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The Elusive MMORTS

Dana Massey Posted:
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Dreamlords is one of the few live MMORTS titles.

The MMORTS is the Sasquatch of the video game industry. It sounds like a great idea and many people would love to find one, but no matter how hard developers try, they’ve never been able to successfully pin it down.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been tried. There have been some noble attempts (Dreamlords), some false starts (Bellarium), and a few people still trying (Mytheon), but so far, no one has had even a modicum of the success of a more traditional MMORPG or even a single player RTS.

So what’s the problem? The RTS genre is as close to a sport as video games get. One need look no further than the two dedicated Starcraft channels in South Korea to get an idea of their global popularity. Starcraft is enjoyed near on religiously to this very day and dozens of other franchises, such as Age of Empires, have made this one of the most bankable PC gaming genres left. Despite all this, no one has been able to captivate the PC-centric MMO audience.

It's definitely a very attractive market. PC games are notoriously easy to pirate, while MMOs are virtually impossible to steal. If RTS developers can make their games into MMOs, they not only secure new revenue steams, but also some defense against The Pirate Bay.

Nice and orderly, just as I like it.

I like armies. I like the idea of my armies crushing enemies. And even though I’m horrible at them (I tended to play Age of Empires as a city builder, and would have pristine, symmetrical walls ready to be crushed by hordes of rapidly built enemies), I still would love to give it a whirl.

There are four main obstacles that stand in the way of the MMORTS genre:

The first problem is in the mindset of an RTS player. The whole genre is far more like a board game than a video game. MMOs are meant to be long, enduring, near-on endless marathons. RTS games are short and the table is cleared once a winner is crowned. The biggest hurdle for an MMORTS designer is translating a relatively short game into a long one.

The second issue an MMORTS faces is the spoiled nature of the MMORPG audience. You cannot “lose” in most MMOs. Sure you can die, sometimes you even get an XP penalty, but largely these games encourage everyone to win. That’s not necessarily wrong. RPGs wouldn’t be much fun if people couldn’t get to the end. Nonetheless, it’s a different mindset. The bulk of the MMO audience is not used to losing, while RTS games are far more competitive by design.

Starcraft remains king.

The third is the simple fact that an RTS is “real-time.” The core conceit of the genre is that people build permanent structures and either defend them or destroy their enemies. Logging off mid-game ruins that, and being online 24/7 just isn’t practical.

The fourth, and perhaps largest issue, is how to make an online game offer enough added value to justify microtransactions or a monthly fee. Why would someone shell out $14 a month when Starcraft is free?

The solution to all of these problems lies in the first three letters of the acronym. To successfully make an MMORTS, designers must resist the urge to just make it a regular RTS with some persistent elements and call it an MMO. They need to truly make it massive and truly persistent.

And ironically, the key to a truly massive RTS is in my opinion to dial in the focus a bit. Stop letting people build cities and empires, and focus on the very core of what makes RTS players tick: fast-paced, isometric, strategic, group-based combat.

It is necessary to maintain the game’s suspension of disbelief. Sure, you cannot have a Kingdom disappear because Tom wanted to go get a beer, but you can have a roving band of warriors log out. It’s the first step to getting people into it.

My ideal MMORTS, and honestly, I believe the only kind that really can be truly online and justify its fees, would cast each character as the leader of a small war band (think Robin Hood, not Caesar). You’d play that one character for the more RPG like functions, such as going into cities, buying supplies, weapons, etc., but each person would have their own camp. That, likely instanced, would house their militia. I am thinking more like 12 to 50 soldiers.

Within their area, players would be able to farm resources, build structures and even conduct smaller, pure RTS matches. On that hand, players would have access to more traditional RTS style gameplay on demand, but it would only be a small part of the overall game.

Players would need to recruit, maintain and feed their group through their conquests in the shared, MMO world.

Gods & Heroes took some baby steps in this direction but that didn't work out.

These militias could easily be taken on quests, band together with others to form larger armies and take on other PC or NPCs in a variety of combat encounters.

One thing the RTS genre doesn’t do terribly well is cooperation. Usually, it’s every army for themselves. In an MMORTS that dialed in the focus a bit, grouping together and linking militias into larger armies could become a huge part of the game. Strategic decisions and the ability for a group to work together would dictate success or failure on the field of battle.

This kind of system would also open up a good, solid way to let people try multiple styles of play in one game. I’d envision the camps as places where all a person’s soldiers lived, but they only take certain ones out into the world. Thus, in larger instanced, traditional fights they have all sorts of options. In the world, they could take a balanced group out for solo play, or specialize as part of larger armies. Imagine a huge RTS battle where one player controlled the archers, another the foot soldiers, and a third the cavalry. It would be intense.

This is just a vague sketch of an idea, to be honest, but with the amount of money made off the RTS genre and the developer need to insulate their sales against piracy through MMOs, it only makes sense for more and more companies to give it a try. The above, I believe, would be the basis for a solid and fun game that provides RTS style mechanics in a package that adds enough value and persistence to justify the tag MMO.


Dana Massey