Name: Andrew West
Location: London
Posts: 3384
People will argue that the competitive Real Time Strategy game was born with Warcraft 2. The argument is similar to that which says FPS competitive gaming originated in BBS board Doom matches: A small number of people were able to play over often unreliable specialised services that nobody else knew much about.

Quake was the real birth of competitive FPS gaming – the Internet was just starting to hit critical mass, millions of people knew what the game was, matches could be found in a matter of seconds, and the game didn’t break. Similarly, the birth of competitive strategy games came for me with Red Alert. As the widely anticipated sequel to Command & Conquer, the magazines were full of nothing else, there was a free, dedicated server run by the developers that everyone had access to, and the game (mostly) actually worked. Thousands played.

Since then we’ve had a couple of insipid sequels, the developers were bought out, and the world discovered Starcraft. RTS games haven’t advanced since then – they’ve regressed to pointless 3d interfaces, gotten bogged down in the most boring parts of the game, and have just not been much fun.

As you can probably tell, I am thinking of Command & Conquer 3 when I write this column. Yes, the last few C&C games were a bit boring. Yes, the RTS games from EA LA haven’t exactly been brilliant. Yes, it’s ten years since the last great game. But I don’t care! C&C3 looks like it might actually have what it takes to work.

Firstly, the developers are talking about immediacy. When you click on a unit, it actually does something, it doesn’t pause for a bit, decide whether it likes you or not, and begin to trundle over. It just goes. And all of the units go – a priority of the design of the engine is that everything runs.

Just as exciting for the competitively inclined, C&C3 looks like it’ll probably be one of the few games that has us in mind. The services that we are used to – sites like ours, where you can download the latest demos, ranking services, commentating setups – these are built into the game. I don’t think that these details are final yet, but the idea is that all games played on the ladder are uploaded to the C&C3 service. Players with reputations for being good find their replays in more prominent positions. The most viewed replays stay for longer on the site, whilst ignored ones disappear. You can rate how good your opponent was after the game finishes (though I assume that’ll run on some kind of bias system depending on how well you’ve been rated yourself, which should help remove players with bad reputations). You can schedule games with opponents too, so that when you go to the site, you can look at past games and check the listings for upcoming games to watch live. You can also find which games are running right now, jump in, and watch those as they happen.

There will be a free, stand alone observer client which will let you watch games without actually needing to own a copy – what a great idea as a marketing tool, let alone the uses in a competitive environment. You can have a caster of the game, who can provide commentary, control the camera and draw on the screen to highlight parts of the match. The reputation points also apply to these commentators, so that you can tell who is worth watching in that regard too.

Then you have the standard ladders, matchmaking services and so on that we are used to with these games. What more could a competitive gamer want? It’d be trivial to create a tournament, and the system seems to fit perfectly with what the big organisers like the WCG are looking for in their competitions.

Starcraft purists deride Red Alert for being a one unit game. Whilst this is slightly unfair, the emphasis is on slightly. Games are decided in a dance of little red and blue tanks, with only the occasional Tesla coil, engineer, grenadier or rocket troop seeing the light of day.

If EA LA manage to create some semblance of balance in the game and give players a chance to win in more than just one way, the future of competitive RTS gaming is looking bright.