How to write…a Real-Time Strategy game

Previously in the series:
How to write...a First Person Shooter
How to write…an Adventure game

I have a confession to make. When I first started writing this continuing feature, which happened shortly after I started working at bit-tech, I didn’t really have a long-term plan of what to write about. I pretty much just wanted an excuse to show off to Tim that I could write a gamers equivalent of a technical review of a graphics card. Something long, credible and as technical as possible.

Still, by the time the first instalment was complete I had realised two things. The first was that it didn’t matter how clever I tried to be because I still would never be able to top Tim in a jargon-off. The second was that I may have actually stumbled in to a topic which was both interesting and important.

Ever since Half-Life first managed to show the mass audiences that computer games could tackle story in an intelligent and immersive manner without becoming one of those scary Dungeons and Dragons adventures that endless horror stories are told about, "story" has become a big buzzword in the games industry. It’s something that Half-Life 2 would later re-enforce, making "physics" the next big buzzword for publishers.

How to write...a Strategy game
Magnus Jensen was lead designer on World In Conflict

Since then it seems like games of all types and sizes are trying to claim that they have epic stories and fantastic characters. Gabe Newell and Co. managed to teach publishers like Take-Two and EA a brand new word of supreme importance: Narrative.

The problem though has been that not all games have actually delivered on their promises and that not every type of game can realistically provide a vehicle for the telling of stories. Some genres can do story really well and others can’t – it’s a plain fact and you wouldn’t expect to see a Breakout clone with a romantic tragedy for a plot, would you?

So, in this third instalment in my now re-focused and less selfish series I’m going to be looking at Real-Time Strategy games and try to see how they are written, what stories they can tell well and how they may change in the future. Helping me out along the way is Magnus Jensen, lead designer on the fantastic World in Conflict.

How to write...a Strategy game
There's only one man more important than Magnus in RTS games, y'know...

World in Conflict is an especially interesting game to use for a case-study since it basically re-wrote a lot of the rules for how stories are told and what stories are told in RTS games. In a time when most titles in the genre are still using talking heads or, at best, acted-out FMVs between missions, World in Conflict used a mixture of scales to engage players. During gameplay players will be fighting in battles which determine the course of a war, but in between you’ll be embroiled in the much more claustrophobic side of the war – up close with the troops, exposed to their personal battles.

What goes into an RTS game? Do well-known authors like Tom Clancy bring anything worthwhile to a developing title and can any RTS game win our hearts without Joe Kucan? Enough with the questions! It’s time for answers!
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October 14 2021 | 15:04