This is just a stream of consciousness idea for an MMORTS, inspired by a twitter conversation started by my buddy, Crow.
The problem with MMORTS
MMORTS’s suffer from a major problem: it’s hard to line up the design of a classic base-building style of RTS with the mechanics of an MMO like World of Warcraft. But the act of base building in an RTS naturally makes people think “What if I could just keep going with this? What if I didn’t have to stop building this base, and it could be persistent? What if I could eventually grow my base to take over a vast world?! Wouldn’t that be awesome?”
Of course, that idea is sadly broken, and following that design path is almost certain to lead you to games with runaway leader problems and gameplay that ultimately doesn’t match with the experience desired.
Breaking down the MMO/RTS
Another path to take, however, is a more piecemeal approach where you break each genre into its most identifiable tropes, and try to find ways to line those tropes up with eachother to create something that feels more natural.
For RTS games, the essential tropes seem to be base building, resource gathering, and squad based troop combat. And while there have been modestly successful “MMORTS” games that focus solely on the squad combat portion, and EVE arguably manifests the resource gathering game in whole, base building has been somewhat elusive in an MMO context.
For an MMO, the essential tropes seem to be drawn out progression over many hours of gameplay, world persistence, a large world to explore, and frequent interactions with other players either to cooperate or compete.
Base Building as Character Progression
Two of the features here seem to be at odds with eachother. Namely RTS base building and MMO world persistence. The natural problem that arises in the naive approach to MMORTS design is that as a player grows in power and increases the size of their base, they dominate a growing section of the game world.
The way around this is to alter the focus of base building away from building larger and larger bases towards building a single base in a confined space. Think of playing Sim City on an island. Because you only have so much space, you invest a lot of time and energy into making sure all of your buildings are laid just so. The key here is to be intelligently restrictive. To use a Starcraft analogy, you have room for a starport or an armory, but not both, so choose wisely. The key restriction on your base ends up being physical space, as opposed to some sort of limit on artificial “points.” The effect is similar, but it allows players to exercise their spatial reasoning skills.
In a very real sense, the base in this model is the RTS stand in for the character in most MMO’s. Just like how you customize and progress your character through class choice, leveling, talents, and gear, you customize your base through the buildings you have available, which buildings you choose to place, and the overall layout. You can further restrict base building to an out-of combat activity, allowing players to make the weighty decisions about their “character” in a low-pressure environment.
Looking onward to other trope combinations, RTS resource gathering can be related to MMO progression, but it’s also an intrinsic part of the real-time gameplay. This creates a divide that can potentially be solved by splitting resources into two categories: permanent resources and temporary resources.
Permanent resources are what you use to get new buildings, new upgrades, new unit-types, etc. These permanent resources are the rewards for quests and missions, and are essentially a stand-in for experience points. Permanent resources go towards your base, and thus their purpose is to upgrade your character.
Temporary resources are what you use in combat to activate abilities and build units. These are more like traditional RTS resources, where the focus of the game is on intelligently spending and gathering resources to amass an army. Unlike permanent resources, which stay in your inventory, temporary resources cannot be carried from one encounter to the next, and the units and upgrades built with those resources disappear at the end of the mission or instance. This encourages players to play quickly and constantly use their resources, in much the same way that they might in Starcraft.
Much like in Starcraft, the location of the temporary resources dictates where your base will be placed. Unlike in Starcraft, the design of your base can’t be dictated on the fly. Instead, the player has a command character (A general) who finds a group of temporary resources, and “warps” their base into existence. At the beginning, the base is “Inactive.” That is, not all of the buildings can produce units, give their upgrades, or attack. By gathering temporary resources, you can activate a building and pump out units.
At higher levels, you can also have “expansions” and “forward base positions.” Expansions are like mini-base locations. Similar to your main base, they are designed ahead of time, but unlike your main base they don’t have room for a full compliment of buildings. Where you can sim-city your main base to have a few unit-producting structures and a few defensive structures, the expansion usually only has room for one or the other, along with the necessary resource gathering building. The choice gives the player the option of either being more aggressive or more passive. For the forward base, the main base needs to be recalled by the general before moving. Forward bases offer some benefits. They often have more resources and they’re closer to an enemy base, allowing for more aggression. But to get to the forward base you need to sacrifice time that could be spent towards building units and gathering resources. In general, the choice to move to a forward base is not one to be made lightly, and usually won’t be made until resources at the main base are depleted.
Open World and Questing
The MMO tropes of world exploration and questing end up corresponding to the RTS idea of missions. In a modern single-player RTS, you are rarely tasked with simply destroying the opponent’s base. Instead, you have waves of enemies, wandering groups of foes, or other objectives that must be completed. In this MMORTS, your leader-character will be given quests and will need to wander the over-world to find where those quests are. Each set of quests will correspond with a specific location where enemies spawn. At that location is at least one set of temporary resources where the player can set their base. The number of base locations sets a hard limit on the number of players who can quest in a location at a given time, meaning that these areas are quietly instanced (phasing) to only allow that many players in.
Because the missions are rarely “destroy the enemy base,” you aren’t really competing with the other players over too much, and having multiple people there doesn’t give you a big advantage (nor should it hinder you! Players should never resent the presence of friendly players). Moreover, these base locations will only have a small number of temporary resources, meaning that you can only field a small number of units. Essentially, when you roll into the mission, you build a squad, then you fight AI mobs until you’ve completed your missions, then you pick up and leave. This fits with the Extra Credits idea of only having a limited number of points to build a squad with, but it feels less artificial. You may have X resources for this group of quests, but Y resources for a different set, leading to different unit choices.
That brings us to the last major MMO trope, player interactions. As stated earlier, you will occasionally run into other players during missions, which will give you the opportunity to work with them. But in a more real sense, interactions with other players will be focused on instanced content. The MMORTS equivalent of dungeons and battlegrounds.
The key to good multiplayer interactions is asymmetry. The MMO formula of Tank/Healer/DPS is a good one, because it’s difficult to compare the importance of each role. You really can’t get by without all of them, and no player can fulfill every role at once. In a similar way, the limited size of a player base forces the player to make choices on what units to build. If, for example, I opt for flying units, I might not be able to create siege units. The key is to have a variety of enemies that are weak to different types of units, so that building an effective team centers on variety.
The MMORTS dungeon would consist of a series of set encounters. The encounters would start with the players taking a primary base, and they would quickly have to start building units and activating their buildings. As the battle progressed, the players would need to advance to expansions to gather more resources, and fight off enemy attacks while advancing forward to secure those new expansion locations. The boss battle, as it were, is to destroy the primary enemy base, which may have specialized units or other unique mechanics to make this different than a normal battle. After beating the boss, the temporary resources that their base was built on would become available as a new forward base, prompting the cycle to start again for the next boss.
The main balancing agent here, in terms of difficulty, is the number of resources on the map. Fewer resources means a smaller army. Thus, to have a sense of escalation, instanced dungeons will generally give players more temporary resources than solo quests, and the final bosses in these instances will give more temporary resources than the other bosses. In this way, the battles feel more epic, because bigger and more advanced armies are being brought to bear. Moreover, because you need to invest temporary resources to activate buildings, it’s very possible that the “end of the tech tree” for any given player’s base is only really accessed on those high level fights.
PvP is, in some ways, the easiest to envision for the MMORTS in this format. You come in with your pre-built base, along with a few other players. You gather resources, take expansions, and try to balance offense and defense against your opponents. Popular RTS mods could be used as inspiration for more battleground variety.
The importance of recognition
Regardless of the specific flavor of MMO I think players are looking for “recognition.” Players play MMO’s to be recognized by other players for their skills, achievements, and style. They play to express themselves in a way that others take notice of. To this end, three features become very important: customization of the hero unit, cities, and trade.
Customization of heroes allows for a visual sign of a player’s progression outside of battle. Cities give players a place where this progression can be flaunted (and where they can gauge the progression of fellow players). And trade gives an important reason to go to cities.
Ultimately, MMO’s make for an interesting but difficult design space. It’s often hard to put one’s finger on what the Massive portion of Massively Multiplayer brings to the table. Given the clamor for an MMORTS over the years, however, I think there is something to that combination. Personally, I think it’s the fact that progression loves an audience. Because RTS games generally feature a natural progression over time from weak units to strong and small bases to large, there’s a desire to show this off and say “Look what I made!” MMO’s give you that outlet, but in the process of designing for an MMO, you must (ironically) restrict that progression to something more manageable. This is the contradiction that has held back MMORTS’s from rising to prominence, and it’s one that should be kept in mind by any serious designer approaching this genre.
Please continue the conversation in the comments section. What would you want to see in an MMORTS?