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MMObility: How to real-time-strategize your way into my heart


If there is one thing I can appreciate in my gaming choices, it's flexibility. I want to be able to not only do what I want but do it when I want. If I want to avoid combat or other players, the game should allow me to do that. I don't want to bother with things that annoy me. If I am in the mood for tweaking my character, sure, I'll do that, but I don't want it to be forced on me by a pushy fellow player or virtual progression wall. In other words, give me as many choices as possible and I will love you.

Once I discovered the world of browser-based real-time-strategy games, I found a large number of games that provided me with almost everything I needed. While I normally preferred more "immersive" play, I found that the miniature armies and grand scale of most of these newer titles filled in my imagination just fine. In fact, the more I play with them, the more I am reminded of tabletop gaming as a teen. Those were glorious times, despite the fact that I am now, and always have been, horrible at war.

Let me tell you all about my recent obsession with browser-based real-time-strategy MMOs. (That's quite a mouthful.) Click past the cut!

It's important to note here just how many browser-based MMORTS games exist out there. Just off of the top of my head, I am guessing that I have personally played (even if it was just for a bit) scores and scores of them. I think somewhere near 60. Out of many of those, very few blew me away or made me want to stick with it. There are many reasons for that, and sometimes I might ignore one simply because it falls on my desk at the wrong time. Maybe I didn't feel like looking at yet another one that day, or maybe I just didn't give the particular title long enough to really grow on me. For all I know, I have missed the single greatest browser-based RTS in history. That's one of the reasons I am always going back to titles.

There are some pretty particular, and not so particular, guidelines for my enjoyment.

First, I'm not really particular about the setting. It can be science fiction or fantasy, modern-day or ancient history. I am not a huge stickler for the lore, either, although if the game features great lore, I am happy. I think that the point of the MMORTS is that the players write the history of the region themselves through an everyday process of conquering, trading and forming alliances. I've noticed that most of the MMORTS games that I have found are set in the ancient past of China or something similar. Some of my readers don't seem to get why games from abroad are based in such a setting, but I always remind them about how common it is that "our" games are set in some sort of medieval European past. We have our cliches, and they have theirs.

Graphically, the game has to work. This is harder to explain than it would seem, but basically I will know if a game looks good when I see it. I ignore most screenshots, especially being that they could be showing off only the pretty parts or completely ignoring them. I'm a massive, huge fan of cartoony, stylized or (what has become of me?) Anime graphics. The big problem is that many developers seem to think that having cartoony graphics means that there can be no drama or hardship in the game. I actually love it when a "younger"-looking game has a serious backstory or idea behind it. Lately, browser-based and mobile design seems to think that if it looks like a kids game, it cannot be a serious game. I beg to differ, and there are a few examples of youthful-seeming games that feature very mature stories or even very mature communities.

I love the look of Illyriad, one of my recent MMORTS obsessions. It has a nice, hand-drawn feel to it and appears warm, inviting, and epic. Scrolling across the map feels like scanning an actual cloth map, complete with hidden areas and scattered empires. The graphics of Illyriad also bring up the fact that an MMORTS can be more accessible than a client-based MMO, especially when you get into the HTML and Flash varieties. Sure, Flash has its issues with occasional lag, but generally, representing an army with an icon or two is much easier on the old desktop or laptop than representing them with actual armies. In fact, I've had the chance lately to try out several newer client-based RTS games, and I have to say that I am not any more impressed with seeing each individual soldier on the battlefield. If anything, keeping up with the real-time action sort of brings out the inner OCD player in me, and that feels a bit uncomfortable.

"I hate to see such an open idea and design opportunity such as browser-based world-building filled with copycat games."

I'm very excited when a game has some sort of functionality on my mobile devices. It's rare to find one for iOS or Android that isn't mainly text-based, but it is nice to have access to chat, trading, and other capabilities. Many of the apps or MMORTS games on my mobile devices are based on the Mafia Wars-style interface and gameplay, and that drives me nuts. I hate to see such an open idea and design opportunity such as browser-based world-building filled with copycat games. Again, Illyriad shines in its ability to be played across any device, anywhere, over any connection.

Probably the most important factor in my favorite MMORTS games is how they challenge -- or do not challenge -- me as a player. I hate micromanaging. I know that sounds funny in an article about managing entire empires, but the good games allow you some freedom when deciding how challenging you want to make them. Many, if not most, of the MMORTS games I have played so far employ some version of player-vs.-player combat. The ones that are designed well always give players a way out of complete annihilation. The poorly designed ones seem to want to punish you twice: first when you are attacked out of the blue and second when you try to recover.

In the games I really love, my cities are as vulnerable and open to attack as any other. The key difference is that they allow me some back-up, either in the form of escape, by way of alliance, or simply by not allowing someone to plunder me completely. Recently in Ministry of War, I changed the location of my city. Upon arrival at the new spot, I was almost immediately attacked by my new neighbor. I took a look at what he had and hammered back, scaring off his armies. I attacked him again and again and kept it up for several hours. Each time I attacked, I didn't come home with his entire city's worth of goods. Instead, I was only able to make off with a share of his gold and his blood on my swords. Finally, I messaged him and made peace, and now we are in the same guild.

"In other games I could have burned his cities to the ground, made off with all of his kittens, and strung up his old people."

In other games I could have burned his cities to the ground, made off with all of his kittens, and strung up his old people. I really don't understand that approach to PvP design; it simply scares off those middle-of-the-road players who make for fine targets. What's left is a smaller game that is filled with botters and non-stop players.

The other day I was doing the dishes, as is my manly duty. In between cleaning, I went to my laptop and clicked on any one of the four tabs I had opened to four different worlds. In one game I was sending off some goods to complete a trade agreement; in another I was spying on a neighbor in case he decided to attack me. This type of play-as-I-will gaming is possible only in the world of the MMORTS, and especially in the browser version. These games fit my style, gaming schedule, and love for all things massive. No wonder so many of them are popping up everywhere.

So, do you play any browser-based RTS games? What are some of your favorites? (I need more worlds to conquer!)

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Raptr.

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