Is Real-time Strategy Dead?

Jake Theriault
Jan 20, 2020 · 6 min read
Starcraft 2 | Blizzard

This story was published concurrently in video form by Subpixel.

Originally this story was going to be called “The Rise and Fall of Real-Time Strategy”, but then my research showed me some compelling information that led me to change the title of this story to what it is now.

My original hypothesis, based on my own observations of the gaming landscape over the past 20-odd years, was that while the RTS genre enjoyed a heyday in the mid-90s to mid-2000s, graphical and gameplay improvements within the FPS genre allowed FPS to unseat RTS as the competitive gamer’s choice. If I was ever over at a friend’s house, and their parent or older sibling was playing a game — it was usually an RTS: Starcraft, Age of Empires, Warcraft 2, or the like. But by the time all my friends were beginning to not just inherit their parent’s or sibling’s game systems but actually buy their own, nearly all we played were first person shooters — your Halos, Nightfires, Medal of Honors, and so on.

From my own observations throughout my youth, there were far more cases of competitive FPS tournaments than real time strategy events, especially with the rise of major eSports leagues. The rise of the MOBA saw this even more so, as games like League of Legends seemed to just dominate the competitive landscape. But even in terms of the wider gaming market, I felt like I saw more first person shooters than nearly anything else.

But when I looked further into it — purely in terms of major published games — that doesn’t seem to be the case.

According to Wikipedia (taking that with whatever grain of salt you want) from 1979–1995, less than 10 major RTS games were published a year. In 1996 that number finally hit double digits, and nearly tripled the following year with the publication of 29 major RTS titles including Ensemble’s Age of Empires, Bungie’s Myth: The Fallen Lords, and Cavedog’s Total Annihilation.

In 1998 Blizzard took home the top spot in terms of videogame sales that year, shipping 1.5 million units of their seminal science fiction RTS Starcraft.

The RTS genre saw a peak in major publications in 2000, when 33 titles were released including Shogun: Total War, Star Trek: Armada, and Homeworld: Cataclysm.

For the next 10 years the number of published RTS titles doubled and halved pretty regularly, seeing 29 major RTS games published in 2004, 17 in 2005, and then back into the 20s in 2006. This rhythm continued until 2011 when the numbers dropped back into single digits. 2015 kicked off a three year stint back in double digit publications, but by 2018 the RTS genre had fallen back into single digits — mirroring the publication numbers of the very early 90s.

After seeing these numbers, I expected to find an increase in the number of published FPS titles as the number of published RTS titles began to fall. Instead I found something else entirely. While games classified as “FPS” enjoyed a greater volume of major published titles slightly earlier than the RTS genre, the overall trend was the same: a huge boom in the mid-90s, followed by ten years or so of peaks and valleys, into a steady decline in the at the turn of the decade.

I was confused by this discovery, so on a whim I went and checked major publications of turn-based games in the same time period. Turn-based titles didn’t publish nearly as many titles as either of the other genres, but what was published followed nearly the exact trend as before. Spike in the 90s, 2000s plateau, 2010s decline.

So what was this? Was it just my own bias as a player?

I definitely dabbled in all three genres when I first began playing videogames, but I definitely found a home in FPS games that RTS titles and turn-based strategy games just didn’t offer at the time. So was my memory of this supposed decline in RTS games just a matter of my not having been exposed to them for such a long time? Yes and no.

According to WePC.com, by 2019 the 5th and 6th best selling PC games of all time were real-time strategy games Star Craft 2 and Warcraft 2 — with collectively over 9 million units in sales. Just below them in the 7th slot was Valve’s seminal first person shooter Half-life, with 4.12 million units in sales to its name. So just looking at this tiny microcosm of the gaming eco-system, one could say that even though more FPS titles are published every year, RTS games are still more popular. A quality over quantity type situation. And maybe that’s true, but there’s more to the story.

In 2017, of the 20 best selling Steam game titles, 5 were FPS titles (including the monolithic Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds), but only 2 were real or turn-based strategy. And even without the help of the other 4 FPS titles, PUBG’s 2017 sales sold nearly 12 times the amount of the highest selling RTS and turn-based titles for that year.

But looking at competitive gaming was a whole different matter. The top eight all time prize pools were for MOBA tournaments for DOTA 2 and League of Legends, totalling over $100 million in prize money. The ninth spot belonged to a single Fortnite tournament with a $4 million prize pool, followed up by eight MOBA tournaments with a collective $24 million in prize money.

Real time strategy didn’t even show up until slots 105 and 106 with a pair of $700,000 Starcraft 2 tournaments.

So what does all this mean for my original theory: that the rise of the modern FPS genre effectively killed the RTS? Well, I think it was really just a matter of optics. It did and it didn’t.

A couple of factors need to be considered in a discussion of whether or not one genre killed another. The proliferation of internet access cannot be ignored when looking at the boom of the real time strategy genre in the late 90s. As home computers with internet connections became more and more common, players found RTS games a compelling avenue to connect with friends and strangers online. That’s not to say people were using Starcraft as a social network, more that the RTS genre hit at just the right time to fully take advantage of the novelty of being able to compete with people online.

But as computers and games became more advanced, players began seeking out new experiences. Having reach something of a design pinnacle already, the RTS genre had no means of evolving other than overcomplicating itself; and as the RTS genre became more and more inaccessible to new players, the FPS genre became more and more polished.

The advent of home consoles helped solidify the FPS genre as a home staple, while real time strategy remained relegated to the desktops of a committed few.

But as we’ve already seen, the whole industry — regardless of genre — seemed to begin moving to a quality over quantity model, as each genre published fewer and fewer major titles as the years went on, while selling many more units than ever before.

I think the biggest takeaway I got from this research was that is is unfair to equate the successes and failures of one genre to another, when there’s a lot more factors at play behind the scenes. The observations of my youth colored my perspective of a single genre, and kind of kept me from pursuing an interest in it until later in life.

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