Getting to know you…

The Real-Time Strategy is one of the easiest game genres to chart the history of because, although the genre does disappear back into obscure titles like Stonkers on the ZX Spectrum (don’t fail me now, Wikipedia) the first real RTS games as we understand them now didn’t appear until much, much later.

It’s no surprise that Westwood Studios was responsible for inventing what many regard as the grandfather of modern strategy – Dune II: Building a Dynasty. The very same developer would later go on to create the Command & Conquer series, which still stands as one of the forefathers of modern gaming. Developed in 1992, Dune II was the sequel to the RTS/Adventure hybrid Dune and was only loosely based on the Frank Herbert epic of the same name.

Being a massive fan of the book and the first game, Dune II was also one of the first games I played on my Amiga A500+ as a geek-in-training, so naturally it's one which I know intimately.

As a franchise, Dune contains all the important elements needed for an RTS game too and Westwood couldn’t have picked a better novel to use as a basis for their game – the novel easily supplies the resource players must gather (Spice Melange), clearly defined foes to defeat and a long, epic plot which allows for numerous massive conflicts. The book itself even mentions Kanly, a series of rules which govern the types of allowed warfare in the fictional universe.

From Dune onwards it was a hell of a lot more difficult to work deep storylines into RTS games though. Developers didn't have the same established framework to cling to – although they had a much clearer idea of what worked and what needed to be there. That simple fact shows in later games too.The C&C story, while admirable and impressive by gaming standards, doesn't quite compare to the intricacies of the Dune novels. The gameplay of Command & Conquer however is infinitely refined over Dune II.

How to write...a Strategy game The story to tell How to write...a Strategy game The story to tell
Dune II was the game that started it all, but RTS come in all shapes and sizes...

So, if we simplify matters by weeding out the lesser games and inevitable Dune II clones, we ostensensibly were moved from a great gameplay style with an awesome story, to an even greater set of game mechanics but with a slightly lesser story. But did it matter? The story was lesser, but the gameplay was infinitely improved and the decreased focus on micromanaging an army opened up later RTS games in a way nobody could have anticipated. The RTS exploded onto PCs successfully and earlier games like Stonkers which had taken inaccurate stabs at the format were left forgotten by the wayside.

So, just how important is story to a Real-Time Strategy game anyway? If Command & Conquer could do so well by balancing story and gameplay out like that then how do other designers work to find that balance for their own games? Is it proof that gameplay is more important than plot for this genre? I put the question to Magnus to try and see how important he thinks story is to RTS games in general and how pivotal it was to the success of World in Conflict.

My initial thought is that RTS games are usually no different than any other games when it comes to gameplay vs. story. The endless discussions and GDC lectures that have been held on the topic in defence of either side applies to RTS games as well as other genres.” Magnus said, though he first chose to lament the impossible scope of my questioning.

In World in Conflict though the story is extremely important,” he continued. “Single player is very much a linear, emotional ride (compared to the cerebral nature of classical RTS games). If you strip away the story from our single-player mode, you’re left with something quite shallow when compared to most other RTS games offerings.

How to write...a Strategy game The story to tell
FMV mission briefings are considered a staple of the genre by many

Maybe it’s more to do with how the story is told, I realised. How do designers decide to communicate the story and objectives to a player anyway? Mission briefings are the logical way to accomplish this and briefings are more ideally suited to RTS games than they are to some other genres. It’d be a very boring version of Duke Nukem 3D that gave you a five-minute briefing before every enemy! (unless it had strippers giving it - Ed)

Increasingly though RTS games are moving storytelling into the gameplay itself, issuing objectives and narrative in the middle of game events to increase the sense of drama and panic – just look at how many times Jennifer Morrison pops her head up in Command & Conquer: Tiberium Wars if you don’t believe me!

Cutscenes are typically very expensive to make in terms of development resources, so the story is also sometimes told in briefings with just voices and/or talking heads. Very few games have the budget to tell the whole story in full cutscenes, like C&C3.,” said Magnus. “In World in Conflict we tried to break down as many of the barriers between ‘gameplay’ and ‘story’ as possible. A lot of the pivotal events happen while playing. The fact that this is much cheaper in terms of resources is just a happy coincidence. Generally though in RTSs, yes, the story does kind of stop at the doorstep when the mission starts. There are a few reasons why this is true.

First, and this is true not just for RTS games, it's quite often hard to get the motivations of the characters (story-wise) to translate into good gameplay. In fact, outside of stories that put the character in a ‘get the f*** out alive at all costs’ kind of scenario, the things that are fun for the player to let the character do are generally not what the character would realistically be doing. For classic RTS games, this translates into the problem of ‘the guy commanding the army is usually not in charge of building the hardware itself’.
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April 12 2021 | 14:00