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The Rule of Cool

September 19th, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · 2 Comments · Uncategorized

I am going through another RTS phase after overdosing on Civilization. So, between working on games I am reviewing, I load up Rise of Legends or Battle for Middle Earth II and rediscover that I am much better at the former than the latter.

Then it hit me. The coolest looking things are always the most powerful. So, if you push your development towards getting the best looking army, you will have the best results – providing you can afford it.

Look at Rise of Legends. Your typical Vinci infantry guys are pretty boring. But the Doge’s soldiers run around in gas masks. Clockwork Men lurch along. And nothing looks as cool as the Juggernaut. This pattern continues throughout the races – the weaker flying heroes always look less impressive than the ground based heroes who can do crazy amounts of damage. Where real world superweapons (nuclear missiles, biological toxins, aircraft carriers) aren’t remarkably cooler looking than other weapons platforms, games enforce this rule rigidly. If it is powerful, it has to look amazing and interesting.

So now I have an explanation for why elephants and scythed chariots dominate so many ancient strategy games. It’s the corrolary of the cool rule. Because they look awesome, they must be awesome. In World War II real time games, infantry are reduced to cannon fodder as the cooler looking tanks dominate even urban environments. The superficial appearance of power dictates the relative allocated strength in design.

Game designers, aren’t alone of course. Historians and leaders used to push this convention a lot. Ancient writers will talk about how many hoplites or legions there are at a battle, but never give a hint about the skirmishers that certainly went along. Colorful uniforms and tall soldiers were sent to the elite units. Frederick the Great did it. Mithridates the Great did it. We don’t do it much any more, though the United States Marine Corps has the best looking dress uniform.

Game wise, the convention is very useful. It’s a perfect visual cue that you are either getting beaten down or that you are ready to deal some serious hurt to somebody. It makes no sense in a real world setting, or even most movie settings; Imperial Stormtroopers look nasty, but can’t hit the broad side of Wookiee. You don’t need to know the relative cost of the cavalry unit riding down your peons since you can judge its power by how fancy it seems. This pattern repeats itself in role playing games where the most powerful sword is always the one with the glowing aura and jeweled hilt. Guess they never saw Indian Jones and the Last Crusade.

It’s in the corrolary that things get confused. I much prefer games that give combined arms some utility, especially if the game uses an historical setting. In my recent CGM review of two World War II RTS games, I endorsed the one that let me use infantry as more than “people who should steal a tank as soon as they can”. (Flamethrowers are the big exception to this rule, by the way. They are always useless no matter how cool they look.)

It will be interesting to see how Age of Empires III Warchiefs fits into the cool spectrum. American Indian armies always look cooler than run-of-the-mill musketmen. Feathers, buckskin, obsidian blades…all better looking than the iron shot and leather britches of your standard Spanish soldier. But the difference in appearance between a Sioux scout, a brave and a chief is negligible. Maybe this will be easier with the Aztec.


2 Comments so far ↓

  • Tom

    eh, I’ve seen flamethrowers used somewhat effectively in Close Combat, and they’re awesome anti-infantry troops in Batallion Wars – not that its the most realistic of games.

  • Toby Hede

    That’s true. Knights always get the cred, despite Agincourt.

    And in Rome: Total war the Heavy Cavalry is always overly effective, despite the fact the Romans didn’t use it very much, especially during the Republic.