Real Time Strategy: A Dying Market?

In February of 2013, Blair Fraser at Ironclad Games made a pretty big prediction about the future of Real Time Strategy games: “It’s a dying market.” He cites the Starcraft series, Sid Meier’s Civilization franchise, and Ironclad’s own Sins of a Solar Empire as exceptions to this doomsday prediction, but held that the style of gaming as a whole now appeals only to a “niche” market and most games aren’t going to “get big numbers.” Citing creative stagnation as well as the unwieldy financial burden of game development, he uses Age of Empires Online as an example of how the market is facing its own virtual apocalypse. The overhead for the game was just too high.   Is this example, though, indicative of the entire market?

As an avid RTS gamer, however, this prediction leaves me feeling estranged from the gaming community. I’m already well aware that I exist on the extrasolar fringe of the gaming universe. Just the other day I told someone that I play video games and they immediately starting talking to me about the famed Halo franchise. Unfortunately, the last Halo game I owned was Halo 2, and while I’m certainly not ignorant of what’s happened with the Halo games, I’m certainly not well versed in the series or in the genre of gaming that birthed it.

I get it: we RTS gamers are an outland breed. Not exactly rare, but we’re not the center of the gaming world’s attention. When people think “gamer,” they think of frat guys fighting it out in a First Person Shooter or a dude who plays World of Warcraft for hours at a time. Still, the RTS-style game is one that predates any console or computer; the genre is almost fundamental to gaming.  People were playing chess long before Silicon Valley.

[pullquote align=”right”]I get it: we RTS gamers are an outland breed…when people think “gamer,” they think of frat guys fighting it out in a First Person Shooter[/pullquote]

So, while I understand that the RTS genre has some problems, even major problems, I take issue with the idea that the entire market is dying out. That’s just too big of a prediction. Every time something changes, it seems doomsday demagogues come out in droves, preaching the end of that thing as we know it. While sometimes that’s true and things do end, more often things evolve and survive in different forms. To some extent, I believe that’s what Fraser is saying, and I agree with him that the market is certainly remaking itself. I think it’s far from dying, though.

I suspect game developers in the RTS market are starting to realize that they’re not giving the players what they want. Recent trends in the last decade have seen RTS games moving toward an overarching metacontent running through their games. Older strategy games like Tiberium Twilight, as well as newer games like Company of Heroes 2, have systems implemented with unlockable and purchasable content. My theory is that developers are trying to mimic the success of games like World of Warcraft and League of Legends, two games that have successfully used microtransactions as a method of selling metacontent. Yet I don’t think metacontent is what RTS players want. We want the games we grew up with, games that we can play with our friends in a balanced, friendly, and competitive environment. We want the games we played in our youth that came out with full content available at purchase rather than having to unlock or pay for Downloadable Content.  I suppose the frustration is grounded in the idea that people are tired of buying parts of games rather than a complete one.

MONA LISA DLC

An illustration of my point, courtesy of the internet.

A game that Fraser mentions himself helps prove my point. Recently, Command and Conquer Generals 2 was canceled, and while that saddened me greatly because of my love for CnC, I’m elated that their reason was because of player feedback. As Victory Games‘ website states:

[pullquote align=”left”]The RTS community isn’t dying out, but it is trying to find its identity in this brave new world.[/pullquote]

“Part of being in a creative team is the understanding that not all of your choices are going to work out. In this case, we shifted the game away from campaign mode and built an economy-based, multiplayer experience. Your feedback from the alpha trial is clear: We are not making the game you want to play. That is why, after much difficult deliberation, we have decided to cease production of this version of the game.”

CnC Generals 2, a game designed around the idea of “free-to-play,” was successfully shut down because gamers didn’t want it. Of course, maybe the gamers didn’t want the traditional format either, but I suspect they did.

The market is changing in other ways, too. Indie games are another reason why I think it’s as healthy as it ever was. While the reasons for the Indie market forming in the last decade are as varied as the stars, its existence seems to be, in some part, a response to the financial burden of game making. Smaller, less expensive titles are proving, one at a time, that a game can be just as engaging and enjoyable without all the expensive bells and whistles. The process of game making is becoming simplified and streamlined, with the formulas reduced to their base elements. While this might mean a reduction in the number of massive strategy games we see being produced, like Sins and Starcraft, I think it no way means that the RTS market is dying.  Perhaps larger companies, stagnant with bureaucracy, are going by the wayside, but I hardly think that’s a fair label for the market overall. I think companies are changing, realizing that the strategies that carried them to success in the ’90s and early 2000s aren’t working anymore. It’s an age of early access, demos, kickstarters, and company transparency that I think leaves developers smaller, more adaptable, and more connected with their audience than ever before.

The RTS community isn’t dying out, but it is trying to find its identity in this brave new world. Yet this struggle for identity doesn’t mean the end of anything at all, save only maybe the end of an era. I’m excited to see what game franchises like AnnoStarcraft, and Command and Conquer take us. Whatever happens, I don’t think the genre will end. Change drastically? Sure. Not end.

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