From Minerals to Force Gems: Evolving the RTS Genre
Tuesday, April 1, 2008 at 11:28AM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Action, Genre, RTS, Zelda

Since the unveiling of Nintendo's next generation console the "Revolution," Sigeru Miyamoto has been devising his own contribution to the Real Time Strategy genre of video games. The technical demo known as the "Mario128" gave the world a glimps of what was possible on the new hardware. Miyamoto revealed years later in an interview that elements from the Mario128 demo were incorporated into Pikmin. After the release of Pikmin 2, Miyamoto worked on a smaller, more personal project that would take advantage of the Gamecube to GameBoy Advance connectivity. This game eventually became Pac-Man VS. The trends set by the Pikmin series and Pac-Man VS, were eventually polished into a ultra streamlined variant on the Real Time Strategy game found in The Legend of Zelda Phantom Hourglass' Battle mode. Using a structuralist analysis that focuses on how a game's formal elements translate into function, I'll trace the evolution of the RTS genre from Starcraft to Phantom Hourglass.

An RTS like StarCraft achieves the total range of its functions through a small list of formal elements: Base Areas, Base HQs, Map, Resources, Units, Buildings, and the free scrolling mouse controls. From these formal elements a range of functions is derived: Building units, Building Buildings, Attacking/Defending, Gathering, Upgrading, and Issuing Commands. The majority of the interactivity in such an RTS comes from using the active formal elements. In other words, the entire game of StarCraft is played by manipulating and accessing one's units and buildings. These active elements have the ability to take advantage of the static elements like locations on a map and resources (vespene gas/minerals). The system works due to a high level of automation coded into each individual unit. Buildings know to build one unit automatically after the other when there's a queue of units. Soldier and vehicle units can navigate around static and dynamically moving obstacles with ease. The system is controlled through a balance of a unit/building's cost, power, and effectiveness against time. More powerful units required the player to spend more resources. To accumulate such resources often requires the player to expand from their initial base in order to establish multiple bases that can gather more resources at one time. Defending multiple bases is costly. And beyond all of those factors, the more powerful units take longer to build and are usually slower when moving across the map.For the RTS genre, multitasking is a must, and timed commands and events make it possible. Seasoned StarCraft players often organize hundreds of units and processes over a map that spans large distances waging long battles.

Pikmin 2's battle mode features a completely different set of formal elements. However, the RTS genre still applies due to their analogous functions that are balanced against time. Perhaps the most apparent and shocking difference between StarCraft and Pikmin 2 is the method of control. Instead of a mouse, players take control of Captain Olimar (or Louie), a small character than runs around in the map. By controlling this avatar, players execute all of their commands. Unlike a mouse, however, the avatar is bound by time and space. Like any ground unit from StarCraft, Olimar must travel back and forth across the map and can only affect what is in his immediate area. Also, because the scope of the player is limited to the surrounding area around their avatar, fog of war isn't needed to conceal the opponent's activity.

The more Pikmin a player has the better. But, players must gather resources to build units. In Pikmin 2 battle mode, flowers and dead enemies can be gathered by Pikmin and deposited in one's Onion to build more Pikmin units. The primary attack function is provided by the Pikmin. These plant like creatures can be thrown onto enemies, or arranged to clash directly in combat. Pikmin are integral to the battle mode as they provide the player with attacking/defending and gathering functions. In StarCraft, these functions were designed exclusively into units and thus specializing them. In Pikmin 2, players can upgrade their Pikmin by drinking red gel and burping a red gas over them. This gas acts as a stimulant temporarily enhancing their speed and attack rate (like stim-pack in StarCraft). These red gels can be found inside eggs scattered across the map. The less temporary method of upgrading occurs when Pikmin are left planted in the ground. After a set period of time the leaves on the Pikmin will bud and eventually flower. Each botanical stage represents an upgraded Pikmin with increased speed and attack power.

In addition to changing the primary control method into an avatar, giving each Pikmin unit the ability to gather, defend, attack, and upgrade independently, Pikmin 2 added more ways to win. In StarCraft, a player wins when they destroy all of an opponents buildings. In Pikmin, players can win four ways. Eliminating all of the opponent's Pikmin. Eliminating the opponent's Avatar. Gathering four yellow marbles scattered across the map. Or gathering the opponents colored (red/blue) marble from their base. Because half of the goals don't involve player to player combat, the player is free to multi-task and devise strategies that expand beyond simply attacking and defending from each other's forces. Unlike StarCraft, the maps in Pikmin 2's battle mode are filled with enemies and even hazards like bombs, electric fences, and bottomless pits. Those who seek the non confrontational path to victory will find that the map can be less forgiving. Because one's most precious resource is Pikmin, spreading them out too thin may prove to be a fruitless gamble.

Pac-Man VS. is a game of Pac-Man that can be played with up to four players. The catch is one of the players is playing on a GBA while the other three play on a split screen TV. The GBA player controls Pac-Man and proceeds to munch up all the pellets on the map while taking advantage of the strategically placed power pellets that contain the power to turn the most belligerent ghost into an innocuous snack. On the TV split screen the three ghosts are controlled by the other three players. It would be all too easy for the ghosts to gang up and trap Pac-Man, so their view of the map is limited so that they can't see where the Pac-Man is until they close in on his position. This design choices makes even the most strategic cunning player make wrong turns like an AI would. Pac-Man VS. shares many similar functions of a traditional RTS. Pac-Man, a controlled avatar (like Pikmin 2), has the ability to gather the pellets on the map. By eating (gathering) a power pellet, Pac-Man temporarily upgrades himself putting his ethereal pursuers on the defensive. Likewise, the ghosts comb the field on the attack searching for Pac-Man. The ghosts can also gather special fruit that temporarily upgrades their hunting abilities. Of course, Pac-Man VS. is an arcade style action game. However, it was necessary to examine because the design involved with this project heavily influenced the development of the battle mode for The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass.

One of the inherent problems with Pac-Man VS. was its multiplayer balance. If all the ghosts aren't actively trying to stop the Pac-Man, it becomes very difficult for the rest of the ghosts to corner him. Likewise, an imbalance of skill among the players can also lead to similar results. Such is the nature of "free for all" type multiplayer modes. Phantom Hourglass solves this problem simply and intuitively: the battle mode, like Pikmin 2, can only be played with two players (1v1). This design choice makes each player responsible for their own success or failure. Like Pac-Man VS., by confining the levels to a small maze-like map the choices for the offensive player are limited. This is where the DS specific design really shines. In this battle mode, players take turns either controlling Link and controlling three Phantoms. Link's function is analogous to Pac-Man's function in that he is the dynamic offensive force that can get the points to win the game. The Phantoms are analogous to the ghosts (as if the parallels between the "men" and "ghosts" weren't clear enough). Link runs around the map via touch screen controls while the phantoms follow paths drawn on the opponent's touch screen making it easy for one person to control 3 characters simultaneously. This is crucial for creating a real time flow and feel in the game.

Following the trend of avatar control, the Phantom Hourglass battle mode puts players in control of Link and Phantoms. Link traverses the map in search of strategically, placed and force gems. To earn points link must pick up the gems and throw them into his home base area. When carrying these gems, link moves more slowly depending on the size of the gem. The bigger the gem, the slower link moves, but the more points he'll receive if he successfully deposits it at his base. This dynamic is the same as the gathering function of a typical RTS: With a fixed number of gatherers, obtaining more resources requires more time. Link is further motivated to keep on the move because each round has a time limit. This time limit is important because it shifts the stress of time off of being a limiting factor to growth and movement of many, and multiple units (like with a traditional RTS) and puts the stress on using the limited time wisely to make smart moves in a limited scenario. In other words, for a traditional RTS, time is open ended. Players are only motivated to move quickly to secure an advantage over the other players. For Phantom Hourglass, the time is limited from the start of each round. This forces Link, the offensive character, to make his moves and discourages stalling the match out. Meanwhile, the Phantoms are on the attack. They're slower than link, so they must use their numbers to their advantage. When link gets too close to a Phantom they automatically strike. If contact is made, then the round ends, and the offensive/defensive turns are switched. In this way, the Phantoms fulfill the attacking/defending function of a traditional RTS. Power ups randomly spawn on the map and are indicated both player's map screens. By touching the power up, which often requires players to go out of their way, the power up is activated. Each player has their own power ups. The offensive player's power ups range from increased speed (when not carrying a gem), a free hit from a phantom, more speed when carrying a gem, more time added to the limit, and creating a shadow clone that looks like link and runs around trying to cause a distraction. The defensive power ups include reducing Link's time limit, more speed, higher attack range, gem shuffle (randomly repositions all the gems on the map), and creating another Phantom. These power ups function as upgrades.

In the Phantom Hourglass battle mode, there are areas in which Link is completely safe from Phantom attacks. These areas are called safe zones. These zones act like dynamic bases, which are analogous to mineral and vespene gas locations that a StarCraft player can expand into creating a second base. By hopping from safe zone to safe zone, the player can effectively and safely move force gems more closely to their home base. When link steps into one of these zones, he completely disappears off his opponent's map. In true Pac-Man style, some of these zones are directly connected to stairs that warp the player instantly to opposite sides of the map. This allows for Link to disappear from one side of the map and reappear on the other throwing off his pursuers. Design choices such as these give the Link player the advantage propelling the game through the limited offensive opportunities.

The final dynamic of the game involves the power struggle between rounds as each player tries to collect the most gems in their base. After a single round is over, all the gem placement carries over to the next round. This means that moving gems a little bit can go a long way especially if your opponent has to go too far out of his/her way to retrieve them. Even when a gem has be successfully claimed in your opponents base, if you manage to get over there, you can take the gem and neutralize it by throwing it into a safezone or steal the points by throwing it into your own base. In this battle mode, it's not over until the final round. Players have to delegate between moving gems, capturing points, going for power ups, and out witting opponents all under the pressure of the timer in an RTS experience that is a testament to simple, more intuitive design and is a true Nintendo evolution.

To sum up, the battle mode in The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is the product of years of refinement, reduction, and evolution. It's a mode that evolved from a traditional RTS like StarCraft in six steps.

  1. Switching the practically ubiquitous mouse centered controls to a system focused and limited by an avatar and a few mechanics.
  2. Reducing the overall number of units and the need for specialized units by layering the functions
  3. Adding new victory parameters that move away from the destruction of buildings and units
  4. Remove the ability to build additional units to keep matches focused and short
  5. Optimizing battles for two players without compromising their ability to control the game
  6. Taking advantage of the dual screens of the DS while keeping rounds short (time limits) encouraging the back and forth gambits/dynamics.


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