Op-Ed: There's Something Wrong With RTS Games

By Charles Ellis 08 Nov 2017 1

I’ll be blunt, this topic’s been with me for a while now. The concepts I’ve been aiming to pin down have eluded me for some time. The problem is this: Real Time Strategy games for about the last decade or so have been more than a little bit dissatisfying. The classics haven’t been improved upon and the new games leave us wanting more than just what is offered.


Trying to analyse the problem is difficult: the conventional terminology is the dichotomy of casual and hardcore gaming, but that doesn’t describe the issue well enough. Casual and hardcore immediately bring out in all of us gamers a kind of kneejerk reaction where the hardcore gamers look down upon the casuals and the casuals, being casuals, don’t care (nor should they). Furthermore there is the implication that casual game design is by its nature simplistic and lacking in genuine gameplay or strategy.

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Rather than the casual and hardcore conundrum, I’m going to use the terms: “Narrative gameplay” and “Competitive gameplay”. Think of these like the ancient Chinese ideas of Yin and Yang whereby, when these philosophical concepts were in harmony in the empire, all was well. When they fell out of alignment, the empire fell into chaos. I would suggest that the same principles apply to an extent to gaming concepts as well. These terms are used here in an attempt to describe why in recent years Real Time Strategy gaming has suffered an inexorable decline.

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Narrative gameplay, in the Real Time Strategy sense, is gameplay that focuses upon building (oddly enough) a story within the game, with ups and downs, skulduggery and similar features. The story, whether it is a scripted one or one created by the players as they grow, build, fight and win or lose is what sticks in players’ minds far beyond the end of the match. RNG is not necessarily part of this equation - however, single player, co-operative and heavily customizable multiplayer experiences are all aspects of narrative gameplay. Modding, especially the ability to create custom factions, game modes and similar features are a key part of this concept.

Competitive gameplay is all about the player using the tools at their disposal to win effectively. This includes army synergy; build orders and min-maxing. Micromanagement is a significant part of this equation, with actions per minute being a vital component of success in a game that focuses upon such competitive gameplay. Online matchmaking, army building, complex balance changes and single mode multiplayer combat, along with, if the game is successful enough, e-sports will also be a feature of this concept.

Neither of these categories are mutually exclusive. A game can have superb story telling mechanics and at the same time very good competitive ones. Age of Empires II with its bevy of HD remakes and expansions is one of many examples of this, with hardcore analysis of timing, unit statistics and build orders being matched by its ability to be used on almost anything and the advantages of a scenario editor. I would suggest that the sheer flexibility of Age of Empires (aided by its ability to run on a toaster) is one of the key parts of its success.

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However, it does not necessarily follow that to be good games have to display both Narrative and Competitive elements in equal measure. Tooth and Tail, my personal choice for the best way to experience a strategy game in ten minutes or less, focuses doggedly upon the one versus one ranked mode (with the campaign as a more than a little bit challenging learning tool – in this writer’s opinion). It’s not something that one can spend hours playing, but the half an hour or so I can stand before the built up adrenaline becomes too much is extremely satisfying. There is nothing wrong with a focused experience like that. The problem, however, is when your only choice is between a short competitive, like Tooth and Tail, or an hour long game – which follows precisely the same premise. But when I want to watch the rise and fall of empires in a real time setting – which is what I’ve always enjoyed since I booted up Empire Earth too many years ago, in this day and age, I find myself rather out in the cold.

I’m sure I’m not being controversial in saying that real time strategy as a genre has been having issues for perhaps a decade now. From the glory days of the Age of Empires series (whatever you think of number three), Supreme Commander and of course Command & Conquer and Red Alert, we now have the release of a (always inferior) Supreme Commander lookalike every now and again, the occasional (and rather ordinary) offerings from Relic who continue to dream of e-sports glory and HD remakes of Cossacks and Age of Empires (which don’t really count). Sure, we have a new AoE heaving into view (made by Relic – see above), but for perhaps a decade we’ve had something of a real time strategy drought. At the same time, we’ve seen more than a little bit of dissatisfaction over these offerings. Looking at three extremely arbitrary choices on Metacritic, we can see that Dawn of War III stands at 4.7 out of 10 in user score in metacritic. Cossacks 3, an interesting experiment in giving a classic game a facelift with nothing else changed, sits at 5.4. Stronghold Crusader II (notice how they’re all sequels with nary a new offering in sight?) sits at 6.1 according to its users. None of these scores are very good. On Steam, all of these, taken in percentages, would fall under the infamous “mixed” rating, one that could turn off would be buyers.

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There are any number of reasons that these games suffer in the reviews. Unwillingness to innovate, or, innovation that takes away from what makes Real Time Strategy great. Rehashing of old games and of course the perennial problem of bugs and poor launch day stability are others. I would add to that the relationship that I’ve spent the entire article discussing, that of narrative and competitive gameplay. Particularly in the case of Relic’s more recent offerings, and in the total absence of possibilities elsewhere, we’ve seen a shift away from narrative gameplay to emphasis upon competitive gameplay. LAN, story-driven campaigns and cooperative gameplay have been either ignored or side-lined as real time strategy follows the current trend toward head to head multiplayer. Many people enjoy that. But some don’t. And those people aren’t catered to. For shiny new games (and who doesn’t like the new shiny?) they are offered punishing multiplayer and high stakes gameplay requiring a great deal of micromanagement and game knowledge to be a successful player. Naturally, they play a few games, are frustrated and don’t bother playing anymore. The result is that the genre becomes more hardcore. Less new players are able to enter the genre and so the downward spiral of RTS continues.

Some of the most enjoyable experiences I have had as a player has been playing games cooperatively or in a free-for-all LAN party, where banter and backstabbing replace micromanagement and build orders. These game are long and, with all the players in the room talking, have their own emergent narrative. With many new games, the possibility to experience long games which last for a couple of hours, almost like a boardgame in fact, just aren’t there. The game forces you into the action, perhaps even requiring you to play certain modes and preventing you from having those intricate diplomatic exchanges. You’ll always know precisely what the map looks like and god forbid you wish for there to be more than two teams! Yet there is a market out there for these kinds of games. Long, intricate, no clock ticking... you could relax, build your empire and foment plots like the best of them.

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Real Time Strategy is a great genre, able to combine strategic and tactical depth with the ability to be immersive and exciting. But the future for it remains dark. Competitive gameplay has taken the limelight. Graphics trump gameplay and the tricks publishers use to drag more cash out of the consumer are filtering down to RTS from the bigger AAA games on high. Competitive gameplay isn’t everything. Is the only time we play chess in a tournament? Narrative gameplay has its place as well – exemplified by the continuing success of Paradox grand strategy titles and of course the Civilization series. The golden age of RTS was when there was a balance between the two concepts, with both Narrative and Competitive elements being catered toward. The decline of RTS is in part due to the proliferation of games only focusing upon the Competitive aspect to the detriment of the Narrative.

What do you think can be done to recapture the glory days of RTS? What are your favourite memories from this genre? Let us know in the comments!



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