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A Look at the Definition and History of Real-Time Strategy
Published on September 3, 2006 By mittens In Real-Time
Jump to: The Introduction :: RTS101 :: A Brief History :: Trent + RTS = :: Conclusion and Preview

Back in the day, when I was a strapping young lad on the brink of finally convincing the parents that the household needed a computer as much as it needed gas and electricity, there were two games that I was introduced to through two third-parties that I loved like no man should love software: Wolfenstein 3D and Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. Wolf3D was considered far too gruesome and controversial for a conservative family like mine, but Warcraft, to the untrained eye, looked much like a puzzle game to the unknowing guardians-that-be; that stayed in the house, and I can safely say that I'm a better gamer -- nay, person -- for it. This game was the catalyst for one of the most consistent gaming loves of my childhood, teenhood, young adulthood, and so on: the pure exciting, energetic, exuberance experienced in the enjoyment of the Real-Time Strategy genre. This article is the first part of what will, most likely, end up being a four-part series in celebrating and analyzing (mostly the latter) the modern RTS. Coincidentally, it may also completely remove whatever sex appeal I had left in favor of boosting my nerdiness, but that's neither here nor there.

From Left: Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty, Starcraft, and Age of Empires 3.

The Introduction
In this introductory article, my goal is to, basically, attempt to summarize what I personally consider to qualify as a real-time strategy game. After that, and what will compromise a large majority of the length of this article (I got a bit carried away), I'll look at the history of the genre up to the point where I'll begin detailing more specific aspects of today's modern RTSs. So, if you're really not a big fan of reading a lot, feel free to skim through the history segment; a lot of it isn't absolutely critical to the rest of the series, but I personally found it to be really interesting stuff. After that, I'll go into a little spiel about why I personally consider RTS games to be amongst the most enjoyable and long-lasting games around.

Subsequent articles in the series will take a look at ideas and games which are far more applicable to the here and the now. In the second article I'll go through an in-depth look at a lot of the prime mechanics and innovations that have been introduced over the course of the last seven-eight years (with a focus on the last three-four, in particular) that lead us into the current "generation" of RTS games. In the third article, I'll then take a close look at what I, and many of the people I talk to, consider to be the current big-name entries in the genre in order to give a more current and practical spin to the ideas discussed in the second article. In the fourth, and most likely final, article I'll take a look at the blockbuster titles coming in the next six-nine months which should really inject a whole lot of innovation and life into a genre which is constantly adapting to the increasingly complex desires of PC gamers.

And that last point is really the aspect of real-time strategy games that I find most noteworthy: with every big RTS, gamers are introduced into an entirely new level of complexity. With only a handful of exceptions, I think it's arguably one of the few genres left in the realm of PC gaming that hasn't been a victim of the simplification that tends to occur when games are simultaneously developed with both consoles and PCs in mind. The result of this development is that a lot of complexity (especially in the user-interface) is compromised to make things far more manageable for console gamers. PC RTS titles have been ported to consoles in the past (generally much later than the original PC release date), but the amount of map, unit, and base management that needs to be done by the player is incredibly difficult to pull off with a joystick on a gamepad, and without a mouse and the wide variety of possible keyboard hotkeys that PC gamers utilize.

I'm not going to get all super-technical or create some kind of strict definition for what I mean when I refer to a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game. Sometimes this label gets overused on a lot of titles that, for the most part, really don't deserve to be labeled as such. For the most part, I'd say that the distinction between a lot of the particular necessities for the genre pretty much just boil down to semantics, but I'm told that reputable writers need to "define their terms" in an effort to look all sorts of professional and informed-like. Anyway, there are a couple of things that really make an RTS as far as I'm concerned.

The first, and most notable, is that the game is played-out in a fashion that the title of the genre implies: real-time. This means that at no point should the real guts of the game allow for the player to pause the game in order to plot his base, give orders to units, or share baking recipes with the opponent. All of the action in a particular match should not be interrupted unless it is a complete interruption of input as well. There are some games which make this benchmark complicated in that they may mix aspects of real-time strategy with turn-based strategy in separate segments of the game. Rome: Total War is a prime example of this; the battles occur in real-time, but a majority of the army, nation, and general army tactics all occur by turns over a map of Europe. This game I would consider to simply be a Strategy game rather than refining the label to real-time strategy.

Rome: Total War.

Secondly, I believe that the focus of the real-time strategy in the universe of the average gamer is that each RTS puts a very heavy focus on the military aspects of the game. Some games which call themselves by the label even put military strategy as their sole focus, but these titles are a case that I will delve into a bit later. For the most part, though, while certainly the major focus of a traditional RTS is on military tactics and strategy, the importance of a player's economy, technology research, a base structure cannot be overlooked unless the player wants to go through a match with continually overpowered, technologically superior units of his enemy.

These things considered, a lot of real-time strategy games released over the last fourteen years (Dune II was released in back in the days of the cavemen, dinosaurs, and stone tablets of 1992) really have yet to pick up on one of the most important aspects of strategy as far as military conflicts are concerned: the actual strategical prowess of a player. A lot of games certainly require a great deal of thought put into a player's particular game strategy (I'm using the word in a general sense here), but rarely does a game actually reward players for actually employing a particularly complex strategy with few units of low power against a far larger force which, by most calculations, should emerge the victor. There are numerous instances in the history of world conflict where a country's forces have entered into a battle completely overpowered, outnumbered, and generally outmatched, but yet have managed to "win" the battle by most counts due to the strategic brilliance of their commander. Most RTS titles, though, don't generally allow for this to happen; an inept player with massed units, in some games, can simply enter a fight with a superior player in command of very few units, and pull out with a total victory. Does this prevalent shortcoming of the genre really change the way we look at games under which it's labeled? I'd say no, but it raises interesting questions which the next generation of real-time strategy games -- Supreme Commander in particular -- are looking to remedy.

Supreme Commander.

A Brief History of (Real)-Time (Strategy)
There are articles across the Intarweb that put a far larger emphasis on the history of the genre than I should even attempt right now, but for the sake of completion, I'll devote a bit of space to give a mere glimpse at the roots and titles which really laid the groundwork for the modern real-time strategy game.

There are various early games that are believed to have contributed to the idea of the real-time strategy game as we think of it today; the first one being Stonkers was released in 1983 (developed and published by Imagine Software). Stonkers was released for a platform that, in all honesty, I never even knew about until I did some preparatory research for the series: the ZX Spectrum (and with the breathtaking graphics of Stonkers that can be seen in the first screenshot below this paragraph, I think I know why). In the game, players controlled various types of units (infantry, artillery, etc.) and focused entirely on the combat aspect of the game; while attempting to eliminate the enemy, though, players had to be mindful of each unit's energy, and attempt to conserve it to ensure that your supply units don't run out of munitions to supply the units before a new shipment of energy arrives.


The next evolutionary leap in the fledging genre (which, as of yet, wasn't considered as such) is Herzog Zwei (roughly: "The Second Baron"), released for the Genesis' Mega Drive back in the winter of 1990 by developer/publisher TechnoSoft. HZ was one step closer to the RTS style that we play now -- though not quite the major catalyst that will be discussed next -- in that it put the player into more of an unseen commander deity that directly manipulated his forces. In Herzog Zwei, the player took control of a robot (either flying or land-based) that was responsible for the deployment and indirect control of his units, which came in one of eight flavors of a land-based variety. Once each unit was deployed, the player had to spend money to activate the unit with one of six possible activity "programs" -- three offensive ("enter the nearest minibase," "attack units at the nearest minibase," and "attack the enemy base") and three defensive tactics (stationary, circle, and aggressive defense) -- which defined how the unit would operate. Each of the two players on a given battlefield had a unit cap of fifty units. And, essentially, the goal is to completely annihilate the opposing player.

Herzog Zwei.

While this trip down memory lane (ha. ha ha.) is all well and good, it's time we got to the game that is widely regarded as the Grandfather of Real-Time Strategy as we know it: Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty. This game was released in 1992 by a developer that any strategy aficionados should recognize very well: the late Westwood Studios. That's right. The same guys who brought the far more widely-recognized Command & Conquer franchise to gamers across the globe were the same developer that really made real-time strategy into a genre. Dune II was a very loose sequel to Dune (which has is based off of Frank Herbert's book of the same name).

Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty.

Although Dune II seemed to be a sort of natural evolution from Herzog Zwei, in an RTS history by Gamespot, Brett Sperry (considered Westwood's "visionary" behind Dune II) considers the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game The Eye of the Beholder to be a far more critical influence in the design of Dune II. He said, roughly, that Dune II is the result of trying to envision a game set in a real-time environment (like Eye of the Beholder) that "could be combined with resource management and a dynamic, flat interface." This vision is what, eventually, led to Dune II. A game where, while similar to Herzog Zwei in its militaristic intent, allowed resource gathering, free-form base building across the map, and an intertwined dependence on technology and structure development in order to progress across some form of what is now referred to as a "tech tree." Dune II also introduced the idea that there could be different playable sides (races) that could have different forms of operation, different weapons/units, and so forth -- an idea that is easily comparable to almost every RTS on the modern market.

But, of course, it isn't always the first game in a genre that really makes the largest impact -- for instance, in the early years of the first-person shooter games weren't called Wolfenstein 3D clones, they were called DOOM clones -- and such is the case with real-time strategy games. The developer Silicon & Synapse, probably best known for their puzzle/platformer involving a trio of Vikings was developing a game that would, for the most part, revolutionize the then-sparse genre with a game involved around what seems like an eternal militaristic struggle between green men and barbarians. Of course, Silicon & Synapse had an identity crisis in 1994 and changed their name to Chaos Studios; though the developers were dismayed to find that another company had already laid claim to a similar name. The team eventually decided on the name Blizzard Entertainment and shortly thereafter released their first major hit: Warcraft: Orcs and Humans -- a game which evolved Westwood's Dune II formula to, pretty much, a form incredibly similar to the modern RTS. The resources involved were gold and lumber (a tradition carried on throughout every game in the RTS titles in the franchise), and involved an epic war between the Orcs and the Humans. Unlike later titles, every unit of the same race shared the same voice (all of which were done by Bill Roper), and the Orcs were solely composed of Orcs (Warcraft 2 evolved this into Orcs, Trolls, and Ogres) and the Humans solely contained Humans (WC2 changed this to Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Gnomes). The units for one side, save for some spells, also had identical counterparts on the opposing side as well.

Warcraft: Orcs and Humans.

Westwood eventually responded with their widely-known Command & Conquer series in 1995, and the genre continually expanded and evolved from there. A number of these evolutions are things which I plan to delve into in more detail in the subsequent parts of this series. For further history on the genre which goes into more detail (especially where I left off), I'd highly recommend both the Wikipedia listing (for "Real-Time Strategy") and Gamespot's 1989-1998 history.

Why Trent + RTS =
My personal motivation for writing this series of articles is something I felt deserved a bit of attention, even if it's just for the sake of completion. Back when I finally had access to my first PC in my own household back in 1994, the real-time strategy genre was really one of the first things that I was introduced to which I legitimately enjoyed. My parents were fairly strict about the kinds of games I played, and unlike Wolfenstein 3D, Warcraft could easily be concealed as nothing more than a base-building and resource management simulation as opposed to a mildly violent war game if the eyes of the guardians were amongst me.

That may be the reason for which my extended exposure to the genre originated, but it's an interest of mine which has never really decreased over the years. Alongside my real-time strategy fascination, I have a true love for first-person shooters as well; however, as any gamer should be ready to admit, a first-person shooter is generally a far more short-lived, flashy, blockbuster game which, until multiplayer gaming became huge, really didn't have much of a lifespan (at least for me). Throughout the years, I've always been able to count on RTS titles to continually evolve into more complex (though, interestingly, more user-friendly) beasts that continue to be amongst the greatest challenges for a gamer. I believe that the average game's difficulty has decreased significantly since the days of games like Ghost'n Goblins. When I played through Monolith's big-budget shooter F.E.A.R. for the first time last year, I played the game on its Hard difficulty and, for the most part, it was just a cakewalk in terms of its difficulty level. The game's Extremely Hard difficulty setting, also, didn't provide much more in terms of additional hardship for me to play through -- something I find fairly unsatisfying and unrewarding. But when I recently played through Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos to its finish (I had always managed to lose my progress due to freak accidents somewhere in the middle of the game in the past) on Hard, it was actually a difficult experience. Had I not spent so much time playing the game in multiplayer against incredibly talented opponents on over the last four years, I can't even imagine the kind of frustration levels it would have induced in me.

Warcraft III: The Reign of Chaos.

Most of all that interests me, though, is that every RTS game feels so completely fresh compared to one another. I can get sick and tired of Warcraft 3 or Rise of Legends (these are, of course, titles I will actually talk about in detail later), I can simply pop in Age of Empires 3 for a completely different playing experience. Every developer has such a drastic separation in what they envision their take on the typical real-time strategy formula that, when all is said and done, most entries in the genre arguably bear little resemblance to one another.

Conclusion and Preview
I can't even believe that all of this was merely the first part in the series. I expected this introductory article to be a fairly quick run-through of the goals I wanted to accomplish in writing the series and, now, I have a large six-page expedition through genre that should make for a great entry into the rest of the series. Once I reached the end of what you now see as the end of the history segment of this article was the point where I finally realized that I couldn't just delve into the huge story that could be told about the genre's formation. See? This is my attempt to exercise my pathetically weak amount of journalistic restraint.

Now, as I briefly laid out earlier in the article, the second part of this series will take a look at several of the major innovations that have occurred in the genre since the point where stopped in the history earlier. This will entail everything from the introduction of major unit micromanagement to a slight focus on adding more RPG-like elements to RTS games in the form of "larger than life" hero units to the importance of realistic physics in a strategy game. That's all in store for the next segment, and I hope you've enjoyed the series thus far. Until next time: rawr.
on Sep 03, 2006
I loved your article! Very informative and interesting, especially for gamers new-come to the strategy/RTS genre.
on Sep 05, 2006
Very well done article. Pictures added to it's shine.

I've always been a big fan of RTS game since playing the ported Genesis version of Dune II (Dune II: The Battle for Arrakis).

Finding out the first RTS could be found on an old Spectrum Sinclair was a real treat.

Kudos, and congratulations on your article being featured.

on Sep 05, 2006
Great, I'm glad you guys got some sort of entertainment from this thing. It was really a whole lot of fun for me to write (though, when I started it, I had absolutely no intention of it being incredibly long). I'm starting work on the second part as we speak; I can't say when I'll be done, but I imagine it'll be at least a two day project.

Thanks again for the comments!
on Sep 05, 2006
Also, for those looking forward to the next installment, I should have it done by September 7th. Or sooner if I decide that what will inevitably be an incredibly long article, especially for just being one part of a series, I decide to trim some of the planned content down or make the series a five part article. Though I'll probably just keep the series as planned, and part two will just be ginormous.
on Sep 06, 2006
Sweet. I'm looing forward to the rest of the series. This was quite an enjoyable read.
on Sep 14, 2006
Based on your definition of an RTS title, can you name any that fit into your category of providing and actual experience, if not requiring, utilizing some form of strategic thought process? I'll admit the games using a tactical battle system (which you discuss in Part 2 for anyone not having read it yet), especially the Total War and Combat Mission series, usually offer benefits and bonuses to the application of tactical manuevering but that's not at a strategic level. I'm curous because I've been looking at games that can be considered RTS since pre-1990, and I've yet to actually find one that applies.

Also I wanted to mention while I applaud the effort you threw into this, I'm rather disappointed you left out some of the best examples of innovative thinking in the RTS genre history. You've got the Myth series (god I loved those games) but the most of the other games you mention (with a couple of exceptions), are all deritive works that didn't really add anything new, merely put a new coating over the old stuff.

As a critical example, Blizzard is notorious for this, while I fully admit they make a great game, they deserve that praise for taking past ideas and making them work together in a single instance of a game, not for being new and inventive. Or look at the Total War series, people thought it was a big new thing, yet there was a game (whose name I can never remember) released in the early 90s which was a near complete carbon copy of Total War series in concept, and nearly a direct copy of Rome Total War, only slap on the better graphics for Rome Total War. It dealt primarily with the birth of Rome, you commanded forces on a strategic province map with each province giving you the ability to raise more troops, then in combat it was identifical to the Total War series, only it actually had a command & control system. Scary thought huh, game released several years previously and its got a better combat system than the developers of the future can come up with using lessons learned from the past.

Some games to look into for the Strategy look:

Europe Universalis and its all follow ons - The only series I've ever seen that actually fit into the classical definition of a "Strategy Game" in terms of scope. Your standard RTS out there today (Warcraft, C&C, Rise Of Nations/Legends, Age of Empires/Mythology, etc...) seem to be stuck in a continous state of mind between a Operational and Tactical look at a battlefield.

Sacrifice - Don't remember the exact year but I want to say 98-2000ish, in this game you controlled a General/Magician in which you took over locations of power and gained mana from them to summon monsters to fight your opponent. RTS-ish, despite being first-person in perspective and gameplay. You only worked from the Generals perspective, but did most of the fighting through your troops.

Kohan - Very distrubed not to see you mention this game series, because you explicitly mention the example of massing units and rushing, and yet this is the only game series where Army composition can make a critical difference in battle.

Z/KKND (Kill Krush n Destroy, if I remember correctly) - Alright, not exactly shining examples of strategic goodness, but anyone who makes an ode ot Strategy games simply has to throw in a cameo from one of those two games (or others similar to it if they exist).

Homeworld - While still suffering from the numerous gameplay problems as most of other Strategy games, the Homeworld has the benefit of being able to claim it added in the Z-Axis. How many RTS Space-based games you seen that actually got that to work? I can think of O.R.B. but it meant nothing in that game, at least in Homeworld you could actively use it to make a difference in playing the game.

From the Tactical side of the RTS Genre:

Airborne Assault series (Can't remember the first game, but the following two are Highway to the Reich and Conquest of the Aegean) - While I will not begrudge anyone their opinion on the standard argument of the "Greatest Game", no one has the right to make that argument until they've played one of these.

Combat Mission series - Borderline RTS game, considering that the game revolves around issuing orders and then resolving 60 seconds of combat in real time fashion before puasing to issue orders again.

Syndicate - Very old game, imagine a Sci-fi early 90s version of Grand Theft Auto, only you control a squad. Generally classified as an RTS, although it doesn't really fit into any category as we define them today. Which is depressingly sad, becaues that means the style of game never took off and got big enough to be classified on its own.

Nexus - More or less Homeworld only on the Tactical scale, rather than Strategic. Good game and one of two that I know of that actually made Space combat interesting (the other being Startfleet Command, but you can't count that one becaues its based on a board/pen&paper game with decades of history behind it)

I'd mention details on a few others (Hostile Waters, Harpoon, and some others, but they're probably a bit too far outside the scope of the topic)
on Sep 14, 2006
I actually loved Sacrifice; it was one of my most-played games for a while and a game that really put Shiny on the "developer to watch" map for me. They were later taken off this map with the Matrix games, but they had a good run before that. And, while I believe the game is great, I wouldn't consider it a "real-time strategy" game by my own definition. I would honestly consider Sacrifice to be more of an action game than I would much else; there are certainly some strategic elements to it, but I don't believe it fits nicely into either the real-time tactical or strategic labels.

Homeworld is a title that I plan on covering part three whenever I can get some spare time to actually write the thing (I really underestimated the workload that I'd have for the beginning of the new semester), so I'm not really going to elaborate on it here. It is, indeed, a very revolutionary sort of game that brought a lot to the genre despite maintaining a familiar formula... To be honest, I never really got a lot of enjoyment out of the game, but I do recognize a lot of the things it does as special.

Syndicate isn't something I'd consider really applicable to the discussion, despite its being an amazing game that deserves the modern treatment (unless, of course, we're talking an "update" like the X-COM series has achieved -- those have been beyond horrible in every degree). Also , the games I discuss may indeed have had things done with them that made them truly unique and special and such, but in one of the first two parts, I mention that just because a game did something original doesn't make it necessarily noteworthy. I've played some games with an absolutely spectacular feature or two here and there, but the rest of the game simply wasn't enjoyable to me... And then I've played a game developed later that managed to do the same things in much better packaging. This seems to be very true of Blizzard, actually. They aren't very original with their designs or ideas, but they manage to pull out a winner due to pure fun factor, polish, and general user-friendliness and playability.

And as a quick mention, since I need to get back to stuff, I was never a fan of the Kohan games all that much. I found their development postmortems in Game Developer interesting (at least for the first game; not sure if they revisited the topic for Kohan 2), but I simply couldn't really get into the games themselves.

Great post, though! I wish I had more time to go through your comment point-by-point but, alas, I cannot. You did bring up a couple of games that I had completely and utterly forgot about (Europa Universalis and the Z/KKND acronyms conjures up rough images and shapes in my mind's eye, but I can't figure out why). So, once again: great post!
on Jan 10, 2007
Great Post...

I'm surprised you left out games like TA from your history lesson, as I feel this game also helped to redefine the RTS category

The fact that you remember all those games (especially Herzog Zwei) is amazing.

Great Post.