MMOs and RTS are two of the genres of game I play the most. Given that, you’d think I’d be a big fan of MMORTS titles, but I’ve yet to encounter one that seems even a little appealing to me. Every one I’ve seen seems very low budget and uninspiring. The closest I’ve come is Kingdom Under Fire II, whose RTS elements are minimal to say the least.
They also don’t seem to really be what I’d consider MMOs. Mostly they seem to still be match-based games like traditional RTS titles, just with persistent progression.
Now maybe I’m just uneducated. Maybe there are some amazing MMORTS games out there that I’ve just somehow missed, and if that’s the case, please let me know. From where I’m sitting, though, the world of MMORTS games seems to have little to offer.
But surely this is not an immutable law of the universe. It must be possible to create an MMORTS that is truly compelling as a game and a full-fledged MMO, persistent open world and all. The issue presents some unique challenges, but I have to believe they’re solvable.
I’ve been giving it a lot of thought for a while now, and I think I have a basic sketch in my mind for an MMORTS that would tick the boxes I’m looking for. But before we go further, I will offer the caveat that my game design experience is minimal and limited entirely to the realm of tabletop gaming. I am not a coder or an engineer. I have done my best to create a realistic vision of what I believe is doable in an online game based on my experience as a player, but it is entirely possible that what I am proposing is unfeasible for reasons that I’m ignorant to.
The biggest obstacle I see to the creation of a true MMORTS is the question of how you fit the armies of multiple players onto a single server — potentially a single screen — without the server hamsters dying of mass suicide. For the answer to that question, I turned to an old series of games called Myth for inspiration. Back in the ’90s, these were a series of RTS titles from Bungie (yes, that Bungie). They were a very unique take on the genre at the time, and even today there isn’t much like them.
Myth eschewed base-building and economics entirely. At the start of a mission, you were given a set number of forces and an objective, and that was it. The focus was entirely on controlling your troops in battle through intelligent use of formations, terrain, and abilities. The number of units was smaller as well. The average mission saw the player commanding only about twenty to thirty units, if that.
I think this would be an excellent model for an MMORTS to follow. No bases, small armies. Couple that with a large world and a relatively small population cap on servers, and you could potentially have a true shared world RTS without the servers melting into a puddle.
There would also need to be a mechanic in place to encourage players to keep their troops in the same general geographic region, lest the game suddenly be forced to render an entirely different continent if a player switches between two units separated by a vast distance, but that should be easy enough to implement. Perhaps units despawn when too far from the main army, with an easy option for players to redeploy them closer to home.
As far as a gameplay loop and goals for the players to aspire to, I think borrowing from survival games would make sense in this context. There should be a need to constantly gather resources to support your units. Forage for food to keep them alive. Forage for metals to keep their armor in fighting condition. Players should be rewarded for continually exploring the world, rather than just camping in one place.
Essentially, you would take on the role of shepherding a nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers. This would lend itself well to a prehistoric (or prehistoric-inspired) setting, or perhaps something post-apocalyptic.
Of course, in a game like this, the question of PvP comes up. Competitive play has always been a strong component of the RTS genre, but open PvP MMOs are rarely welcomed by the greater community. This would be a very difficult tightrope to walk, but a compromise could be reached. I think a system similar to what Amazon‘s upcoming New World is proposing could fit well with a game like this. Make PvP a central and robust feature — perhaps with territorial control on the line — but still keep it organized and opt-in. Those who want to play without participating in PvP should have the option.
For the PvE players, there could be roving bands of NPC enemies, or perhaps even open world events. Though I think a sandbox-style format would work best for a game like this, there may still be room for some questing and structured story, as well.
The one question I still struggle with is how to handle persistent progression, an essential component of an ongoing online game. One of the things I love most about the RTS genre is that it is almost entirely skill-based, with the choices you make in the moment being all that matters. There’s no grinding out levels or Googling a theory-crafted build, no winning battles on the character sheet before you even see the enemy. I wouldn’t want an MMORTS to lose that purity.
One option could be to make progression purely horizontal. You might unlock new unit types as you play, but they wouldn’t be more powerful, simply more specialized. That could be hard to balance, but it would be a good option if it can be pulled off.
Another option would be purely cosmetic progression. With an entire army of units — even a small one — there’s plenty of room for collecting skins. The only downside there is that selling skins would also probably the best way to monetize a game like this, and it would be hard to strike a balance between unlockable skins and paid skins without either option suffering, but it could be made to work. Perhaps my hypothetical MMORTS could use a model similar to Overwatch — cosmetic lootboxes are earnable in game, or available to buy for the impatient.
This is just one vision for a potential MMORTS. I’m sure there are other possibilities I haven’t considered. I can only hope one day we might see an ambitious, truly quality MMORTS. It’s an untapped niche with a lot of potential.