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The Future Of The Real-Time Strategy Game

In this thought-provoking piece, Toronto examines the history of RTS titles such as Starcraft, discussing a possible future where building political elements into the genre makes it more realistic and compelling.

Nathan Toronto, Blogger

January 24, 2008

12 Min Read

Have you ever experienced this feeling after playing a real-time strategy game? You get used to the controls, learn all the hotkeys, become efficient with the mouse, and find that the best way to win is to build units and firepower as fast as possible and throw them at the opponent in successive, inexorable waves.

It's not that the game ceases to be fun, but that it ceases to be fresh: the basic strategy never really changes. Essentially, your only viable strategy -- your overall plan for success -- is to wear down your opponent and destroy him.

I have experienced this feeling. As empowering -- and, at least initially, as fun -- as real-time strategy (RTS) games are, I often find that they turn into real-time tactics (RTT) games after a while. So often, there is no other viable plan for success beyond attrition. Sure, I may construct that building here instead of there, or gain control of those resources over there instead of these here, but I can never really change my basic plan for victory.

I cannot win by convincing my opponent to lay down his arms, since he knows that the only way I can win is for me to destroy him. I must collect more resources than my opponent in order that he not wear me out first. The threat of force or the limited use of force would not convince my opponent that I would win if our military forces engaged one another. Since there is only one viable strategy -- attrition -- victory will go to the best tactician, not the best strategist.

Ensemble Studios' popular real-time strategy game, Age of Empires III

What War Really Means

The reason that RTS games become RTT games is that they ignore one simple fact: "War is the continuation of policy by other means."1 RTS games have done a superb job of simulating war but a lousy job of simulating politics. If RTS games are to be truly strategic, then they need to simulate both war and politics. Why? Because war is politics.

Politics are who gets what, when, and how -- in other words, who has power and who does not. War is about precisely that, just with more drama and a lot more destruction than the everyday politics we're used to. In order to make the strategy of war meaningful, war has to be about more than simply destroying the enemy. It has to be about who gets what, when, and how. Without politics, war games devolve into pointless acts of attrition.

Take, for example, StarCraft, one of the most popular -- and, in my opinion, most fun -- RTS games of all time. The player directs drone-like units to collect resources, turns those resources into buildings and combat units, and then directs those units to seek out and destroy the enemy.

If the player chooses, he can simply wait for the enemy to come to him, trusting in the power of defense to wear his opponent down. But he cannot win unless he finds the enemy base and destroys it. In other words, StarCraft models total war, or war in which a combatant uses all available resources to the very bitter end. In total war, though, there is no second place, so a strictly defensive stance is a recipe for defeat.

1 Carl von Clausewitz, On War.

StarCraft is fun; it's just not as politically compelling as it could be. The problem with the StarCraft model of who gets what, when, and how is that there is really only one core value under dispute: the opponent's destruction.2 Rarely is it more valuable to a player to leave his opponent alive and well, but compliant, than to destroy him.

In other words, there are few political options when dealing with external opponents. On the other side of the same coin, a player's control over "his" units is never in question: he can collect and allocate resources as he sees fit, without ever worrying about being thrown out of power for managing his resources unwisely. In other words, there are no internal political opponents to deal with, opponents that could add a fascinating level of strategy to the game.

The True Total War

To see why increasing the number of political options would add to the strategic depth of RTS games, consider the Pacific theater during World War II. If ever there was a StarCraft-like total war, this was it: two sides, vying in hateful determination to subjugate the other, or die trying.

Both Japan and the United States girded their respective publics for war by demonizing the enemy, and there were a number of battles during which no prisoners were taken, so vicious was the fighting.

Despite this, the United States did not have to completely destroy Japan -- or even cripple its fighting ability -- in order to win the war, nor did U.S. leaders have limitless rein in deciding how to allocate resources from the homefront to the battlefront. These leaders could have tried to engage all of the country's resources for the war effort, but their starving countrymen would have removed them from power long before they would have succeeded in doing so.

The Pacific theater was probably as close to the RTS ideal of total war as history has ever come, but even then the sides involved had to choose amongst a variety of potentially successful strategic options. Each one of these options carried with it distasteful political consequences, and each one involved managing relationships with both internal and external opponents.

Blizzard's StarCraft is one the most popular -- and fun -- examples of the RTS genre.

It is unlikely that RTS games will ever perfectly model the type of strategic reality that real war entails, but that does not mean that they can't come closer to that ideal. RTS games with more strategic reality could be even more compelling and more popular than their predecessors.

To this end, I offer RTS game developers three suggestions as they create the next generation of RTS games. I make these suggestions not as one who knows how to produce RTS games, but as a gamer and political scientist who sees how much more these games could offer.

2 This is true for most of the RTS games that I have played. I only choose StarCraft as an example because I and most gamers are familiar with it. The same is true for the other games that I name in this essay. I don’t have it out for these games, I’m just familiar with them and get the sense that most other gamers are, too, which makes them useful as examples.

Where RTS Games Can Go

First, RTS games could avoid bogging players down in non-strategic decisions. For example, instead of telling a peasant to cut trees here or mine ore there, game developers could think about how or why that peasant would make those decisions on his own.

In reality, "it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."3 People are economically productive because it's in their interest to put food on the table and keep a shelter over their heads.

The state shows up to take what it thinks it can reasonably take, but generally only after production is complete. Thus, it is unrealistic for the state to extract all of society's productive potential, or for a player to have all of an RTS game's resources at his sole disposal.

Having players develop strategies for convincing the peasant to give up his produce (be it through force or loyalty) would add an intriguing strategic dimension to RTS games.

Two games that I have played might benefit from this suggestion. In Age of Empires and Rise of Nations, the player essentially micro-manages society, going so far as to train individual workers and assign them mundane economic tasks.

In reality, workers perform economic tasks out of their regard for their own welfare, and generate a diversity of political interests in society depending on what economic tasks they perform, on what resources are available, and on how political leaders extract resources from society.

Players of RTS games do not have to micro-manage or run rough-shod over society. They could manage the expectations and opposition of different societal factions as one part of their overall strategy for winning the game.

By the same token, players could be released from having to micro-manage the battlefield. Telling which military units to move where and at which times is time-consuming and removes strategic considerations from the battlefield.

The player becomes a sergeant barking out orders to the troops at the front instead of a general out-maneuvering his opponent from the rear. Players could create military doctrines or plans to help them manage the battlefield, avoiding the micro-management that reinforces tactics and suppresses strategy.

3 Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations


The second suggestion is to re-think the identity of the opponent. Traditionally, the enemy in RTS games has been outside the political system under the player's control. Historically, though, human society has worked differently.

Governance has arisen "not because of social contracts or voluntary transactions" but because of "those who can organize the greatest capacity for violence."4 Rulers over society have always had to deal with internal challengers. Why should we assume that an RTS player has absolute control over his society, to collect and distribute resources as he sees fit?

Relaxing this assumption would not only make RTS games more realistic, but it would also make them more challenging. Players would have to take into consideration the motivations and means of a number of different opponents, including those internal to the societies they control. In addition, the strategy that a player employs to deal with internal opponents can color the options available to him when dealing with external opponents.

Because external opponents are confronting the same internal calculus, the strategic implications are legion. The challenge for game developers would be to approximate this political realism without making the player go into cognitive overload. The increased reality would make RTS games more fun and challenging, but if they are too complex then gamers might simply turn off the game.

The RTS game that I've played that comes closest to relaxing this assumption is Caesar III. The player manages infrastructure development and physical security (including the military), and resources increase or decrease based on how competent a manager the player is. There are riots, fires, or attacks by enemy military forces in response to managerial deficiencies.

Still, Caesar III could go farther: there is no diversity of societal factions to challenge the player's rule, and these interests are not tied to specific elements of the society's economy. Despite this, Caesar III offers one model for how RTS game developers might relax the assumption that players have unchallenged control over their societies.

The final suggestion is to re-examine the motivations of both players and opponents. The objective of most of the RTS games I've played is to completely subdue a foe using brute force. Because the foe knows this, he is faced with either annihilation or absolute victory, so he will fight tooth and nail to the absolute end. There is no room for him to cut his losses and bargain for the best deal he can get given the military situation.

Impressions Games' city-building strategy game, Caesar III

In Conclusion

War is about something more than simply annihilating an enemy. "The best victory is when the opponent surrenders of [his] own accord before there are any actual hostilities... It is best to win without fighting."5 Compelling or deterring opponents through the threat or use of military force could become a strategic option, as would diplomatic means short of military force. War is a means to a political end, not an end in itself. Game developers could make RTS games more strategic by asking themselves what the player is playing for. Is it the enemy's annihilation that motivates a player, or could it be something else?

No RTS game will ever be able to represent politics in lifelike detail. These games are, after all, simplifications of reality. Still, RTS game developers could add a tremendous amount of strategic depth by building politics into their games. Players could be released from micro-managing society and the battlefield, they could be exposed to enemies both within and outside their societies, and they could be given more strategic options than attrition.

To be sure, in the last fifteen years RTS games have become a delightful audio-visual experience, and they remain challenging, but I hope that I will soon get to play RTS games that are more about strategy and less about tactics.

4 Mancur Olson, “Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development”

5 Sun-Tzu, Art of War.

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About the Author(s)

Nathan Toronto


Nathan Toronto holds a Ph.D. in international relations from The Ohio State University. His dissertation investigates war, economic development, and military professionalization, and in his day job he conducts research on Middle East security affairs and the tactical development of insurgencies. He can be reached at [email protected].

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