What Makes RTS Games Fun: Micro and Counter Play

Micro management is more than just maximising the efficiency of your army; it’s about making units feel unique, fun to use and to create exciting interactions between players. There’s nothing satisfying about just attack moving your units, they should be designed in a way that rewards players for being creative in utilising various techniques and quirks.

When designing the micro potential for units and abilities, there are a few important things to consider. Firstly, micro should focus on the interaction and dynamic with a player and their opponents, not just themselves. Having micro as a two-sided process not only adds variation to the combat, it also creates the thrilling instantaneous feedback of outplaying your opponent.

When possible, each action should have the potential for your opponent to react which creates a showdown of counter play. For a great example, let’s turn to the Nuclear Battlemaster of Command & Conquer Zero Hour.  When the Nuke Battlemaster is destroyed, it detonates a powerful explosion that damages nearby enemy and friendly units alike. This creates a lot of potential for collateral damage, so the Nuke Battlemaster should charge towards the enemy as it’s about to be destroyed. The opponent has plenty of opportunity to react, they can kite or split their units to avoid the explosion, or they can focus down the Battlemaster before it closes in to cause friendly fire. This response can then be offset, causing an exciting back and forwards counter-play loop.

For counter play to be possible, abilities and mechanics need to be identifiable through visual or audio prompts. Company of Heroes does this brilliantly and is rich with examples of subtlety. When a squad is ordered to throw a grenade, a short animation will appear. The soldier visibly drops his rifle, stands up tall, reaches his arm back and then lobs the grenade forward.  Even the Grenade itself can then be seen flying through the air towards its target. This display gives the opponent plenty of time react and dodge the grenade entirely. Consequently, the grenade can be cancelled upon seeing the enemies reaction, or can be thrown into the predicted dodge path. Likewise, incoming artillery barrages can be heard firing through the fog of war. These tell-signs should seamlessly blend into the aesthetics of the game, without having to rely on artificial popups over the user interface.

Micro is also about creating interaction where there would otherwise be none. In Zero Hour, the Chinese Trucks are resource collectors, yet they can crush infantry or damage enemy vehicles through friendly fire splash damage. Likewise, the Construction Dozers can soak small arms fire away from infantry, or the GLA workers can occupy garrisons for protection. Designing units with additional utility provides more tools to outplay your opponents; this keeps each engagement feeling fresh because there’s always multiple ways for it to be resolved. It also allows for better game flow and introduces comeback mechanics.

Another vital aspect of RTS design is simple and intuitive appearance but with depth and nuance layered beneath. A perfect example is the Flea Jump ability that the Soviet Sickle has in Red Alert 3. At first glance, it seems like it’s entirely just for jumping up and down terrain, but hidden beneath lies a lot of hidden utility. Other uses include dodging projectiles, knocking back infantry, jumping over walls to harass harvesters and resetting enemy targetting. All of this utility is buried underneath a single keystroke, instead of being spaced out into multiple separate abilities that would otherwise be daunting for new or casual players.

Adding micro into a game does not mean making it difficult for players to control their units. It’s important to avoid imposing artificial limitations on units for the sake of it, in favour of layering them with depth that rewards players who can execute their nuance. In Company of Heroes 2, the old US Ambulance required the player to manually activate an ability for it to heal. This ability also had a long cool down, so the player would have to actively manage the healing on their Ambulance. This does require micro and is a skill differentiator, but it’s certainly not good for gameplay. It’s just a frustrating and punishing chore, forcing players to focus on something mundane which detracts from the rest of the fun gameplay that Company of Heroes has to offer.Final Thoughts

Micro should be about fighting your opponent, not battling the interface or being bogged down by artificial limitations. Counter play is what creates exciting moments and largely determines replay value for a multiplayer RTS. It’s vital for units and abilities to be designed with specific matchups and player interactions in mind.

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