“What Happened to the RTS?” Some Thoughts on a Genre Supposedly In Decline

You see it everywhere. The pervasive notion that RTS is a genre in decline.

Not that RTS games aren’t really played as much as games of other genres. That’s pretty obvious from Steam player numbers. And “decline” doesn’t mean that RTS are made less often than games of other genres. That’s probably true as well; though I don’t really have the numbers to back up the assertion.

“Decline” is the idea that RTS made today are worse than classic RTS.

This article comes from a question I was asked on curiouscat, and is very much an off-the-cuff observation into a complex issue. I’m going to look at one area that RTS has seen some solid entries in lately: storytelling.

Selling the Dream: RTS As Storytelling

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As far as RTS as a storytelling medium, I actually think single-player RTS is in a good state right now. Tooth and Tail, Deserts of Kharak, COH2: Ardennes Assault, and even StarCraft 2 provide really solid single-player experiences (to say nothing of Homeworld Remastered, or the bevy of ‘classic’ RTS on offer on platforms like Steam or GOG). Storytelling in RTS has always kind of been hit or miss to be honest, I think we as player mostly tend to remember the better ones and forget or gloss over the less stellar experiences in some classic RTS games.

It’s true that it’s been a long time since we’ve had an iconic character like Arthas or Kane: some of that is due to more money being put into the technical aspects of creating games, and some of that is just kind of… luck? Grey Goo had some interesting characters like Singleton, the human/Goo protagonist, or Saruk, the Beta/Mora character from the first act. But the game launched in a really rough state, and both StarCraft and classic C&C gamers found aspects of it wanting, which meant that the game wasn’t popular and didn’t spread beyond a fairly limited cadre of gamers who have since drifted elsewhere.

The characters in Dawn of War III are likewise relatively compelling, at least from a gameplay perspective. Macha, Orion, and Gorgutz in particular have some pretty fun gameplay interactions in-game, and Macha’s big miscalculation early in the campaign is (imvho) pretty compelling storytelling.

Nothing New Under Many Suns

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But your question isn’t (just) about storytelling and immersion. It’s about the general malaise going on right now in the RTS space, and that’s a tricky and multi-faceted issue.

First, there’s the issue of scale. Some gamers (like me) prefer a more tactical feel to their combat. We’re drawn to smaller-scale games like Company of Heroes and Dawn of War 2, et cetera, where troop preservation and territory control and careful poking and probing-style combat are the primary interactions. Gamers who prefer the precision and macro-focused, harassment-style gameplay of something like StarCraft aren’t going to resonate with a game like that for a variety of reasons: scale, lack of traditional macroeconomic play, et cetera. Likewise, fans of massive-scale games like Supreme Commander don’t like the twitch micro of something like StarCraft, and probably find the scale of a game like COH or DOW2 to be claustrophobic.

There’s no one RTS formula that’s going to broadly appeal to everyone that considers themselves an ‘RTS gamer.’ Furthermore, There’s an inherent danger to making a game in homage to another: you’re never going to out-StarCraft… StarCraft. And it looks like you’re never going to out Generals, Generals.

These projects, like the reborn C&C Generals, or Act of Aggression (as a spiritual successor to Generals/Act of War) tend to end up feeling derivative, or lacking in respect to their predecessors. Part of this is just the developers wanting to try to extend or modify the game in response to current gaming trends, or to address common criticisms from the previous title, or just wanting to make it their own.

Some of this, maybe most of this, is nostalgia. RTS games have a large (HUGE) learning component. You don’t really master an RTS until you’ve played dozens of hours. And most hardcore RTS players played relatively casually as kids or young adults, having fun wild massive turtle-fest battles with their friends. And that’s what they want, that’s what they miss.

I think that many players see Age of Empires 2 and don’t see or remember the precision and APM of competitive gaming, they remember filling the map with castles with their friends. They remember long, almost leisurely matches in Red Alert 2 or Total Annihilation. Not because these games were slower or less competitive or had a more nuanced counter system (though in some cases that might be true) but because, primarily, they weren’t being played competitively with a meta that travels at the speed of Twitch.TV

Some of these classic RTS are truly well-crafted games. Better in their day perhaps than many RTS are now. Some of the difference is the evolution of player expectations: without observer mode, 4v4, and replays, RTS are now considered incomplete (even if the features are patched in 6 or 8 months after the fact). Games cost more to make nowadays, and if a developer cuts corners on a campaign in order to focus on the multiplayer experience (Ashes of the Singularity) will take a hit from players that prefer single player.

Order of Operations

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An RTS writer who goes by “brownbear” wrote an article on the different types of operation that modern and classic RTS ask of players. It’s a well written, reasoned, and researched piece, but I find myself not completely persuaded.  There are many modern RTS that focus on what he calls lower order operations and they have fared -worse- than games like Company of Heroes 2 that focus on “higher-order” micro/ability style operations.

My personal take on this is that modern RTS tend to cut out systems that older RTS -had to have- that increased the *nuance* of the game. Systems that give players lots of little ways to be more efficient, to find little ways to eke out some kind of an advantage that the player can turn into a win. Modern RTS tend to *automate* systems, or make it easy to select all of your units, or strip out ‘rough edges’ of older games that, while they feel frustrating, increased the skill cap and made it possible to find little ways to be better than your opponent. But those systems came at the cost of being inefficient and therefore frustrating (e.g. StarCraft 1’s unit selection limit, C&C Tiberium Sun’s bad pathfinding, the inability to use control groups in War Wind).

So, in that way, I think that technical improvements have led to a reduction in game quality. But I’m not entirely sure that has led to the lack of popularity in RTS, at least directly. I find it hard to believe that the only good RTS are Age of Empires (1 and 2), StarCraft, and Red Alert 2/Generals. I think that a combination of factors is at play, including nostalgia and the fact that it used to be harder to form an evolve a meta.

Where Does This Leave Us?

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This is a hard question. Right now, it feels like every RTS studio worth its salt is releasing a remastered version of its most popular RTS game(s) – Rise of Nations is out there on the Windows Store, every single Age of Empires game is getting an HD remake (as well as a long-awaited fourth installation from Relic that for some reason feels more like a gamble than the Age 1 Remaster), Halo Wars is out on Steam and the Windows Store… The old games, the ones we learned and grew to know and love before the days of YouTube and Twitch and instant access to the clamoring voices of then thousand critics. The old games are coming back to give us the experiences we’re familiar with, the mechanics we knew in our youth and the comforting soundtracks and well-understood interactions.

Meanwhile. Deserts of Kharak went largely ignored. Sure, it has some issues. Most RTS do when they launch. But it was a phenomenal story and delivered interesting gameplay that could have evolved over time if the developer had made the money to make it worthwhile. Dawn of War III, a perfectly solid RTS with phenomenal interaction depth in its unit and Elite mechanics, is derided because its win condition requires the players to destroy neutral structures, and because of the removal of directional cover mechanics that I’d bet money many complainers haven’t thought through the implications of (for what it’s worth I think the removal of directional cover was overall a bad change, but I think the challenges with telegraphing how cover actually worked and predicting its interactions had caused enough trouble in previous Relic titles that the removal is actually understandable). Tooth and Tail has seemed to have reviewed well, though its sales don’t seem to have been phenomenal so far.

Novices to the genre tend to feel feel intimidated by the complexity of what’s going on, while RTS veterans come to a game with certain expectations (and perhaps rightly so? that’s another discussion in of itself), and developers of today’s RTSs are likely to be veterans themselves: obviously lately, many RTS devs seem influenced in part by the success of some of the larger MOBAs, as well (though hybrid MOBA/RTS have not worked out since the mixed reactions to Demigod). Not helping, games targeted at novices tend to strip out features that add depth to a game, which means they make wins and losses more binary and harder to control. Grey Goo is a great example of this, with a really blunted economics system that doesn’t allow the player a lot of control over its success, and relatively limited unit dynamics that can kind of blunt the effectiveness of an army

The problem doesn’t seem to be per se that there’s an abundance of bad RTS out there. Every new RTS is lambasted as worse than what came before. Every new mechanic, or deviation from a preferred RTS formula, every new game is seen as worse than what we’re familiar with.

A part of it is polish: if a game launches these days without observer mode or replays, it can be a severe hit to any sort of competitive or commentation community. Company of Heroes 2 suffered without these features for a long time, and the community dealt with it. But that game had the rabid fan base of the first CoH (and the brief-lived CoH:Online) to support it while Relic worked out the kinks. Grey Goo was immediately criticized roundly for this omission (among other things).

Another feature that seems to be a pretty big deal is an in-game replay and match viewer. Players love watching games almost as much (or sometimes more) than they love playing them. Clash Royale has a system like this in the mobile space, while Company of Heroes 2 has this on PC (many RTS do, but COH2 is a ready example). Of course, StarCraft 2 has a robust replay system, though I don’t recall a method for players to just jump in and spectate any old ladder match, as is seen in a variety of titles. These features are great teaching tools and a way for players to engage with content without taking a beating on ladder/matchmaking/ranked play.

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Speaking of Clash Royale, it… kind of really bothers me that these games are now more popular in terms of player numbers than actual in-depth strategy and tactics titles for the most part. All of the things people were concerned about with Company of Heroes 2’s Commander system, or purchasing add-on factions, or acquiring new AirMechs in AirMech, these games have: they’re basically ‘pay to win’ or pay for power in the form of their cash system and loot boxes. It’s just obfuscated by the virtual roulette wheel of the random nature of the power you’re acquiring. These games are basically tactical counter-battles, with relatively limited control of your fate relative to what would be seen in even a flawed RTS, but they’re played in droves – Clash even has an eSports scene.

A Conclusion?

I’ll end with this. I think that, if StarCraft or Tiberian Sun were to be released as new today, even modernized with graphics comparable to StarCraft 2 and gameplay improvements we’ve seen over the years since their release… If these games were to come new to market today (e.g. they were not initially released ~15-17 years ago, and were new products), they would *not* be as popular as they are now, and would likely struggle from the same issues gaining communities as modern RTS. I think the power of nostalgia and these games being the product of their time has more to do with their popularity than the overall objective merits of these games.

A friend of mine,  @kentonagbone on twitter, had this to say in response to the article. I like it so much that I will post it here virtually unchanged:

“I also once read an article about a franchise’s first game, its sequel, and its third entry (it might not even had been about games – might have been about movies and specifically Iron Man 1, 2 and 3). The gist of it was that if the first entry was novel and good and popular enough to justify a sequel, that sequel can be successful by just being a more refined and feature-rich re-imagining of the first game, and that sequel will likely be even more popular and hyped and loved than the first. But that methodology won’t cut it for the third entry – it would be labelled as just “more of the same” and the wide demographic that greatly enjoyed and immersed itself in the excellent sequel will deride any perceived shortcomings of the third entry.

The hype and popularity that worked so well to sell the second entry becomes an anchor for selling the third entry. A solution (the solution?) proposed for this was that the third entry has to re-invent itself in some significant way if it hopes to achieve the level of success the sequel had.  A linear improvement of existing “systems” won’t likely be enough  – a lateral step into new areas is required.  … that or a really long time gap between the second and third entries.  The point of this tangent as it relates to RTSs is… think of the RTS genre as a whole of following this 3 act scenario. The first act was the introduction of the RTS genre (the Warcrafts and C&Cs and SCs and Red Alerts), and the second act was the refinement of the genre (the Red Alert 2s and Generals and TAs etc). We are still stuck in the second act, and the ‘constant refinement of the first act’ methodology has grown stale. We are awaiting the ‘third act’:  re-invention of the genre.”

As to what that reinvention might look like? Well, that’s a topic for another day.

phoenix

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One thought on ““What Happened to the RTS?” Some Thoughts on a Genre Supposedly In Decline

  1. We are awaiting the ‘third act’: re-invention of the genre.

    This is what I’ve been waiting for some time now, and I’ve been BLASTED on reddit forums and other RTS areas for suggesting it. Part of the problem, I think, is that RTS really does need to evolve—it’s barely changed in more than a decade—but the die-hard fans of certain styles don’t want it to. They want it to stay the same, to keep the same old things and never evolve. Crud, when “Ashes of the Singularity” was in its development phase, one of the lead devs took to the forums and told all the Starcraft players to shut up and stop making “demands” about massive changes to Ashes gameplay style, and to go play Starcraft since that’s what they wanted. This was followed by a warning that any post screaming about how Ashes needed to adopt Starcraft’s gameplay and eschew its own, different, gameplay elements would be removed and the poster banned.

    Most game companies don’t have the guts to respond so aggressively, unfortunately, and I think where RTS is concerned that’s hurt things.

    Look at the power of modern machines and what they could be doing for RTS that they aren’t. C&C 3 brought armor facing and easy-to-use reverse and formation moves to RTS … but where are they? The game broke any need for players to use them with its runaway economy, and so few even realized they existed.

    But here’s what really gets me. Any time I talk about things like armor-facing or other advances to the genre, like formations, I often get this answer:

    That’s just too complicated. You can’t put that in an RTS. It’s way too much for a player to keep track of.

    Which really strikes me as hypocritical, because the people that say that are always the same people defending larval injects and other useless, obscuring mechanics that have been added specifically TO make things more complicated for players that could be automated. Somehow those get a free pass, but the ability to actually make flanking a real thing would, as some put it, “ruin the whole RTS genre.”

    There’s a lot of room to grow in the RTS genre. Crud, I would have bought Ashes even if I hadn’t wanted it just to support somebody trying something NEW rather than devolving backwards or delivering the same tried and true game. There’s so much room for RTS to make use of all the power afforded by new systems to try new things … and it just isn’t being done. Starcraft II could be dome in the original game’s engine with sprites. Most RTS games, as you pointed out, are very similar to what we had 20 years ago.

    But there’s a LOT of room for RTS games to grow. Unfortunately, the playerbase seems determined to not let the genre or themselves grow up.

    Liked by 1 person

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