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.
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.
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.
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?
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?