Exploring The Rebirth Of The Real-Time Strategy Genre

Volamel 2024-03-08 11:24:20

Has the real-time strategy genre officially died or is it facing a new-wave renaissance? Countless maturing gamers can trace their genesis back towards the real-time strategy genre. Spending untold hours in games like Westwood Studios and EA's Command & Conquer, Blizzard Entertainment's WarCraft and StarCraft series, and even Forgotten Empires and World's Edge's hit Age of Empires franchise. Even esports history can trace a non-ignorable portion of its history, and even its success, from the real-time strategy genre. However, since the mid-2010's the real-time strategy genre has largely gone destitute. Leaving fans of the genre without a home. Even the games they've found shelter in have largely needed more resources, even halting active development. This begs the question--is real-time strategy done for good?

Is the Real-Time Strategy Genre Dead?

  Can you kill an entire genre or are we transfixed on the juggernauts of the ecosystem abandoning us? Has someone tried to fill the gap only to fail? As we crest out of a developmental desert, the fact of the matter is the real-time strategy genre lacks a spearhead to rally behind.  In January 2020, Blizzard Entertainment published a remake of their hit game, WarCraft 3.  "WarCraft 3: Reforged" was met with excitement. It teased childhood nostalgia and called players to re-explore the wars of Orcs and Humans. However, it was a critical flop. Fans were anticipating a "substantial overhaul with new cinematics and more" but were met with a litany of bugs and poor optimization on release.     Blizzard teased that this was more than just a fresh coat of paint and teased to "reforge" part of the lore to match where the franchise had leapt within around 18 years of progress. "Blizzard is also promising to “reforge” the game’s cinematic cutscenes, and will tweak portions of the game to fall in line with the past decade and a half of lore established by World of WarCraft," wrote Michael McWhertor of Polygon.  The studio tapped familiar and famed author Christie Golden, who helped pen many of the supporting novels to the game's history, to add focus and keep continuity with the scope of their other title. Nearly a year to the day of publication, McWhertor reported that the "reforging" of the WarCraft 3 story had been "retired".  In October 2020, Blizzard Entertainment halted active production of the legendary real-time strategy game StarCraft 2. "We’re going to continue supporting StarCraft 2 in the same manner as we have with our previous longstanding games, such as Brood War, focusing primarily on what our core and competitive communities care about most," Rob Bridenbecker, former Vice President of Technology Strategy and Planning wrote.  "What this means is that we’re not going to be producing additional for-purchase content, such as Commanders and War Chests, but we will continue doing season rolls and necessary balance fixes moving forward." With these titanic forces scuttling beneath pressure perhaps outside of their control, the health of the real-time strategy genre has waned. However, it's not for a lack of trying.  Nearly ten years ago Petroglyph Games and Six Foot etched their own title into the pantheon of real-time strategy games with "Grey Goo". Leana Hafer of IGN wrote that "Grey Goo is likely the best traditional RTS not made by [Blizzard Entertainment] in the past five years." Ian Birnbaum of PC Gamer wrote that "Grey Goo is strongest when it’s taking old RTS ideas and refining them, distilling them until the micromanagement is removed and pure, high-proof strategy is left behind. As a revival of a once-popular genre, Grey Goo excels." Both publications held high praise for the game's traditional approach, it's asymmetrical experimentation and aesthetic design, but the game failed to make any kind of dent in the market.  February of 2017 saw Shiro Games publish their real-time strategy game, "Northgard." "Despite its harshness, Northgard is a superb [real-time strategy game] that’s easy to pick up but difficult to master. That may be an overused phrase, but it’s justified here" wrote Matt Cox of RockPaperShotgun.  "Northgard looks like a throwback, a game that would have comfortably fit in with Age of Empires and Settlers, but while the inspiration is clear, it would be a disservice to imply that it's mainly trading in nostalgia," wrote Fraser Brown of PC Gamer.  Yet again, a title that received critical praise but failed to transmute that into much of a following. Per Steam Charts, Northgard's all-time peak player count was 20,083 in January of 2022.  However, it currently averages a player base of around 1,500 dedicated players.  And while there are other titles out there, nothing is catching the attention of the masses. This leaves the real-time strategy portfolio with some cult classics, a failed remake, and a legendary title left dusty and dried.  So how in good faith can we claim that the real-time strategy genre is not dead?  Let's view some facts.  Headed by a litany of former StarCraft developers, Frost Giant Studios raised a staggering $2,380,701.67 to fuel their flagship real-time strategy game, "Stormgate". Starlance Studios blew open their funding goals for "ZeroSpace" raising an impressive $536,584 within 32 days of fundraising. As of 2023, SunSpear Games raised $151,932 through a wildly successful Kickstarter to help bring "IMMORTALS: Gates Of Pyre" to life. "Godsworn" is the brainchild of Baiba Gedrovica and Corne Willemsen--the sole two developers at Thunderoak Interactive.  And to round out the positive publicity, World's Edge and Microsoft recently announced a fan-favourite real-time strategy game was getting far more than just a new coat of paint. "Age of Mythology: Retold" is a remaster of the hit 2002 fantasy real-time strategy game of the same name.  This alone marks upwards of $3,000,000 of crowd-funding for the real-time strategy genre across the last three years.  If that isn't an indication of a ripe consumer base waiting like an impatient baker waiting for bread to rise, we're not sure what is.  Further galvanizing that excited player base are the passionate developers who, like you, are more than prepared to begin to sow the seeds of the next great real-time strategy game. 

Real-Time Strategy Devs Weigh In

  Baiba Gedrovica is one of the two sole developers working on the mythological real-time strategy game, Godsworn.  Boasting the traditional fixings of the genre, Godsworn also features a story campaign with optional co-op, up to eight player experiences, and four playable heroes at the start of early access.  Skeleton crew doesn't begin to describe how small this indie games studio is and with one of the most visually charming real-time strategy games nearing public access, their passion for the genre emanates through their work.  "We're both interested in history and mythology, and we found that the Baltic region, where one of us is from, is rarely covered in popular media," Gedrovica said. "There is so much interesting history taking place during the Northern Crusades and we thought it deserved some spotlight."  "We were traveling historical and folk tale locations in Latvia when we started forming an idea that this could be an interesting setting for a video game. For the gameplay, Gedrovica stated that she and her fellow developer, Corne Willemsen, were fans of classics of the genre, games like WarCraft 3, Age of Mythology and Northgard.  "[...] we always wanted to do our own spin on the genre but in a way that called back on the classics," she said.  "We also wanted to see more fantasy real-time strategy out there, of which there was little of recently--sometimes you have to take things into your own hands."     Flanking her, Thomas "JaKaTaK" Labonte is the User Experience Lead at SunSpear Games, the developers around the upcoming real-time strategy game, IMMORTALS: Gates Of Pyre.  With a vast experience of modding Blizzard Entertainment's critically acclaimed real-time strategy game, StarCraft 2, Labonte and SunSpear Studios have showcased a gorgeous sleek sci-fi take that is sure to capture diehards of the genre.  However, accessibility stands at the heart of IMMORTALS: Gates Of Pyre.  Creating "unique" experiences for "less skilled and less serious gamers while maintaining an impossible-to-reach skill ceiling that has esports potential." "For the art and lore, we really wanted to create something unique, as much as that is possible, Labonte said. "Each of the factions draws inspiration from several real-world cultures, both present and historical." "We also do our best to blend the lore and gameplay together so that the fantasy of playing a particular Faction or Immortal lines up with both." Labonte further explained that IMMORTALS: Gates Of Pyre was born from creating enhancements for StarCraft 2 via the game's mod support.  "The idea was to encourage Blizzard to work with us and incorporate our innovations into the game," he said.  When that unfortunately didn't happen, the fledgling team embarked on a journey that led them to found SunSpear Games in 2017. Two grassroots-born real-time strategy developers steadied on the goal of adding and maybe crafting the next classic of our time--but why? Why take a chance on a once-beloved ecosystem that has been left barren? Funnily enough, passion stood at the heart of each of their respective arguments.  "We were previously employed in game development making strategy games for five years, and while the work was good, we always had this idea at the back of our minds that we could make a game on our own," Gedrovica explained.  "Then COVID-19 hit." "We found working from home for an employer less enjoyable without the in-person coworker interactions and thought--well if we're going to be working from home, might as well do it for our dream project." "We saved up some money, freelanced for a bit and set off to make our own little company." "We’ve been at this for a long time," Labonte explained. "When we started, there were no multiplayer competitive real-time strategy games on the horizon, and there was a rumour that StarCraft 2 would be going on life support."  "Something along the lines of 'Blizzard won’t be doing real-time strategy anymore.'" "Funny enough, we were looking to get Tim Morten involved in SunSpear just before Stormgate was announced." "We’ve been in the trenches working on the problem for over ten years, and it’s encouraging to know that we are no longer alone in the pursuit of bringing the unique and rewarding experience of real-time strategy to a wider audience," Labonte said. 

Has Real-Time Strategy Been Reborn?

  You don't have to keep your ears open to hear about the challenges and difficulties of being a game developer in today's climate.  PC Gamer published a report that included estimates that around 11,250 people were laid off in the games industry in 2023 alone.  Sadly, we've seen another additional 6,000 furloughed within the first three months of this year.  That context neighbours each of their own studios' respective struggles.  "Sitting at home and just working for three years can start to get to you," Gedrovica said.  "As the release date is approaching, we are very nervous to finally reach the finish line and see the reception by the general public."  "Being an indie developer dedicating your life to your dream game, you have to put in the work in keeping yourself healthy or you will break." "If we're talking more about the game itself, the technical answer would be pathfinding and networking.  "Those are some of the more challenging things to code in game development, and in real-time strategy, they have to be good enough or players won't be able to appreciate the rest of the game," Gedrovica said.  "Another challenging aspect has been stuff that we have no previous experience with--running a business and marketing." "There is a lot that you simply have to find out, and no one will tell you." "We still don't know how to get into a game showcase, but we'll figure it out eventually."     Labonte shared his own insight beginning with the growing pains of the company at large.  "Our biggest challenge has been going through the process of changing from a group of passionate modders, to a group of professionals that can deliver on time with strong organizational systems," he said. "Luckily over the years, we’ve recruited more and more game industry veterans to share their experience with us and teach us the skills we were missing." With multiple new real-time strategy games being announced this year, there are no better experts to help illuminate why interest has reached this fever pitch for a genre on the decline.  "My speculation would be that the people who played real-time strategy games in their younger days are now in positions to call the shots and wish to see their beloved genre come back," Gedrovica said.  "Or, as some have said, there have been many successful real-time strategy games over the recent years, just not in a classic sense, and maybe now the favour is coming back for the more classic style of gameplay."'  "In a way, there was a resurgence of pixel-style games, so perhaps it's all just part of the circle of past preferences coming back into favor." Labonte pointed towards Blizzard Entertainment's absence and their beloved real-time strategy title StarCraft 2. "When Blizzard started cutting resources and support for it, a vacuum began to form," he explained. "Now, there are a number of contenders vying to take its place."  "For what it’s worth, I very much hope that we don’t enter another era of monopoly, but instead have healthy competition between multiple competitive real-time strategy game options." "This kind of environment is much better for the real-time strategy player." When asked for the elevator pitch of both their respective games, both developers offered succinct but reinforcing answers.  "I can’t get it down to one word. The closest I can do is this: [it's] real-time strategy without the bullshit," Labonte said.  Gedrovica admitted that boiling down Godsworn was near impossible but she settled on "Classic." "My elevator pitch would be classic mythological hero real-time strategy game with god powers and a single-player and co-op focus," Gedrovica said.  Thunderoak Interactive has pinned March 28th as Godsworn's early access release date.  On the other hand, Sun Spear Games has IMMORTAL: Gates Of Pyre in a closed alpha setting as of writing.  While their Kickstarter is currently closed, there are opportunities for players to obtain an alpha key.  More information regarding that can be found on their social media channels as well as the game's Discord server
Images via Thunderoak Interactive, Blizzard Entertainment, Sun Spear Games, and Frost Giant Studios. 

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