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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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