What Are Real-Time Strategy Games?

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What Are Real-Time Strategy Games?

The real-time strategy (RTS) genre was once a video game industry force to be reckoned with, and properly so. During its golden period, the genre generated numerous highly famous games that earned massive cult followings, helping to cement the genre’s reputation among strategic war games to this day.

But what precisely is a real-time strategy game? Let’s take a look at this, the genre, and some of its most well-known titles.

Real-Time Strategy Games, Explained

A photo of Age of Empires 3's artwork
Image credit: Kumar Jhuremalani/Flickr

Real-time strategy games differ from other strategy games in that players advance in-game concurrently, as opposed to most strategy games’ turn-based method. Their simple fundamentals, like as resource and troop management, combined with their real-time approach result in high replayability, making the genre a favorite among war gamers.

RTS games are based on a basic concept. The game takes place on a globe map and pits two or more players against each other. Players must micromanage resources, military and non-military forces, building construction, new technology investigation, and diplomacy to grow in the game.

In addition, unlike grand strategy games, which stress diplomacy while showing military engagements as abstract ideals, RTS games often downplay diplomacy in favor of focusing on military activity. Furthermore, the player’s actions take place in real-time, promoting action-packed clashes and fast-paced gameplay.

The Main Gameplay Mechanics of Real-Time Strategy Games

An in-game image from Warcraft 3
Image credit: Spensatron 5000/Flickr

There are various gameplay features that are either extremely closely connected to (or even regarded essential to) real-time strategy, as with any other video game genre. These are some examples:

Resource Management

The RTS genre is heavily reliant on resource management. Resources are primarily found scattered over the game environment or created by structures. Resource management often entails resource discovery, extraction, and allocation, which means you decide how to spend your resources.

Building Management

Building management includes the construction, allocation, and upgrading of buildings. These often incorporate at least two kinds of structures: military and civilian. Building management is essential in RTS games since new facilities provide economic and defensive benefits as well as access to new and improved troops.

Military structures are often used for military unit manufacturing and defense purposes, while civilian buildings might contain governance, resource collection, housing, and technology research facilities.

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Unit Management

An in-game image from Company of Heroes 2
Image credits: Fantasy Art/Flickr

Units are often classified as civilian or military. Civilian units are often employed for developing or collecting resources, while military units are utilized for aggressive operations.

The addition of unit management to the real-time strategy genre adds a layer of tactical thought, albeit this feature is typically toned down in favor of strategy. In RTS games, military troops are categorized into several categories that cancel each other out in a rock-paper-scissors fashion.

If building management is important in RTS games, unit management is crucial; unit management is how you micro-manage your fights and demonstrate your military might.

Technology Research

Tech trees are common in RTS games, though not always. Even if a tech tree isn’t featured in a game, the gameplay element is frequently integrated in the game’s building management in such a manner that you’ll need to create one structure before you can access other more sophisticated ones or superior troops.

Technology research provides a nice dimension of strategic thought to the game, as you must decide if the benefits of moving up the tech tree are worth the resources spent on it.

A History of RTS Games

An in-game image from Command and Conquer 4
Image credit: pressakey.com/Flickr

Although the real-time strategy genre remains popular with players in 2022, it has existed since the turn of the century. When we consider the gameplay concepts we’ve just discussed, we can see that the genre goes back to at least the 1980s.

However, since Brett Sperry originated the phrase “real-time strategy” to describe the 1992 video game Dune II: The Battle for Arrakis, we shall consider this the first RTS game. After all, the word was only given to older games retroactively, and it was Dune II that served as a model for all subsequent RTS games.

The RTS Forerunners

Command and Conquer's original cover artwork
Image credit: Count_Strad/Flickr

Dune II: The Battle for Arrakis was the first video game to be labeled as real-time strategy, and it included all of the genre’s key gameplay concepts. In the game, you may choose one of three noble houses: Atreides, Harkonnen, or Ordos, each having its own set of troops that favor various tactics depending on which side you pick.

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To progress in the game, you must collect spice, the game’s major resource, and turn it into credits using a refinery. Credits are then utilized to construct new buildings and military forces in order to launch an attack against your opponent.

Following Dune II, Command & Conquer was built by the same development team, therefore much of the gameplay elements stayed the same. There are two sides to select from: the Global Defense Initiative and the Brotherhood of Nod, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Unit manufacturing and building development are paid by collecting Tiberium, the game’s main resource, and converting it into credits through a specialized structure.

The Golden Age of RTS Games

An in-game image from Age of Empires 2
Image credits: Siddhartha Thota/Flickr

StarCraft was the first RTS game to attract popular audiences, becoming the best-selling PC game the year it was published and ushering in the genre’s golden period.

StarCraft is regarded as innovative for introducing three separate, but well-balanced, races: Protos, Zerg, and Terrans, each with its own set of troops. Although each unit is unique to their race, they all have equivalent counterparts from other races, which helps keep the game balanced.

Finally, races rely on two commodities to keep their economies and armies running: minerals and Vespene gas. All troops and structures are made of minerals, whereas advanced ones are made of Vespene gas.

Then followed Age of Empires II, which became something of an RTS genre standard. Age of Empires, set in the Middle Ages, is possibly the most well-known RTS game available. There are 13 playable factions, and although they all have access to the same forces (infantry, cavalry, archers, and siege engines), each faction has access to distinct elite soldiers and facilities.

In addition, the game featured four new resources: food, wood, money, and stone. These may be discovered scattered across the globe map. These resources may then be used to create buildings, raise armies, or develop new technology. Age of Empires II also has a diplomacy system, although a highly nerfed down one.

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Modern RTS Games

An in-game image from Company of Heroes 2
Image credit: pressakey.com/Flickr

Current RTS games, like modern RPG games, promote action-packed gameplay and take a more tactical approach to the genre. They haven’t, however, eliminated the strategic layer.

The Company of Heroes series, based on the historical backdrop of WWII, dives a little further into the tactical component of fighting than other RTS games. It did, however, create a supply system, which adds a decent degree of strategy to the games.

To acquire resources, you must capture particular locations distributed around the map that collect munitions and fuel, both of which are required to produce troops and structures. The intriguing element is that in order for freshly seized locations to begin generating resources, they must be linked to the rest of your region, imitating supply lines.

Another nice example of a contemporary RTS game is Iron Harvest. Iron Harvest is a diesel-punk, mecha-RTS game set in an alternative past in which World Conflict I does not occur and instead a new war ravages Eastern Europe. The game has three factions: Polania, Rusviet, and Saxony, each with its own set of forces.

The game is inspired by Company of Heroes, and the only two resources in the game are iron and oil, which may be obtained by conquering and improving revenue buildings on the battlefield.

Real-Time Strategy: A Timeless Genre

RTS games, unlike its strategy rivals, grand strategy games, established a home inside the gaming industry’s popular audience with their fast-paced and action-oriented gameplay, delivering some of the most memorable war game titles to date. Since the debut of Dune II, the genre has gone a long way.

Although RTS games no longer dominate the market as they once did, the effect of the most popular RTS games may still be felt today.

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