USC game redesigns real-time strategy

The Maestros, a USC Advanced Games Project, hopes to simplify and make accessible the real-time strategy game, a genre dominated by “hardcore” games such as League of Legends or Defense of the Ancients. The game will be shown at the Game Developers Conference, a global games convention and a rare feat for USC projects. An online alpha test of the game will be available for download the week after spring break, and a beta will be released by May 14.

The Maestros began as a project for Global Game Jam, a worldwide game developing challenge. After reworking the concept, a pitch was selected for USC’s Advanced Games Class, which produces only six to eight games per year. This, coupled with the passion of its developers, has led to a fun take on a classic genre.

“Growing up as a kid, I was really into strategy games, and I had a really hard time getting people to love these games like … Starcraft or Warcraft III,” said team lead Andrew Erridge, a senior majoring in computer science (games). “I wanted to make a game in the same genre that was simple enough for my dad to play and not get confused.”

Erridge contrasted this ease of play to the competitive atmosphere of League of Legends and Starcraft, the two most popular RTS games. Erridge felt the issue with those games was the pacing, where the first 30 minutes of play session is dedicated to amassing resources in order to build troops. The Maestros remedies this issue through the concept of transformation. Rather than having an in-game currency to create units, basic units called “Dough Boys” can be transformed into more complex units over the course of a game. Transformation pads dot the map, and finding one allows for the creation of new units.

Another concept unique to the genre is the lack of base building. More units are amassed through killing neutral units on the maps, rather than through finding resources, like in Starcraft.

Lead designer James Corcoran, a senior majoring in computer science (games), believes the game stills needs to be balanced, but that by May 14, a redesign will have fixed the pacing.

“The vision for the game was that we create a competitive multiplayer teams-based, real-time strategy experience which didn’t play like a typical real-time strategy game,” Corcoran said. “A lot of them, such as Starcraft, have a longer ramp-up time. There’s a time in which we need to gather minerals and build bases. Everything is very mobile in this game. The action is present almost always. It feels a lot like a shooter, and that’s exactly what we want.”

This shooter-like pacing comes through. Playing a build of the game from December that consisted of only one map and one player race, matches took less than 10 minutes. The lack of ramp-up time and small map sizes created tense action, as players could go on the offensive immediately. The distribution of transformation pads and neutral units allows for immediate combat.

Unlike other RTS games, this one lacks a single player campaign mode, a staple of the genre since Warcraft III. A small lore, telling the story of the two playable races, has been developed. The story details two playable races, the steampunk Teutonians and the alchemy-inspired Regalis, and their discovery of an island ripe for colonization. This theme of imperialism works well in the RTS, and it’s really a shame that there is no campaign to develop it.

The detailed art assets, however, paint a narrative through the Teutonian’s metallic character designs. Lead art designer Brian “Panda” Choi, who graduated from the Interactive Media division last May, cites the visual influence of both Warcraft III and games in the “illustrated realism” style, a mix of painted characters and realistic materials.

This art design comes from a variety of artists worldwide. Min Htet, a senior majoring in business administration and the game’s producer, said he believes that this benefits the game.

“On The Maestros team we have a number of artists from places as diverse as New Zealand, England and Germany,” Htet said. “This is a truly international project that has never been seen before in a student game, at least here at USC. Here at USC, we don’t have a dedicated game art program at the Roski School [of Fine Arts]. [Due to this], a lot of people look to other schools around the world to contribute to the game externally.”