The decline, evolution and future of the RTS
To speak of the ‘death’ of a genre is always a bit ridiculous, but real-time strategy as traditionally conceived has certainly seen better days. If the genre were a round of deathmatch we’d be well into the final third, with all resources tapped, the majority of key bases flattened and depleted armies scattered across the map. The StarCraft series remains an outpost of prosperity, bustling along in defiance of changing market conditions. Also, the excellent Company of Heroes and Dawn of War games from RTS veterans Relic continue to find a dedicated and passionate audience. This month’s new Homeworld feels special partly because it’s such a one-off. Elsewhere, it’s a bit of a wasteland: from the ruins of Command & Conquer: Generals 2, which was shuttered along with fledgling developer Victory Games in 2013, to the ashes of the Age of Empires series, shelved by Microsoft back in 2009.“RTS games are in a bind,” says David Pottinger, CEO at BonusXP and former lead programmer at Age developer Ensemble Studios. “StarCraft undeniably rules the roost – beyond that, there’s just not that much else out there at that quality level. No one is green-lighting $40 to $60 million dollar RTS projects any more. Hell, even getting more than a couple of million is tough for most places. It’s not quite fair to cite this, because Ensemble was getting closed and we threw everyone who was left at Halo Wars, but that game shipped with over a hundred people working on it. It was in development for over four years. By contrast, at Bonus we’ve had about 12 or 13 people working on Servo, our paid PC RTS, for just over a year.”
Uber Entertainment’s chief technology officer John Comes – who designed Command & Conquer titles at Westwood Interactive and EA, before joining Gas Powered Games to work on Supreme Commander – agrees that the golden era of big budget RTS development has passed. “Businesswise I feel like there is still a place for RTS,” he says. “But there’s a fraction of the fan base it used to have, and a big publisher betting on one is a risk that most won’t take.”
BATTLE FOR RESOURCES
In light of this shift, Uber opted to Kickstart its seismic 2014 release Planetary Annihilation, a spiritual successor to 1997’s Total Annihilation that raised over two million dollars in crowd funding. This has been offered up as evidence of lingering grassroots enthusiasm for the RTS, or at least for games that harken back to the classics. But Uber’s next RTS project, the B-movie flavoured Human Resources, failed to attract much support and was cancelled before completion of its Kickstarter campaign. “I believe you can probably get away with one big RTS a year and have it be successful,” Comes says. “Right now, that mantle seems to be basically owned by the Total War series.”
But has the RTS really lost its way, or are these merely growing pains? The phenomenally popular Total War, of course, is a hybrid, marrying turn-based empire management to questions of formation and unit morale on the battlefield itself. This is indicative, says Comes, of how the genre has evolved to survive. “When I started there were really only three major players – Westwood with Command & Conquer, Blizzard with Warcraft and StarCraft, and Ensemble with Age of Empires.” Nowadays, however, “you’re seeing RPG mechanics mixed into RTS with the MOBA genre. You’re also starting to see RTS-style resource management in a lot of survival games. The tower defence genre was born from mods of RTS games.
“Looking back on Planetary Annihilation – the gameplay isn’t that different from Total Annihilation, which came out 20 years ago. Yes, we innovated on the play-field with spherical planets, and introduced a rogue-like metagame with Galactic War [in which players take turns to move forces across a randomised galactic map], but those don’t change the core of the experience. As an industry we’ve spent decades trying to improve on traditional RTS mechanics and have had some success, but there’s nothing ground-breaking. Which is why I think genre-mixing is going so well right now.”
Traditional RTS blockbusters may be scarce, in other words, but their DNA endures in a variety of forms – and the result, suggests David Pottinger, is a market that is much more diverse even if major releases shift fewer copies apiece. “I think there are two kinds of RTS games out there these days,” he says. “It’s not easy to compare them. There are the games that stay true to the old-school formula – they put in a ton of content, have a big showy product and are aiming to be the next StarCraft. I don’t see a ton of innovation in those games.
“Then, you’ve got the smaller titles. Stuff like Servo, where we’ve taken an RPG and mushed it together with an RTS. You get to build your own giant robots, and those robots serve a role similar to Warcraft III’s heroes. I’m still not sure how that will work out, but it’s fun to try something new. And then you’ve got things like Offworld Trading Company from Soren Johnson and the Mohawk crew, which doesn’t even have combat in it. That’s definitely different! They’re all smaller budget, so sure, they won’t have 189 minutes of jawdropping cinematics. But that’s OK if they’re fun and polished.”
THE MOBA EFFECT
After polishing off Supreme Commander, Comes served as lead designer on Stardock’s Demigod, the first commercial MOBA, in which hero units are effectively walking citadels accompanying a customisable AI taskforce. The MOBA is often described as the successor to the RTS – it’s based on a Warcraft III mod and has been embraced by a number of RTS teams, including Blizzard itself – but how exactly MOBAs have come to eclipse their spiritual forebears could do with more explanation.
Petroglyph’s creative director Joe Bostic has worked on real-time strategy games for over two decades – he helped design the pioneering Dune 2 after joining Westwood Interactive in 1991. The MOBA’s rise, Bostic argues, reflects an industry-wide shift towards snappier, less demanding strategy titles. “RTS games require more mental investment and long-term planning than MOBAs. This is due to RTS games being, at a basic level, an economic and production game where decisions can often take quite some time to have their result affect the outcome. In worst cases, an RTS battle can last over an hour and this requires quite a commitment from the player.
“Also, RTS games require a significant level of multi-tasking where production, combat, exploration must all be controlled well to achieve victory. Only a subset of the gaming population prefers that level of stress. The games industry is moving toward shorter play sessions and faster decision-to-result cycles. Controlling and focusing on a single avatar, as in a MOBA, is easier to grasp and learn effective tactics as well as allowing fast-paced team multiplayer.” This quicker tempo also makes the MOBA a better fit for Twitch streaming and Let’s Play videos – a decisive advantage as games become ever more of a spectator sport.
Stardock CEO and Galactic Civilizations designer Brad Wardell suggests that the MOBA is a “natural response” to hardware limitations that have cramped the evolution of the RTS proper. By narrowing the focus to small squads of upgradeable characters, backed by a throng of grunts, he says, MOBA developers are able to deliver a level of cinematic finesse that sprawling RTS experiences simply can’t rival.
“If you make a 32-bit, single core, DirectX 9 game today that you want to have exceptional visual fidelity with great performance, you have to lower the number of objects. For example, look at Demigod. It was built using Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance’s engine. To get the visual fidelity it has, the number of units and map sizes had to be scaled back. And this is the bargain we’ve all had to make: either lots of low-fidelity units that bog down late game, or a handful of very high-fidelity units. The case could be made that MOBAs were inevitable.”
FREE TO PLAY
MOBAs are also structurally wellsuited to free-to-play revenue models – they’re ideal platforms for microtransactable accessories because they encourage players to form a bond with a particular character, and the absence of an upfront cost naturally makes for wider adoption. According to a March 2015 report from market researcher EEDAR, League of Legends and Dota 2 reap the greatest proportion of their revenue from so-called vanity items. Obliged as they are to look at the bigger picture, we can assume RTS players aren’t quite as susceptible to such temptations – especially when they affect the balance of power.
“In general, RTS players want a perfectly balanced game,” says David Pottinger. “They want to know everything there is to know ahead of time. They want skill to be the only determining factor in who wins the game. Free-to-play games, on the other hand, tend to reward playing longer or, gasp, paying actual money. That doesn’t usually mix well with an RTS.”
One particularly sad consequence of free-to-play and the MOBA’s rise is diminished buzz around singleplayer modes in RTS campaigns – fully fledged campaign options with cutscenes and scripting are few and far between, with many teams preferring to offer simple skirmish modes against the AI. Joe Bostic feels this is shortsighted. “PvP is inherently intimidating and so for those people that avoid PvP, the campaign is there to provide entertainment. It is debatable whether [AI skirmishes are] a sufficient substitute for a campaign. I would argue that it is not, at least for the traditional pay-to-play monetisation model that RTS games use.”
Comes agrees that the majority of players still play singleplayer campaigns over multiplayer or AI skirmish, but in an uncertain market, the associated expenditure can be hard to justify. “Campaigns are difficult and costly to make, and even more so to make well. Few companies want to take on that sort of risk to pour millions of dollars into a campaign for a small genre.”
Like their peers in the action genre, RTS teams have wrestled at length with the implications of new interfaces and peripherals – from the frustrating ambiguities of motion or voice control, to the explosion of touch-sensitive games on tablet and mobile. As Comes points out, strategy game developers have found success on mobile with tower defence, a type of game that can generally be played with one hand.
Wardell contends, however, that “true” RTS games for touchscreens are a “dead end”, because the interface isn’t responsive or precise enough to allow micromanagement. Hence intriguing departures like Offworld Trading Company, which doesn’t feature units in the usual sense – instead, players wage war using market forces, striving to devalue each other’s stock to the point that they can buy an opponent out. In addition to being a fascinating experiment in itself, this also makes the game more playable on tablets, where such routine actions as drag-selecting can be a frustrating chore.
David Pottinger takes a more hopeful view, having recently completed a fantasy RTS, The Incorruptibles, for iOS devices. “That was a transformative project for us at Bonus – without the weight and expectations of Age, we were free to just go make something we found fun. It takes a lot of inspiration from Age, but being mobile it ends up as a very different second-to-second experience. The games are shorter and you control things at a higher level. But, you’re still agonising over where to spend your food, wood and stone.”
Will RTS developers have better luck with the latest virtual reality headsets? Comes is a believer. “I think VR will play a significant role in the industry and all genres in the next few years,” he says. “I personally believe that by 2020 over 5% of Americans will have an empty room in their house dedicated to VR. It’s that compelling.” Joe Bostic, however, says that he doesn’t see a pressing need for VR “when it comes to RTS games that stick with the traditional design model, where you are a battle commander overseeing simultaneous military battles and production operations across a battlefield.”
He adds: “that kind of gameplay needs an overview perspective rather than the immersive perspective that VR excels at. There have been some RTS games that put the player in the role of a commander right in the battle, such as Battlezone, and in that style of game, VR would greatly enhance the experience. But there are very few games that do this since it becomes much harder to control multiple units from that perspective, and it is much harder to have a PvP mode that works well from that perspective.”
For Brad Wardell, the future of the RTS is a question not of interface but of raw computing power. “The biggest opportunity we have going right now is the rise of DirectX 12, plus 64-bit and multicore processing as a standard game setup.” It’s a point illustrated by Stardock and Oxide Games’s Ashes of the Singularity, a behemoth of an RTS which supports clashes between thousands of units simultaneously.
Wardell concedes, however, that Steam and HTC’s Vive headset – which uses two lasers to track your movement around a room, in addition to wand controllers for gesture input – has the potential to give rise to new flavours of strategy game. “Imagine being able to walk around a space battle that is happening in a space the size of a large room. You could walk around and give orders to individual squadrons and move your finger to link them to their target and watch them fight it out.”
By happy coincidence, a project corresponding to this description does in fact exist, though it’s too early in development to discuss at any length. MoonStrike is the work of former Gears of War designer and Bitmonster co-founder Lee Perry. For Perry, the real-time strategy genre’s recent troubles follow a familiar narrative, and setbacks shouldn’t be taken to heart.
“There’s this thing that happens with many genres where the first, formative games establish the norms, and then it’s iterated on, and before you know it you end up with a genre that primarily appeals to the diehards. I love when any designer is willing to step back and reassess the foundation, and attempt to make it more accessible to a new batch of players, or even just do something novel with the presentation.”
If the RTS now sits in the shadow of the MOBA and other genres, Perry argues that it will always be worth returning to, because there’s so much that can be achieved with the basic mechanics. Coming from a relative newcomer to the genre, it’s a hopeful note to end on. “How combat works, how units are produced, what the terrain and different elevations offer, initial setup and build phases, the scope of conflict, campaign structures, the depth of the tech trees, where tactical decisions are presented to the player… how many other genres have that many knobs to turn? It’s a truly inspiring canvas to work on for a designer.”