Should all RTS games aspire to eSports style balancing, scale, and map design? Whatever happened to realism, authenticity, history, or imagination; good old fashioned fun. 

eSports is an ever-growing institution. It’s organized, competitive, lucrative, and rewarding. It’s great. It’s fine. It has its place, and it deserves its place. However, because of the rise in popularity and ability to monetize franchises based on sponsorship and branding, games that don’t pertain to eSports sometimes decide they want to go ahead and do that. My problem here isn’t with eSports as it stands, it’s with the idea that creating eSports-like titles nearly always isn’t necessary, and ends up offering a title with nominal game elements in the interest of balance, but no institutional backbone to justify the alienation of the other – people like me who want authenticity, a little realism if appropriate, and not a championship medal or respect from the gaming community. I want a good time, not international recognition. Am I weird?

We should have eSports first person shooters, and eSports RTS titles – but they shouldn’t all aspire to such stringent design.

Let’s put it in much clearer terms. I’m not a footballer myself, but imagine if every time you wanted to kick a ball around with mates – under your own terms – your only option was to play a championship game? This analogy has nothing to do with ranked and unranked matches so much as the idea that tight rule-sets, and ways of doing things (rock-paper-scissors, in RTS) generally restrict the toolsets at your disposal to make your own fun. We should have eSports first person shooters, and eSports RTS titles – but they shouldn’t all aspire to such stringent design. We should be allowed to casually kick a ball around with mates.

So I started up Company of Heroes 2 for my review, which has been criticised at least enough for PR to claim it’s “not an APM game“. This has me scratching my head.

“It’s not an APM (actions-per-minute) game. To play Company of Heroes 2 you need to play smart and be aggressive in your decision making.”

Company of Heroes 2_2It’s an RTS game, so playing smart and being aggressive is a given. It’s as though Quinn Duffy believes that aggressive play, and playing ‘smart’, entails the fact that it is “not an APM game”. Would I call CoH2 an APM game? No, but: they’ve completely removed defensive structures, taken away any variety of AT weaponry/calibre, made the skill tree more linear and supplementary (it no longer defines your army build), reduced the amount of playable forces for balance, reduced the amount of squads on screen at once, and generally done everything they can do make each squad count for more. What does this mean? More micromanagement. They’ve taken away any of that old pesky filler that no one (apart from, apparently, myself) wanted, offered much more balanced, less realistic maps (goodbye Lyon style maps), removing all rustic authenticity from World War II, and ripped the game down to the bare-bones. But it’s okay, because it’s not an “APM” game. It is, quite clearly, a game with aspirations of eSports grandeur – and it suffers for it, because it’s not really all that fun.

“A guy playing smart with his defenses and his cover and his movement, you want him to beat up on a guy with three squads.” Well, you certainly don’t mean those static defenses that we didn’t have to manually monitor, and now do, which inherently increases micromanagement and APM, do you? Have your cake and eat it, I guess.

2240492545.8Company of Heroes 2 isn’t the only game that’s suffered due to scaling back content for eSports style balance. Supreme Commander II suffered similar treatment in how the game shrank in both size and amount of units. Age of Empires, a prime example, went from a fascinating base building game with great resource collection and exploration, into a series of tiny, artificial maps in risible wooden shanty foundations all in the name of the competitive edge.

The Red Alert franchise also goes down hill after every iteration, with the entire game becoming some kind of novelty rock-paper-scissors show-case, on incredibly small maps with absolutely no authenticity. I can’t name a single RTS floating around that doesn’t want to pertain to the eSports way of doing things, aside from Men of War: Assault Squad, and my next topic, Wargame: AirLand Battle.

The RTS genre really is pretty stagnant when it comes to innovation and fun, and you can make the argument that “we think eSports is fun – you might not, but we do,” but that’s not what this is about. Most of the sequels I mentioned became eSports-esque titles where once they were not. They never needed to be. Wouldn’t it be terrible if every RTS became StarCraft II? Wouldn’t it be awful if every FPS became Battlefield 3? The RTS genre is becoming stagnant, and even on Kickstarter, and private projects, most releases such as Planetary Annihilation are offering the same rock-paper-scissors, small maps, clean graphics formula. I want chaos. I want authenticity. You can have your eSports games – I enjoy them myself – but can’t you leave something for the rest of us?

It’s too difficult to balance chaos

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You’re making a game – you’re not making chess. 

Is it too difficult to offer a mountain of content and be expected to balance it all? Well, two RTS games which are extremely difficult, and extremely content rich come to mind: Men of War: Assault Squad, and Wargame: AirLand Battle. Unlike Company of Heroes, Assault Squad offers The Commonwealth, the Japanese, US, Russian, and Germans each with their own campaign maps, and a plethora of units for them. The Japanese suck. They suck against everyone else. An eSports developer would say “well, if they suck, we should take them out of the game because they’re useless”. The thing is, they’re not useless. They’re fascinating. Overcoming the odds whether on multiplayer or single player with the Japanese is a fascinating case study. I should have the right to dabble in things that aren’t forum-approved. If I want to rocket my way through a bunch of Sherman tanks and kill half my men doing it for the war-porn, I should have the right to do that. It’s fun. You’re making a game – you’re not making chess. 

That’s kind of what I’m talking about here. Every game is a toolset for fun. You’re given a kit, like Lego, and your imagination makes of it what you will. That just isn’t true in titles stripped to the bearbones for the sake of balancing and attracting the eSports crowd. Yes, eSports is challenging, and adapting to your opponent through a finite albeit generative set of rules and tools is a rewarding and (sometimes, rarely) an intellectually invigorating feat – but then there’s everything else. Chaos, sound, authenticity, realismthe educational aspect to some degree, and the ability to relate technology to the real world.

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Wargame: AirLand Battle is a good example of this. With over 3000 units in the game, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was inherently unbalanced to the point of broken. That’s not the case, it’s actually incredibly balanced (although people will always argue about this unit vs that unit). AirLand battle is a sandbox environment wherein you make the fun. It’s a spectacle, and it’s a challenge, and it has its own enormous community of competitive players. That said, it’s not an eSports title. You don’t have to ‘barebones’ your game in order to attract that crowd.

You might not agree with me, but this whole “less is more” idea is getting old, and RTS really is an integral genre on the PC. We need RTS games, and they’re big sellers. They always will be. The problem is, AAA publishers seem to be in a bit of a creative slump. The go to option seems to always be: remove everything that is unnecessary, and focus on winning. I don’t just want to win – I want to have fun winning. I want to win differently every time, and I want to win in ways that the community hadn’t thought of.

 Armour type irrelevant. Armour thickness irrelevant. Shell type irrelevant. Tell us to play strategically they say, whilst removing all the strategy. 

I’m not saying we should take anything away from anyone. Rock-paper-scissors is all fine and dandy, and it makes the developers life easier, but it’s not the only way of doing things. eSports is great, and it should continue to thrive, but it appears to me that philosophies derived from it are harming the creativity of RTS and FPS makers. It’s all maths, and there’s no more room for the imagination. It’s getting to the point where it’s almost like a series of $45 skins are being sold as DLC for other games we’ve already played.

This unit kills this. The best way to get a head start is to capture this point. Use the X if they have the Y. I clicked on this before you did, so I’m better than you. My APM is faster than yours. I just want to kick a ball around in a field, but some European idiot is shoving a yellow card in my face. I want content, not rules. I want to be able to imagine again. We’re at a stage where developers are actually removing content with each iteration, calling it a sequel. They coin terms like ColdTech and TrueSight to pretend they’re not, but they are. Why are we okay with that?

At this rate, we’ll be left with 5 units allowed on the screen at once, all under the guise of “we just want players to play strategically”. Don’t hold my hand. I’m Cossacks generation. I can handle 1000 units on screen at once. Are our attentions so poor that developers can only trust us with a tiny amount of resources to manage? Or, as I suspect, does it come down to APM, which they claim it doesn’t. I sit here, with my squad of 6 men standing in front of a tank, as they stare, shooting at eachother until my eyes roll into the back of my head. Can I split them up? Flank it? AT grenade? Smoke, flank, rear? Shoot a fuel can? Detrack it with a special shot? No. I click on my base. I get the appropriate unit. Thrilling. Armour type irrelevant. Armour thickness irrelevant. Shell type irrelevant. Tell us to play strategically they say, whilst removing all the strategy.

Still, ‘you like this, I like that’ is the simplest rebuttal – but I can’t help but feel as though the eSports bandwagon proves popular due to the possible monetisation avenues should your product be picked up. It’s all business now, and little about the games, or content, which used to be included, and unlocked right from the start. Gaming has become work, in a lot of cases.

Maybe StarCraft II is doing to RTS what World of Warcraft did to MMO’s.