When we work, we do it because we are obligated to. We work for food because we are slaves to our bellies. We work to pay the rent because we are slaves to our safety and comfort. Some of this servitude is willing servitude, such as willingness to earn money to care for our families, but it is servitude nonetheless. We are doing it because we have to, not because “we feel like it. ” The more obligated you are to do something, the more it feels like work.~Excerpt from Art of Game Design - A Book of Lenses, by Jesse Schell
Now, let's apply this quote to something near and dear to our hearts.
When we work, we do it because we are obligated to. We harvest resources because we are slaves to our factories. We work to build up our bases because we are slaves to our safety and... well, unit producing factories, again. Some of this servitude is willing servitude, such as willingness to earn credits to care for our armies, but it is servitude nonetheless. We are doing it because we have to, not because "we feel like it." The more obligated you are to do something, the more it feels like work.Anyone else get that feeling when playing any of the recent mainstream RTS games? It was novel at first. But now, it is work. When you are playing anything but "no rush 5 minutes, n00b game"s, be it single player missions or multi player matches, you are building the base because you have to. Because it is your only way to build up an army. And, for the most part, you do it in a time constraint, fearing the coming onslaught of Red Helmeted Fanatic Zerglings under strict orders from Saruman to wipe you off the face of Middle Tib Sara.
It's a chore on your way to the fight. Some might even go as far as calling it a hindrance.
Some games have attempted to change that, by getting rid of that whole part of the game. A move met with hostility, anger and outcry. In his book, Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell gives the story of Rico Medellin who turned his job into a game:
The task he has to perform on each unit that passes in front of his station should take forty-three seconds to perform — the same exact operation almost six hundred times in a working day. Most people would grow tired of such work very soon. But Rico has been at this job for over five years, and he still enjoys it. The reason is that he approaches his task in the same way an Olympic athlete approaches his event: How can I beat my record?
So, basically, by restating the goal of the chore, Rico turned his mundane, repetitive and otherwise stagnating task into a game. Now, anyone who just said to himself "Achievements", in an overly excited outburst, go outside and... hit yourself with some heavy and maybe even spiky object. Whatever you choose, please make sure the pain will last long.
We can't solve this with Achievements. Turning the resource and building part of an RTS into CityVille will just distract and detract from the Action and core of the game. And, in the end, we'll just end up with the same problem.
That said, permit to contradict myself, at least partly. Maybe such an approach can work - if two conditions are met:
- As with the story of Rico, these Achievements are properly defined and described. Not just a mere "Build two factories, a condo, brick walls with Obelisks and a brown and blue eyed Siberian Husky to guard the gate" type of achievement, but something more endogenous. Something that has meaning in the context of the fight we are fighting - specifically the current goal and mission.
- Perhaps more important than the above - certainly complemented by the above - is the issue of persistence. If you have a mission that only takes 20 minutes, or even 2 hours - if you cram to many of those Achievements it'll bog down on the core game, if you don't, you've achieved nothing new anyway.
No, what needs to be considered are larger missions - or arenas of play. An approach in which the built up base can be revisited and added to over time. Instead of just building a base for the purposes of unit production, we build it first for a foot hold, then a presence and ultimately a permanent staging area.
Allow the narrative to support this need, by revisiting the area and, of course, providing the player with the same built up base he left there. Make the player care for that base, or even for several interacting bases.
In the original Red Alert there was an Allied mission to quickly establish a foot hold and destroy a near by Soviet base so that a convoy could pass. Later, you had to return to that base in a following mission, expand it, build up an army and destroy a larger Soviet base to the north. Obviously the technology at the time did not allow for the Allied base in the second mission to be exactly as it was built up by the player in the first... but imagine the possibilities.
Once you provide such small persistence, you have open before you many other options - options you can provide the player with. For example; without revealing future missions, provide the player with intelligence regarding Enemy movement in the north, allow him to recon there and allow him the freedom to expand his base where he wishes. Later, when that future mission is reached, the player is either under attack already (base being large and expansive), or under siege, with a tiny, purpose specific stronghold.
The difference in this impromptu example is situational and well within the scope of current technology. There is no need for branching morality, dialog and decision trees. The difference comes down to the "EVA/Adjutant" informing you of either an enemy spotted or a base under attack. The player will decide for himself whether to panic.
This reminds me of an anti-rant post on the Mass Effect 2 forums by a guy called Omnicrat:
...Your choices in one have a HUGE impact on the story in two! In fact, the stories are vastly different! What IS simmilar/identical alot is the specific dialogue. Example: you say pretty much the same things to Wrex/Wreave minus the bit about how Wrex is enacting his plan. Yes, the dialog is similar, but the story is compleatly different! Wrex is the de facto leader of Tuchanka in one story and Wreave can't beat that green clan in a fight in the other! These are vastly different stories.What I'm trying to say here is that while the basic missions and objectives may be the same, the narrative as perceived by the player can vary -and maybe, if done right, vastly so.
Still, what other options are there to make the Base Building and Resource Gathering aspects of RTS not being chores?
Perhaps another approach is the Meaningful Achievement.
In the original Mass Effect, for example, only the Soldier class was a born Sniper. Meaning, that only characters of that class could start off and use the Sniper rifle(s) to their full potential... Unless, as a different class, you've completed the Head Hunter achievement - basically, get an X amount of Head Shots. What this did, beyond the Head Hunter medal in the otherwise useless medal list, was allow the non-Soldier classed character to gain all the advantages of the Sniper Rifle(s). Finally, actually having focused cross-hairs, instead of the screen wide circle, and the uncanny ability to use the Sniper Rifle's zoom feature!
Can something similar be done for Base Building and Expansion? For Resource Gathering?
The Terrans in StarCraft 2 have this Automated Miner thingy which, for a limited time, comes down from Orbit and auto mines Minerals. What if mining an X amount of Mineras, in a limited T amount of time (maybe spread out, for a X / lim T per Mission kind or ratio), allows you to have that Auto Miner, for free, at the start of each mission after the achievement is reached?
Easily doable in Single Player. Might require some more tweaking if considered for balanced Multiplayer matches.
What about Objective based Achievements?
A mission that requires you to fortify your base from coming attacks, but an underlying achievement may be of creating a base strong enough to withstand the attacks without the use of offensive units? Kill all the incoming forces using base defenses and the Engineers to repair them! The Design a Death Trap achievement.
Gives you stronger base defenses? Less power consuming or cheaper ones?
The two activities - base construction and resource gathering - complement each other. Rather, the latter is a requisite of the former. As such, the resource gathering is in itself endogenous. So, maybe the focus should be given more to the base construction aspect, as the heavier element of this Pareto duo.
I'd love to read and discuss more ideas on making that aspect of the RTS formula, preferably as an integral part of the action of the game, less a Must Chore and more a Fun Play.