On externalising RTS mechanics
2 September 2016
We recently announced Neopolis PlayStation 4, which was rather exciting, and released a trailer to show off first glimpses of the game, and introduce what makes Neopolis a very different RTS. Did you spot that I have included:
- No Tech Trees?
- No resource gathering?
- No micro management?
This has triggered some questions by interested gamers. The key question they raised was, to paraphrase: "But aren't those the things that make a game an RTS?” Well... yes and no... and as that is a totally vague reply, I decided to write this devlog to try and answer this question properly, in the context of our game mechanics and our general philosophy for this game.
and now, some background...
As I mentioned already in my Sony Blog post, there are historical reasons why most strategy games incorporate resource mining and technology trees. In fact we can pinpoint that pretty much to the release of a specific game: Dune II.
To quote wikipedia:
Some key elements that first appeared in Dune II and later appear in many other RTS games include:
- Resource-gathering to fund unit construction
- Simple base and unit construction
- Building construction dependencies (technology tree)
This isn't controversial and has been the basis for many successful (and wonderful) strategy games. What people seem to forget or ignore however is WHY these elements were introduced in the first place. Yes they make design sense, overwhelmingly so even, but they especially make sense in the context of the wider Dune universe narrative!
Specifically: The books and the film feature a planet that is in conflict because of its RESOURCES (Spice) which needs to to be MINED/GATHERED to enable TECHNOLOGY that allows the controlling party to DOMINATE the universe (and UNLOCKS ABILITIES in the native population). That's a nice summary of the basic RTS structure right there...
Seen in that light the real genius of the game shines through as it very elegantly translates these facets into a great gameplay structure: Send out harvesters to mine spice, use this to facilitate base and unit construction, and unlock technology trees to develop additional unit types. A perfect structure for a Dune game!
However, does it not make sense to adopt different mechanics, or a different interpretation of mechanics for games in a completely different setting, or games that want to present a different overall experience? I think so, and to some degree I have already successfully done this before in a single player context, with our game Eufloria.
A bit more about my philosophy
Even within the proven formula associated with RTS classics, there are problems. In my experience there are many gamers (or potential gamers) who don't really get into RTS gaming because of a number of perceived issues:
- Mechanics are hidden behind menus and cause a steep and long learning curve without intimate knowledge of the genre.
- Gameplay is too focused on finding an ideal path through a complex technology tree. Games can be entirely about optimising unit and base construction.
- Resource gathering can become rather tedious.
- Some games tend to be too reliant on just creating a wave of units with which one can rush an opponent.
Without disrespecting traditional RTS games (I love them dearly) I really wanted to design something that that takes care of some of these problems, without sacrificing strategic depth and without alienating veteran players in the process. I decided to do this by taking a lot of the conventional mechanics away from menu choices, and instead integrate then organically in the game's environment. I find that a lot of actions and menus are simply redundant if they are presented in a radically different way, as part of the game setting. The key to this is the cyberpunk world I wanted to work in. (I know this still sounds vague but please bear with me)
What does it all mean in practice then? I will try to illustrate this by shining some light on how I treat the core elements of the genre in the text below. To stop things from getting too dry and to provide context I have also created a video where I discuss and illustrate most of these. Please scroll to the end to find it.
Neopolis simply don't do this. In Neopolis you start out controlling a gang's headquarters (HQ) and a finite number of gang members (Gridrunners) associated with its turf. You cannot use your HQ to "construct" more gridrunners (units). Initially, you simply control the lot you were assigned with at the start. However, the city grid (level) is populated by other unaligned gangs. (There are several different gangs (crews) in the city and they each function as specialist units in their own right.) So, to gain new recruits you must go out and conquer the territory of unaligned crews. It is up to you to decide when to do this, and which crews to try to conquer. If any of your own crew perish in the process they are replaced by rookies at their HQ. This prevents rushing tactics, yet allows a player to replenish troops up to their base level.
Other units (Vehicles, tanks, mobile turrets, etc.) can simply be discovered in the city. Exploration is vital!
Neopolis doesn’t do this in any traditional sense either. In Eufloria your units WERE your resources as you had to sacrifice them in order to grow new plants, which acted as unit growers. In Neopolis I dispensed with this altogether as your core units are always replenished at your HQ. (there are penalties involved to balance this out). However, players CAN level up and develop new skills as they do. This is very powerful if used strategically which means that experience itself becomes a kind of resource to gather.
In Neopolis there is no building of bases or other buildings. Instead, all structures are found out in the levels (the city grid) and they can be occupied, conquered, converted, or they can function as traps (occupied by enemies). This very much fits with my core philosophy but also fits the cyberpunk aesthetic, where the city is as much a "character" as the people that live in it.
Furthermore, because the city grid restricts unit movement to the roads system interacting with the buildings become part of core strategy. As a result terrain is hugely important in our game.
This mechanic normally functions in two ways: Firstly, It allows the player to diversify their specialist units, but funnels this process into a series of strategic choices. Secondly: It restricts access to certain units along a timeline.
I find this can be quite off-putting to new players as many of these possibilities are both overwhelming and opaque, as they are hidden behind menus and require a lot of experience and memory to use effectively.
My approach is once again to make this more integrated with the game environment and befitting of the cyberpunk setting. In Neopolis you diversify unit types by explicitly conquering the HQs of crews (all crews are specialists in their ability sets and AI) or you simply go and find specific unit types (like mobile turrets) in the city.
Additionally, you can re-designate buildings to provide different functionality. This matters as one of the designations (Dojo) allows a player to train their units and grow their experience. Furthermore, some buildings have specialist functions that are normally covered by the technology tree: hospitals, repair facilities, road barriers, and so forth. None of these have to be build or slowly unlock over time or off some tech tree branch. They are simply part of the city and can be utilised by player and opponent alike. In fact a lot of the game's strategy comes from controlling and exploiting different buildings and structures.
Taking all these factors together results in gameplay that is easy to get into, balanced and fun, yet offers deep strategy and interesting tactics, without following the template that so many RTS players had to get used to. I also hope to offer some innovation (or evolution) along the way. :-)
Watch this video to see how all this ties together ingame:
(DISCLAIMER: PRE-ALPHA footage, only shared to demonstrate the blog post principles.)
If you feel like discussing this further why not join us on our Neopolis forum?
See you there!