More thoughts about “character” in RTS games

Yesterday, I wrote what ended up being a fairly well-recieved (somehow) but rambling and ill-focused article for the site RTSGuru.com about how real-time strategy games need more iconic characters, like Kane, Kerrigan or Arthas. I think I may have missed the mark a bit, however.

My online acquaintance (and, I’d like to think, friend) ImperialDane pointed out to me that characterization and personality can go beyond individual characters into faction design, down to providing personalization of the units themselves. See below:

Character or personality in unit design, animation and sound can indeed have a huge impact on a game’s emotional resonance. Perhaps not to the extent of a truly outstanding cast of characters, but in some cases a game just does not lend itself particularly well to this. World War 2 titles, and historical titles in particular, tend to approach their topics clinically. This is a touchy subject, and it’s easier and less controversial to make a Wargame: Red Dragon than a Company of Heroes 2.

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The words these units speak, the way they move, the colors and sounds involved in unit design and interactions, all can speak to a player. Relic is very good at this: unit interactions in Dawn of War were highly praised when it was released, and rightly so: many detailed interactions (sync kills, melee combat) were executed beautifully, and were only improved upon in the second game. Dawn of War 2 is one of the best looking and most… visceral? Cinematic? RTS games ever made, easily.

The Company of Heroes games carry right along with this theme: they are perhaps the most cinematic World War 2 RTS produced to date. Relic’s own Quinn Duffy is attributed to saying that the company is committed the the cinematic experience in their RTS titles. They want their very multiplayer matches to feel like they’re telling a story.

Homeworld, of course, also evokes emotions just from the art and sound design. Watching the gameplay is… haunting. Gorgeous. Certainly, memorable.

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Blizzard, too, are masters of making the very units in their games engaging and relatable. If Dawn of War was one realization of an engaging gameplay experience, WarCraft 3 was another. From the utterly delightful unit vocalizations when clicking on units (who hasn’t spent an entire skirmish match just listening to all of the things your units say?) to the personalization involved in leveling and itemizing your heroes, WarCraft 3 is a paragon experience both in terms of gameplay and emotional resonance. Likewise, the more intimate scale of combat (in my humble opinion, it’s much easier to make gameplay relatable when you deal with smaller scale combat) means that each unit can feel more important, each loss can be felt that much more keenly. Animations in WarCraft 3 are engaging and appealingly cartoonish, and units look, feel, and act distinctly from one another. In too many RTS games, units can feel disappointingly similar, generic or without personality in many cases.

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In a game like Supreme Commander, it’s much harder to feel connected to your faction and your units. Your Commander unit is not unique from other commanders of that faction, nor does he look particularly compelling. Most of the time, too, your very structures and units are represented by icons, increasing the emotional distance between the player and their tools. Even zoomed in, it’s hard to care about fighter/bomber #122.

That’s certainly not to say that Supreme Commander and Total Annihilation and similar games aren’t good. They, and Command and Conquer: Generals are examples of games whose very mechanics are so compelling and addictive, they win over fans. These games also appeal greatly to RTS tinkerers and modders, though on the surface I couldn’t tell you what about these titles are more attractive to that crowd.

I don’t really have any more to say specifically on this topic right now, but I hope it was interesting.

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