The Decline of the RTS Genre

Jonathan Lightfoot takes a look at the decline of the RTS genre.

Real-time strategy (RTS) games have always been a favourite of mine. I can’t claim to be very good at them – I’ll play on Normal and often move to Easy at the first sign of a proper challenge, and I could never bring myself to play online against others – but there’s something in the concept that keeps me coming back for more. Gather resources, build a base and form an army to crush the enemy. It never fails to entertain.

What does trouble me is the relative scarcity of RTS games lately.

Back in the late ’90s and early 2000s, you’d hear about high-profile RTS releases in the same way that people talk about Call of Duty nowadays. With series’ like Command & Conquer and Age of Empires leading the way for the genre, things were looking good. For fantasy enthusiasts, you couldn’t go wrong with Age of Empires and Blizzard’s Warcraft series. Likewise, those who preferred a more sci-fi adventure had Command & Conquer and StarCraft, to name just a few.

For the most part, the RTS genre has faded into obscurity since then. Command & Conquer has had a few solid titles through the 2000s, but the following online-only and mobile games did the series no favours. After the 2005 release of Age of Empires III, the series received little attention aside from a resurrected version of Age of Empires II for Steam. The recent announcement of a fourth game gives me some hope for the series and the genre in general, but the precedent isn’t entirely in its favour.

As for Blizzard’s games, very few people are reminded of the RTS trilogy when someone mentions Warcraft. World of Warcraft has seen to that. Since Warcraft III’s 2003 expansion, it’s been World of Warcraft all the way for Blizzard. Their sci-fi Starcraft series did get a second entry in 2010, plus a remastering of the first game a few years later, but any new RTS titles in either series seem unlikely in the near future.

These are only four examples, of course, and everyone will have their own favourites in the genre. One of mine was Warzone 2100, a PC/PS1 title that allowed for a surprising amount of unit customisation. Even back then, it was a fairly unknown title. I wouldn’t expect it to make any “best of” lists, many of which tend to list the very games I’ve mentioned in this article. The only recent game that tends to feature in those lists is Halo Wars 2, which itself is a spin-off from a much more popular series.

My prevailing concern is that the RTS genre is stagnating. As long as there are players, there will be people making the games, but a growing player base is essential. After EA closed down Westwood, the team behind Command & Conquer, many of its staff formed Petroglyph Studios. They’ve developed several RTS games in recent years, including the 8-Bit series. Unfortunately, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen them discussed outside of dedicated forums.

It appears that, for many publishers, the golden age of the RTS genre is long gone. It’s easy enough to find remasters or ports of the classics; I myself own a compilation of pretty much every Command & Conquer game, not to mention the still-supported Steam version of Age of Empires II. But it’s new games we need, not more rehashes of the old stuff, no matter how well they may hold up.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t shine a light on what is available in the genre. The aforementioned Petroglyph has proven with their games that there’s still room for both high-spec, AAA-style strategy games and smaller titles. The Total War series, ever prevalent, may just be one of the genre’s last bastions against obscurity. There are also, of course, innumerable games available on platforms like Steam, but sheer quantity is rarely a good thing. For strategy games to flourish again, there need to be games that stand out even amongst the best of other genres.

I’ll always have a soft spot for the genre. If I’m not replaying Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 for the twentieth time, I’ll be perusing the RTS tag on various online platforms in the hope that something new will catch my eye. Unfortunately, that’s a rare thing indeed, and I consider myself to have fairly broad standards for the games I’ll pay money for.

I previously wrote about my feelings towards gaming as a whole, and one unfortunate consequence of advancing years and technology is the steady decline of certain genres in favour of others. I intend to remain hopeful about the future of the RTS genre, but it seems more and more likely that I’ll have to make do with what I already have.

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