Large-Scale Real-Time Strategy (RTS) for the iPad & iPhone 

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The Vision

Published on May 18, 2012 by

In the beginning was the vision, and the vision was in your head.

All games start with a vision. A cool idea, something you think would make a good game. Without a vision, there’s nothing to aim for, no intended experience for the future players.

Obviously, most game designers want to make cool games. Professional games like we like to play for ourselves but as an Indie, you need to be careful not to overextent. You can only do so much with limited time and resources.

Second, Indies are often limited in terms of skills due to the fact that there’s often only one person on the team. This can be somewhat remedied by contracting others or buying pre-made assets but since most games run on a shoe-string budget, you can’t really get around your weaknesses.

That means, whenever you have a vision of a game as an Indie, you need to make sure it is doable, not on a technical level only, but doable for you, taking into account the time you can afford to spend on the project and the skills you can bring to the table. That will already rule out quite a few cool ideas.

For example, I’m not very good at character animation I had to find out. I once wanted to make a game featuring a sexy lady as the main character. I came up with a nice rigged 3D model, but I was ripping my hair out trying to animate her, even though I tried to use motion captures, I eventually figured that I can’t do a game involving extensive realistic character animation on my own, at least not in reasonable time.

The Vision of my new Game

After having released Air Force vs Luftwaffe, I wanted to do a totally different game. I spent some months thinking about an ant game, where I’d use scents to indirectly control a growing ant army but I couldn’t get the game design to a level where I thought it would be a fun experience.

So, I moved on to another idea. Basically, I’ve always been a fan of the RTS genre (real time strategy), I played most of the PC-based titles from Age of Empires to Starcraft 2. Ontop of it, when I was a kid, I initially wanted to be an Indian (now at least I made it to an “Indie”) but then Star Wars came out and everybody moved over from the Western to the SciFi trip. Me and my bro were designing our own spacehip models on paper with accurate details and kept dreaming about their stats (“this corvette beats that fighter in direct combat”).

On a similar note, my own kids of 5 years really love Star Wars The Clone Wars, the animated series. So I figured, why not make a SciFi based RTS game? The vision in my head featured huge battleships and smaller frigate class ships ducking it out in space with lots of visual effects. Small strikecraft would fly around like bees and put their stings into the hull of the big ships which in turn try to fend them off with flak cannons. Explosions, laser beams, missiles and torpedos everywhere. It sounded like a blast.

Ontop of that, since it is going to be an RTS, you’d be able to colonize planets, develop their infrastructure, gather resources, conduct some researches to unlock more powerful tech and build up your fleet.

Obviously, RTS is all about multiplayer, why play against the AI if you can play against others who will bring their own creativity (in terms of strategy) and make the game a ton more fun? Obviously, you can’t do without a single player experience either.

Is it doable?

I have made many software development projects in both, my professional and private life. In the last 15 years I’ve been setting up and managing software devlopment projects with a budget exceeding the million dollar mark, so I’m not an over-optimistic idealist who just jumps into a project guns blazing only to run out of steam a few weeks later.

Basically, I made a rough plan of tasks that would need to be done to complete just the development part of it (not including any balance/beta tests and promotion and whatnot) and unfortunately, if I were true to myself, I’d have to tell myself: this is not gonna be a casual game you can crank out in a few months.

I figured that the biggest challenges are going to be:

Multiplayer

Whoever has tried his hands on a multiplayer game (not a turn-based, a realtime multiplayer game) will agree that it is a nightmare to develop. You gotta fight latency, jitter, packet losses, NATs, frame rate drops and sync problems to name a few. Debugging a multiplayer game just adds to the challenge. It’s enough to give me the creeps.
Performance
In my vision, there wasn’t just 10 measly spaceships flying around in endless space, I had several big ships in my mind accompanied by dozens of smaller fighters. Ontop of the rendering, I was particularly concerned about the need of CPU power, esp. for the unit AI, collision detection, etc.
AI
I soon found out that RTS is one of the most difficult genres to develop, mostly due to the AI challenges. Squadron movement, pathfinding, unit AI on the unit level, and a skirmish/campaign AI on the game level are non-trivial tasks. This one I was dreading even more than multiplayer.
Playtesting & Balancing
It is inherently hard to balance an RTS game and it requires a lot of playtesting. Where do you get good testers who will give valuable feedback? Proper playtesting and adjustments can make or break the game and is therefore one of the most critical items.
Campaign
I hate doing campaigns, esp. since they introduce quite a few more AI challenges.
Sounds & Voice Acting
Music and sounds effects add a lot to a game but are often underestimated. In addition, for my game, a multiplayer technique called latency masquerading requires extensive sound effects to be used. Ideally it would be voice acting to give more life to the game. Where the heck do I get voice quotes from? I’m not even an english native speaker after all.

Can I do it?

It takes a lot to write an RTS game like that with a skilled team. It takes even more to do it as a one-man Indie as a side business.

Can I do it? The biggest advantage of a one man show is the efficient communication. The number one reason for project failure in software projects is communication (or the lack thereof). I’m pretty good at communicating with myself, hardly do I have to argue about things with my alter ego, and we never have any misunderstandings. Also, I can cut down the time allocated to communicating design decisions to the team to roughly 0.

In my day-time job, I spend the majority of my time doing some form of communication, be it writing emails, talking on the phone or sitting in a face-to-face meeting.

According to researches, a good software developer can be as productive as a team of 10 average guys. I tend to believe that I’m a good developer, remains the fact that I have a day time job, a family, social life, hobbies, … đŸ™‚

Outlook

So I have embarked on this adventure, I may have to strip off some minor things if it really gets to the point that I can’t get everything done (I can’t gurantee that it will really contain a campaign since my focus is more on multiplayer and voice acting is certainly optional, too). It will probably take somewhere between 1-2 years to develop depending on the amount of time I can afford and the balance test.

Fortunately, at the time of this writing, I’ve already made some considerable progress, so we are already half a year into the project.

In my next post, I’ll talk a bit about Motivation and explain why I think the game has a chance of getting real despite the fact that it requires a huge effort.

 
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