Long ago in a distant past, your matchmaking option for a multiplayer game with more than one person was thus: you went into a server browser, looked for a community server that was about right for your skill level (with names ranging from “NEW PLAYER FRIENDLY !” to “HARDCORE[XXX]RIPPERS”), and you joined it. If the skill level for the people in the servers was too searingly hot, then you disconnected and joined a different server. As an additional layer, these servers would occasionally have admins that would boot people who clearly didn’t meet the standard that the server expected (higher or lower). This was basically the case for most server based multiplayer games ranging from UT2004, Jedi Knight: Jedi Outcast, to Battlefield 2 (which did have a quick match feature that I actually never saw function). If you sought competition above and beyond the quality seen in a public server, you would join the appropriate teamspeaks/mumbles (usually advertised by servers), or join a clan, who would arrange scrims through back alley channels like community forums. I was in a clan for Counter Strike: Source, and also an admin for a couple of servers, and this was the way of the world. Did it work? It seemed to, though servers without active administration would sometimes be very rough experiences, depending on what game you were playing.
Cut to the matchmaking apocalypse, 2006, and a surge in popularity for the console gaming platform. Instead of having console gamers surf through pages and pages of community servers, Xbox Live would find the game for you. Sure, it’d be hosted on your console, leading us down a peer-to-peer netcode rabbit hole whose stench would linger for years and years as companies realised they could save the expenses of hosting servers by instead giving players a far shittier experience, but you’d only have to press a few buttons to get a game! Clap you fucking impatient seal, clap! While ostensibly reducing the time to find a game, this system of matchmaking had an added benefit that players were now completely stuck within the game’s ecosystem. No longer did the developers need to release a dedicated server runtime which could be used for things like mods, or community hosting — if you want to play the game, you play on their platform or not at all. While this would take a few years to be fully realised, it would become the bedrock of practices like map packs and then finally DLC in general. If the company can control every aspect of your experience with the game, they can monetize it as well. And they did.
As the new hordes of players came in with the extreme popularity of the Xbox 360 and the PS3, developers would increasingly focus on these platforms over PC. This meant that PC would frequently receive the dregs: the terrible console ports, the abysmal netcode, and the dull grey-brown artstyle. This would be encapsulated with the 2009 release of Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, a sequel to the server-based, delightful romp that was Call of Duty 4, containing console matchmaking, and horrific netcode problems. Even better than that, because there was so much local bullshit going on with the game, sometimes you’d join a match only to be levelled up to infinity, discovering that you’d joined a hacked server! Thanks Activision for removing the mechanism by which players could avoid that! At least these games now become unplayable when you terminate support because they’re all centrally managed, so we don’t have to experience the absolute garbagefire that was their multiplayer implementations ever again. Oh, you sold a remaster of Call of Duty 4 that includes DLC, and removed the ability to host community servers? Not just happy to release shocking modern implementations, but you’ll happily sodomise your previous titles too!
With this shift, however, there was a problem. Players would get frustrated because the matchmaker would put them in games that they thought weren’t fair. Everyone at some point in their mutliplayer video game playing experience has had a game where they joined, only to be flattened by a steamroller. No longer did you have the option to simply leave that server and find another, fairer one, oh no. In fact, a lot of games implemented systems to punish you for leaving, for daring to do anything other than complete their blessed match they handcrafted for you. Instead what happened is that people got mad, they got toxic, and they made the game worse for everyone else involved. This time, however, there was no safety net in terms of server administration or community rules — those went out with the runtimes. So now developers started to implement reporting systems, backed by algorithms: god forbid a human was actually involved in this process, they cost money. So now you have to rely on some opaque matchmaking system to find you a fun game, and you rely on some opaque reporting system to ensure that you’re not going to be told to terminate your existence every twelve seconds And what a fantastic job they’ve done of that.
I hold Overwatch up as the pinnacle of failure when it comes to multiplayer experiences. The absolute hubris of ActiBlizzard, that they released the title without a reporting feature at all, and decided to wheel out Jeffy Kaplan for a blubbing “stop being mean” video. Combine that with your classic soup of “algorithm curated matchmaking”, a complete inability to adjust your experience at all (maps), and gameplay that seemed intentionally designed to make people as mad as possible. Dust the whole thing with a sprinkling of a ranked matchmaking queue that made you watch points fall painfully off your rank when you lost, and you ended up with a community so toxic they should have buried it in Yucca Mountain.
Cut to 2020, and a rebellion occurred among the proles. The respectable frat brothers of the competitive Call of Duty community (who I will henceforth refer to as SugmaPhi) came out against skill based matchmaking (SBMM) for casual/non-ranked modes in their latest title. The focus of this was a tweet made which was (on paper) so monstrously idiotic, that it can’t have used all of the four braincells that SugmaPhi had to offer. Combine this with a series of tweets regarding the existence/non-existence of SBMM in MW2, where a SugmaPhi member embarrassed themselves into the phantom zone by contradicting a developer on the game. Everyone had a good chuckle at their expense, Treyarch got to have a few laughs about it, everyone moved on. Here’s the problem; if I was to read between the lines even a little bit, and try to put myself in the mindset of the SugmaPhi member, I’d interpret the complaint as “this game’s matchmaking is shit”. If this is the first time they’ve complained about the matchmaking in a series that has had it for title after title, then that’s the only interpretation that makes sense. Naturally, everyone leapt for the throat and screamed that they simply wanted to stomp newer players into the ground without a challenge: a take which was completely devoid of nuance and entirely fitting for the cesspit platform of Twitter.
Here’s the point at which I drop some hot takes. There’s a lot of complaining on the internet for what people refer to as forced 50% win rates. It is a complaint that you see very commonly against team-based games like Dota 2, CS:GO and League of Legends. To summarise it, it’s a feeling that the matchmaker is out to get you. Any success is to be immediately followed by crushing defeat, such that the player’s winrate can be kept around the 50% mark. This is supposedly either done by throwing opponents against you who are far above your skill level, or by giving you teammates (in team games) who are far below your skill level.
People who get awfully proud of their seven upvotes often respond with the following. “A 50% winrate means you’re getting fair matches, that’s the point of the matchmaker”. To which, I respond with the following hypothetical. If I put you in the MMA octagon for a two match extravaganza, one where you’re fighting a toddler, and one where you’re fighting Goku from Dragon Ball Super, would you claim that the series was fair? Interesting how the fact that your win rate coming out of that series would most likely be 50%, and that changes absolutely nothing about how fair the individual matches were. It’s almost like something is lost in the aggregate, isn’t it? It’s almost as though I could put together some of the most imbalanced, horrifically un-fun and painful matches in gaming history, and come out with all players maintaining a close-to-50% winrate. Here’s the thing: we know this. We’ve known about this for decades: this shit is codified. If these matchmaking algorithms are fixating on aggregated winrate as the strongest measure of how fair and fun a provided game is, then it’s no wonder that complaints about matchmaking systems are extremely commonplace. Here’s a radical question, what if matchmaking systems were optimised for fun rather than 50% winrates? What if it was possible to have players with 30-40% winrates, but were having great fun with every match? This seems impossible with so many games that make losing a painful, miserable experience, but I’d consider any game to be a design failure if half of the people in a match are consistently leaving it sadder than when they entered.
Alas, we do not live in the “optimised for fun” world. We can’t let the players have a choice in how they play, so we have to read the bones and interpret their will from the data. Do the players not like a map? Well, you could discover that immediately if you allowed your player base to select the maps they played on, thus demonstrating the worst maps by the ones that are never selected, but that would be choice, and we hate that. They’ll play on the maps they loathe, and they’ll have an awful time. You could allow players to self-regulate in casual play by letting them drop out if they’re really not enjoying a match, and offering rewards for people who are willing to join games mid-way through to fill the gap. However, that would be choice, and we hate that. We’ll make them stay in a match that they’re clearly not enjoying, and we’ll punish them if they attempt to leave. You could help alleviate the problem of toxic communities by giving players stronger curation controls, community moderation, the ability to blacklist players that they’ve had terrible experiences with before. Except, that’d be choice, and we hate that. Instead, we’ll match them repeatedly against players they’ve had actively negative experiences with, and throw them a wet towel player reporting system that has as much weight as our health secretary has credibility.
To be clear, none of these things make sense to have in a ranked mode. Elo was not made to create ‘fun’ games, it was made to provide a framework for ordering of players by skill. As such, ranked modes should be clear that they are there to do the same: at the cost of fun and player choice. The fact that we see these same systems coming into play for casual and non ranked gamemodes suggests how utterly mindless a lot of these decisions by game developers have been. Maybe it’s pure coincidence that so many of these algorithmically driven systems also coincide with gigantic monetary incentives (clamping down on mods and platform retention); I highly doubt that. Algorithms have been wielded as a cost-saving, money-generating bat that games have beaten players over the head with. Not sure why I expected anything else to be honest.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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?
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.
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?
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 emphaticno. 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.
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.
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.