Video games allow players a chance to take basic gaming concepts and expand them out to their natural conclusions. Gamers have been playing at war from the earliest days of the PC, taking the games they loved on the tabletop and finding new ways to interact with those same mechanics. When it comes to war, the obvious solution was to put pieces in motion. Instead of taking turns, players would be able to guide units while they were in motion. Once games started moving into real time, war games would never be the same.
The real time strategy genre has become more popular over the years, especially now that the internet can connect players from across the world. These games are a combination of strategy and learning, in which players must know must their opponents and the systems of the game. These games require the ability to manage an economy and an army all at once, putting any player’s skills to the test. Even those who play only casually will admit that RTS games require a great deal of brainpower.
Looking at the growth of the RTS genre can be an interesting exercise. Certain concepts start off as novel, then become the norm, and are finally found obsolete. As these games grow, so too do the ways that they are played.
RTS Game Changers
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of games in the RTS genre. There are only handful, though, that have been truly important to the genre itself. These games introduced new concepts or perfected older methods of play. Some of these games brought new storytelling opportunities to the table, while others innovated the types of technology that were used to connect players.
The games discussed here all went a long way to define the RTS genre. While some spun off sequels that were better known than the original games, these initial offerings laid the groundwork for what would come in the future. The RTS genre would not be nearly as successful as it is today without the existence of these titles.
Utopia is the grandfather of all real time strategy games. Developed for the Intellivision, the game pitted players against one another as they ruled separate islands. Players were responsible for constructing buildings, housing their population, and keeping a reasonable income flow.
While there wasn’t any really direct combat in the game, players could send out boats to take out their enemy’s fishing boats and reduce their income. Such fun, right? Small smile.
Utopia’s simplistic play is a far cry from modern RTS games, but it was still a start. Everything that came after owes at least something to this game. It’s nigh on unplayable now, but it still has historical value.
Bokosuka Wars (1983)
Bokosuka Wars is a strange game to modern eyes. While it does have some elements of an RTS, it actually has a lot in common with some of the more common Flash games that have been released over the last few years. Players are in charge of a king character who is on a fairly steady rush towards the enemy. Along the way, he can recruit more soldiers to his cause. There are only a few character types, but they’re all important to the game.
Bokosuka Wars doesn’t really feature any of the building elements that are so common in the RTS genre. Most of the management elements are entirely absent from the game. There is, however, still the fact that players do build up an army in this game. This game, combined with Utopia, helps to set in stones the elements that would come to make up a real time strategy game.
Bokosuka Wars is fairly basic and can be difficult for modern gamers to play. The controls are difficult and it’s hard to stay in the game for any length of time. Even with this said, it does show a great deal of progression from the early days of gaming into what would become an important genre.
The Ancient Art of War (1984)
The Ancient Art of War can be considered the beginning of the RTS genre. While it doesn’t have the level of polish that one might see in later games and it doesn’t quite contain the features that would be seen later, it does feature combat between armies. This is, in and of itself, enough to qualify the game as part of the strategy world. Moving in real time, it differentiated itself from those in that had come before. It was a painful first step – the game itself isn’t really all that fun – but it was a necessary part of developing something more.
The combat in the game is, as one might expect, quite simplistic. A basic paper-rock-scissors mechanic determined which units won fights. There were other elements at play, though, including hunger and terrain that made the game a bit more complex. There wasn’t a great deal of control over anything but how the units were sent out onto the battle field, though. The hunger mechanic did make buildings important, though, a real first in the genre.
The Ancient Art of War was limited by the technology of the time. It pushed the systems of the time to their limits, but even that wasn’t enough. It would still be some time before the games as we know them could be run.
Nether Earth (1987)
If the Ancient Art of War was the beginning of the genre, Nether Earth was the first huge leap forward. Putting players in charge of a commander unit who could give orders to (and build) robot soldiers, this game took place in real time and allowed players to go into combat with a level of complexity that had not been seen before.
Nether Earth didn’t feature the same kind of building mechanics that would come in later games. Players could, however, decide what their limited buildings would produce. This led to a greater set of tactical options and more choices on the battlefield. It was the first step towards putting into place the systems that would make real time strategy so addicting for players.
Populous isn’t a game that most people would group with the Real Time Strategy genre. It is more often thought of as a God Game, but it does share a number of similarities with the modern RTS. In fact, it’s arguable that a number of the mechanics that players now take for granted in the RTS genre were lifted directly from Populous. The game helped to popularize the concept of controlling masses of computer units as well as the idea of the player as a commander.
If you think about the basics of the RTS genre, though, you’ll probably come up with a game that looks an awful lot like Populous. As the player, you’ll be cast in the role of an omniscient third person participant who controls everything from the main screen. You will be in charge of a group of followers, and you’ll have certain abilities to help them survive through the scenarios. While combat may not have been a major part of the game, it was really the only element that kept Populous from being considered an RTS.
Populous helped to launch the god game genre and helped developers on their way to launching the RTS genre. It’s still a great game, even if it doesn’t really count as real time strategy in the way players thinkof it today.
Dune II (1992)
Dune II is not the first real time strategy game, but it is by far the most important. This is the game that set the tone for almost everything that would come in the future. It’s not a particularly revolutionary game to play today, though, because everything in it now feels like a cliche. This is, of course, because this is the game that started it all.
Based on the movie license, the game put players in charge of one of three factions in order to take control of the titular planet. The game brought into play a number of features that would soon become standard throughout the genre. This was the first game with resource gathering that funded construction, the first to bring in a technology tree, and the first to give each of its factions unique units. Players would get access to better technology as they completed more missions, which would also become standard in most RTS games that would follow.
While the games that came before were important, Dune II is the game to which all other RTS titles owe a debt. It was quickly overshadowed by newer titles, but it made an indelible mark. This game is definitely something that must be played by anyone who considers himself or herself a historian of the genre.
Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (1994)
Warcraft: Orcs and Humans is, by modern eyes, a simple game. There’s not a lot of difference between the two sides and the unit selection is paltry at best. At the same time, though, this is one of the most important games in the entire RTS field. It helped to lay a groundwork not just for a certain type of RTS, but also for a gigantic franchise that is still going to this day. Warcraft introduced the importance of having a cohesive universe and narrative to the RTS world. While other games had stories in the past, no game went quite so far as Warcraft.
Warcraft featured two sides, the titular Orcs and Humans. In the original game, Orcs were little more than demons and Humans were unabashedly the good guys. Players could go through a fairly well-designed main campaign with two possible endings depending on the side chosen by the player.
While almost everything in Warcraft was retconned away by future games, it still helped to show that RTS games could tell a coherent story. By birthing a universe, it retroactively became one of the most important games ever released in the genre. Sometimes, it’s enough to just lay a solid foundation.
Command & Conquer (1995)
One of the most beloved RTS series of all time, you’d be hard pressed to identify the current iterations of Command and Conquer from the original game. Based heavily on the engine of Dune II, this game pitted the Global Defense Initiative against the Brotherhood of Nod. The original game was fairly simple in comparison to what was to come, but it did introduce both Tiberium and the overarching conflict that would come to define the series.
This was also one of the first strategy games to use full motion video sequences and cut scenes to tell the story. The acting quality was dubious at best, something that the later games in the series has embraced with a great deal of gusto. There’s something cinematic about playing these games, something that kept the games separate from most of the rest of this genre.
Command and Conquer would end up spinning off in a few different directions. The Tiberium series would span four games, ending in 2010. An alternate reality series, which began with Red Alert, would have three games of its own. There was even a more modern-day installment, called Generals, that would be released to great acclaim, though no sequel ever materialized.
Age of Empires (1997)
Age of Empires is, in many ways, the successor of games like Civilization. Like Civilization, it allows players to take control of ancient civilizations. Like Civilization, it features a fairly strong historical component that works great as an educational tool. Unlike Civilization, though, this game puts the primary focus on combat. Players can play against one another or skirmish against computer opponents. The first game features a number of civilizations that are mostly the same, but as the series developed it started to bring in a number of great new ideas.
While Age of Empires is a great game, the series really hit its stride with Age of Empires 2. The game brought in specialized units, the ability to fortify castles, and the ability to win the game through a mechanic that is very similar to Civilization’s Wonder mechanic. While it may not have done much that defined the genre, it did give birth to several clones.
There’s a thriving sub-genre of RTS games that can best be thought of as Age of Empires-likes. These games feature numerous potential factions that each have one or two special units, the ability to trade, and a strong rock-paper-scissors style of combat between unit types.
Total Annihilation (1997)
Total Annihilation was one of the first RTS games of the 1990s to break away from the formula established in Dune II. While players still followed a format that was similar to other RTS games at the time, a few new elements helped to make Total Annihilation stand out from the crowd. Coupled with a relatively sophisticated story, this helped Total Annihilation to become one of the more beloved games of the time period.
The game featured a unique method of building a base, with a mobile Commander unit. The game also featured a streaming resource system that allowed players to build their armies without having to deal with separate resource gathering units. This, combined with the new 3D art style, made the game stand out from a field that tended to stick more closely to the mechanics of Dune II.
Total Annihilation was revolutionary, though it would take some time for other games to follow its lead. For the time, it remained an isolated island in a sea of games that were happy to stick with the tried and true. It would, however, spawn its own sequels and its own followers – games that all owed their existence to the legacy of Total Annihilation.
StarCraft took everything that Blizzard learned from the first two WarCraft games and innovated, creating one of the most important real time strategy games of all time. This is the game that codified the multi-part story that’s told through faction missions. This is the game that solidified the three faction conflict between a balanced faction, a fast-but-weak faction, and a slow-but-strong faction. The story in StarCraft was as memorable as the game play, making it a beloved choice among RPG fans as well as strategy fans. This may not have been the game that put RTS titles on the map, but it is the game that thrust the genre into the mainstream.
StarCraft also arguably brought about the age of eSports and professional gamers. StarCraft made use of Blizzard’s Battle.net service to allow players to play competitively across the internet with one another. It also brought competitive ladders into play. In time, some of the players would become minor celebrities in their own right, especially across Asia. These players played in front of thousands and were able to make a living with their StarCraft skills. Without StarCraft, pro gaming as it is known today may not have ever been born.
Rise of Nations (2003)
Rise of Nations was one of the many games in the early 2000s to start to break away from Dune II’s formula. While some of the basics like unit building and a tech tree were still firmly in place, it was clear that it was time to start shaking things up a bit. Rise of Nations is a beloved game precisely because of its major new mechanic – the system of requiring players to gain and hold territory through a fight. No longer could one just build anywhere – it was important to establish a real base for your troops.
Another major change brought by Rise of Nations was the concept of attrition. If a player invaded enemy territory, there were certain technologies that could be used to cause the enemy to lose troops over time. This meant that players would have to be very careful about when they pushed into an enemy camp and they would have to be careful to actually create supply lines to keep their army moving.
Rise of Nations was a deeper strategy game than had been seen in the past. It is widely considered to be one of the best ever made, even though most of its mechanics have fallen by the wayside.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War (2004 )
By 2004, the traditional RTS genre had hit something of a lull. Games like WarCraft 3 and Red Alert 2 were getting a fair amount of game play, but most of the other competitors in the genre were starting to feel tired. The same formula had been used over and over again since Dune II, and players were starting to look for something new. As new games started to take the competitive spotlight, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War quietly stepped in to help redefine the genre.
Dawn of War took the popular Warhammer 40k license and brought its high-stakes tactical play to the PC. The game eschewed resource gathering for a point-control system, allowing players to spend more time focusing on actual combat than on building up their armies. The game added a new tactical edge to a genre that had been more about micro-management for many years. While the change turned away some purists, it brought the strategy back to Real Time Strategy for others.
Dawn of War spun off several successful expansion packs and a well-received sequel. Its style of play has been copied by a few other games to moderate success. Regardless of what one thinks about the game, it helped to breathe new life into a tired genre.
Rome: Total War (2004)
Just as Warhammer 40,000 brought elements of the tabletop back to Real Time Strategy, the Total War series brought in elements of grand strategy to the genre. Instead of just concerning one’s self with a single battle, players were forced to care about an entire empire. Using your forces was just one aspect of a larger game, one that could be lost if players were too concerned with what was going on during a single battle. This was a game that was high on strategy, even as it offered players tool to go deeper than empire management than ever before.
Rome is just one of several Total War titles that have been released since 2004. The Total War games have become their own little niche in the world of RTS games, chugging along even as the rest of the genre experiences its own ups and downs. These games require a great deal of patience and the ability to manage more than what’s on a single screen. If Warhammer took the RTS down to its bare bones in order to focus on combat, this is the series that expanded the genre in order to put the main focus back on overall strategy.
Supreme Commander (2007)
Supreme Commander in 2007 was a spiritual successor to Total Annihilation, once more focusing on a large command unit that could construct other bases. In many ways, though, Total Annihilation was only a starting point for this game. Supreme Commander was instead better known for how it pushed to make RTS games less about micromanagement and more about the larger game. Its new features helped to redefine how an RTS could work in a new era.
Supreme Commander’s possibly best known for its accurate modeling of weapons physics. This meant that terrain would become incredibly important, as would the positioning of units as they took on their opponents. This, in turn, required an incredibly high-end PC to work accurately. While today’s systems can handle the game with no problem, this was one of the first RTS games that required a significant upgrade for most of its players.
The game also featured the ability to command units to queue up their actions. This would allow players to give units orders and then move to focus on something else. This helped players better focus on the larger map at hand and allowed them to switch focus between units with more speed. While this is fairly normal in today’s games, it was a real game changer at the time.
Zero-K is an open-source game based on Total Annihilation. While a straight clone in it is initial format, all of the proprietary content was switched out when the game came into its own. A great deal of the game play still harkens back to this earlier era, but with a few twists that make it a better fit for the modern age.
Zero-K is a rare RTS that features a persistent commander. Every game of Zero-K played rewards players with experience points. Players can then exchange these points to unlock new units or to customize their characters. This is a far cry from the tech tree used in most games, but a great way to capture the attention of players who are used to persistent ranking systems in other games.
Zero-K also features a unique tower defense mode called Chickens. In this mode, players can build almost any unit and the ‘chickens’ will adapt to the strategies of the players over time. The primary goal is survival, as in most tower defense games, with a secondary objective of destroying all of the chicken roosts placed across the map. This game mode is a good example of how RTS games can be modified to provide new challenges over time.
Grey Goo (2015)
Grey Goo is a bit of a throwback. Bringing the genre back to the old three factory, resource gathering model, it represents a desire to go back to the basics. That’s not to say that there isn’t any innovation here – there is – but rather that the game is very cognizant of what has come before. This is a good example of how an RTS game can continue to move forward without making major changes from the old Dune II formula.
In Grey Goo, players are able to play one of three races. Two of the three, the Humans and the Beta, feel much like standard RTS factions with a twist. Humans can teleport their units and reconfigure their bases on the fly. The Beta make use of hard points and specialized units to add to their defense. The titular Goo, though, feels entirely fresh. Those nanobots swarm across the map and are able to either consume enemy units or form into combat units of their own.
Grey Goo has great production values, bringing the classic RTS into the present day. While it hasn’t taken the throne away from games like StarCraft, it is a fantastic throwback to the way that RTS games used to be.
VR RTS Games
Virtual Reality is the future of gaming, and it seems that real time strategy should have a huge future there. Most of the problems tied up with VR tend to be those related to movement and perspective – the mind can’t quite process what the eyes are seeing, so players have a tendency to feel nauseous. Since players of RTS games take a view that is highly removed from the action, the problems shouldn’t occur.
Imagine what a VR RTS could look like. Players would be able to take an eagle-eye view of the battlefield, moving the units around with a swipe of a hand. Players could pick up their buildings, move them around, and make changes on the fly. It would be a much more immersive experience, perhaps even giving players a chance to jump into the fray in true virtual reality. It would be the biggest delivery on the promise of virtual reality thus far.
The RTS genre tends to go in and out when in terms of popularity, but it never truly goes away. The games have come a long way, splitting into several sub-genres. Whether you enjoy the management, the strategy, or just the warfare, there are games out there for you. While the genre isn’t at its height right now, new games are around the corner that may help the RTS soar in popularity once more.
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