RTS Basics
RTS Basics: Time


Time and Tactics

An extra dimension can change everything. If you're stuck in a world of only two dimensions, length and breadth, then a three dimensional entity who can see and move in the third dimension, height, has you pretty much by the short and curlies. While you are stuck at ground level, unable to see past any obstacles in front of you, they have an unrestricted aerial view of everything around you, can go anywhere unimpeded, and attack you from angles that you have little defence against. In historical battles securing the high ground was a good way of gaining an advantage over the enemy. For a start, you can see further from a hilltop and fighting downhill has always been easier than fighting uphill. Any military power who can't control the air during a war in this day and age is in deep trouble.

Time is like the extra dimension in RTS. Its definitely where it separates from Turn Based Strategy short cuircuits a lot of assumption made by turn based strategy. Time can make weak units triumph over strong ones, allow small forces to obliterate larger ones, and let a low tech economy to swamp and destroy a high tech economy. For individual units, differences in the rate at which they do things or the actual speed they do them can quickly decide their fate. Faster units will often trump slower ones.


Responsiveness

Responsiveness refers to the reaction times of a unit or the ability for your forces to respond to your commands and get them done. How quickly does it or they respond to your orders? How fast can it move? If its a vehicle, how quickly can it get up to top speed or slow down to avoid running into a wall?

You'll be amazed at those small little questions can make or break your forces. Some of the best examples of this lurk in Total Annihilation, where there are two forces of robots: the Arm and the Core. Arm's forces are lighter, faster and a little more high-tech than Core's, who, despite packing heavier armour and harder hitting weapons, clump about more slowly and have less gimmicks in the special weapons department. Core also has a mighty robot called the Krogoth, who takes this heavy meat and spuds philosophy to Godzillan extremes: this monster robot can destroy entire bases with its own brutish power - and has no Arm equivalent. If a Krogoth gets loose, then the Arm player has very little to stop it, other than committing a sizeable portion of - if not their army - to nail one of these things, often with massive losses.

Which side do you think gets played online more often? Some of you might have guessed it - Arm. Why? Arm's a lot easier to play. You give Arm forces orders, and they scoot off the moment they're clicked on. Core, by comparison seems to muddle about and get lost more often. By the time a huddle of Core units have sorted themselves out and started crawling to their specified destination, Arm is already a third of the way across the map. You'll more often see Core tanks surrounded by light Arm units than the other way round. On paper, looking at those units' vital statistics might have you thinking Core's always got it in the bag by being stronger and meaner - but on the field it can sometimes mean Core is working under a handicap due to no other reason than a lack of responsiveness. True, practised players can get around these things, and true, most players probably won't notice much of a difference until they become familiar with all their units, but beginners will probably just get frustrated at the huge number of "useless" units Core seems to be lumped with. There are many, many different units to play with in this game: about 150, but a lot tend to be rendered redundant, even powerful hard hitting units, simply because they are too slow and too sluggish to be of any practical use in a typical netgame.

If Core can make it to the mid game and finally get some of these seriously hard hitting units out on the field, then Arm has an uphill battle ahead of it. But Core will always find it harder to get its economy up in time, especially when Arm is able to drive around the map and snip off vital resources more readily.

My point to all this is: there's no real point having powerful armour and massive weapons, if your turrets can never turn in time to catch a target, or your lighter foes can run rings around you. Heavy firepower ain't much chop if it can't hit anything; chasing down forces that can outrun you, or out-turn you is next to impossible. While your tank blunders into every tree, rock and wall, the enemy's better manouvrability and faster speed lets them dance around the map's pitfalls and get more shots in. Those extra shots pretty much make any unit stats on paper look a little misleading.

On an individual basis, the heavier units might invariably win: heavier armour can often save the day, but in large battles, you might find these slight advantages translate into some kind of units surviving in slightly higher numbers than others. Bear in mind, that responsiveness and agility really come into their own in a map full of obstacles and things that can trip up vehicles. On an open plain or outer space, slower units can inflict painful casualties once they're free of a lumpy battlefield.


Firepower

When you factor real time strategy into unit weaponry, you're dealing with firepower. What exactly is that in game terms? Its the rate of hit points being inflicted on another unit. Getting back to TA, there's an excellent example of firepower. Arm and Core have to very light little robots: Core has a thing called an A.K., and Arm has a tiddler called a PeeWee. Swarms of these guys will be destroyed the moment a battle starts. You can churn them out by the dozen right at the very start of a game; they're light, fast and often form the very first units in a typical netgame. However: no one uses Core's A.K. unit. Seriously, they're that unpopular. But nearly every Arm player loves their Peewees (or their Flash tanks - the light little tank version of the PeeWee).

It all boils down to the PeeWee and Flash (apart from being a touch faster) having two pathetic little machine guns, whereas the A.K. has a not-so-pathetic little laser. The A.K. shoots once every few seconds, but does much more damage that a shot from a Peewee. However, the PeeWees hoses down its target constantly with masses of shots, each with the same killing power as a ping-pong ball. Who wins? PeeWee's do of course: in the time A.K. has bothered to shoot once, its been ping ponged a dozen times over. With a few PeeWees engaging a few A.K.'s you'll quickly find A.K's disintegrating before the sprays of ping pongs. In some games, these weapons (so called EMG weapons in TA games) are actually banned, partly for bandwidth issues (all those rapid shots spam your network connection pretty badly and cause lag for other players) and party because they can almost wipe out other players before the game can really get underway.

Here's another example: StarCraft Marines shoot 6 points of damage every second or so. A StarCraft Siege Tank can drop 75 on a single target every two or three seconds, and its massive blast hurts everything else that happens to be standing next to the unhappy target, too. Ouch! But get twelve Marines together and suddenly you can deliver 72 points a second at the enemy... You might find that a dozen fast firing Marines are better value than one slow firing Siege Tank, even though the Tank has much better range and is so much more devastating. At the start of a StarCraft game, the player who gets a squad of Marines up first has an up front advantage over another player who has foolishly gone for tanks without sufficient defences or escorts. The mass of Marines attacking a Tank is a lot like a mass of Peewees hitting a bunch of A.K.'s, despite the fact that some of them will be blown up long before they can get up close enough to attack the Siege Tank. But later on, if the first player is still only building swarms of marines whilst the second player has turned out a force of Siege Tanks with a modest escort of Marines, the tables will quickly turn. The Siege Tanks' collective muscle devastates the attakcers, while the escorts pick off any battered survivors that straggle through the bombardment.


Coordination

I refer to responsiveness when I think of individual units; when it comes to working with squads or armies, then making all these different units with different speeds, reactions and weapons requires coordination. Timing (or a lack of it) can completely stuff up an attack, even if you wield superior numbers.

Despite the real time aspect of RTS, things are still indirect. You give an order and it takes time to execute: guys might have to do some traveling or things just take a little time to build. Getting impatient and constantly repeating your orders is NOT going to make your forces move any faster. You have to think ahead and let things work themselves out. Naturally, if you're in a netgame, lag can exacerbate this situation considerably.

Patience is needed for slower units, and a bit of care and attention is required to get the most out of them. Most units travel at different rates to each other. Naturally, this means that they'll become spaced out across the map when you move them (unless the game permits squad formations that keep them all together), leaving lone individuals vulnerable to concentrations of enemy fire.

Coordination of units becomes tricky and can decide the fate of a battle. Apart from the fact they can wander around pretty stupidly, massaging your forces so they all turn up at a battle at the same time can be a very difficult task.


Unit Attributes

In the fairy tale world of RTS, a unit can be staggering around with one foot in the grave, and yet still have the same prowess as an Olympic athlete. Its just like a FPS: you can sport half a dozen bullet holes, have only 1 health point left, and still do your Matrix moves as though nothing has happened. Most of the stats you find displayed for your unit in any game will cover the obvious, like health, strength and armour. But often this is just the tip of the iceberg. Units are constantly in motion. Animation and movement are big factors in Real Time Strategy. Slightly more nimble units will appear to be more responsive to your commands and seem easier to control.

Subtle differences in how a unit can move can actually be as important as how many health points it has and how many hit points it can inflict. This is to say, if two units have the same armour, speed and weapon, but one can turn on the spot just that little bit faster, then the more nimble unit is less likely to get hit by fire and more likely to get shots in during a fight. You may not notice this advantage in a one on one battle, but in large battles it'll quickly translate into more units of one type surviving over others.

Even comparing unit stats themselves can be deceptive. The rate at which a unit fires can change everything, too. For example,


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Glossary first page, first entry: Civ link: point to civ3.com

Time & Tactics

An extra dimension can change everything. If you're stuck in a world of only two dimensions, length and breadth, then a three dimensional entity who can see and move in the third dimension, height, has you pretty much by the short and curlies. While you are stuck at ground level, unable to see past any obstacles as you slog through the mud, they have an unrestricted aerial view of everything around you, can go anywhere unimpeded, and attack you from angles that you have little defence against. In historical battles securing the high ground was a good way of gaining an advantage over the enemy. For a start, you can see further from a hilltop; and fighting downhill has always been easier than fighting uphill. Any military power who can't control the air during a war in this day and age is in deep trouble.

Time is that extra dimension in real time strategy games. It can turn upside down a lot of assumptions and methods used in turn based strategy. The element of Real Time can make weak units triumph over strong ones, allow small forces to obliterate larger ones, and let a low tech economy to swamp and destroy a high tech economy. For individual units, differences in the rate or speed at which they do things can decide their fate.

Unit Attributes

In the fairy tale world of RTS, a unit can be staggering around with one foot in the grave, but still have the prowess of an Olympic athlete and still fight at full strength. Most of the character stats you find displayed for your unit in any game will cover the obvious, like health, strength, armour or firepower. But these numbers can be very misleading at times. They're just the tip of the iceberg because units are constantly in motion. Subtle differences in how a unit can move can compared to another can actually be as important as how many health points it has and how many hit points it can inflict. This is to say, if two units have the same armour, speed and weapon, but one can turn on the spot just that little bit faster, then the more nimble unit is less likely to get hit by fire and more likely to get shots in during a fight. You may not notice this advantage in a simple one on one battle, but in large battles such small little differences can result in more units of one type surviving over others.

Unlike turn based strategy, RTS units have a "feel" to them. They're all animated characters, with timing, turn rates, acceleration, movement, little animation cycles for walking, running, firing a gun. Even their untimely deaths are choreraphed bits of art directed animation. A lot of this apparent frivolty is actually doing something meaningful: those animations are visual ways of expressing a lot of dry numbers and statistics. Old strategy games really did bury under pages on numbers - but these days nearly everythign worth its salt translates all that detail into cute animations.

Responsiveness

All units move and behave differently, and your tactics on the field *must* take these differences into account. Generally, big units travel slower than small ones; heavier ones take longer to do things than lighter ones; some units instantly react and fight like ninjas, others have to wind up their magic staffs before they let off a fireball. Slightly more nimble units will feel more "responsive" to your commands and therefore easier to control. So what? you might ask.

Responsiveness refers to the reaction times of a unit or the ability for your forces to respond to your commands and get them done. How quickly does it or they respond to your orders? How fast can it move? If its a vehicle, how quickly can it get up to top speed or slow down to avoid running into a wall? If its a tank or a battleship, how fast can it swing its turret around?

You'll be amazed at those small little questions can make or break your forces.

If a unit is responsive - that is, it instantly does what you tell it to and it gets across the map to do it quickly, then the player with the most responsive force is going to flatten the player who has a mass of slowpokes. A responsive player will be able to get around the map faster; they'll be able to nip and tuck enemy expansions very quickly; their economy will be able to develop that little bit faster, and as a result they'll outproduce and make life more difficult for the other player. At the very least, they can issue more orders quickly, pull their units out faster, and generally adapt faster to the game; its easier to set up more complex strategies.

What I'm getting at is if you have two forces that are identical, but one can move just a wee bit quicker or turn a little bit faster, then responsiveness will can tip the scales in your favour in a whole swag of different ways.

Firepower

Even comparing unit stats themselves can be deceptive. On their own, subtle differences don't amount to much. The rate at which a unit fires can change everything, too.


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Last modified Sat, Apr 2011 by Lindsay Fleay