OTC Designer Notes #1: Unit Selection

The following is an excerpt from the Designer Notes for Offworld Trading Company. The game, an economic RTS set on Mars, releases on April 28, 2016, and is available for purchase here.

Unit Selection

Our design intention with Offworld Trading Company is to make a real-time strategy game that rewards thinking over reflexes and adaptation over patterns. We want to make a game that focuses on the macro-level decisions of a traditional RTS but without requiring micro-level skill. In games like StarCraft, a player without high actions-per-minute counts could never compete at a high level. We want Offworld to be a game for people on the other end of the scale, who are competitive and love strategy game but who don’t want to be held back by a dexterity challenge.

It’s amazing that real-time strategy games ever worked at all. Most video games are about controlling one thing – a character, an athlete, a car, a plane, and so on. The obvious reason for this limitation is that input devices are primarily about direction and movement – consider the joystick, the d-pad, WASD/mouse-look, and even tilt controls. More diverse game interactions have been found primarily on the PC where the mouse gives players precise control over unit selection. Grabbing a bunch of tanks and sending them to wipe out an opponent has been the core of real-time strategy (RTS) games since the very beginning. However, unit selection is also prone to error, difficult to manage, and mentally taxing. Coupling this challenge with the other high-level demands of RTS games (scouting, base building, economy management, army composition) while also dealing with intense time pressure makes RTS games sound more like a stress simulator than entertainment for many players. MOBAs emerged from and then eclipsed RTS games because, while players enjoyed the scale and the competition of an RTS, they preferred the vast simplification of having to manage only one character, which – again – is what video games do so well.

However, just because unit selection is so frustrating doesn’t mean that RTS games should die. RTS games are the best place in video games for players who want to think. They require difficult choices between short-term gains and long-term goals. They require reading an opponent’s mind and predicting her moves. They encourage formulating a plan and then learning when to deviate from it. They are endlessly replayable as every dominant strategy has a counter-strategy waiting to topple it. They are the only way to make multiplayer truly work in a strategic game, avoiding the intractable problem of having to wait for one’s turn. Most importantly, real-time games must be played intuitively, by feel and experience instead of the painfully slow analysis possible in turn-based games.

Thus, RTS games should live. Unit selection, however, should die. An RTS game is, at its core, about making strategic choices in a real-time environment, about not just making interesting decisions but also about when and when not to make them. Unit selection is just not a necessary part of that formula and often keeps the player from engaging with the game’s actual design.

Having said that, it took us awhile to get there. Indeed, Offworld actually started as a much more conventional RTS with plenty of unit selection. The player moved Scouts around the map to explore, sent Probes out to claim tiles, used Engineers to construct buildings, moved Pirates to attack building and shipping lanes, and then moved Police ships around to attack the Pirates. In fact, the player even had to set up shipping routes to move the Freighters from building to building, picking up Iron at a Mine, dropping it off at a Steel Mill, picking up the Steel, and then dropping it off at the market – basically, Railroad Tycoon set on Mars.

Micromanaging the shipping lanes was the first to go. The demands of unit management were taking too much player time, turning the game from one about playing the resource market to one about playing the shipping lanes. Instead, Freighters now appeared as soon as a building was full and then went directly to the stockpile at the HQ (and buildings that needed resources were supplied directly from the stockpile). To make up for some of the lost functionality of manual shipping lanes, we added override buttons that forced sending resources to the HQ early or supplying a specific building from the HQ. One concern about losing shipping lanes was that players could no longer make choices to avoid the Pirates by taking a sub-optimal route; however, the immediacy of a shipping lane becoming a fixed, unchangeable part of the map had other advantages – that the map was now defined not just by the terrain but also the vectors connecting buildings to their HQs.

Automatic shipping improved the game experience immediately and immeasurably; players now had time to make higher-level decision, to look around at what other players were doing, and to predict where the market was going to go. Thus, we were encouraged to try to take more and more unit selection out of the game. For example, Pirates now could only be placed on the map but not controlled; moreover, they were temporary, so we could cut the Police entirely from the game as the Pirates would just disappear after stealing a certain number of resources.

Our original model for Engineers was directly from a traditional RTS; the player would train Engineers at the HQ and then move them around the map, constructing buildings on the way. Under this version, players often lost their engineers, which meant they couldn’t place new buildings until they found one. Thus, we took away player control of Engineers; they now appeared from the HQ automatically whenever the player placed a new building on the map and then helpfully disappeared when done working. The only downside was that the player didn’t have to optimize the question of whether he had enough Engineers to cover all of his tiles – which ultimately just encouraged players to build close to their HQs anyway, and we already had other game mechanics (fuel costs, travel times) to punish players for building too far afield.

Finally, the last controllable unit was the Scout, which the player used to explore the map and discover resources. It was difficult to envision taking control of this unit away from the player, especially since the player actually did have time to micromanage exploration before founding an HQ. However, having only one type of unit be selectable just seemed very strange, and we were afraid that having the player select the first unit set up expectations for selecting latter units in the game. Thus, our first attempt to take away Scout selection was by planting exploration flags on the map that the Scouts would aim towards when exploring, somewhat like the bounty flags that are placed in Majesty. However, every time a Scout didn’t aim for a flag in just the right way made the player yearn for the original selection method. The solution was to cut Scouts entirely and replace them with the scanning mechanic, which lets players simply reveal tiles by clicking on them. This mechanic was simple, effective, and fast, making Scouts completely unnecessary. With that last change, we had removed all unit selection from Offworld.

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