The RTS (Real Time Strategy) genre is slowly dying or dead depending on who you ask. But wait, you say, what about StarCraft 2? Legacy of the Void released to great fanfare last year, surpassing one million copies sold within a day. An impressive figure, since it was released on the same day as Fallout 4. There was a new Age of Empires II HD expansion too.
2015 also saw a few other releases from genre veterans. From Pietroglyph Games (formed by former Westwood employees) came Grey Goo. Eugen Systems, makers of Act of War, released Act of Aggression. But these were only a handful of games, a far cry from the early 2000s, especially when the number of games getting made has increased. And barring Blizzard, none of these are studios you would class as bona fide triple A developers. Most of them don’t have huge marketing presence and this translate into poor sales. In fact, Grey Goo and Act of Aggression didn’t sell well on its release, eventually sputtered off, leaving a handful of players still playing regularly.
Looking at the 2001-2002 period really makes me sad. Red Alert 2, Age of Mythology, WarCraft 3. Hugely popular games. Battle Realms, a personal favorite of mine, was also released during this time. The few years surrounding it also saw games like Age of Empire 2 and StarCraft. It really was the golden age of RTS.
The RTS genre is dying, maybe the years to follow will see a few more attempts at reigniting the genre but I feel that those attempts would have a hard time succeeding in today’s market. The following are some of the reasons I feel why.
1. RTS Matches Are Too Long
Today’s gamers are looking for something fast paced and visceral. Games like Call of Duty perform well every year, despite the hate it receives, because it delivers on this. Bombs going off every few minutes. Running around shooting, dying, respawning. Matches can be completed in minutes. It is quick and you could squeeze in a match or two when you have half an hour to kill.
Contrast this with RTS matches. It takes time to play. Time not everybody has. Time to build up your base. Time to gather resources. Time to mobilize your troops. Attacks aren’t always a success. Your assault force might be wiped out, forcing you to rebuild your army again. Consuming even more time. Rushing will help things move along faster. Turtling will sometimes end in stalemates. It can take hours for a match to finish. Undeniably there are people who like this, Civilization and Total War games do have multiplayer options and those can take days to finish. However, they can pause their game and save it. Because they are largely turn based (entirely so in the case of civ). Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there’s any RTS games that does this.
2. RTS Games Are Not That Strategic
Real time strategy games are not that strategic. Maybe in a pub match between friends, you could figure out strategies to outwit each other. Rush this player because he tends to turtle when the game stretches on. Build more anti-aircraft defenses because that player likes using planes. Though more often than not, whoever has the larger, more powerful army while emerge victorious. This leads a race to see who can build their base the fastest and gather the most resource. Often it comes down to who has the fastest fingers as strategies boil down to fixed build orders as all this happens in real time. There’s really no thinking involved most of the time. This is especially notable in the competitive level as players mash their keyboard using hot keys to queue up their base construction.
3. Emergency of MOBA
The emergence of MOBA and its subsequent rise to esport stardom has really taken away a huge number of RTS players. In fact, it has taken over RTS’s spotlight too. Competitive StarCraft: Brood War was a huge thing in South Korea and was on the verge of breaking through to the international level. And while StarCraft 2 competitive scene in South Korea still remains strong, the rest of the world have their attentions focused on MOBA, with League of Legends and DotA 2 being two of the biggest names in esports, with the latter exceeding a winner’s pool of $18m in 2015.
This, in large part, is because MOBAs have most of the beats of a RTS game without much of the baggage it comes with. For starters, MOBAs don’t have any slow starts. Gone are the base buildings and the gathering of resource and the mobilizing of troops. Player starts with a full base, a hero and a regularly spawned small number of creeps. And that’s all they have. They defend their bases until they destroy the opposing team’s main building and win the game. Turtling doesn’t work, because you have to kill opposing creeps to earn gold and be in the front line to level up. Being left behind in levels is a sure way to lose the game. It’s fast pace and visually pleasing with bombardment of the various skills possessed by the heroes.
4. RTS is a Mish Mash
Most players play RTS games for many different reasons and have moved on to games that better cater to their desires. RTS gamers that like the micro scaled battles in the front lines move towards MOBAs. Players that like the macro game and playing the armchair general? They move to grand strategy games like those from Paradox, such as Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis 4. Players that like to build up their faction and feel victorious in defeating their enemies? 4X games like the Civilization series. Players that like to build up their base and see the whole map marked in their color? Resource management games like the Anno series or Banished. Those games are by no means the juggernaut that RTS games used to be, but they are there and they perform fairly well in their own niche markets.
5. Rise of the Consoles
The rise of console gaming has also had an impact on RTS games. RTS games are not meant for controllers and though there have been well made attempts of RTS games on consoles (see Halo Wars) it still feels much better to play them on PCs. And there in lies a huge problem. PC game sales have not been that stellar for the past few years, when compared to their counterparts on consoles. And triple A games need to be multiplatform to earn back their investment. So when faced with the decision to make a game that would sell well on multiple platforms or focus on a PC exclusive game, the better financial decision would be to make the multiplatform game. This is why there are fewer and fewer triple A companies tackling the RTS genre. It’s not to say there’s no PC exclusive games at all. XCOM 2 is looking likely to stay a PC exclusive, but those are few and far between. Even games like Wasteland 2 and Divinity: Original Sin eventually made the leap to consoles. Say what you want about the capabilities of PC gaming, the fact remains that consoles outnumber gaming PCs and are easier to develop for.
I do hope that RTS game developers will continue their efforts to make stellar titles and not give up in the face of so many difficulties. And I sincerely hope that I will be able to play WarCraft 4 and Battle Realms 2 someday, but as it is, I really don’t see how RTS games could return to the pinnacle it had once been on. But the developers are smarter than I am. They’ll surely figure something out. Right? Until that becomes apparent, I’ll keep on holding on to hope.