RTS Is Beginning To Solve The ‘Absent Endgame’ Problem

RTS Is Beginning To Solve The ‘Absent Endgame’ Problem
Image: World's Edge / Relic

A quick game’s a good game, they say. Apparently “they” never heard of Neptune’s Pride 2. But while there’ll always be a place for long, deep, thoughtful gameplay, it’s becoming more and more important to respect the player’s time.

As we found out last week, the average age for Australian gamers is now 35. Our passion for gaming is the same, but we all have less time and different life priorities. Meaningful experiences with small time investments become paramount. Games like Journey, which take only a few hours to play but stay with you and are great to talk about.

This is a design philosophy that RTS can, and needs to, learn from. Happily, the biggest RTS games are already on the right track. At some point close to the release of Legacy of the Void, Starcraft 2 realised its early game was partially redundant. It made the appropriate changes, and now you start with more gatherers and get into the action faster.

Age of Empires 4 gets this too. The pace of the game has increased in several ways.

A fighter made of rock on the right side of the screen kicks at a fighter on the left, who is wielding a massive paintbrush as a weapon
Fantasy Strike has been a competitive favourite despite a deliberately simple control scheme

It puts me in mind of games like Divekick or Fantasy Strike, which distill their genre down to its basic elements without losing high-level, strategic play. The mechanical inputs are basic, but the mind games aren’t. I’ve wondered: What would that distillation look like in other genres?

That’s a larger problem worth exploring further, but it seems particularly relevant in RTS since this is a genre in which you can spend many minutes before you’re even aware if the match was worth playing.

With unequal skill levels, the match ends before the endgame – but you won’t know it until after it’s played, having spent the majority of your time executing a build order.

Building a civilisation only to body your opponent in the first offensive is a lopsided gameplay experience. Seven minutes, maybe even 20 minutes of city-building, and only two minutes of crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you and hearing the lamentation of their women.

To fix this, Age of Empires 4 gets everything cranking faster. You start with more villagers, and gathering rates are around double what they were in Age of Empires 2. You advance through the ages by building landmarks, rather than occupying your town centre during the age-up process.

To solve the problem of an absent endgame, it mostly shifted the endgame forward. Knights are available earlier. There are siege weapons in the Feudal Age, and trebuchets in the Castle Age. Religious units in some cases are available in the Dark Age. Map control, as a concept, properly begins in the Dark Age.

Whatever your game plan, you can start enacting it earlier.

That’s a world away from traditional Age of Empires build orders that would keep you going through rote motions until the 10-13 minute mark before the action starts.

From what I’ve seen from the beta and stress test feedback, AoE4 players wanted an even quicker game. Relic’s intuition was correct on this point, but even with all these moves in the right direction, it perhaps undershot the mark.

You can still spend quite a while in AoE4 before you even know if the match is worth playing, though if we’re talking longer than 10 minutes now, it’s because the stronger player is booming and the axe is simply yet to fall. But this is still an improvement – compared to past RTS games, AoE4 quantifiably respects the player’s time more.

Some of this comes down to matchmaking. As players are closer to each other in elo, they’re less likely to have an anticlimactic wet fart of an endgame. Higher-level players will also properly scout and prepare for what their enemy is cooking up. But we’re not really talking about the high elo players you see on Twitch and YouTube here.

I think this is a sentiment RTS developers will take note of. It won’t affect AoE4 too much, unless future updates slightly creep towards a speedier experience. All things considered, AoE4 is still a heck of a lot of fun, and the community will be enjoying it for years.

But as time goes on, conventional wisdom might become that the long arc of RTS is bending towards speed. Like Divekick before it, projects will embrace subtractive design, wondering what they can chop without losing meaningful content.

StarCraft 2 did it, Age of Empires 4 is doing it, and player sentiment seems to want to keep heading in the same direction. How long before we have a quick-fix, triple-A, 5-minute RTS?


  • All of which largely misses the point. A big part of RTS games *IS* the building. The more you move away from the early game build the more you remove one of the major points of appeal for many of us, and the more you remove the ‘S’ part of RTS, leaving just another twitch fest.

    The original appeal of games such as Dune 2 was building and watching your base creep out. Opponents were just a way to add a sense of purpose and urgency to your building efforts.

    And you say that ‘the average age for Australian gamers is now 35’, which I get is assumed to be synonymous with ‘time poor’, however it also means no longer having the same twitch muscles and short attention span of a 20 year old.

    There’s a market for a slower, build-focussed games. RTS designers, presumably because they tend towards being younger and in many cases less interested in slower-style gaming, are not tapping into this at all.

    And I’d seriously question why time poor somehow needs to mean twitchy and adrenalin-focussed. If anything, this just demonstrates how much of a disconnect there is between game developers and the aging market.

    And WTH is this “before you even know if the match is worth playing” nonsense? I mean, seriously, wot?

    • I suppose if you take the ‘slower, build-focused’ version of an RTS to its extreme, you end up with a turn-based strategy.
      I’m trying to think of an RTS that de-emphasizes the importance of execution over decision-making. Supreme Commander, maybe?

      • It doesn’t have to be turn based, it just has to be slower and less twitchy. There are many ways this might happen, there is nothing sacred about building with effectively unlimited resources and an exponential growth curve. In fact, that entire approach is just lazy game development because ultimately you’re just building a race game that is neither strategic nor tactical in significant respects, as the above article rightly criticises.

        The game Cossacks limits the curve reasonably well. Instead of just allowing you to plonk down 50 barracks in a long line and then waypoint a zerg mass, each building of the same type costs you double the last. It’s not a perfect system, but it changes the strategic calculation because it can be a genuine question about whether to decide to sacrifice long term production over a short term rush. There is also a much greater focus on fortification, which is also something that games on the twitchier end of the spectrum tend to miss – they completely fail to offer any significant reward for turtling as a strategy.

        In Dune 2 you actually creep out your base creating kill zones while gradually capturing more territory. There is an explicit limitation on what you are able to build because you are limited to building on certain areas (bedrock), which meant you often have to decide to prioritise one building over another because you couldn’t do both. Once again, this really doesn’t allow zerg-style expansion, you have to balance expansion with defence and a more well rounded build.

        As I mention in another thread, Company of Heroes also does the build thing better than the games we’re talking about in this article, because you need to capture points and then defend them by building kill zones. Call it what you like, but taking time to occupy an abandoned building, to set up an anti-tank gun and to dig trenches for squaddies is still a slower, build-oriented process even if it’s played out through moveable units.

        Creeper World is another one that’s kinda in the RTS camp but not explicitly twitchy. Again, that’s a slower, asymmetrical, defensive game which isn’t completely constrained by who can build the largest number of stables the quickest. Sure, there’s an adrenalin rush but it’s also mitigated simply by the pace of resource production and the process of wearing down the creeper rather than just flooding it with disposeable units until it dies from overwhelming force.

        Ultimately the issue is simply a question of what kind of resource constraints do you impose upon your game. If the answer is mass exponential growth with stupid numbers of barracks and stables then, yeah, do away with that part of the game entirely because it’s self evidentally pointless. Otherwise, let’s not lose track of what makes an RTS appealing to a lot of people in the first place.

  • It’s certainly interesting.
    Really it’s a question of taste more than anything.
    I don’t think every RTS needs to be Starcraft, 3 minute rushes.

    But equally, I agree. Some may enjoy it, but “building” in RTS is simply a means to an end. The “S” part is about getting units into the field and making good decisions with them. The base building component is simply a time gating component and supply line simulation.

    The company of heroes series demonstrated this perfectly. Base building as a means to an end.

    Personally, I enjoy getting to the action sooner. I don’t think getting to combat faster has to mean the moment to moment tactical decisions are twitch based. You just get to the meat of the match sooner.

    • No, ‘S’ standards for Strategy. Strategy is a long term arc type of thing.

      The letter relevant to getting units into the field and making good decisions with them is ‘T’ for ‘tactics’, that is, individual decisions on the battlefield, such as whether to pound an assult with mortars or try to outflank it from the side.

      Company of heroes is an interesting case, but in fact it does have a much more of a classic building arc than many others, it simply transfers a lot of the building to capturing control points and then digging in. It’s actually much more a territory control style of game than, say, Starcraft or Age of Empires, and much closer to where the genre started.

      I can see, however, why one might want to do away with the half arsed building represented by games such as Age of Empires, which largely miss the point, boiling down to snowballing an exponential growth curve in your build queue in the fastest and most efficient sequence of clicks possible, which also can’t really be described as ‘strategy’ in any practical sense and therefore indeed can easily be done away with.

  • As a formerly competitive RTS player, I have never heard of the absent endgame problem.

    The RTS’s you mentioned that dispensed with early game, Starcraft III etc – they’re not good RTSes – even the players who play them have niche titles they prefer.

    Forcing the game to be faster, usually just means dispensing with opening build order complexity; and narrows the eco path.

    Saying RTSes should be faster because “we’re time poor” (a very odd thing to say on the back of a two year lockdown) completely misses the point. I’m not so time poor that an additional 5 minutes is going to impact my session – and if you are, then find something else.

    I played Supreme Commander religiously, and whilst the majority of ranked matches would be decided by about 7 – 15minutes depending on the match, I had matches that lasted hours.

    It’s about the gameplay potential, not just average match time. I personally find it more important to enjoy the game you’re playing; rather than the manner in which it is played. If you prefer arcadey, simplistic real time tactics games, that’s fine — but saying that all RTS *should* be this way is wrong.

    Ultimately, this boils down to saying that checkers is better than chess because its not as hard.

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