One of my guilty pleasures has always been RTS games.† From the advent of M.A.X. many years ago (and happily recently rediscovered via gog.com), Iíve played, if not a comprehensive collection, at least some of the greatest hits of RTS gaming: Starcraft,† Command and Conquer,† Total Annihilation,† and Myth: The Fallen Lords, among others.† Of the recent crop, Iíve played a handful: Act of War, Universe at War, the entire four-volume Warhammer 40k series, and Company of Heroes.† And, somehow, Iíve managed to enjoy most of them immensely.

So, whereís the guilty part of it?† Well, as the (mercifully few) people who have played an RTS with me online are sure to know, I am, by any objective measure, quite abysmal at playing them.† I suppose that stems in part from my preference for individual focus over multitasking – Iíll get tied up in one particular battle group or conflict, while my opponent is busy doing a dozen different things at once, and in so doing, completely dominating the map, and, after a bit, whatever remains of my surviving forces.† I canít complain, though, as my usual motive for playing RTS games is less about being a brilliant tactician, and more about guiding a bunch of soldiers around and enjoying the mayhem that erupts.† And if thereís an interesting plot to drive things along, so much the better.

In a certain way, itís a bit ironic – my unbridled enthusiasm for games of this type seems to be in direct proportion to my lack of skill at them.† Which, of course, usually means that I simply eschew online play – and do whatever is necessary to prevail in the single player campaign.

Unfortunately, with many RTS games, this becomes a somewhat difficult exercise.† Back in the days of Starcraft, the AI was clever but not devastating, and there were a whole host of cheat codes at hand to help you out of a bind in the single-player campaign.† As a result, I was able to march through each of the campaigns, enjoying the explosions and the interesting plot, with the occasional help from the archonís favorite words of power to ease me through the tough spots in later missions.† As a result, I had a blast (in more ways than one, I suppose), and Starcraft remains, to this day, one of the most enjoyable games that I have ever played.

Somewhere along the line, though, a couple of things happened.† AI for strategy games became better, and apparently, game developers felt that having an actually ďeasyĒ setting wouldnít properly be able to show of their AIís skill set.† So, a lot of games simply dropped the easy setting entirely, opting for normal (read: very, very hard) and hard (read: no, Dave, you canít possibly win against this opponent).† For those games that did relent and offer an easy mode, it most likely corresponded to the previous normal mode, which usually meant that ďeasyĒ was code for a very tough, but still winnable, fight.† And so, I though, Iíd suffer through, and look up some codes if I ever got stuck.

Thatís where the second part came in.† More and more, games were focusing on the multiplayer, and worries arose about cheating in PvP online matches.† Apparently, there must have been some concern about single-player cheat codes bleeding over into an online environment – but, instead of simply working to segregate the gameplay modes better, many developers seem to have pulled most of the cheat codes entirely, leaving me sadly without my trump card. †

And so, once again, I began my long and weary trek through the valley of gaming frustration, leaving the wreckage of half-played games in my wake.† The original Dawn of War, and its companion, Winter Assault?† Abandoned halfway through the campaigns, amidst impossible levels of difficulty with no recourse.† Universe at War?† Playable only through the judicious use of a third-party ďtrainer.Ē Company of Heroes?† Abandoned out of sheer frustration.† Somehow, though, I managed to muddle my way through Act of War, always having just enough to get the job done.† And Dawn of War, with its last two expansions, finally got interesting, with a Risk-style campaign mode and an actual ďeasyĒ setting that let me play through to my heartís content. †

So, how do you fix RTS gaming?† I think itís actually pretty easy – easy being the operative word.† Bring back that option for each and every RTS game, and actually recruit some novice play-testers to make sure that the easy level is actually appropriate for someone without a lot of skill in RTS games.† For an experienced player, this sort of easy mode probably seems far too easy, and so there is an incentive to ratchet the difficulty back up – but for for an inexperienced or casual player, this setting is absolutely what is needed to make the single-player game enjoyable.† And failing that – let me keep what is mine, let me breathe deep, and let me bring the power overwhelming to bear once again, and Iíll be quite happy to plunk down money to play your game.† Barring that, though, Iím getting tired of being frustrated halfway through – to the point that, without clear evidence of an actual easy mode or a readily available set of codes to tide me over, RTS developers arenít going to see my money any time soon.