The real-time strategy (RTS) genre was once a force to be reckoned with in the video game industry, and with good reason. During its heyday, the genre produced several hugely popular games that garnered huge cult hits, helping to establish its legacy among strategy war games to this day.
But what exactly is an RTS game? Let’s explore that, the genre, and some of its most notable titles.
Real-Time Strategy Games, Explained
Real-time strategy games are characterized by the way players progress through the game simultaneously, as opposed to the turn-based approach of most strategy games. Their easy-to-grasp mechanics such as resource and unit management, coupled with their real-time approach, provide great replayability, making the genre a favorite among war gamers.
The idea behind RTS games is quite simple. The game takes place on a world map where two or more players compete. To advance in the game, players must micromanage resources, military and non-military units, construction of buildings, research of new technologies, and diplomacy.
Also, unlike grand strategy games which emphasize diplomacy while depicting military battles as abstract values, RTS games mostly tone down diplomacy, choosing to focus more on military action. Additionally, player actions take place, of course, in real time, promoting action-packed skirmishes and fast-paced gameplay.
The main game mechanics of real-time strategy games
As with any other genre of video game, some gameplay mechanics are either very closely related (or even considered essential) to real-time strategy. These include:
Resource management is a big part of the RTS genre. Resources are mostly distributed in the game world or produced by buildings. Resource management often involves finding, mining, and allocating, which means you choose how to spend your resources.
Building management includes constructing, allocating, and upgrading buildings. These often include at least two types of buildings: military and civilian. Building management is at the heart of RTS games since new buildings give you economic and defensive advantages as well as access to new and better units.
Military buildings typically include military unit production and defensive buildings, while civilian buildings can include government, resource collection, housing, and technology research buildings.
Units are generally divided into civilian and military units. Civilian units are often used to construct buildings or gather resources, while military units are used to take the offensive.
Unit management adds a layer of tactical thinking to the real-time strategy genre, though this aspect is mostly toned down in favor of strategy. Military units in RTS games are categorized into different types that cancel each other out like rock-paper-scissors.
If building management is at the heart of RTS games, unit management is essential; unit management is the way to micro-manage your battles and prove your military prowess.
Tech trees are often present in the RTS genre, but not always. Nevertheless, even in the case where a technology tree is not present in a game, the game mechanic is often integrated into the game’s building management in such a way that you will have to construct a building to be able to access other more advances. units or better.
Tech research adds a good layer of strategic thinking to the game, as you will have to gamble whether the benefits of advancing through the tech tree are worth the resources spent.
A history of RTS games
Although the real-time strategy genre is still very popular among gamers in 2022, it has been around since the turn of the century. If we take into account the gameplay mechanics we just passed, we can see that the genre dates back to at least the 1980s.
However, since the term real-time strategy itself was coined by Brett Sperry to describe the 1992 video game, Dune II: The Battle for Arrakis, we’ll consider it the first RTS game. After all, the term was only applied to previous games retrospectively, and it was Dune II that became a blueprint for what all future RTS games would look like.
Dune II: The Battle for Arrakis was the first video game to be called a real-time strategy, featuring all of the core gameplay mechanics associated with the genre. In the game, you can choose between three different noble houses, Atreides, Harkonnen, and Ordos, each with their unique units, favoring different strategies depending on which faction you choose.
To advance in the game, you need to collect spices, which serve as the main resource in the game world, and convert them into credits through the use of a refinery. The credits are then used to construct more buildings and military units to take the offensive against your enemy.
Command & Conquer followed, produced similarly by the same development team as Dune II, so many of its game mechanics remained the same. There are two factions to choose from, the Global Defense Initiative and the Brotherhood of Nod, each with their own unique characteristics.
The production of units and the construction of buildings are financed by harvesting Tiberium, which serves as the game’s unique resource, and transforming it into credits through a specialized building.
The golden age of RTS games
The first RTS game to hit the mainstream was StarCraft, which became the best-selling PC game the year it was released, kicking off the genre’s golden age.
StarCraft is considered groundbreaking for its introduction of three distinct, yet balanced races: Protos, Zerg, and Terrans, each with completely unique units. While all units are unique to their respective races, they all have comparable counterparts from other races, which helps keep the game balanced.
Finally, races use two resources to sustain their economies and armies: ores and vespene gas. Minerals are used for all units and buildings, while Vespene Gas is used for more advanced ones.
Then came Age of Empires II, which became something of a hallmark of the RTS genre. Set in the Middle Ages, Age of Empires is probably the best-known RTS game. It has 13 playable factions, and while they all have access to the same type of units, infantry, cavalry, archers, and siege engines, each faction has access to unique elite troops and buildings.
The game also introduced four different resources: food, wood, gold, and stone. These can be found spread all over the world map. These resources can then be invested in building buildings, raising armies or researching new technologies. Age of Empires II also features a diplomacy system, although it is very nervous.
Modern RTS Games
Modern RTS games increasingly take a more tactical approach to the genre and, like modern RPG games, favor action-packed gameplay. However, they still haven’t removed the strategic layer.
Based on the historical setting of World War II, The Company of Heroes series delves a little deeper into the tactical aspect of warfare than most RTS games. However, it has implemented a supply system which adds a good layer of strategy to the games.
To gather resources, you need to capture specific sites scattered all over the map that collect ammo and fuel, which you need to create units and buildings. The interesting part is that for newly captured sites to start producing resources, they must be connected to the rest of your territory, simulating supply lines.
Iron Harvest is another good example of a modern RTS game. Iron Harvest is a diesel-punk, mecha-RTS game set in an alternate version of history where our version of World War I does not occur and instead a different war is ravaging Eastern Europe. The game features three different factions, Polania, Rusviet, and Saxony, each with their unique units.
The game is somewhat influenced by Company of Heroes and to collect the game’s only two resources, iron and oil, by capturing and improving revenue structures on the map.
Real-Time Strategy: A Timeless Genre
With its fast-paced and action-oriented gameplay, RTS games have found a niche within the gaming industry’s mainstream, unlike their strategy counterparts, grand strategy games, managing to offer some of the titles of most memorable war games to date. The genre has come a long way since the release of Dune II.
Although RTS games no longer dominate the market like they did in their heyday, the influence of the most popular RTS games still resonates today.