A set of games that feels like it doesn’t get talked about enough these days is the RTS genre. Eclipsed in recent times by the MOBA boom, RTS games used to have their heyday, especially in the 90s and early 2000s. While all but dead, RTS titles occupy a niche segment of the gaming community with the indie landscape picking up most of the slack.
However, the genre still has many places it can still go so I firmly believe it’s worth it for gamers of all stripes to explore it.
RTS stands for Real-Time Strategy and it’s one of the most popular genres in the overall strategy game space.
Its main characteristic is that all operations, commands, and battles occur, as it says on the tin, in real time. By contrast, grand strategy games operate at a more macro level, meaning that you’re always looking at a bigger picture. Battles play out mostly automatically and are part of a larger objective you have set for yourself.
RTS games are primarily focused on the minutia of one army battling another. The bases you build, the units you train, and the objectives you take are all part of a singular game where the main goal is to defeat the opposing army.
While this may paint RTS games as an overly simplistic depiction of war, it’s actually a more engaging experience with wider appeal.
In essence, RTS games place you in the tightly laced boots of a military commander, meaning you call every single shot on the battlefield. You decide where each structure of your base will be built. You choose which tech upgrades your units and buildings will receive. More importantly, you are the one maneuvering your troops to secure locations and take on enemy forces.
The sheer fact that you’re this combat puppet master is what keeps people coming back to RTS games. But, what makes the experience even more engaging is how you need to manage both the macro and micro level of decisions at the same time within a span of a single match, which can last anywhere between 15 minutes to over an hour.
While you’re commanding a fleet of starships in Starcraft to perform a pincer attack on an enemy outpost, you’re also considering your resources and upgrades back at base. It’s both a visceral and cerebral exercise unlike anything else other game genres can produce.
But, not all RTS games are created equal. Many have tried to capture the adrenaline rush the genre is known for but not many make it out on top and this can be attributed to some key building blocks.
Tech trees are one of the core backbones of an RTS commander’s decision-making. They’re like talent trees in RPGs where you have to choose between certain abilities. The difference is that RTS tech trees define your army’s playstyle.
What makes for an engaging tech system is having hard decisions for you to make. When tech and upgrade decisions are too linear, an RTS feels too streamlined, which essentially eliminates the cerebral component of what makes these titles fun.
As an extension to the above point, your base and unit management must also come with hard choices, and it all comes down to resources. If your materials and currency are too easy to come by, then building up your base and training units is too easy.
The best RTS games, though, force you to consider your build order. Should you build another barracks or expand your options with a factory? Do I pro-actively build more energy sources or reinforce my army with more units? These are the core decision skills of management that RTS gamers strive to develop and improve. It’s what gives them the adrenaline rush that keeps them coming back for more.
As mentioned earlier, RTS games combine the resource management economics macro level with the nuances of commanding each unit of your army directly. The latter is known in the space as micro. Coming from the term micro-management, micro involves taking full control of where your army goes, how it paths from one location to the next, and how it’s positioned on the battlefield.
Especially during combat, you can split and group your units any way you see fit. A lot of units will even have special abilities that can turn the tide of battle when triggered at crucial moments. It’s this level of control that fully defines the RTS genre. Therefore, micro needs to be a compelling feature. If a game doesn’t expect the player to do some micro-managing of their units, the game becomes boring and far too streamlined to be considered a good RTS.
This can sometimes be a contentious point among RTS aficionados but it remains largely a key element of the genre’s puzzle. Some fans prefer games to be fast and allow for rushing tactics that can annihilate opponents before they can build up their base. Others feel that having longer games provides more time to formulate strategies and develop armies that’ll make for epic battles.
There’s no right or wrong answer to match length. However, it’s generally agreed that when they fall too far off either side of the long-short spectrum, they don’t make for good RTS titles. A famous example was the Zergling rush in the original Starcraft. Players who picked up the Zerg faction could opt to build large numbers of a tiny yet extremely fast unit called a Zergling. This rush could end matches very quickly and require specific counterplay to handle, making matches far less enjoyable and restrictive.
On the flip side, matches that drag on for a near-eternity end up being wars of attrition, oftentimes related to how long each player could stomach playing the same game. The other problem is that the decisions you need to make stop becoming compelling. Lengthy games inevitably give you access to all resources and tech advancements so there’s nothing more for you to work on besides trying to grind your opponent down while they can do the same.
Ultimately, there’s no real sweet spot when it comes to length so your choice of RTS will depend on your taste.
RTS games are generally seen as a multiplayer-focused genre so to talk about AI might seem a bit strange. However, a lot of people prefer to play against bot opponents simply because they want to enjoy the game without competitive stress. Even still, an RTS can have AI that’s unreasonably good for several reasons.
The primary focus on AI fairness is that bots can often execute commands faster than a human. Where a person needs to physically move their mouse and tap on their keyboard, a computer simply needs to issue commands. The speed difference is immense. Therefore, a good RTS needs to have AI options that allow players to tweak their non-human opponents so that they can tailor their matches to their preferences and skill levels.
At this point, I’m guessing you’re here because you are either interested in picking up an RTS or want to get an idea of what makes the genre compelling. Whatever the case, I do recommend giving these games a go. When they meet the above criteria, they’re shining examples of good game design that are complex to develop. As such, they represent cornerstones of the industry and how far it has come.
The following titles are highly recommended as they’re all great examples of good RTS design and have a big influence on the way the space develops:
- Starcraft & Starcraft 2
- Dawn of War
- Warcraft III
- Age of Empires
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