Where now for the Real-time strategy game?

Mike Jennings 30/09/2007

Real-time strategy games are a breed that are, often, creatures of habit. Sure, the settings change - there's been fantasy titles like the famed Warcraft series, and science fiction epics like Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun. Every historical period imaginable has been scoped out with a fine-toothed comb; games like Cossacks: European Wars concentrated on particular periods, whereas Empire Earth attempted to trawl through the entirety of human history. They've all got something in common, though: the management of resources as well as military units - the balance between war and peace.

Those games, though, are all at least five years old. They're also part of a trend that's been emerging in strategy games for the past half-decade, one in which they're the victims: the decline of resource management in top-line games, with the focus shifting to pure wartime tactics instead.

It may seem a minor issue, but it's a major shift in the way that mainstream real-time-strategy games are played and enjoyed by millions of people around the world. The top strategy titles, now, are very different: World in Conflict, an evocative wargame that centres around a fictional invasion of the United States in 1989 by Russia, is almost universally concerned with your soldiers - the troops that you're provided with at the start of a mission. The closest it comes to resource management is deciding which artillery bombardment to use on enemy positions. Company of Heroes, a WW2-era title, garnered an average review score of 94% and was the third-highest rated game of 2006. There's no base-building, and no resource management. It, again, is all about the troops.

So, what's happened? It seems that traditional strategy games - ones that follow a familiar pattern of base-building, resource-gathering, research and development, troop creation and enemy domination - are fading into the background. PC Gamer magazine recently begun a preview of the new Settlers game, Rise of an Empire, with a tale of how a colleague couldn't believe the writer was excited about a new addition to the franchise. It seems that this once-popular series - that heavily concentrated on the establishing of your community, favouring the micro-management of your settlers to make your town or village entirely self-sufficient - has fallen so far out of fashion it's not longer held in any esteem by the very people who should know better.

But why? There must be a reason for this alarming change. It could be explained away in trends - the industry is famously cyclical, as we can see in the alarming decline of the mainstream popularity of adventure gaming towards the end of the nineties after their earlier heyday, and the proliferation of modern first-person shooter titles to show off computer muscle - but it could also be seen as a symptom of changes within society as a whole. There's been a lot of fuss made over the increasing pace of society: people now want fast food so quickly that they're able to order on their mobile phones in the queue and pick up their McCrap a few seconds sooner; city cars let flashy businessmen get to meetings that little bit early, and viewers demand 24-hour news: bulletins at 6 and ten are obviously no longer enough, and this just in: gamers don't want to build up their colonies and civilisations before going to war. They want to fight, and they want it now.

That's making the assumption, however, that this is how people really regard these games. I, personally, will always vouch for the traditional, base-building approach. I can see the merit in titles like World in Conflict and Ground Control - the way they strip away the (allegedly) non-vital elements to leave you with a pure military tactic simulation is impressive, however half-baked it may seem as a game of a genre - but there's no need to denounce some of the major elements of a whole style of gaming. Yes, I love base building - and I'm not afraid to say it.

There's just something tremendously satisfying about it. Take one of the classic RTS titles since, well, the inception of genre all the way back with Dune: Age of Empires. You begin, literally, with almost nothing - merely a handful of villagers, able to construct a meagre town centre - itself not much more than some vague constructions around a central fire-pit - once you've found a suitable spot, usually somewhere adjacent to the game's basic resources (food, from berries or animals; wood, gold and stone) you're free to found your fledgling nation. You can build areas to more efficiently collect and store resources, temples and universities to conduct research into improving your people, or the expected barracks, stables and archery ranges to defend yourself. There's literally dozens of different skills, crafts, buildings and units to discover - which means that no one game will be the same as the last, and you don't have to rely on military might if that's not your style. The ability to craft your country as you see fit means that you're able to connect with it on a somewhat deeper emotional level. Of course, the success or failure of your civilisation is directly in tune with the amount of resources you gather as opposed to how powerful your guns are - because every new bit of research and development costs - and the key is getting your citizens working as part of a well-oiled, efficient team. Watching them work for you after much investment has gone in to micro and macro-managing their various operations and tasks is hugely gratifying. It was a winning formula - the Age of Empires series has sold millions of copies.

It's a pattern that you can find in dozens, even hundreds of strategy games. Empire Earth shared a lead designer with Age of Empires and produced a similar system. Warcraft also advocated resource gathering and base building as a vital component of a successful Orc or Human nation, even if the aim was a military victory: you knew you'd worked to get there. The Settlers games take micromanagement to a whole new, and more absorbing, level. An example: your miners need bread to function - and you have to bake it. This involves a farm growing grain, which is then harvested and milled into flour in a windmill. This is then combined with water - which another settler has to fetch and distribute to the various buildings that require it, including the aforementioned grain farm - and baked into fresh loaves of bread. These can then be delivered to your mine-shafts and your hard-working miners can continue finding resources. This process is in no way unusual, either - this concentration on micro-managing the various chains of production can be daunting at first (so can be managing squads of troops, too) but it's incredibly endearing to watch your settlers working productively by themselves knowing that you helped them. It's creation rather than destruction, and a feeling that can't be replicated by simple strategy of war that places no emphasis on the rises of nations by merely concentrating on the falls.

So, where are these warmongering strategy celebrations of militaria? You can find them merely by looking towards the upper echelons of the charts. There's the aforementioned World in Conflict and Company of Heroes - two of the biggest selling games of recent years. Warhammer: Mark of Chaos brought the change in emphasis to a fantasy setting that is usually more resistant than others - like WW2 - to big changes in gameplay. Kessen introduced samurai warriors to the mix with an Oriental-themed take on troop management, and Freedom Force vs The Third Reich even tried to make it funny. Games like Blitzkrieg cater to the hardcore market - the ones who believe they're real commanders, and spend their weekends dressing up as such. In short - they're popular, weighty, big-selling games - weighty enough to push traditional strategy to the peripheral vision of the collective gaming consciousness.

One answer would be to try and mix the two polarised areas of the genre - creating a simulation that's just as much about the warmongering and micromanagement of your troops on the battlefield as it is about crafting a peaceful, diplomatic civilisation, if you so desire. Studio Creative Assembly are perhaps the most successful as this - their Total War series has spanned feudal Japan, Rome, and Medieval Europe - and is set to take on the world with latest title Empire - but these hugely successful games do have a couple of sticking points. They're not exactly real-time, for a start - diplomatic and strategic moves are planned in a static, turn-based interface designed to resemble a parchment map of the continent, with real-time taking over for the graphically impressive battles. A consequence of this is that the turn-based elements of the game feel somewhat left behind: a mere preparation area for the inevitable bloodshed to follow. There's also a question of the name. Dubbing your game Total War isn't the best advert for a peaceful solution - and you always feel as if you're missing out if you're not trying to intimidate some Swedish barbarians or Russian rebels. There's few other examples of games even attempting to cover both sides of this stalemate; even fewer successfully get the myriad balancing right enough to make it realistic and playable. So, in the end, if development teams are having to choose a side of the fence to sun themselves on, they're going to go for glamour and big sales. They're going to choose war.

What of the future? It's hard to predict. Gaming, as I mentioned earlier, is cyclical. But that doesn't mean it's easy to map out when these cycles will run out of steam and naturally turn to a different tune. It could take a single title to turn the tide in base-building and resource management's favour: a solitary game that impresses enough to make people stop and think that there's a world beyond wholly military strategy. Settlers: Rise of an Empire could do it - it's a very attractive looking game, but it'd have to pull something virtually revolutionary out of it's well-worn hat to make people sit up and notice the sixth game in a series that's famed for being set in it's cutesy, adorable ways. Unfortunately, though, there's not much else to whet the appetite. Any potentially epic strategy games on release date radar are relentlessly violent in name: Universe at War, Supreme Commander and Empire: Total War are three that immediately stand out. There's nothing wrong with war, at least virtually - but sometimes a gamer wants a little bit more, and those needs aren't going to be met much any time soon. Empire Earth III could spring a surprise - the first game in the series was enormously successful, the second less so - but as it's a game that espouses the often inevitable violent conclusions in favour of finding your own way to victory, be it through diplomacy, battle or research progress, there seems to be little hope.

It's a sad state of affairs, in my opinion - people have forgotten what brought strategy gaming to their attention in the first place. Turn-based, battle-based titles have been around before the video gaming era, as board games, but it's as open-ended, real-time experiences that the genre really began to find it's feet in the sales charts. The games I mentioned at the beginning of this article - the Warcrafts, Empire Earths, Age of Empires and Settlers series all included the resource-gathering, base-building elements that made the genre so popular. It was a heady, entertaining mix - battles that were mildly satisfying when given a handful of soldiers to command became personal roller coasters of victory and defeat when you'd collected the materials to feed the soldiers and forge their weaponry. Five or ten years ago, it was about balancing the many facets of the game to create a world where you could build your own destiny from the ground up - now it's about commanding someone else's troops in environments that are - with exceptions in the very finest examples of the genre - more sterile and colourless knowing that you've had little to do with them. I can only hope that the wheel turns again soon and changes gear. It's about time bases and resources mattered again.