Od Studios -- Breaking the Build Order Cycle
||Breaking the Build Order Cycle -- by sector24, 2007-03-20
One of the smartest things someone has said about real time strategy games is that the most important resource in the game is time. Even with unlimited amounts of gold, food, and vespene gas, the human playing the game only has a finite amount of concentration, and focusing your efforts wisely is what wins games. Smart players need to decide whether to concentrate on piloting a single scout through enemy territory or micromanaging peasants, whether to manually control units in battle or just let the computer resolve it while you fill the barracks queue, etc. However, in almost every RTS game ever made, players do not have to worry about how to build their base.
The first thing the "professionals" learn is the build order. The build order is the optimum sequence of events designed to get the player the most resources, units, and advancement possible in the shortest amount of time. A sample build order would look like:
1. Build 1 peasant
2. Build mine
3. Build 4 peasants (lumber)
4. Build House
5. Build 5 peasants (gold mine) and 1 barracks
6. Build 2 Houses
7. Build 5 swordsmen, 5 peasants (lumber) and 1 stables
The build order would continue until the player had what he needed to either attack his opponent or build a second base of operations and possibly repeat the build order in a new location. This is the biggest downfall of the RTS genre. The term "build order" implies that this is the most efficient use of time, which is the most important resource in a RTS game. It's mechanical; there's no thought involved. Basically the biggest level of "strategy" can be reduced to a series of predefined motions that the top end players must go through in order to have a chance to win. Build orders in turn based strategy games are not as big of a deal, because TBS usually features multiple levels of strategy for the player, and the loss of one level of strategy is not as heavy a blow. But for some RTS games, the strategy is the building. Once your army engages the enemy, the computer takes over for the most part, assigning damage to units and generally letting the AI govern the outcome.
As a designer, build order is generally a bad thing. It doesn't mean that people won't buy your game and put money in your pocket, some certainly will. However, the game's shelf life will be more limited than another, better, RTS. You also run the risk of the player not purchasing your sequel as a result of the lack of strategy in the original game. In five years, your game will be all but forgotten, while everyone is playing the next big thing.
What is the Problem?
The first thing to do is to understand the problem, which is that the player has no options. In the build order example above, the player could build 2 peasants and then a mine instead of 1 peasant, but the problem is that if you wait the extra time to build the second guy, your mine won't be finished in time to build the house in step 4. Without the house, the player is at his unit maximum and wastes time waiting. So you're thinking let's just change the time it takes to build the mine, and then the player has the option of building 1 or 2 peasants early on. Well what happens is you're not actually giving the player any more options. He will figure out mathematically whether it's more efficient to build 1 or 2 peasants, and whichever is better, he'll always do that. If he doesn't, his opponent will and he will most likely lose as a result.
Many games have tried to fix the symptoms of the build order dilemma by implementing a rock paper scissors strategy to the units, which rewards players for scouting out the opponent and building an army specifically designed to counter them. The strategy is in what units to build and how to use them effectively, but not how to build your base. Everyone has a virtually identical setup and the game is decided by who micromanages their army more skillfully.
Some games also streamline the micromanagement of the base. Rise of Nations was particularly good at this. All of the upgrades were available in a single building, the library. You could also set infinite build queues with rally points so that you only had to build your army once and from then on the game was on autopilot, allowing the player to concentrate on something else. However, everyone still needs to build the library in the same order if they don't want to fall behind. All this does is push the base building aside and focus the game elsewhere. That doesn't solve the problem.
How Do I Fix It?
The common problem between all RTS games is the fact that the goal in every game is exactly the same. You have to wipe out the enemy base to stop him from building more units. You have to wipe out all his peasants to halt his production. You have to eliminate him from the game in order to win. There is a singular task to complete, and in most games there is an obviously best way in which to complete it. Build these things in this order and then focus your concentration more efficiently than your opponent.
Some games have found limited success in specializing the player's race/nation. Starcraft has 3 races and 3 distinct build orders. Rise of Nations has dozens of nations and each nation has unique bonuses. One race has an abundance of gold, another race has extra fast peasants, while another can build swordsmen 10% cheaper. These specializations change the build order for that nation, which allows players to play to their strengths. While somewhat effective, these solutions still do not address the source of the problem. You're just making 1 build order multiplied by each faction in the game.
Instead of addressing the symptoms of the problem, you have to address the source of the problem. The player needs more ways to win the game. Taking an idea from another genre, what if the player could win via cultural victory? A cultural player's focus would be on expanding territory and building defensive structures. Military units would be important, but not to the same degree as a conqueror. The player would be relying primarily on walls and other buildings as their defense. His offense would be building and holding new bases, or sending units into enemy territory to subvert enemy units and buildings. Feasibly, he could take over the enemy without firing a single shot by properly expanding and defending.
Adding distinct victory conditions creates distinct modes of play. Perhaps there is a build order for a cultural victory that is the most efficient vs. another cultural player. But how does that same build order fare against a conqueror? What if your opponent is attempting another type of victory? The more different victory conditions in the game, the less likely a single strategy will be the best one.
Real time strategy games still have room to innovate. The old base building strategy has been used since the original Warcraft came out. What if players could play as a nomadic tribe? There would be no base building because the base would constantly be moving. Your units would also be your buildings in a way. The strategy of a nomadic tribe would be to constantly stay on the move and use hit and run tactics. Perhaps their victory condition would be to achieve a certain size or just remain alive for a set time period. The traditional strategy would not work against nomads. They would probably have more units early in the game than a traditional player. They could have a unit that doesn't deal damage but just steals resources from peasants and brings it back to camp. By the time you can build an army, you don't know where to send them. It could be an interesting game. You could also have a faction that lives primarily underground. They only come to the surface to harvest resources and do some light raiding. Their goal could be to dig a giant sinkhole under your base and destroy it, while a traditional player would have to find caves and tunnels and burn them out from underground to the surface where they could be attacked.
Real time strategy games have been the same for so long, a well implemented game that expanded the scope of the genre would be very well received. The problem is that "new" games are risky. Big budget developers know that they can make consistent money by pushing the same games to market over and over again with new graphics. Why spend millions of dollars on something untested? That's where aspiring young developers have an advantage. They don't have assets to protect or shareholders to please. Make a game that no one has ever seen before, and they'll fall all over themselves to play it. But in order to do that, you need to address the source of the problem. You can only dance around the main issue for so long, and apply so many band-aids. Eventually real time strategy games are going to have to change.
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