Has Mobile Ruined Strategy Games?
Repeating the strategy genre’s biggest mistakes
At E3 2018, EA announced the “next generation” of Command and Conquer in the form of Command and Conquer Rivals. This is a free-to-play (F2P) version of the beloved franchise. As they, and many supporters on Twitter, were quick to point out, this is the evolution of the real-time strategy (RTS) genre and mobile strategy games.
As a fan of RTS games — including the Command & Conquer series —I believe this is incorrect, and it’s time to talk about how mobile titles may have failed to learn the key lessons of RTS design.
There’s a lot more to RTS design than I can cover here, but for the sake of keeping things on track, I’m going to focus on some of core tenets of the genre. Real-time strategy games have always been one side of the strategy coin; the other being turn-based strategy.
At its core, I’d say that real-time strategy design is based on the following core tenets:
1: Base building/management
Whether we’re talking about strategy games played on a micro or macro level, base building has been an essential part of the design. Offering both progression and gameplay constraints, base building defines the tempo of a match.
Players have to manage building an army by upgrading their base in order to get new research options and units. Many strategy games have turned base upgrading into a major part of the strategy process. Series like Age of Empires and Rise of Nations folded moment-to-moment base development with a higher level era advancement concept. One consequence of this was that players had to find a balance between expending all their resources on creating a massive army (relying on numbers) versus a smaller but more advanced one.
For some strategy titles, base building may be a constant focus throughout a match, or it may simply be a device to get production rolling, with the rest of the experience being primarily about army/unit management.
2: Unit control
With base management out of the way, the next major point, of course, is around controlling your army in the field. The philosophies here can be pretty wide-ranging in terms of managing units at scale (although it’s fair to say that players should always have as much control over a single unit as they can with a hundred or more).
The big factor when it comes to unit control is just how micro-focused the game is. Titles like Starcraft or Company of Heroes prided themselves on turning combat into a dance between two opposing sides. On the other end of the spectrum, you have games like Planetary Annihilation that was about getting your massive army into position and then watching the spectacle unfold.
At this point, it’s reasonable to state that controlling a units effectively (and at scale) requires a well-considered UI that blends complexity and depth with an intuitive interface. With that said, UI design in RTS games could easily become its own large piece — so I’ll park it for now.
3: Unit balance
Regardless of how bases and units are managed at a high level, the core of any strategy game design relates to unit balance. Good strategy games have always been built on a solid foundation that seeks to balance units in order to keep the experience from becoming unfair.
Some series go for full asymmetrical balance, such as Starcraft and Command and Conquer. Here, the different factions have completely different units in terms of abilities and stats. Other series keep the unit compositions the same, but may incorporate slight variances and special bonuses; the big example would be Age of Empires.
At the heart of unit balance is the idea of a rock paper scissors system (RPS). RPS refers to the concept that every unit type is strong against some units and weak against others.
This kind of balance provides two key advantages for designers and players. The first one is that it’s very easy to grasp the fundamental concept while learning the game and making decisions in the heat of a match. For designers, RPS provides a solid framework for creating and fine-tuning units.
Of course, designers have to be aware of how much the RPS balance will impact battle outcomes. If the system is too strong, then it can lead to uneven, lopsided matches. If the system is too weak, then players will not be conditioned to build balanced armies and simply go with whoever has the highest stats.
Unit balance is the make it or break it point for strategy design. I believe this is the key area where modern “strategy” games (particularly those with mobile-focused design) have primarily failed to deliver.
Modern, mobile-first RTS
Chances are if you ask people about strategy games today, they will probably point to titles like Clash of Clans or Clash Royale. Strategy design has shifted towards mobile over the years and has brought with it a change in design philosophy.
Instead of multiple screens, matches take place on just one. Base management, resources, and unit control have all been simplified; but, arguably, the largest and most concerning change has been a greater focus on RPG progression and abstraction.
Mobile-based RTS games are no longer primarily about fielding an army per se, but making sure that your troops and abilities are upgraded. By upgrading units, players improve their base stats, making them more effective in the field. In order to upgrade a single unit, players typically must spend in-game currency to level up the selected unit. The costs associated with these upgrades become more expensive with each level gained.
While this system isn’t the best for the player, it’s very easy to see why developers implement it. RPG progression provides a longer gameplay curve, at least compared with a primary reliance on player skill. Tying this RPG-style progression into the monetization system provides an easy way to sell “base power” indirectly (that is, to sell the thing that used to be part of the core mechanics around base development and advancement).
You can never just use one rare or epic card, you need multiple copies in order to be truly competitive with other players. That means many hours farming drops to get lucky, or spending money in the in-game store.
You can also use RPG progression to help the learning curve for new players. By purposely locking more complicated units behind an account or faction level, it provides a sense of growth and discovery as new units become unlocked to be integrated into the gameplay.
Despite those positives, mobile game developers have failed to learn the critical lesson that Command and Conquer 4 and Age of Empires Online learned the hard way.
Why role-playing strategy doesn’t work
As I mentioned above, strategy games are built on either a loose or rigid RPS system. The problem is that a RPS system doesn’t work when there is RPG progression. RPS by its design is meant to create simple rules of balance: Unit X should always be able to counter Unit Y. When you start locking units behind progression or allow them to be powered up, it creates a big imbalance in the design.
In terms of locking away units or options, this is the issue that Command and Conquer 4 had with its design. By not giving players access to all the options, it created a big issue when players of differing levels fought each other. If player A has a unit that can’t be countered yet by player B, then the second player will not be able to respond to the different unit.
With upgrades also locked to levels, this also meant that two players with the same units could still be imbalanced if one could upgrade their units more.
When you start allowing upgrades, or abstraction changes, this presents two big problems with balance. The first one is easy to identify: it creates an imbalanced board. Most strategy games on mobile do not allow for direct control over units. What that means is that the outcome of a battle is dictated by the abstraction at play.
Having similar units at different power levels renders any strategy moot, because the higher level one will always win when fighting something lower.
Throwing RPS into the mix makes things worse for the weaker player. In Age of Empires Online, attaching equipment to your units would raise their stats to the point of breaking their unit roles. Someone with upgraded rock units could actually fight back against paper-type units. If the counter to a unit can’t win due to some form of abstraction, then game balance is ruined.
Moreover, because the abstraction occurred outside of the gameplay, there was nothing a player could do during a match to compensate.
Not so strategic
The more “strategy” games I play on mobile, the less actual strategy I’m seeing. There is still hope from indie developers making their own RTS, and the announcement of Age of Empires 4 might go some way to addressing the issues I’ve raised here.
However, saying that the mobile platform is the new home of strategy games is very disingenuous — or at least, it is potentially worrying for fans of “traditional” RTS titles. While these games are strategy-lite, they’ve removed the core essence of the genre and replaced it with monetization.