Real Time Strategy games suck

I was brought up on arcade games where you went to a slightly shabby, disreputable place (kind of like how tattoo parlours used to be regarded – or anything ending with ‘parlour’ for that matter), plonked your coin on the cabinet screen, and waited for your turn to play these amazing, wonderful, mind-blowing things called computer games.

Arcade games were mostly about physical challenge.  The goals were not much more than survival and high score — (you played in front of an audience!)  The choices mainly moment-to-moment spatial and timing decisions that meant the difference between life and death.  Real lizard-brain stuff.  The self-improvement goal was real self-improvement – to get better at the game you had to develop better hand-eye coordination and reflexes.  I suppose first-person shooters are a logical evolution of those games — blurring the line between game and sport.

Physical challenge is appealing in games because the goal of self-improvement is innate to the player, and in ‘twitch’ games it encompasses both game and gamer in the most direct way.  It is also a common way to achieve flow in games — the pleasurable feeling of synchronicity and effortless accomplishment.

But if you aren’t designing a pure twitch game, it can be hard to marry physical challenge with higher-brain-function decision making.  They are somewhat incompatible.  How can you zone-out into a bullet-dodging state of conciousness and be making high-strategy decisions at the same time?  Maybe Ender Wiggins can, but what about the rest of us?

Spelunky manages to combine the two by making the physical challenge just as much about risk-assessment as reflexes.  To get good at Spelunky, you have to master certain physical challenges, but its rarely a stream of moment-to-moment decisions that are being made.  Jumping, climbing, flying and bomb-throwing all require dexterity and timing, but the game generally gives you time to consider which of those activities, if any, would be best, and if what you gain by succeeding is worth the risk of losing health if you fail.

It manages this by allowing the two concerns to be seperated.  The pace of the game is such that you have time to make high-level decisions and decide on a strategy – do I jump down here, blow up that wall, kill that frog and then use a rope to rescue the girl?  Or do I just leave that in the too-hard basket and go for the exit?  Having made the decision to rescue the girl, you can attempt to execute those physical challenges before deciding on further strategy.  In fact, a lot of the decisions you make when playing Spelunky revolve around how to arrange the situation so you have that time to seperate those two concerns.  How to buy time to plan your next move.  And what is planning but setting yourself a series of goals?

Buying time to plan is the major concern of RTS games.  With these games, you have to break your opponent’s ability to plan and implement a coherent strategy, whilst at the same time implementing yours.  Your goal is to remove the ‘S’ from your opponents ‘RTS’.  Once your opponent switches from planning mode to micro-managing his units in order to fight spot-fires, you are in the box seat.  It’s resource management where the resource in question is the player’s own time and focus.  RTS games tend to have three distinct phases — a build phase where the player is concentrating on pure strategy, a middle phase where they divide their time between planning and micro-management as required, and an end-game where one player is spending all of their time micro-managing as they slide inexorably to defeat.

OK, so I have to admit, RTS games don’t actually suck.  Micro-management is un-fun, for reasons I’ll cover in my next post ‘Rules of engagement’, but it seems to be a necessary evil in RTS games where the entire point of the game is to prevent your opponent from making consequential decisions.  And I have to admit that the middle phase of play where both players are pushing their opponent into spot-fire mode demands physical-challenge type of skill.  Not the type of skill that is based on timing and reflexes, but the ability to quickly identify a solution to a problem and implement it efficiently with rapid hand-eye — expending the least player focus (and other in-game resources) as possible.  I can see how this could lead to an ender Wiggin’s style state of flow for a good RTS player, although I’ve never managed it.  Probably why I think that RTS games are a bit sucky — sour grapes!

In many ways, Spelunky is a RTS game.  You plan — you decide on a series of goals — and you then you execute, performing physical challenges in order to do so.  Imagine that Spelunky didn’t allow you to arrange a little planning time.  Imagine that monsters constantly spawned in clear areas, or the ghost appeared on the level at the same time that the player did.  It wouldn’t be the same game, and in my opinion, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good.  It inhabits the middle-ground on an axis between turn-based strategy and full real-time strategy, and it does this successfully by facilitating a steady flow of decision making, even though those decisions are different in nature.

To summarise, offering goals that are fundamentally different in nature, such as Physical challenge + Strategy is effectively asking the player to multi-task, and multi-tasking is not great for engagement and flow.  One way to combat this is to facilitate the player pursuing different types of goals sequentially rather than simultaneously.


  1. Whatever floats your boat I guess. I’m not a huge fan of RTS either, but I’ve sunk countless hours into turn-based strategy (Goddam you Strategic Conquest!). It’s hard to deny the genre’s success, from casual tower defenders like Plants v Zombies through to StarCraft and beyond to MMORTS of which I know nothing.

    The chief problem with the genre, as you’ve identified, is the paucity of delegation. There’s no Agrippa to your Augustus, and no Speer to look after your armaments, I guess it depends on what you want out of an RTS. Do you want to be Churchill, MacArthur, or the guy who makes the trains run on time?

    That’s the evolutionary step RTS needs to take. There are plenty of options for the last two, but none for the first.

  2. I think the basic problem is that micro-management becomes unfun when it isn’t in-line with your current goals. My next post ‘Rules of engagement’ covers that thing.

  3. The problem with RTS games is that they expect you to both micromanage while giving you some of the most awkward controls imaginable.

    1. Hi. Its probably true that controls could be better. Ive only really played StarCraft and AoE back in the day, so things might have moved on a lot since then, but from my experience, the more micro management you do in the middle and late part of the game, the more likely you are to lose the fight. At the start of the match, you only have a couple of units and things in the build queue, so micro-management is essential to extract the most efficiency out of those first crucial couple of minutes. After that, the number of units and potential interactions on both sides quickly becomes too large for a human to manage and you are forced to rely on whatever automated delegation the game provides. Controls and visibility comes into this, definitely, but the best controls and UI in the world is only going to enable you to micromanage a bit more stuff over the amount that a crappy UI would allow. At some point there is a cut off where a human cant cope with the amount of stuff happening.

      And maybe that is the point of RTS games – your job is not to micromanage your way to victory, but to ensure your opponent micromanages their way to defeat, by sending autonomous attacks that overwhelm your opponents autonomous defences, forcing your opponent to deal with them personally. A human can only competently micro manage one thing at a time, so having accomplished that, your second simultaneous attack capable of overwhelming autonomous defences is going to succeed. Victory goes to whichever player can force their opponent into spot-fire fighting mode first.

      So my major gripe with RTS games – being forced to micro manage when you would rather be concentrating on strategic issues – isnt a flaw in RTS games really. Its an integral part of the game. Its unfun, yes – because being beaten and feeling overwhelmed is unfun, not because its bad design.

      However, when the same thing is happening in a turn-based game, for instance, that is the smell of bad design.

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