Hello, I’m an avid RTS player that would like to share some insights in my experience through different games. I play a bunch of different RTS, most notably Warcraft 3 (where I main Undead) and Starcraft 2 (where I main Terran), but I also play Company of Heroes, Dawn of War: Soulstorm, Halo Wars, and sometimes Dawn of War 2 retribution. I also used to play BFME 2 Rise of the witch king and a few other RTS that are either discontinued or straight away unplayable (Dragonshard anyone?).
As you can see I have experience in different games and through the years I’ve seen a lot of things done right and wrong, have complained about bad features and praised good ones equally, but mostly I have a fairly good idea of what features shined over time.
So without further ado, let me list a few features that would greatly increase the value of the game.
- Customizable UI
I would consider this a core part of RTS games, and arguably the most important. This feature consists of 3 different parts: Scaling, moving, and reorganizing.
Scaling components allows people to adapt parts of the HUD to their needs. A 1920x1080 screen won’t have the same screen space as a 3440x1440 screen, nor should the map be the same relative size. Games like League of Legends and Counter Strike: Global Offensive already implement that, and gives a lot of value to players, so much that at default scaling the minimap is almost unreadable at higher resolutions. Some games opt to make the map size relative to the screen, but that doesn’t work for everyone, letting each player select their map size provides great value.
Moving components allows players to organize the HUD around their dominant eye. Again, the only game that I know of, which has developed the community long enough to get this far, and allows moving elements is League of Legends. This adds a lot of value to the game, even more so in the competitive scene.
Reorganizing components is a core part of RTS, and fixes one of the major problems the average new player meets: The game’s a mess, no way to learn how to use it. This problem was fixed back in 2003 by Warcraft 3, which featured a very artisanal way to customize hotkeys through a CustomKeys.txt file. This file allowed hotkey rebinding, button organization, and tooltip assignment, making the command card fit everyone’s needs, and eventually community dedication birthed the standard grid mode with optimum buttons.
Before moving on I want to remark that being able to reorganize buttons and customize the position of these buttons is key to new players, makes people want to play the game, and removes frustration from inability to press the wrong keys under pressure. The main reason is that there’s a standard already, created for DotA back in the day, where QWER are usually spells or custom unit actions, A is attack, S is stop, D is defend (or hold position), Z is move, and X is patrol. Many people have left RTS games because the keys don’t match this layout, if we take a look at Starcraft 2 they also have grid keys, but the way buttons are placed means Q is move, W is stop, E is hold position, R is patrol, and T is attack, and I can tell you a lot of people have raged in front of me because they press A to attack move but it doesn’t work, and standard keys are too hard and take too much time to learn.
So please, don’t disregard command card reorganization! It should be the natural evolution of RTS improvements, but sadly nobody is doing it yet.
- Automatic unit queue.
Dawn of War (the first one) featured an automatic queue where you could right click almost everything (train units, reinforce, but wargear, etc.) and it would be queued up automatically. This queue could be paused, resumed, and cleaned up, and was valuable for this particular game as it was very macro-oriented like Age of Empires. I like this feature for macro-based games with non-intensive micro, and AoE could be that one. (When I say non-intensive micro I mean you don’t manage units 1 by 1 like in Warcraft 3).
- Asymmetric balance.
This one is self-explanatory, there are RTS with symmetric balance (notably the AoE franchise for the most part) where all factions have the same unit types, but one unit in each faction might have additional cost and benefits. This makes the game very streamlined and overall balanced, which is great on many instances, but eventually makes the game boring since every single strategy is the same with very slight changes. One great thing AoE 3 got was the expansions, both of them changed the pace of the game completely as native americans had much worse late game with no factories but stronger infantry and river control, as well as asian civs introducing villagers that cost wood, exports, banner armies, etc.
Asymmetric balance is always much more fun because there’s a lot more room for balance changes and creates multiple different matchups, rather than rock paper scissors, as in pikes beat cavalry and so on so forth. However this also means you guys need to pay close attention and release balance patches often to address unfair matchups.
- Non-idempotent results
This part is hard to foresee and understand, and in an RTS it’s something very easy to screw up. It can be introduced from many factors: pure RNG, over-time effects, or (god please no) obscure tactics that nobody understand.
An example of RNG could be Warcraft 3’s damage ranges, in other words, when we say a unit does 50 damage, it could deal a random value that can be between 45-55. The range can be broader or narrower, depends on the unit. Another example can be Dawn of War or Company of Heroes’ accuracy, where attacks have a chance to miss even more so if the squad fires on the move. I am not particularly a fan of RNG, and I’ve seen a lot of people quit on me because their retreating squad got sniped at the very last second when that shouldn’t have happened. Same goes for critical strike, a very well-known mechanic that we can see in games like DotA, and if you are into this game you’ve probably seen several clips of phantom assassin performing 5 critical strikes in a row with a 10% chance to score, which means the game decided you had to win, but not a deserved victory.
Over time effects are much more reliable, turning a 100-damage hit into 50 damage + 50 over 10 seconds gives the opponent 10 seconds to react and heal defend or otherwise counterplay. previous AoE didn’t have anything like this, mostly because technology was very restricted back in the day, and the closest we had was Age of Mythology powers. This is a very good source of variety where a player might think the enemy unit dies from the last hit’s damage over time only to see it was regenerated in time a few seconds later.
Obscure tactics are basically trash. Seeing armor ratings or damage types that mean nothing is a very good way to have your community spamming rage posts. Please don’t.
- Mechanics and micro management
It’s no news that this franchise doesn’t shine for its micro play. Most of the action is macro: economy, build fortifications, and mostly check the map to see when the enemy is going to harass your villagers gathering gold halfway across the map with 4 hussars to delay your economy, so you can put them into the nearest garrisonable building.
One of the most enjoyable parts of spectating RTS (and also of high level play) is the outplay potential offered by individual unit capabilities. Right now the options are spreading infantry to avoid cannon ball massacres, sending your hard counter to beat their units (e.g. calv flank to kill archers) and trying to protect your units from said flanking. I would be happy to see certain units featuring abilities to change the course of them, such as:
- Pikemen porcupine formation when at least 20 pikemen are in the control group, become immobile and block units from getting inside the formation, extra damage vs cavalry.
- Cavalry dismount their horses to become heavy infantry, or mount again to become cavalry.
Regarding mechanics, I have to say AoE 3 shipments and cards were the worst feature for customization in all Age games. Everyone literally uses the same economy cards to create military units, then send the military shipments. I personally wouldn’t like to say that.
However there’s also an honorable mention to a bad mechanic, and that would be Dawn of War 3 and Company of Heroes 2’s customization boosts. The former unlocks special abilities and certain buildings from a choice in the menu, the latter improves certain units before the match. These choices are not fun, strategy games should be about strategy, not about finding out which 3 out of 80 upgrades the other player chose secretly.
Now on the bring side, I’ll be bringing Dawn of War 2’s garrisoning, where units gain defense against standard ranged attacks, but get quickly decimated by flush attacks like grenades or flamethrowers. This is a very good feature and taking control of these zones to secure areas in the middle of the map is a commitment that forces players to move and play actively instead of seeing each other camping their base with 7 layers of walls.
I will also mention it doesn’t make any sense to be unable to fit 11 villagers in a boat, but 10 elephants would be OK. I surely hope this meme isn’t part of AOE4.
- Counterplay options
I’ll be ending this list with something very obvious, but not so much. This is somewhat related to how AOE is currently very simple rock-paper-scissors, and usually there are no transitions in the game because the flow is defined by how much you can stall the opponent without getting killed yourself, leading into one of the players either getting ahead in army and straight away aging up much sooner, or losing a critical skirmish that leaves the other player with a leading army that will proceed to mop the remaining villagers, removing your chances to win.
Notably Starcraft 2 does this the best way, with the sheer amount of unit types and how many active abilities each unit has, it has developed (arguably) the best game transitions in the RTS genre. One could start as terran bio, after the first scout spot the Zerg player going speed roaches, so he can add tanks and marauders, the zerg transitions into air, terran starts going mech, all this done with the extra expenses of upgrades and constant expansions to hold the economy.
Age of Empires is usually about building the exact same army with cavalry to harass villagers, pikemen to stop said cavalry, a few skirmish units depending on the faction, and tech fast to the next age to get the army lead and win. I believe if AoE 4 had some extra depth on counterplaying it would also greatly add value to the game.
Sorry for the long wall of text, I hope this gets to a good place. See you in the battlegrounds.