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.....Of Lieutenants and Learning Agents (RTS)

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I was doing more thinking about control and unit coordination the other day, when I was struck by this stunning idea.... What if the commander could train his army himself? My first thought, was to have a computer controlled lieutenant in charge of your army, but subordinate to the player. However, rather than being a mere management agent for the player, this lieutenant actually learns the players tactics. This means that the player can concentrate on strategy without the need to micromanage his army. Of course, you still have complete control over everything, but micromanagement is massively reduced. It also gives rise to some more interesting ideas.... 1. Training missions: Of course, you have to actually train your lieutenant. You could set up war games, in which the army fights drones under your control. They also allow you to teach your tactics... 2. Set pieces/manouevres: You could associate certain signals to certain manouevres. Signals could be sent by hitting a key or icon, and could thus trigger a complete redeployment of your army or a drastic change of tactics. You could teach the computer to retreat when you hit R for example, and the Lieutenant would make sure your units all get out safely, while long ranged units give covering fire, for example. 3. Story: What if your Lieutenant defects halfway through the game? Not only do you have to teach your tricks to his replacement, but you have to learn to combat your own tactics.... Of course, the technical issues are great, but I dont think it is out of reach - Black and White showed us this. I think this might result in a very different game from a conventional RTS. Your thoughts, as ever, are welcome.

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Love it. I''ve put this same idea into my own design (on paper). It''s exactly like you say: it takes away from the micro management process. And at the same time it adds to the realism factor. I mean, if the player is the general, he wouldn''t be busy teaching new recruits how to hold a sword and how to move across the battlefield. No, he would tell his commanders ''show those new recruits how to hold a sword and how to move across the battlefield.''

I like the thought of the commander(s) actually ''learn'' the player''s tactics. If the player uses a lot of charges, his commander will make sure to focus on that aspect of training with his units. If the player likes to ambush opponents, the commander will make sure to teach the units the finer arts of stealth.

Of course, the player should also be able to give very direct orders to the commanders. In other words, the player SHOULD be able to deal with the micromanagement if he or she wants to (and to whatever level he or she desires) If the general wants those cavalry units to learn how to shoot a bow and forego their sword practice, so be it. A good, strong commander might inform the general (player) that his latest orders might not be all that smart (''General, do you think that''s wise?'').

1) Training missions

In my own design the player can either recruit a commander and just let the computer take care of everything, or the player can take one unit on several missions and create a commander out of that unit. The first missions would show the single unit some of the different aspects of combat. Later missions would put the unit in control of a small squad of soldiers. The last stage would have the ''commander'' leading a large group of units on a mission, learning the many different tactics used in large scale combat.

2) Set pieces/maneuvres

I''m very fond of the flags that were used to issue orders in battles in the past. You know, general and some of his best commanders stand on the hillside, overlooking the battle. When they want to give an order, they have someone wave certain flags and the commanders fighting below will spot the signals and relay those orders to their troops.

You could still hit your ''R'' button for an all-out retreat. What this would do is:

1) have general issue ''retreat'' order to unit that is responsible for waving flags
2) have that unit wave the appropriate flag
3) have the commanders on the battlefield spot the flag order
4) have the commanders on the battlefield issue the ''retreat'' order
5) have the units on the battlefield follow the ''retreat'' order
(in a previously designed method)

All these steps would take a little bit of time. For example, it could take a full minute before the units on the battlefield finally learn of the ''retreat'' order.

A good communication between general and his commanders is of the utmost importance because of this.

One aspect that these flags might add is an actual use of the ''intelligence'' of the commanders. A smart commander might be able to learn 20 different flag orders... but if his units only learned how to act on 10 of those, then those other 10 are really of no use. You can''t have the commander tell his units ''okay... now, we''re going to... I mean... This is the plan...''
No, you''d have to establish how many commands each unit can learn and base your general commands on that. For example, the dumbest unit might be able to learn only 3 different orders: attack, defend and retreat. The smartest unit might be able to learn an extensive number of orders, varying from ''attack using method X in formation 3'' to ''retreat to a previously set location, moving with speed Y, covering units 4 and 5 with ranged fire and targeting mainly enemy units Z''.

It''s in the player''s best interest to know which units can do what. And it''s up to the player to assign his commanders to take advantage of the strengths and to fix the weaknesses of his units.

3) Story

Yup. If the commander that the player has been using extensively all of a sudden dies... he''ll have to adjust his tactics. I''ve always liked this, because it is a variant form of permanent death. The death of a commander would have a very high impact on the gameplay, but... it wouldn''t be the end. The player would be able to build up his forces again using a new commander. But it would take time.

If a player manages to create the strongest army around and decides to have some fun killing of a weaker army... he might lose his commander in the process. Suddenly, that strongest army is somewhat leaderless. Units function less efficient.


My only concern with this is that it would require a lot of computer power to give each commander/unit its own AI. Especially when the plan is to create large battles with many units.

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My only concern with this is that it would require a lot of computer power to give each commander/unit its own AI. Especially when the plan is to create large battles with many units.

Yes. It did occur to me to make each unit a learning agent in its own right, which would be extremely cool, but I think the resources required for this would be too much. Instead you have a single AI, a computer sidekick which may or may not have an actual presence on the battlefield.

As for the signals, it is very similar to the flag approach except the flags are undefined at the start of the game - only by training your army to understand the retreat signal will they respond to it.

It seems to me that our ideas differ in that I see this approach as an aid to normal control, ie control is essentially the same as any other RTS but you can train your commander to take some of the burden off you, whereas you seem to see it as a control mechanism in its own right. I think either approach would be very interesting.

An example of how starcraft might play with a trained commander:

Start the game. Player takes a drone off exploring while the commander automates the standard quick start for zerg, as you have trained it to do so.
After exploring the map for a while, the player finds the enemy base. His drone is getting wasted, so he hits a key to signal a standard "Scramble" order, despatching a group of hydras to defend the drone. Shortly afterwards the player hits another key to signal to the lieutenant to start mass building zerglings.
Enemy reinforcements arrive, so he hits the retreat signal. The zerg units pull out. After a short wait, when the players hydras are healed and the zerglings are ready, he hits another key which signals a full offensive. As trained, the commander moves the ranged units, (hydras) to higher ground where they are safe from melee, and the hoardes of zerglings move in to attack, as well as diverting fire from the hydras. Soon the terran reinforcements are expended, and the base is destroyed....

The player is freed from the hassle of micromanagement, yet he still has to learn it to teach it to the computer. Similarly he is freed from the hassles of managing each units, and can concentrate on strategy, rather than tactics.

Edited by - Sandman on October 22, 2001 10:46:07 AM

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You could allow each unit to interface with the AI system, at a simpler level. For instance, The commander needs lots of resources to function effectivly, but each unit does not. So, if you could operate the AI at a simplified level (with n times less computation per descision), you could let the units themselves tap into the brain waves of thier commanders, and not have to learn everything themselves.

As for the flag thing, simple delayed messages would make it easy (Deliver "Retreat" to "all units" at "250 ticks in the future", would delay the messages for 250 game update ticks).

Also, commanders could OWN the units under thier control, and, while other commanders may give that unit an order, they will automatically check with thier commander to see if it''s ok. This is a promising idea. I love it!


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Another promissing thing, would be this...

Consider an outpost, that might be attacked by enemies. You can''t scramble an entire army to go there, so you just send your best Field Commander with his staff. They immediatly boost morale, and the longer they stay, the better the defenders become

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