Within the standard real time strategy genre (along the lines of Command and Conquer, Age of Empires and Starcraft) there is a real sense of progression as the game moves along, having fairly clear early, mid and late game. This is drawn out in a few ways, resource expansion, technology improvements and overall growing unit population. Some games, notably the Age of Empires series, has even more clear cut barriers between stages of the game. Other series only have two stages, take the Supreme Commander series, there are really only two phases to the game, the slow expansion and turtling phase followed by the clashing, reinforcing and tipping point stage.
Unlike Age of Empires, where the stages are fairly even in length and get longer as the game goes on, in Supreme Commander the actual battling is the much shorter aspect of the game, prior to it you’d often have build ups and defensing lasting as long as an hour or more. But what does this all mean, where am I going with this? What I want to talk about is the aspect of time within the RTS genre, how games use it differently (both in single and multiplayer) and the differing styles we’ve seen. Today we’ll start with the single player aspect. How Does Time Apply to a Single Player RTS?
In the early days of level design for single player campaigns the developers, for the most part, just took a multiplayer map and applied the story to it, they were usually just: – Defend your base – Build an army – Attack your opponent – Win. This was especially true in the early Blizzard real time strategy games, but was most obvious looking back on Starcraft and it’s expansion pack Brood War. For example let’s look at this campaign map: While not perfectly symmetrical but as the player you start in the upper left and your opponent is in the bottom half of the map. The only real thing to spice it up is an initial skirmish to start the map before you retreat to your respective bases. You are given an easy to defend base and from there you are to build up an army and slowly sweep through the map and take bases away from your opponent. As a child I played Starcraft and since there was nothing to nudge you along into the map I’d spend an hour building up my perfect army and then move out and win, with most of my time spent in preparation rather than actually interacting with the map or opponent. Now when the game did introduce time as a factor it was in the form of “Defend your base for X minutes until X arrives to save you” which isn’t a bad mechanic but to me it’s a lower form of motivation.
Not to pick on Starcraft too much, this existed in Warcraft 2 and 3, the Red Alert series and even in many RTS games that have come out in recent years. But some developers have learned and improved their level design, let’s look at Blizzard and they steps they took from Starcraft and Warcraft 3 to Starcraft 2. In the first three introductory levels of Wings of Liberty, two of the levels have no timer and the third does feature time as a factor it’s in the form of a “defend until help arrives” mission. After these three levels there are 26 missions and among those missions 22 of them have an aspect of time trying to motivate the player to act. Let’s look act my favorite mission that shows this form of “soft” time limit that I’m talking about. In this mission your army starts on the left side of the map with a wall of fire moving eastward (the red line with the arrow), as the planet’s sun is going supernova, forcing you (starting in the blue base) to quickly destroy opposing bases (those in red), claim them for your own resources because your base will soon be overtaken. If you take too long you will eventually lose because the wall of fire won’t stop until it consumes the entire map. The fire isn’t slow either, the map ends between 20 to 40 minutes after it starts, depending on the difficulty. This puts a time limit on the mission without putting a clock at the top of the screen, a “soft” time limit.
You are busy trying to build an army quickly, defend against attackers and take a new base all while watching this fire inch closer to you, as a player you don’t see it as a clock. This style of campaign design is quite ingenious and something many developers should learn from. Let’s look at another example of “soft” time limits from Starcraft 2 again. I’ll be honest, as I was researching this I took examples from games like Company of Heroes and World in Conflict but they paled in comparison to the mission design that Blizzard has developed so while it may be redundant, I wanted the best possible examples so this is another Starcraft 2 mission.
In this mission your goal is to destroy your opponent in the top side of the map (your opponents bases are in red), though he has a variety of mining bases throughout the level. But prior to the mission starting your are offered to hire mercenaries to fight for you (the forces in green) but are warned that if your opponent reaches the minerals needed for pay, the mercenaries will fight against you. If you fail to hire the mercenaries you can still win, the mission will just be significantly more difficult. With this in mind players have to balance saving money to pay the mercenaries, build units and also defend their base.
But another factor the level introduces is you can slow the mining of your opponent by destroying his bases, both increasing your income while weakening his income. With the right balance players can gather enough minerals, hire the mercenaries and easily win the mission. This example doesn’t have the fiery death waiting if you take too long like the last one but it does present choices, that if you just sit, mine and build up your army, your opponent will gain a huge, and immediate, advantage, this encourages you to leave your base and be active on the map. Far too often in the development of single player campaigns mission developers merely take a multiplayer map, slap some story paint on it and toss it out there.
We can do better than “Defend, build up and kill” or “Don’t die for a while.” Even within the map making communities of games like Company of Heroes, Generals, Starcraft 2 and World in Conflict we are seeing creative campaign missions made by fans that are more inventive than many designed by large companies. To me it comes down to the fundamental aspect of designing a map, we want the player to be doing something, anything. Whether that’s raiding an enemy base, adjusting their defenses, migrating, competing for scare resources or map objectives, you don’t want the player waiting for their dream army behind an easy to defend base. We want interaction and reaction, when a player is active (obviously there is a fine line between too much busy work and meaningful decisions) they are usually happy, they’ll want to continue what they are doing, they are less likely to save mid-mission or not come back, they want that stimulation.
In the next article we’ll look at how at the natural progression of multiplayer games, how game designers can build timers into maps, and ways to improve or alter the paradigm of multiplayer maps.