Face Off: Is the RTS genre dying?

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is rts genre dying?

Last week, Ironclad Games’ director and co-owner Blair Fraser called the RTS genre “a dying market.” The genre convention of base building is “done,” Fraser says, and while a handful of games like Company of Heroes “may be profitable,” it’s his belief that RTSes are “very niche.”

Hearing these comments from a strategy studio we respect sparked our own discussion: what’s the state of real-time strategy? In this Face Off debate, T.J. and Evan talk about the health of the genre, and debate whether its popularity has waned to never return, or if it’s actually seeing a resurgence.

Jump over to the next page for more opinions from the PC Gamer community, and make your own arguments in the comments. Debate team captains: construct additional arguments.

Evan: Let’s be clear: this isn’t something that I or we are rooting for. We love RTSes. Command & Conquer was one of my formative games. But the decline of real-time strategy as a popular experience is indisputable. RTS has shrank from the smorgasbord of experiences it offered in the ‘90s and early ‘00s—the era of Warcraft, Age of Empires, Ground Control, Homeworld, and Total Annihilation. I don’t think there’s any hope for a comeback.

TJ: Oh ye of little faith. Well, I’m sure you expected I’d play the eSports card. So... bam! There it is, on the table. All of the most popular eSports are either traditional RTSes, or spins on traditional RTSes. Competitive strategy gaming is drawing millions of viewers in hundreds of countries. How can you say a genre that’s driving that kind of revolution is dying? It looks vibrant and energetic from where I’m sitting.

Evan: The eSports “revolution” you’re describing can be attributed to the increased access to fast, high-quality internet video. eSports is in a better state than it was in the age of DSL and dial-up, sure, but StarCraft is the only conventional RTS with any success as an eSport.

TJ: So far. We’re only two and a half years in. That’s like saying sports were dead back when all they had was Throw the Rock Through the Hoop.

Evan: I’m glad to see eSports doing as well as it is. But really, this is about what we play and pay for, not about what we spectate. It’s about how few games are being made in a genre we used to count as a pillar of PC gaming. Most RTS studios are either closing or scrambling to change their core competency. Relic released a shooter in 2011. Petroglyph laid off 19 people in December and saw its game, End of Nations, brought in-house by its publisher. Sins of a Dark Age, which was initially pitched as an RTS-meets-MOBA, just ditched a “Commander Mode” RTS component that seemed promising. And Gas Powered Games, after declaring that it’d stop adding new content to Age of Empires Online, and after laying off most of its employees, is clinging to a Kickstarter campaign that seems doomed.

I don’t want to see any of these studios shuttered. We need independent, creative groups like Gas Powered in the industry. But this is simply not a healthy genre. Real-time strategy doesn’t have enough fans to support it.

TJ: I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I would be really, genuinely surprised if there were actually fewer total people playing RTS than in the days of WarCraft III. Gaming, and even PC gaming specifically, have only gained traction since then. Huge traction. I think the fans are definitely there. If anything is dying, it’s the idea that RTSes should be given the same treatment, as shooters or action games, whose audiences have grown faster.

If anything, not enough devs have caught on to how you make and market an RTS in the modern market. You don’t spend Call of Duty money on an these things. And that’s hardly a stubborn enough problem that it would leave us without “any hope for a comeback.”

Evan: Not enough devs have “caught on” because it’s such a challenge for an RTS to make the money of a modern budget back. Again, look at Age of Empires Online. Its parent games were beloved and immensely popular. It reinvented itself as a free game. Gas Powered abandoned it just eight months after release. Very few people are playing it.

Should base-building be retired as a game mechanic? Will Kickstarter allow more studios to market RTS games directly to the people that want them?

TJ: I pin the failure of AOEO on a weak launch. There just wasn’t enough content—and only two factions? Really? If it had launched as the fleshed-out experience it became, I think it would have had a lot more success. Once the gaming masses have decided your game is lackluster, there’s not a lot you can do to bring them back.

Evan: I don’t know... if a free Age of Empires can’t make it, what chance do lesser-knowns like End of Nations have of surviving? I expect a similar fate for the next Command & Conquer, which will also be free to play. Face it: all the recent experiments with RTS have failed.

TJ: So did all the experimentations with human flight for hundreds of years. And they’ve only failed if your definition is pretty narrow.

Evan: This isn’t science—it’s business, and consumers continue to leave the genre. I think a lot of those people are flocking to a genre that was originally a spin-off of Warcraft III. Dota 2 and League of Legends are more popular and successful than StarCraft because designers realized that most people are intimidated by base building and managing a whole army.

TJ: Most people don’t play PC games (in the core audience sense) in the first place. What I’m saying is that RTS is a niche, but it’s no smaller of a niche, in terms of number of players, than it was in the glory days when it represented a higher percentage, because there just weren’t as many gamers. And if you want to talk about consumers expressing themselves, look no further than the 2.2-million-dollar Planetary Annihilation Kickstarter. That’s about as RTS as RTS gets, and it shows that there’s still plenty of vitality in the space beyond the traditional model of publishers bent on spending more than they can make back on these types of games.

Evan: Planetary Annihilation looks terrific! Like any rational human, I’m looking forward to weaponizing asteroids. But Planetary’s “success” is still just 44,000 people. Compare that to another recent spiritual successor made by another small studio—MechWarrior Online, which made 5 million dollars through its pre-order program. Mech games aren’t exactly mainstream—publishers have been afraid to back them for a decade.

Calling RTS a niche is accurate, I guess. But compared to the “glory days,” as you’ve labeled them, I think the genre as it exists now is a clump of lifeboats that’ve escaped from the capsized Titanic.

TJ: You’re comparing apples to robots here. Pre-orders and Kickstarter aren’t necessarily the same thing. I’m not arguing that RTS is as lucrative a genre as, say, shooters or action games. But there are plenty of people on those lifeboats to start a thriving island society. Which is arguably what PC gaming is: a series of thriving, passionate communities.

Evan: Perhaps that island society of yours can gather enough resources to build a second base, tech up, then construct air units. I hope they won’t have to resort to cannibalism.

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