The brilliance of They are Billions

A new RTS title from an unknown developer managed to gain tons of hype from game streamers, some of them StarCraft veterans – the dominating Esport game in the RTS genre.

So why did They are Billions make an impact in these game enthusiasts, when several hundred titles are released from unknown developers every year? (to be fair, Numantian Games had released one title before, but not one I have ever heard of).


The hype comes down to two extremely important game techniques, which this new zombie game introduce to the RTS genre.

A genre-defying pause

Real strategy games are put in two main categories: Turn-based and Real Time Strategy (RTS). In other words, whether the game world progress at all times, so in “real” time, or whether the player decide when to switch the turn, so that an amount of time will pass.

The benefit of real time is immersion – the people and vehicles move around in a real way, just like the view from a tower. Turn-based breaks immersion when units stand still most of the time, and only move in short sequences. But real time introduce a stress factor. Most RTS titles require the player to manage their economy by constructing buildings and researching upgrades at a good timing, at the same time that the player produce and control their army units.

For this reason, strategy often takes a backseat in importance, with multitasking skill and ability to execute standard procedures efficiently being the main characteristics of a good player. The turn-based games allow the player the room to think ahead – to actually plan a strategy in the middle of the game.

Now enter the first hero of They are Billions: The pause button.

Other RTS titles have the ability to pause, but it is often hidden, so that players feel like pausing is not part of the game, but just an option to get some tea and biscuits in the kitchen.

On the other hand They are Billions put the pause button right in on the interface, as a rather large button. It is also keyed to the space bar, just in case clicking with the mouse would be too much effort.

This forces the player to accept pausing as part of the game, and a good option whenever things get overwhelming and multitasking would otherwise be needed.

So the pause hero have effectively created a genre hybrid: a game with the immersion of an RTS, but keeping the focus on strategy and planning from the turn based genre. The best of two worlds, and surely a trick that other RTS games will copy in the future.

Vulnerability and fear

The second stroke of genius is tweaking the game mechanics to emphasize the fear in the zombie genre, by making the player vulnerable.

In a standard RTS game like Starcraft or Age of Empires, they base of the player is quite sturdy. If a few enemy units would walk into the base, it would take them a while to tear down the buildings, time enough that the defender would be able to move his army back.

The most vulnerable part of the player economy is not the buildings, but the workers. A few enemy units could quickly kill several workers, but only if the defender does not react and move them to safety.
Most RTS games are not lost or won because a player was too slow to defend his base, but rather because his entire army has been defeated, and he is left with nothing to defend with. So in some sense, the army is the most vulnerable thing the player control.

They are Billions turn this usual logic on it’s head. Even the most basic army units are quite durable. They can take several hits from the infected, at the same time that they have superior speed and range.

In contrast, the buildings are extremely vulnerable – especially the tent, which is a cheap option to expand the base. Whenever a zombie manage to overcome the defence of a building, the building become infected. This stop the building from functioning, but more importantly, the 4 to 10 inhabitants of the building are now zombies, making their way to the next building!
This very quickly spirals out of control, with each new infected building spawning more zombies inside the base. If the player does not have a sizeable army right next to the outbreak, it is game over.
Placement of units and walls are key, and if there is ever a hole in your defensive line, chances are high that you will lose.

But on the other hand, when the attack has been repelled, there is rarely any lasting damage. Player units are tough, and infected buildings just need a cheap “repair” procedure once any nearby zombies are gone.
I recently managed to save my base in the last moment, at 4 or 5 buildings infected. Extremely close to defeat, but my losses were minimal.

This dynamic is brilliant, because in a usual game the damage to my forces would have been so great that I would not have been able to win the game.
Losing from attrition in a game against AI hordes is not a fun way to lose. Too often RTS players end up in a situation where there is little chance they can win, but the game drag on for a long time before they finally lose.

For this reason, every battle has to be won at a good margin, coming close to defeat mean that you will lose in the long run, and you might as well quit.
But winning a close batte is exciting – still having a chance to beat the game makes it even better. And it’s just that kind of excitement that They are Billions bring to the RTS genre.

The full version of the game and it’s campaign mode is released today, so I’m off to enjoy this masterpiece at Steam.

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