What Happened to the Real Time Strategy Genre

by Malte Skarupke

I replayed Warcraft III recently and was looking for other games I could play in the same genre. Turns out that outside of StarCraft 2, there are no recent games that are anywhere near as good. What happened?

This blog post was actually prompted by me watching a recommended video on Youtube about exactly this question, and the video gets it totally wrong:

The video really doesn’t answer the question, so lets look at what’s actually happening. Starting with whether strategy games somehow became less popular. The answer: Not really.

Looking at the most played games on steam, we find Age of Empires II on spot 28. It’s consistently been in the top 50 for a while. Why is a game from 1999 in the top 50 most played games on Steam? Because it was a really good game and they stopped making RTS games, so I guess if you only get to play old games, might as well play a really good one. I also checked StarCraft 2, which displays the number of games being played on Battle.net when you log in, and according to that number it’s more popular than Age of Empires II by at least 25%, but the numbers are hard to compare.

If we broaden the criteria a little bit and look at all strategy games and derivatives of strategy games, the top 50 is full of them: Dota 2, Football Manager, Sid Meier’s Civilization V and VI, Dota Underlords, Total War: WARHAMMER II, Hearts of Iron IV, RimWorld, Oxygen Not Included, Europa Universalis IV, Cities: Skylines and Stellaris. That’s thirteen out of fifty.

There is a questionable item in there: Is Dota 2 really a strategy game? Dota Underlords is still recognizably strategy, but in Dota 2 you control just a single unit, and that doesn’t count, right? The main reason why I included it is that it is based on a Warcraft III mod, and it does still have recognizable strategy elements: Two warring factions that you don’t control yourself, but that still matter. And while you may need less attention for control of your units, you need more attention for co-op play with your teammates and awareness of what the opposing team is doing. And it just scratches many of the same itches that RTS games scratch. In any case this brings us to the first thing that happened to RTS games: They innovated like crazy, created several new genres and split up into many smaller genres.

This includes things like tower defense, tower offense, more hero focused games like League of Legends, (but also some games in the the Dawn of War series) the new genre of auto chess, the tug of war genre, (still not really popular outside of StarCraft 2 mods for some reason…) survival strategy like RimWorld, idle games, blends with 4X games, non-combat RTS, Pikminlikes, and probably more that I’m forgetting.

There was a second big thing that happened to RTS games, but I actually don’t know much about it: Free-to-play games. I don’t usually play these, but they are obviously hugely popular on mobile phones, and there are a lot of strategy games among the popular free-to-play games. Just briefly looking at the most popular android games I see familiar things like the tower defense Plants vs Zombies, but I also see a lot of games where I actually don’t know how they work. Like Clash of Clans, Lords Mobile, Last Shelter: Survival, Game of Sultans, Clash Royale and more. I really should look into these…

This second thing really hurt some of the old series out there. Command and Conquer, Dungeon Keeper, the Settlers, Age of Empires, lots of old strategy developers made free-to-play games, most of which flopped badly. To be fair, these series had problems before they went down the free-to-play route. But I’d like to think that if free-to-play never happened, the publishers would have tried to make another full game in the series instead.

A third thing that happened is that hardcore strategy games got extremely popular. I don’t have strong numbers on this, and the Paradox games have always been around, but I’m pretty sure that they used to not be some of the most popular games out there. I thought they used to be niche games but now they are always in the most played games on Steam. Maybe they got more accessible, or maybe digital distribution made them available to a wider audience. I don’t know enough about that area to say what happened for sure, other than that they are hugely popular now.

So with all that, we have three trends that happened at the same time: The RTS genre created lots of subgenres, splintering creators and the audience. Free-to-play games drained off the casual players, and hardcore strategy games got more popular, taking the hardcore players with them. That leaves a hollowed out middle which developers haven’t been able to find success in.

Except it doesn’t explain one thing: Why are the Blizzard RTSs still so popular? And why is Age of Empires II still one of the most played games out there? I think a fourth thing happened. I don’t quite know why, but a lot of developers made bad strategy games for a while. The reason why Age of Empires II is the popular one and not Age of Empires III is that the second game in the series is actually the better game. And then Ensemble made the ill-fated Halo Wars before shutting down, which came from a mistaken “PC games are dying” industry trend at the time. Similarly I don’t know which Command and Conquer was the best one, but it certainly wasn’t Command and Conquer 4. I also tried playing some of the Petroglyph games, and they are all just not that good. Grey Goo is their biggest attempt, and it is just weirdly bad.

So I don’t quite know what happened there for the whole industry to fall short for so many years. But somehow, when someone like me comes along and wants to find a new game that is similar to Warcraft III, there is nothing out there. The only games that exist are worse than Warcraft III. And in the end it does come down to that. It’s not like there are amazing strategy games out there that unfairly failed to find an audience. All these games that failed to find an audience just weren’t great games.

This could just be a side effect of all of the above effects: Maybe money was diverted to free to play games. Or everyone tried to chase the latest trends of MOBAs and tower defense games and survival strategy and console games or some other barely remembered industry trend. When you make the game that you should make, (“should” according to what’s hot right now) instead of the game that you actually would want to play, it usually doesn’t turn out that well. So maybe RTS games were just the victim of their own Cambrian explosion of creativity, constantly thinking that the grass is greener elsewhere.

On the plus side, Relic Entertainment is working on Age of Empires IV, which is almost certainly a result of somebody noticing that Age of Empires II is still hugely popular. So at least one good studio is working on a new high profile RTS game. If that game ends up being as popular as Age of Empires II or StarCraft 2, and we get another RTS that’s constantly in the list of most played games on Steam, maybe others will notice and the genre will make a comeback. All it takes is one really good game that doesn’t come from Blizzard.

As for me, what will I do? I’m going to play old games. I haven’t played all of the Relic Entertainment games, (Company of Heroes 2 is the 52nd most played games on Steam as I am hitting “Publish” on this blog post, six years after the game first came out, so it must be pretty good) Age of Empires II is about to come out with a “definitive edition” and somebody did a remake of Warcraft I in the Warcraft III engine that I have been playing a little. I guess that’s the way to enjoy Real Time Strategy games right now: Play remastered versions of the old great games.

Appendix: What happened to everyone?

I looked into a bunch of different companies for this blog post. I’m probably forgetting some, but here is what happened to a bunch of them. The main point of this is to prove the point that the RTS genre really did splinter into many different directions and subgenres:

Ensemble Studios made Halo Wars for consoles and then died. There was also a free-to-play version of Age of Empires made by Gas Powered Games.

Some ex-Ensemble people founded Robot Entertainment. They made an action tower-defense mix called Orcs Must Die that was successful. They also made some mobile games that I know nothing about. They’re still around.

There’s also Hidden Path Entertainment which has at least some ex-Ensemble people in it. They did the 2013 HD remaster of Age of Empires 2. Before that they made Tower Defense games, and their most recent games are VR strategy games.

Gas Powered Games made a MOBA that failed in the market, but they survived that. It seems what killed them was the free-to-play Age of Empires game that they made. They were acquired by Wargaming.net and managed to stay around for a couple more years before being shut down.

Some ex-Westwood people started Petroglyph Games who have been making lots of strategy games with various amounts of success. Their most recent one is a survival strategy game called Conan Unconquered, which hasn’t reviewed well, so I probably won’t try it.

Some other ex-Westwood people started Jet Set Games, which tried to make strategy games for mobile phones. They failed, but you can still play their games on Steam.

Blizzard had a long distraction with WoW, then they made Starcraft 2 followed by the MOBA Heroes of the Storm. They’re still insanely successful. Now they’re remaking their old games, recently releasing a HD remake of Starcraft 1 and are about to release a remake of Warcraft III.

Big Huge Games almost went broke in the 2008 recession, then got acquired and made a RPG for a rich baseball pitcher. The game is actually supposed to be pretty good, but it wasn’t successful. So they shut down and re-opened to make a free-to-play game which is still around and is apparently doing well.

Relic Entertainment is still around and is doing well. Their most recent game, Dawn of War III, flopped. Apparently it was too much inspired by MOBAs or something like that. Their previous game, Company of Heroes 2, is still hugely popular though. Now they’re working on Age of Empires IV.

Some people from Relic split off to found Blackbird Interactive. They made a prequel to Homeworld which is apparently really good. They’re now also working on Homeworld 3.