Friday, June 03, 2005

The Nerd Rush

Could you come up with some wonderful AI program that would make you invincible without needing to do much more than build a factory?

Well, I suppose you could program the builders to do a decent starting position but the more convoluted the AI the more CPU it would suck down so the fewer units you could support before you started lagging. This could then be pretty much self balancing. Do you want simple units with AI along the lines of "Hulk smash puny enemy" that runs like the clappers or a more sophisticated AI that thinks about what it's doing but needs a little more reaction time? Or a mix of the two... Autonomous builders with dumb attackers.

Your call, your choice.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Features of the Ultimate RTS

Ok, I've been a bit negative. What do I think are the key features of this mythical beast "The Ultimate RTS"?

Well, to start with:

A good technology tree. Cossacks is a good example, Starcraft wasn't bad either, AOE is the best so far.

Expandable. Designed to be expandable. By that I mean a competant developer could completely change the game. Total Annihilation was the best at this but anyone who played the Myth as a WW2 RTS total conversion would have a better idea of where I'm going.

Modular Units. Like Earth 2050, no, me neither but that was a damn fine idea wasn't it?

User rewritable AI behaviours. This is revolutionary. Dark Reign was the trigger for this idea but how does this grab you...?

A simplified Java-like language used to write AI behaviours. Each unit ships with a default AI but this can be viewed and edited inside the game (not DURING a game - I mean an editor within the game interface) and saved. So winning the game is not only a matter of handling resources better or being a better tactician but also being able to write better AI routines. Imagine if you can a game of Total Annihilation where you can churn out Flying builders that have been programmed to scout around the map and build metal extractors on empty patches of metal...

The sorts of calls I envisage being available would include stuff like IsItemInSight(ItemType) where ItemType could include FriendlyUnit, EnemyUnit, FriendlyBuilding, EnemyBuilding, etc so it would be a one line command to say:-

if (IsItemInSight(EnemyUnit)) { Attack(MostDangerous(VisibleEnemies)) }

So a flying unit would deem Anti-aircraft capable units/buildings as "most dangerous". A tank would have different priorities...
Are you excited yet?

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Why is 3D the spawn of Satan?

A few theories:-
  1. Every piece of commercial software has a budget. The more you spend on a swanky 3D engine the less you have left for things like "gameplay" (remember that?), Level designers etc...
  2. A good RTS is dependent on speed - having extra keys to remember just to view the map the way you want slows down your reactions and makes the game unnecessarily difficult.
  3. RTS by their nature need to shift around enough units (therefore polygons) to make the average FPS developer cack him/herself. Ever noticed how the latest FPS slows to a crawl when the enemy/explosion count starts to climb into double figures? Now project that to a decent sized RTS with 200 units (say) per side. "I'd pee my pants if I wore any!" is a suitable quote... Oh, don't waste time mentioning the "total war" series, I've already sounded off about what I think about it and I've played Medieval TW as well (better than Shogun - but only in the relative way that being up to your waist in crap is better than being up to your neck in crap)

Hint to developers. Being able to zoom right in to the individual unit level may be cool but it doesn't improve the gameplay. Always ask the question "will this make the game better, more exciting or easier to use?"

Another hint. Allowing players to jump into individual units during a game is not something the majority of players want to do (honourable exception Dungeon Keeper - taking over "horny" was fun)

Production companies seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that the RTS is dead as a genre - what they seem to have missed is that the 3D RTS is a different genre to the 2D Isometric RTS. 2D Isometrics are still selling very well thank you very much look at Cossacks & the Age of Empires series. The 3D RTS is dead in the water and probably always has been. Even the best 3D RTS (Ground Control 1) is a very limited game c.f. my benchmark games - no factories, small unit count etc.

2D RTS are pretty much hardware independent these days. I don't want to spend $$$ just to play the latest & greatest RTS. I don't find the majority of FPS compelling enough to warrant spending big money on keeping my hardware bleeding edge. I enjoy strategy games (real time & turn based), RPGs (I'll stay off of the subject of bleeding edge 3D RPGS :) and a little bit of flight simming in that order. I want to upgrade once every couple of years and be able to play any game I choose until the upgrade cycle comes round again. Is this unreasonable assuming I don't choose to play glitzy FPS tech demos?

Monday, May 30, 2005

3D Engine = spawn of satan + Shogun sucks & how.

Ok, let's get this one out of the way early. My contention is that no great RTS has ever been made with a full 3D engine.

I remember how much I wanted to play "Shogun - Total War" I read the pre-release articles, I was disappointed when it was delayed it sounded like everything I was looking for in a computer game. Boy was I ever let down hard by the reality...

What you actually got was a board game less complex than Sid Meyer's original Civilization married to the worst 3D RTS EVER!

I persisted for 2 weeks hoping it would get better but it didn't.

I tried an online game but ended up spending so long trying to line up two of my units to form a longer line I got overrun.

Oh yes, it sucked. Yet it was getting 90%+ from every magazine I read. Curious.

Overview of the past

Let's think about the key RTS milestones in history...

I could start with the Peter Turcan games from the 1980's but I don't want to encourage masochism. Let's set year zero at:-

Dune 2 - I completed this 3 times once as each race. Great game and the progenator of everything that follows. Introduced: mini-maps, Different Factories for different unit types, Multiple same factories speeding up production, single resource gathering, expensive mega-weapons

Command & Conquer - Never really "got" this. Sure I own a copy but I've never taken the time out to finish it. Flawed multi-player but I won't get too cut-up about this as it was the first of it's kind. Introduced: Multi-player, One CD per side (so with one copy of the game you could play multi-player - probably sold more copies by word of mouth this way), Airstrikes, FMV.

Warcraft (II)- Been so long since I played this but it is important for a number of reasons. Not least of all proving that you didn't have to be Westwood... Introduced: The second resource, Humour, ships. Better balanced Multi-player, soon to become a Blizzard trademark...

Red Alert - By this time this came out I was rather bored with Westwood's glacial development. This was IMO more of a theme pack for C&C than a fully fledged new product so let's not mentionit or Dune 2000...

1997 was the golden age...

Starcraft - 3 completely different races with decent tech development. Still played competitively in Korea. Candidate for Greatest RTS ever. As is...

Total Annihilation - introduced proper height mapped terrain, sensible AI - (set your builders to patrol some time) Units that were not sprites and more emergent behaviour than it is fair to mention (e.g. commander kidnapping) Decent combined arms not just rock-paper-scissors and lots of units, yes, some of them were rubbish but enough weren't to make the game interesting. Lots of buildings including buildings to convert one resource into the other. Each factory could be queued up to produce different units. Builder units could be used to speed up production. Also introduced the concept of "The Commander" representing the player in the game and (usually) resulting in the loss of the game if destroyed (see also "Commander kidnapping" :). Also introduced the first great RTS add-on pack "The Core Contingency" which added a decent sized campaign, 100 IIRC new units and a map editor - now you're just showing off...

Dark Reign - overwhelmed by the competition but underrated Introduced rudimentary unit programming.

Age of Empires (II) - Introduced: Overkill numbers of races (9+), overkill number of resources (4) both of which enhance the user experience greatly and increase replayability. Multiple ways of getting the same resource - Hunting, Line Fishing, Berry gathering, Farming, Fishing boats. Solid candidate for the greatest RTS ever.

Cossacks - Introduced: Really big armies. Sensible unit formation. Regular 8 hour game times. Probably just a highly polished game and not innovative enough to be the greatest ever.

So before we go any further try to get a few hours under your belt in the following games:-

Starcraft, Total Annihilation, Dark Reign, Age of Empires, Cossacks. Then we'll have our frame of reference...

The Ultimate RTS - Intro & Agenda

OK, I've played a good percentage of the various RTS from the golden age and I've done a little bit of game design (not computer game design mind you)

This blog is intended to be me sounding off on various RTS related topics with the aim of shaking out a high level design for The Ultimate RTS - whatever that is.

I'll continue with various blogs based on key design principles that I think are key - and why.