The Hero RTS and the Power of Choice

"I think the formula is, 'RTS + RPG = Super-awesome.'"

So I’m pretty sure the way it all worked out was like this: Waaaaaaaay back before July 2002 (A dark time, before the release of World of Warcraft, Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, Lord of the Rings Online, or indeed any good MMORPG other than Everquest), a Blizzard Entertainment development team sat down to brainstorm ideas for their next installment in the Warcraft series (then known for being a respected RTS series, and not the setting for an online game with an addictiveness level somewhere between heroin and power) over coffee and donuts. “Hey, I have an idea!” said one of the devs. “Let’s include powerful Hero units in each army to add flavor and cater to different styles of play. These units will gain experience and level up, just like in an RPG, but the abilities they gain will impact how the army functions and generally make them badass.” The over-caffeinated dev-team quickly agreed to this conceptual gem and though the implementation would take many months, hundreds of thousands of processor-hours and a forest’s worth of paper converted into yellow sticky notes, the game that would eventually be released to much fanfare was arguably one of the finest and most novel executions of the C&C style RTS ever made, largely due to Hero feature. Not only did the presence of heroes provide a single avatar onto which players could (and invariably did) project, but the ability to skew an army toward a chosen play style was a welcome one, and almost unheard of in the RTS world prior.

Fast forward to sometime before mid April 2009, a development team at Gas Powered Games—after perhaps one too many playthroughs a Warcraft III multiplayer mod called “Defense of the Ancients“—struck on a peculiar notion: What if there was a game much like Warcraft III where the player controlled just his Hero, rather than the entire army? What then if the player and his hero were set loose in a map with other players and their heroes where computer controlled foot soldiers of varying strengths clashed in a roughly equal contest of arms, leaving the ultimate course of the battle to the ingenuity, acumen and strength of the players and their avatars?

Perhaps you think, as initially I did, that this sounds like an absolutely terrible idea. Playing a gimped-RTS (or a gimped-RPG, depending on how you look at it) does not on the surface sound like something you’d really want to spend a lot of time on. I mean, the basic premise here is “Here is an RTS with almost none of the functionality”, or alternately “Here is an RPG with all of the leveling up, none of the story and an extremely confined world”. Essentially, it sounds like half a game—which is not only something I don’t really want to play, but also something I can’t imagine anyone wanting to play.

To their credit, however, the folks at GPG ran with it and in April 2009 released Demigod. This was followed soon after by Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends, games based on an identical premise (and indeed on identical inspiration). Thus was born the Hero RTS (or if you like, Action RPG)—a unique style of game that is easy to learn, hard to master and ridiculously fun. The amount of fun to be had from these games was so out of proportion to what I would have expected that it got me to wondering why. And I think it came down to this: player choice, and the impact it has on the game.

Anyone who’s been a gamer in the last twenty years or so is probably aware of the general trend toward giving the player greater freedom of action in game, and can probably make some reasonable guesses as to why: it’s fun. Rather, it’s fun if it’s done right. Any game carries with it limitations inherent to the structure, be it chess, Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft. People accept that. What people are increasingly unwilling to accept are games in which a player is offered choices that have no impact on the game, a sin that video games (particularly RPG’s of various stripes) are frequently guilty of. That’s bad game design, and more to the point, it’s not fun.

Now I will pause here to admit that freedom of choice combined with those choices having meaningful consequences is just technologically hard, even within the confines of a game. After all, someone has to code for all of those choices (and let’s face it, even in very structured games, like chess, the sheer number of options available to the player can get very large very quickly), and their outcomes as well as the affect those outcomes have on future choices ad infinitum. All of this takes up time and development budget as well as media storage space and memory to execute on the machine that will end up actually running the game. And that’s not even mentioning that players can make choices that can break the game. For example if you choose in a game to give your players freedom of movement around the game world, then in order to make that freedom seem meaningful you’re going to have to code some variety in the ways the player can experience the game’s story—because if you don’t, then the player will feel even more railroaded on a set path for having a choice that doesn’t mean anything than he would if he didn’t have freedom of movement to begin with.

In short, it’s no surprise to me that despite the general trend in games toward an “actions have meaningful consequences” paradigm, and despite the number of games that claim to offer freedom of action, multiple endings, etcetera, the number of choices with meaningful outcomes players can make in any given game is often quite small. And that’s why I like these Hero RTS games. Within the framework of the game, every choice the player makes has a direct impact on the way the game unfolds. Deciding what order to unlock your abilities? That drastically alters the way you play and the way others play against you, and has continuing consequences in that some of your abilities will just be stronger because you’ve put more effort into developing them. Defending a particular area of the field? I hope you’re good at what you do, because you’re going to be sorely missed elsewhere. Do you want to mow down the enemy grunts to isolate their heroes or take on their champions first to minimize the damage they’re doing to your army? And the list goes on. The impact a single player can have on the game is enormous and the impact multiple players working on concert can have is staggering. For example, I recently played a game of League of Legends where, in a 5v5 match, my team lost two players (disconnected) early on—and still won with a combination of psychological warfare, canny tactics and plain old chutzpah. At the end of the match I felt more pride and elation in that victory than I had in finishing entire other games. Why? Because I contributed directly to the outcome. It’s entirely fair to say that my team would have lost without me (and in all fairness my other two teammates can make similar claims). That is freedom of choice.

That is fun.

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