This article has been reposted from RTSGuru.com, which appears to have been recently decommissioned. I’ll be periodically reposting some of my best writing from that site, in the efforts to preserve it. Thanks for your patience if you’ve already read this!
Recently, my wife read a book called “the particular sadness of lemon cake” by author Aimee Bender. This book is about a girl whose mother bakes her lemon cake for her birthday, and when this girl eats the cake (and subsequently other foods her mother prepares), she gains unwanted insight into the troubles of her family. And, much like the family in this book, console RTS games are a troubled species. The successes of Tom Clancy’s EndWar, Halo Wars, and a mere handful of other games proves that people will play them, but hardcore RTS gamers tend to shun the console format as simply insufficient for the needs of the genre.
The Struggle is Real – the challenges of designing a user interface
The single biggest hurdle in the way of RTS games on Playstation and Xbox is the controller – there are simply not enough buttons handy to easily accommodate all of the things that players in RTS games are asked to do: from building structures, to issuing move, patrol, attack, attack ground, stop, retreat, scatter, special ability, etc orders to units, to selecting control groups (of which there are often 10 or 12) to navigating the minimap – even the basic PC RTS mechanics of drag-selecting units or moving the cursor around the window, and the camera around the map are rendered just a little awkward on console: often in console RTS, the targeting reticle is locked to the center of the camera, and the player just pans around, targeting things in the middle of the screen to select and issue orders. This alone is a more simplified and even coarse solution to something that just… works on PC.
And that’s the rub – when utilizing PC RTS tropes, everything feels a half-step (or more) off on console. Even the better attempts like Halo Wars or EndWar stumble over reproducing some mechanic or another, be it minimap navigation or control groups (something which Halo Wars eschews entirely) or tabbing between different unit types within a single group selection.
One of the most common attempts to manage the complexity of RTS games is the radial menu – you see it in Command and Conquer 3, the Supreme Commander titles, Halo Wars, Universe at War – radial menus are the go to interaction model for menus in console RTS, despite their somewhat cumbersome nature. Likewise, you see creative uses of the technology, like EndWar’s voice controls or Supreme Commander 2’s global upgrade tree and ability to quickly tab through idle builders.
Ultimately though, it’s my opinion that studios that attempt to shoehorn all of the speed and complexity of a traditional RTS into the controller paradigm are addressing the symptom but not the problem. The comprehensive fix, to me, would be to design an RTS for console from the ground up with an interaction model specifically tailored to the controller. Halo Wars and Supreme Commander 2 were tolerable interaction models, but to create something that feels natural would be a coup in this space.
Guardians of Middle Earth, the Xbox 360 MOBA, was on the right track – MOBAs interaction models have fewer commands than RTS games in general. Its main issue mechanically was its atrocious in-match stability, with 50% or more matches having serious stuttering or desync issues that rendered it almost unplayable. It also (in my opinion) didn’t sufficiently respect player skill and memory when designing its mechanics.
Upcoming PC RTS Grey Goo by Petroglyph also promises to put an interesting spin on RTS mechanics, with C&C style global contextual navigation and administration of research, unit production, and building production from a single menu, all controlled by cascading choices of the Q,W,E,R,T and Y keys. Something similar, bound to X,Y,A,B for example, would greatly reduce the reliance on radial menus (which are cumbersome) and free up the numpad, bumpers, triggers and dpads for other functions.
Consoles are for Shooters – the challenge of convincing developers that there’s an audience here
Interesting to note, Xbox only RTS Halo Wars holds the Guinness World Record for best selling console RTS at around 1.2 million units (as of May 2009), a somewhat respectable number until you put it next to StarCraft 2, which sold that many units its opening weekend.
The simple truth is, most people see consoles as the domain of shooters, RPGs and 3rd person adventure puzzlers. Many consider (due mostly to the control restrictions mentioned previously) the RTS to be the domain of the PC alone. This is, in part, due to no developer adequately tackling the challenges of designing an RTS around the controller first, but I already complained about that so let’s move on.
Timing is also important to consider for RTS launches. Launching near a Halo or CoD game would be a sure way to get players to pass on or simply miss seeing the game entirely, especially in the case where AAA shooters sell a million copies in 24 hours, and where the players mindlessly shovel up the yearly edition of the game upon its release.
Another challenge is freshness: RTS games often have aggressive patching (every week, once a month etc) that Xbox, at least, has historically had trouble supporting. Also, expansions have seldom been handled with grace in the genre, with PC and console versions being treated vastly differently, or with console expansions being treated as standalone titles as opposed to PC games, where they’re actually expanding the core game. DLC adding skins, new factions, announcers, and more should be explored to support a title and keep people coming back for fresh content.
A couple of considerations
RTS games are complex beasts. They include economy management, unit management, multitasking, the possibilities of dozens of units with unique interaction mechanics and active abilities. Alone, these mechanics are manageable. Together, they give console RTSes issues that result in less than stellar user experience. Some considerations that might help include hero units, which can be bound to dedicated keys (ex numpad up) with a retinue in tow, and assist with control groups. Hero units also represent a single point (or 2 or 3 if the game would incorporate more than 1 hero at a time) for unit abilities, and can provide personality that RTS games can sometimes lack. Also, streamlining economics as in Halo Wars or Red Alert 3 can put an emphasis on decision making (how do I manage my limited base slots, as in Halo Wars) and upgrades while avoiding the attention intensive economy management of a game like StarCraft. In addition, having 2-5 production facilities is much more manageable than the often dozens in games like StarCraft. Global navigation, avoiding the necessity of managing production or research at the physical location of a building, would reduce the need to pan around large RTS maps with awkward controller mechanics…
The frustrating fact of the matter is, publishers and developers don’t have much incentive to experiment with creating a successful and fun RTS on the console, combined with design considerations of controller-based play adds up to a halfhearted implementation of games in this genre on console. The successful ones have been platform specific or designed primarily with consoles in mind: EndWar and Halo Wars being far and above the standouts from the Xbox 360 generation. With millions of users around the world, including gamer parents for whom consoles are a more economical choice, it remains a truth and a shame that RTS games are few and far between on console, with truly good contestants only appearing a couple times in a generation.