Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Why GSB is not like a normal RTS (deliberately)

Have you seen korean starcraft players?

fast huh?

Although it’s impressive, and kinda funny, it’s also a bit depressing and kinda sad. I like to see the RTS genre as a mostly ‘S’, and not so ‘RT’. If I was 14 years old, I’d think differently, but I’m not. One thing spending your teenage years learning neoclassical heavy metal does, is to teach you that someone with more free time than you is going to be faster than you. Always.

When I was at Elixir, I worked on a game that got canned, which was like speedball. it seemed to be a really strategic game. The player who won was the cleverest, the most strategic thinking. It played a bit like real-time chess. The reaction-time and number-crunching side of it was minimal, it was an ‘outwit-the-enemy’ style game. I liked it.

GSB doesn’t care how fast your reactions are. You can be 55 years old and have arthritis, you can still design a kick-ass fleet, and a cunning challenge.  I know starcraft is a massively popular game, and they know what they are doing, but you can only really design good games if they are games you personally enjoy playing. I can’t compete in FPS games or arcadeish super-fast RTS games, but I can compete happily in GSB. I also like the asynch nature of online challenges, because it eliminates the asshole attitdue of many online RTS players, who drop connections when losing or mock you during in-game chat,

I met the guys from introversion for lunch today. Had a good chat about games and indieness. It’s always refreshing to chat to people who understand what it is you do, and do something similar.

18 thoughts on Why GSB is not like a normal RTS (deliberately)

  1. I’m with you on more S and less RT.

    On the other hand, I also enjoy Street Fighter. I’m a working man with not a lot of free time to “train my combos” but I quite often am able to win by reading my opponent’s mind – and it feels awesome.

    Arthritis would certainly make it much more difficult. But then, I use a keyboard, which makes certain moves completely impossible.

    I would have loved to be one tiny breadcrumb on your lunch table today. I propose that in the future you tape that kind of thing, or at least part of it, and publish it here or somewhere else. If it’s audio, I’d listen to it, and if it’s video, I’d watch it.

  2. I like to keep my action separate from my strategy as much as possible – I’m not that good at either, so when you toss them both together it’s horrible. I also get really, really stressed by most RTS games – ideally I would be able to pause, figure out what I’m going to do, and then start again.

  3. Ah man those guys gave us Uplink. And what a great game that was, too. Cliff why don’t you do a game like that for your next project? Other people have tried but not come close but you’d do a good job, I reckon.

  4. The things I hate most about RTS games (even the ones I love)-

    There’s almost always a single “right” way to play. Either because of some blend of imbalances or by designer intent there is a 100% correct build order, tech tree response, etcetera, and it becomes a case who can remember that the fastest.

    Resource management. Because what I really wanted to do was constantly replay the obnoxious escort mission from every space game ever made and then tie my success (or lack thereof) in that goal directly to my ability to make units to fulfill that role.

    Micromanagement. Ah yes, I see here that this unit has the ability to explode the skulls of every enemy within 10 meters. First I have to move it into position, keep it alive, click on one to three things, and then keep it alive until the effect goes. Of course it will never spontaneously use the ability, don’t be silly. Then there’s the things where you can keep units moving just so and evade some percentage of attacks or whatever.

    Still, the first one is the most galling. It makes the games inflexible and frustrating.

  5. I agree with what you say, Cliff. But I don’t know if I would call StarCraft a “normal” RTS. Maybe the one most heard of (certainly in Korea). But it’s not “the norm”, if you know what I mean. It’s only JUST getting a sequel. I’m guessing that’s what you meant, but there are plenty of “S” type RTSs.

    But I agree. It’s precisely why StarCraft is the only one of its kind (that is generally regarded as good).

    I don’t think you meant it, but StarCraft does have thinking. It just happens to have a massive action-heavy component too. Ever heard of Boxer? He’s called “The Emperor” for a good reason. :)

  6. Me and my friend have just gotten into Civ 4 for the first time and we are loving it, proving that you don’t need to be an RTS to be an amazing strategy game. We are 4 hours in to a multiplayer game with 8 other bots and we are definitely only 30% or so done. An awesome experience :D

  7. I like my games to have a balance in this respect.

    I really liked the idea of GSB, but watching the battles with no intervention just bored me. I toyed with the game after buying the beta, but haven’t come back since.

    Hopefully the campaign expansion will add some spice to the game. With luck, I’ll even have time to play it in between shipping my game. =)

  8. i bet there was loads of inside-talk on subversion, and that makes me insanely jealous, it seems like their most ambitious (and maybe over-ambitious) game yet but it seems like it will be some kind of super-uplink.
    they talked about having money troubles last year, is everything straightened out since releasing darwinia+? they are a fantastic developer, it would be a shame to lose them.

    oh, and if you like your strategy games with plenty of strategy, give greed corp a try ( it’s turn based and pure-strategy (aside from a 60 second turn limit) . It’s only out for xbox live arcade and the playstation network at the moment but it’s been ‘coming soon’ for the pc for a while now.

  9. I also bought the game at the beta stage. The game has a lot going for it but I really don’t like just sitting there and watching the battle unfold. I played the game a few times but just fast forwarded the battle after watching it real time a couple of times. If you ever add some fleet command interface to the battle screen I would come back to GSB! Maybe GSB 2? :)

  10. Lack of interactivity is the reason why I won’t be buying this game. You’re taking some sort of apparent “moral high road” about this but you’ve taken it to an extreme. NO interactivity during battles is not the answer. But who cares, there are plenty of other games to play.

  11. It’s not the answer for you. But not all games are made for the same people.
    Enjoy your other games…

  12. Wow great talk Cliff! I am 100% in accord with your way of thinking!! Especially on the ‘must do games that you would like playing’ part. If only more developpers would agree to such rules, I’m sure alot of better and more original games would be made… *sigh*

  13. I get what you’re saying, Cliff, but I see all games on the following spectrum:

    100% athleticism (ie 100m dash) 100% strategy (ie chess)

    On the one extreme, you have a 100m sprint, which requires no strategy whatsoever. Only pure athleticism, speed. And on the other extreme, you have chess. You can be an invalid and play it with your mind.

    Most other contests lie in between the spectrum.

    But I’ve found that for contests less than 100%, strategy being roughly equal or even slightly unequal, athleticism makes the difference between winning or losing.

    And yet even in our chess example, the element of speed IS present. A grandmaster can calculate many more moves per second in his mind than I can. In essence, his mind is faster. And that is why supercomputers are now able to consistently beat the best human players – they calculate so many moves per second to nullify human creativity in the limited rules of chess.

    So in the end of the day, speed really is the deciding factor for almost all contests.

  14. Kohan was an example of a good RTS with emphasis on the S.

    It did that by reducing the number of units by having you just control groups, and getting rid of Peons.

    It worked quite well (the original). Kohan II bombed for good reason.

    the other genre I play often, fighting games, has a similar argument.

  15. Yeah, there are lots of RTSes that don’t follow the Blizzard formula where you have to play the keyboard like a piano and micromanage units all the time. Even if you’re only playing casually with a friend, you HAVE to do a fair bit of micro in Blizzard-type games, because army-group sizes are artificially restricted, and you can’t queue a bunch of actions for units or factories. And spellcaster-type units generally, as mentioned above, won’t cast most or all of their spells autonomously. So you have to keep hopping around.

    I haven’t played enough RTSes to know for sure if there’s really a currently-popular true-strategy game, where even top-level players don’t have to click like crazy all the time. There are definitely games that’re a lot LESS of an evil clickfest than Blizzard games, though; look at Total Annihilation and its spiritual successor Supreme Commander. (SupCom 2 is kind of a TA/Starcraft hybrid, I think.)

    Oh, and remember Myth and Myth II? Micro will get you pretty much NOWHERE in those. Unit choice and placement are absolutely everything.

  16. I think you need to be careful when comparing grandmasters to novices in terms of speed. Computer performance can be gauged in terms of moves considered per unit of time, but the cognitive strategies of human grandmasters are structurally different from those of novices. Noobs, as far as I’m aware, tend to rely on a blunt application of the rules to the situation at hand. “Where are all of the places I can move my knight? How many of these are advantageous?”

    Whereas skilled players are able to draw on their repertoire of past games and complement their conscious awareness of the rules with their unconscious ability to compare the current configuration of pieces on the board with patterns internalized from previous games. The grandmaster can and does use brute force to look several movies ahead in a way the novice, with his untrained memory does not; but the most significant difference between the two is the former’s ability to automate trivial tasks and see familiar patterns; this allows him to identify and respond to threats faster. The grandmaster is “faster” in a manner of speaking, but because his techniques are fundamentally different from the novice’s, I’m not sure if it’s really fair to compare them in terms of “speed” rather than “strategy”.

    The only way to get good at chess is to practice; in this respect, it’s not unlike heavy metal. The person who is privileged with enough practice time due to favorable circumstances will kick your ass with a statistical sort of certainty, due in part to the fact that fewer of the strategies used against him will surprise him.

    I think the key to learning is a short interval between your actions and the game’s reinforcement. If you screw up in chess, it’s apparent somewhere down the line; the bigger the blunder, the sooner. This is a powerful form of negative reinforcement, when it comes to remembering what not to do wrong next time. Also, if you’re playing a computer, you can roll back a few moves and try a different strategy to see how things play out.

    I love the look of GSB; it’s really nonpareil, and I hope somebody pins a medal on your chest someday. Game-wise, I appreciate your attempt at making things deterministic; the more predictable things are, the greater a role foresight plays in winning the game. But if you your only form of interaction with the game is in the initial stages, it becomes progressively harder to associate failure with deployment and configuration errors, as the battle wears on.

    Take tower defense for instance. The monsters generally come in waves, so if you fail a specific wave, you can trace your error in planning to the specific type of monster that killed you, and the the layout of your base at the time of your death. The waves are short too, so there’s only a small delay between planning and cognitive reinforcement.

    Or take the Incredible Machine for example. Like GSB, you build the machine, and sit back and watch as it runs, or fails to do so. You can design machines that run in parallel, but most of the time it’s easiest to make the parts operate in a linear sequence. This way, failure can be instantly traced to a distinct stage in the machine’s progress, rather than one of a number of constantly interacting parts. Similarly, the battles in Master of Orion 2 were complex, but turn based, and so, in a sense, your entire armada was like a machine with independently operating parts. It was easy to pinpoint what worked and what didn’t.

    The stories of people fast-forwarding through GSB battles, I think, reflects a profound sense of being overwhelmed by complexity that the user can neither understand nor influence.

    1) The longer the game goes on, the tougher it is to figure out ways to tie what is happening at a specific point in time to an error in configuration at the very beginning of the match. Rolling a dice on a table might be deterministic, but because the physical laws involved are impenetrable to me, it’s random from my perspective. I’m dumb. Really dumb. A burlap sack full of rocks. Help me understand what’s happening during the late game. Pretend you’re God explaining why a dice bounces around the table the way it does. Does the full version of GSB have an optional console that pops up with damage values?

    2) Because I can’t do anything at any point in time post-deployment to influence the outcome, it’s very hard for the user to be “trained” to play the game better. If my initial deployment is bad, I’ll get creamed early on; this is great. But what about the middle and endgame, the part people (maybe hasty, impatient people) fast-forward through? If they can’t understand, and they can’t influence, they’ll be fast forwarding.

    Anyway, ‘m sorry for repeating crap you’ve already heard a gazillion times before. The GSB demo is just so amazing, that I got entirely carried away! Good luck with your current and future projects.

  17. I completely agree! In fact I think it keeps things simple, teaches the player to value his pieces, and keeps the focus on strategy when the game is less about button mashing.

  18. Quote from BLaBZ

    2) Because I can’t do anything at any point in time post-deployment to influence the outcome, it’s very hard for the user to be “trained” to play the game better. If my initial deployment is bad, I’ll get creamed early on; this is great. But what about the middle and endgame, the part people (maybe hasty, impatient people) fast-forward through? If they can’t understand, and they can’t influence, they’ll be fast forwarding.

    To run with your Chess analogy – I think of GSB more like the “chess problems” you find in the paper. You know – you see the pieces and you are told Mate in 4 moves.
    Or doing a Soduko puzzle with a pen.

    You are faced with a problem – Enemy deployment, and you have one goal – survive. I found the learning curve to beat the PC challenges simple – and now that I am tangling with users I keep learning.

    I know some people find it strange – the hands off approach – I find it very refreshing to sit and ponder how to make my ships move into a certain position and make the opposing ships move into a position I want them to.

    I do watch the battle in fast forward – for me it is easier to see how my fleet is responding to the orders overall. And with all the new text displays of damage and post battle break down I can see where I went right – or wrong.

    And I can do it at my speed. From morning slow coffee fuddled to 4A.M. hyper Insomnia states. And nobody has called me a “Noob Sprayer” – Grrr


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