RTS Game-play Part 1: Terminologies

November 18th, 2008, RTS Design

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jeb <3 RTSIn the first part of my RTS game-play article I will discuss a couple of basic RTS terminologies. Most of these are probably obvious, but can be useful to define what I mean when I use them. There are a lot of other terms that I will use in my articles, but I will explain these as they are brought up. Please let me know in the comments if I leave out something that should be better explained.

Hit the jump for a couple of initial terminologies…

Strategy and Tactics

I should begin by defining what I mean with “strategy” in the context of real-time strategy games. Strategy is the players’ “global” decision making and planning. Strategy answers the questions of “what” and “when”, but not “how”. For example, quickly getting 10 flying units to make a surprise attack on an opponent is a strategy. How these are controlled and which targets they choose are tactics. In games like in the Total War series (Creative Assembly, 2000) the strategy is which units you select and where you place them before the battle begins.

Strategy is sometimes called the “meta game,” because when the players’ tactics improve new strategies will have to be developed and old ones adjusted. If this is not possible, the players would have found an end-game strategy which always wins, and your game may become boring (though it doesn’t need to, as I’ll discuss in later posts).

Macro- and Micromanagement

Two other common terms are macro- and micromanagement. Though these relate to strategy and tactics, they are meant in a more “mechanical” sense and relate to your ability to play the game rather than your ability to figure out things to do. Macromanagement is how well you are able to convert resources into an advantage over your opponent. If you are able to keep a high stream of income without hoarding, then you have good macromanagement. Macromanagement is also how well you are able to perform your strategy. For example, if your strategy depends on a certain technology, your macro skill determines how quickly you will achieve that technology.

Micromanagement is about making the most of each unit that you have. In practically all RTS games units act at full capacity as long as they are alive, regardless of how much damage they have taken. That makes it important to keep units alive for as long as possible, while making sure you get “that final hit” on your opponent’s units. This is the basics of micromanagement, but it’s also about using special abilities and helping out where the artificial intelligence fails (such as with path-finding).

Gosu macro by Savior
Gosu macro by Savior

Early-, Mid- and Late-game

A usual RTS game progresses through a number of “phases” called early-, mid- and late-game. While the mid-game phase depends on what game we are talking about, the early- and late-game phases are easier to define.

The early-game phase is about build-orders, scouting and deciding on whether to aim for economy or a quick “rush” game. During early-game the players’ units are usually quite bad at destroying buildings, but a quick attack can gain either one an economic advantage or maybe map control. The early-game phase ends when neither player is able to do any useful damage with the initial units, and is forced to attain higher technology units to advance.

The late-game phase begins when either player has reached the highest technology possible and with a base big enough to support streaming macro. During late-game the players’ strategies have already been played out, so it’s a game of keeping unit count up (macro) while using good tactics (micro) to wear your opponent down.

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