Mechanical Breakdown: The RTS

June 20, 2010

I find your lack of control disturbing.

I’ve neglected this column for a couple of weeks (though to call it a column is a bit generous, considering this is the 2nd post) and was fully intending to do the next Mechanical Breakdown on the inventory and the varying systems that are used for it (which will come eventually, I promise). I realised, however, that I have a lot of ideas about the thematic content of the RTS genre, and I should probably get them down.

RTS’s have a special place in my heart. My first piece of game design was a (truly horrible) Starcraft campaign that I made when I was in primary school. Since then, I’ve done some fairly extensive design work on a couple of RTS’s that never came to pass (essentially due to my propensity to have ideas that are a bit larger than my student-based ability to make them). Funnily enough, RTS’s aren’t at all my favourite genre (I generally don’t have the patience for the strategy and just want to hear a story…), but they have some very specific ideas associated with them that are quite fun to work with.

As I’ll continue to do with this series, I’ll first look at the gameplay and narrative impacts of the RTS separately, before bringing it all together.


The Gameplay of the RTS is pretty well documented, so this section is possibly going to rehash some older ideas, in an attempt to summarise them and bring us towards some new ones. As a whole genre, I can’t hope to capture the massive variations you find in an RTS. Instead, I’ll be focusing on a few key aspects that makes the RTS what it is.

The first of these is the Strategy. A lot of discussion has been had on the difference between tactics and strategy, which is often equated to the difference between micro and macro-management. Yet while the ideas are definitely linked, there are some important subtle differences.

Strategy is generally regarded as the high-level game plan that a player will undertake: which units to make, when to attack, defend or counterattack, who to ally with: the list goes on and on. Tactics is its smaller brother: the specific movements, flankings, decoys etc. that are utilised by individual units in a specific battle.

While it’s true that micro-management is required for tactics to occur, micro-management, as the management of individual units, is often linked to other, non-combat yet essential activities. Resource collection is the most evident of these, with the micro-management of gatherers often being a repetitive yet essential task to the success of a team. And this is the crux of the difference: micro-management usually involves the optimisation of a player’s internal systems, while tactics involves an oppositional element.

On the other side of the spectrum, we see that macro-management is usually a subset of strategy. Macro-management is the decisions of what units to make, where to expand your base and how to structure your attacks. Strategy, meanwhile, involves things above and beyond the actual units on the board and what they do. It also involves alliances: communications between players, deceit and politics.

What we find is that the term ‘Strategy’ in the games we traditionally call ‘Real-time Strategy’ is a bit of a misnomer: while strategy is often involved, these games often also require both tactical and optimisation tasks. We can thus classify games by how much they utilise each of these three aspects.

And while many games will require tactical or optimisation tasks, I can’t think of an RTS which has completely removed all strategic components. Often we find that the non-management aspects of strategy are those that are neglected: shifting alliances, back-stabbing and politics is sometimes allowed but is usually not encouraged. I’d guess that this is because of the complex and murky win conditions that can come with such gameplay.

What we also find is that it’s the ‘Real-Time’ nature of RTS’s that shifts the gameplay away from strategy and into tactics and optimisation. Turn-based strategy games (Civilisation, Rome: Total War and so on) generally veer away from tactical and optimisation play. When they do allow for tactical play, it is generally in the form of separate, skippable, game modes (see Heroes of Might and Magic). The immediacy of real-time gameplay certainly lends itself to tactical manoeuvres more than its turn-based counterpart, and so this part of the equation is easily explained.

Optimisation play, meanwhile, is only possible with the Real-Time nature of these games. These mechanics are generally an optimisation of the player’s time: when do you make workers and how many; at what points do you gather which resources to maintain the correct ratio; and how do you optimise your click usage to ensure that everything you want to happen, happens? Starcraft II takes this further in a few new mechanics: the new Zerg Queens can spawn extra larva, and the Protoss Nexus can improve the speed of production of other buildings for a limited time period. Ideally, you want these powers to be consistently active, but this simply isn’t possible. Instead, you have to activate them manually each time, eating away at your own personal time budget.

I haven’t really talked about what gameplay aspects makes an RTS work or fail, as I don’t think it can be prescribed at this high level. Sure, an RTS that ONLY consist of optimisation play might seem like a bad idea, but if the developers know that’s what they’re doing, the low-level details could be tweaked to make it work. At this high level, there can’t be a right or wrong way, but we can at least construct a vocabulary for different types of play.


Based on the quote at the top of this post, you might fail to be surprised to hear that control is a major narrative theme of RTS games. It’s a prevalent theme of all these games, as you’re in total control of your troops at all times. Your control is so complete as to be unrealistic: units respond to commands instantly across distances, and you have perfect information on the areas you can see.

Perhaps more importantly, this control is almost never disrupted. Occasionally, a game will allow one player to control another’s units, but these are generally fairly sparse events. And unlike reality, communications cannot be disrupted between a player and their units in an RTS.

When we look further, we also see elements of control in the strategic nature of games. Control of resources and strategic points (such as higher ground) can be incredibly important to the game, and in many games, control over the other player’s strategy can be just as vital. This is especially true in games in games with a Rock-Paper-Scissors paradigm in their units, where the player who takes the initiative will often be able to control the flow of the gameplay.

Taken to its narrative conclusion, an RTS is uniquely able to ask how much control a person can have over events. The high level of control, if subverted in gameplay, could resonate with a loss of narrative control very well.

Another major theme of the RTS is visibility: the idea of the Fog of War, beyond which a player cannot see, is a prominent feature in many RTS’s. But the theme extends further than this: the player is blind to other players’ strategies and intentions, and much of a game can be spent trying to determine these things in order to counter and control the play effectively. Many games have an ability to hide certain units, and other units who have the ability to see these hidden enemies. This theme of visibility could be easily extended to ideas of understanding your enemy and infiltration.

The viewpoint of the RTS gives us a whole other set of thematic ideas. Within the players’ domain, they are an omniscient presence looking downwards upon those they command. This could be utilised as a statement about the nature of command or in the service of more totalitarian themes of watching and being watched. The freedoms and liberties we are used to enforcing are very likely violated by the player who expects total control, and this view of leadership would be interesting to explore.

It would be remiss to talk about the RTS and ignore the prevalence of technological growth and the idea of super-weapons. Most RTS’s will have some sort of tech tree, which denotes what you’re allowed to build when. A super-weapon is generally an overwhelmingly powerful technology which is unlocked at the top of the technology tree, and in some games, it’s literally a technological arms race to get to the super-weapon before your opponent (Command and Conquer:Generals is one example). Defcon took this theme even further, with the super-weapons (in this case, nukes) being the prevalent weapons in the game. Defcon uses this to make a statement about the terrifying nature of the nuclear war, and there’s a huge amount of scope for games to explore the wide-spread effect of technological innovation.

There’s a plethora of thematic content in this genre that changes with the specific game being played, and I’m aware that I’ve only pointed out some of them. There’s a lot more out there in terms of individual identity, war, opposition and politics, but I’d like to think I’ve covered the fundamental ideas that crop up when we play the RTS. A lot of these ideas depend heavily on the affect of the specific game in question, and you’ll find that each game will play to specific themes in certain ways.

And that brings us to part 3:

Putting It All Together

So which gameplay elements lend themselves to which thematic ideas? Let’s look at the gameplay elements one by one:


Macro-management, as a general rule, will instil a game will themes of oppositional control, as the player’s control can be juxtaposed nicely against the lack thereof of the opposing team. This is particularly true in games with a rock-paper-scissors based unit balancing. These games also have a strong visibility theme as you attempt to unravel your opponents strategy to undermine it.


The non-management aspects of strategy is rife with themes of trust and betrayal, winning and losing, and whether people will innately compete for competitions sake, as opposed to co-operating. It’s a theme we often see in games with more than two sides: your free-for-all matches or those with three or more sides. And while these themes are often utilised heavily in the narratives of these games, this usually happens between missions or in discrete amounts (with a binary switch in allegiance rather than the fuzzy grey area in between), losing much of the resonance that this theme could provide.


Micro-management, in general, smacks of themes of freedom and the loss of it. The more micro-management a game utilises, the more you, as a commander, are dictating the way individuals should go about their tasks. While strategy, as a high-level direction, allows individuals to choose how to act on your orders, micro-management is the converse of this.

Part and parcel with this loss of freedom is a need for control on the player’s side. This need is brought on by the lack of decent AI’s in the genre as a whole, but I can see an opportunity to play on this need for control if and when more sophisticated AI’s are developed (what happens, for instance, when the AI’s become better at micro-management than the player? Do we still try to hold onto control?).


Tactics, as a subset of micro-management, carries all of these themes and then some. Tactical play can establish themes such as the difference between ends and means and the value of a human (orc, robot or alien) life. Tactical manoeuvres often involve the sacrifice of soldiers, and an exploration of the true cost of these manoeuvres could be an interesting direction for a tactics-heavy game. By giving a player a choice of tactical strategies, such a game could allow for some interesting self-reflection on their chosen style and its ethical consequences.


An RTS with a high amount of optimisation gameplay could tend towards themes of automation and human error: the processes that are undertaken as a part of this gameplay could be automated, but the human element adds a diversity to the experiences that would not otherwise occur. It also adds an important skill factor to the gameplay, and can thus highlight the difference between idea or strategy and execution.


The more I write about the RTS, the more I realise that, as a genre, it has a massive amount of content and scope in thematic content that I’d be foolish to try and cover. I can’t hope to exhaustively explore the RTS in a single article, but I do hope to have illuminated some basic ideas. I haven’t even mentioned mechanics such as pathfinding, unit groupings and attack formations which all have their own ideas associated with them, but I’ve defined a basic language for RTS’s and the base ideas that come with them that will assist in the exploration of these other concepts.

I’d love to hear whether this was interesting or helpful, as it’ll inform how I tackle other gameplay genres in the future.