It’s Time to Fix the RTS Earlygame

Note: This piece was amended on May 25th, 2015.

The Cossacks series and Planetary Annihilation are allowing players to throw thousands of soldiers across the fields of war, and singleplayer RTS games constantly seek to scale the action as they move onward.  And yet, many developers and players have resigned themselves to this idea that everyone starts off with a tiny outpost and a heap of workers.  And all I can ask is: Why?

I mean, seriously, has anyone ever said “My favorite part of the RTS experience are the situations where you only manage a handful of units?”  Hell no.  Today’s earlygame is the worst part of the RTS experience and it’s not hard to understand the reason: In a genre where economies and armies ideally grow at an exponential rate, earlygame situations feature the smallest economies, the fewest soldiers, the least interesting fights, and the least room for complex game states.

The happenings are so simple that in tournament RTS matches, the earlygame provides commentators with ample time to discuss the players, the tournament, and the stakes of the match.  They’re approaching the earlygame for what it is: Prep work for the “real action”.  And it is this simplicity that has manifested itself in strict, rigid build orders, simple enough that the opening minutes in most RTS games are “solved” at the strategic level and most of the hand-wringing comes at the tactical level.

But it is in the complexity of lategame situations where “build orders” and other rote actions become irrelevant, because the game states are complex enough that they strip the player’s capability to map them out.  So why not simply build RTS games which get to those complex situations sooner?  Anyone who has tasted those situations (and understood them) wants more.  More units.  Bigger bases.  More destruction.  Even in the RTS games which pride themselves on small-scale encounters and micromanagement—games such as Warcraft III or Sacrifice—the best moments are still those involving the largest, most demanding encounters that can exist within their framework.

Bear in mind that RTS developers understood this from the get-go.  Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness and Command and Conquer offered significant flexibility for customization and starting resources, where players could begin matches with massive resource pools and large standing armies.  Players did not cast off those choices because they were fundamentally bankrupt, but because their implementation (in the infancy of real-time wargames) was poor.  That’s not a problem anymore.  Decades later, there is a massive body of RTS theory out there and there is nothing stopping developers from pushing the edge even further.

And if you’re genuinely unconvinced, then all you have to do is look at videogaming’s contemporary body of work.  Divinity: Dragon Commander translates the tabletop pieces in its turn-based strategy component into material for real-time engagements, allowing both sides to immediately push the action until they can recruit more troops.  The Wargame series lets players start the battle with standing armies and then reinforce those troops as the fight moves on.  But if you’re looking for something familiar to what is thought of as RTS, Planetary Annihilation offers each player enough resources to crank out three production buildings in the first minute, and players will be waging meaningful encounters by the three-minute mark.  Even the StarCraft II expansion pack Legacy of the Void is doubling the game’s starting worker count.  And in all of these games, this jumpstart happens to be one of the strongest aspects of their design.

So if the body of current RTS design is already favoring more impactful and interesting earlygames, then why not go all-in?  Instead of starting off with a single headquarters or an all-constructing Commander, how about a construction facility that unfolds into a functional base?  Why not have the ability to launch half-a-dozen production facilities from the moment the game starts?  Why not give the player multiple scouts so they can survey the battlefield immediately?  Why not give players a starting army so they can press the action?  Yes, for those of you who are worried that a different earlygame could result in a broken earlygame, you would have to adjust the basics of RTS multiplayer to get it to work, but it’s absolutely nothing that talented designers couldn’t handle.

And look at what you would gain from doing this.  Instead of a long buildup phase, the earlygame now looks like the midgame.  The midgame now looks like the lategame.  The inevitable rush tactics provided by the early armies can be buffered with larger maps, replacing the rush tactics with a rush to control important parts of the map.  And the time and energy commonly afforded to “worker scouting” and single-factory openings can now be afforded to endgame situations, replaced by the coolest ideas to see face in an RTS.  More room for Supreme Commander‘s experimentals.  More room for Sacrifice‘s environment-deforming sorcery.  And for the developer that feels a bit more ambitious, you could even integrate true space combat beyond the land, sea, and air archetypes, where the best of Homeworld meets the best of ground warfare.

Then you can go a step beyond today’s lategame and endgame, the one toyed with in Planetary Annihilation, where superweapons don’t merely blow up the soldiers, but the very ground they stand on.  The ultimate answer for the exponential economies of the RTS lategame will be exponential destruction, total annihilation in the truest sense, whatever form this may eventually appear in.  And committing oneself to earlygames with a small handful of units will only take time away from what will soon be an essential component of the genre.

But if the obvious mechanical benefits are not enough to convince you, then I’ll simply point out that scrapping the earlygame just makes sense in the first place.  If we accept the given narrative that RTS multiplayer matches are a smaller slice of an epic, all-reaching conflict, who would start a galactic war with little more than a tiny outpost?  Who lands in unknown territory without the tools to explore and survey the immediate surroundings?  Maybe the Total Annihilation lineage provided a good reason as to why—since it’s easier for the Commander to build the army on-site than it is to send the army through space—but that’s the best alibi in a genre which has spent most of its time supplying bad ones.

“This will make the genre even harder for beginners to enjoy!”  Who gives a shit?  Didn’t we learn anything from Warcraft III?  You can hand beginner RTS players the most beginner-friendly RTS game possible and they will still think it’s too hard, and when they are given the opportunity, they will rush for the degenerate variants of RTS (dota, tower defense) that are even easier.  You want to win beginner and inexperienced players?  Give them their shared armies, their scalable game settings, their “no rush” modes, and make sure the map for two experts—or teams of experts—can be played by dozens of players who can’t find all the keys on the keyboard.  There is never going to be a magic pill that breaches the divide between the strongest and weakest players in RTS, and the sooner we stop pretending there is, the better.

And when it is said and done, you will notice that all the opposition arguments will have a common theme: They are opposed to progress.  “Beginners will be overwhelmed!”  “It might ruin the earlygame!”  Fuck ’em.  If we opposed every single RTS breakthrough because it may compromise the current template, we’d still be playing Dune II and Warcraft.  This is an idea that is being intended for the next level beyond Supreme Commander, the things that wider consumer technology will soon be capable of handling.  As far as I see it, the epic battles of Seton’s Clutch and Open Palms should be the bare minimum for the RTS experience.  And as more and more RTS games throw thousands of soldiers to a side, nobody will even want to borrow from the single-factory openings of the genre’s formative years.

So if you want the best singleplayer and multiplayer skirmishes in a genre which is heavily defined by the number of moving parts, then you start by cutting out the phase of play that looks more like the beginning of a chess game and less like the awesome simulation of war that RTS can be.  Let’s support progress and fix the earlygame.