Real time strategy is dead

by | Jul 23, 2018 | Thoughts

I loved Real Time Strategy as I was growing up. When I first played the Command and Conquer demo, (which was 3 modified missions from the full game) I was hooked. I would play it over and over and eventually I would fall into a pattern of trying to build a large base, including the opposition base. With roving bands of tanks that would accidentally destroy the one unit hidden away that would let me do it. Red alert had the same effect and the main objective was usually secondary. Hours of fun, ironically not really playing “RTS” as it’s imagined today.

I’ve noticed the history and the evolution of the first person shooter had a similar beginning. Didn’t see it’s birth in the arcades and were really only a PC thing. The early days there were one or two games that can be seen as the precursor for the genre. Like Dune 2, prototypical first person shooters that had a small following and created a bit of a buzz. Then the genre defining Doom that moved the first person genre into popular consciousness and the resulting boom where the market was flooded with “Doom clones” in an effort to turn the hype into profit. For RTS it was Starcraft that pushed RTS into the popular consciousness. I realise that Command and Conquer Red Alert was probably the game that most people enjoyed playing casually but if you ask most people to think of a RTS they will say “Oh, Starcraft?”. It’s the undisputed king of competitive gaming.

First person shooters evolved. They changed with the times and remain a staple of the PC and now console gaming landscape. They grew and changed as the desires of the players changed. Early first person shooters were simple, small scale experiences that didn’t expect much from the player. You were dropped into a maze, you picked up some guns and you won by navigating to the end. More points for making sure everybody was dead by the end. Most of the doom clones followed the same formula. Rise of the Triad and similar titles added complexity but it was mostly the same maze and shoot formula with more ‘things’ and a more contrived story to justify genocide.

Undoubtedly the turning point for first person shooters was Valve’s Half-Life. It took the formula that had been established by Doom and scaled it to the point of absurdity. Simple mechanics that remained accessible to the existing player base but dropped them into a maze so big, and presented them with so many things to shoot at. The innovation was the story elements and the narrative that tied the smaller slightly different mazes together. There was a narrative in Doom but it was an afterthought. Shoot first, ask questions later. Half Life was built around the narrative and the maze navigation and shooting were a means to explore that world. Duke Nukem 3D tried to do the same thing but it still (unashamedly) focussed on the maze and the shooting.

Half Life increased the scale of first person shooters. It took the formula and used it in a novel way. It was an evolution point that opened the market to allow for narrative driven first person shooters like Call of Duty. It allowed First person shooters to grow up. Slowed down the experience and made it more cerebral.

Games that promoted they were “going back to the roots” like Serious Sam tried to take the same formula but increased its complexity. You still ran a maze -albeit prettier-, picking up guns and killing everything in your path but there were more guns, more enemies, harder mazes. First Person Shooter’s evolutionary branches that died were complex ones.

Probably the current limit of complexity for first person shooters is the ArmA series. It’s almost unscalable complexity and difficulty for new players to get their head around is offset by the sheer scale of it. Within that scale there’s a chance for niches to pop up. You can fly planes, drive tanks or take the ground as an infantryman. Each area of combat is simple in it’s own domain all combined into a very detailed and complex simulation of a battlefield. If it wasn’t for the relatively simple but large scale experience that DayZ provided I’m not sure ArmA would have enough new players to keep it going as long as it has.

Where was the “Half life of Real Time Strategy”? Where is the title that took the established formula of base building, resource collection and combat and scaled it? It doesn’t exist. I’m grasping at straws a bit but Age Of Empires is akin to Serious Sam. It increased the complexity. I have fond memories of Age of Empires, but I remember being frustrated with the sheer volume of things to keep track of. Multiple resource types, markets, tech trees, and monuments. So many things to do. I just wanted to build and army and go destroy things. The epic success of AoE2 hasn’t been recreated. AoE3 was more of the same, just more complex. Company of Heroes in it’s effort to simplify the tedium of resource collection made the core game play more complex by revolving around territory control.

Grey Goo championed itself as the return to Real Time Strategy. It’s heart was in the right place but it’s innovation the ‘Goo’ faction was just added complexity. The differences between the three (four?) factions, one of it’s features turned into one of it’s downfalls. I tried to get into Grey Goo, but I found the combat and army building to be unfulfilling and the AI was undercooked. Boil it down and it was the same formula and execution as almost every other RTS. If there’s one complaint I see about RTS more than any other is that they’re all the same. Tooth and Tail had a go at mixing it up, but I played about 20 minutes of it and was put off by the lack of unit control. Yet again, it’s ‘feature’ failed to evolve on the genre. They tacked the complexity problem by trying to cut out what made RTS what is is. Simplifying resource and unit management doesn’t make the genre easier to get into it discards the hooks that allowed RTS to sink it’s claws into the imaginations of so many players. It takes away the creativity. Simplifies RTS without affecting the scale of RTS.

Real Time Strategy hasn’t evolved. It’s now about speed, practice and memory. The limited scope has forced players to evolve through play. The focus on actions per minute, build order and micro management has pushed out most of the casual players and players who enjoyed exploring the world through the commanders eyes. You’re still dropped into a tiny square, starting from scratch with the sole purpose of crushing the opponent as quickly as you can lest they do the same to you.

Modern Real Time Strategy games are complex. Sins of a Solar empire is complex. Planetary Annihilation is complex. Where is a game with the simplicity of Command and Conquer with the scale of something like ArmA?

Real Time Strategy is dead. All it’s evolutionary branches have stopped at dead ends. It failed to adapt to the needs of the market and has faded. There is a huge market out there waiting for the next step in RTS. They’re hiding in relatively obscure indie titles like Factorio, Space Engineers and Reassembly.

The holy grail of a MMORTS won’t be possible until the challenge of scale is solved. Take what was great about RTS and scale it. Just like Half-Life took what was great about Doom and scaled it.