Know Your Genre: Real-Time Strategy

Just what do we really mean when we talk about “game genres,” anyway? Sure, you’ve probably seen that “fans of the genre will enjoy this” phrase in umpteen game reviews, but the truth is that the most durable game genres have walked some long, ever-evolving, and very interesting roads over the past several decades. In this weekly series, Xbox Wire’s editorial team will break down exactly what shaped your favorite genres, why they’re so timelessly awesome, and where they’re headed – while providing you with some expert advice on the past and modern classics that you should check out!

This week, we’re investigating the history of one of the more cerebral game genres: real-time strategy. Since its inception, this brand of quick thinking, resource-gathering, and troop-commanding has been thought of as a micromanager’s dream. But this is a far more diverse genre than many realize, and that starts with its birth in an unlikely time and place given where it is today.

The Past

While the real-time strategy genre is generally associated with Western developers on the PC platform, the first game generally considered to fit the criteria of an RTS wasn’t made in the United States or Europe – nor did it appear on PCs.

The unlikely progenitor was Herzog Zwei, which Technosoft developed for the Sega Genesis in 1990. The Japanese studio earned plenty of fame in the ’80s and ’90s with its Thunder Force series of scrolling shooters, but this experimental mix of action and strategy ultimately proved far more important in the scope of gaming history. Players controlled a flying mech that zipped across the battlefield from a top-down perspective, issuing orders and defending resources along the way. The game even included a split-screen multiplayer option, an amazingly early innovation that wouldn’t become standard in RTS entries for another five years or so.

Most North American gamers didn’t know what to make of Herzog Zwei, but as it turns out, it was a hit in the offices of Las Vegas-based Westwood Studios. The developers there used it as one of the blueprints (along with early-’90s strategy hits Populous and Civilization) to craft Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty, which took Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi universe and infused it with several elements that became RTS staples, such as fog-of-war, precise mouse controls, and resource management.

Unlike Herzog Zwei, however, Dune II was a massive success both critically and commercially upon its 1992 debut. This brought a flurry of iconic RTS releases over the next few years, starting with Blizzard’s Warcraft: Orcs & Humans in 1994. Modern gamers might know the Warcraft name from World of Warcraft (or, more recently, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft), but the franchise got its start in the real-time strategy realm. Warcraft popularized several soon-to-be-ubiquitous RTS elements, including a random map generator and multiplayer matches via modem or LAN.

Meanwhile, Westwood followed the success of Dune II with 1995’s Command & Conquer, which became a benchmark for RTS games by offering noticeably different faction play styles – not to mention awesomely cheesy full-motion video segments that added true storytelling elements to the genre. With several offshoots and expansions and nearly 20 releases in total bearing the Command & Conquer name from 1995 to 2010, it’s definitely the most prolific RTS franchise in gaming history.

Two years later, Ensemble Studios’ Age of Empires gave the RTS its first history-based hit, and presented players the choice of 12 factions spanning the Eurasian supercontinent, from Greece to Japan. The action followed the player’s forces as they evolved from Stone Age hunter-gatherers to a conquering Iron Age empire. The sequel, Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings, greatly expanded upon the concepts of the first game and become one of the most critically acclaimed RTS releases of all time.

Then, in 1998, Blizzard took the genre to even greater heights and launched an international phenomenon with StarCraft. While faction strengths and weaknesses had been part of the RTS experience for years, StarCraft struck the perfect balance with the powerful Protoss, the lightning-quick Zerg, and the balanced Terrans. These three expertly designed factions made the game ideal for online RTS competition – nowhere more famously than in South Korea, where it’s become a national passion that sells out arenas on a regular basis (oh, and for fun, search for “Zerg rush” on Google to see just how deeply this phenomenon has permeated the minds of gamers across the world).

The Present

Real-time strategy isn’t nearly as ubiquitous as it was from the ’90s through the turn of the 21st century, but the new millennium has brought some staggering innovation to the genre – along with a hearty dose of nostalgia.

In 2006, Relic’s Company of Heroes brought home the horrors of brutal World War II combat better than any gore-filled shooter, thanks in part to advanced map physics and destructibility. One of the game’s expansions, Opposing Fronts, even took a storytelling risk in the single-player campaign by putting players in control of German forces, a shift from the typical portrayal of any and every Nazi as a diabolical supervillain.

We’ve also seen some beloved RTS franchises make some surprise resurrections. Even after EA closed Westwood Studios in 2003, players still pined for more Command & Conquer. EA Los Angeles granted their wish in 2007 with Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, which starred Tricia Helfer and Billy Dee Williams in the first mainline C&C entry since 1999.

Halo Wars (Xbox 360 – Ensemble Studios, 2009)

Real-time strategy has also found success in some unexpected places. Double Fine’s Tim Schafer may be known as one of the fathers of adventure games, but he cited Herzog Zwei as the inspiration behind the rockin’ action-adventure/RTS hybrid Brütal Legend, the story of roadie Eddie Riggs (played with headbanging aplomb by Jack Black) and his adventures in a fantastical world inspired by heavy metal album covers.

Even one of gaming’s most popular shooters explored real-time strategy. Ensemble Studios’ Halo Wars was a rare attempt to carve out a console-only RTS niche on the Xbox 360 in 2009; the game was well-received and became the best-selling console RTS game of all-time, hitting more than 1 million in sales.

Finally, we can’t ignore the fact that the genre’s juggernaut is still going strong. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty and its 2013 expansion, Heart of the Swarm, have modernized the most popular RTS franchise (with elements such as improved matchmaking and a more robust map editor) without sacrificing what made the original game so appealing.

The Future

For years, real-time strategy developers searched (mostly in vain) for a way to transfer the experience properly to home consoles and expand their potential audience. As we look toward the future, that focus seems to have shifted into making the genre all it can be on the platform that truly suits it best: the PC. Looking ahead, players should be excited about several real-time strategy developments on the way.

StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void, the game’s third and final expansion, is slated to hit this year and will put players in the middle of a Protoss-based campaign. Grey Goo, a well-received throwback RTS released in January from several Westwood Studios veterans at Petroglyph Games, promises to deliver further expansions in the coming months.

One of the most intriguing developments, however, is that 16 years after its original release, Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings is getting a new expansion in the form of The African Kings this fall. Perhaps we’ll see other classic RTS franchises look to the past in order to deliver something new.

Size matters, too. In the upcoming Ashes of the Singularity from Stardock, thousands of units will do battle on absolutely massive maps. We’ve never seen this type of mind-boggling scale in an RTS before, and we can’t wait.

We should also anticipate more genre-fusing experiments, resulting in intriguingly innovative hybrid gameplay. We’ve already seen this in Creative Assembly’s Total War series, which blends turn-based seasonal planning with hectic real-time battles in locales as varied as ancient Rome and feudal Japan (the most recent entry, Total War: Attila, even sees the fearsome Huns making their march toward the gates of Rome as the game progresses). Paradox’s Europa Universalis series, meanwhile, takes players on a journey from the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the French Revolution by combining real-time strategy and 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) gameplay.

Xbox itself is looking to a multiplatform future for the RTS genre, with the just-announced Halo Wars 2. It is currently under development by the aforementioned Creative Assembly for a 2016 launch on Xbox One and Windows 10 PC.

And don’t forget that real-time strategy is also the ancestor of two of today’s most popular genres: the multiplayer online battle arena (better known as the MOBA) and tower defense. So, the next time you’re up all night engrossed in League of Legends or Plants vs. Zombies, you can look back to Herzog Zwei and Dune II with gratitude.

With a track record that’s timeless and an appeal to gamers across all cultures, the RTS genre will no doubt continue to innovate and influence in the years ahead.

10 Real-Time Strategy Essentials
Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings (Windows – Ensemble Studios, 1999)
Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars (Windows/Xbox 360 – Electronic Arts, 2007)
Company of Heroes (Windows – Relic Entertainment, 2006)
Grey Goo (Windows – Petroglyph Games, 2015)
Halo Wars (Xbox 360 – Ensemble Studios, 2009)
Homeworld (Windows – Relic Entertainment, 1999)
Sins of a Solar Empire (Windows – Ironclad Games, 2008)
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (Windows – Blizzard Entertainment, 2010)
Total Annihilation (Windows – Cavedog Entertainment, 1997)
Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (Windows – Blizzard Entertainment, 2002)