Over at Lost Garden they have a really good article which I don’t want to lose in the labyrinthine bookmarks I maintain so I’m blogging it.
We believed that RTS games were the future and that we were the inspired game developers who were going to popularize this hitherto ignored genre.
Some historical perspective is in order. Warcraft wouldn’t come out until late 1994. Command and Conquer wouldn’t arrive until 1995. What many PC gamers today consider to be one of the most burnt out genres was at that time new, fresh and completely unknown to most gamers. The term ‘RTS’ hadn’t even been invented as far as I know.
As I write this in 2005, I’m bemused by the path the RTS game genre has taken from stunning innovation to stagnant maturity.
I remember playing Warcraft on a Powerbook 1400c – actually on two Powerbook 1400c laptops – because I wanted to test the InfraRed Appletalk connection and these were the first laptops I had access to. This then introduced me to Myth, Warcraft II, Warcraft III, StarCraft, Diablo and the game which I am most impressed with, HomeWorld – which takes the 3D nature of modern games systems to the ultimate extreme. The basic game formula then was simple. Collect a lot of stuff (Resource Gathering), build a lot of stuff (Base Building) and then attack (Fighting). As the article notes, this has been the mainstay of RTS games since and, frankly, for the foreseeable future unless someone does something.
We’ve had some breakouts from this – most notably Myth (and you might suggest the Total War series) but for the most part the RTS genre is stagnant. That said, when you look at the iPhone market, there has been a massive resurgence in RTS games. What is FieldRunners if not a focus on the Base Building subsection of the genre? What is Plants vs Zombies if not a focus on Base Building and Resources Gathering. What are games like Farmville or We Rule! but a focus on Resource Gathering. Tower defence games which have proven to be suprisingly popular with touch based interfaces played to the strengths of the iPhone – a small screen where it is hard to move around due to the screen size. With larger screens much of this difficulty goes away.
The problem being that many RTS games devolve into being puzzles. Plants vs Zombies, while I love playing the game with it’s quirky graphics and funny audio, quickly becomes formulaic. You know which units to build first, you know which units give best protection while you develop your resource gatherers.
The strategy goes away – but then this is as much an issue with playing against a simple scripted sequence or a very basic computer AI. You learn the patterns as much as commanders learned that cavalry were better than infantry and so they equipped infantry with pikes and so on.
Most folk who play games like Fieldrunners or Plants versus Zombies or Farmville may not see themselves a playing a strategy game and if you tried to tempt them into Warcraft, they’d likely baulk and lose interest. I believe we’re about to hit a new renaissance in Strategy gaming. Where the dust will be blown off and there will be new ways to act and interact. There will be victors and there will be casualties in this.