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The Future Of The RTS - A Counter-Opinion
The Future Of The RTS - A Counter-Opinion
January 28, 2008 | By Troy Goodfellow

January 28, 2008 | By Troy Goodfellow
More: Console/PC

[Following Thursday's Gamasutra feature on the future of the real-time strategy game, journalist and RTS expert Troy Goodfellow has penned a pointed riposte, suggesting: "The future of the RTS? It’s already here."]

Gamasutra has just published an article from Nathan Toronto that goes over a lot of the same ground about real-time strategy in a sort of new way. It’s an interesting article purely from a conceptual standpoint, though my first reaction to it was “How many games has this guy actually played?”

Mr. Toronto has a PhD in International Relations from Ohio State, which I guess is supposed to bring some gravitas to his article. I have a PhD in Political Science (International Relations) from the University of Toronto, so I guess I’m qualified to say that Dr. Toronto has it wrong in some pretty important places.

1. Just because it’s in real time and is a strategy game doesn’t mean it’s an RTS. Toronto praises Caesar III as an RTS that forces the player to manage “infrastructure development and physical security”.

But Caesar III is not an RTS, it’s a city-builder. SimCity, not Starcraft. It comes from a different branch of the gaming family tree and therefore arrives with different assumptions about what the game is supposed to mimic. Conventionally understood, the RTS is about building and managing armies.

Yes, there is considerable overlap in some places between the RTS and the city-builder (Majesty and Settlers, for example). By making the acronym purely descriptive, you get into all kinds of messy situations where people try to compare Hearts of Iron to Blitzkrieg 2, which makes as much as sense as comparing Leisure Suit Larry and Baldur’s Gate because both have inventories. Guess what? Most RPGs don’t have any real role-playing, either.

2. Stop calling them real time tactics. I’ve already heard and read this cliche a million times. “There’s no strategy in RTS! It’s all tactics!” Wrong. There is strategy in RTS, the problem is that it’s always the same strategy - produce faster than you consume. How you get to this point can be tactical, but attrition and counter-production is often a military strategy, not a tactic.

In fact, RTS games have very few tactics. In many cases, counters be damned; you can just swarm an opponent with whatever you can make. And a defensive posture is almost always a recipe for failure.

3. The games you want are already out there, dude. Toronto writes:

"The reason that RTS games become RTT games is that they ignore one simple fact: “War is the continuation of policy by other means.” RTS games have done a superb job of simulating war but a lousy job of simulating politics. If RTS games are to be truly strategic, then they need to simulate both war and politics. Why? Because war is politics."

In his overquoted dictum, Clausewitz is not saying that every action taken in war is necessarily political, but that the act of war is. Sending my cavalry to pillage Neuchatel is not necessarily a political act except insofar as it allows me to keep the war going. The big Clausewitzian omission from the RTS isn’t politics, by the way, but “friction”.

Still, complaining that RTS games don’t have elaborate diplomatic engines is like wondering why I can’t call in a hostage negotiator in Half-Life. The RTS is a deathmatch genre, engineered around the “only one must survive” idea.

There are lots of other games that do have deterrence, compellence, alliances, trade pacts, restive populations, etc., many of which move in real time. Why wonder why Rise of Nations doesn’t have threats of violence when Total War does?

In fact, most of Toronto’s suggestions for changes in the RTS can be found in either the Total War games, Paradox’s titles or many turn-based games. Populations you need to keep happy? Yep. Internal opponents? Yep. People who want you for more than your land? Yep. Infrastructure development? Yep.

And what would be added by sticking these on a traditional real time strategy game? Little that I can see that isn’t being done in genres and forms that have evolved around the Starcrafts and Warcrafts.

What would be lost? The lunch hour game. The RTS is designed to be played quickly. It’s not a reflection of history or strategy except on the most simplistic level imaginable.

If you want a deep political and strategic game, the RTS is one of the worst places to look. Most of the time it doesn’t even capture war well, despite what Toronto says.

[This story is updated and extended from a post on Goodfellow's weblog with his kind permission.]

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Jorge Barros Cabezas
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The fact here is that most of the time, the concept is not attached to reality. For example, I would say Chess is a strategy game, and some people would disagree. Let's begin with our conceptions about strategy: mine is "use or save resources available to achieve an objective" (my conception about resources includes army).

In the case of Chess, this is "loose pawns first, queen later, or queen first, but your goal is to win". With that in mind, games like Starcraft and Warcraft become RTS (and they are). The only problem is that this conception could be the basis of any kind of game.

Another fact: I read once about that (maybe) terrible fact that affects RTS games: the APM (actions per minute), where a 14 years old has more APM than a 22 years old one, so in this way the younger could easily win. But this is what the 'books' say, I partially disagree, as the older one should have more experience, but what about a battle between two armies of the same type of units, like Marines vs Marines. What should happen? They should win randomly, wouldn't they? Here is where APM comes to live, the team that has more units firing will win, so the younger guy that has units wounded will take them back so they don't become main target of fire.

Irving Rivas
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IMO, there was no need to be so agressive. After all, brother Toronto was just speaking his mind and it is his opinion... in some senses you have a point, but I still agree that some RTS could be richer with some more depth.

And I think that you are mixing up things, too... RTS with turn based games and those comparations to FPS (the one about Counter Strike) were a little bit off place. It is easy to criticize, see... i've been doing it for the last couple of lines. It is harder to make a point. Do you have any suggestions how to improve or add depth to RTS at all? if you did, I think you would respect the other people's opinion... I'd like a little bit more of giving and a little less of destroying.

Shaun Huang
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I think Dr. Goodfellow did contribute to the community: by dispelling the Dr. Toronto's idea in the impressionable minds of young developers. To supplement the whole discussion, I will add that, RTS does not simulate a war, it simulates a SKIRMISH. While it is true that other aspects of a war can be added to a game as a whole to improve overall enjoyment, things such as politics should not be added inside the skirmish. Rather, one should approach this like in Warhammer 3000, where skirmishes remain as skirmishes with perhaps secondary objectives to make it more interesting, but war/campaign management need to exist without hindering the flow of combat.

Mark Venturelli
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Thanks for having brains. Great article.