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The Downfall of RTS – Where have all the good strategy games gone to?

Once a pillar of the scene, strategy games now only have a niche following in the industry and the scene. In recent years RTS has been in a severe drought in terms of new titles, is there any hope left?

 

Real-Time Strategy. Once a genre that everyone played, it now is relegated to a small little niche that only few want to interact with anymore. How did RTS rise, when did it fall and is there hope left for the genre? Those are just some of the questions our new series will answer.

Part 1 – Where have all the good strategy games gone to?

When was the last time you played a recent RTS title and enjoyed it? If your answer is Age of Empires II Definitive Edition then let me rephrase the question: When was the last time you played a new original franchise in the RTS genre and liked it?

Age Of Empires II Definitive Edition
Age Of Empires II Definitive Edition is great but also not exactly new. | Image Credits: Steam/Microsoft

Real-Time Strategy suffers from a severe drought. During the entirety of 2020 only a handful of noteworthy titles released: WarCraft III Reforged, Command & Conquer Remastered Collection, Iron Harvest and Age of Empires III Definitive Edition. Notice a trend in there? Only a single title was actually “new” and not a remaster or remake of an earlier game.

Not to mention that the highest profile remake WarCraft III Reforged was probably the biggest disappointment of 2020. There is a good reason why the remake is commonly known as WarCraft III: Refunded as it was not only worse than the old classic, but also made the original version unplayable for no reason.

WarCraft III: Reforged Gameplay
WarCraft III: Reforged was a kick to the face for fans of the old classic | Image Credit: Blizzard

In contrast to the trainwreck of WarCraft III, the remakes for the Command & Conquer and Age of Empires series proceeded smoothly. Command & Conquer’s Remastered Collection was praised by fans, while Age of Empires III Definitive Edition did well enough for being in the titanic shadow of its predecessor and its remake.

But those successes only mask the fact that the RTS genre is currently a vast desert with only few oases dotted in the landscape. Take the singular new title of the list above: Iron Harvest. While the launch wasn’t too bad, player numbers and interest took a nosedive soon after and it never really recovered.

Iron Harvest Steam Chartss
Straight to the bottom. | Image Credits: Steamcharts.com (Screenshot from 17 March 2021)

Even looking further back the genre has rarely had any commercial and critical success in recent years. Stand-out titles are far and few between duds or no games at all. Instead games are moving to one part of the formula only. Either tactical battles like the Total War series or moving to more survival, city-builder types like Frostpunk or the Anno series.

Not many developers are willing to once again try the combination between building up and tactical finesse that makes Real-Time Strategy so alluring and satisfying to master.

Can 2021 save RTS?

Are things actually looking up in 2021? For now the answer is no. The only RTS of note so far along was Stronghold: Warlords. Unfortunately the latest entry into this classic franchise continues to steer directionless into mediocrity. Buggy and uninspired it still chases the magic that was the original Stronghold but fails to even capture a fraction of it.

Stronghold Warlords
Stronghold Warlords looks and plays dated for a game in 2021 | Image Credits: Firefly Studios

Dumbed down resource chains, an ultimately inconsequential “new” Warlords feature or smaller scales than the old titles are just some of the complaints Warlords faces. No, Stronghold: Warlords is not the savior the genre actually needs. Far from it.

To reignite the fire that basically created esports as we know it today with its roots in StarCraft: Broodwar and the maturity it then gained as WarCraft III and StarCraft II came along, we are in need of a miracle:

A new title that satisfies the ageing core fan group but also draws in new blood to carry RTS into the modern era of esports.

There are only few candidates remaining for that role as Blizzard seems to have quietly pulled the plug on any ambitions left in that regard. So far most hopes are pinned on the upcoming Age of Empires IV. Not much is known so far, not even a release date, but hopes are high for the first real successor to the franchise in more than 10 years.

Age Of Empires 4
Can Age Of Empires 4 revive RTS? | Image Credits: Microsoft

Salvation for the genre might also arrive from another unexpected corner. Almost six months ago a brand new studio has also gotten old-school RTS fans buzzing with excitement. The brand new studio Dreamhaven has reunited many of Blizzard’s old guard that had been instrumental in developing WarCraft and StarCraft.

While nothing has been announced so far, fans are still pinning their hopes on to the new studio. It remains to be seen if the game developer veterans can match those expectations.

Is 2021 the year in which fortunes will finally change? Is there even a place for such an “antiquated” genre in the current gaming landscape? Definitely. Although the scene has been struggling in recent years, it is still kicking. StarCraft II’s scene still has newcomers shining as the examples of recent IEM Katowice champion Riccardo “Reynor” Romiti or French prodigy Clément “Clem” Desplanches showcase.

Even the WarCraft III scene is still clinging on to fan and mod support to counteract Blizzard’s horrible mismanagement of Reforged. The long dormant Age of Empires scene has also recently shown signs of life with small tournaments starting up again.

These are all proof of the importance and appeal of a supposedly “dead” genre and here is hoping that a savior for RTS is coming soon.

Read more:

In the next part of our series we will cover the rise of Real-Time Strategy as it went on to define the early era of esports.

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Header Image Credits: Microsoft, Blizzard, Petroglyph Games

 

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