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Real-time strategy

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Real-time strategy, often abbreviated RTS, is a genre of computer games characterized by being wargames which take place in real-time, where resource gathering, base building, technology development and direct control over individual units are key components.

Real-time strategy titles do not involve "turns" like turn-based strategy video or board games. Rather, game time progresses in "real time;" it is continuous rather than turn-by-turn, and all players may give orders to their troops at any time. While the word "strategy" originally referred to high-level war planning such as armies, campaigns, and entire wars, in real-time strategy games individual units or persons are given orders. Also integral to the gameplay of real-time strategy games are economic and production aspects, and though military confrontation is a significant part of real-time strategy gameplay, it is most often heavily stylised with relatively little emphasis placed on simulating real warfare.



1983 1992: the beginning

In the UK, the genre's beginning can be traced to Stonkers by John Gibson, published in 1983 by Imagine Software for the ZX Spectrum, and Nether Earth published on ZX Spectrum in 1987. In North America, the first game retrospectively classified as real-time strategy by most sources[1] is The Ancient Art of War (1984), designed by Evryware's Dave and Barry Murry, followed by the sequel The Ancient Art of War at Sea in 1987. Some writers list Intellivision's Utopia by Don Daglow (1982) as the first real-time strategy game.[2]

None of these titles would today be recognized as real-time strategy games. However, Herzog Zwei for the Sega Genesis in 1989 and Battle Master for the Amiga and Atari ST in 1990 are perhaps the earliest examples of relatively full-featured real-time strategy games.[3][4] Real-time strategy became recognized as a genre with the release of Dune II from Westwood Studios in 1992. Dune II also was the first to create a format for real-time strategy games that is still used today, such as using the mouse to move units, and gathering resouces.


1992 1998: defining the popular perception of real-time strategy games

Dune II (1992) - The game that defined the real-time strategy genre
Dune II (1992) - The game that defined the real-time strategy genre

Although real-time strategy games have an extensive history, some titles have served to define the popular perception of the genre and expectations of real-time strategy titles more than others, and the games released between 1992 and 1998 by Blizzard Entertainment and Westwood Studios have, in particular, contributed to this. Westwood's Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (1992) introduced in one sweep all the core concepts of modern real-time strategy games,[5] and as such acted as the first significant prototype for the "modern" real-time strategy game with the features described in the definition above.

While Westwood Studios laid the foundation and provided the prototype for real-time strategy games with Dune II, Blizzard Entertainment, between 1994 and 1998, can be argued to be responsible for establishing the form and content of the genre as understood today. The company's famous Warcraft series, Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (1994) and its sequel Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (1995), refined the concepts introduced in Dune II. Westwood's Command & Conquer (1995) and Command & Conquer: Red Alert (1996), and Blizzard's StarCraft (1998), which were extremely popular, as well as the innovative, and Total Annihilation and Dark Reign, cemented the genre and provided a de facto standard against which new real-time strategy games are still measured.[citation needed]


1998 - present

Refinement of gameplay and ongoing transition to 3D graphics

Battle scene from Sierra's Homeworld (1999).
Battle scene from Sierra's Homeworld (1999).

The real-time strategy genre has been relatively stable since 1995 and additions to the genre's concept in newer games tend to be introducing more units, larger maps, 3D terrain and similar, rather than innovations to the game concept with new games generally focus on refining aspects of successful predecessors.[citation needed] As the paragon example of gameplay refinement, Cavedog Entertainment's acclaimed Total Annihilation from 1997 distilled the core mechanics of Command & Conquer, and introduced the first 3D units in real-time strategy games. In 1997, Microsoft tried to combine elements of Civilization with the real-time strategy concept in Age of Empires by introducing ages of technologies, a combination refined further by Stainless Steel Studios' Empire Earth in 2001. GSC Gameworld's Cossacks: European Wars series took the genre in a different direction, bringing population caps into the tens of thousands.

Populous: The Beginning (1998) and Homeworld (1999) were the first completely 3D real-time strategy titles. Warcraft III (2002) is probably the most successful early 3D RTS. It is only in approximately 2002 that 3D real-time strategy became the standard, with both Warcraft III and Ensemble Studio's Age of Mythology being built on a full 3D game engine.

Relatively few genres have emerged from or in competition with real-time strategy games, although Real-time tactics, a superficially similar genre, emerged around 1995 and in 1998 Activision attempted to combine the real-time strategy and first-person shooter genres in Battlezone and Rage Games Limited attempted this also, with the Hostile Waters (2002) games.

Specialisation of gameplay models and genre ambiguity

Some games have moved toward an increased focus on tactics, with titles such as Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, Star Wars: Empire at War and Company of Heroes replacing the traditional resource gathering model, where designated resource gathering units collect the resources used for producing further units or buildings, with a strategic control-point system, where control over strategic points progressively yields construction/reinforcement points. Dawn of War also replaces individual units with "squads."

Others are moving away from the traditional real-time strategy game model with the addition of other genre elements. An example is Sins of a Solar Empire, currently under development by Ironclad Games, which mixes elements of grand-scale stellar empire building games like Master of Orion with real-time strategy elements, but pushing the conflict gameplay closer to a real-time tactics model. Another game with similar ambitions is Supreme Commander by Gas Powered Games, due for release in 2007.

The future

Real-time strategy games continue to undergo refinement in tactics, while a few forays into other genres continue to be attempted. Rise and Fall: Civilizations at War, released in 2006, allows players to take control of a hero unit for a specified amount of time, allowing a player to tip a battle in their favor by directly controlling the hero from third-person view. Company of Heroes has fully destructible environments and a powerful physics engine with tactical warfare while easing many micromanagement issues in previous games allowing for a new approach to warfare. Also to be released in 2007 is Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, a highly anticipated sequel to the popular Command & Conquer franchise.


In a typical real-time strategy game, the screen is divided into a map area displaying a birds-eye overhead representation of the game terrain, units, and buildings, and an interface overlay containing command and production controls and often a "radar" or "minimap" overview of the entire map. The primary interface is the mouse which is generally accompanied by keyboard shortcuts, with which commands are given and the map is scrolled. Gameplay generally consists of the player being positioned in the map with a minimal production base capable of creating the basic units and buildings that are needed to start playing and eventually create increasingly powerful units and buildings, or a small force, the core of which is generally a unit capable of establishing the initial production base. Thereafter, the game is typically a race of resource gathering, technology research and unit production to claim territory, suppress and defeat the opposition through force or attrition.

Criticism of gameplay

One criticism is that real-time gameplay often degenerates into "rushes" where the players take turns throwing swarms of units at each other. For example, the original Command & Conquer gave birth to the now-common "tank rush" tactic, where the game outcome is often decided very early on by one player gaining an initial advantage in resources and producing large amounts of a "tank" unit --an initially relatively powerful but still quite cheap unit-- which is thrown at the opposition before they have had time to establish defences or production. One of the games heavily-criticized for this tactic is StarCraft.

In response to these criticisms, features which reduce the importance of fast mousework have emerged, enabling the player to focus more on overall strategy. For example, "queuing" allows a player to put in an order for multiple units at once from a single building, as opposed to requiring a player to return to that building to order each unit separately. The ability to set waypoints allows a player to give multiple movement commands to a unit at once. Most games also give each unit strengths and weaknesses, discouraging players from easily defeating an opponent with simple "rush" or "swarm" tactics in favour of more balanced armies.

Real-time strategy gameplay archetypes

Warcraft III (2002) - The number of units is limited by the amount of food that can be produced
Warcraft III (2002) - The number of units is limited by the amount of food that can be produced

Micro-management games

Micro-management games allow an army and base to be built, but they limit the size of the army, the purpose being to create more of a tactical atmosphere.

By limiting the size of the army, the game requires a player to intelligently utilize his or her limited troops. This is more similar to the real-time tactics genre. Good examples of this type of game are Warcraft III which restricts the number of troops by using a food cap, giving variable food costs to each unit, and by using upkeep levels which extract a part of your gold income depending on the size of your army. Many games such as Battle Realms use unit caps instead. To simplify the control, however, a player may combine individual units into groups. This is even more prominent in the game ArenaWars, where every player only has 1,000 credits to build units.

A similar concept exists in the game Outpost 2, where importance is placed on micro-managing the morale of the colonists living in the game, although combat is still an important factor.

Macro-management games

On the other end of the scale are the macro-management games. These titles have more of a focus on economic production and large-scale strategic maneuvering, and include games such as Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings, Empire Earth, Spring, Total Annihilation and Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen. A prime example is Cossacks: European Wars, where there is no population limit on units and there is no limit on how many units may be controlled at once.


Act of War: High Treason (2006)
Act of War: High Treason (2006)

As the genre grew, some real-time strategy games attempted to break away from the 2D board-like view of Dune II and the original Warcraft to richer 3D environments, most notable among these Stronghold (1993). Total Annihilation (1997) was the first true real-time strategy game to utilize 3D units, though not 3D terrain. Homeworld and Warzone 2100 (both released in 1999), pioneered the use of fully 3D environments in real-time strategy titles. In the case of Homeworld, the game is set in space, offering a true 3D environment in which players are required to think three-dimensionally, as all units can move vertically in addition to the horizontal plane that was standard for real-time strategy games of the time. However, the switch to full 3D was very gradual and most real-time strategy titles, including the first sequels to Command and Conquer, initially used isometric 3D graphics made by pre-rendered 3D tiles. Only in later years did these games begin to use true 3D graphics, making it possible to rotate the view of the battlefield in real-time, instead of in 90 degree jumps as per Stronghold. These effects became even more visually detailed in later games, such as Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, Spring, Empire Earth, and Command & Conquer: Generals.

Recently, real-time strategy games have begun to incorporate physics engines, such as Havok, in order to increase realism. The first real-time strategy game to use a physics engine was Ensemble Studio's Age of Empires III, released on October 18, 2005,[6] which used the Havok Game Dynamics SDK to power its real-time physics.


  1. ^ RTSC Historical RTS List. Retrieved on 5 August, 2006.
  2. ^ Total Annihilation Redux. Retrieved on 17 December, 2006.
  3. ^ Zzap! Issue 68, December 1990, p.45 - Amiga Reviews: Battlemaster. Retrieved on 17 December, 2006.
  4. ^ Are Real Time Strategy Games At Their Peak?. Retrieved on 2 September, 2006.
  5. ^ The Essential 50 Part 31: Herzog Zwei. Retrieved on 17 December, 2006.
  6. ^ "Havok Enables Age of Empires III" (October 18, 2005).Havok announces the use of the Havok Game Dynamics SDK in Age of Empires III

See also

  • List of strategy video games
  • List of computer and video games by category

External links

  • Greatest RTS Games -
  • A look at the past, present, and future of the RTS genre -
  • The History of Real Time Strategy, Part 1 -
  • The History of Real Time Strategy, Part 2.1 -
  • The History of Real Time Strategy, Part 2.2 -
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