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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

'Age of Empires IV' and Real-Time Strategy Games' Rocky History

Real-time strategy is having a moment.

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition regularly cracks 20,000 simultaneous players on Steam, putting it in league with legendary RPGs like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. 2020’s unexpected remaster of the original Command & Conquer saw more than 42,000 concurrent players on Steam at launch. And gaming’s largest companies, including Microsoft and Tencent, are bankrolling studios behind new RTS entries like Age of Empires IV, which is set for release on October 28.

This resurgence is good news for fans of real-time strategy games, but the genre must adapt to tastes of modern gamers. Fortunately, the developers behind tomorrow’s blockbuster real-time strategy games are mindful of the genre’s past mistakes.

The Golden Era

The seed of the real-time strategy genre was planted when Chris Crawford published a treatise on the future of real-time gaming, titled “The Future of Computer Wargaming,” in the debut winter 1981 issue of Computer Gaming World. He argued that “real-time play is both more realistic and more challenging than turn sequence play. This may sound obvious today, but in the early 1980s, it was a direct challenge to a status quo that saw computer strategy games as replicas of physical, turn-based miniature wargaming.

Crawford put his ideas into action with 1982’s Legionnaire, an early real-time strategy game that pit squads of Roman troops against AI-controlled barbarians. Legionnaire was innovative, but also a bit ahead of its time. The game proved real-time play was technically possible, but it was a challenge, as contemporary computers could only handle small, static maps, with a couple dozen visible units at most.

Still, the concept began to catch on. Games like The Ancient Art of War, released by Brøderbund Software for MS-DOS and Apple II in 1984, and Herzog Zwei, released for the Sega Genesis in 1989, pushed the boundaries of real-time play. These ideas cumulated in 1989’s Populus, a “god game” from Peter Molyneux’s Bullfrog Productions. Populus wasn’t a real-time strategy game, but it did have an attractive, intuitive interface that will be recognizable to fans of the genre.

If these games provided a blueprint, it was Dune II that laid the foundation. Released by Westwood Studios in 1992, it was the first game to mix base building, unit command, and resource gathering with real-time gameplay and a mouse-driven graphical user interface. It meshed the adrenaline rush of an arcade game with the complex strategic decisions of a turn-based empire builder. The game was only a modest hit, selling about 250,000 copies in its first few years, but it convinced the game’s producer, Westwood Studios cofounder Brett Sperry, that a follow-up was necessary.


Yet Dune II didn’t receive a direct sequel. Sperry, frustrated with the restrictions and costs of licensing an established franchise like Dune, pushed Westwood to gamble on a new, original IP that riffed on modern warfare and the technology that drove it. Louis Castle, speaking to Computer & Video Games magazine in a 2008 interview, said Westwood “wanted players to imagine that their computer at home was a terminal to a real battlefield that communicated directly with your units in the field.” The team at Westwood took inspiration from media coverage of the Gulf War but added its own sci-fi spin.

The gamble paid off. Command & Conquer hit stores in 1995 and sold more than a million copies in its first year, establishing Westwood as a leader in a new, breakout genre. The studio doubled down on its success with the release of Red Alert in 1996, which sold even more quickly than its predecessor and included an online chat program, Westwood Chat, that players could use to organize online games. Westwood’s rapid release of two blockbuster titles put real-time strategy on the cover of PC gaming magazines, not only in the United States but across the globe.

David Kim, lead game designer at the newly formed Uncapped Games and former designer on Starcraft II, was introduced to Red Alert while growing up in South Korea. “Red Alert was the main game everyone played multiplayer,” Kim says. “I really got into it, and we would play after school.” Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and Australia were also prime markets for real-time strategy games, with new RTS games frequently topping the charts in these countries.

But the success of Red Alert was the tip of the iceberg. Blizzard Entertainment, which had earned a reputation for quality with its own hit real-time strategy franchise, Warcraft, stormed onto the scene with 1998’s Starcraft. Kim and his friends, like many PC gamers, jumped on board the new game and never looked back. Blizzard’s sci-fi RTS rocketed up the charts, selling 1.5 million copies by the end of the year to become the best-selling PC game of 1998. It would go on to sell at least 11 million copies, a figure that predates the 2017 release of Starcraft: Remastered. Activision-Blizzard has not released sales figures for the remaster.

Starcraft wasn’t the only title racing up the charts. Ensemble Studios, formed in 1994, put a historical spin on the genre with 1997’s Age of Empires. It sold well on release both in the United States and in Europe, where it topped PC game charts through the year. The studio ensured its legacy with Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings in 1999, selling 2 million copies internationally by the start of 2000 and topping the charts in Germany. Age of Empires’ historical theme drew comparisons to the already popular Civilization franchise, luring in gamers who’d so far stuck to turn-based titles.

The Fall From Grace

Real-time strategy games seemed unstoppable at the turn of the millennium. Blizzard followed Starcraft with the smash hit expansion Brood War, Ensemble followed Age of Empires II with its own hit expansion The Conquerors, and Westwood was gearing up to expand the Command & Conquer franchise with new games developed in the wake of Westwood’s sale to Electronic Arts. But not all was well behind the scenes.

Blizzard Entertainment’s success turned the studio into a pressure cooker. “Blizzard really had this culture of crunch time; it was the only way we knew how to make games. Over and over, we threw people’s bodies into the fray,” says Patrick Wyatt, founder & CEO of One More Game and former vice president of R&D at Blizzard Entertainment. “There’s actually a period there I can’t remember because we were working so hard.” Wyatt, who left Blizzard Entertainment in 2000, has detailed the rocky development of Starcraft on his personal blog.

The relentless pace pushed Blizzard to chase a new, innovative, and lucrative genre: massively multiplayer role-playing games. Despite the success of its 2002 RTS classic Warcraft III, which sold a million copies in its first month, the studio would take an eight-year break from the genre to focus all its efforts on its hit MMORPG, World of Warcraft.

Westwood Studios faced a different set of problems. Its much-anticipated 1999 release, Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun, received mixed reviews and failed to unseat Starcraft from the genre’s throne. Westwood would go on to release some better received RTS games, like 2000’s Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, but also several duds, like Emperor: Battle for Dune and the Command & Conquer: Renegade, a first-person spin on the franchise. Electronic Arts closed Westwood Studios in 2003 and merged the remaining staff into EA Los Angeles.

Ensemble Studios’ found itself on a similar trajectory. Microsoft acquired the studio in 2001, leading to the successful Age of Empires III. But the studio also pursued several canceled projects, including an MMORPG set in the Halo universe that reportedly had a budget of 90 million dollars. Ensemble’s next RTS, Halo Wars, received scant praise from critics and sold poorly compared to prior Halo titles. Microsoft shuttered Ensemble Studios in 2009.

The departure of the genre’s biggest studios left a vacuum. Money rushed to fill the gap, leading to real-time strategy games based on Star Wars, Star Trek, and The Lord of the Rings. Board game maker Milton Bradley tried to cash in with a game loosely based on Axis and Allies, while Dungeons & Dragons got an RTS spin with 2005’s Dungeons & Dragons: Dragonshard. A series of RTS games based on the Left Behind novels appeared in 2006 and received three sequels.

Money didn’t lead to memorable games, however. Critics savaged titles like 2003’s Lords of EverQuest, an RTS riff on the hit MMO, and The Lord of the Rings: War of the Ring. Quinn Duffy, game director on Age of Empires VI, remembers this as a dark era for the genre. “There was a good period there, where half a decade of clones came out,” says Duffy. “There were some gems, but for people entering into the genre, the first experience might’ve been something not great.”

Duffy’s employer, Relic Entertainment, was a rare exception. Duffy joined the studio as a designer during development of the studio’s unique real-time strategy space opera, Homeworld. It was followed by 2004’s Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War and 2006’s Company of Heroes, which established themselves as standard-bearers for the waning RTS genre. Relic set itself apart from the copycats with a more tactical take on the genre that simplified base-building elements and focused on unit management. The studio’s games sold well as others faltered, and proved that innovation could beat dated ideas backed by known franchises.

Adam Isgreen, franchise creative director for World’s Edge, the studio working alongside Relic Entertainment on Age of Empires IV, believes this led to a much-needed splintering of the genre. “In the wane of RTS, it broke up. Then it was boom, MOBA. It was boom, Farmville. It was boom, tower defense,” Isgreen tells WIRED. “The fractures that happened were really fascinating. It allowed the main genre to rest, but the experience to still exist.”

Blizzard Entertainment’s attempt at a comeback, Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, became the exception to prove the rule. A return to the genre’s roots, it sold more than a million copies on its first day and seemed to reestablish Blizzard as the king of RTS gaming. Yet Starcraft II struggled to keep its momentum as player feedback turned critical despite new expansions that added to the campaign and shook up the multiplayer competitive scene. The game went free-to-play in 2017, and development ceased in 2020.

The Revival

While Starcraft II faltered, a genre classic began to claw back popularity. Age of Empires II, which received an HD remaster in 2013 and a more extensive update with 2019’s Definitive Edition, began to pick up players shed by ailing rivals, and slowly, silently became the most popular real-time strategy game on Steam. The game remains in active development: An August 2021 update added two new civilizations and three new campaigns.

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition is not the only classic to find new success. Command & Conquer: Remastered Collection made an unexpected but welcome debut in the summer of 2020 and Starcraft: Remastered has a sizable audience in its stronghold of South Korea. Each has found a winning strategy in old-school gameplay mixed with sensible technical updates.

If the genre is to return to its former glory, however, it needs to do more than tweak the formula that made it successful two decades ago—and developers working on the next big thing agree that the next chapter starts with accessibility.

“I think the style of game is incredibly demanding,” says Wyatt. “If you’re going to play a hardcore game against another player, you’re sitting down for 30 to 60 minutes of 100-plus actions per minute. You walk away feeling like you ran a marathon.” Kim agrees with that sentiment. “We are trying to bring the core of the RTS fun to a wider audience, because most players haven’t experienced it yet,” he says. “It’s like going from Magic to Hearthstone. Magic is so hardcore, but once the barriers are removed, you can get the same core experience, and let way more people experience it.”

Age of Empires IV, due for release on October 28, will be an important test for the genre’s next chapter. The teams at Relic Entertainment and World’s Edge have focused on clear, readable gameplay with prominent units, legible special abilities, and an understandable interface.

“There’s a lot to do,” says Isgreen, “so we wanted to push that all up, and let people see what’s going on and understand why they won or lost.” Duffy says the campaign will include a story mode to let players interested in the game’s historical stories enjoy them without worrying about unit combinations or actions per minute.

Duffy and Isgreen don’t seem worried that this will hurt the game’s appeal to seasoned gamers. On the contrary, they think the game’s depth will speak for itself. “I think now, if you build it, they will come,” says Duffy. “If you can make a game that’s fun to watch, the community will build around it.” The developers hope graphical and feature improvements that make Age of Empires IV easy to learn will let spectators and casual players grok the basics of high-level play—not just as players, but as fans.

Despite its focus on access, however, Age of Empires IV won’t stray too far from the genre’s roots. Its core gameplay will feel familiar to fans of its predecessors. The same may not be true for future projects from Wyatt’s One More Game and Uncapped Games, where Kim is lead designer. Neither studio has announced its first project, but both developers mentioned spins on the real-time strategy genre as inspirations.

“I think the tower defense and clash royale style of game is great,” says Wyatt. “Tower defense has a lot of elements of real-time strategy packed in a different form.” Kim also hopes to retain the essence of the genre while entering into new territory. “We can do the traditional route and win. But we could pick one of the gameplay slices and make that as great as possible, or another way we can go is, can we do something on a more massive scale, like an MMORTS?”

Old Genre, New Games

Wyatt and Kim’s comments shouldn’t be taken as hints at the projects they’re working on, as both studios remain knee deep in prototyping. Still, the diversity of ideas suggests a new wave of real-time strategy titles that, unlike today’s successful classics, might take the genre in a different direction. Competitive multiplayer will remain a focus—every developer I spoke to mentioned it. But the vision of tomorrow’s RTS scene is likely to twist and turn in unexpected ways.

Still, there’s reason for fans to be optimistic about the results. The minds working on the next golden era of real-time strategy started their careers in the last.

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