Has the RTS genre died — or has it morphed into something completely different?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, my absolute favorite game genre (second to RPGs only) was the real-time strategy game, or RTS. Titles like Caesar, Command & Conquer, Age of Empires II, Rise of Nations, Warcraft II, StarCraft, Majesty, Homeworld, and the underrated Kohan allowed me to grow a scaled-down empire that I could nurture and direct on its path to glory. Oh, and then send a bajillion units to clash with other armies and watch them fight in real time.

I played the heck out of these games and certainly got my money’s worth from their purchases. They were incredibly replayable, especially when you factor in customized maps on top of the established campaigns.

Yet I started to drift away from RTS games — and many other titles — when I got into MMORPGs, and before long they had drifted into my far past. The funny thing is that unlike, say, first-person shooters, I had not outgrown the RTS. Whenever I thought about those games, I still had the same passion and love for them. Yet other than mobile titles like Clash Royale that mimic the RTS style on a vastly stripped down scheme, I wasn’t playing them.

This has changed as of late with the purchase of Warcraft II from GOG.com. I installed that (expect a retro series to come!) as well as Majesty for a weeklong trip to an internet-free cabin. Even as old as these games were, they were still a lot of fun in replaying them, and it made me wonder why I just don’t see RTS games announced these days. Has the genre fallen out of favor? Or has it morphed into games like Dwarf Fortress and Rimworld, where the scale and focus is different than empire building?

After looking around to see what the last five years have produced, it’s pretty slim pickings for the traditional RTS. There is the Total War Warhammer series, 2013’s StarCraft II and its expansion, 2016’s Stellaris, 2016’s Offworld Trading Company, revamps of the Age of Empires series, city builders like Frostpunk, and a few others.

Following that, I did some Google searches on relevant articles and blogs and was relieved to see that it’s not just me feeling this way. There’s a pretty common perception out there that the classic RTS genre is dead — or at least very dormant right now. It’s not completely dead, and there’s a lot of excitement out there for Age of Empires IV (count me in!), but it’s no longer the hot slice of gaming that studios are all gunning to make. Even Blizzard, the former RTS king, doesn’t seem that interested in getting another Warcraft RTS or the next StarCraft expansion out there.

One person pointed to MOBAs as a direct cause of RTS stagnation, which… I guess? They’re RTS on a very small scale but not quite the same build-defend-attack format with armies at your disposal rather than a single character. Another article said that StarCraft single-handedly did the RTS in a similar fashion to World of Warcraft and MMOs.

In any case, at least we have older RTS games to enjoy, some remastered ones to bring them up to spec, and a few on the way to keep the torch burning. Musing about this has put me into a mood to dig up some past favorites and give them another go.

5 thoughts on “Has the RTS genre died — or has it morphed into something completely different?

  1. Interesting read. I do think that the RTS genre is changing. You mentioned Total War series, but only the Warhammer part of it. They have recently came out with a new one Three Kingdoms. The concept is the same as the Warhammer series but the “story” and the units the map layout is different. I didn’t see you mention Dawn of War series, granted the last iteration wasn’t super great, but I enjoyed it. Then there is the Civilization games(not and RTS strictly speaking, but still have the strategy part to it) those have some recent releases

    I haven’t played any of the Warhammer 40k Gothic Armada games, so not sure if they are RTS, but man they look awesome.

    So to conclude this, RTS genere is changing, and I think its been Total War games and Dawn of War games that have been trying to innovate, and some of the innovations worked some didn’t (there maybe others but I haven’t played them). I personally am in love with the Total War Warhammer series. I think its one of the greatest moves forward as far as RTS goes.

  2. Have you seen the new Starcrafts skin for SC:Remastered? That’s going to get a few bucks from me this summer, just for the sheer novelty of it.

  3. I’m not sure you can mention the entire Total War franchise, Stellaris, Starcraft, Offworld Trading Company and so on in the same breath and call it slim pickings without immense irony.

    I think the RTS in its own way grew up and split off into more defined, narrower genres. We don’t see the Warcraft, Starcraft clones after Company of Heroes and Dawn of War because well, Blizzard pretty much locked down the entire territory with Starcraft 2, while player attention moved on from that unique combination of squad/company level, real time, outpost building, map control, micro/macro balance, competitive gameplay. Blizzard’s moving back to nostalgia because there’s nowhere promising to go with Starcraft 3.

    Meanwhile, Stellaris is part of the space 4X strategy series which may or may not have real time elements. Galactic Civilizations and its various expansions, Ashes of the Singularity and all its DLC and precursor games, Distant Worlds: Universe are all on my watchlist, and I’ve never had time to play any.

    Total War has pretty much the entirety of land battles from every time period (and Warhammer fantasy to boot) locked down.

    Sea-wise, hmm, is World of Warships sort of an RTS? But blended with progression, lobby based, action elements? FPS-RTS combinations have been a thing, never super popular, but they did/do exist.

    Civilization and various other city builders eg. Cities: Skylines, Anno, split off in their own way, without the real time aspect of battles and more on the strategic front. Fallen Enchantress, Endless Legends, Endless Space 1 & 2, no real time, more strategy. MOBAs took up the real time, competitive and micro aspects without the outpost building strategic portion and pushed strategy into team compositions, builds and map control. Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis pretty much took on empire building.

    Surviving Mars is in the current Humble Monthly and appears to combine real time, city builder, survival aspects.

    There are also a ton of RTSes in the mobile arena. I picked up Iron Marines the other day while it was on sale, and have to confess that while it’s sitting on the iPad, I haven’t even found the time to start it up and try it out.

    If anything, these strategy games seem to be victims of their own success. If the game is good, it can last a player years, while chances are pretty good said player doesn’t have the willingness to invest that much time and effort into playing one and/or relearning the nitty gritty of another.

  4. I was a big fan of this genre myself, I’ve played most of the earlier games you listed. It’s a mix of factors for me – trying to go back to such games more recently, I find I don’t enjoy the “constantly active” gameplay, it’s a bit frantic now. I also don’t have the time to sync into other genres anymore, MMORPGs have a habit of expanding to fill all the available time you can give them…

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