It’s well known that RTS suffer from being less accessible than other genres, but I think the reasoning for why is oversimplified and under-analysed. Most people attribute the accessibility woes of RTS to their steep learning curve, but that’s only part of it. If the steep learning curve is such a hurdle, then why are MOBAs like Dota or League of Legends so immensely popular? I don’t think you can argue that StarCraft or Company of Heroes have a steeper learning curve than Dota, which is as hardcore as you can get. A more accurate diagnostic might be that RTS have issues with player retention, it’s difficult to get new players hooked on an RTS. Today I’ll be exploring what it is that makes RTS suffer from player retention and mention examples from RTS that have attempted tackled these problems.

When playing a multiplayer FPS or a MOBA, gratification is explicit and externally presented to the player. You run around the corner, *bang bang*, you just got two kills which pop up on the scoreboard, and one of them was a headshot. You run into the bomb site and defuse while your team is watching. You won the round. In other genres, you’re able to identify success immediately, are presented with direct objectives, and victory is broken up into small increments such as rounds in Counter-Strike or pushing a tower in Dota. Shooters and MOBAs have those individual exciting moments, and the rush of that experience is enough to keep you coming back and tolerate mostly loses in the hope of reliving that exciting triple kill.

RTS games can be immensely gratifying to play, but there’s a critical difference between how it’s established in RTS compared to other genres. The gratification found in RTS games is self-directed; to fully discover the enjoyment of RTS, one must first develop a thorough understanding of the game to identify the consequences of actions. Let’s take an example from StarCraft 2, if I send a Reaper to my opponent’s base and I scout a quick Dark Shrine, that feels good. The discovery of that quick Dark Shrine is gratifying to me because I know it’s a significant investment early on which I’ll now be able to easily counter and get ahead by throwing down Missile Turrets for stealth detection. Furthermore, the process of scouting the Dark Shrine is an achievement as it required me to outplay my opponent by finding a gap in his defending units. If I were a novice StarCraft player, none of this would have happened for many reasons:

  1. To begin with, I wouldn’t know that I should scout
  2. I wouldn’t know how or when to scout
  3. I wouldn’t know what to look for
  4. I might not know the significance of scouting a Dark Shrine
  5. I might not know the correct response of scouting a Dark Shrine. (Build Turrets)

Instead, I wouldn’t scout my opponents Dark Shrine, and then several cloaked Dark Templars would run into my base and swiftly murder me. I would be helpless against the cloaked units, and I would have no idea how to respond or how to prevent it happening in future. This feeling of helplessness can be extremely off-putting, us humans need actionable goals and a sense of fairness. When you’re new to an RTS, there are lots of things that can be frustrating but little that is exciting.

When you lose in an FPS game it’s pretty obvious; they clicked on your head faster than you clicked on their heads. In a MOBA, you can see your failure to dodge an ability resulted in you getting caught. RTS lack the visual clarity that allows new players to identify their mistakes and have a clear trajectory of how to improve. This isn’t necessarily a flaw of RTS, part of the depth and challenge of RTS comes from receiving limited information from your opponent and making decisions about how best to respond, it creates the entire dynamic of scouting and counter scouting. I’ll be attempting to come up with solutions for the accessibility woes of RTS, but I recognise that it may be unsolvable and at the core of RTS design.

Lack of Social Experiences

RTS can be played in team games, but they don’t deliver compelling team experiences and synergies compared to other genres such as MOBAs where each player is assigned a role and class. A support or a carry on their own are worthless, but together they form a powerful combination. Humans yearn to feel valued and offer a unique contribution which MOBAs deliver excellently, whereas in an RTS there’s less interaction with your teammates and more interaction with your opponents. If you win an RTS team game, it’s generally because of each player outplaying their opponents rather than the players forming a unified team and outplaying their enemy team as a totality.

RTS games don’t deliver the combined sense of comradery that other genres boast. If you win a team game but didn’t do well, you may feel like you were letting down your team and not helping. In a MOBA, your ability to perform a unique role such as healing or split pushing always makes you feel as if you’re offering a unique contribution to the team, even if you had a bad game. FPS games offer less interaction with your teammates compared to a MOBA, but each round is a new opportunity for one player to have excellent performance, whether it’s getting three kills or having the entire team watching as they clutch a round. In an RTS, players are too busy managing their forces to view the actions of their teammates, and there’s no scoreboard to break down success.

Over the years, RTS have tried to tap into the team-based experience to varying extents. A subtle example is the Commander loadouts in Company of Heroes that can be used to field complementary assets, while the more extreme example is World in Conflict where players pick a specific role such as Aircraft or Infantry and can only build units from that class. The challenge of how RTS can improve the quality of team games and player synergy is a serious question that hasn’t been worked out yet, but I think there’s still potential for it.

Contextualising RTS

It won’t occur to those of us who have been playing RTS for a long time, but RTS gameplay is weird and contrived. If someone new to RTS watches you play, they may ask “Why is the camera in the sky?” Or “Wait, you’re controlling all of those tanks?” The concept of floating around in the sky and controlling a bunch of things is a lot less intuitive than playing as a soldier in an FPS or as a character in an RPG. RTS games and MOBAs share the same camera system, but MOBAs have the individual hero that players embody to serve as an anchor into the game. Finding ways to anchor players and contextualise the gameplay of RTS is a technique that helps a new player comprehend and immerse themselves. A classic method that RTS have employed to address this is the unit responses such as “Yes, my lord” or “What are your orders Commander?”

Voice lines are a great way of establishing the player as a leader in command of the battlefield where the actions of units are them responding to their orders. My favourite example of creating context is when zooming the camera out in RUSE, zooming out far enough depicts the battlefield as a war table monitored by a group of Generals. In the background can be seen radios and operators. Think about how much easier it would be for a new player to visualise an RTS if you could zoom out and show them “I’m a General monitoring and in command of a battlefield.”

Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander have a great technique of anchoring the player into the game with the Commanders. In those games, you start with only your Commander which grows your base and forms as the backbone of your production. If the Commander is destroyed, so are you. From the lore perspective, the units in the game are expendable robots, and only the Commander is a person (or alien.) Through both narrative and gameplay, the Commander is the player, and like a MOBA hero, it serves as an anchor and avatar into the game. Other RTS like Company of Heroes could replicate this by having a Major standing in the base with a map and a radio which suggest the Major is the Commander, who could have their appearance determined by which Commander the player locks in.

Command and Conquer: Generals – Zero Hour had a great way of personifying each of the sub-factions when playing the Generals Challenge. The sub-factions were all depicted as a general that had their goofy personality and voice acting. When playing Skirmish and Multiplayer, USA Air Force would be described as with the following tooltip: “General Granger Malcome “Ace” Granger prefers to utilise the maximum airpower available to defeat his enemies.” General Granger’s portrait would then be presented to the player as they loaded into a game. Not only does the personification of the sub-factions give great context to the game, but it enhances the roleplay immersion of the game. I wish Zero Hour did more to emphasise the human side of the sub-factions such as having voice commands that players could send during games, or perhaps unique sub-faction units addressing the player directly as “General Granger.”


Player as the Cursor

One method of contextualising and anchoring players in an RTS is the player-as-the-cursor concept found in games such as Tooth & Tail and Airmech. Commands such as follow, attack or retreat are applied to units based on pressing buttons in relation to the current player’s position. Base building in Tooth & Tail relies on the player’s current position to determine where a building is placed, while deployment of turrets in Airmech is done manually by transporting units. The player-as-the-cursor is a significant design commitment that severely limits the amount of possible management, but it has the consequence of making console controllers just as capable as a keyboard and mouse.

Tooth & Tail and Airmech are both available on Xbox as well as PC, and while I haven’t done so, playing them on a console would be a smooth experience, especially compared to conventional attempts that convert RTS to console. The simplified management and shorter match duration found in those RTS also suits the more casual console experience. For the player-as-the-cursor design to work, the player needs to be very mobile to allow for rapid movement around the map. In Tooth & Tail, the player can quickly burrow between and back to bases, while the Airmech can transform to jet mode and rapidly fly around the small map.


Lack of Transferability

If you go from playing Call of Duty to Counter-Strike or PUBG, your skill set of reflexes and hand-eye coordination will transfer over and make the learning curve less challenging. While there are recurring concepts and mechanics in RTS, the transferability of RTS is low as there’s so much to learn from one RTS to another. It doesn’t matter how much Command and Conquer you’ve played, picking up Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation is going to be a challenge and will require lots of learning. MOBAs also suffer from low transferability because while the mechanics are mostly the same, having to relearn all of the heroes, abilities, and items is a massive undertaking.

The transferability of FPS games means they tend to have shorter life cycles as people constantly move over to new ones. The lack of transferability in RTS means players are more likely to stick to their favourite classics, so a new RTS released in 2018 has to compete with old titles more than other genres have to. The fidelity of RTS has stagnated compared to other genres, as RTS games are more intensive on CPU power than GPU, so playing a new RTS for the sake of better graphics is less prevalent.


Different Gamemodes

Having alternative casual game modes that players can begin with is a useful way of more gently introducing them to an RTS. The perfect example of this are the co-op missions found in StarCraft 2. StarCraft’s co-op missions simplify the game and make it less stressful for new players by limiting the unit roster and reducing the complexity of economic and production management. The co-op missions are also played as sub-factions represented by a character in the StarCraft lore, so it has the advantage of personifying the character you play as. The co-op missions also provide players with clear objectives instead of the self-direction found in multiplayer and skirmish, and lastly, co-op has the social team-based experience of playing alongside a friend.

Other examples of introductory game modes are ARAM (All Random All Middle) in League of Legends, the Arcade in StarCraft 2 which hosts user-created mini-games, and The Last Stand survival mode in Dawn of War 2. The best equivalent for Ashes of the Singularity is the King of the Hill scenario which plays out like a tower defence mission, but it would be much better if it included the option for co-op play. Instead of trying to change fundamental RTS design to fix accessibility problems, a better solution might be to put more emphasis on creating introductory secondary game modes.


Archon Mode

StarCraft 2’s Archon mode is a great spin on the team game formula. Instead of it being a 2v2 with separate bases, the two players share control of the same forces together. Archon mode requires a lot more interaction among team members as lack of communication can result in contradicting each other’s orders. Sharing management of a single base means teams organise themselves into certain roles such as upgrades, microing drops or producing workers. The specialisation into roles makes players feel more valued and creates a much higher sense of comradery compared to traditional team games.

Relegating tasks between players alleviates the breadth of responsibility and overwhelming management for each player, so Archon mode serves as an excellent introduction to StarCraft. The shared control aspect is also just so much fun, and I think it’s a shame more RTS aren’t going down this path, but it wouldn’t work in all types of the genre. Archon mode will only work where there is enough management and tasks to share around, but I think it’d also be fun in a game like Company of Heroes where each player can focus on a few squads and vehicles each.


Final Thoughts

RTS are known for having issues with accessibility; the steep learning curve and large amounts of management are contributing factors, but only a piece of the puzzle. The lack of player retention can also be attributed to the delayed self-gratification, lack of social experiences that other genres boast, the contrived gameplay that can be hard for new players to contextualise, and the lack of transferability between RTS. Fixing the accessibility barrier of RTS is a complex topic that may not be possible given the design of the genre, but more emphasis on alternative casual game modes could serve as a more engaging introduction to each title.

Callum McCole

Callum McCole

Staff Writer at GameCloud
RTS Shoutcaster, YouTuber, live streamer and enthusiast. Growing up back in the golden era of RTS games Callum has stuck with them ever since. Hoping that one day RTS will become cool again, he continues to play, shoutcast, critique and explore competitive multiplayer RTS games.