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In Defense of the RTS

September 3rd, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

As popular as the resource harvesting real time strategy game is, it’s a little surprising to see it so often maligned. The entire sub-genre is often written off as having little to do with strategy, derided as a “clickfest” and to many of the hardcore gaming audience the RTS world is full of clones and knock-offs with little to no originality.

Some of the disdain is undoubtedly rooted in the popularity of the RTS. Even though most RTS games aren’t very good, it is easy to blame the amazing success of the Warcrafts, Command and Conquers, and Ages of Empires for the flood of Cossacks, War Times, and Celtic Kings – and worse. But many of the complaints are borne out of the frustration that usually comes with the belief that you have seen it all before and that no one is making games for you.

Here is a brief defense of the real time harvesting strategy game.

There is no strategy in RTS: In fact, there is strategy in RTS, but it often is a similar strategy from game to game. Strategy implies long term planning, and few things typify long term (for a one hour game) like build orders, counter units and economic management. There is little in the way of tactics, to be sure. Once you have built your force, there is little need to manage it in combat beyond sending it in the right direction. (A few game break this mold – Kohan, Warcraft III, Act of War.)

It’s all the the same strategy – economic efficiency: This is true, but misleading. RTS are about economic efficiency, but in the same way that 4X games are about expansion and FPS are about shooting without getting shot. But you never hear hardcore gamers complaining that all the shooters are the same because you have to do similar things in them. Economic efficiency and getting the biggest bang for your buck have been the currency of the sub genre since the beginning.

This does not mean that all economic efficiencies are the same. Take Age of Mythology. Though recognized by most reviewers as a good game, it never achieved the success of Age of Empires, probably because it messed up the economic efficiency expectations of players. In the Multiplayer world of AoM, many players have favorite gods or nations since they know the min/max ratios down. In random play, though, there is a lot to consider. Each nation has different ways to achieve favor. Each nation has different needs in resources. Each nation has a different troop balance.

It’s all about who can click the fastest: Few genres emphasize hotkeys and mouse movement to the extent that RTS do. You have know what you need and when you can afford to build it. At the highest levels of MP action, the concept of build orders comes into play and can be frustrating for newer players. Most of us, though, have no real interest in becoming the best Warcraft player ever, so a basic understanding of build orders is all that’s needed. Most players figure this out pretty quickly.

And RTS games aren’t the only ones with build orders. All the Civ games encouraged a specific order in the early game. Sandbox games and city builders can be brutal if those first few dollars aren’t invested in the right way. But because of the MP competitive aspect of RTS games, they have been “tainted” as though the mere presence of a build order means that less skill is involved. And in MP, the need for excellent situational awareness and quick reaction times with the mouse and keys is common to all genres – there is nothing special about RTS.

They are all clones: There are a lot of clones out there. But each of the major titles and series have a lot to separate them. Warcraft II is a predecessor of Age of Mythology, but the two are as different as humans are from homo erectus. Both Warcraft III and AoM have heroes, but they serve very different purposes. The factions in Rise of Nations are as distinct as the factions in Command and Conquer, but in more different ways. Act of War has only one resource, only two ways to get it, and similar factions – but the result is an original combination that has been sadly underappreciated by gamers.

And, as popular as World War II is as a game setting, there are remakably few RTS that ask you build factories to churn out Shermans and Stukas. A sub-genre of the RTS has been developed to focus more on prebuilt armies and missions, or allow the player to buy units for skirmish play – see Desert Rats: Afrika Korps or Codename Panzer for examples of this new spin on the RTS. To throw these games in with the craptastic War Times or been-there/done-that of Cossacks misses the variety within the RTS fold.

Someone once told me that all you really need is Starcraft, It works for Korea, but not for me.

There are certainly legitimate reasons to dislike RTS games. They are often short play sessions, so if you are a builder type, the pressure to quickly go on the offensive will certainly offend. Though there are real time wargames, most of these are not wargames; if you were sucked in by Cossacks’ promises of grand 17th century battles or the deceptive Age of Empires screenshots that showed all these soldiers neatly lined up, welcome to the wonderful world of deceptive marketing. Though pathfinding has gotten better and formations are more common, many RTS still devolve into a lot of your pawns beating on the other guy’s pawns until somebody wins. The need for superweapons in a lot of the games is a sign that designers are still not sure how to deal with endgame stalemates.

But don’t dismiss the sub-genre completely. You are missing some really interesting games, and the next six months will see Age of Empires go to a world very familiar and Rise of Legends to one we’ve never seen before. You’d hate to be left out.


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