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The Future of the RTS? It’s already here.

January 25th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 29 Comments · Design, RTS

Gamasutra has just published an article from Nathan Toronto that goes over a lot of the same ground about real-time strategy in a sort of new way. It’s an interesting article purely from a conceptual standpoint, though my first reaction to it was “How many games has this guy actually played?”

Mr. Toronto has a PhD in International Relations from Ohio State, which I guess is supposed to bring some gravitas to his article. I have a PhD in Political Science (International Relations) from the University of Toronto, so I guess I’m qualified to say that Dr. Toronto has it wrong in some pretty important places.

1. Just because it’s in real time and is a strategy game doesn’t mean it’s an RTS. Toronto praises Caesar III as an RTS that forces the player to manage “infrastructure development and physical security”. But Caesar III is not an RTS, it’s a city-builder. SimCity, not Starcraft. It comes from a different branch of the gaming family tree and therefore arrives with different assumptions about what the game is supposed to mimic. Conventionally understood, the RTS is about building and managing armies. Yes, there is considerable overlap in some places between the RTS and the city-builder (Majesty and Settlers, for example). By making the acronym purely descriptive, you get into all kinds of messy situations where people try to compare Hearts of Iron to Blitzkrieg 2, which makes as much as sense as comparing Leisure Suit Larry and Baldur’s Gate because both have inventories. Guess what? Most RPGs don’t have any real role-playing, either.

2. Stop calling them real time tactics. I’ve already heard and read this cliche a million times. “There’s no strategy in RTS! It’s all tactics!” Wrong. There is strategy in RTS, the problem is that it’s always the same strategy – produce faster than you consume. How you get to this point can be tactical, but attrition and counter-production is often a military strategy, not a tactic. In fact, RTS games have very few tactics. In many cases, counters be damned; you can just swarm an opponent with whatever you can make. And a defensive posture is almost always a recipe for failure.

3. The games you want are already out there, dude. Toronto writes:

The reason that RTS games become RTT games is that they ignore one simple fact: “War is the continuation of policy by other means.” RTS games have done a superb job of simulating war but a lousy job of simulating politics. If RTS games are to be truly strategic, then they need to simulate both war and politics. Why? Because war is politics.

In his overquoted dictum, Clausewitz is not saying that every action taken in war is necessarily political, but that the act of war is. Sending my cavalry to pillage Neuchatel is not necessarily a political act except insofar as it allows me to keep the war going. The big Clausewitzian omission from the RTS isn’t politics, by the way, but “friction”.

Still, complaining that RTS games don’t have elaborate diplomatic engines is like wondering why I can’t call in a hostage negotiator in Half-Life. The RTS is a deathmatch genre, engineered around the “only one must survive” idea. There are lots of other games that do have deterrence, compellence, alliances, trade pacts, restive populations, etc., many of which move in real time. Why wonder why Rise of Nations doesn’t have threats of violence when Total War does?

In fact, most of Toronto’s suggestions for changes in the RTS can be found in either the Total War games, Paradox’s titles or many turn-based games. Populations you need to keep happy? Yep. Internal opponents? Yep. People who want you for more than your land? Yep. Infrastructure development? Yep.

And what would be added by sticking these on a traditional real time strategy game? Little that I can see that isn’t being done in genres and forms that have evolved around the Starcrafts and Warcrafts.

What would be lost? The lunch hour game. The RTS is designed to be played quickly. It’s not a reflection of history or strategy except on the most simplistic level imaginable.

If you want a deep political and strategic game, the RTS is one of the worst places to look. Most of the time it doesn’t even capture war well, despite what Toronto says.


29 Comments so far ↓

  • Soren Johnson

    heh… thanks for writing this post so I didn’t have to. Not a good article at all.

    Does Gamasutra just publish whatever long article anyone sends them?

  • Troy

    I’d love to read your take on it, though, so don’t let my ramblings get in the way of your insights.

  • Vic Davis

    I second Soren. I was even going to email you a link last night when I caught it….but I figured it was probably on your reading list. The thing that was really funny was that I saw the Total War title for a paragraph and I thought “great he’s going to mention how it covers some of his desired design points.” Nope.

    The Pacific Theatre as an RTS is a bad analogy. The Pacific Theatre as the preeminent example of a “hate filled” death struggle would be down on my list. Certainly the Eastern Front WW II or even the Peloponnesian War would get a higher ranking.

  • Scott R. Krol

    Oooh, he has footnotes. How swanky.

  • Soren Johnson

    yeah, the combination of pretense (the aforementioned footnotes) and lack of concern for the actual player experience (“the villagers should choose for themselves”) is pretty deadly. When I clicked on the author link and found out that he is a non-game industry, IR PhD… well, this is how academics get a bad name. (which is really unfortunate for the good ones!) His comments are typical of the suggestions we would often get for Civ which reflect more about the player’s imagination than what would actually work as a game mechanic.

    I do have to comment a little on your definition of RTS, though, Troy. Obviously, you are right that the definition has calcified to mean WC/C&C/AoE/etc, but I think we should resist that with all our abilities. The RTS genre should include Populous, SimCity, M.U.L.E., Railroad Tycoon, Moonbase Commander, even something like Travian. We need to remember that “real-time” and “strategy” can be combined in 100x more ways than they are in the current market.

  • Vic Davis

    And don’t forget Majesty!

  • Troy

    I’ve already mentioned Majesty! What a great little boundary pusher that went nowhere.

    Soren, I agree with you that the term has calcified and that this can be a semantic problem, but that doesn’t mean that they can all be comfortably stuck together. I guess my main problem is using time mechanics to determine genre categories.

    Populous, I think fits well into the traditional RTS model, for example. In many ways it’s a prototype RTS – you promote resource collection and send forth your troops to slay things. Its influence has, sadly, been less than I would have hoped.

    But MULE or Railroad Tycoon fit better as light business sims. Is Capitalism, for example, an RTS? Why not just chuck Harpoon in and be done with it?

    We need better terminology, of course, but as evolutionary as language is, you can’t just impose it. For better or worse, the term RTS has come to mean “top down game in which you gather resources to build and control armies of little guys”. Sometimes it makes sense to just defer to the popular understanding.

    A lot of games don’t move in turns, but we don’t speak of real time and turn based RPGs (Oblivion v Ultima?) or real time shooters. For some reason strategy gamers and developers have gotten hung up on how in-game time is measured as opposed to what the game is actually about or mechanics more central to how the game plays. Tile based instead of turn-based for example, or base building instead of real time.

  • Troy

    Oh, and there’s nothing wrong with footnotes. I love them. But I think that if you have to put Clausewitz in a footnote with “War is a continuation of politics…” you are seriously underestimating your audience. Likewise with the Sun Tzu quote.

    Just once I’d like to see someone cite Machiavelli’s Art of War instead.

  • Scott R. Krol

    Actually I do think we speak in terms of turn based (aka ‘classic’) CRPGs and real time CRPGs.

    In the end, yeah, it’s all semantics and really just boils down to terms marketing departments came up with to try selling their products which have unfortunately become canon over the years.

  • Scott R. Krol

    There’s nothing wrong with footnotes, but for all the years I’ve walked these Intertubes I do believe that was the first time I’ve seen footnotes used in a gaming article. That just really rubbed me wrong.

  • Vic Davis

    Troy wrote: For better or worse, the term RTS has come to mean “top down game in which you gather resources to build and control armies of little guys”. Sometimes it makes sense to just defer to the popular understanding.

    For me it means unless I am playing alone and can pause, I have a acid stomach feeling that something is happening somewhere that I need to know about. Time as a resource is the critical problem for me. Some games want to take some of that stomach turning ADD feeling away by letting me zoom out, automating a lot of interaction and grouping agents on the map into units (like Kohan). There is a paradoxical dynamic here though. The drive towards abstraction runs against the glory of observing everything in detail. In order to really enjoy an RTS you basically have to be God. Every sparrow that falls….

  • Soren Johnson

    That’s a very good point about tile-based instead of turn-based. Civ is, first and foremost, a tile-based game. If you saw some people playing Civ4 with Blazing turn timer on the Net, it would sure look like a real-time game, but it’s still fundamentally tile-based. The time element is not the most important one.

    I guess my concern with the term “real-time strategy” is that it sort of overwhelms mainstream gamers’ perception of the strategy game market. (My favorite example of this was Fall from Heaven winning an award for “Best RTS Mod” from GameFlood because there was not a Strategy category.) There’s a bit of an Orwellian thing going on here in that the more codified our definition of RTS, the more games like Universe at War and Supreme Commander we’ll see… and the less like Majesty and Moonbase Commander.

  • Vimes

    Well I was also moved to post on this on my site as its members only on gamasutra but noone is mentioning MMORTS as the natural next step. Expand the playing field and you allow long term strategy to develop. Check out Beyond Protocols aspirations with the Senate and the scale of trade/espionage/base building/warfare. Technology is now allowing MMORTS to be possible – I will comment more when I see a full debate ;)

  • Troy

    Thanks for chiming in Vimes.

    The MMORTS has some major hurdles still, I think, but they aren’t technological. Soren mentioned Travian as an RTS example, and it’s a first crack at the MMORTS in many ways. Playing it for a few months underlined a lot of the design issues that a AAA MMORTS will face.

    But I agree that once you have issues of guilds/nations/territory etc, then there’s a good chance that many of the complaints that Toronto has will vanish because the RTS will be a layer beneath the metagame of grand strategy (which seems to be how he is defining strategy.)

  • Vimes

    Well you have played one Browser Based RTS I havent heard of whereas most I know, like myself, have played many over 7-10 years in full 3D MMO RTS ( client led interface not browser).
    The main issues are griefing by casual players ( dealt with as scale increases – every nation has one bunch of idiots – though some elect them top president it seems) and offline killing which is being approached by many of the new MMORTS games being developed now. I suggest trying Ballerium, Beyond Protocol, and Saga. You havent even managed to play the games that players of MMORTS consider stumbled and highlighted the few constant issues with gameplay.

    As for the technology – very wrong. The advent of .net framework has enabled large scale (thousands) unit control by large numbers of players with significant improvement in lag and graphical issues. Add to this the blooming of social networking and its related technology for communication and social networking and you manage the MMO in a manner that MMORTS requires.

  • Vimes

    I didn’t mean to sound so argumentative….but I am lol. You are of course entitled to your opinions and experiences ;)

  • Troy

    You misread me. I said the problems were NOT technological. They are more on the design end of keeping a universe of players satisfied and knowing which parts of the game to keep RTS and which parts to make MMO. It’s a delicate balance.

    Ballerium is on my ever growing “to play” list. On your recommendation, I’ll bump it up the queue.

  • Alan Au

    If we’re straying into MMORTS territory, I would just mention that previous attempts at combining the genres have been… disappointing. Command & Conquer Sole Survivor was a failure (although really it was more like Subspace than a proper RTS) and Shattered Galaxy was short-lived. The other interesting data point is that SOE’s Sovereign project never got off of the ground, although I don’t know the specifics. In any case, MMORTS isn’t exactly new, and the early offerings in the genre never really got traction.

  • Scott R. Krol

    Troy, you’re a Godhead now! Congratulations! Just think, with The First Church of Goodfellow, you’ll be able to save quite a bit on your taxes. :)

  • Vimes

    Exactly – so now you KNOW there are many more out there, they should be examined and figured into the debate.Single player RTS is just an industry and community bad habit, the best opponent is a live one. MMO and persistence are the key and these are being dealt with with imagination.

    The one MMORTS you mention Shattered Galaxy was released in 2001 – time to catch up with Mankind, Time of Defiance, boundless Planet, Saga, Dreamlords, Call of the kings, Dawn of Fantasy, Kingdoms of war, and Navyfield for starters. There are an equal numbe rin long term beta or alpha stages – developers in our genre don’t rush or charge for uncompleted work unlike commercial releases with endless patches if ANY multiplayer aspect exists.

    I hear many dated opinions, much akin to trying weed at a party when drunk, then being of the opinion thereafter it is EVIL and made you have a near death experience etc ;) Come and try Beyond Protocol if you have a SciFi leaning or Ballerium/Saga for fantasy(easier to join – dreamlords have redesigned some major aspects of the game and resubmitted it to alpha testing.) But it is free as are most betas. Time of Defiance is less persistent but worth looking at and offers a week free trial, as does Boundless Planet. Both are Scif Fi – the former Air/ship based with building and the latter on a HUGE planet with land/air/sea units and more freestyle construction. Boundless has just started to go open source and the game client is available via the site for the nosey.

    Hardly as you hastily summarised I think and I look forward to hearing your thoughts. I will say that none of the existing raft of MMORTS games have overcome the issues many know but the new generation which are to be released second quarter 2008 will certainly offer us real hope. Innovation was always the byword of RPG (book based lol) when I was growing up – now MMORTS offers the unique experience online.

  • Vimes

    Actually, looking through the list of games you have reviewed I am even more shocked you didn’t come looking for MMORTS sooner lol ;)

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  • Fing0lfin

    I’m trying to think of different ways of approaching balance in RTS design. I found your article interesting. Basically I’m trying to create ‘factions-on-the-fly’ where at the start of the game all players start with the same ‘tech tree levels’ and are able to upgrade and research further according to their preferences and situation. I think this is the future of RTS design, it means the developers have to spend less time on very specific faction balancing and worrying about knock-on effects of that. It means all players can start equally regardless of map etc but can develop the faction spontaneously according to their choices. It hopefully means developers would only have to balance units or ‘tech trees’ and watch the effect of that for all players, not a specific faction on a specific map or whatnot. I also have other ideas to do with balance and ‘creativity’ in games (mostly RTS) at my blog. I’m not a professional, just an interested RTS player and amateur designer. It would be nice to have some feedback.

  • What I’ve Written For Gamasutra

    […] The Future of the Real Time Strategy Game (originally published on FoS.) […]

  • September

    There is a problem with this critique of a unique yet inchoate approach to RTS. Given that RTS might have a slightly more thoughtful pace and not be a “death-match”, a game that is like a Total War game and like Majesty might work.

    Given the width and depth of human capacity to innovate, this critique begins to sound like envy and reasoned scolding. It is almost as if the author wants to innovate a game of his own and Caesar comes daringly close to his desired contribution to gaming, his private concept. Perhaps something approaching Europa Universalis but also permitting RTS scale construction, assignment of nobles to build in areas to prevent micromanagement headaches? Good tactical and strategic AI for all computer game functions?

    It is my hope that we *will* see a game like Birthright: Gorgon’s Alliance and the non-executed Majesty Legends. I think the RTS deathmatch has its definite place as a classic game, but it’s a simple and briefly amusing game, like Space Invaders or Q*Bert. The enjoyment of the sort of game being approached with Caesar and possible future games is slower and deeper. Maybe even tighter.

    So on the eve of a construct such as Spore, we might begin to see more RTS with longer gameplay and more thoughtful moments. And we come upon the prelude of an MMORPG with stronger and more fulfilling Grand Strategy elements yet no “turns” per se.

    It’s sort of what Advanced Dungeons and Dragons showed signs of developing into: an RPG with Grand Strategy elements — wait til that 11th level fighter with the stronghold gains a real political footing and the game changes profoundly without casting aside the adventure, the romantic chivalry, the pulp action elements.

    Good essay, but transparent in its aggression.

  • Alec

    My favorite RTS so far has been Knights of Honor


    Image Total War without the turn based system. I would hope the future of RTS would move in this direction.

  • Keen

    Fie on that poser! No gamer he! May the glaring eyes of our scorn stop up his mouth and stay his wrinkled fingers.

  • joelofarabia

    Troy said: “And what would be added by sticking these on a traditional real time strategy game? Little that I can see that isn’t being done in genres and forms that have evolved around the Starcrafts and Warcrafts.

    “What would be lost? The lunch hour game. The RTS is designed to be played quickly. It’s not a reflection of history or strategy except on the most simplistic level imaginable.”

    Don’t get me wrong I fully agree with every word of this critique. However at least for me in terms of what I’m looking for at the moment, those two paragraphs sum up my problem with RTS games in a nutshell: I want a game with all that depth that DOESN’T lose “the lunch hour game.”

    It such a shame I don’t have the time to make such a game myself. I’ve got it all worked out in my head. Basically it would take an RTS game, simplify it almost to an abstract form, and soup up the alliance functions.

    Does such a thing exist??

    (Anybody who’s interested in my ideas is free to email me. Unlikely, I know… :)

  • joelofarabia

    oops. my email: joelofarabia@gmail.com