A real-time strategy game is, by definition, a game where players are forced to make strategic and tactical decisions in real time. As the game industry grows, the real-time strategy genre has narrowed its focus to a very specific type of game that does little to force players to consider an over-arching strategy as comprised by numerous tactics. Instead of allowing a player’s large- and small-scale decisions to adapt and change as events in a given skirmish unfold, RTSs just make players think of resource usage (I have X, I need Y, and I get Z/minute) and basic army composition. Everything else in the span of a game flows from these two mechanics into what is, typically, one large battle near the end of a game. Relic’s Company of Heroes changes this design and, as a result, makes its real-time strategy gameplay into a more dynamic and far less predictable experience that forces a player to make harder decisions more frequently.
It’s a commonly-held tenet in real-time strategy games that when an enemy unit is right-clicked upon that death befalls it after it takes a certain amount of damage from units that deal a specific amount of damage every few seconds. Blizzard’s Starcraft is practically built around a very definitive combat model that follows a rock-paper-scissors methodology with very consistent unit performance results. The micromanagement that occurs within battles in Starcraft has nothing to do with centering an army around a well-covered/fortified position or ensuring that when your Dragoon attacks that his bullets will hit the right part of the enemy siege tank; instead, cover is just determining if a Protoss melee unit is in range of a bunker filled Space Marines and any hit a Dragoon lands on a Space Tank will do the same amount of damage whether it hits the armor-heavy front or the weakly-covered rear.
The design team at Relic took a far different approach to the combat in Company of Heroes than any of Blizzard’s efforts. Every part of the game map has a cover value attached to it that, when right-clicked upon, will serve as a hint to a squad of units as to how they should interact with their environment (ie, crouching behind a wall of sandbags or ducking under the lip of a crater). Under this design, two squads of riflemen with the exact same stats can face off and reach a dramatically different outcome depending on their cover situation. As an example, Squad A may be crouching behind two layers of sandbags (heavy cover) while Squad B attempts to take their position from an unfortified open road (no cover or, worse, negative cover). Since the only difference in this sort of encounter is each squad’s probability of landing a successful shot (modified by their cover) on an enemy it is, theoretically, possible for each squad to kill each other at the same time. In practice, it may take Squad B three-to-four times as long to eliminate Squad A was it would for Squad A to wipe out Squad B.
The design becomes more complicated when tanks and troops wielding bazookas, panzerfausts, and panzerschrecks join the fray inhabited by the rifle squads above. Unlike rifle bullets, large projectiles in Company of Heroes are a very prescient danger that visibly travel across the screen and violently collide with in-game entities and structures. If a rocket launcher is fired and hits tangentially to a tank’s front or side armor it will take minimal damage (or, in some cases, deflect off and hit a nearby structure). If that same rocket hits the lightly-armored rear, though, the take can sustain heavy damage along with a busted engine or armaments. And if that same rocket, or tank shell, hits the layer of sandbags that Squad A was hiding behind in the above example then a player can say goodbye to half of the squad along with the sandbags that were covering them.
While designing the game, Relic must have known the endless amount of abuse that these rockets could wreck upon map structure and players alike because they added a very heavy degree of variation in how a rocket could be launched or tank could fire. The developers of Company of Heroes completely violated the unspoken tenet of real-time strategy and, as such, when a player chooses to attack a target using his Tiger tank there is a chance that a rocket may completely miss a target and hit another enemy, fly harmlessly into the distance, or deflect off of a stray tank trap into a player-controlled building. A player can position his Tiger in such a way as to make a direct attack far more likely but there is, in essence, never a guaranteed strike from a rocket or tank.
The change from a fairly predictable combat design to a very visceral, dynamic battle engine is one that Relic handled to great effect but does such a degree of randomness in combat scenarios do anything to cheapen the “strategy” involved in the game? A fervent Starcraft or Command & Conquer player would be quick to point out that the lack of consistency from game to game would prevent a game like Company of Heroes from ever being considered for competitive play at a pro gamer level. That is a definite possibility, of course, but more realistically what Company of Heroes does is to provide a far more strategic gameplay experience as a result of the surprises that occur in the middle of the game. The game design provides the mechanisms by which a player with a less grandiose army can, by utilizing both cover and more intelligent rocket infantry positions, overcome a larger set of forces. And when such an upset can occur in the middle of a game that encourages tactics across numerous encounters it offers the chance for another reversal of fortunes later on. And that is the kind of strategy that can adapt and change over the course of a game which allows randomness in its design.
The Introduction Rerevisited
When I look back upon the last two segments of this series — here are links to Part 1 and Part 2 for the unenlightened — I realize just how much of an overly verbose writer I can be at times. For the ADD/ADHD crowd out there who really wishes I was more concise, I do apologize; the unnecessarily lengthy written form has been and will most likely continue to be my shtick. For the most part, though, I’ve been told that the series thus far has been well received and, despite the daunting length, a surprisingly quick and easy read. I do my best to avoid complex thoughts and complicated wording to the best of my ability which an especially simple task since my capacity for any sort of abstract thought is limited to paltry observations along the lines of “Oh, perty!” or “Yay, shiny!” But, that is neither here nor there in the grand scheme of this article other than to serve as a nice icebreaker for the rest of the third segment of my series on Real-Time Strategy games and, occasionally, their half-blooded ilk.
As in the last part, I feel a burning desire to thank all of the people who have commented in some public, private, or super-private (wink wink) form to me about the series thus far. I’ve received some truly fantastic comments and, on the whole, it seems that people are getting some decent information from this thing. Of special interest to me was one of the longer comments I received on an offsite publication of the article over at JoeUser; which is a blogging site started by some of the fine folk at Stardock (Galactic Civilizations 2 being a huge title in the realm of turn-based strategy games).
For this segment of the series I am going to be taking a look at a handful of some of the most genre-critical games released that I haven’t yet covered at all or to any worthy extent in either of the past two articles. My choices for the games to be mentioned may draw some relatively harsh feelings of the your-favorite-game-wasn’t-mentioned variety, but that is to be expected in this kind of situation. I would encourage anyone in this camp to post a comment (preferably with some sort of explanation) to this article, though. The RTS and first-person shooter genres are two of the richest categories of gaming that I can think of and, honestly, books could be written about games from even a single developer (and have been), so while I’m picking these games carefully — dare I say strategically — there will always be stragglers worthy of mention. I encourage you to shout these titles from rooftops around the globe utilizing some form of barbaric yawp.
Total Annihilation was mentioned due to its immense modability in part 2 of the series and, this time, it’s getting mentioned due to its supreme whole package of gaming goodness in the form of a revolutionary real-time strategy game that is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of the genre. TA was first released back on in the third-quarter of 1997 by Cavedog Entertainment and designed, primarily, by industry visionary Chris Taylor. Total Annihilation was a huge RTS game for a number of reasons that I won’t be able to do proper justice to within the scope of a mere part of an article of a part of an entire seriesâ€¦ But, here’s the gist of the things it brought to the table upon its release:
What all of these features of Total Annihilation taken into account, you have a real-time strategy game that really shook up the generic constraints that the RTS junkies at the time would have otherwise expected. The typical pace of the real-time strategy game at the time was (well, much like it is today) not especially fast-paced, with units that are typically as inversely fast as they are strong. Units, also, typically didn’t have an attack range that was really anything to write home about — the convention being that most units could not attack anything that they could not see or, more commonly, could not be seen within the range of the screen around the unit. In TA, there were an abundance of units of all power, speed, and range that you pumped out as fast as your factories and resources permitted until the point you reached the unit cap or, more likely, the enemy comes and absolutely crushes your puny forces.
Basically, Total Annihilation reminded other RTS titles that they had no concept at what annihilation really meant. Units were capable of wrecking mass mayhem upon bases and structures to the point that players were encouraged to employ a fairly spread-out base pattern that didn’t have too many big, expensive buildings in too close a vicinity. As if the bombers, tanks, and artillery units weren’t enough to send TA over the top in terms of pure firepower, the game also made prolific use of one of the greatest things — nay, the greatest thing — in the strategy gamer’s arsenal: the nuclear bomb. And any game that employs, promotes even, the use of nuclear armaments against the opposition scores so many points in my view that, really, it’s almost unfair to the competition.
The striking aspect of Total Annihilation in the grand scheme of things, though, is just how successfully it was able to pull off so many of its namesake features. The pure havoc wrecked in each battle amongst the dozens upon dozens of units gotten through the clever utilization of numerous factories funded by an infinite well of resources across land, sea, and air is something that has lived on in the eyes of modern gamers with unparalleled competition. And, despite the number of features that have been pulled from the title over the years, the most interesting thing is that there really hasn’t been much of an active attempt to mimic the game’s incredibly successful (in terms of critical acclaim, if not in sales) formula since its original release. There was an attempt to cash in on the franchise name with Total Annihilation: Kingdoms, but that was a lost cause on almost all fronts. The first real glimmer of hope for fans of what is widely regarded as one of the best RTSs ever made is coming in 2007 with Chris Taylor’s spiritual successor to TA: Supreme Commander (which will be covered in further detail in part four of this series).
The bottom line, though, is that Total Annihilation was an incredible game which was far ahead of its time when it was released. The combination of revolutionary features (many of which have been plucked by other games over time), a great engine, and an extensive set of modification possibilities have made this game one of the most memorable titles to ever hit the genre.
Ah, Starcraft. Where can one really begin to discuss a game which a majority of gamers consider to be the greatest real-time strategy title to ever hit shelves? Oh, oh! I know! I’ll start by saying that I’m not one of those people. I do believe that Starcraft (a follow-up to Warcraft II) is an absolutely fantastic title. It is a game worthy of a majority of the praise which is thrown in its direction. It is a living(ish) testament to the virtually unrivaled sense of dedication, production, and polish that Blizzard imbues into its titles. Starcraft is a game which many people, especially Koreans, believe has yet to be surpassed by any title preceding or even following its release in 1998.
At its release, Starcraft hooked players by having one of the most entertaining and well-done single-player campaigns at the time of its release. The missions were spread across a three-act storyline which started off with the futuristic Human race known as the Terran. The following segment of the campaign then put the player in charge of the Zerg race (building upon events which occurred throughout the Terran portion, of course) who are, quite simply, one of the most entertaining factions available in any strategy game. The single-player story then concludes with the technologically-adept Protoss and, oh, does it ever conclude with a bang. If you have yet to play through Starcraft’s Splendiferous Single-Player, then I’d suggest you go find your copy (or go buy one, you sinner) and get to it. It’s truly one of the high points of my gaming history and I feel tinges of pain just thinking about various readers not knowing what kind of experience they’re missing out on.
It’s not unusual for a Blizzard game to pull out all of the stops in regards to the content offered to those gamers without friends and a gateway portal into the jumble of Internet tubes, but if that’s all you got out of the game, then you sorely missed one of the few legitimately revolutionary aspects of the title: the multiplayer. In part two of this here epic series I mentioned the importance of Battle.net to the genre, and Starcraft is really where the service started to shine. Suddenly, gamers no longer had to rely on third-party solutions for multiplayer matchmaking (they didn’t for Blizzard’s previous game, Diablo either, but that’s a different genre and therefore I’m allowed to omit it from generalities at my discretion), but instead a service built into and customized for the game itself. The details of this are discussed in more detail in the last segment of this series, but basically the gist of the thing is this: Battle.net made online matches of Starcraft incredibly easy to get into and, as an added benefit, players had stats/ranks associated with their account (which seems simple, but goes a long way to making competition even more important for players).
Aside from the multiplayer, which I’d consider to be the most important element of Starcraft, the various factions themselves are an integral portion of the game. Blizzard did something near-miraculous with the three races which warrants a mention: they’re incredibly well-balanced. The Zerg and Protoss are both deep and complex races which the upper-tier of players can utilize a seemingly infinite number of strategies with. Me? I always just liked to mass carriers and terrorize my enemies with endless amounts of interceptors (launched from the carriers). This is, admittedly, a strategy with more holes than a Swiss-cheese Gatling gun cover, but it sure was fun. The one problem with this supreme unit-balancing is that I only mentioned the Zerg and Protoss in this discussion. What about the Terran? Wellâ€¦ Good question. Oh well. 66% batting average for Blizzard.
As incredible as the game is, Starcraft was very close to not making the cut for the handful of games that I picked out for this segment of the series. There is a very legitimate reason for this choice aside from the fact that I value my life and have no desire to be hunted down by rabid Blizzfans. Starcraft, as far as its gameplay is concerned, really did very little to further the genre. Blizzard stuck closely to the success it experienced with Warcraft 2 and just took it into space, adding a third race, and applying their trademark level of polish and presentation to the mix. It paid off in a singular sense; Starcraft is, as I’ve said, widely considered to be one of the greatest RTSs ever released even by modern standards. It’s a great game, and if we’re looking at it from a purely enjoyable perspective, then it’s a winnerâ€¦ But we’re not. Starcraft completely eclipsed Total Annihilation when it was released and, far and away, became the “game to beat” without breaking even a sweat. And, for gamers, that’s great. For developers, though, I would have much rather seen Total Annihilation succeed wildly even after the release of Starcraft. TA took more chances with its gameplay, it introduced far more innovative features, and was easily one of the most original RTSs of its time.
That didn’t happen, though. Blizzard hit another winner out of the ballpark with Starcraft, and proved a theory that has been validated from time-to-time by various blockbuster games: so long as all of the game’s elements come together perfectly, innovation and revolution can take a back seat. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a sweeping sense, either. A lot of great games have come from refining flawed, but highly enjoyable, concepts in past titles (something the First-Person Shooter genre is infamous for), but it’s a topic which I think warrants a bit of discussion.
The first game from one of the central threads which make up the United States’ sex blanket, Vancouver-based Relic Entertainment, also happened to be an incredibly well-done real-time strategy title which, as far as I’m concerned, had a profound effect on the genre the likes of which were not to be seen for nearly four to five years after its release. Homeworld was one of the first (if not the first) strategy game to fully utilize the third dimension in a new generation of games, and I don’t simply mean as a neat visual eye sex. Homeworld actually made full use of the three-hundred and sixty degrees of freedom that space allows (sorry if this spoils the Mercury program for you) for both its limitless camera system and the ability to move your ships left, right, up, down, and all around the starry map. The player simply needs to use the movement action, hold-down shift, and the ship can be moved higher or lower on the tactical map as it thrusts all the way to its target location. This feature of the game doesn’t really have a direct impact on the actual gameplay mechanics of Homeworld, but it does make for a level of immersion which a majority of RTSs had yet to achieve by that point in time. And, without saying too much on the subject, being able to zoom in as close as the camera allows (which is far more up-close and personal than you’d ever need for any practical purposes) and rotate around your units while your units duke it out in visceral, fast-paced space combat is one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever experienced in a strategy game. This feeling was later amplified with Relic’s later-released Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. This later feeling was then Ã¼beramplified in Relic’s even laterer-released Company of Heroes. More on Relic, as a developer, in part four of the series, but here’s a quick teaser: they’re doing for the modern RTS was Blizzard did for the genre in its infancy.
Homeworld’s user-interface is worth mentioning as well; it is, without question, one of the most unobtrusive and intuitive interfaces that I’ve ever had the pleasure of interacting with in a game. It’s difficult to actually explain in writing (the words! zey do nothing!!!), but essentially the interaction with units is handled through small on-screen cues, a movement plane (with depth of movement controllable on an as-needed basis), and then everything else can be handled by using the small menu which pops-up at the bottom of the screen (seen here) whenever you need to execute more complex operations, such as research or unit-building. There is also a large-scale tactical map which puts the entirety of the battlefield at the click of a mouse.
And, really, Homeworld’s interface brings one of the game’s greatest strengths (and greatest gifts to the genre as a whole) into plain sight. Or discussion. Plain something. Anyway, the greatest feature of the game is its ability to maintain the same real-time strategic and tactical gameplay while completely immersing the player in its world. The graphics engine allows for complete viewpoint freedom and frantic firefights in the depths of space which the player can choose to view without, really, any interface obstruction whatsoever. The gameplay and player interaction are weaved so well into the tapestry of features which define Homeworld that it’s fairly evident why the game garnered such an abundance of awards and critical praise. The amount of detail present in the model
animations — because, uh, mechanical ships are sure jittery little fellersâ€¦? — interactions with each other is telling of the kind of tenderness and love which Relic put into the game. When ships need to be repaired, they’ll actually fly into the docking bay of the Mothership (and this is back in 1999; you know, them ‘thar computer monitors had just recently learned what color was. Or something). When a carrier ship is hauling some of your smaller units to and fro, the ships it is carrying will dock on the sides of the carrier and then launch as they’re needed. This may all seem to be standard fare in this day and age, but back when I first saw Homeworld in motion, it felt like time and space may have, in fact, bent to allow me to see visions of what video games would be like in decades. It did not seem like this was a game that I was actually playing, controlling, and viewing on my very own system.
The campaign portion of Homeworld was always the selling point for me, personally. I loved the story and the way that the game allowed players to continually build upon their fleet of ships from mission-to-mission (Big “Hooray!” for persistent forces!). The game’s scale is also worth mentioning; as you work through the campaign you will, similar to every other RTS campaign, gain access to increasingly powerful units. The first time I saw my destroyer completely annihilate the enemy opposition as swarms upon swarms of small fighter ships flew through the air (erm, vacuum?) to attack the Mothership I just about cried myself into a joyous coma. Homeworld didn’t have a whole lot of longevity in the sense that I didn’t play it very much compared to some of the other titles on this list, but it is an experience which the Ã¼bernerd gamer part of me (it’s a big part) will remember forevar.
I’m going to go ahead and just point something out to start this very one-sided discussion. As a kind of prelude. An entry point. No, a prelude to the topic at hand. I can say, with a stratum of certainty generally unattainable by me in everyday interactions, that Warcraft III (and its expansion pack) is my favorite real-time strategy game of all time. I’ll detail the reasons in a mere matter of moments, but let me follow-up this bold statement with an equally daring remark: it is not a game which I would classify as being the best RTS. There’s a huge distinction between the two which I will cover towards the end of this section of the article but, in short, the reason I love Warcraft 3 is because it’s a very well-made strategy game that is incredibly easy to play on a great many levels.
The vanilla edition of Warcraft III came out on July 3, 2002; this is a day I remember exceedingly well. Not really for any reason which I’d actually directly relate to the game, but because a friend and I were at a wedding and raved about the game to each other endlessly for about a solid hour at the reception the day before Warcraft 3 was to be released. I also decided to splurge on a GeForce 4800 the day I bought the game — and, oh, how difficult it was to find the game without having preordered it — and, in short, it was a day for the books. A glorious nerd day the likes of which I had not experienced for an extended duration of time as I wandered the digital wasteland of gaming (a land devoid of entertaining and unique title) which had preceded the release of Blizzard‘s new opus.
Warcraft 3 is a bit odd in that it, really, doesn’t share a whole lot in common with its predecessors. Sure, it’s an RTS set in the same universe and it continues the same basic stories/lore as Warcraft 1 and 2, but its gameplay mechanics are really quite different than the relatively similar styles present in its forefathers. Instead of focusing on land, sea, and air like Warcraft 2, WC3 simplifies its mediums of combat to land and air. It also reduces the number of units which a player can have at any time by, roughly, half. So instead of the massive armies which spanned all forms of weaponry from mere knights and archers to battleships and dragons, Warcraft 3 put more of a focus on making the player control small squads of units with intensity (ie, more of a focus on micromanagement). In the early portions of any competitive game, an Orc player would be at a severe disadvantage if they lost a single one of the first grunts which he/she produces. And while this focus on individual units decreases as you get further and further into the game (and the tech tree), the central idea remains relatively unchanged: each unit plays a huge part in the battles. Each “squad” assigned to a hotkey has a maximum of twelve units possible, and I generally don’t use more than four hotkeys with my units spread out into something like: base melee, ranged/casters, air units, and artillery. Warcraft 3 is far from being a real-time tactical game (though it has entirely too many fixed-force campaign missions); there is a definite focus on tech-tree research, base-building, and so on and so forth.
Warcraft 3 is still played very often by a number of RTS players, despite the fact that a huge number of triple-A RTS games have been unleashed upon hard drives and retail shelves everywhere in the four years since the game was first released. xFire, a chat client designed with gamers in mind, even has Warcraft 3’s expansion pack within the list of the ten most-played games every day — I have yet to see (or, at the very least, remember) a day go by where it has not been listed in the “Today’s Top Game” column whatsoever. And, just think, this tally of play doesn’t even include the amount of time which gamers spend playing the original Warcraft 3, just its expansion. When I first decided to include WC3 in this segment of the series, three single features of the game stood out to me as being the most obvious and important reasons for the game’s success amongst the more strategically-oriented gamers of the world.
One of Warcraft 3’s most important features is the role which “heroes” play in the game; essentially, these are units which start out relatively powerful in any match, but as they level up and learn increasingly powerful abilities they become a huge aspect of a player’s army. Whenever someone begins playing WC3 for the first time, one of the things I always stress is that the heroes are the most critical aspect of the game; a mediocre army with a couple of high-level heroes will always topple a larger army with a single average hero. In my opinion, all of the Warcraft 3 heroes are incredibly powerful, but the choice of which ones to utilize simply depends on a player’s style of play. Each of the game’s four races has a selection of four heroes: one strength, one agility, one intelligence, and then the fourth hero (introduced in the expansion pack) is generally a reflection of a race’s strengths. If a player has a very aggressive playing style, a strength hero is generally a good choice. I personally like to have a fairly varied selection of units, so my heroes generally play a big support/buff role, so while my army may consist of expensive, strong melee units, I’ll usually rely on an intelligence-based hero who can heal and tie up enemy units. This aspect of the game is a reflection on the versatility of the game’s races; each one has a depth of strategies that can be utilized depending wholly on the way a player likes to play. There is no “best” army for any race, and even if you rely on the same army composition game after game, simply changing the heroes you use may completely change the way in which you play a match. I doubt that Warcraft 3 really pioneered this feature, but Blizzard definitely executed it perfectly and it’s a feature which has been endlessly copied by dozens of games since the release of WC3 (albeit with, normally, less success).
The other two highlight features of the game go hand-in-hand; first, Warcraft 3 is one of the most well-paced strategy titles that I’ve ever played. It is, for the most part, a fast-paced game, but there are spots in most skirmishes where a player needs to research tech, build necessary buildings to begin the construction of his army, and all the while use his first few low-powered units to assist his hero in killing “creep” (neutral, aggressive monsters of varying power) in order to level it up before any battles begin with the opposing forces. After about five minutes of preparation, scouting, and early hero leveling, though, the game kicks into high gear and the rest of the match is a struggle for resources and units to continually thwart enemy advances and, eventually, take the battle into the enemy’s base for an eventual strike of ultimate destruction that wins the match for the player. It is this fast-paced nature of the game which, in my mind, is directly correlated with the third critical aspect of the game: the multiplayer component. If it started with Diablo, and great improved with Starcraft, then Battle.net was essentially perfected with Warcraft 3 and the subsequent expansion. In the four years since the games release, I have yet to see any game even begin to compete with the multiplayer match-making excellence in WC3. Not only is it easy to play a game (with anywhere up to eight players for team games, and up to twelve players for some custom games), but the stats which the Battle.net servers record and maintain are incredibly detailed. I could ramble on and on about the system but, really, I’ve said all I need to say. The Warcraft 3 multiplayer really is that great.
No matter how many RTSs I find to play which are incredibly fun, Warcraft 3 is the only title that I consistently come back to playing primarily because its multiplayer component is, as far as I’m concerned, so completely far ahead of those of its competitors. As much as I’ve enjoyed various RTS games in the past — Dawn of War, Rise of Legends, and Company of Heroes to name a few — WC3 is always the one I come back to whenever I want a nice multiplayer RTS to play (Counter-Strike: Source is my equivalent game in the FPS arena). If I had to find something faulty in the game, it would be that actually getting into the multiplayer realm for a new player isâ€¦ Daunting. A player simply needs to go into a Battle.net match expecting to lose his first dozen or so games; the players who play the game online are just incredibly good at the game. Just being a persistent player and trying to learn from mistakes will quickly help a player through the early phases of multiplayer ‘crafting, though, and when that happens it’s fairly easy to see why Warcraft 3 gets the praise it so rightly deserves.
Rise of Nations
In a genre occupied by heathens and harlots, in a dirty, grimy, despicable part of the digital town there are gamers who play games which fall under the title of turn-based strategy games. I know, right? It’s almost unthinkable that a logical person would enjoy such a trite, uncivilized form of games. Actually, no, it makes good sense, but since I’m playing up the RTS angle at the moment I figure I should push the limits of genre slander. Anyhoo, in that genre, there is a widely-known series of games which go by the name of Civilization; a series pioneered by Sid Meier. Now, on some of these projects, Meier doesn’t always take the helm, and this was the case with one of greatest turn-based games ever created: Alpha Centauri. This game was partially created and designed by Brian Reynolds. And good ‘ol Bryan one day saw the light — a completely fictitious story made up at this very moment involves something like an angel of God, all nine muses of myth, and Jim Henson dressed as a crocodile — and decided to go off on his own and form a developer named Big Huge Games. And create big, huge games they did. Their first title made an absolutely huge splashy-splash in the metaphorical water of the industry and, as far as I’m concerned, is truly one of the greats of my gaming career. Ladies, gents, and kittens, I introduce to you: Rise of Nations.
I won’t go on and on about this title, because this article is already running far longer than I had originally anticipated, but there are some things about this game that need to be said. Rise of Nations is, essentially, a real-time strategy game that bridges the gap between the turn-based Civilization games and the more fast-paced, conventional real-time strategy games. A typical game starts out at the very earliest of architectural and agricultural civilization and then, by the end of the game, you have seals, tanks, nukes, and stealth bombers flying all over the enormous battlefield that spans land, sea, and air. Yes. That’s right. The game has nukes and they absolute devastate an entire village (a bit more than a full screen of damage at 1280×1024) with their nuketastic goodness. To use an earlier grammatical style: if Age of Empires started the idea of a real-time strategy game progressing through “ages” of advancement through specific eras of civilization and Empire Earth was the first game to successfully stretch out the idea of “ages” throughout the entire spectrum of civilizationâ€¦ Then Rise of Nations took the best from both aspects of both of these games, combined with some of the tricks Reynolds was sure to have picked up from Side Meier and the Civilization games he was a part of, and whipped out one hell of an RTS.
The other thing I really found spectacular about Rise of Nations was its very cool take on single-player entertainment with its “Conquer the World” campaign system. Instead of having the “my friends hate the games I like” version of play revolve around a single, linear story which may only provide fun and excitement for one, maybe two play-throughs, Big Huge Games went with a far more varied, dynamic, and open-ended RISK-like take on world conquest. The player can take control of one civilization, choose which territories to really put structure upgrades into, and take that civilization through several “turns;” every turn, a player can attack other territories in an attempt to claim new land (and a random scenario is occasionally chosen to spice things up a bit), or defend his land from enemies possessed with the green-eyed abomination of jealousy and greed. Throughout an entire CTW campaign a player can make or break alliances, increase the base structures in his territories, and accumulate cards which grant the player certain benefits in battles in which they are played. It was a feature in Rise of Nations which I never took advantage of until last spring and, upon finally trying it out, played obsessively for a solid two weeks before I realized just how near my Finals had suddenly become.
In short, Rise of Nations is totally fantastic.
A Concise Conclusion
Shortly before the Rise of Nations portion of this article I realized just how incredibly long-winded and overly-verbose this article had gotten, so I apologize for those of you who really wanted to hear more about that last title. This article was a whole lot of fun for me to write and, in doing the research and writing about so many fantastic RTSs, I do believe that once I finish up this final segment of this series (which will, most likely, cover a mere two games and then a bunch of my closing thoughts for the series) I will actually start designing and developing a small concept RTS of my own which will, most likely, take me about two months to get in a playable state. So, yeah, it’s a contagious bug this whole strategic business.
I’m not sure exactly when I’ll have part four completed — I’m actually trying to gather some quotes from various developers, so there’s the potential I’ll hold off until I have those before I go ahead and publish anything. There’s also the chance that this article will also be updated with said quotes as well, but I’ll be sure to make a big hairy fuss about that if it happens just so that I can be absolutely, positively sure that everyone is all in the know and such.
Anyway, keep up the great article comments that I’m seeing around the vast reaches of the Intarweb. Thanks for everyone that’s talked to me in some form so far. I can’t wait to hear/read/see more!
The Introduction — House Mix
I’m always amazed at the kind of great feedback some of you folks give to these articles; so, for those of you who read the first part and commented in some form (in-site/e-mail) and showed the thing to your friends, I do thank you. I enjoy writing these kinds of things, and hearing all you folk get some form of digitally strategic education or just plain interest is icing on my metaphorical journalistic cake.
Anyway, in this part of the series, I’m going to focus on general innovations that have either changed or heavily impacted the real-time strategy genre in some way, shape, or form since 1994 where my genre timeline finished off. You’ll see specific examples of what I consider to be a kind of “breakthrough” in a moment, but for the most part, I’m talking fairly overarching changes that have obviously shaken things up a bit. My original intent for this article was to focus on some specific gameplay features which really changed the way that the games released afterwards were received or changed to match the growing desire of gamers (this is sometimes called feature bloat or creep)â€¦ But once I started, I realized that I had a far better opportunity to do that kind of thing in part of the series where I was already planning to take a look at specific games which have already been released on a case-by-case basis. So now this article is devoted to a handful of what I consider to be the greatest changes (or, in one case, a change in the RTS formula which evolved into a genre of its very own) that have occurred over the last twelve years.
One last note, before I lose you to my endless preface notes: this particular part of the series isn’t focusing on particular games so much as it is the ideas which have really powered and imbued the genre with additional life throughout the years. The next part in the series will focus on more specific examples from the current generation of RTS titles to an extent that will make you wish I hadn’t.
The Real-Time Tactical Evolution
The largest change that was experienced in the RTS genre was the eventual sub-genre that was seemingly established that completely removed one of the very foundations for real-time strategy titles: base-building. Real-time tactical games do away with the generic starting point for nearly every RTS game: a worker and the primary structural center point for whatever faction the player is using. Instead of starting from the bare minimum of units, a base, and the minimum advances up a game’s tech tree, real-time tactical games instead provide the player with a central force of units (which may or may not be bolstered as the player advances through a mission/skirmish) that he is required to utilize efficiently to the best of his abilities because that’s it — no reinforcements may be coming, you can’t pump out more units from the barracks in your main base, or anything else of the sort. Whatever you have to work with is what you have to focus your entire strategy around. So, essentially, the player must micromanage his forces well or else he’s digital toast.
Now, before I go further here, let’s make sure we understand the idea here. Utilizing a more micromanagement-focused gameplay design isn’t something distinct to real-time tactical games whatsoever; a lot of more traditional real-time strategy games give the player a meager max unit count and, instead of large armies, intend to focus on small squads of units which the player needs to use very closely on a near per-unit level in order to succeed. The opposite of micromanagement in a gaming sense is, as you may guess, macromanagement. In games where macromanagement is the primary gameplay mechanism, it is the player’s goal to create his squads of numerous units and, instead of controlling each and every soldier/unit, he uses his squads to execute a well laid-out grand strategy in order to achieve victory. As far as this most basic of discussions is concerned, the difference between micro/macromanagement is simple: in micromanagement, you have little to work with, so you need to make sure that every single unit you have does its job and does it well; you may be able to win a few meager fights due to numbers alone, but even a single casualty or two could ruin you. In a more macromanagement sort of way, a game may not really reward intensely-focused per-unit strategy so much as it would some decent unit variety and a high number of units.
The difference between these two designs (micro- and macromanagement) is generally very flexible; a lot of games reward decent macro as well as decent micro, and don’t often focus on either school more specifically. Real-time tactical games, though, are all about the micromanagement. If you have a large mass of units and simply walk through a few fights paying no mind to decent tactics, it’s going to catch up to you fast. In a more traditional RTS setting (unless you’re playing against any opponent at a decent skill level), you could ride the numbers to victory and, if you have a bad battle, just stall until the reinforcements come.
I’d wager that Bungie‘s (yes, the Halo developers) Myth was really the leading force in this department. Despite the fact that Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat and Sid Meier’s Gettysberg! came out first (the former just being horrible and the latter preceding Myth by a whole month), Myth was really the title that I believe made the fixed-unit strategy movement a big Go!. It’s also had an immense community following since the day of its release that has really made the game one of the most memorable titles of its time. The RTT game has seen a huge surge of activity over the last few years, particularly for games set in the World War II era. Such WWII titles are: Codename: Panzers, Soldiers: Heroes of World War II (my personal favorite of the bunch), and Desert Rats vs. Afrika Korps. Outside of the realm of World War II, though, I’d say that two of the greatest RTT games I’ve played have been Mechcommander and Ground Control.
The Real-Time Tactical is sometimes considered a subgenre of the Real-Time Strategy genre. Now, despite my calling it that throughout this segment, I’d like to say that I honestly do not consider it to be any such thing. The fact is that a lot of RTT games are labeled as RTS titles, but are not really anything of the sort. They certainly are an “evolution” of the traditional real-time strategy design, but other than the fact that they generally share some gameplay mechanisms and UI/perspective similarities, the two genres don’t have much else in common. Some RTT games often (especially in the case of Soldiers: HoWWII) even include a feature to “pause” the action in order to plot out the next move of your units. So, in essence, we’re talking about Real-Time (Except On Command) Strategy titles here that lack the resource management, base-building, and tech trees that are really some of the most recognizable foundations of RTS titles.
The shooter realm is generally what first comes to mind whenever the topic of modability (henceforth known as: modding) due to its ridiculously large impact on the first-person shooter world along with the fact that id Software really catalyzed the user-created content craze with DOOM. Blizzard took id’s “so simple it’s genius” move to facilitate game modability to the RTS realm with the sequel to their first immense hit: Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness.
At first, the tools included with the original version of Warcraft 2 were fairly meager; a minimalistic map and scenario editor. Soon after the release of the game a clever (or devious) gamer reverse-engineered the PUD map file specifications which he later published, despite never releasing the source code that he used to create the game’s first unofficial map editor, War2xEd (still downloadable), which extended the included editor’s abilities. According to some of my sources (aside from the Wikipedia entry, thank you very much), Lamberg’s editor was eventually used by Blizzard itself. This is very apparent if you’ve ever taken a look at the incredibly well-done editor included with Blizzard’s next RTS title, Starcraft. The Starcraft editor was so easy that even a younger, and far cuter, version of myself who had only a meager understanding of the workings of BASIC was able to complete a fantastic one mission mini-campaign where the player attempts to save an Archon from mobs upon mobs of assassin Dark Archons. It was a riveting mission that could have changed the very world as we know it had I released my opus upon the masses.
Jumping back to a bit under a year before Starcraft was released, though, we reach a game developed by industry legend Chris Taylor, then of Cavedog Entertainment, and now of Gas Powered Games (who are currently working on Supreme Commander; which I rave about constantly to anyone with ears/eyes). Total Annihilation, while perhaps not considered to be the greatest real-time strategy game ever created, was a game which was so far ahead of its time that it seems unfair to consider it anything but brilliant. Total Annihilation brought an abundance of new ideas and designs to the table, but was quickly eclipsed by the far less original (albeit far more polished, balanced, and came with a killer multiplayer system) Starcraft seven months after its release.
You’d be hard pressed to come up with a game which came more ready for user-created content than Total Annihilation. If you want to add something to the game (new weapons, improved AI, units, entire races, maps, the kitchen sink, etc.) all you had to do was create/modify an appropriate data file, throw it in the game directory, and you’d be good to go. I don’t really consider Wikipedia to be anything but a decent “starting point” for information, and its gaming entries can be relatively weak at times, but one look at its list of Total Annihilation mods and the gambit of variety in which they run is just a single testament to both the game’s modability and the new bar which it set for games supporting modding. One of the most impressive mods, though, is that a 3D engine was being developed as an open-source project for the game which gets the entirety of its non-graphical information from data files taken straight from the game itself.
And there are even more examples of projects of this caliber occurring for a wide variety of games. Some of the best examples I can think of are ongoing projects for Blizzard’s Warcraft 3: The Reign of Chaos and its expansion pack. One “mod,” which uses all in-game assets with an incredibly detailed multiplayer map scenario is called The Defense of the Ancients; players take control of one of the game’s hero units (discussed further in a separate section in this article) and upgrade that hero through a multiplayer match supporting up to ten people. This map scenario has gotten so popular that there are even competitive leagues that are organized solely around it. On the separate end of the spectrum is a total conversion mod for Warcraft 3 which utilizes some of Starcraft’s own assets to create an unbelievable well-done 3D version of Starcraft called Project Revolution.
In short, as has been proven over time with shooters, strategy, and other titles is that whenever developers go that extra mile to aid their customers with tools and/or game design that facilitates user customization — and what I’m about to say hurts me to actually type out despite the truth of it — the players are the real winners. Yeah. Ouch.
Let’s follow a simple equation for a second. If you’re not new to the genre of Real-Time Strategy, you’ve heard of Blizzard. If you’ve heard of Blizzard, the chances are that you’ve played at least one of their games. If you’ve played one of their games released anytime after Warcraft 2 and its expansion and you haven’t heard of Battle.net, you’re doing something wrong. Stop reading this now and go back to any game which satisfies the previously listed requirements — go to Diablo if need be, just give it a go. Just, you know, make sure you’re not playing a single-player game and instead are giving Blizzard’s proprietary multiplayer solution a go in its place.
Battle.net is, by and large, one of the most crucial features ever to be introduced to the realm of the RTSâ€¦ Which, if you think about it, is kind of sad; the feature was first introduced in a genre outsider; fear not, though, my budding digital strategist. While the service was first introduced in the hack-n-slash world of the computer action/RPG arena (which is, kind-of-but-not-really coincidentally, my third favorite genre), it was flawed in the most unsexy sort of way: there was really no way to prevent cheating in the game as, at the time, all BNet really did was provide a medium for gamers to get together and beat the devil into an evil, evil pulp. All BNet stored at the time was user account data — what happened to that data, as far as I understand it, was dealt with on a “what happens in the party stays in the party” fashion. That is, it stayed there until the player quit out and the account data was saved on exiting. No in-game data was analyzed or monitored through Battle.net. This, my ever-so-honest readers who would never even dream about how this could be abused, is bad. Players could simply cheat to their hearts content in parties of random Warriors, Rogues, and Sorcerers who simply wanted to enjoy the game as it was intended.
Now, the first link I gave you to Battle.net was pretty useless. I wanted to point out that it exists. I’m not making this up as I go. I actually want to draw attention to the Wikipedia link for Battle.net. I know I usually just link every important thing to Wikipedia or some other site where you can go for further information, but I found this entry particularly enlightening if solely for the reason that the mere evolution of the look of Battle.net. The look gets continually cleaner the further we move to the current look of the system which shipped with Warcraft 3’s expansion pack (which included fairly mild differences from the original interface when Warcraft 3 was released).
With the release of Starcraft, Battle.net became huge — and it grew even more with the release of Starcraft’s expansion pack. There were a few possible reasons for the surge in its popularity: the interface was cleaner, Starcraft was the next “generation” of the most influential and popular real-time franchise at the time (possibly even of all time, but I won’t go that far without great hesitation), or that the marvel known as the Intarweb had become even more commonplace in homes of the average gamer in more rural areas along with continual expansion in the urbs of the nation. All of these are great and perfectly plausible possibilities for the influx of games into Blizzard’s sophomore attempt at the service, but I have a theory that surpasses all of the previous: player stats.
All of the sudden when gamers give the multiplayer a try, they’re greeted by a user-friendly interface for playing their favoritist game in the whole wide world with other eager-beaver gamers. That’s the first step to increase popularity. The next, and far more difficult part of the process is keeping these same Starcrafters interested in playing online. I mean, let’s face it, I love the genre, but playing RTSs online is damn hard. Every player has their horror stories of how badly they were annihilated in their first ten, twenty, two-thousand and forty five games online with their favorite strategy title. It’s simply not an easy type of game to really compete against others with until you fine-tune your understanding of the mechanics of the game, learn some simple strategies to get your beatings in on the same inept gamers that you’re attempt to depart from, and then continue up the ladder to the supreme ruler of the Battle.net Starcraft galaxy. And, yup, there it is: competition. With Starcraft, Blizzard introduced players to a system which did a decent job to keep the dishonest cheaters at bay (kind of) and allowed the players to increase their victory ratio and climb up into the nosebleed heights of the digital ladder — thus forming their own unique Battle.net legacy of their own.
Interestingly enough, Starcraft was also Blizzard’s first title to use copy-protection; prohibiting players from using a pirated copy of the game to play on Battle.net. This was a change from the days of Diablo, where a copy of the game that wasn’t so much “on the level” as it was “stolen” really carried the same benefits of a legitimately purchased version of it. Huh.
The specifics as to the success of Battle.net don’t really matter in the grand scheme of thing. What really does matter is that other developers took notice of Blizzard’s increasingly reliable, constantly growing, and highly praised multiplayer service. The notice may not have occurred immediately — and, if it did, not a lot of other developers came anywhere close to pulling off a BNet clone whatsoever — but it did occur. Over the last four-five years, in particular, I’ve seen a number of real-time strategy games ship with multiplayer services which offer a lot of features and benefits strikingly similar to the real RTS matchmaker from heaven. Off the top of my head (or a list compiled in a notebook near my computer), some of the best recent attempts have been featured in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, Age of Empires 3, Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, and Command and Conquer: Generals. So, a lot of developers and publishers are quickly (kind of) learning how best to combat Blizzard’s formidable Battle.net system, even if they’re not met with the best of luck. And while I’m sure you’ll hear stories about how some gamers have had their absolute best RTS games via a LAN game back in days of the games which started the franchises I’ve just referenced, keep in mind that as great as those particular games may have been, they weren’t able to happen with the same frequency. That and they required interaction with actual people before, during, and after matches.
I mean, seriously. People are so twentieth century.
Graphics and Physics — Pretties and Bouncies
Sure, it sounds shallow and fairly unimportant as far as the actual gameplay of all of these supertastic strategy titles are concerned, but I’ll say it and stand by it: appearances matter. They matter a whole lot.
Though I should probably clarify that I mean, while graphics are nice and everything, it’s really the increased emphasis on a realistic modeling of physics that are going to, and in a sense already have become a huge part of real-time strategy games. I don’t mean really useless things like parts of buildings now falling to the ground and bouncing around realistically. That kind of presentational flare makes for great trailer fodder and “oohs” and “aahs” of the gamer for a few minutes and then the gamer’s occasional captive audience. No, what I mean here is when physics modeling actually begins to affect the actual gameplay of the games we play. The denizens of the first-person shooter arena were treated to such a treat in the incredibly overrated Half-Life 2 when physics became less of a gimmick and more of an overused puzzle prop with the game’s gravity gun.
And now, the more enlightened gamers of the RTS variety are beginning to see the light of the real world mechanical movement (see what I did there?) with two of my favorite RTSs around right now: Age of Empires 3 and the upcoming Company of Heroes (you can grab the skirmish-enabled, completely fantastic demo over at Fileshack). Another game to really utilize a decent physics implementation was Rise of Legends, though it used physics for modeling the movement of some of its larger units realistically and other pieces of graphical fluff. The specific implementations of these kinds of genre-changing features will be discussed in far more detail in parts three and four of this series; so, for now, I’ll stick some generalities and theories.
Thus far, physics in strategy games have been primarily cosmetic. The first real useful implementation of a physics solution which has actually had an effect on gameplay was in Age of Empires 3. I’m sure there have been attempts to make something physically crucial in games previous to this, but as far as I’m concerned, AoE3 was the first game which appeared to actually utilize a dynamic solution that wasn’t just a useless fluff effect for the back of a game box or a press release. And it’s really not even that complicated of a feature: modeling the momentum/trajectory of a fired cannonball and, depending on the momentum of the massive lead ball at the time of impact, bowling over a squad of infantry if they were grouped closely together. The cannonball even seems to react fairly decently to the amount of units it hits; if one measly musketeer is bowled over, the thing continues at a decent speed, but if three or four guys in a line are nailed, the ball will lose momentum quickly (almost instantaneously), fall to the ground, and roll a bit before coming to a stop. The effect is made even cooler if you blow some units into the sea, watch the ragdolls fly through the air and into the water, and then watch the ball roll off a cliff into the sea to join its victims — though this part is purely just for a “Wow” factor, obviously.
Now, almost a year after Age of Empires 3 is released (AoE3 coming out on October 18, 2005), a new World War II RTS developed by Relic Entertainment will hit the retail shelves on September 14, 2006. By this point, I’m actually calling Relic the “Quasi-Blizzard” after their virtually flawless real-time strategy pedigree — Homeworld, Homeworld 2, and WH40k: Dawn of War (and its expansion) — are releasing their latest strategic opus: Company of Heroes. Here’s a game where, after a single mission of the fifteen-mission campaign and fifteen or so skirmishes on the same small map in the span of two days, I’m already prepared to admit it into my on-the-spot Top Five List of Real-Time Strategy Games. This game is introducing so many fantastic things that I feel it’s almost a crime to unleash the thing upon the gaming masses without some kind of real-life Gaming Coach to ease them into the shoes of Able Company in the game. Sorry, I’m gushing.
The game looks great, sure, but the most interesting aspect of the game is how it handles the battlefield during a match; nothing is sacred. Heavily shelled terrain can create mild cover for squads to use as they creep into a key position. Nearly every building can be occupied by a number of unitsâ€¦ That is, until a tank, artillery, or mortar barrage tears the thing apart piece-by-piece (revealing the units inside) and bring it to the ground — where it becomes even more cover for infantry squads. Demolished tanks can either be salvaged or used as — you guessed it — more cover (you’ll need it, believe me). The location of thrown grenades or timed bomb packs make a tremendous difference in how much damage is dealt to the tank/building/unit they are aimed at. And all of this is as unscripted and dynamic as I have ever seen in game of this scale; I’ve seen it attempted and pulled off fairly well in other games, but never to this degree of success. For instance: X-Com is impressive, especially for its time, but as proven by a few of its remakes it doesn’t make the transition to the third dimension very well whatsoever. Soldiers: Heroes of World War II is probably the most successful attempt I’ve seen, but the landscape is far more volatile and useless for anything but fantastic demolition material unless you’re up against an opponent with a pea shooter. And Silent Storm falls under a similar category, except you just have to pretend that it’s not “really” a real-time game as it creeps along at a rate of about fifteen to twenty frames per second (it’s also turn-based).
What Relic has accomplished with Company of Heroes is, really, nothing short of amazing — and something which I’ll go into greater detail and hopefully a bit more objective analysis and less fanboy raving in part four. Almost more important than that is that it raises the bar for real-time strategy titles in a way that hasn’t been done since Warcraft 3 was released in 2002 (I’m not just talking about the technical achievements). The increased emphasis that Relic took in making CoH play as realistic, chaotic, and unpredictable as some of the more intensely fought battles of World War II should open some doors that other developers may have been wary to take for either design or technical reasons. Dynamic environments, when handled correctly, are a major step to ensuring that the battles fought in real-time strategy games no longer are purely dependent on force size and power as much as they are about the player’s ability to plan his units organization and variety while adapting to constantly changing situations. Instead of holing up in your main base while you tech to tier three nuclear silos that can annihilate your opponent, a game like Company of Heroes will make you susceptible to long-range attacks by artillery and mortars that will make such short work of your base that you’ll end up weeping in the corner crying like a boy scout. As a CoH player, you’ll quickly learn that the most important thing isn’t the size of your force, but rather how well you can adapt to the fact that your defenses won’t last long; instead of fighting for a single point, utilize the enemy’s insistence on a large point to your advantage — steal a few of the lesser points around their target location, surround them, and then push inward after a particularly strong offensive burst of long-range attacks.
I’m getting all hot and bothered just thinking about the last skirmish I played in the Company of Heroes demo in which I did just that to pull out a victory in a point-control game where, by all means, I should have lost.
Conclusion and Temptation
Sorry folks; I once again went completely overboard on the amount of writing I did for this part. I had to cut a lot of great innovations that have occurred over the last twelve years that, by all means, deserved my coverage. Unfortunately, once I reached a certain point, I just had to cut my losses and focus on some of the most important, most critical evolutions and features which have influenced the real-time strategy; I mean, RTSs spawned an incredibly popular “sub-genre” of the real-time tactical game and the introduction a multiplayer matchmaking solution with Battle.net which so many other developers have since measured their own similar systems to.
Some of the other high-scale topics I really wanted to cover were: genre assimilation, macromanagement and micromanagement designs, in-game army/unit customization, and a few more. These are things that I’m definitely going to work on including, if only slightly, in part three of the series where I plan to take a look at nice chunk of the most crucial games released in the genre since 1994 on a one-by-one basis. Instead of making generalities and theories like in this article, I’m going to take a look at some of the more specific features which these games have included that have either been adopted by other titles or are simply too fantastic for many games to ever even bother cloning.
I’m also currently in the process of getting some special, original content from people of a much higher and more influential place in the gaming industry than I could ever even hope to be for part four. So that’s all to look forward to for the next two parts for the series which, and I’m putting out this warning now, may take a bit longer than the first two installations to complete. I’ll continually be making comments to this article as time goes with information about the progress I’m making and the projected release date for the next part like I did with the first one, though.
So, your homework for next time is to devote a nice chunk of time to at least one RTS title which has been released in the last year and a half and see how it compares to some of the older classics. And if anyone actually does this, I’d love to hear some e-mails or in-site comments about your thoughts and experiences.
For now, I’m going to try and wash the nerd off while pretending that I didn’t just write an article this ginormous about a single genre of games.
Back in the day, when I was a strapping young lad on the brink of finally convincing the parents that the household needed a computer as much as it needed gas and electricity, there were two games that I was introduced to through two third-parties that I loved like no man should love software: Wolfenstein 3D and Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. Wolf3D was considered far too gruesome and controversial for a conservative family like mine, but Warcraft, to the untrained eye, looked much like a puzzle game to the unknowing guardians-that-be; that stayed in the house, and I can safely say that I’m a better gamer — nay, person — for it. This game was the catalyst for one of the most consistent gaming loves of my childhood, teenhood, young adulthood, and so on: the pure exciting, energetic, exuberance experienced in the enjoyment of the Real-Time Strategy genre. This article is the first part of what will, most likely, end up being a four-part series in celebrating and analyzing (mostly the latter) the modern RTS. Coincidentally, it may also completely remove whatever sex appeal I had left in favor of boosting my nerdiness, but that’s neither here nor there.
In this introductory article, my goal is to, basically, attempt to summarize what I personally consider to qualify as a real-time strategy game. After that, and what will compromise a large majority of the length of this article (I got a bit carried away), I’ll look at the history of the genre up to the point where I’ll begin detailing more specific aspects of today’s modern RTSs. So, if you’re really not a big fan of reading a lot, feel free to skim through the history segment; a lot of it isn’t absolutely critical to the rest of the series, but I personally found it to be really interesting stuff. After that, I’ll go into a little spiel about why I personally consider RTS games to be amongst the most enjoyable and long-lasting games around.
Subsequent articles in the series will take a look at ideas and games which are far more applicable to the here and the now. In the second article I’ll go through an in-depth look at a lot of the prime mechanics and innovations that have been introduced over the course of the last seven-eight years (with a focus on the last three-four, in particular) that lead us into the current “generation” of RTS games. In the third article, I’ll then take a close look at what I, and many of the people I talk to, consider to be the current big-name entries in the genre in order to give a more current and practical spin to the ideas discussed in the second article. In the fourth, and most likely final, article I’ll take a look at the blockbuster titles coming in the next six-nine months which should really inject a whole lot of innovation and life into a genre which is constantly adapting to the increasingly complex desires of PC gamers.
And that last point is really the aspect of real-time strategy games that I find most noteworthy: with every big RTS, gamers are introduced into an entirely new level of complexity. With only a handful of exceptions, I think it’s arguably one of the few genres left in the realm of PC gaming that hasn’t been a victim of the simplification that tends to occur when games are simultaneously developed with both consoles and PCs in mind. The result of this development is that a lot of complexity (especially in the user-interface) is compromised to make things far more manageable for console gamers. PC RTS titles have been ported to consoles in the past (generally much later than the original PC release date), but the amount of map, unit, and base management that needs to be done by the player is incredibly difficult to pull off with a joystick on a gamepad, and without a mouse and the wide variety of possible keyboard hotkeys that PC gamers utilize.
I’m not going to get all super-technical or create some kind of strict definition for what I mean when I refer to a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game. Sometimes this label gets overused on a lot of titles that, for the most part, really don’t deserve to be labeled as such. For the most part, I’d say that the distinction between a lot of the particular necessities for the genre pretty much just boil down to semantics, but I’m told that reputable writers need to “define their terms” in an effort to look all sorts of professional and informed-like. Anyway, there are a couple of things that really make an RTS as far as I’m concerned.
The first, and most notable, is that the game is played-out in a fashion that the title of the genre implies: real-time. This means that at no point should the real guts of the game allow for the player to pause the game in order to plot his base, give orders to units, or share baking recipes with the opponent. All of the action in a particular match should not be interrupted unless it is a complete interruption of input as well. There are some games which make this benchmark complicated in that they may mix aspects of real-time strategy with turn-based strategy in separate segments of the game. Rome: Total War is a prime example of this; the battles occur in real-time, but a majority of the army, nation, and general army tactics all occur by turns over a map of Europe. This game I would consider to simply be a Strategy game rather than refining the label to real-time strategy.
Secondly, I believe that the focus of the real-time strategy in the universe of the average gamer is that each RTS puts a very heavy focus on the military aspects of the game. Some games which call themselves by the label even put military strategy as their sole focus, but these titles are a case that I will delve into a bit later. For the most part, though, while certainly the major focus of a traditional RTS is on military tactics and strategy, the importance of a player’s economy, technology research, a base structure cannot be overlooked unless the player wants to go through a match with continually overpowered, technologically superior units of his enemy.
These things considered, a lot of real-time strategy games released over the last fourteen years (Dune II was released in back in the days of the cavemen, dinosaurs, and stone tablets of 1992) really have yet to pick up on one of the most important aspects of strategy as far as military conflicts are concerned: the actual strategical prowess of a player. A lot of games certainly require a great deal of thought put into a player’s particular game strategy (I’m using the word in a general sense here), but rarely does a game actually reward players for actually employing a particularly complex strategy with few units of low power against a far larger force which, by most calculations, should emerge the victor. There are numerous instances in the history of world conflict where a country’s forces have entered into a battle completely overpowered, outnumbered, and generally outmatched, but yet have managed to “win” the battle by most counts due to the strategic brilliance of their commander. Most RTS titles, though, don’t generally allow for this to happen; an inept player with massed units, in some games, can simply enter a fight with a superior player in command of very few units, and pull out with a total victory. Does this prevalent shortcoming of the genre really change the way we look at games under which it’s labeled? I’d say no, but it raises interesting questions which the next generation of real-time strategy games — Supreme Commander in particular — are looking to remedy.
A Brief History of (Real)-Time (Strategy)
There are articles across the Intarweb that put a far larger emphasis on the history of the genre than I should even attempt right now, but for the sake of completion, I’ll devote a bit of space to give a mere glimpse at the roots and titles which really laid the groundwork for the modern real-time strategy game.
There are various early games that are believed to have contributed to the idea of the real-time strategy game as we think of it today; the first one being Stonkers was released in 1983 (developed and published by Imagine Software). Stonkers was released for a platform that, in all honesty, I never even knew about until I did some preparatory research for the series: the ZX Spectrum (and with the breathtaking graphics of Stonkers that can be seen in the first screenshot below this paragraph, I think I know why). In the game, players controlled various types of units (infantry, artillery, etc.) and focused entirely on the combat aspect of the game; while attempting to eliminate the enemy, though, players had to be mindful of each unit’s energy, and attempt to conserve it to ensure that your supply units don’t run out of munitions to supply the units before a new shipment of energy arrives.
The next evolutionary leap in the fledging genre (which, as of yet, wasn’t considered as such) is Herzog Zwei (roughly: “The Second Baron”), released for the Genesis’ Mega Drive back in the winter of 1990 by developer/publisher TechnoSoft. HZ was one step closer to the RTS style that we play now — though not quite the major catalyst that will be discussed next — in that it put the player into more of an unseen commander deity that directly manipulated his forces. In Herzog Zwei, the player took control of a robot (either flying or land-based) that was responsible for the deployment and indirect control of his units, which came in one of eight flavors of a land-based variety. Once each unit was deployed, the player had to spend money to activate the unit with one of six possible activity “programs” — three offensive (“enter the nearest minibase,” “attack units at the nearest minibase,” and “attack the enemy base”) and three defensive tactics (stationary, circle, and aggressive defense) — which defined how the unit would operate. Each of the two players on a given battlefield had a unit cap of fifty units. And, essentially, the goal is to completely annihilate the opposing player.
While this trip down memory lane (ha. ha ha.) is all well and good, it’s time we got to the game that is widely regarded as the Grandfather of Real-Time Strategy as we know it: Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty. This game was released in 1992 by a developer that any strategy aficionados should recognize very well: the late Westwood Studios. That’s right. The same guys who brought the far more widely-recognized Command & Conquer franchise to gamers across the globe were the same developer that really made real-time strategy into a genre. Dune II was a very loose sequel to Dune (which has is based off of Frank Herbert’s book of the same name).
Although Dune II seemed to be a sort of natural evolution from Herzog Zwei, in an RTS history by Gamespot, Brett Sperry (considered Westwood’s “visionary” behind Dune II) considers the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game The Eye of the Beholder to be a far more critical influence in the design of Dune II. He said, roughly, that Dune II is the result of trying to envision a game set in a real-time environment (like Eye of the Beholder) that “could be combined with resource management and a dynamic, flat interface.” This vision is what, eventually, led to Dune II. A game where, while similar to Herzog Zwei in its militaristic intent, allowed resource gathering, free-form base building across the map, and an intertwined dependence on technology and structure development in order to progress across some form of what is now referred to as a “tech tree.” Dune II also introduced the idea that there could be different playable sides (races) that could have different forms of operation, different weapons/units, and so forth — an idea that is easily comparable to almost every RTS on the modern market.
But, of course, it isn’t always the first game in a genre that really makes the largest impact — for instance, in the early years of the first-person shooter games weren’t called Wolfenstein 3D clones, they were called DOOM clones — and such is the case with real-time strategy games. The developer Silicon & Synapse, probably best known for their puzzle/platformer involving a trio of Vikings was developing a game that would, for the most part, revolutionize the then-sparse genre with a game involved around what seems like an eternal militaristic struggle between green men and barbarians. Of course, Silicon & Synapse had an identity crisis in 1994 and changed their name to Chaos Studios; though the developers were dismayed to find that another company had already laid claim to a similar name. The team eventually decided on the name Blizzard Entertainment and shortly thereafter released their first major hit: Warcraft: Orcs and Humans — a game which evolved Westwood’s Dune II formula to, pretty much, a form incredibly similar to the modern RTS. The resources involved were gold and lumber (a tradition carried on throughout every game in the RTS titles in the franchise), and involved an epic war between the Orcs and the Humans. Unlike later titles, every unit of the same race shared the same voice (all of which were done by Bill Roper), and the Orcs were solely composed of Orcs (Warcraft 2 evolved this into Orcs, Trolls, and Ogres) and the Humans solely contained Humans (WC2 changed this to Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Gnomes). The units for one side, save for some spells, also had identical counterparts on the opposing side as well.
Westwood eventually responded with their widely-known Command & Conquer series in 1995, and the genre continually expanded and evolved from there. A number of these evolutions are things which I plan to delve into in more detail in the subsequent parts of this series. For further history on the genre which goes into more detail (especially where I left off), I’d highly recommend both the Wikipedia listing (for “Real-Time Strategy”) and Gamespot’s 1989-1998 history.
Why Trent + RTS = <3
My personal motivation for writing this series of articles is something I felt deserved a bit of attention, even if it’s just for the sake of completion. Back when I finally had access to my first PC in my own household back in 1994, the real-time strategy genre was really one of the first things that I was introduced to which I legitimately enjoyed. My parents were fairly strict about the kinds of games I played, and unlike Wolfenstein 3D, Warcraft could easily be concealed as nothing more than a base-building and resource management simulation as opposed to a mildly violent war game if the eyes of the guardians were amongst me.
That may be the reason for which my extended exposure to the genre originated, but it’s an interest of mine which has never really decreased over the years. Alongside my real-time strategy fascination, I have a true love for first-person shooters as well; however, as any gamer should be ready to admit, a first-person shooter is generally a far more short-lived, flashy, blockbuster game which, until multiplayer gaming became huge, really didn’t have much of a lifespan (at least for me). Throughout the years, I’ve always been able to count on RTS titles to continually evolve into more complex (though, interestingly, more user-friendly) beasts that continue to be amongst the greatest challenges for a gamer. I believe that the average game’s difficulty has decreased significantly since the days of games like Ghost’n Goblins. When I played through Monolith‘s big-budget shooter F.E.A.R. for the first time last year, I played the game on its Hard difficulty and, for the most part, it was just a cakewalk in terms of its difficulty level. The game’s Extremely Hard difficulty setting, also, didn’t provide much more in terms of additional hardship for me to play through — something I find fairly unsatisfying and unrewarding. But when I recently played through Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos to its finish (I had always managed to lose my progress due to freak accidents somewhere in the middle of the game in the past) on Hard, it was actually a difficult experience. Had I not spent so much time playing the game in multiplayer against incredibly talented opponents on Battle.net over the last four years, I can’t even imagine the kind of frustration levels it would have induced in me.
Most of all that interests me, though, is that every RTS game feels so completely fresh compared to one another. I can get sick and tired of Warcraft 3 or Rise of Legends (these are, of course, titles I will actually talk about in detail later), I can simply pop in Age of Empires 3 for a completely different playing experience. Every developer has such a drastic separation in what they envision their take on the typical real-time strategy formula that, when all is said and done, most entries in the genre arguably bear little resemblance to one another.
Conclusion and Preview
I can’t even believe that all of this was merely the first part in the series. I expected this introductory article to be a fairly quick run-through of the goals I wanted to accomplish in writing the series and, now, I have a large six-page expedition through genre that should make for a great entry into the rest of the series. Once I reached the end of what you now see as the end of the history segment of this article was the point where I finally realized that I couldn’t just delve into the huge story that could be told about the genre’s formation. See? This is my attempt to exercise my pathetically weak amount of journalistic restraint.
Now, as I briefly laid out earlier in the article, the second part of this series will take a look at several of the major innovations that have occurred in the genre since the point where stopped in the history earlier. This will entail everything from the introduction of major unit micromanagement to a slight focus on adding more RPG-like elements to RTS games in the form of “larger than life” hero units to the importance of realistic physics in a strategy game. That’s all in store for the next segment, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the series thus far. Until next time: rawr.