Evolution of RTS games

  1. Introduction
  2. The Journey Begins
  3. The RTS Boom
  4. Life After the Boom
  5. The Modern Age
  6. Conclusion
  7. References


This is an essay for the course Game Design and I’m going to give you a ride through the evolution of RTS game genre. I like RTS games and I’ve played them for as long as I can remember, from the classic Red Alert and Age of Empires to the newer Supreme Commander and Starcraft 2 (beta).

First of all what is a Real Time Strategy game? How do we narrow it down? The first distinction I’d like to draw is the Real Time part. Games like chess and civilization are most certainly strategy games but they are not executed in real time. Instead you wait for your turn and then make your move. Turn-based games like these are in my mind not RTS games. Neither are “God games” like SimCity and The Sims. You have very few boundaries and you can do what you want, when you want and how you want. But I think of RTS games more as a competition – a race against time.

I’d like to draw a loose definition for an RTS: “harvest, build and destroy”. Practically all RTS games are based around the idea to get money or some kind of resources to build up an army and proceed to destroy your enemy.

I will focus more on the beginning RTS games as they are still the main influence to all RTS games and then I will a bit more quickly go through the modern games and the modern ideas that continues to drive RTS forward.

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The Journey Begins

In the beginning there was no RTS games. Hard to imagine I know but that’s the truth. When the idea of RTS was born the gaming scene looked a lot different from now. In the 1980’s Nintendo had blown new life into the video game industry and it was the simple games that held us entertained, games like Pong, Tetris and Pac-Man. However the tides were shifting and more advanced games like SimCity were on the rise.

Dune II (1992) wasn’t the first RTS game, there had been several games with RTS influence in them but this was the first complete RTS. The game was all about control. You chose exactly what units to build and when to build them and you could command every single unit at will – perhaps drive it across the map to check what your opponent is building?

The game introduced the concept of a tech-tree (Technology Tree) where you could “tech up” to stronger but more expensive tanks or you could continue to build cheap tanks. Gone where the days when you had to rely on a rock-paper-scissor balance between units, such as tank beats artillery which beats infantry which beats tanks, and instead you had the choice of countering a tank with a bigger tank! Or with a mind-control tank or you could choose to destroy the factory producing the tanks. Choosing the right time to climb up the tech-tree became vital to your success but it was complicated by “the shroud” which was a black fog covering the map where you haven’t been. This in turn forced players to scout and check what the opponent is doing having to constantly revise what units he should build and if he had to tech up.

The sandy land of Dune 2

Perhaps the most revolutionary concept Dune introduced was the resource system. To build things you had to have spice, the game’s only resource, and to get spice you had to harvest it on the map and bring it home to convert it to money and then units or buildings. What this practically means is the player had to have control of the map, he had to have a place he could get spice or else he would probably die. The concept of map-control is something that is driving virtually all RTS games to date. The first online capable game was Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (1994) but the online boom wouldn’t come just yet. Instead it was the game Command & Conquer (1995) who refined RTS a bit more. It wasn’t a graphical masterpiece nor very complex instead it’s simple but it just works. The game screams atmosphere and war. All the units were pretty straightforward (I mean who doesn’t know an apache, a rocket launcher or an M1A1 tank?) so it was pretty easy to pick up. But beneath the simple exterior lay a surprisingly deep game.

The game built on Dune 2 and in fact some fans nicknamed it Dune 3; the shroud and the resource system was the same and the tech-tree was built upon and it introduced the concept of a BO (Build Order – a predefined order to build things to maximize unit production or similar). C&C furthered the sense of control, in Dune you could just select one unit at a time but here you could select several, you could then store it in a group 0-9 and whenever you pressed the number again the group associated with it would be selected.

Instead of the “tank, bigger tank, biggest tank” from Dune C&C furthered the unit differences with tanks and infantry. Infantry was weak and could even be run over by the tanks with a satisfying splat sound, but they were dirt cheap and vital for early scouting. Tanks on the other hand were strong and fast but they were expensive and they had to rely on driving over infantry in order to effectively kill them. This gave the game a whole new level depth.

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The RTS Boom

Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (1995) became the first mega-successful RTS game. For some the interface was a letdown with no groups or build queues but instead it introduced the standard right click. Example with a peon: if you right click on a gold mine he will harvest and if you click on an enemy he will attack. It also allowed you to build anywhere opening for the oh so popular tower rush (build offensive defense towers). For the first time we got to have full naval battles with battleships, submarines and even a very own naval-resource. They improved the shroud and turned it into the now standard Fog of War where the fog regrows if you don’t have any units there.

But the thing that really set Warcraft II apart was the online multiplayer. A huge community gathered and spawned leagues, clans and ladders and essentially creating the base of modern competitive RTS gaming.

Command & Conquer Red Alert (1996) was the original C&C but more and better. It kept the defining pieces but moved up the pace with high yield minerals and a stronger focus on tank warfare. In fact the focus on tanks was so strong that it introduced the concept of a “tank rush” where you amass a lots of tanks quickly and then rush your opponent to catch him of guard. The factions were different and unique and featured for the first time full featured land, sea and air combat. Red Alert also has a crazy and good story where Einstein witnesses the horrors of Hitler and proceeds to g back in time and kill, but without the competition for Stalin a new war breaks out. This placed new importance on the story in RTS games, a tradition which still continues today.

We can spot Red Alert’s mighty mammoth tank

If you think about classical RTS games the chances are high you’ll think about Age of Empires (1997). The game is one of the most influential RTS games and if you’ve ever played it it’s easy to see why. It’s balanced, polished and very deep. It’s one of the first games to introduce the concept of “Ages”, essentially tiers in a tech tree. There are four ages which let’s you progress from the very basic clubmen to advanced bowmen and even war elephants. The whole system is nicely done and the progression to higher tiers is fluent and it adds a lot of depth to the game. The resource system is still one of the most complex in any RTS with a whopping four resources for you to balance. Another new concept was the random maps. This way every game was a whole new experience with lots of different chokes and the importance of scouting was set on a whole new level.

There are games that would introduce one or two novel ideas and then there is Total Annihilation (1997). The game was the first 3D RTS game and it featured real physics simulation. Gone where the days when your units would hit instantaneously and without fail, here everything was simulated; on bumpy terrain the shots could fire into the ground, the front units would absorb and block hits and higher terrain would give the benefit of an increased range. TA was one of the first games where units could shoot while moving, making for some interesting run and dodge tactics. Dead units would even leave wreckages on the battlefield, wreckage that would block movement and you could reclaim them and regain some of the metal you used to build them.

When we’re on the topic of metal and resources – TA has one of the most unique resource systems to date: they’re unlimited. Unlike games like C&C with a finite resource system you never had to worry if you had enough, metal and energy would be regenerated infinitely so it was never a question if you could afford it, but how long it would take to be built. TA reintroduced the “Hero unit” from the era before Dune II, where you actually were a unit and if that died you loose.

TA was more a game without limits than anything before – battles with hundreds of units were commonplace and when the big units in other games fired across the screen, the big guns in TA fired across tens of screens or even across the whole map! Where other games had strong Rock-Paper-Scissor counters TA had none. You could even fire artillery at airplanes (although pretty useless). Instead the balance revolved around unit speeds, turning times and overkill.

Until this day, almost 12 years later, Starcraft (1998) is still the most competitively played RTS. The game had a great story and had three completely different races. Other games differentiated their factions with units but in Starcraft even the way you built things was different. But the thing that sets it apart from anything else is the community and in particular the competitive gaming scene that gathered around it. It’s so ridiculously popular in South Korea that it’s considered the National Sport there and the players are treated as rock-stars.

Why did this game become so popular? I don’t know; it took almost a decade to get it balanced good and it isn’t extremely fast paced. It’s really fun to play but almost more importantly is that it’s fun to watch, the immersion factor and the excitement of a high skilled game is unparalleled and I think that’s what sparked the formation of a dedicated community. Then the community in itself is a reason why Starcraft has stood the test of time – the formation of pro leagues, great map support and excellent coverage has made sure the community has flourished.

Starcraft, the most successful RTS game yet

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Life After the Boom

The success of RTS as a genre sparked the creation of a lot of pretty similar, but often very good, games like one of my personal memories KKnD (1997). However it didn’t take long until the next big revolution: true 3D brought to you by Homeworld (1999). Total Annihilation had used 3D terrain but Homeworld set the player in space and gave the freedom of the Z-dimension. Instead of just moving on a flat, albeit bumpy, surface you could now move freely in any direction you’d like. In addition Homeworld became known for it’s atmospheric and rich story and they introduced persistence in the single player campaign. It means that you would retain all of your units and upgrades from your last mission and if you had finished it badly with only a few units the next mission would prove impossible and you had to replay it.

Building on a concept and improving it has been heavily used in RTS and it has brought us some of the very good games. Age of Empires II (1999) was all of the original but better. Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 (2000) upped the pace of of older C&C games and created a fun, with some good humor, easy to pick up but hard to master classic RTS game. Red Alert 2 still had a cartoony 2D look who many loved but it was to become one of the last 2D RTS games.

Age of Mythology (2002) was a spin-off from the Age of Empires with all its goodness but with additional “God powers”. Rise of Nations (2003) incorporated classical board game features such as territory and it tried out a resource system with a whopping 6 resources (crazy!).

Warcraft III (2002) continued on where Warcraft II left but with added focus on abilities and RPG like hero units. The game is very centered around you gaining experience and leveling up your hero by killing neutral monsters, called creeping, as the three heroes you could have are more powerful than the rest of your army. Instead of a hard unit cap like in Starcraft Warcraft tried the approach with upkeep: if you have a large population you’ll gain less gold and it worked pretty well as multiple expansions would do more harm than good.

The focus on heroes and abilities made the game really micro intense (taking care of individual units) as opposed to the very macro (economy) centered Starcraft. (It’s pretty amusing in the current Starcraft 2 beta where you can actually see what game the top players used to play, Starcraft players usually have great macro but pretty bad micro whereas top Warcraft 3 players micro a few units but their economy is bad.)

A human player harassing an Orc in Warcraft 3

Command & Conquer Generals (2003) shifted the focus for the C&C series. It made the building panel a bit more free, so you could easier build where and what you wanted, it had radically different factions and sub-factions but it had a very poor story but perhaps the most noteworthy addition was that upgrade change unit behavior instead of simply making them deal +1 damage. For example infantry was weak against tanks but with an armor-piercing upgrade they could destroy it.

Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth (2004) had a pretty interesting and different build system. Where other games placed no limits on where you could build the game only allowed you to build on specific places and they were very limited. This forced you to really think about what to build – one mismatched building and you could get your entire army mismatched against your enemy. It also had a sort of RPG experience points tree whit a lot of different power ups you could have, but these too were limited and forced the player to make hard decisions, and hard decisions are good.

Dawn of War: Warhammer 40,000 (2004) changed the well known resource system, instead of harvesting the player was given “map points” combined with an in-house generated resource. You also had squads, which were treated as one unit for easier control and as several when in battle.

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The Modern Age

Company of Heroes (2006) is a pretty special game. It fuses the cinematic experience from an FPS with the tactical and strategical depth from an RTS. You command a lot less units and you’re a lot closer to the battlefield. The environment is almost fully destructible and your units will take shelter behind anything they can find. Things like where you attack a tank became important as the armor was considerably weaker in the back and ammunition and fuel was considered a scarce resource.

The immersion of Company of Heroes is simply stunning

World in Conflict (2009) took the tactics even further and is considered an RTT – Real Time Tactics. In WiC there are no resources, just a sum given in the start of the game for you to call in units with. When the units are killed the points are slowly given back ensuring you won’t run out of units. The game is solely focused on controlling your units and thus isn’t really a true RTS in my eyes but a game bordering between the two.

Supreme Commander (2007) is the spiritual successor to Total Annihilation and it stands in stark contrast to WiC’s tactical focus – here it’s about the broad strokes man. Given the strategic zoom you can zoom out until you can see the whole battlefield and all the hundreds of units are there for you to command. The scale is huge, nukes and experimental super units trashing around gives the game an epic feel. But there’s a lot more to Supcom than watching huge battles, it’s using the whole TA system with infinite economy, wreckages and no hard counters. We have new intelligence modes; in addition to line of sight as in almost every other games there are radar, sonar and omni (see all). To counter these we get cloaking and radar jamming units. Another thing Supcom does well is the improved interface with infinite queues which tie well with the infinite resources so you don’t have to babysit your factories to get them to continually produce units.

Me and Toejams showing off in Supreme Commander

Today there are both big scaled games like Hearts of Iron III (2008) and small-scale like Company of Heroes. There are games that relies on the old tried-but-true formula (Starcraft 2 currently in beta) and other more novel (Darwinia 2005). If you look closely you’ll notice the core the old RTS games are still here, unchanged. Starcraft 2’s resource system is basically the same as in Dune II and grouping are still the same as in the original C&C. Games are still living on, and building on, the successful ideas of the past (the new C&C, AoE3 etc) and I personally think they will continue to entertain us, Dune II style, for at least a couple of decades more.

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We’ve been through the evolution of the RTS from the beginning with Dune II until modern games like Supreme Commander and World in Conflict. The simple one resource system has given birth to four and even six resource systems and some games have opted for “map points” or different infinite resources. The simple shroud concept has turned into the now standard Fog of War and there has been some advanced intelligence gathering going on in a few games. The Hero concept with borrowed RPG elements are now standard in many games and the tech tree has been branched into several different flavors. The scale has both been amplified and minimized and units has differentiated themselves from each other.

Thanks to the online multiplayer pioneered almost 15 years ago has turned a little niche genre into a mega-industry with competitions held in several different games and countries. But where the genre is heading is anyones guess, but whichever way it’s heading I’m sure it will continue to entertain and surprise you.

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Everything accessed 21 mars 2010

gamespot1, gamespot2
History of RTS during the years 1989-2001. Pretty good.

Gamereplays RTS history, a great resource written by several RTS enthusiasts.

A top 20 list, take it with a grain of salt. Used for inspiration.

From wikipedia various stuff (mainly dates):
Dune the novel
Warcraft: Orcs and Humans
Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings
Age of Mythology
World in Conflict
Hearts of Iron 3