RTS, or Real-time strategy games, have been with us since the birth of the first games that ever graced computer screens.
With some recent client work, I’ve been doing quite a bit of homework on strategy game interfaces; I dug out all my old games, played and screen-captured over two dozen game interfaces, mocked up a massive amount of approaches to problems, and talked with some friends in the gaming industry. As a UI designer, I’m fascinated to see how it’s developed in the last 20 years and in which direction it is now headed.
It’s quite interesting to look not just at where we’re heading, but also where we’ve come from. Since the invention of chess and other similar strategic board games, it’s clear that people love the tactile experience that manipulating ‘units’ gives. However, with today’s world of massive virtual representations of battlefields, this feeling has been diluted significantly. The relevant question for me is, obviously, how multi-touch devices like the iPhone can bring back the sweaty palms and rush that you experience forward the first pawn in a game of chess.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever tried playing a strategy game on the iPhone, but most of them aren’t very usable. Modern strategy games typically require a very large amount of screen real estate to show interface elements, and even then use diverse solutions to compress information into smaller areas while allow for a large area in which you can command your units.
A nice example of taking this tradeoff into consideration is Dune 2.
Dune 2 was released in 1992 by Westwood Studios. Westwood is famous for the Command & Conquer series, but Dune really kicked off their defining series of RTS games. It was also the first strategy game that allowed you to command units with the mouse, as opposed to traditional controller or keyboard input. The mouse soon dominated the strategy game world, and I grew up with games like Command & Conquer: Red Alert, Starcraft, Dark Reign, and my personal favorite: Total Annihilation. These games could all be played with nothing but a mouse; as far as I’m aware, only Total Annihilation used keyboard modifier keys to allow more complex commands with the mouse.
Between then and now, large strategy game titles have followed existing conventions, but have advanced significantly in terms of graphics and scale. Interaction-wise, the mouse scroll wheel was standardized. Then came 2007: I was delighted to see that Chris Taylor, who once led the development of Total Annihilation, released Supreme Commander. Supreme Commander follows in TA’s footsteps, but the scale of its battles is somewhat more massive. However, the scale, graphics, or graphic design weren’t the most interesting aspects to me. What Supreme Commander astonished me with was unifying the traditional minimap, a small representation of the battlefield, with the actual view of the battlefield.
Essentially, Supreme Commander introduced the Zoomable User Interface to the strategy game genre. The user could seamlessly zoom in and out of the action to get a birds’-eye view of the situation. In retrospect, what truly enabled this type of interface to become feasible was the introduction and standardization of the scroll wheel. However, it’s still not a very tactile experience.
Similarly to the age of Dune 2, we now see the uprising of (multi-)touch devices, and this allows for an even more direct interaction with units. It’s probably no mystery to you that playing games that use multi-touch well on the iPhone is great, but as we are approaching more varied applications of touch interfaces in our daily lives, there’s much more innovative interfaces we can create, and we’re presented with the opportunity to make the Zoomable User Interface a ‘natural’ experience.
This is the trailer of RUSE, an upcoming title by Ubisoft. As you can see, they are using a Surface-like multi-touch table as a gaming platform. Quite a beautiful way to play a strategy game; where interfaces on the iPhone may feel tactile, a powerful hardware platform that can deliver accurately rendered battlefields would be very immersive.
Of course, only time can tell where we will be taken in the future when it comes to interface design. However, it’s interesting to note that we’re gradually making the experience more tactile. While giving users a controller that resembles a gun to play a shooter game doesn’t work very well and feels rather gimmicky, making a realistic landscape that the user can reach out to and touch seems like the natural evolution for strategy games. It shares some of the best characteristics from the origin of strategy games: the board game.
I think this is a pretty intriguing history of gradually evolving towards a ‘natural’ interface metaphor that completely changes gameplay. But for now, I suppose will have to cope with making great games for small screens and relatively large fingers. Back to the drawing board.