WHAT ARE RTS GAMES?
In a recent discussion with students in our game design course, we were debating about the reasons for the downfall of RTS games. After this lively discussion, we decided to create a blog post about what RTS games are and why they are important.
I think we all can agree that the golden age of Real-Time-Strategy games, also known as RTS, is long gone. If you’ve grown up on such amazing cult-classic series, like Age of Empires, Warcraft and even Battle for Middle Earth, then I must sadden you. Today you won’t find any similarly good titles and probably for a long time there won’t be games that are in any way remotely close to the good oldies from the past two decades.
There are several reasons for a visible decline of the RTS genre during the last 10 years. First of all – compatibility with consoles. Strategy games are not really easy to play on consoles. It’s difficult to think of successfully micromanaging your units on a gaming pad, regardless of how advanced it may be. It simply won’t replace your mouse. The second thing, is the rise of MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) games which share common elements with the RTS genre. And there is also a lack of competitive RTS games, like Age of Empires 2 and Warcraft 3. If you’re not into StarCraft 2, there isn’t much of an alternative for the RTS games on the market.
But, what’s that fuss all about? What are the RTS games exactly and why they are so popular? Wait… did you really ask these questions? Well… if you’ve been living in an Internet-proof shelter for the last two or three decades, then let us explain you the genre of RTS and its main features in detail.
In short, Real-Time Strategy games can be summed up as fast-paced, build-and-conquer commander simulators that require from you to focus on three gameplay stages: establishing your base, gathering resources and crushing your opponents. Mind that not every RTS has all of these elements thoroughly developed. Some games focus on 2 or even 1 of these aspects but generally speaking, these are the core points of the genre.
The first thing that Real-Time Strategy games require from you to master is tactical mind and strategic awareness. Now, it’s important to distinguish these two things from each other. Tactical mind stands for knowledge on how to respond to the changing situation on the field. It’s more about capability to know how to deal in small-scale situations, including unexpected skirmishes, withdrawing your troops or rushing to the nearest control point. It’s also about possessing reflex and micromanagement skills. Strategic awareness on the other hand, requires from you a gift of foresight and long-term planning. By having a previously outlined plan of what to build in the early game and where to go in the later game, you will have a clear vision of how to develop your base and command your units without counting solely on a sheer luck or opportunity.
RTS games require from you a use of your tactical and strategic techniques here and now. You don’t have a chance to press a pause button when battling with your friend online, or ponder for the next 10 minutes over your moves as in turn-based games. Often you will have to act on instinct, and your whole strategy or tactics will turn out to be useless in a matter of seconds. But that’s what people love about RTSs – that they are highly unpredictable and every game is different.
START SMALL, AIM BIG
Almost every RTS game follows a similar pattern of starting with pretty much nothing on the map. Depending on the game, the first thing you will need to do is to send your harvesting units to chop down the trees, gather minerals or mine gold, in order to erect new buildings, make upgrades and train troops. Once you have your economy established, you can think of how to put your strategy into practice.
A majority of RTSs allow you for lot of freedom of how you can design your base and use your strategy to defeat your opponents. In such a way, you can come up with making of your headquarters an impenetrable fortress with a dozen of turrets, double fortifications and a hundred of units defending them, or you can turn it into a makeshift factory meant to produce large numbers of troops allowing you to swarm your enemy, wave after wave.
A small and usually equal start of every player on the map, makes RTS games highly dependant on the players’ choices and making short as well as long-term decisions. Whether you want to play aggressively from the very beginning by rushing your enemy’s positions and taking over crucial points on the map, or you want to entrench yourself behind the walls and a line of turrets, it’s completely up to you. Remember, however, that every predefined strategy will more or less impact on your later gameplay, and since your enemies don’t loll about, every decision matters.
Speaking about decision-making, a time is of the essence in RTS games. As a commander you will have to appreciate every given second, and instead of carelessly scrolling around your base or soldiers and appreciate the graphics, you have to act quickly and instinctively. Your enemies, especially real-life players, won’t give you an upper hand in any manner, but just like you, they will try to maximise their chances to beat you.
What players also value about RTS games is that every decision is pretty much critical, whether it is sending your troops to the nearest capture point or developing a huge research. This said, it’s good to have a predefined strategy in mind not to waste any second. Sometimes you will have a free moment when you will be waiting for a research to complete or a building to construct. Instead of waiting idly for the completion, maximise your efficiency by scouting the area with your units, capturing crucial points on the map or simply planning your next moves.
The awareness on the field of battle is another thing to look after. RTS games are dynamic and battles don’t last long minutes or hours as in Total War series, but they are super quick. That means, often you will have to redefine your tactics on the move and react on the changing circumstances on the map, both mechanically and strategically.
Before we will get into the micromanagement topic, you should learn of your units pros and cons to maximise their battle potential. Most of the units in RTS games heavily rely on the rock-paper-scissors pattern, where, for instance, pikemen are good against cavalry, but they are weak against infantry. Regardless of rather easy to memorise features of a particular unit, a good RTS player knows how to improve their performance mechanically through micromanagement.
Micromanagement in RTS games basically stands for the general finesse and awareness of how to maximise units’ potential not only by knowing their strengths and weaknesses, but also by manoeuvring them during battles, rushing and withdrawing when needs be. After engaging your units with the enemy, don’t leave them for themselves, but act responsively. If there is a unit that is on the verge of surviving, and if it’s a valuable one, retreat it behind the line. Similarly, when there is a risk of losing the encounter, bring reinforcements from your base and strike there, where your enemy the least expects your arrival.
RTS games are not only about pure mathematics but they value players’ personal skill, reflex and a smart use of opportunities. And as to the micromanagement effectivity, do you remember NPC’s movement skills in AoE I? Well… it will be pretty much impossible for you to copy that, but you should get the joke.
RTS ARE SUPER REWARDING
RTS games bring a lot of satisfaction due to their complexity and the need to master its every single aspect in order to emerge victorious. They require from you to create and introduce new strategies on the fly, as well as master delicate micromanagement techniques that will help you gain significant advantage in battles.
Here, you are not a mere cog in a grand machinery, but you are THE strategist and commander responsible for the success or defeat of your forces. And once you finally manage to carve your path to victory, it is because of your tactical or strategic excellence, successful economic management or simply by taking an opportunity to crush your enemies with brute force or outsmart them by wit.
And as to the future of RTSs, for now it may seem rather dark and uncertain, but we can only hope that one day the sun will shine over this forgotten, but immensely gripping and dynamic genre once again.