Sunday, May 2, 2010

On RTSes: Micromanagement

The player can only view and manipulate one part of the map at a time in an RTS. This means that the more micro you require for a player’s units to behave effectively, the less can happen on the battlefield at once. This tends to reduce mental APM in favor of increasing physical APM. Better interfaces can reduce the physical APM necessary to sustain good micro, but an interface innovation can’t change the fact that it’s only physically possible to focus on one limited area of the battlefield at once.

Micromanagement requirements are a cheap way for RTSes to build more “skill” into their gameplay. If the sufficient amount of micro to make all the units on the field effective cannot be achieved ever, the game will seem to scale with skill gain indefinitely. As the player improves his micro and learns to multitask better, she’ll play better. This can continue for a long time in a game with a significant micro requirement like Men of War.

Micromanagement requirements can be measured in the average opportunity cost of having your view centered over a certain unit at a certain time as you effectively micromanage that unit. If you lose the game because one squad of infantry stands still while being slaughtered by easily avoided machine gun fire, the opportunity cost of microing your tank well at that moment is enormous. The more often this kind of disastrous misallocation of micro can occur, the more micromanagement-intensive the game is.

Micromanagement can be minimized systematically in two ways: changing the scope of the game and implementing AI that does micro-level tasks better than the player. These tend to be implemented in the same game most often, as can be seen in RUSE. In RUSE, tanks will kite infantry automatically, infantry will ambush nearby vehicles, hideable units will hide and unhide as necessary in forests, planes will circle and engage targets on their own, vehicle crews automatically repair their vehicles when out of combat, infantry gets in trucks for long journeys and gets out at the end without player intervention. The scope of the game allows this to make sense—the game plays out on a large scale, that of Supreme Commander. The AI fills in where micro would otherwise be required; it allows the player to focus on strategy instead of the player needing to focus on individual unit tactics because he fears his units will get killed through their own stupidity.

Some games, like Men of War and Company of Heroes, can’t avoid micro because their scope is so small. WIthout micro, these games would lose much of their appeal. An AI strong enough to allow the player to focus on higher-level concerns would tend to intervene in areas where the player would expect to have to take action, leading to an annoying struggle between player and machine over fine-grained orders.

Micromanagement should be minimized as much as is reasonable, though, because coming up with a great strategy should be more important than putting your limited viewing window over the right part of the battlefield at the right time. If a game requires twitch skill in issuing orders rapidly, the purpose of the game—strategic problem solving—can all too easily be subverted.


Unknown said...
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Dagda (Brooks Harrel) said...

(Sorry, wrong profile.)
I'll start with the more tangential note: In my experience, player engagement tends to suffer whenever the physical APM drops below a certain threshold. See Plants vs Zombies, where resources generated appear onscreen and the player must click them to actually acquire them. This adds nothing to the actual gameplay, but it still enhances the experience's flow.

Moving on, my primary complaint with micromanagement in RTS games is simply the awkward user interfaces. Virtually every other genre has been able to make far more significant strides in streamlining the experience, but to this day a typical RTS will see non-veteran players regularly faring badly in engagements not because of poor strategy or tactics, but because the interface made it too difficult for them to direct their units in a timely manner. Compare tactical RTS skirmishes to those found in a fighting game- both demand (or at least, can potentially support) split-second actions and reactions, but only fighting games allow the player to actually make those actions in the space of an instant- not to mention that they don't penalize the player for not shifting their camera away form the fight every 10 seconds.

Of course, there's no shame in trying to provide substantive gameplay on both a strategic and tactical level-the conflicts between the two aren't inherent, simply a consequence of bad design. I can name several approaches off the top of my head which circumvent this:

-Separating the strategic and tactical gameplay into different 'stages', while allowing the consequences of one to affect the other. Plenty of references here, from X-Com to Mount & Blade.
-Brutal Legend's approach, which eschews the "be everywhere at once" demands of multitasking in favor of an avatar who can only do one thing at a time- the player decides what to do, and can then allow themselves to focus on doing it well without shooting themselves in the foot.
-One mechanic that stands out to me is the option to use a grenade in Company of Heroes. Setting aside the micromanagement aspect (directing the soldiers to throw a grenade at a certain position) leaves us with something interesting- the fact that using a grenade always costs you a certain amount of fuel. This creates a decision where the player is weighing concerns for multiple levels of gameplay- the outcome of this engagement vs. the drain on their resources. Imagine a game where you make these tactical decisions and then carry them out through simple one-button inputs- say, adjusting a unit's fighting style ("Aggressive," "Standard", "Cautious", "Retreat") and whether to use a given ability. I'd love to see a game focus on providing substantive challenges through an interface like that.

Logan said...

the problem with streamlining micro too much is that the game then becomes just a game of army composition counters and the only real skill is in scouting your opponent so that you can create the correct counter.

micro is like a wild card... it allows an army that would otherwise lose to stand a fighting chance if they are controlled well... if you take that out, then the game becomes very stale and boring.

without micro, you basically know the outcome of the battle before it even happens... where's the fun in that?

i agree that micro shouldn't completely take over the gameplay... but it makes the game so much more interesting and really does raise the skill cap... a game of just high lvl decisions would be a very low skill game... it sounds interesting to you now... but the number of possible strategies is inherently lower and it's only a matter of time before all the strategies are discovered and the game becomes very bland.

not to mention that a pure macro game would be incredibly difficult to balance since there are only so many possible decisions to be made and the player can't really affect the outcome of those decisions once the decision is made.

overall i guess i just don't think you realize just how important micro is to an RTS... it adds a lot of decion making (however low-level) and can even have a large effect on high level decisions... i guess i'm all in favor of anything that adds more variety and more decision making opportunities to a game... add more possible decisions, don't take them away.