its chirpy companion. If the scarab gets stuck on something, it may explode and do no damage. If you position the reaver right and get a good shot off, you may devastate your opponent's economy and potentially win the game.

In sc2, the reaver was replaced with the Colossus, whose damage doesn't even follow the projectile's graphic, has absolutely no micro involved in its use, is big, beefy, and can walk over cliffs. A simple, uninspired, unintuitive unit with a very blatant and cliche role. This is an example of destroying a mechanic and simplifying the game, perhaps in favor of Blizzard's supposed "Encouraging casual players" without realizing that SC is just as friendly to the mythical "casual" player as it is to Koreans who sleep with their fingers flying across invisible keyboards playing a symphony to boxer's Immortal Marines, or perhaps it's in favor of being completely braindead and having a developer who's never actually dealt with a game designed to be good.

I point out these examples to make a point. Although something may not be very original or have a spell that involves all sorts of mathamatics and pre-calculations to determine if it's more efficient than another spell, passionate and instinctual use of this unit will prove more entertaining, more challenging, and more rewarding both ingame and as a hobby or as a sport than a set of mechanics that will always play out the same way.

This is what separates Starcraft from virtually every other RTS in existence. Blizzard probably didn't intend it this way, and my money's on them falling short of replicating it in SC2, but that's how things are. This style of playing, and the factors that lead into it, are what separates SC from other games and no matter what excuses or names people have for it, that's virtually what's happening. By simplifying game mechanics, by destroying visual aspects, by trying to cater to an audience that doesn't exist, you take out the factors that make an RTS what it really is - Real-time strategy, an intellectual genre that pits players head-to-head in a game forcing them to use their skill, cunning, guile, and instinct as a means to tactically and strategically overcome their opponent using a variety of elements and techniques.

By being easy to learn but difficult to master, Starcraft sets an impossible bar for other companies to reach because they constantly try to gimmick their way through the gameplay and do not pay attention to the key elements that gave foundation for this success. It is my belief that SC was the last great RTS to date, and that the ten years of its existence are a testimony to the factors and the importance of the factors that are responsible for this long life.

I like to rant sometimes.
Last edited by Anonymous on Thu Jan 08, 2009 8:26 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: [Article] The Real Time Strategy

Postby Whiplash! » Wed Jan 07, 2009 5:48 pm

I agree with most of your points but I wish you could have written up your thoughts on supreme commander, it actually forces you to micro to do well but at the same time you have to deal with squads which is gay as fuck. On top of that there isn't much macro involved (from what i've seen anyway) which takes a way a lot of the RTS experience. The only other RTS games I have been able to somewhat enjoy are red alert and age of empires, and that's before I played Starcraft and they followed some of the more important aspects of making a halfway decent RTS.
¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Re: [Article] The Real Time Strategy

Postby IskatuMesk » Thu Jan 08, 2009 8:22 am

Um. Supreme Commander doesn't have squads and it's an exclusively macro-oriented game.
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Re: [Article] The Real Time Strategy

Postby wibod » Thu Jan 08, 2009 12:41 pm

Well we can sure tell who has actually played, watched or even seen a screenshot of SupCom and who hasn't.

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Re: [Article] The Real Time Strategy

Postby Whiplash! » Sat Jan 10, 2009 12:34 pm

I haven't played Supreme Commander so I was just basing my opinion on other RTSes I know more about.
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Re: [Article] The Real Time Strategy

Postby Raging Mac » Fri Jan 23, 2009 12:30 am

Blizzard needs to read this. Unedited, uncensored. I swear to Satan, THIS, your rant, Dr., is a goldmine of reasoning. I knew the Reaver was a popular unit, but... I'm now practically fully aware of SC's greatness. You've summed up my thoughts and more.

Yes, without a doubt, you should seriously consider emailing this to Blizzard. They're a good company, better than many, but perhaps they don't fully realize why SC was so, damn, GOOD. If that is the case, then this rant will enlighten them.

I'm dead serious; to me, it would be a waste to not somehow forward this piece to Blizzard, either via E-Mail, or their forums, or both, etc.

There's still time, the beta isn't out yet; the graphics & effects (especially death anims, thats been nagging at me for awhile) can be improved, the units as well.

Hell, I'll do it for you- that is, if you don't mind ;D
Last edited by Raging Mac on Fri Jan 23, 2009 12:33 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: [Article] The Real Time Strategy

Postby IskatuMesk » Sat Feb 07, 2009 2:12 pm

Blizzard has ignored everything I've ever submitted to them and this would be no different. Don't waste your time.
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Re: [Article] The Real Time Strategy

Postby WB » Sun Feb 08, 2009 1:26 am

Kinda surprised the wrait and corsair were cut, not as much for the reaver tho. :|
Last edited by Anonymous on Sun Feb 08, 2009 1:35 am, edited 1 time in total.
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