Not So Massively: Imagining a true MMORTS

    
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Not So Massively: Imagining a true MMORTS

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.

The world of online gaming is changing. As the gray area between single-player and MMO becomes ever wider, Massively OP’s Tyler Edwards delves into this new and expanding frontier biweekly in Not So Massively, our column on battle royales, OARPGs, looter-shooters, and other multiplayer online titles that aren’t quite MMORPGs.

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kjempff

I would imagine that one of the biggest design challenges of a mmorts is .. In a persistant world (and yes I am one of them old idiots who still claim that to be defined as mmo a game has to have a persistant world), what to do about players property, armies etc when they are logged out?
You can’t just let them stay in the world defenceless (even if ai controlled, that is still up to being exploited) – If you do so you will get chicken pvp where no one fights until the other part logged out. If you flag everything no-attack it leads to chicken logout tactics and blocking by multiple logged out accounts, and other problems.
So how do you solve it, still keeping it mmoish persistant world without being too gamey ? New world (which is the EqNext idea) with npc factions and undestructable areas? Maybe but that is also moving away from being an rts.

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Raimo Kangasniemi

I remember playing the first Myth… That could be a basis for a MMORTS indeed right there – at least through a haze of nostalgia!

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3dom

So far none of multiplayer strategies were fun.

What I really want is XCom Online – with single-player matches (because multiplayer turn-based would be slow and boring) with multiplayer cities / lobbies to communicate and show / see cosmetics and “regalia”. Also base building, of course – with ability to trade and visit other people’s bases.

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Sykes

I think the closest I ever had to what you’re looking for – a persistent, online world where all the armies are in the same place, was starknights, a game from 2000-2003 that has been kept in maintanence mode ever since by a passionate dev. It’s a 4x space game, but servers could host 32 players with armies moving about in real time. Galaxies were procedurally generated. Free download and still a lot of fun in its fully separate offline single-player campaign, or in multiplayer if you have a few friends to try it with.

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Lee Bailey

Ballerium did it best IMO but sadly that game is long dead :(

Random MMO fan
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Random MMO fan

Easy to imagine. Or actually play. Become a leader of major alliance in EVE Online. That’s it, you are now playing MMORTS – you sit in your station in safety or in your ship far away from actual combat and just command your armies together with other commanders from other alliances.

This reminds me of a genuinely revolutionary thing that Battlefield developers tried once – a Commander mode which you could play on your tablet. Sadly they have abandoned it, but it was pretty enjoyable trying to help your team without participating in combat, with full view of map, also fighting against other Commander.

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Robert Basler

So I’m building Miranda, a single-sharded seamless open-world MMORTS with base building, resource gathering, PvP, PvE, and horizontal progression, but despite costing a fortune, it probably doesn’t hit your quality bar.

Building an MMORTS is hilariously difficult which is sadly why there is still only one game even close to what you’re describing. The hardest part is managing the bandwidth for all those players’ units.

I just put out a huge update which is focused on improving the combat experience so it’s probably time I made a new trailer.

The Imperial Realm: Miranda celebrates a decade of work by a single developer

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Michael Fuchs

Shattered Galaxy is the closest I can think of to an actual MMORTS back in the day. Players were competing over map territory, and would take a certain number of units into a battle to capture points against other players. Players would join the battles at all times.

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Armsbend

For a really long time my main was Age of Empires Online. It never took off – but it had a really tight community. It was released at an odd time – right during the comeuppance of F2P. It never could figure out how to monetize well even with the behemoth of Microsoft backing it.

That said – it was a fantastic game I thought.

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Sykes

Mine too. It’s still going with the help of the community if you’re interested – projectceleste .

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Anstalt

So, for a game to even be considered multiplayer, it must allow two or more players to interact synchronously in the same virtual space. How multiplayer it is depends on how many players are allowed within the same virtual environment. So, Mario Kart 8, for example, is a 12 player game because it allows up to 12 players within the same virtual environment (a race).

If the interaction is asynchronous (e.g. interacting with the auction house) then you are not playing with other people, you are playing by yourself, its just your actions can be observed by others.

Thus, I do not believe there has ever actually been an MMORTS for the reasons you said in your article: they never achieve large numbers of players who can interact at the same time, you are only ever brought together in small numbers via a lobby type system.

With that in mind, how would I create a genuine MMORTS?

Giant maps and stronghold-esque gameplay.

For example, build a map that is close to being 1:1 scale of the UK. When players joined the server, they would be allocated a plot of land on the map of the UK. Now, a castle and surrounding landscape isn’t that big, so you could fit 5000 players into the UK.

Use the fog of war so your PC doesn’t melt with that many players and armies on the go.

Focus for the players would be building up their strongholds. That would be the long term progression, to keep progressing local technology, collect resources, build up and awesome stronghold.

PvE would be versus bandits, rebels and the like, to keep it fairly close and accessible to your stronghold. Your stronghold would also be periodically attacked, including when you are offline (because the world would be persistent) so a big part of the decision making is how to build a stronghold that can defend itself even when you aren’t there. You would want to include micro-management options so that your settlement would self-repair, and also set limits to just how destroyed your settlement can get. No-one wants to lose their shit when they’re offline, so it’s essential that anything that happens when offline can be recovered from pretty easily. If you’ve got a well-built stronghold and good resource management, then being attacked offline basically wouldn’t affect you at all.

Players would co-operate with each other, setting up trade agreements with their neighbours, forming groups and merging armies to take on bigger NPC armies (maybe the French have snuck an army into the nearby hills that requires 10 local lords to overcome?). I’d want to see some decent political mechanics in there so that you can form alliances, guilds and what not. Maybe players can trade plots of land or buy up spare land so that they can relocate to be closer to friends. A guild could perhaps merge their plots of land to form a town or city…..though how you’d do that and still allow each individual the ability to continue building their own things im not sure.

Armies could be dispatched by players. So, at my stronghold I’d specifically create an army of 1000 men with my eldest son as leader (like the army leaders in total warhammer) and then dispatch them to a specific destination: “Son, take your army down to Cornwall and link up with Lords X, Y and Z”. After some time had passed, that army would then become playable in that location (to simulate that army travelling but without the hassle of having to actually walk them personally). This would be the sort of thing that requires long term planning for large scale events: if your guild wanted to invade France, we’d all need our armies built and dispatched 24 hours before the event itself. I suppose you could have instant travel options, but to me that would detract from the large scale of the world.

PvP….well, you could go open PvP and allow everyone to attack anyone they wanted, as part of the political gameplay, but as you said, that probably wouldn’t work in a game with long term progression. So, put people in factions (countries) and then have WAR style PvP lakes. In my example, this might be the coast of Kent and the coast of France, where players can’t have strongholds but can send their armies and do minor building (like resource gathering in order to build siege engines). Players can fight each other, but their armies are limited to 1000 troops (or whatever the game can handle) and they can’t recruit new troops in that zone….they have to recruit at home and send the new recruits back to the battlefield. You could then do things like open a PvP lake for a month, then evaluate who “won”, then move the PvP lake on a bit. So, if the English beat the French, the war would move across the channel to France, then further inland etc. Maybe if you are a hardcore PvPer, the game would allow you to have a stronghold within the PvP lake, on the understanding you could lose everything during the war.

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John E. Ruder

I always thought along the same lines as Anstalt when it came to MMORTS games. These modern attempts just don’t deliver on the promise of an “MMORTS” to me.

I think the final answer to the server processing power problem is going to have to be a dynamic division of the battlefield which causes servers to divide up the troops and areas that the hold in memory and perform processing on dynamically based on how many units are there and then communicate with other servers about events happening at and between their boundaries. Also, your game client will have to work with multiple servers at once along a boundary. The servers would have to dynamically assign these boundaries as troops move, players build bases, and battles are fought. This makes for extremely complex coding logic, but not impossible. I heard WOW servers operated (or maybe still do operate?) like this for a time.

I don’t love all of the plots, safe-zone, and PVP lake solutions though. I’d rather see a dog-eat-dog, your-entire-base-can-be-wiped-when-you’re-offline kind of savagery to be honest. Guilds of players could ban together so someone is always online and in charge of defense. Or, players could define base and defense regions and set up AI to do things like:

Set a number of troops that will rush out of their base automatically to their allies’ aid whenever there is an attack on an ally base, configure whether other guild members can have control over those units while the attack is still going on.

Set a number of troops that their allies can command when they are offline.

Configure their base to attempt to maintain a certain number of units on the defense force at all times.

Auto-repair units that will seek out and repair damaged buildings with configurable rules on maintaining amounts of them and how they should behave when being attacked when trying to repair a building.

Possibly even an auto-rebuild rule if a building gets destroyed. Could also maybe be utilized to have AI rebuild your base to the exact specifications of what it was pre-wipe with the efficiency of the most insane AI.

I did always envision a futuristic game instead of an olden game however. Either way, I think keeping units should have an upkeep system. Vehicles should require refined gasoline or other materials to move (that should cut down on server power right?) Troops should require regular food to exist. Maybe keeping them inside a building or inside of a vehicle could reduce the food requirement by a percentage (more server power reduction).

Oh, and I also always wanted to then be able to take over a unit in 1st person mode and go on an adventure in that crazy 3D player-constructed world.

Cool thing is, I actually have the ability to do all this now :), unlike I did when I was dreaming about it in my teens haha. I’ve slowly acquired decent skills in 3D modeling, I’ve made some cool animations and environments using the new WebGL stuff, I’ve written several socket servers, a couple of them web sockets, written tons of complicated efficient syncing systems, I’m amazing with databases, and I’ve been a software developer for 11 years now. I bet I could make an entire 3D MMORTS that runs right out of a web page. None of this stuff is outside of my skillset.

Sad thing is, I also have a mortgage and I have to sustain myself now :(. Given enough free food and mortgage money, I could probably make it all happen though lol