RTS Basics
RTS Basics: Time

The Oldest Enemy

Turn based games politely allow each player to make a considered turn at their leisure. They deal largely with the big picture and think in global terms. Its strategy from the top down. There's no need to recreate everything second by second; taking a turn is like reading the evening news to find out what happened during the day. You go through all the menus, set the switches and press the big End Turn button to find out what happens next. You can sit back, relax, enjoy the luxury of thinking out your next move, contemplate another cup of tea, listen to the thunderstorm settling over the neighbourhood, check the Cricket scores, raid the fridge, pop out to the deli and grab the weekend paper and return to your game on your own time and still be in total control. Anticipating the next few turns and factoring in all the possibilities is relatively easy. Its the ultimate fantasy in rationalism. Everything runs to plan.

But with RTS, its strategy from the bottom up. The game's plotting the lives and actions of all the participants moment by moment and all those small decisions and calculations are snowballing into titanic outcomes. Whole armies can be wiped out by a sudden logjam of units, getting stuck in a choke point or one side just getting into a slightly better position moments before the other. There's no time for slacking off: its busy, busy, busy! You'll be lucky to notice the sun go down: (when did the desk lamp fairies turn my desk lamp on?) your hands are freezing, and no wonder its two in the morning! You vaguely recall the news, current affairs, evening movie and then the late news slinking by before you bothered to turn around and now you've been surprised by the late late movie's credits. Who won the cricket again? Wasn't it thundery earlier?

Like an action game, its very easy to completely lost track of the real world once you've got a full RTS campaign under way. It can demand too much attention and management. Occasionally there'll be lulls in the fighting to do some rebuilding, but for the most part you're constantly on the move until you've bearded your foes in their lairs. This sort of heavy involvement is one of the main reason why some shooter fans tend to lose interest. All that detail! And you really have to work at it, too! Too much thinking. Conversely, some turn based strategy players roll their eyes, click their tongues and mutter darkly about twitch real time and the decline in gaming strategy standards. (this is all sufficiently ruminated on about in Boring Theory) It is, they say, nothing more than reflex and brute force. That's sort of true if you compare flat out action gaming with armchair strategy.

But this implies there's some kind of "proper" strategy out there. Right now, RTS just happens to be fashionable, and probably due to a convergence of many game genres (on the PC at least). Action games, simulations, RPG's and strategy games are blurring at the edges these days and squishing together to form newer hybrids. A lot of this has to do with cheap, fast accelerated 3D cards. The same visual engines used in 3D shooters can now be used in God games, simulations, strategy and RPG's. Turn based strategy is much more cerebral, except it fails to take into account one major aspect: time. Turn based strategy doesn't model time - except as a turn of course. Your victories and defeats in RTS can be made as much by stupid cock ups and accidents on the field (just like in real warfare) as they are by your magnificence in the fist chinning department.

Whatever; in Real Time Strategy the devil is in the details and the clock stops for no one. Well, until you hit the Pause button, that is. Deep strategy is lashed, spread eagled and screaming, to the bull bars of your careening tank. There's no luxury of carefully deliberated turns or meticulously calculated assessments: everything's done on the run, often compromised by a lack of preparation time and under the pressures from your worthy opponent's attacks. Your pre-game plans and strategies can quickly dissolve into a desperate, moment by moment struggle just to keep up with the game.

Okay, okay! I confess: I've done it many times! Well, not entirely: all the strategy games that appear in RTSC were those that engaged my interest to such a high degree. A lot barely got past the demo disk stage. Personal preferences, really.

Now that I think about it, its also very easy to lose track of time playing a turn based strategy game. The "just one more turn" syndrome keeps many beguiled gamers glued to their glowing game screens until the late hours of the morning.

Back to Boring Theory Losing Heart?
Time & Tactics On to RTS Units
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Last reformatted Sun, May 9 2004 by Lindsay Fleay