As moves are played in real-time as opposed to the turn-based in strategy games of old, RTS games require a bit more out of the player in terms of mechanical skill. Decisions are done under pressure, micromanaging units are done in the heat of the battle, and focus is shifted between multiple fronts.
Attention is a resource in RTS games, albeit not overtly stated within a game’s design. What the player focuses on requires careful but quick thought as one cannot control two fronts simultaneously. However, skill in multitasking allows us to try.
It is a scientific fact that the human mind cannot focus on two things simultaneously. What we know as multitasking is in fact a rapid shift of attention between various tasks. While it appears that we could balance and perform two things at once, in reality we are only shifting our focus from one task to the next.
The Skill in Multitasking
This is the reason as to why not everyone is capable of multitasking effectively: it’s a skill that needs to be developed. It is something that requires practice and conscious effort to improve. If we want to get better in our respective RTS games, it definitely pays to improve our skills in multitasking.
Despite seeming like a daunting task, multitasking is actually quite easy to improve upon. One of the reasons why multitasking is hard for beginners is that beginners think about it. They think about what’s happening and about what to do. It seems difficult because it’s not automatic.
It’s similar to riding a bike. When you were beginning to learn how to ride a bike, you were focused on keeping your balance, trying your best not to fall over. As you get better, riding a bike becomes automatic leaving you room to do other stuff. Improving multitasking is the same. It’s called muscle memory. It becomes second nature.
Naturally, playing an RTS is a lot more complicated than riding a bike. But if we take what we know about muscle memory and apply it in our games, it actually works quite well. If producing workers, units and buildings becomes second nature, becomes automatic, it frees a lot of our attention and gives us room to focus on other, arguably more important things.
How you commit these things to muscle memory is quite easy. You just needs to keep on playing. Remember to use hotkeys for everything and just keep on playing. Hotkeys allows you to develop muscle memory in both hands instead of just the mouse hand. Plus it effectively cuts the time it takes to build or produce something to a quarter of what it should when you’re simply using your mouse. And that’s all it takes! You can do fancy stuff like drilling builds over and over against the computer but where’s the fun in that?
While we can improve multitasking through muscle memory, there is still the matter of shifting our attention between tasks that have nothing to do with muscle memory. It definitely is not easy to balance two tasks at once. One tip I’d recommend is to set a mental checklist. For example, here’s my Company of Heroes 2 mental checklist:
- Idle units
I first check if I have idle units and put them to work. Next I check if any of my men are in negative cover and adjust that accordingly. Next, I check which men requires the micromanagement when engaged. Then, I check how much resources I have and if I could afford the next tech or unit that I need. And then I cycle back around the mental checklist and look for idle units, and so on.
Ultimately though, the best way to improve multitasking is to keep on playing. Muscle memory and mental checklists would greatly benefit from having a good game sense and decision making. Just make a conscious effort to focus on these things while playing and sooner or later, you’d be multitasking like a mad man.
Word of warning, being better at multitasking in RTS games will bleed into your real-life. You’ll find yourself better at multitasking in real world tasks, but you’ll also find that you have a constant need to multitask even when doing the most mundane things.