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The Future Of The Real-Time Strategy Game

January 24, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

Have you ever experienced this feeling after playing a real-time strategy game? You get used to the controls, learn all the hotkeys, become efficient with the mouse, and find that the best way to win is to build units and firepower as fast as possible and throw them at the opponent in successive, inexorable waves.

It's not that the game ceases to be fun, but that it ceases to be fresh: the basic strategy never really changes. Essentially, your only viable strategy -- your overall plan for success -- is to wear down your opponent and destroy him.

I have experienced this feeling. As empowering -- and, at least initially, as fun -- as real-time strategy (RTS) games are, I often find that they turn into real-time tactics (RTT) games after a while. So often, there is no other viable plan for success beyond attrition. Sure, I may construct that building here instead of there, or gain control of those resources over there instead of these here, but I can never really change my basic plan for victory.

I cannot win by convincing my opponent to lay down his arms, since he knows that the only way I can win is for me to destroy him. I must collect more resources than my opponent in order that he not wear me out first. The threat of force or the limited use of force would not convince my opponent that I would win if our military forces engaged one another. Since there is only one viable strategy -- attrition -- victory will go to the best tactician, not the best strategist.

Ensemble Studios' popular real-time strategy game, Age of Empires III

What War Really Means

The reason that RTS games become RTT games is that they ignore one simple fact: "War is the continuation of policy by other means."1 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.

Politics are who gets what, when, and how -- in other words, who has power and who does not. War is about precisely that, just with more drama and a lot more destruction than the everyday politics we're used to. In order to make the strategy of war meaningful, war has to be about more than simply destroying the enemy. It has to be about who gets what, when, and how. Without politics, war games devolve into pointless acts of attrition.

Take, for example, StarCraft, one of the most popular -- and, in my opinion, most fun -- RTS games of all time. The player directs drone-like units to collect resources, turns those resources into buildings and combat units, and then directs those units to seek out and destroy the enemy.

If the player chooses, he can simply wait for the enemy to come to him, trusting in the power of defense to wear his opponent down. But he cannot win unless he finds the enemy base and destroys it. In other words, StarCraft models total war, or war in which a combatant uses all available resources to the very bitter end. In total war, though, there is no second place, so a strictly defensive stance is a recipe for defeat.

1 Carl von Clausewitz, On War.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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