What Makes RTS Games Fun: RNG in RTS

If you’ve ever been to a Company of Heroes 2 forum, it doesn’t take long to hear someone protest that a game can’t possibly succeed as an eSport if it has an influence of RNG (random number generation), suggesting that luck negates skill. It’s a flawed argument to make, considering the biggest eSports in the world do already contain RNG such as critical chance in MOBA’s and spray patterns in FPS. Stepping outside the realm of eSports for a moment, take a look at Poker with prize pools which dwarfs that of eSports. The sheer amount of luck in drawing cards is blatant, yet nobody doubts the consistency of professional poker players. Why? It’s because the skill and strategy completely overshadow the luck, exactly how video games should be if they involve RNG.

So why should an RTS game even bother implementing RNG? RNG adds an element of uncertainty which increases the excitement, both from the perspective of a player and a viewer. If an engagement or unit interaction is completely predictable, it’s going to lose any sense of tension. Company of Heroes 2 has delivered the most intense moments I have ever experienced throughout gaming, being able to capture that and present it to an audience is why I am so passionate about shoutcasting. Coh2’s exciting gameplay is the culmination of various features and mechanics, but the influence of RNG is an integral part of it. RNG can also support the artistic vision, watching a Soldier get shot 20 times is a bit of an immersion breaker. The inconsistency of unit performance is necessary to try and portray realism in an RTS game, but it needs to be carefully balanced out to supplement player skill rather than countering it out.

In Company of Heroes, the small arms fire relies on RNG to determine hits and misses, though the accuracy and effectiveness are determined by cover, distances, different weapon profiles and movement. Likewise, Artillery barrages fire in random scatter patterns but are influenced by distances and angles which players can utilise to their advantage. If a player loses an engagement due to bad RNG, it generally would have been avoidable through better use of the games mechanics.

Coh2 as a competitive multiplayer RTS starts to fall apart when there are situations where the game doesn’t have enough mechanics to surpass the influence of RNG. This doesn’t happen very often due to the unique profiles of vehicles, but an RNG battle will happen if there’s a duel between two tanks that share very similar stats, such as a Cromwell vs Panzer IV or a Tiger vs IS-2. Without mechanics such as side armour, armour angling or manual turret facing, there isn’t enough player control to determine who wins these engagements, other than just who’s fastest to bring in a supporting Anti-Tank Gun or hoping for better RNG.

Skill differentiators and micro techniques should substitute RNG whenever possible, keeping RNG as just icing on the cake. A great example is comparing the implementation of mines between Company of Heroes 1 and 2. In the original Company of Heroes, mines could be freely rotated to determine the blast radius, since mines were triangular shaped and were more potent depending on the direction of impact. When detonating on vehicles, multiple mines would further increase the severity of engine criticals on top of the damage. This implementation of mining rewards players for creative placement and prediction of enemy movements, something that Company of Heroes 2 neglects in favour of just raw RNG.

There’s no rotation of the mines in Coh2; players have no influence on the potency of mines, other than their positioning. When these mines detonate on vehicles, the severity of engine damage is determined by luck, it’s just a 50/50 coin toss if it’s a light or heavy engine damage. RNG has its place in RTS, but only when the players have interaction with and influence over the outcomes, as opposed to just rolling the dice and hoping for the best. A player feels good about themselves when they utilise techniques to improve their chances and then get rewarded by favourable RNG, because then the player attributes the positive outcome with their actions. If a player randomly gets good RNG for no reason, it’s not going to feel satisfying.

As a general rule, RNG shouldn’t occur in non-interactive parts of an RTS game because it leaves no room for player skill. One of the worst offenders in Coh2 for pointless RNG is the Mobile Defense Ostruppen call-in, which spawns two infantry squads that each have a chance to come equipped with an MG42 Light Machine Gun. Short of sacrificing a goat to the promiscuous RNG God, there’s no way to influence the sheer luck of the call in. It’s the epitome of unnecessary RNG that doesn’t need to exist when it could just be averaged out to one LMG spawn every time.

RNG unit spawns isn’t inherently a problem, compare the LMG dice roll to the Off-Map Combat Group from Company of Heroes 1, which spawns a semi-random group of units. There was luck in hoping the units you get are what you need the most, but there’s a big difference in that unit spawns weren’t objectively better than others. Spawning an undesired unit mix creates the reaction of adapting your composition and strategy to make it work, as opposed to just feeling victimised for getting the short straw getting no LMG’s. RNG should serve as a tool to make engagements more unpredictable and exciting, not to frustrate players in ways they had no control over.

There are multiple barriers that Company of Heroes 2 still needs to overcome for its competitive multiplayer scene to flourish. Aside from a few extreme cases, the abundance of RNG is the least of Company of Heroes concerns. I’d even argue that the RNG influence supports its eSports viability; in conjunction with the epic visuals, audio and animations, RNG presents Company of Heroes as an authentic portrayal of World War 2, part of the reason Company of Heroes draws people in and is so entertaining to watch.

Glorify player skill all you’d like, but viewership is the most important part of eSports since that’s where all the money comes in from sponsorships and advertising revenue. The accessibility of viewership is vital; it’s difficult trying to convince your parents just how cool eSports are when all they see is a bunch of cartoony figures and bright colours. From an outsider’s perspective, League of Legends looks like it’s a game for children, a stereotype which gaming as a whole is still trying to break. The lack of visual intuitiveness in MOBA’s or StarCraft II is a huge barrier to entry for viewership, so having a realistic and relatable appearance such as Company of Heroes or Counter Strike is a huge plus.

Final Thoughts

RNG has its place in competitive RTS as a tool to create exciting tension and to force difficult decisions from the players because of the element of uncertainty and unpredictability. To create a fair experience, RNG needs to be kept in check so that it supplements player skill through the influence of player interactions. The severity of RNG outcomes can’t be too extreme; else players can be overly punished for encounters without enough possibility to counter play. While Company of Heroes 2 provides multiple examples of these frustrating encounters, it overall serves as an example of how RNG can be successfully implemented in a competitive RTS for its overall benefit.

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