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video games

the king is dead, long live the king

There are a few signifiers of a good home to me. A warm, cozy atmosphere. A good amount of natural light, coming through large, open windows. The sounds of nature, of birdsong, and of rustling trees. A copy of Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun on a bookshelf. It’s the little things, you know? There used to be a time, a glorious time, where there was a subset of PC games that you’d expect everyone to have in their collection. Tiberian Sun was one of them, Red Alert 2 would be another. Age of Empires II is another obvious choice, followed by the more divisive (but simply superior) Age of Mythology. The obvious Blizzard staple of Warcraft III, and the lesser played but still important Rise of Nations and Empire Earth. Naturally, we can’t forget about Total Annihilation. Homeworld too. Of course you would, why wouldn’t you? Can’t forget about Ground Control, either. Then there were the other games. DOOM, Star Wars: X-Wing Vs Tie Fighter and Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. Diablo II. Fine games, fine games…but they just weren’t strategy, you know? Sure, you’d lose a few hours playing with your lightsabres and joysticks, but the strategy genre was where gaming was really at. That’s where the money was, and publishers would throw game after game into it. Remember when franchise tie-in games were RTSs? Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth? Star Trek Armada? Dune? Star Wars: Force Commander? Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds? Army Men: RTS?

The year is 2021, the Real Time Strategy genre is dead, and I am sad.


It’s interesting to me how the discourse surrounding the RTS genre is no longer one of ‘is it dead?’, and is instead ‘how did it die’. Nobody is under any delusions here, nobody’s waiting for the last minute three-pointer, nobody’s hoping for a new entry to the C&C series which reminds everyone what the RTS genre was about. It’s dead, it’s buried. There’s nothing left but tired remakes, remasters, and tire-spinning. How did it come to this? How did we go from the greatest PC games that one can own being in the RTS genre, to what we have now? I’ll talk about my theory on that in a moment, just let me lament some more. Eurgh. Eurgh. You know what the worst part is? The death of the RTS genre wasn’t some heroic final stand, sword in hand, howling to its gods. It’s been a slow, painful, miserable death that has spanned over a decade. An inxorable decline, a treadmill of games that have just been slightly worse each time, to the point where they’re no longer recognisable. I’ll use the Command and Conquer series as the archetypal example here. Let’s break it down. I’m only going to talk about the ‘major’ games in franchise, rather than say, Renegade or expansion packs.

Command and Conquer (1995) – the granddaddy, the OG, the original, the definitely came after the Dune series but it’s the one everyone talks about. Left click command, right click conquer (well, control schemes back then actually had left click do everything, and right click to deselect units…). A great start.

Command and Conquer: Red Alert (1996) – We’re beginning to cook with gas. The nonsense storyline, the bizarre FMVs using real-world figures. The idea of country sub-factions within the greater factions of the Allies and Soviets. It’s all good, and it’s only getting better.

Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun (1999) – We’re back to the original game’s universe with the GDI and NOD. The world is fucked, the graphics are excellent, the unit design is awesome, the controls are amazing. NEW CONSTRUCTION OPTIONS bellows out of a pair of beige coloured desktop speakers. I’m sat at my grandparents PC, playing the skirmish mode. By default, this mode didn’t begin with the SCV, so there was no base building. Child-me was confused, was this it? Just a collection of units shooting each other, the victor decided in a few minutes?

I’m not sure if I had ‘Bases’ deselected, or ‘Short Game’ selected, but this memory sticks in me like a knife.

I enable the bases mode. My eyes widen, the dopamine flows. BUILDING. I’m in. My little disk throwing boys are yeeting exploding frisbees at NOD cyborgs. I’m terrified of most of the fauna, the little blob enemies are beyond my comprehension. I shoot them with railguns.

Young me: “what the fuck is any of this”

It is glorious. I play the skirmish mode for hours, before even knowing there’s a full campaign to be had. I discover the campaign, and yet more hours are thrown into the void. The graphics, the gameplay, the barks. It’s all so compelling, so cool. How can they ever top this?

Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2 (2000) – They topped it. When people think of the series, this is the game that they think of. The most bananas storyline, the most bizarre unit design. And my god the soundtrack, the soundtrack. Frank Klepacki delivering glorious auditory bliss with every note. FMVs so cheesy that they’ll curl your toenails, but who cares, it’s perfection. Utter utter perfection. The voice acting, so good, so corny that I can recall lines from it over twenty years after the fact.

Command & Conquer Red Alert 2 Classic Review | Retroheadz.com
The allies defend the pentagon with towers that shoot burning rays of light, with a pile of dogs seen in the bottom right.

There’s just so much to love about this game. So much stuff that was near-perfect design. Sure the Yuri’s Revenge expansion introduced a faction that is probably the most busted one the RTS genre has ever seen, but who cares? Balance? What the fuck is that? Daily reminder that the allies had the chrono commando, a unit that could literally traverse the entire map instantly in a single click, and deleted any other unit from existence. Oh also it could C4 buildings. Just look at it.

Free game alert: EA's giving away Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 | PCWorld
An allied prism tank fires on a soviet superweapon firing a nuclear missile, while a soviet tesla coil blows shit out of one of them. Yes? Sorry you looked lost there.

I could talk about Red Alert 2 forever, but I won’t. Not yet. This story is too sad for that.

Command and Conquer: Generals (2003) – Is it as good as Red Alert 2? No. Has it aged poorly, as this was Westwood’s attempt at doing a ‘contemporary’ game? …Yes. Is it an absolutely fantastic RTS, with a still completely bonkers story? Yes. Ah yes, American tank divisions, this seems famili- oh you’ve strapped laser defence towers to them, oh and the Chinese faction has a megatank that blasts propaganda out, alongside an entire infantry bunker.

OVERLORD MOVING

How’s the balance you ask? You keep using that word, that word has no power here. Especially not after the expansion. Air seems pretty good in this game, I thi- oh, your general gives an EMP effect to your missile launchers, an EMP effect that means any aircraft instantly crash into the ground. I see. Oh, that same General makes their bombers fly at supersonic speed, unable to be intercepted by ground fire until they’ve dropped their payload: which is, by the way, a MOAB? That’s fine though, because my general literally straps miniguns onto my infantry’s rifles. God, what a glorious time, when balance literally wasn’t worth the bytes it was typed with.

Command & Conquer Generals image - Mod DB
When one scud missile wasn’t enough, and you needed to use a storm of them.

The FMVs are less ridiculous, more grounded. The politics of the game, more familiar. The gameplay, not quite as good as RA2s, but still fantastic. The graphics: an incredible step up, and actually 3D. This is, however, where the story begins to turn.

Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars (2007) – Is Command and Conquer 3 bad? No. Is it good? Well…

Modder Superior - Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars | Rock Paper Shotgun
A walker fires missiles over walkers at what…used to be a person?

It’s very…brown. The 2006+ era of games is definitely when the brown shade was starting to creep in, only getting worse when Gears of War would release, and have a colour spectrum somewhere between gun metal grey, and sadness brown. Everything’s just a bit…off. Everything feels slightly derivative. We’re getting on in the years now, but the series hasn’t really changed in a significant way. Generals added powers, alongside lots of variety from the subfactions, and C&C3…didn’t do much more.

I confess, I didn’t play it a whole lot. Somewhat astonishing to me, as I remember playing RA2 and Tiberium Sun until their soundtracks were my life’s backing music — but I don’t really remember C&C3. There’s not a whole lot there to remember. Hey you don’t build individual infantry anymore, you make squads. Well, that’s…a change. At least the FMVs are still there. Anything else? Hm, OK. Hopefully this is just a blip.

Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3 (2008) – How can I describe this game. You’re at a party. Your last drink went down pretty poorly, and you’re starting to feel the slide to the grimmer side of inebriation. However, you’re determined to have a good time. You second-wind slightly, you stand yourself up, and you try to relive the last hour of the party. You’re going from conversation to conversation, you’re doing the same routine as before, but this time it’s a bit worse. Nothing’s coming out right: your anecdotes are a little unfocused, your jokes are just a bit off, and you can tell that everyone’s getting tired of it. They were loving what you were before, and you’re trying ever-so-hard to be that again, but you just can’t quite do it. Worse still, everyone at the party is starting to dance — dancing is the new thing, and you want to get involved in it. You walk onto the dance floor, and you do a pretty good dance. People like it, they find it a refreshing addition to your routine. You decide to add even more dancing in as a result. The room begins to spin, and the only thing that stops you from throwing up on the dance floor is Tim Curry bursting into the room and yelling SPACE.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 on Steam
Yes, some stuff is definitely happening in this screenshot.

It feels a bit like Westwood heard everyone talking about how C&C3 was uninnovative and samey, and went “You think it’s the same, FINE! Every unit has two abilities now! Also, there’s co-op! Also, there’s a new Japanese faction and they’re WEIRD AS HELL!”. I definitely don’t have the same vibe of complete and utter apathy towards this, that I have towards C&C3. Again, there’s just something missing. The answer is charm. Red Alert 2‘s charm is in how truly, sincerely strange it is. It’s earnest, while also being totally ridiculous. You never get the sense that something is absurd for the sake of being absurd. An airstrike being called in on Alcatraz because that’s where Yuri has set up his mind-control machine? Played as though it’s an episode of The West Wing. Generals sits on the other end of the spectrum. The world and the story are grounded in reality, incredibly serious stuff, but the way it’s approached is inherently comedic. You’re not just a US Army General, you’re THE LASER GENERAL. You’re dealing with terrorists in the middle east, but they sound like this. In Red Alert 2, the world is ridiculous, but it’s played seriously. In Generals, the world is serious, but it’s played ridiculously.

Daily reminder that this person is introduced with absolutely no lampshading, not even a hint of comedy or lightheartedness.

The source of their charm there is pretty clear. Red Alert 3, however, is fully aware of what it’s trying to be. Even Tim Curry yelling SPACE is delivered with a hint of self-awareness: they’re wanting you to laugh. They know what they’ve made is absurd, and they want in on the joke — but they can’t be. Red Alert 3 is too clean, too sleek, too well produced. It’s trying too hard, and this weirdly takes the edge off. The inclusion of co-op was a good move, and definitely Westwood feeling the direction that the wind was going in. The only problem is, this would lead to the beginning of the end.

Command and Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight (2010) – Oh no, oh no. You want multiplayer? You’ll get multiplayer. You’ll get it from every angle. Now the game is built around multiplayer, which is class-based for some reason, and has player-progression for unlocking units. According to the wikipedia article, this was never intended to be a mainline C&C game, but instead an “online game for the Asian pro-gaming market”. It feels that way. It looks ugly, it’s utterly charmless, and nearly everything that was enjoyable from the original games has been stripped out in favour of something that was meant to be e-sportsish.

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight on Steam
When I said it’s ugly, I meant that it is ugly.

I don’t want to dwell on all the reasons that C&C4 sucked, because I think you can go and read about that. Truth be told, I never bought it. I played in the multiplayer beta, and thought it was one of the worst games I’ve played. There was nothing left for me there, and the integration between the SP and the MP made it all the more clear what the focus was. So this is how it all died, not with a bang, but with an esports-powered fart. A series that was heralded as the RTS series, going from a household staple, to being a shadow of its former self. You’ll note that this is the last entry in the series…in 2010, eleven years ago.

Oh wait, scratch that, they made a fucking mobile game.


That’s a quick jaunt through the C&C series, from birth to death. The interesting thing is, that it’s not just C&C which died, it was everything. So what went wrong? Well, I’ll get onto that, what I want you to remember is the year 2007. That’s the last year in the genre, the last time it was worth talking about. So what have we got up to that point? We’ve got something I think of as a ‘second renaissance’ for the RTS genre, from 2004-2007, a collection of screamers that would remind everyone that, no, the RTS genre still had plenty to give.

  • Dawn of War (2004) + expansions up to Dark Crusade in 2007.
  • Perimeter (2004) (A game that nobody remembers, but genuinely was unlike anything else you’ll ever play)
  • Company of Heroes (2006) + Opposing Fronts expansion
  • Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth 1+2 (2004-2006)
  • DEFCON (2006) (controversial entry, but I’m putting it here)
  • Star Wars: Empire at War (2006)
  • Supreme Commander (2007) + Forged Alliance Expansion
  • World in Conflict (2007)

While this might not seem like a long list, the fact that within a span of three years, we got some of the most fondly looked back on RTSs is incredible to me. Each one of these games did something new and refreshing, and are all worthy of your time if there’s something on there that you haven’t played already. So what came after? Well, several years of…fine games? There’s nothing in there that’s stand-out phenomenal, and plenty of utter disappointments. Dawn of War II ended up dividing the community between people that enjoyed the Warcraft III-esque focus on hero units and micromanagement, and people who didn’t. Supreme Commander 2 was garbage, and quickly forgotten. R.U.S.E came out, and was bad. We have a patch of the Wargame: [SUBTITLE] series being good, before the developers decided to make the same game several times (and are still making the same game). Planetary Annihilation came out, promising to be a return to form for the genre, but was a vapid, deceptive early-access disappointment. Company of Heroes 2 came out, and was…fine. Filled with unit customisation elements and silhouetting issues that made the game play worse than the original. It still has an active-ish MP scene. Men of War came out, and was good, but again, the developers decided to make the same game several times.

The refugees from Westwood studios in the form of Petroglyph Games made Grey Goo and Universe at War: Earth Assault (it came out in 2008 for EU, it counts!). Both of which were…mediocre. Stardock came out with Ashes of the Singularity, which played more like a tech demo and lacked any of the soul that Supreme Commander had, despite sitting very squarely in its shoes. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak came out as a prequel to the Homeworld series and was…fine. There’s plenty more here that I’m not commenting on, and not everything is bad/awful — but there’s nothing stand-out. I still play Supreme Commander sometimes, because there’s just nothing like it. I still play the original Dawn of War. Both of those games have sequels, though the less said about Dawn of War III, the better. If you ask people to name their favourite RTSs, they’re going to be naming something from 2007 or prior. Maybe they’ll say one of the Wargame series if they’re a military-nut, but that’s probably it. So, again, we come to the question of why? Why is the RTS genre so dead? Here’s three quick reasons.

It’s Harder to Monetize Efficiently

It’d be remiss to not mention this. When was the last AAA RTS? I’m not even sure what the answer to that question is, but the biggest publishers aren’t touching the genre, even when they’ve got a history for publishing in it. Electronic Arts hasn’t published an RTS since Command and Conquer 4, deciding not even to release Command and Conquer: Generals 2 after that seemed clear set to flop. Oh, scratch that, they did release that mobile game. Part of the answer here has to be monetization, or the lack of it. While it’s extremely trivial to introduce predatory monetization schemes into genres like shooters, where you can sell people a weapon skin for amounts of money previously reserved for actually buying games, it’s much harder to do this for the RTS genre. DLC normally takes the form of expansion packs or additional factions. Dawn of War II seemingly hit a stride with the Last Stand mode, where they sold additional heroes and released new ones in consort with expansion packs, but it clearly didn’t make enough money for them to continue doing it.

The cold truth is, the games industry is increasingly pushing towards extremely low investment, extremely high recurrent return games. When people will fork out £20 for a single gun skin in Valorant, why on earth would you spend the effort and time on an expansion to an RTS that might only sell for a few pounds more than that? Furthermore, unit readability is an extremely important aspect of competitive RTSs, so selling unit skins hasn’t taken on. Oh, unless you’re Blizzard, in which case you sell unit skins for upwards of forty pounds what the fuck. You’re reaching a smaller audience with RTSs, and you’re unable to monetize them as thoroughly as other genres. Why take the risk? The alternative is to take the Paradox Interactive approach, and release endless tides of DLC which encapsulate huge swarthes of the game, and render the base games essentially unplayable. This has made them extremely ‘popular”, but also has made them huge piles of money.

You Actually Need a Brain to Play Them

Let me smell my own farts here, please. The RTS genre is a pretty difficult one, with the most stand-out examples being generally of some complexity. You’re not going to get the immediate dopamine fix with next to no mental engagement that you get from say, Fortnite. A lot of the enjoyment from RTS games comes as a direct result from mentally engaging with the game and receiving a payoff from it. It’s that moment where you come out with the perfect unit composition, and smash apart your opponent. It’s when you built the right artillery in the right place at the right time. It’s in the act of balancing your resources effectively, ensuring that your base runs like a well-oiled machine. It’s using an ability at just the right moment, so that you win the fight and thus, the game. These are things that take time, and mental engagement. Generally speaking, RTSs that have attempted to remove the long time investment, and attempted to speed things up to get you into the action faster, have been far worse for it. This was explicitly one of the design goals for Command & Conquer 4. You don’t get the same dopamine rush from landing that sick headshot in tomatotown (I am literally aging to dust in typing this). You have to put in far more effort.

Obviously there are games in the wider strategy and management genre that have sold like gangbusters, despite being high complexity. Your Factorios, your Total Wars, your Paradox Interactive games. While they are typically of comparable or greater complexity, it’s the real time element that trips people up. People like being able to pause, take their time to sort stuff out, then resume the game to their liking. In Factorio’s case, there aren’t huge time demands on you, with the difficulty (in the aliens) emerging as a result of your own actions, and thus tied to your pace. RTSs generally demand your uninterrupted attention — less so in single player, where you can pause the game (but generally not issue any orders while this is the case), but absolutely so in multiplayer. If you’ve committed to playing Supreme Commander in multiplayer, you better be ready to have to mentally engage with the game for an hour or more. There’s no “ah I’ll quickly pause the game and throw out a grenade” in Company of Heroes MP. The pace of the game is set by the game, and you’re expected to keep up. Sure, you could play all of Hearts of Iron IV in real time, but that’s a limitation you’ve put on yourself, not one that the game demanded.

Everyone Keeps Trying to Make Fucking Starcraft

I can hear you goddamned thinking at the screen you know. Do you have to think so loud? Yes, yes, yes. I know, Starcraft. Starcraft. I’ve avoided saying it for this whole post, even at points that it would have made sense to mention it. Someone out there is going to be going “RTS isn’t dead, because Starcraft II is still a popular game!”. Well, I’m here to tell you that the health of Starcraft II has absolutely nothing to do with the health of the RTS genre in general — in fact, they might be inversely correlated, because the point where SC2 was coming down the pipeline at us, was roughly when the whole thing went to shit. “How can this be?” I hear you ask? It’s fairly simple. Starcraft is gigantic, absolutely monolithic and space-distorting. It’s most likely the best selling RTS of all time, and is probably the most well-known. Sure, Command & Conquer was the foundation of the genre, but Starcraft has carried the torch into the modern era. There’s still tournaments, there’s still videos being pumped out on Youtube every single day — and it’s not just SC2, but Brood War and the remasters. Even the most utterly delusional of RTS fans wouldn’t claim that Starcraft hasn’t been genre defining, but that’s not the point. The problem is, that Starcraft already exists. We’ve already got it, and the people that play it are absolutely happy to continue playing it for the forseeable future. They’re not interested in the RTS genre, they’re interested in Starcraft.

How do I know this? Take a look at the biggest SC Youtube channels. There’s normally a degree of crossover between game-centric channels — a lot of the channels that played PUBG went on to play Fortnite, and a lot of those channels went on to play COD: Warzone. The popularity of those games is largely in tack with the popularity of the battle royale genre. The same can be said for online card games like Hearthstone. These are games that not only became incredibly popular, but they created demand for the genres that they were in. There’s now dozens of online card games, not as popular as Hearthstone, but some have managed to carve out their own little niches. Same thing with Overwatch, demand for the game has created general demand, which led to the creation of competing games in that space. The healthiness of the game is correlated with the healthiness of the space. This is not the case for Starcraft. Go and look at the biggest SC channels, and tell me how many times you find a video of them playing another RTS. Hard mode, not Warcraft III. I found one, and that was They Are Billions, which has a lot in common with the tower defense genre, rather than the traditional RTS space. The moment that Starcraft II was most popular, in the early 2010s, was also the moment that the RTS genre started to spiral into a decline, and I don’t think that was a coincidence.

Here’s a list of game features:

  • Simple unit design, with complexity arising from abilities and compositions.
  • Simplified unit interactions, rock-paper-scissors balance.
  • Focus on unit responsivity and readability.
  • 5-15 minute average game time.
  • Strong divergence between three factions.
  • Abstract map design and terrain features.
  • Multiplayer & Esports Focus.

If this sounds good to you, fantastic, have I got the game for you! It’s called Starcraft. It’s incredibly obvious how much of an impact the game has had, because the features above very quickly appeared in franchises that had absolutely nothing to do with them previously. Take Supreme Commander, vast in scale, slow and glorious like a majestic ship. Then look at Supreme Commander 2. Oh, all the majesty and scale has been thrown out, oh the match time has been pulled back, oh there’s far fewer units now, and their interactions are much simpler. Oh, we’re back to three factions from four (in Forged Alliance). Oh it’s much more consumable for an online environment. Oh, it’s crap and nowhere near as good as the original? Pity that. What about Dawn of War? Ah yes, a lovely game. Lots of layers to unit interactions, with morale being a stat almost as important as health, and delicious sync kill animations to make the combat seem epic and grandiose. Sure, the combat might get a bit messy, but that’s the point: it’s a glorious mess. Plenty of factions too, with the original game having one hundred billion from expansions, and Dawn of War II having six (Space Marines, Orks, Eldar, Tyranids, Chaos, Imperial Guard). DoWII might be quite a bit different, but at least they took the cover mechanics from Company of Heroes, along with the importance of emplacements, while maintaining the melee engagement system.

Then comes Dawn of War III. Oh what’s that? That cover system has been thrown out the window, in favour of a far more simplified and abstract moba-like system? Oh the complex unit interactions are all gone, and now Space Marines will sit and shoot at point blank like Starcraft marines? Oh there’s only three factions now, despite the previous games having over twice that number? Oh, there’s a focus on multiplayer, with an absolutely bizarre moba-like mode in place of the traditional RTS staples? Oh, all of the colours are really abstract and basic now?

Thank god they painted all of the orks yellow, otherwise it might not have been able to become an esport.

Oh what’s that? The game has been absolutely panned by the community, because it pleased neither the fans of the original, nor the fans of the more RPG-focused Dawn of War II? Great, glad that they decided to make a game for an audience that never wanted Dawn of War, instead of making a game for the audience they actually had.

I could go on. Command and Conquer 4 was terrible for exactly the same reasons above. They threw out what was the original soul of the game, chasing an audience that never had any interest in the first place. Command and Conquer: Generals 2 never even made it out of beta, though the reasons behind that seem more corporate than feedback. Not that the feedback was any good, with the game being an extremely familiar, weightless, experience. With C&C, it’s a bit more understandable because the series was starting to show its cracks before SC2 exploded onto the scene, but with Supreme Commander and Dawn of War, it’s pretty unforgivable. Nobody who played those games wanted them to do what they did. Company of Heroes 2 is a more complicated case, as some people do enjoy it, but I’ve never come across someone willing to argue that it’s better than the original. It’s such a bizarre place to be, as a genre, where the sequels are consistently worse than games made sometimes five, to ten years before. These were games that used to have a vision, they used to have something distinct to them — but they’ve homogenised. I remember being incredibly excited for the idea of Halo Wars. An RTS set in the Halo universe? Hot damn! Oh, it’s smooth, it’s weightless, and it’s been massively simplified for console. Wait, they’re making a sequel which is coming out on PC! Is this th- nope, still simplified, still streamlined, still incredibly similar to every other RTS made in the post-SC2 era.

Is it completely hopeless? Not quite. There’s a few rays of sunshine here and there. Not fantastic games, mind, but it feels like there’s an effort being made. Microsoft is coming out with Age of Empires IV, though from the gameplay it looks like they’re playing it incredibly safe. There’s stuff like Northgard, which is a genuinely unique viking-esque RTS, that I’ve put a few hours into. There’s Iron Harvest, which looks to be incredibly similar to Company of Heroes, but didn’t land terribly well on account of the price, and lack of depth. Spellforce III was absolutely not my cup of tea, but it looks to have gained some interest in the last 3-4 years. There’s just nothing stand-out, nothing that I can unequivocally recommend. Supreme Commander and Dawn of War weren’t after-the-fact hits, that we look back on fondly. When they came out, we knew they were exceptional. The reason I’m still going back to them years after the fact isn’t out of some sense of nostalgia, it’s because they are genuinely timeless games that are without peer. There’s just nothing like them, at least not in the officially-published/released space — you’ll find mods and fanmade things here and there. (See Beyond All Reason for a Total Annihilation/Supreme Commander esque free game). Why? With all the tech advancement of the last ten years, why aren’t we seeing some really earthshattering RTS games making full use of current hardware? Why do RTS games seem to become more innovative the further back you go, rather than forwards?

I’ll leave you with this. You might not believe me when I say the RTS genre is dead, and you might have thought this article seemed fairly unfocused. That’s fine, but here’s my last piece of evidence. If you go to PCGamesN, and look at their ‘top RTS games of 2021 list‘, you’ll see this.

Now let me put the release dates next to those games.

No, I don’t care that Escalation came out after 2016 – Ashes of the Singularity was released then, that’s what counts. Don’t fight me on this.

When your ‘top RTS games of 2021’ list contains exactly zero entries that were released in 2021, 2020, and has one original game from 2019 (one that I’ve not played, and sits at double-digit playcount on steamcharts for its entire existence). When it contains Europa Universalis IV, which is definitely not a real time strategy game in the way that the term is used for the rest. When the other entry from 2019 is a remaster from a game made over two decades ago, and everything else is 5+ years old…what do you want me to say here? Does this look like a healthy genre to you?

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video games

the big problem with No Man’s Sky

Imagine I’m a friend of yours. I tell you about this all-you-can-eat restaurant that’s about to open up down the road, and how fantastic it’s going to be. I show you pictures of the venue, I give you a menu that lists a huge variety of things that you’ll be able to get there. Maybe we even visit the location one day, and I take you on a guided tour of the premises. You’re excited, after all, your favourite dishes are on that menu and I’m telling you all the right things about this restaurant — it’s promising to be something that you’ve never tried before, and I’m giving you everything in the world to believe that. After a time, the day of the grand opening arrives, and we’re one of the first customers through the door. We pay the entry fee, and we get access to the buffet. You discover that a huge number of things on the menu that I showed you aren’t available, and the things that are there are nowhere near as good as they were described. The venue is fine, but it’s noticeably different from the guided tour I gave you. How would you feel? You’d probably be a bit upset, maybe even angry — but you’d probably be less so if I wasn’t aware this was coming down the pipe. Now imagine that I owned this restaurant. I was involved from the very beginning, and I was completely aware of its shortcomings as it was approaching opening day. How would you feel then?

Now imagine it’s a year or two later, and I coax you back into the restaurant. This time, it looks a lot closer to the tour I gave you. A lot of the things that I said would be on the menu, are actually there. The food tastes good, and people are starting to talk about it in a positive light. How would you feel? Would you feel happy that the picture I gave you years ago has started to become a reality? Would you be happy that the dishes you wanted are there, and they taste pretty good? Very possibly. However, for me, this is not an interesting question. The interesting question is should you be happy? If I came to you with another restaurant pitch, should you trust me again? Now imagine I wasn’t your friend, I was just some marketing guy from the restaurant. Is that better, or worse? Is it your fault for believing what I told you? Is it an honest mistake by me, the marketing person? The answer to all of these questions, in my opinion, is an emphatic no. The problem with No Man’s Sky is not so much that the game did not exist in the form it was advertised as: the games industry is absolutely filled with games that fit this description. The problem is more what it represents.

A spreadsheet of missing features between launch and now.

Cards on the table, I have barely played NMS. I dipped my toe in quite a while after release, and didn’t particularly enjoy what I played. That’s fine, not every game is for every person. I do not fault the game for being an experience that is not for me, as it’s my understanding that many people enjoy the game as it currently exists. My problem is with the spreadsheet above. No Man’s Sky is now receiving praise for the large amount of after-release support that the developers have given it. There are many articles singing the praises of Hello Games, and heralding NMS as “…one of the all-time biggest turnarounds in industry history“. There are innumerable Youtube videos describing how NMS is the game to play in 2021, and how you simply must try it. After all, look at how far it’s come! Comparisons are being made to Final Fantasy XXIV, an MMO that released in a similarly poor state, but has grown to being one of the most popular MMORPGS currently running. Should Hello Games not be lauded with praise, for being silent workhorses to bring the game into such a fantastic state?

I recall an argument I had with my Philosophy teacher in secondary school. He was a CoE Christian (as far as I know), and doubled as a Religious Education teacher when he wasn’t teaching Philosophy to the more senior years at the school. The lesson was about free will, and the idea of the world requiring it to have ‘meaningful good’. The example he presented to us, was a murderer who came to be redeemed through righteous action, and went on to live a good life. The question he asked was: is it not better for someone to arrive at the good through their own effort and choice, rather than to have the good simply foisted upon them. The notion being that, the murderer was more fitting of the word ‘good’, because they had strived to achieve it, rather than simply being unable to do otherwise (lacking in free will). My counterpoint/return question was simple. “Better for who? Was it better for the people that were murdered?” Everyone clapped. In all seriousness, I can’t remember his response to that, I’m not sure he even gave one.

The world loves a redemption arc. There’s something inherently compelling about this type of story, and it appears throughout fiction and within real world narratives. So let’s reframe the murderer analogy above to fit NMS (not to imply that what Hello Games did was akin to murder, despite claims to the contrary in the internet response they got initially). Was it better that No Man’s Sky released in an absolutely shoddy state and then slowly crawled its way to being the picture that was sold originally, versus simply releasing in that state to begin with? The obvious answer is no, but I think the objection will be “well, the game couldn’t release in the state it exists in now, because they didn’t have the two years they’ve had to make it that way”. While this is true, the point that I’m trying to make is that there was no inherent value to this “redemption arc”. If you had to choose between releasing NMS as it existed, versus releasing it as it exists now, you’d choose the latter every time. The world was not better for them having released a shittier product, and then slowly making it better over time. If you were one of the people that bought the game for full price on release, your world will have been several pounds worse for it. Let’s bring out that spreadsheet again.

A spreadsheet of missing features between launch and now.

The problem with this spreadsheet, and how it’s being used, is that it’s being presented as a demonstration of how far the game has come. Look at all the green, look at the features at the bottom which they released from the goodness of their hearts! It’s definitely useful in that regard, but the bigger question for me is, why is there any red at all? This isn’t a changelog, where the state of the game is being compared neutrally between launch and now. This is a list of lies. This is a menu of dishes that were never in the buffet. The red column is describing a game that did not exist, but was sold as though it did. This is a statement of charges, a list of damages. One should look at this spreadsheet and ingest the magnitude of the lie that was told about the game. Here’s my personal feeling on this: You don’t get credit for lying about something, and then making it true after the fact. While you’re certainly in a better position than someone who lied and then made no attempt to reconcile that, you’re absolutely not in the same position as someone who never lied to begin with. Not even close. Perhaps this spreadsheet is to be seen as a statement on the wider games industry — we’re so used to being sold a bill of goods that doesn’t exist, that companies are now worthy of praise for even attempting to make good on that original lie. I don’t want to live in that world. I don’t want to live in a world where liars are given more credit than those who never lied to begin with.

So we come to what I consider to be, ‘the biggest problem’. There’s a narrative being built here — a narrative of “well, this game released in a terrible state, but maybe they’ll pull a No Man’s Sky on it”. I’m hearing it with regard to Cyberpunk 2077, a game that similarly was sold on a bill of goods that was inaccurate (in some respects better, in some respects worse, see: previous gen console performance). I’ve heard it before with other live service games, where there’s this glimmer of hope that the developers will swoop down and deliver the game as it was promised. This is not a sane world to live in. Customers are no longer buying a game, they’re being asked to buy the potential of a game. “Ah, sure, it’s bad now, but give it a few months and maybe it’ll be what they said it would be.” Note that this is not the same as buying a game due to a release roadmap, not that roadmaps have held much water in the past: this is people buying games on the off-chance that they’ll start to become what they were originally sold as. This simply isn’t acceptable. These companies should be constantly raked across the coals for their deception. Every article about No Man’s Sky should be caveated with “bearing in mind, these new features are what they lied about the game having at launch”. I know there’ll be a defense here of “well, that’s marketing, deal with it”. Fuck that. If marketing is the act of lying about a product, then burn down that whole field. If that’s what it is, then let’s stop using the word ‘Marketer’, and start calling them ‘Professional Liars’.

There were two lessons that could have been learned from No Man’s Sky. The first one, was that with a bit more time and development effort, you can make a really good game. As I said at the very start, by all appearances it does seem like NMS has become something that people genuinely enjoy playing. This is not an original sentiment, it’s a tried and tested principle that Shigeru Miyamoto is most famously quoted for:

“A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad,”

There are so many games that fall into this category. Obviously there are some that are beyond saving, Valve’s Artifact would fall into this bucket for me, as a game that was never going to work because the foundation was so poor. Time was not a problem there, but it’s a problem for a lot of games. There was a world in which No Man’s Sky was delayed, where a spokesperson came forwards and ate a mile of humble pie. The game would be delayed because it wasn’t the experience they sold, and they wanted to make good on that promise. The cost of development would need to be absorbed somewhere, but the game would release, closer to the version we have now — maybe people would complain about the things which were still missing, but it’d be a lot more like what they were sold. Then there’s the second lesson. The second lesson is that you can lie to customers about the state of a product and you’ll get a pass to eventually make good on your original promises. That what you sell does not have to resemble what you made, because eventually that may start to be the case. That even though you sold something that fundamentally did not exist, you’ll get a load of positive press and free advertising when you eventually drag it closer to that line. That customers have the memory of goldfish, and they’ll forget all the pre-release content you put out, artfully crafted with content that just wasn’t in the game.

I think you can guess what lesson the games industry learned.

Categories
ttrpgs

three obscure DM mistakes in fantasy RPGs

If there’s one thing that I can proudly say I’ve done in my ~10 years of near constant DMing, it’s horribly fail in almost every conceivable way. I’ve run terrible, unsatisfying sessions. I’ve created utterly uninspired settings, devoid of any character or pull. I’ve written massive character backstories for NPCs that players talk to for three minutes, then forget immediately. I’ve written less than a sentence of notes for locations that then became frequent stomping grounds. I’ve written mysteries with massive holes that needed patching on-the-fly, monsters where I’ve missed key statistics, and homebrew magic so ridiculous that it wasn’t worth the bytes it was stored in. I like to think, however, that through this process of constant failure, I’ve slowly honed my DM skills to the point that I avoid a lot of the common pitfalls — instead, plummeting into new and hitherto unexplored ones. This post, I’m going to talk about what obscure problems I’ve run into, and how to avoid them.


Perfect Failure, Perfect Success

You could not live with your own failure, and where did that bring you? Back to me.

Chinned Purple Man – Big Superhero Film

There is a very common meme in the RPG space, the meme of “wacky anecdotes from when people roll 20 or 1”. The story of the dwarf who rolls a natural 20 on a pit and convinces it to close up, that moment when your fighter rolls a natural one and buries his broadsword in an adjacent friendly wizard. These are funny anecdotes, but they’re also a terrible way to play a game. Unless the system you’re playing specifies extreme events from critical successes/failures, you probably shouldn’t add them. The reason for this is fairly simple — sure, it was highly entertaining when someone rolled a natural 20 on their acrobatics check, and gained the power of flight as a result, but what do you do when it happens again ten minutes later? The same again? A natural 20 occurs 5% of the time, which is pretty damned common in a dice-heavy game like D&D, Pathfinder, etc. If you’re having absolutely catastrophic things happen as a result of natural ones, then you need to be ready for this to occur several times a session.

Most systems dial back on the importance of rolling critical results. In contrast with common house rules, natural 20s on skill checks in D&D5e do not automatically succeed. If your bard is comically weak, then it doesn’t matter what they roll, they cannot lift an object that has a DC greater than 20 + their skill mod. In Pathfinder 2e, if you roll a natural 20 but your result is 10 below the DC, you’re still going to fail1. This might feel quite cruel, because rolling a maximum result on a dice is typically a momentous event, but it’s necessary to maintain the structure of the game. If a natural 20 guaranteed success on skill checks, then the dumbest moron in the land would have a 5% chance of being as knowledgeable than the smartest being on the planet. While this might be funny, and the vibe that you want for your game, you shouldn’t do it without heavy consideration. Games that have extensive house-ruled mechanics for criticals tend to degenerate into absolute nonsense — even when using the ‘official’ critical hit optional rules like the decks for Pathfinder 2e.

Even when it comes to regular failure, you should be careful to never have the outcome be immediately extreme (unless the system is balanced around this notion). If a failure on a Diplomacy roll means that the NPC will never speak to the player again, you’re going to be running out of NPCs by the end of the second session. I think the Climb rules in Pathfinder 2e illustrate this point very well.

I’ve always thought the move speed here is a bit too restrictive, but maybe that problem disappears after a few levels.

Wait a second, where’s the line for when you fail? There isn’t one, because failure in this instance simply means that the action is wasted. The character attempts to move across the incline, loses their footing for a moment, and stops moving. Only when you critically fail, do you actually begin to fall, and even then, Pathfinder 2e has additional rules to alleviate that. This doesn’t mean there’s no consequence for failing — the character wastes an action doing nothing in a game where action economy is extremely important.

For me, I’d summarise this whole point as being “don’t exaggerate success and failure from the result of a single dice roll”. Sure, if a character rolls consecutive critical failures when they’re attempting to move across a sheer drop, you can describe them slowly and painfully plummeting to their death. That’s the mechanical punishment for being incredibly unlucky. Singular results, however, shouldn’t mean a great deal in the grand scheme of things. A failure to Persuade an NPC means a joke that doesn’t land, or an argument they don’t fully agree with. A critical failure means a joke that offends them, or a nonsensical anecdote causing discomfort and difficulty with the conversation moving forwards: it doesn’t mean they immediately draw a crossbow and attempt to murder you in the street. Similarly, a critical success doesn’t mean they immediately abandon their life, swear themselves to your cause, and ask for your hand in marriage. Pathfinder 2e has additional caveats in conversation with the Request action: “Some requests are unsavory or impossible, and even a helpful NPC would never agree to them.

If you want a world where it’s possible to convince the queen to give the players all of her worldly possessions after one minute of conversation, that’s fine. With a campaign where absolute nonsense has a 5% chance of occurring every dice roll, just be ready for that game to have absolutely no structure after even a handful of sessions.

Old Man Henderson

The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.

Terry Pratchett, Diggers

In a lot of RPGs, when it comes to character creation there is an understood ‘tiering’ of skills and attributes. Usually, every system has some sort of ‘God Stat’ — a statistic that either demands having some points in for a functional character, or one that can have points piled into for good effect. When talking about the canonical fantasy attributes (STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, CHA), the go-to example tends to be dexterity/agility, which has enjoyed a comfortable spot in almost every fantasy RPG. With skills, there’s a bit more variance, even within the traditional dungeoneering RPGs. I’d categorise skills roughly into the following categories of ‘god stats’.

The Physical

  • Ability to perceive (perception, spot hidden, listen)
  • Ability to sneak (stealth, disguise, hide)
  • Ability to move objects and yourself (athletics, acrobatics, dodge)
  • Ability to heal (medicine, first aid, surgery)

The Social

  • Ability to persuade (diplomacy, persuade, charm)
  • Ability to deceive (deception, lie, fast talk)
  • Ability to discern (insight, psychology, sense motive)

The Intellectual

  • Rarely applies, see below.

Now, you might completely disagree with my selection here. “Where are survival skills!” I hear you cry. “What about library use!” Yes, yes. I’ve missed out quite a few, more system specific skills/attributes to allow for it to be a more general list, but bear with me here. I think I would quite comfortably say that you need to have a party with points in these things for almost any campaign. If you try to play a D&D5e campaign with a party lacking a good Perception score, you’re largely going to have a bad time. If you try to play a Pathfinder 2e campaign with a party lacking a good medicine score, you’re largely going to have a bad time2. If you try to play a Call of Cthulhu campaign with a party lacking a good Persuade/Charm/Fast Talk score, you’re largely going to have a bad time. Obviously, all of these things have conceivable exceptions, but I think these are reasonable assumptions in the main.

So the question is: why are these skills so valuable, or even required? My answer to this would be: because these skills are the ones that emerge ‘thoughtlessly’ in the course of play. If you have a world with societies and NPCs of note, then the character’s ability to interact with those NPCs is going to arise. If you have a world with dungeons (in the broadest sense of the word), then the character’s ability to scrutinise, navigate and manipulate that dungeon is going to arise. With ‘intellectual’ skills, RPGs tend to rely entirely on the player using their wits to solve puzzles or mysteries. Mostly the closest you’ll get to a ‘solve the thing’ skill is something like the investigation skill in D&D5e, or the Idea Roll in Call of Cthulhu 7e. As such, the ‘intellectual’ category lacks the god skills that the other categories have.

Now you’re wondering, “where’s the common DM mistake?”. The existence of ‘god-skills’ implies the existence of…normal skills. Skills that aren’t guaranteed to be useful for a campaign, things like Performance, Religion, or History. These are skills that are mostly taken for flavour purposes, rather than them serving a definite mechanical purpose. If you’re playing a cleric, you’re going to have a (relatively) high Religion skill. The common DM mistake is to think that it’s solely the player’s responsibility to introduce ways for these obscure skills to come up in play. It is not. It is the DM’s as well. The DM should be using the character sheets as inspiration for content — almost like a food menu at a restaurant. If a player has an extremely high Lore (Circus) score (yes, that is a suggested lore in PF2e), it’s utterly absurd to believe that the player can reasonably bring that about by themselves. Instead, as the DM, you should be looking for an opportunity to introduce that check. Maybe the party is assaulted by an aggressor, who moves in a way distinctive to a travelling show? With Lore (Alcohol), perhaps the party stumbles across a disguised noble, who’s drinking a beverage far too rich for their supposed station. If a player’s investigator has a hefty score in Accounting, put them in a situation where reading important financial documents gives them a minor clue for moving forwards.

This does not mean you need to have progression locked behind an iron gate marked “Knowledge of 15th Century Architecture”. It means that you should read your player’s character sheets, and identify opportunities to introduce content that you would not otherwise have thought of. Perception will come up on its own, social skills will come up on their own, but you need to work for the rest. I guarantee however, that when you introduce the obscure lore check that a player put points into, they will love you for it. It’ll be even funnier when they fail that check. In addition, it leads to a considerably richer experience when the players are doing something other than rolling the same five extremely frequent checks, and get to think about the (usually) more minor parts of their character.

Hootsby, the Level 17 Pigeon

What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist

Videogame RPGs like World of Warcraft or Divinity: Original Sin 2 have set a fairly ugly precedent when it comes to NPC/creature design in a levelled environment. I’ll give you a specific example of this problem: both games have settlements/civilisation that they expect the player to frequently visit for things like services, repairs, buying magic items, etc. However, in DOS2’s case, they don’t want you to be able to just murder the whole town and steal all the items, otherwise it’d lead to a horrible imbalance in favour of the players. In WoW’s case, they don’t want players from opposing factions to be able to easily rampage through the town, murdering all the NPCs and preventing other players from interacting with them. So there’s two immediate approaches here: you could flat-out prevent players from interacting with NPCs in that way, removing their agency and preventing them from imbalancing the game3. The second option, is that you make the town guard or merchant NPCs high enough level/sufficiently powerful that the players are in serious danger if they attempt to attack them. In DOS2’s case, this means that most of the merchants are weirdly capable in things like magic and swordsmanship, despite seemingly spending their lives yelling in a village square. In WoW’s case, this means that all of the town guard sit at the current max level of the players, and will usually cream the shit out of any individual starting trouble.

Mightiest hero in the land, Stormwind City Guard

For a videogame, which lacks the moderating influence of a player – DM relationship, and with a computationally limited ability to adjust the world, these decisions make mechanical sense. The challenge of combat in DOS2 would be somewhat trivialised if you were able to gear yourself with the best available gear by easily slaughtering merchants at the very start4. The ‘story’ of WoW would be heavily disrupted if you could plunge a sword into the king’s head at any moment. The decisions, do not, however, make even a lick of narrative sense. In WoW’s case, a player character sat at the max level has overcome colossal challenges. They’ve fought and won against beasts from other dimensions, titans built as guardians of the world, outer gods who have come to consume the whole planet. Wielding armour and artifacts embued with holy power and arcane magics, they find themselves equally matched by a member of the town guard, wielding a mass-manufactured sword and uniform. It’s nonsense, clear baloney, but it’s a fact that the game needs you to accept (or at least, not think about) to not cause the wheels to fall off the rollercoaster.

In levelled, fantasy roleplaying games like D&D5e and Pathfinder 2e, levels do not just reflect a power change. Levels reflect a context change. There is a frequently quoted set of contexts with associated level bounds within these systems:

Level BracketContext
1 – 5Local problems, villages, towns.
6 – 10National problems, cities, countries.
11 – 15Planetary problems, continents, hemispheres
16 – 20Planar problems, material plane, universes
Not pictured, “level 0 problems”: big stinky rats.

The idea is, as the players increase in level, the context of the campaign shifts to accomodate their new abilities. Importantly, this is nothing to do with mechanical balance. This is purely to do with the narrative implications. Shifting the context at level sixteen says to the players that the mundane world can no longer offer a problem they can’t easily overcome. Their accomplishments have grown them to the point that they need to engage with transcendetal beings, or other dimensions, to be given any sort of challenge. By simply adjusting the levels and stats of otherwise mundane NPCs, you rob your players the opportunity to look back and see how far they’ve come. If the difference between a level 1 bandit, and a level 17 bandit in your world purely amounts to greater damage numbers and stats on a page, then something has gone wrong and an opportunity has been lost.

To codify this into a mistake then, the problem is merely upscaling the challenges that were faced in previous levels, instead of introducing new challenges that better fit the power the players now wield. This is something I have stumbled across in some of the PF2e prewritten content. I won’t have any spoilers, but the players go to a city that has a level 17 city guard in garrison. As far as I can see, they’re not blessed by the gods, they’re not forged out of clay and given sentience through magic — they’re just normal human humanoids.

Don’t mind me, just your friendly neighbourhood watch, wielding the power to kill at least two level one adventurers in a single blow of my sword!

Now admittedly, the city isn’t an entirely mundane one, but my point still stands that there hasn’t been an established narrative reason for the guard to be walking gods. If you need your players to visit a city where you don’t want them to immediately tear up the place with their immense power, you probably want to set it somewhere that isn’t extremely mundane. Put the city in a pocket dimension, with divine otherworldly guards — not just ‘Todd the Guardsman’ who, for some reason, is capable of cleaving a hill giant in half. Ask yourself, if your town guard are so powerful, why aren’t they the ones solving the problems that the adventurers are? There could be a myriad of reasons why this is the case, political, religious, not just a power disparity. There just has to be a reason, otherwise you end up with WoW-world.

Footnotes

1 Your roll fails to hit the DC, which means it’s a failure. It’s 10 below the DC, which means it becomes a critical failure . The natural 20 only adds one level of success, which returns the result to being merely a failure, but a failure nonetheless.

2 I’m increasingly convinced that the whole system is balanced on someone having the ability to effectively Treat Wounds.

3 The Elder Scrolls games are a mix of these approaches. Sure, you can murder a shopkeeper in Skyrim, but they won’t have the purchasable catalogue of their store on the body — making the murder relatively pointless. With some NPCs, you’re prevented from killing them at all, simply rendering them unconscious despite the fact you’re burying a battleaxe into their skull.

4 Worth mentioning that DOS2 does indeed give you the ability to outright butcher NPCs. If you go back to a town having gotten several levels over it, you’re able to absolutely blow it to smithereens. Though at that point, the gear they drop is likely to be useless. I wanted to have DOS2 as an example of a non-MMO RPG, but in a lot of respects, it bucks the normal trend here.