(Source: arstechnica.com)

The rise and fall of real-time strategy games is a strange one. They emerged gradually out of experiments to combine the excitement and speed of action games with the deliberateness and depth of strategy. Then, suddenly, the genre exploded in popularity in the latter half of the 1990s—only to fall from favor (StarCraft aside) just as quickly during the 2000s amid cries of stagnation and a changing games market. And yet, one of the most popular competitive games in the world today is an RTS, and three or four others are in a genre that branched off from real-time strategy.

At 25 years old, the real-time strategy genre remains relevant for its ideas and legacies. And with it deep in a lull, now is the perfect time to give it the same in-depth historical treatment that we’ve already given to graphic adventures, sims, first-person shooters, kart racers, open-world games, and city builders.

Before I start recounting the history of the genre, some quick ground rules: as in all of these genre histories, I’m looking to emphasize innovation and new ideas, which means that some popular games may be glossed over and [insert-your-favorite-game] might not be mentioned at all. For the purposes of this article, a real-time strategy game is one that involves base building and/or management, resource gathering, unit production, and semi-autonomous combat, all conducted in real time (rather than being turn-based), for the purpose of gaining/maintaining control over strategic points on a map (such as the resources and command centers).

I also want to stress that tactics and strategy are not the same thing, and hence this article will not spend much time discussing real-time tactics games like the Total War and Close Combat series. For those unaware, strategy refers to high-level plans whereas tactics is focused on the finer points of execution of specific objectives. In more explicit video game terms, strategy is building and managing armies from the buildings you add to your base with the resources you mine/harvest; tactics is just the combat stuff, with in-depth battleground mechanics that focus on unit formations and positioning and exploiting terrain features to your advantage. Real-time strategy usually includes some element of tactics, but real-time tactics rarely includes strategy mechanics.

Now, with all that said, let’s begin by traveling back some 36 years.

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Action meets strategy

The “real-time” versus “turn-based” strategy distinction is a relatively new one. Prior to the mid-1990s, strategy games were turn based, while action games were real time, never—nay, seldom, as you’ll see—the twain shall meet. They were incompatible warring ideals of game design, the former rooted in the rich tradition of complicated and intricate tabletop wargames and the latter being a simple, usually unsophisticated test of reflexes and coordination, its roots in the video game arcade. Strategy was methodical and slow, all about careful planning and weighing up every decision. The idea of adding a real-time element to force players into instant, impulsive decisions was virtually unheard of. More than that, it was considered the antithesis of strategy.

But that’s exactly what Don Daglow did with his influential 1981 Intellivision game Utopia, which is arguably the earliest ancestor of the real-time strategy genre. Utopia pitted two island nations against each other in a war that required that you not only infiltrate and/or destroy your opponent in order to undermine their attempted utopia, but players also had to build a happy and thriving home base. You had to think about infrastructure, manufacturing, military, weather patterns, spies, pirates, and the knock-on effects of every decision. As if that wasn’t hard enough, life on and between the two islands continued unabated through your every moment of indecision—pirate raids, hurricanes, wilting crops, rebel uprisings, and more.

Other “action-strategy” games soon followed, each with its own idea of how these two types of games could combine. The next one of note was Cytron Masters (1982), by acclaimed designer Dan Bunten (later known as Danielle Bunten Berry), which Bunten later reflected “seemed to fall in the crack” between action and strategy gamers. (Sidenote: after her 1992 transition, Bunten Berry referred to her pre-transition self with male pronouns, so I will too.)

Its commercial disappointments notwithstanding, Cytron Masters played like an early prototype of the RTS concept. There were five semi-autonomous unit classes, between them covering your attack, defense, and communication on the battlefield, along with several power centers that provided more energy (the game’s sole resource) and allowed you to build more units. The entire game took place on a single screen, with players starting at either end of what looked rather like a football field—except instead of goalposts you had command centers. You could see your opponent’s commands being issued and executed in real time, right alongside your own.

  • Richard Moss (screenshot)

  • Richard Moss (screenshot)

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  • Richard Moss (screenshot)

  • Richard Moss (screenshot)

ZX Spectrum wargame Stonkers (1983) and Chris Crawford’s Legionnaire (1982) started a push toward more of an action-tactics style of play. Stonkers’ pared-back, graphically detailed, fast-paced real-time adaptation of the battle phase of traditional wargaming met great praise, but a handful of game-breaking bugs hampered its sales. Legionnaire met a more mixed reception for its light, semi-historical simulation of battles between the Romans and barbarians. The real-time tactics (aka RTT) genre was born here, but it would have to wait until the following year’s The Ancient Art of War—a bestselling and influential computer wargame—for its moment in the sun (and, like its RTS sibling, it took many more years for RTT to actually be recognized as a genre unto itself).

In the meantime, Nether Earth (1987) further established the root concept of what would become the RTS. You manufactured robots that could capture or destroy six types of factories needed to produce the components that could go into building more robots. The end-goal was to destroy your opponent’s warbase(s) by blowing it/them to smithereens with a nuclear weapon on board a hapless sacrificial bot. You could control robots directly, one at a time, but generally it was best to give them orders to destroy, capture, kill, or defend and focus on churning out more of them to overwhelm the enemy.

Another Dan Bunten game, Modem Wars (1988), had more of a tactical emphasis but possessed many of the elements that eventually became central to real-time strategy. It included a fog of war that prevented you from seeing enemy units beyond the range of sight of your units/buildings, along with espionage, customizable unit formations, and terrain-affected movement and combat. The game’s methodical pacing allowed lots of things to be going on at once without overwhelming (a lesson that many later RTS games failed to heed).

More Info: arstechnica.com