Michael Lowell says that RTSes should start players with armies and bases roughly equivalent to mid-game progression in current RTSes, because the early game is boring and predictable.
Mike says: The early-game in RTSes is often rote. It’s a good area to analyze and suggest improvements, but without examining your assumptions about the genre it’s hard to make conclusions that will hold up. Michael’s article focuses on base-building “massive” RTSes like Starcraft and Planetary Annihilation without articulating the design patterns particular to these games that cause the slow start. He also doesn’t examine what value the slow start may have for the play experience: for instance, he doesn’t mention the value of having a period in which players can essentially warm up their hands for the upcoming segments of play that require high micro.
Michael’s suggestion to simply start players with early-mid-game amounts of units and buildings is probably the easiest solution to think of, but has many knock-on effects that Michael doesn’t seem to even consider. For instance, the micro burden on players at the very start of the game will become significantly higher than most other points in the game, because they have to as-quickly-as-possible give orders to potentially fifty units and several production buildings. Seconds lost here mean fewer units for climactic battles which may happen as early as a couple minutes after the match begins, since we’ve totally skipped the early-game.
The largely unopposed nature of the early game leads to several minutes of less-interesting play, but this play sets up for all the variety that Michael so values in the mid-game, and without a span of time to make these preparatory decisions, some foundational design aspects that Michael doesn’t touch on will shift, perhaps profoundly. Unit and building tuning will need to be adjusted and rebalanced now that a whole breed of rush strategies no longer exist. Michael’s suggested change is brash and potentially requires significant additional design work. It’s far from a quick fix.
And what about games that follow different design patterns than these “classic” RTSes? Michael fails to address the successful approach of “non-massive” RTSes to this problem, most notably Company of Heroes and Dawn of War 2, which are micro-focused affairs where first contact with enemy units happens within the opening two minutes of the match. Certain build orders in these games are common, but the fluidity of the ongoing battle and growing tension over sorely-needed resources ripe for the taking ensures that the early-game is far from an exercise in boring build order execution.