At this point I despise Starcraft 2, there I said it. I don’t think there has been any other game I’ve played in a long time that has gotten me this worked up over. Right now I just finished yet another losing game of Starcraft 2 and the idea of playing another one is giving a headache. At this point I’ve gone from buying the collector’s edition of it to waiting for the game to hit $5 on sale. As I close my eyes and calm myself down I realized that I’ve been here before and remember why I left in the first place.

Macro level play in most RTS titles fall into base organization: setting up rally points, unit production, resource gatherers and such. My issue is that this level of what I have to call “busy work” has been elevated to a game mechanic right along side
the actual strategy of the game. I’ve never enjoyed having to split your focus like this when playing RTS titles when the UI should be able to assist. Having to flick your view back to base to make sure your peons are gathering materials and redirect them if they are not has never interest me. This is why when RTS titles shy away from this book keeping aspect I’ve taken notice.

My three favorite RTS titles would have to be Rise of Nations,Company of Heroes (I would add the Dawn of War series if I spent more time with them) and Sins of a Solar Empire as each one took steps in eliminating macro.

Rise of Nations was one of the first RTS titles that combined the 4X concept of Turn Based Strategy. Resource gathering in RoN was set up that you knew exactly how many workers were needed at each point for maximum efficiency and a quick glimpse at your cities was all that you needed to know if everything is working right. The ability to set rally points to actual control groups was a god send for me and having your army move in formation when grouped meaning you didn’t have to worry about units moving disorganized. Within each city you built there is a limit to the # of specialty buildings you could build (marketplaces, academies, etc) which meant that you did not have to spent a lot of time building up a city and once finished you could pretty much let it run itself with the exception of military production.

Company of Heroes alongside Relic’s Dawn of War series followed one of the newer trends in RTS titles at the time. Downplaying or outright removing base building to focus on squad based combat as opposed to a huge army. In CoH resources were collected by capturing points on the map which would then cause them to trickle in over time. While at your base, you have a few unit producing structures to build and the only reason why you would need to return to your base is for starting researches. Tabs on the UI I believed allowed you to build units without going back to base but it has been so long since I played CoH I can’t remember if that was the case. One UI feature I did love was that at anytime you could mouse over an icon on the screen and see every unit you have on the field designated by their symbol. Combined with control groups it made things very easy to find an errant unit or organize things for a great push.

Last but not least is Sins of a Solar Empire. Like RoN, Sins went for combining elements of TBS titles like diplomacy, borders and more. In Sins the game space is made up of solar systems which you can build structures in and ownership of the map is divided by these systems. Instead of having to worry about creating resource gatherers, once the building is done it automatically creates the resource gatherer needed. Once you have multiple solar systems you can click on each system zoomed out and have access to all available build options. Buildings would still need to be placed manually but unit production can be done from zoomed out when you are looking at the galaxy view. Like RoN you can put units in groups and have your ships fly in fleet formation so you don’t have to worry about your weak ships in front. With the UI I can manage unit production over multiple systems, make sure my planets are being upgraded and arrange fleets to attack galaxies at the same time without more than a few clicks.

The common thread between these three titles is their ways of reducing the amount of macro play and instead allows the player to focus on other things. I’ve realized at this point that finding ways to reduce macro play is not a technical problem but a design problem and brings me to the point of this entry.

The point and discussion for this entry falls to one simple question: Do you feel that macro level mechanics are a cornerstone of the RTS game play, or the player picking up the slack of a less then optimal UI? Your answer to this will most likely determine your opinion of Starcraft 2, people who agree with the former are going to love it and those that respond to the latter may be in my camp.

I fully support having the player build their base up from scratch however there should come a point that the base can be left alone with the player only needing to intervene if there is attack or a new building needs to be built. In the RTS examples I’ve mentioned your cities/galaxies eventually become a well oiled machine and allow the player to shift their attention to more important things. The following in my opinion are actions that the UI should be able to do in an RTS:

1. Allow unit construction and rally points to be set up for any unit producing building the player has without needing to return to the base view.

2.Being able to at a glance see all resource points the player has as well as the number of gatherers assigned to it and the ability to build and rally them to the point if needed.

3. The option when dealing with mixed unit group composition to have them go at the same pace or organize them to have the heavy units in front.( This one should have a toggle option as I can think of some times where you don’t want this to happen).

If a RTS has a UI that can do these three tasks then my enjoyment of the game will increase dramatically. At this point it would turn my opinion around of Starcraft 2 if they were to update the UI like this but I’m not holding my breath. One reason is that the game is most likely too far in production to make such a sweeping change and the other is that the fans won’t allow this. SC2 like SC is build heavily on macro play requiring the player to not only manage units but also their bases. Going back to my question the hardcore fans of SC have already made up their minds and are not budging. Playing SC 2 at the higher levels requires the player to become intimate with the UI and goes beyond just simply mastering the game mechanics. I mean no disrespect to the top tier players who have become extraordinary at SC, you guys rock. However for me playing SC as it is right now is like trying to perform surgery with a plastic scalpel and a spork, just can’t be done with the tools provided.

There has always been needed a careful balance between micro and macro level play in RTS titles. The best ones in my opinion have equal parts of both while the ones that I didn’t enjoy too much swung completely to either end of the spectrum. Command and Conquer Red Alert 3 has a special ability for every unit in the game requiring the player to activate them in the midst of fighting. On the other end the first Supreme Commander was so macro heavy that you could develop your build order for the next 20 minutes within the first 5 minutes of play.

Going through my list of game ideas I’ve written up, I have several RTS ideas I would love to make however I have to wonder how much my thoughts on macro and micro design will affect player’s opinion of them. I believe that I will either be heralded as a genius or ostracized and never allowed to make another RTS game again. At this point I’m interested to hear what you think, am I crazy brilliant or just plain crazy?

(P.S before anyone mentions it, yes I have heard of the Ground Control series but have not played them yet, my backlog o doom has reached massive proportions).

Josh

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