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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The Fall and Rise of Real-Time Strategy Games

There was a time, not long ago, when real-time strategy (RTS) games ruled the world. StarCraft emerged out of the '90s as the world's most prestigious esport. The game's first sequel, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, sold over 3 million copies in its first month on the market. PC grognards used to orient their entire hype indexes around the latest Relic release. It was the trump card they held over the console contingency—seriously, what's the point of buying an Xbox if it can't play Homeworld, Dawn of War, or Company of Heroes?

Gamers benchmarked the latest graphics cards by how well they could process the swarming units onscreen. I remember being in awe of Supreme Commander, and the mountains of RAM necessary to render its buzzing, quicksilver spaceships. RTS games were even major players in the licensing ecosystem. I mean, has there ever been a better movie tie-in than The Battle for Middle-Earth? Or Empire at War?

This is what life was like in the mid-2000s. Blizzard proved it was possible to build a dominion out of tight, well-balanced RTS titles, and the rest of the power brokers in the industry raced to catch up. Everyone took a swing. Remember Ubisoft's EndWar? Or EA's Command & Conquer? Or, hell, Nintendo's Pikmin? No distribution portfolio was complete without a flagship RTS; the shareholders demanded that we click and drag boxes over smatterings of idle riflemen.

You probably know the story from here. StarCraft II arrived in 2010 to scintillating, breathless reviews. It was followed by two campaign sequels, concluding in 2015 with the triumphant Legacy of the Void, and then, inexplicably, the signal went dead. New RTS games simply stopped coming out, seemingly overnight. The titans of the genre have all dried up. The last new Command & Conquer entry was a freemium mobile game, and we've all been waiting on the next Empire Earth for nearly two decades. Gas Powered Games, which gave us the incredible highs of the aforementioned Supreme Commander, boarded up shop in 2018. Ensemble Studios, which won us all over with the Age of Empires series, didn't survive past 2009. Hell, Blizzard hasn't released a new StarCraft game—RTS or otherwise—in six years. That reality would've been inconceivable during the exultant highs of the Brood Wars. Now? It's just a sign of the times.

I am a lifelong RTS fanatic. One of the first games I fell in love with was Red Alert 2, and I am capable of getting misty-eyed about the perpetually underrated World in Conflict. I assumed that my life would be dotted with new RTS games forever; that the genre would remain an unwavering priority within the economics of PC development. So I grew increasingly perplexed as they evaporated from the map. Why did everyone stop making RTS games? How has one of the most hallowed modules of gaming—this sacred form that gave us the first formal esports leagues and a litany of all-time classics—been kicked to the curb? Luckily, some of the veterans of RTS production had answers.

“There is an incredibly stable player base around Starcraft II, says Tim Morten, who worked on RTS games at both Electronic Arts and Activision Blizzard from 2014 to 2020. "That game has its own community. But other games started to surpass the size of that player base. You could point to MOBAs [multiplayer online battle arenas], or battle royales, or any other genre. RTS hasn't broken out to those levels. But it has continued to stay very healthy. I've seen the internal mechanics of pitching new RTSes. For big public companies, they want to return max value for their shareholders. That's just business, and they're going to focus on the things that generate the most return," he says.

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Morten was one of many high-profile departures that has dogged Blizzard over the past few years. He, along with his colleague Tim Campbell, founded the startup Frost Giant Studios, which is producing—you guessed it—an RTS. The subtext in his words are clear: Morten and Campbell couldn't get a new project off the ground within the confines of an avaricious Activision boardroom. But outside of that ecosystem, in a realm where it's OK to generate a solid, steady profit rather than dominate the planet, real-time strategy has a chance to thrive. All of this is emblematic of a greater rot summoned up by the single-minded pursuit of monopolized gains. A great RTS might make a lot of money, but not quite as much as, say, a loot-shooter. That alone was the nail in the coffin. In 2021, the investor class has no time for moderate success, even if that mindset is actively making the world around us more staid and boring by the day.

"A company can fund game A or game B, and they believe that game A, right or wrong, is going to make a lot more money," adds Tim Campbell, also a Blizzard veteran. Those decisionmakers “don't have the same passions connecting them to the genre that we have. They're making smart decisions from their perspective. But their decisions are opening up opportunities for us.”

One of the factors that relegated the RTS to the "game B" tier is how ill-prepared the format was for modern monetization sensibilities. StarCraft II is a dinosaur compared to the titles that burn up the Twitch charts every day. It's capped at three factions and is bereft of "hero" units or paint-splattered AK-47s. League of Legends turned Riot Games into a monolith because the studio could roll out a brand-new champion on a strict seasonal schedule, and Hearthstone keeps the ball rolling with randomized card packs that are sold for three bucks a pop. RTS games, on the other hand, were not crafted with that goal in mind. It is awkward to retrofit all of those micro-transactional tendrils to a genre that never needed them in the first place. League of Legends has 156 different champions, but it would be almost sacrilege to disrupt the Zerg/Protoss/Terran holy trinity.

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“Those problems crop up when people take business models and plaster them onto a game without adapting for the difference in the genres,” continues Campbell. “If you're selling skins in an RTS, there's 15 to 20 units per faction. Do you skin them all? That's a lot of work; that's a lot of development time. There's definitely considerations that you need to factor in.”

It also isn't clear how much of a market those cosmetic flourishes would find in the first place. Rory McGuire, chief creative officer at Blackbird Entertainment, which is currently developing the much anticipated Homeworld 3, notes that a ton of RTS players are satisfied with a story campaign and a handful of skirmishes against the AI. Many of them never even touch the multiplayer, which is anathema to the live service, treadmill mindsets of EA or Activision. He's absolutely right. I've probably played a thousand hours of Red Alert 2, and I'm not sure if I ever delved into the matchmaking servers. The broader gaming framework is increasingly grind-y and chronically online—even Assassin's Creed is an MMO now—but it remains to be seen if the beleaguered RTS fandom wants to watch the genre soak up some of the Machiavellian lessons preached by the finance offices around the industry.

"So many of your players want to play the campaign. And games-as-a-service models typically focus on multiplayer. RTSes have a rich multiplayer pedigree, but it's a narrow percentage of your audience," says McGuire. "I say that playing League of Legends is like playing basketball, but playing an RTS competitively is like UFC, where you're choking out your opponent. You really have to have a killer instinct to enjoy it."

This is the question facing everyone breaking ground on an RTS right now. Should you design a game built for 2021? Or 1998?

Don't look now, but we're on the cusp of a real-time renaissance. Alongside Frost Giant and Blackbird, a number of dewy-eyed studios are breathing life back into the scene. Relic Entertainment is poised for a huge comeback—the company just launched Age of Empires IV, and Company of Heroes 3 is on the horizon. Another platoon of Blizzard refugees have formed Uncapped Games and have scored funding from Tencent for a new RTS. Will any of these studios crack the code? Do they hold the secret for an agile, modular strategy game capable of appeasing the corporate bottom line? Or have they shaken off those concerns entirely? Nobody knows for sure.

What I can say is that everyone I spoke to for this story believes that a modern RTS needs to borrow some of the concepts from the games that outpaced them. The genre, they argue, doesn't suffer from irreparable infrastructural damage; instead, with a few smart nips and tucks, the global youth will be clicking-and-dragging again with gusto. McGuire has already identified a few problem areas he'd like to iron out. He points to the first-person shooter, which matured from Quake-style arena firefights into a whole litany of different denominations. We have RPG hybrids, battle royales, tactical, team-based firefights, and grim survival sims. Meanwhile, the RTS stagnated—its shape and look remains unyieldingly static. McGuire mentions that on the 2016 Homeworld prequel Deserts of Kharak, the Blackbird team included a variety of different win conditions in the multiplayer modes; superiority was not achieved exclusively by destroying your rival's base of operations. That idea warrants more experimentation, he says. Instead of a pugilistic, head-to-head throwdown, studios could get more innovative with their rule sets and victory options. Who knows? Maybe RTS games could accommodate more than two players at a time.

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"So much of the RTS lens was pointed at 1v1, and those games are all tuned to 1v1, and have systems designed for 1v1. That was a misstep," says McGuire. "This is about the evolution of the genre. We focused on that 1v1 for too long. RTSes didn't evolve in the way that shooters did."

McGuire has the right idea. It'll certainly be easier to rope my friends into a three-on-three strategy game compared to the trial-by-fire that defined the genre in the past. (Who among us has not been absolutely smoked in our first Age of Empires match as we realized that the breezy turtling that succeeded in the campaign was a death sentence on live servers?) Softening the point of entry is one piece of the puzzle, as is buffering the sheer humiliation of watching your army get ripped to shreds. But everything else is up in the air. Nobody said reinventing real-time tactics would be easy. The one thing all of these developers have in common is a fundamental faith that RTS games could conquer the universe again. After all, they witnessed it themselves.

"As we're developing the game, we've paid particular attention to perceiving the genre through unfiltered eyes. To have a clear perspective on the genre's challenges for new players. It's hard for us to do, because we're veterans, but this genre absolutely has the potential to field the top game in the world," says Campbell. "That potential is there because of the core audience that's stuck with StarCraft II, and the larger pool of players that can be brought in, if you can find the right way to reach them."


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