The Price Of Making Your RTS “E-Sports Friendly”

Recently Technomancer from Light Speed Gaming contacted me about replying to my eSports opinion. I’m really excited to have his follow up post about design options lost when deciding between making a classic RTS and an eSport. His interest in the topic is very timely as Joseph Burchett and Devin Becker tackle the same topic on Game Developers Radio. Technomancer adds some interesting points to the eSport discussion below the cut.

The Price Of Making Your RTS “E-Sports Friendly”
A few weeks ago, I read a post here on ”A Gamer’s Life” about E-Sports and it’s impact on gaming communitiesIt was an interesting post that made me think of the RTS scene and the increasing attention that developers of RTS games seem to focus on making their games “E-Sports viable”.

This made me think about how such a move can impact the games that we get, and not always for the better. If we look at Starcraft 2, which is undoubtedly sitting at the top of the competitive RTS E-Sports hill, then we find a game that has really been designed from the ground up with the intention of making it a good game for E-Sports.

Starcraft 2 is designed to reward the skilled players. One of the most significant ways it does this is by minimizing the amount of randomness in the game. Units do damage within a predictable range, you know exactly how many resources will come in from X amount of workers and you can plan various builds down to seconds, optimizing the timing of your army. Units respond immediately to player commands, which means that the better your micro skills the more you’re going to get out of your units.

Obviously, you can say this makes Starcraft 2 a great game. And I will certainly not argue that it is an incredibly polished game and that Blizzard is doing an incredible job with their continual balance tweaks.

But to me it also makes Starcraft 2 a bit of a bland experience in my opinion. My favorite RTS of choice is Dawn of War 2, which is a game with very little base management and lots of focus on tactical decisions and microing of your units. It is a much less polished game than Starcraft 2, with some bugs still present today that were in at the time of release over two years ago. But for my money it is also a much more entertaining game.

A lot of mechanics are in effect in Dawn of War 2 that make the game more random and interesting.
The biggest random factors are probably the “special attacks” and “sync kills” that units will sometime perform. In Dawn of War 2 you have an implementation of melee combat, which means that units can get tied up in hand to hand combat, where they will be punching and kicking each other, unable to bring their ranged weapons to bear. Depending partly on the unit, but also partly on random chance, a unit can perform a special attack, which will knock the enemy unit to the ground, where they’ll get pounced on without being able to fight back. An unlucky special attack on your unit can mean the loss of an engagement that you would otherwise have won. This makes combat more tense and entertaining to watch compared to a simpler “rock always beats scissors” setup.

The “sync kills” are also tied to the melee combat. These are special animations that randomly play, where one unit will pick out one enemy unit and an elaborate kill animation plays. This can be anything from an Ork chopping up an unfortunate human scout, to an epic fight to the death between two giant robots. While these sync kills are going on, your unit will take almost no damage, meaning that an unfortunately timed grenade or volley of shots can end up doing no damage to your enemy, because they are stuck in a sync kill animation. It can also work against the player that is performing the sync kill, as the unit cannot be controlled while the animation plays, so you may find your brave warrior finishing off an enemy with much flashiness, only to find himself surrounded by enemies that used the time of the animation to move into place.

This of course leaves plenty of chance for players to rage about being unlucky and losing because of chance, but for my money it makes for a much more vibrant and entertaining match, than the sterile games of Starcraft 2. You never know, when an insignificant engagement suddenly flips on its head and can end up significantly impacting the outcome of the match. Also, the animations simply look incredibly cool, and really adds a sense of visceral warfare into the game, which I think is also something that Starcraft 2 lacks.

Dawn of War 2 is never going to be a big E-Sports sensation, but there is actually a small active tournament community, which is also supported by a few active casters, of which Shaleseyis no doubt the most active.

I think that game designers should consider, if the price of making your game potentially less fun for the average gamer is really worth it for the chance that you may be able to grow an E-Sports scene around your game. If your game is not going to be the next Starcraft 2 (and let’s face it, it is most likely not), is it not better to make the game the most fun it can be, rather than sacrifice entertainment and interesting gameplay on the altar of E-Sports?
If you haven’t already listened to Exploring Design #07 on Gamedevradio.net, then head over. It will point out mechanics you really need to consider when your game crosses the boundary between classic RTS and RTS eSport.  Don’t assume that just because Blizzard is doing it that you have to as well.  Make sure you preserve the verisimilitude of your game by choosing the right level of competition in your game.
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