Rush, Boom, Turtle: How to Make an RTS

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So let’s say you’re making a real-time strategy game. I’m going to do you a favor and explain exactly how to do it. Ready?

Step One: Make an RTS. So far, so good.

Step Two: Go to Staples and get a big whiteboard and a red marker. Red is better for how much it looks like shouting. I want you to hang this whiteboard in your work area, and on it, I want you to write this across the very top:THINGS TO PUT IN MY REAL-TIME STRATEGY GAMEGo ahead and use all caps, because, yes, it’s that important. Now I’m going to tell you the things that need to go on the whiteboard. Those you don’t have to write in all caps, but remember to keep using the red marker. Yes, they’re that important.1) Hotkeys, hotkeys, hotkeysSeriously, come on. Stop expecting everyone to learn the icons on your tiny little buttons, especially if you’re going to have units with special abilities like bloodlust and sandbag emplacements and fireballs. You want me to hunt down my unit, mouse-click some indeterminate button, and then click on a target?

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Ha ha ha! You might as well just add a Whack-a-Mole mini-game.And stop leaning so heavily on my mouse. In fact, I should theoretically be able to play your RTS without ever touching my mouse. And please let me configure the hotkeys however I want. There’s no standard, yet, among RTSes like there is with shooters using WASD. I’m serious about this one. Notice that it’s my number-one point. That says I mean business. Don’t make me come over there.2) Unit statsOne of the quickest ways to kill your RTS is to make me feel like I’m just throwing units around without understanding what they do or how good they are at doing it. If I ever have to ask “What’s this one do?” you have failed. If I have to, I will illustrate the point with a LOLCAT image of a cat hilariously missing a jump up to the kitchen counter.

The model for detailed unit data — actually for almost all of the stuff I’ll be mentioning in this column — is Big Huge Games’ Rise of Nations and Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends. They allow you to turn on detailed unit information, which includes stats, indicators for any buffs and debuffs on the units, and tips to about the units against which they’re effective. You can even see these details for enemy units. The anti-model is Supreme Commander, a game with an extremely wonky and mathematically driven economy that gets all coy when it comes to numbers for the actual units. In fact, if you want to know units stats in Supreme Commander, you have to go to a Web site run by a fan, complete with ads.

Why not have a cold, refreshing Diet Pepsi along with the damage rating for your Cybran gunship?Sins of a Solar Empire also fails, presenting flavor instead of helpful info. Under the hood is an esoteric and unintuitive combat system. For instance, fighters are the best way to counter siege ships. Huh? Whoda thunk? That’s like attacking catapults with archers. This lack of unit data is huge flaw in an otherwise swell game. Make sure you don’t make the same mistake when you make your RTS, or I’ll dig up that LOLCAT thing I was talking.


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