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Interview: RTS Accessibility 'Very Much Worth Trying For' - Relic
Interview: RTS Accessibility 'Very Much Worth Trying For' - Relic
March 16, 2011 | By Kris Graft

March 16, 2011 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC

Back when Relic Entertaiment's PC real-time strategy game Dawn of War II launched in 2008, it polarized its fanbase -- some welcomed the sequel's focus on fast-paced gameplay, while others damned the game as being "dumbed down" from the original.

It's just a single example of one of the greater challenges for the RTS genre and many other game types -- to cater to a wider market without alienating a genre's core fanbase.

"The goal was to try to make RTS more accessible," Relic's Daniel Kading told Gamasutra in a recent interview. He's the co-lead designer on Dawn of War II expansion Chaos Rising and the lead designer for recently-released add-on Retribution.

"Typically RTS games have a steep learning curve. You can't really just jump in and start playing online," he acknowledged.

Kading wasn't the lead designer of the original Dawn of War II -- that credit goes to Jonny Ebbert. Kading was however a senior designer on the original Dawn of War II and is also credited on expansions for the first Dawn of War.

One of the major changes to Dawn of War II that didn't sit well with some fans was the decision to take out base-building in order to create a slicker RTS.

"A lot of people thought it was great, and a lot of people did not care for it," said Kading. "It was more or less a situation where we traded [away] some people, and we got some others. ... As a mechanic change, it hadn't really been done before, to an extent."

Relic isn't the only company that has caught flack for streamlining its strategy game -- some vocal gamers accused Gas Powered Games' Supreme Commander 2 of lacking depth compared to the complex original.

And developers of strategy games that are ported from PC to consoles are often accused of "dumbing down" -- or even worse, "consolizing" -- their games. It's all part of the challenge of creating a game that's "easy to learn, hard to master," or as StarCraft II lead designer Dustin Browder told us recently, making a game that's "easy to learn, impossible to master."

"I think that [accessibility is] something that's very much worth trying for, but there's a point where you potentially end up sacrificing some of the tropes of the actual genre itself if you go too far," Kading said.

"In a way, that was one of the things Dawn of War II did," he admitted. "It gave up some of the traditional tropes such as base-building and branching tech and the like with the intent of streamlining."

But to Kading, "streamlining" doesn't have to be a word that means less depth. "I do not want to dilute the experience for core RTS fans -- streamlining doesn't refer to 'dumbing down,'" he said. "Instead, improvements to interface, controls and AI are always worthwhile, and I believe there are game modes and reward schemes that can appeal to both newcomers and veterans alike."

He continued, "Dawn of War II's 'The Last Stand' was an example of a mode developed with the intent of accessible multiplayer, without treading on traditional skirmish or PvP," Kading said. "When it was introduced well after Dawn of War II had shipped and most people were through with the campaign, we saw an increase in our overall concurrent players: it had brought back people who previously were not participating in multiplayer."

Accessibility doesn't stop at game mechanics and additional modes. Relic animator Michael Moore explained, "With art and animation in mind, making the RTS genre more accessible means being more intelligent about what and how we show the events on screen; as much fun as it is to watch a purely chaotic slurry of orgiastic violence, ultimately itís not very fun to play if the player canít tell whatís going on."

Readability of units, structures and movements is crucial in a genre that can show dozens to hundreds of units from a top-down perspective. "When you canít assess the situation, you canít make calls on what orders to give in order to swing the battle to your favor," Moore said. "So many elements like how the individual units are modeled and textured, to how they move and stand, to higher-level things like how the whole squad moves and responds will be important in improving readability and giving more control to the player."

He said, "As for me, accessibility is not antagonistic to complexity; rather how the delivery of the rules and information of the game has a direct affect on how accessible it is."

Kading added, "The comparison is between an RTS and a first-person shooter. With a first-person shooter, you jump into Team Fortress 2, or a game similar to it, and you know that pushing the left-click button on your mouse is going to shoot your gun, and you now know how to play the game," he said. "You have everything you're going to need to play the game. You're going to get better as you go, but that's the extent."

"The first time you sit down to play an RTS, you have any number between nine and 12 different units, all of which do different things, each having somewhere between zero and four abilities apiece. They counter different targets, they belong to four or more different races that are filled with [other units]."

"There are mechanics ranging from reinforcements to harvesting to capturing locations. They're very complex," he continued. "They're not really a drop-in type game if you're not someone who is familiar with RTSes. And even if you are familiar with RTSes, the toolkit that's given to you in a brand new RTS is fairly elaborate."

Making RTS games less intimidating while preserving depth is the ideal scenario. "I do think [greater accessibility] is something that can only benefit RTSes," Kading said.

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Breno Azevedo
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As tower defense games thrive, I can't agree that removing base building "streamlines" RTSes. There are other much more complex elements to the RTS gameplay which can be made more accessible without sacrificing its core mechanics. Would you remove the break option of a racing game to make it more accessible?

Kris Graft
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Some recent racing games _have_ taken out braking to improve accessibility (in easier difficulty levels). But I see what you're getting at.

Alistair Doulin
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I think it's more about shifting the mindset away from "base building" to a new style of play. In tower defence games the buildings you construct are primary tools, that is, they attack the enemy. Unlike regular RTS games where buildings are secondary tools that are used to achieve some other goal, usually building new units.

I'm more than happy to abstract base building away into a tech tree, so long as it leaves enough choice and depth of gameplay.

Tim Carter
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It's not a "new style of play". It's an ancient style of play.

Alexander did not build bases to manufacture Greek phalanxes while he fought Darius at the Issus around 300 BC.

The original wargame, "Kreigspeil", by the Prussians in the early 1800s, while it did have procedural terrain (believe it or not), didn't have the generals manufacturing their formations while they deployed them.

Alistair Doulin
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Relic makes amazing RTS games and I love that they are so passionate about them. The RTS genre needs to change to reach a broader market if it's going to survive in the current climate, however the current attempts at moving to console are not the right direction. One of the best ways to achieve simplicity while retaining depth is with abstraction that Relic has always done so well.

I see mobile (and specifically multi-touch devices) as a great platform for the RTS genre to move into. Plants vs Zombies is a great example of a super simple strategy game that has reached a huge market. I'd love to see Relic have a stab at one of these platforms.

Torin Denniston
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As a genre, RTS has always been one of my favorites. However, reaching a broader audience has more than just gameplay to consider. The age-old complaint is that buying a computer good enough to play games like Dawn of War (which is very pretty on high settings) is way too expensive.

But, as with gameplay, "dumbing down" a game's graphics will anger core players as well.

Jacob Pederson
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I might be strange in that I love the new Warhammer games, AND all of relic's older more complex stuff (Homeworld 2 4EVA!)

I don't consider the new Warhammer to even be an RTS (with the exception of it's skirmish multiplayer mode). The campaign is more of a third person tactics game like the original Myth (anybody remember that one?). Ironically it probably has more in common with Dragon Age than with any of Relic's other RTS titles. As you reinvent one genre, you end up treading into the territory of others.

Tim Carter
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"As a mechanic change, it hadn't really been done before, to an extent."

First of all, traditional strategy games, such as war games, for decades and even hundreds of years have not had base-building during tactical combat. The idea of building a base during a low-level battle is a relatively recent anachronism.

It's sad when, for example, you see the battles in Lord of the Rings the films and read them in the books and Aragorn and Theoden are not building bases - but then you buy the "strategy game" (Battle for Middle Earth) and you don't get that military command experience, but rather one more akin to a bean-counter logistical quartermaster.

Secondly, even in the real-time computer genre Ground Control in 2000 was an excellent game that had no such base building.

Andrew Grapsas
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Ground Control was great! I really didn't like DAWII. I'm not exactly sure why, but, DAWII didn't strike the right chord in comparison to GC.

Chris Howe
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World in Conflict was along similar lines to Ground Control, and was similarly awesome, but for some reason didn't really catch on. It's a shame that the console version was canned because I thought it was an ideal fit for a console RTS.

Tim Carter
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On a side note, there is a service now called Game Ranger that allows you to play old games in multiplayer that have had their MP servers shut down. It piggyback's off the old games' LAN code and it works quite well.

Our little die-hard community of GC players has picked up GC again (3 years after WON shut down the master servers).

You can get Game Ranger here:

You can get Ground Control for free here (totally legitimately):

Game Ranger really streamlines the experience.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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While I love the Dawn of War games (I bought Retribution and finished a campaign a few days ago!), I wish they would stop pretending Dawn of War II is a strategy game. Like Jacob said its a squad-based tactical game. There isnt the strategic element of controlling the map like in the excellent Company of Heroes. There isnt any long-term planning either from the player. You just bring ALL your squads from one objective to the other. Very similar to Fallout tactics and other real-time tactical games. Actually there is even less strategy than in most tactical games. Its almost an action rpg now. Its still good, but its not a strategy game anymore.

BTW kudos to the guy who wrote the speech for the Orks in Retribution is was very entertaining.

Joshua Popkes
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When I first started getting into the RTS genre base-building was the norm AoE, Warcraft: Orcs vs Humans so on... as I got older I kept engulfing myself in the RTS genre and realized that for most games they have gotten away from an actual MILITARY strategy game in multi-player to a "can you hold you're start point past your opponents first strike, then hurry and build enough defenses, then hurry and build a ton of small raiding party's to keep them on their toes and then a final assault" it was fun because it was filled with tension but as long as you had trees/Tiberium/Ore/Gold what have you you had units.

As I got older I got into board/tabletop wargames. In most of these you have 40 units for the whole game so you have to be careful and strategic with what you're going to do with these units. I don't think it would hurt the genre at all if it went to a "Robert E. Lee: Civil War" type game but in Real Time. You knew going in how many units you had at your command, you knew how many reinforcements were available, you knew the munitions available to your troops. This is the way to, as others have said "streamline", an RTS.

On the easier levels you just give the player the troops, and let him/her know when reinforcements are coming. As the player raises difficulty add more information, more micromanaging (which hardcore RTS players have had to become very good at in the last 15 or so years), and so on.

That's my take on opening the genre to a bigger audience, of course there isn't a "silver bullet" but removing base-building isn't the worst thing you could do to the genre.

Ed Alexander
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4 years ago you could have asked me what genre of games I disliked the most was and it would have been an immediate response of "RTS". There was no question, I was completely frustrated by RTS' because I didn't know why I was so bad at them. So I never really played them because I just didn't *get* them.

Then Dawn of War II came out and I took to it like a duck to water, it removed what I found I really didn't like about RTS' - the base building. So I played the hell out of DoW2 and loved the new "Action RTS" genre, as I'd call it. Then The Last Stand mod came out and I fell in love with that, to this day I'm still trying to recruit more friends to play Last Stand with. Any time DoW2 goes on sell on Steam, I'm sending company wide spam out to push anyone I can over the fence so we can play Last Stand together. =p

I was really encapsulated because the elements that were really the source of my frustration were removed and the fun elements I enjoyed were given center stage. I even picked up the editor tools and was determined to make a Last Stand map (because Last Stand really needed some work and variety... just sayin!), but the tools were cryptic and I wasn't making a lot of progress on my own because there were very little resources available, but StarCraft 2 was on the horizon and I heard the tools they were releasing were going to be amazing and fantastic and I knew the community would be huge and that the modding community would also be huge, so I put it down and held off.

Initially I didn't take to SC2, I just liked to fart around with the editor and tinker with the tools. As I slowly began to learn the editor and get the basics down, I decided to do some research on what people who play StarCraft like about the game so I could better understand and implement those themes into my project. I ended up finding some great StarCraft communities and spent some time researching and learning and finding streams of professional players playing... now I'm hooked. I learned of the metagame, what macro and micro are, I was better able to analyze and understand how the game worked. Now I get it. And I love it.

What killed my interest in RTS' was the macro portion of it. I just found so much fun in microing my army that my macro would always come to a standstill during battles, but I had no flipping clue about macro at all. And that was a lot of why I failed, but I didn't know, so I just assumed I was bad and I would never be good at it, so I'd put my focus on something that actually engaged me.

Over the weekend I actually started up a new project in the Galaxy Editor to make personal training maps for me to help me practice build orders with an emphasis on improving my macro at the same time and give real time feedback to me when it slips. It takes a lot of work to start embedding that game sense into subconscious routines to instinctively know when it's about time to make another worker or constantly be reminded that I can Chrono Boost something, but now I want to practice smarter, not necessarily harder. Phase 2 is to expand upon this map and set it up so Observers can receive these notifications about these slips, and then distribute it to a few pro players I admire and have utilized as an asset to improving my own play and give it to them so they can use them when they're doing coaching sessions with their students.

I'm pretty hooked on RTS' now, and honestly I wouldn't be here if it weren't for Dawn of War II. It was the gateway drug into the RTS genre for me, even though I had already given it a shot and determined it wasn't for me.

Sting Newman
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The real issue is not complexity, it is that nobody is trying to find where the design is weak and avoid the weaknesses. It's not complexity vs simplicity it is about thinking intelligently about RTS design and rekindling the fun and excitement. It's not because RTS games are hard to get into. Warcraft 1+2+3 did just fine and so did starcraft. The real issue is that RTS design was carried by it's multiplayer component for so many years and carried along by blizzard and command and conquer. This means that RTS design was bad because it relied on players to bring the fun by playing multiplayer rather then the game design having to stand on it's own without multiplayer.

The real reason is that the single player mechanics of RTS games have always been weak and they've always tried to carry the weak mechanics with flashy graphics/cutscenes/stories but PLAYING the games wasn't very fun on it's own in single player and this is where RTS game weaknesses show up. This is the reason why you can go back and play a first person shooter single player over again (like serious sam) and you don't really want to do so with an RTS.