‘Right-Click the Spawn Point!’ (RTS Gaming)
Strategy, From Azeroth to Deep Space
Join us once more on our in-depth look at the gameplay and graphics of different game genres. Today we’ll be looking at real-time strategy titles.
There are few game genres that challenge both the mind and reflexes as much as Real-Time Strategy. Building up a base, creating troops, managing resources, scouting, attacking, defending, controlling sometimes five or six different groups of units—there’s a lot to do in every RTS game. The intention of these games is to make the player feel like the ultimate admiral or general, commanding their forces to victory. While each RTS takes a similar approach to its gameplay, there are many significant differences in art style, settings, storylines, and interfaces to make them quite different from one another. Indeed, while practiced skills in one RTS translate well into almost any other RTS, there is still much for a veteran player to learn when playing a title for the first time. In this article, we’ll explore the history of these games, their wonderful and varied art styles, and how they have affected their genre and gaming overall.
The RTS genre has had many entries outside of what we’ll be covering here, but the games we will be looking at all have made massive impacts on that genre. There were strategy games before these, but I feel that starting with Warcraft and ending with Homeworld captures the golden age of RTS games. Warcraft’s fantasy setting isn’t exactly original, but its set up of having mostly homogenous units with different skins was adopted by many RTS games after it, including the ones I go over here. Command & Conquer showcases a unique interface and a possibility for high level unit micromanagement that was not yet seen. Age of Empires brings a semi-historical feeling to the genre, allowing players to take control of stylized ancient armies, and popularized the idea of having three central construction resources. Homeworld took the bold step into the three-dimensional realm, setting amazing precedents for bringing an RTS into that quite chaotic space.
While I won’t cover Starcraft here, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention its immeasurable influence on the RTS genre, its fans going so far as to create an entire self-contained sports league to play it in Korea. Of course, we wouldn’t have that game without Warcraft.
Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, aka Warcraft 1 (PC, Mac, 1994)
Coming from then not-yet-a-powerhouse game company, Blizzard, is the classic game of Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. The game’s storyline is simple: the Orcs, a green-skinned race of humanoids from the world of Draenor, have invaded the world of Azeroth via a magically constructed portal. The player can choose either the Orc or Human campaign modes to decide who achieves ultimate victory in this war of worlds [ 1 ][ 2 ].
The designs of our Orcish and Human armies are, of course, slightly simplistic. We are talking about home computers in 1994 after all, a time where there isn’t much graphic processing power to be had. The various army sprites end up being slightly changed mirrors of one another, and function almost identically, to a point. Peasants and Peons, depicted as wearing blue or red tunics with not much else, harvest resources and build up the bases for either faction. Footmen, appearing as armored humans with swords and shield, and Grunts, hulking Orcs with horned helmets and big axes, act as the baseline military units, and have identical attack and defense stats despite their in-game appearances. Indeed, while the units’ art gets more diverse as we continue upward in the tech tree, we don’t see actual functional differences until we get magic-wielding units. The Humans’ Cleric, shown as an old man in robes, uses his magic to Heal, scry on the enemy with Far Sight, and to make other units invisible for a short duration. While the Orcs’ Necrolyte, depicted as a black-robed Orc with his face concealed by a hood, can also scry with his Dark Vision spell, his other magics are to Raise Dead, summoning a skeleton from a newly deceased unit, and to cast Unholy Armor, making a unit invincible for a short time [ 3 ].
While these army differences are small, they are important for a player to know, to execute an effective strategy both with and against these units. The sprites are distinct enough that they can be recognized quickly once they appear on the screen, informing a learned player immediately what they are up against. The second part of the army designs comes in their distinct buildings. While these structures are functionally similar, they have their own art styles that reflect the artists’ vision of these different fantasy cultures. The human structures look quite like what one might expect in a medieval reality: Farms look like little homesteads with a patch of crops next to them, Barracks look like brick-laid military structures, complete with small towers and a portcullis, and so on. The Orcish style of buildings is far more rugged and lower tech looking in appearance. Orcish Farms are round buildings with smaller round animal pens attached, and their Barracks are squared by giant, tusk-like spikes [ 3 ]. These building and unit designs contrast the artistic vision of the two races, Humans shown as organized and militant, whilst Orcs are meant to appear more savage and brutal.
Our game interface is both simple and effective. The main game screen comes in a semi-letterbox display, wherein the player can manipulate their individual units and buildings. The top of the box showcases current resources in Lumber and Gold. The left of the screen is reserved for the minimap, displayed top left, and the command card, displayed bottom left, and the main menu button right below this. The player will need to refer to the minimap often to keep track of enemy movements via scouting, as well as to keep track of their own units’ positions. Warcraft didn’t feature an advanced fog-of-war mechanic, meaning that once you had scouted an area, it was always visible to you, without needing any units present to give you vision of the area. The command card changes depending on which units or buildings you have selected, showing what actions each unit or building can undertake. For example, the Orc Barracks can create Grunts, Spearmen, and Catapults. While Farms do not produce units, they allow for additional unit production via total Supply (often called Food); meaning your current units’ supply cost, and your supply cap; the maximum number of units you can have, which you need to build more Farms to increase. These two numbers are only displayed when you select a Farm, which is a bit of an interface faux pas, as that number should have been alongside Lumber and Gold. This was corrected in the sequels to this game, and while it is a flaw, it’s not enough of one to make the interface truly bad. There is also a limitation on how many units you can select at once, the cap being four. This makes army management quite difficult, especially considering this game did not feature the ability to set groups of units to a hotkey.
The two main campaigns have 12 maps each, with mostly similar victory conditions: destroying the enemy base. Both campaigns will take the player across the land of Azeroth, as the Orcish or Human armies cut a swath through the enemy forces, pushing towards their respective main strongholds of Stormwind Keep or Blackrock Spire. The maps will progress in difficulty, whilst also introducing the various buildings and army units slowly over time, allowing the player to build up their knowledge of the units and adjust to the ever-increasing threats. The map tiles themselves aren’t too varied: you’ll battle through lush forests and grasslands, dark swamps and mountain ranges, and the occasional subterranean map. While there is water on the outdoor maps, you have no airborne or seaborne units to traverse it, and instead must direct your ground forces over bridges or around lakes. While this gives the player only a few options in terms of tactical approach, it also means the enemy forces are restricted in their movements. The detail of these maps is roughly 16-bit, with landmarks such as trees, roads, bridges, and the ever-important gold mines. The player will need to harvest both gold from the mines and wood from the trees to build their base and army units and can eventually deforest an entire map if they so choose, making these maps a lot more interactive than they initially appear.
It should be noted that some missions have other objectives, such as rescuing captives, and not every map affords you the opportunity to build a base. The prime example of this is Medivh’s Tower in the Human campaign, where the player is given a set number of units that must last them long enough to get through the tower and complete the main objective: killing the warlock Medivh [ 4 ].
While Blizzard had had popular video games before Warcraft, this game was its true launch into success. Though its graphics were simple, its personality and easy-to-grasp interface made it quite appealing to gamers of all kinds. I only became aware of the Warcraft games when the sequel, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness came out. While the first game can play a bit clunky due to its ancient coding, the graphics are still charming, and it can be fun to revisit this classic. Of course, the Warcraft franchise grew into a behemoth, eventually bringing us the world’s most popular MMO, World of Warcraft. The effects of this game and the franchise spawned from it are innumerable, but in the immediate it brought many players into the RTS genre, introducing them to a kind of game they had never played before, and it created a new fantasy mythos that would expand beyond the wildest dreams of fans.
Command & Conquer (PC, Mac, 1995)
Another storied RTS franchise, the first game in the series by Westwood, is titled Command & Conquer. It follows the story of fictional contemporary militaries, the Global Defense Initiative (GDI) and the Brotherhood of Nod. In this fictional alternate timeline, a meteorite has crashed near the River Tiber, bringing with it an alien substance called Tiberium. This substance quickly becomes one of the most valued resources on Earth, which the Brotherhood of Nod, a secretive cult, quickly takes majority control of. When it becomes clear that Nod is on a campaign of global terror, the UN authorizes the GDI to counteract them [ 5 ].
Though this game was released only a year after the fabled Warcraft, the advancement in computer technology in that short span allowed Command & Conquer to have a much higher level of detail. The individual unit sprites are much smaller than what was showcased in Warcraft, allowing for more of them to be present onscreen at a time. This downscaling of unit size also allows more to be done with less map space, but at the same time makes unit micro-management much more challenging. While one might think smaller sprites would lead to less details, Westwood managed to squeeze a lot into its unit animations, helping them to stand out. One of the earliest units, the Rocket Trooper, appears as a small man in uniform, carrying a large rocket launcher that distinguishes him from other ground troops. When left idle, the Rocket Trooper will put his launcher down briefly to take a break from the weight of it. Likewise, the Minigunners, the basic gun trooper, will do push-ups when left to idle [ 6 ].
Early ground vehicles like the Medium Tank look like, well, tanks, but they have the added animation of a tracking turret, which keeps on target while your move the tank around. The helicopter, one of the few airborne units, has dual animated propellers and rear rotor and looks awesome when it takes to the air. The base buildings in Command & Conquer also look fantastic, having smooth textures that depict them as a fusion of modern-day tech and advanced sci-fi parts. Refineries, buildings where harvested Tiberium is deposited, constantly churn their turbines as new resources are delivered. The Communications Center’s radar dish has a constant spin animation. Repair Pads flash when vehicles on them are being fixed up, and Helipads too showcase flashing arrows when an aircraft is landed and re-arming its missiles [ 6 ]. These little touches in the art and animation add a spark of personality to the units and buildings alike, and their slick textures give them that feeling of a somewhat sci-fi military.
Command & Conquer takes an interesting approach to its game interface and mechanics. For this game, our main screen takes up the left side, with the minimap and command bar on the right. Selecting units does not cause their portraits to appear on the command bar, neither does it show their possible actions. Instead, it’s up to the player to understand that they need to drag-select units and right-click to tell them to move or attack. This is in the instruction manual, of course, but you could also come to this conclusion with quick trial and error. Another thing missing, at least at first, is the minimap. This does not become available until the player has constructed a Communications Center, which then causes the minimap to appear in the top right of the command card. This semi-realistic approach to a minimap is interesting, though whether it is good or bad is hard to say. What is in the command card is a scroll-able menu of what you can construct, in both units and buildings. Naturally, you need to construct your basic buildings before you can make the more advanced ones, and you need enough resources, simply represented as USD ($), although this number only climbs when you harvest Tiberium (I guess you sell it? It’s not really explained). There is no unit or supply cap in Command & Conquer, though you do only have access to so much Tiberium to harvest, so you won’t be able to build infinitely. You can queue up any number of units or buildings to be built, and they’ll churn out one at a time as resources become available. When a building is ready, you need to manually place it. This is where the second resource comes in: Power. You need sufficient Power Plants to make your buildings function, and there is a hard cap on power, so you can only have so many buildings before you run out. This is a somewhat unique take on resource management, as I have yet to see a game outside the C&C series take this approach of unlimited units, but limited building power.
For the game’s single-player portion, you can select either GDI or Nod campaigns to play through. Naturally, as the GDI you will be trying to stop the Brotherhood of Nod from completing its evil schemes, and as Nod, you will be battling the GDI to fulfill your dreams of world domination (mwahaha). The terrain of the game maps is limited, being either desert setting or a forested setting. Nod’s campaign takes you through several African territories, whilst GDI’s takes place in Europe and around the Mediterranean Sea. Whichever campaign you choose, you’ll have several options in missions as the game progresses, being able to pick your path of conquest through the regions, or different starting points if you have multiple arrows pointing to one area. This choice, though limited, presents some interesting options for the player, as there are paths of least resistance that can be taken, but also more challenging missions for those so inclined. While the map textures themselves look quite good, they end up being very samey. Indeed, one desert base is much like another, as there are only so many variations of base layouts and map designs. It’s one of the few places this game really falls short.
Of course, I must mention that Command & Conquer has several FMV cutscenes, with real actors giving orders and mission explanations to the player, who is the assumed commander of either force. These scenes play out about as well as any B-movie reel, but they do provide some entertainment in their campiness.
The Command & Conquer series was one that passed me by. I was more drawn by other RTS games like Warcraft II and Starcraft, though I did end up playing some Command & Conquer during those years. Coming back to give the first game a look over, I can see how appealing this series would have been. It filled a gap in the RTS genre, bringing in a contemporary setting with a sci-fi lean that made it unique among its peers. While its graphics perhaps have not aged well, they aren’t bad by any means, and were certainly outstanding for its day, and its gameplay remains solid. The Command & Conquer franchise would go on to have a multitude of RTS games under various titles and alternate storylines. If you are a fan of controlling pseudo-modern-day armies, I’d recommend giving this series a try.
Age of Empires (PC, Mac, 1997)
Another hugely popular franchise, perhaps only dwarfed by Warcraft, is Ensemble Studios’ Age of Empires. This RTS brings us all the way back to the Iron Age, weaving a fictional history about the various civilizations of old. In the single player campaigns, the player will command four different civilizations, following the history of Egyptian, Greek, Babylonian, and Yamato peoples [ 7 ].
While this title comes two years later than our last entry, its graphics are only marginally improved. The size of unit sprites in Age of Empires is much larger, however, and their animations are much clearer and cleaner, and the units are more varied, though there are not unique armies. This game is among the first to feature a direct tiered upgrade track, having four distinct tech trees, broken up into “Ages”: the Stone Age, Tool Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. There are different units and buildings available in each of these ages. Your first units will always be your Villagers, who are responsible for hunting, gathering, and building. These units wear only cloth to cover themselves from the waist down, color coded to match whatever faction they belong to. Being that they are they are responsible for so much, they get perhaps the most animations in the game, from throwing spears to hunt, to using hammers to build, to chopping wood with axes, or gathering gold with picks. The basic Clubman is your first available military unit, though they are quite weak compared to any other unit except Villagers. The Clubmen appear as, well, men with clubs, wearing clothing that resembles a more primitive style of toga. These can be quickly upgraded to Axemen in the Tool Age, replacing their simple wood clubs with axes, making them much more effective combat units. Once a player enters the Bronze Age, they get access to much more durable and cool looking combat units, like the Hoplite, an armored spearman with a large round shield, who can take and deal much more punishment thanks to his equipment. The Hoplite can upgrade to the Phalanx, a much more badass looking version of himself, and eventually the Centurion, with an even more awesome appearance, sporting heavy armor and a tower shield, as well as a long metallic pike. In all the units’ art we have both an appreciation for historic troops appearances as well as a dedication to having smooth animations.
Age of Empires takes a slightly different approach to its interface compared to our last two entries, having an actual letterboxed main screen, with the top of the screen showing resource counts for Wood, Food, Gold, and Stone, and menu buttons to the top right. The bottom, a slightly larger area, shows the unit cards/portraits, command card and minimap. This is a wonderful approach, as it allows for maximum screen space and minimum clutter. The unit cards in the bottom left have some decent splash art, a health bar, and attack and defense power indicators. Any unique actions that a unit can take is displayed right next to the portrait, with each action having its own art button. Toward the middle bottom is a red X that is always present, which deselects current units or buildings. Finally, our minimap is displayed bottom right, first appearing black, but becoming unveiled as the player scouts the area. Age of Empires does feature advanced fog of war, meaning you need a unit present at any given location to have active sight on it. It’s an easy interface to understand, and it’s set up very nicely.
The game’s four campaigns are all unique in where they will take the player. The first campaign is mostly an introduction to how to play, taking place in ancient Egypt, and consisting of 12 short maps, each showcasing one of the game’s mechanics. The following three campaigns; Voices of Babylon, Glory of Greece, and Yamato Empire of the Rising Sun. These campaigns roughly follow events of ancient history, covering the reign of Babylonian kings Hammurabi, Nabopolasar, and Nebuchadnezzar; the rise of Athens and the other Greek cities, up to Alexander the Great conquering Persia; and the rise of the Yamato dynasty of Japan [ 8 ]. These campaigns contain eight maps each, though each map takes a good deal of time to progress through, as you usually start with very little in terms of units and resources each time and need to build up. Unfortunately, the maps in these scenarios are not particularly varied. Indeed, each map custom or otherwise in the original Age of Empires did not feature much variety, with all of them taking place in the temperate landscape of the Mediterranean, or the islands of Japan. The map textures are limited to grass and sand, with bodies of water, trees, and rock formations to break things up. While each scenario covers a different historical event, the maps will play out in mostly the same way: build up your forces and destroy the enemy base. This isn’t a bad formula, per se, but it can get rather tedious at times to start from nearly nothing and having to build up a mass of units just to get things started. Outside of these campaigns, the player can take part in skirmishes against AI or other players, selecting from one of 12 factions, each with distinct unit-specific bonuses, as well as the eastern Asian factions featuring their own classical building designs, setting them a bit more apart from the basic Grecian architecture of the others.
Age of Empires was one of the few RTS titles that I got to play in its heyday. I loved the challenge of the game, how much resource management and unit management was required to achieve victory, though I would often get frustrated at my inevitable losses. Still, I kept playing, because I enjoyed the historical aesthetic, and because I wanted to be able to say that I beat such a difficult game. Age of Empires continued as a franchise, and while its overall influence on gaming is a bit limited, it none the less showcased how much complexity one could fit into an RTS without making it overwhelming. Today, this classic title has a remastered version, with highly improved graphics and most of the bugs worked out. I highly recommend to those with an interest to pick up this remastered version, as it makes the game a good deal more enjoyable.
Homeworld (PC, Mac, 1999)
A fresh new take on real time strategy, Homeworld is brought to us by Relic Entertainment and Sierra Studios. This RTS is fully three-dimensional, taking place entirely in the vacuum of space. In the story mode, the player takes command of a refugee fleet of humanoids called the Kushan. The Kushan, living on a planet called Kharak, have just finished construction of their Mothership, which they will use to explore the stars and discover what planet they truly originated from. After testing their new hyperspace drive, the Kushan return to Kharak to discover the planet itself in flames, destroyed by some alien force, with the only survivors being the 600,000 migrants that were in suspended animation in an orbital station. Taking these migrants, the new fleet sets out to find their new homeworld [ 9 ].
Firstly, the unit detail in Homeworld is fantastic, even by the standards of 1999. Before the game truly begins, the player has the option of selecting two primary colors for their fleet, giving some level of customization even within the campaign, a feature that is normally reserved for multiplayer. Each of the ships you can build has its own specific purpose and stats, as well as interesting designs. The lowly Kushan Scout ship, a single-manned fighter with high speed, has an asymmetrical appearance, with the cockpit to the right, and the center mass housing twin projectile cannons, with their pulse engine directly behind those. Moving up in ship size, the Multi-Gun Corvette features a more classic symmetrical design, having an almost lower-case T shape to them, with the short end being the engine and the “wings” having four fully rotating gun batteries, perfect for battling nimble fighters like the Scout. Then we have our big guns, like the Assault Frigate. This all-purpose workhorse of a capital ship has four rotating cannons and two bomb launchers, making it a threat to any target, though not a serious threat on its own [ 10 ]. Each ship’s textures, from big to small, are beautiful in a classic, hand-painted way. While the textures might appear flat, they do emit light from appropriate spots, like the engines and bridge viewports. Their controls are also smooth and intuitive, which adds to the beauty of the game, as you can focus on an individual ship as it glides through space.
Homeworld’s interface is a bit complex and might overwhelm at first. Zooming out via the mouse wheel brings the player to the large 3-D map view, allowing them to view the entirety of the interstellar battlefield, which can sometimes be quite large. The basic game HUD is a semi-transparent set of boxes. On the bottom left is the unit card, which shows basic unit information and Formation options. The bottom right shows the basic command card, with buttons for move, attack, and so on. The top right displays the three primary functions accessible through the Mothership: Build, for new unit construction, Research, for new technologies, and Launch, for launching any currently housed ships. There is also a unit control group display in the bottom center, which always shows control groups one through ten, regardless of whether that group yet exists—which has the added benefit of letting the player know if their control group would be overwritten. Right above these numbers is the quick launcher for the 3-D map. In the top center is our resource count, simply labeled Resource Units, which are gathered from mineral rich asteroids. No doubt, this interface takes some getting used to, but after the first few introductory missions, it’s quite easy for most players to grasp.
The maps of Homeworld are all areas of space, so the skirmish maps end up being pretty much the same thing over and over. The campaign maps, however, feature several different planetary and star backdrops, as well as interesting hazards like ion clouds and asteroid fields. Such hazards require careful maneuvering, as they take up a three-dimensional space, so taking a path up, around, and sometimes through a small pocket may be required. This can sometimes work to the player’s advantage if a hostile force arrives, giving them an opportunity to out-maneuver their foes and watch them fall to these hazards. Apart from this, the maps will be basically all the same, but thanks to their setting and wonderfully detailed backdrops, they all end up being quite stunning.
When I first got my hands on this game back in ’99, I was enthralled. I’d never experienced a strategy game with this sort of complexity, from its unit management to its three-dimensional movements. It’s remained a classic game in my mind, and in the minds of many others. Homeworld demonstrated how a three-dimensional strategy game should function, taking full advantage of every axis for terrain hazards and movement, whilst also keeping unit controls tight and responsive. Homeworld got a remastered edition not too long ago, with updated graphics and smoother controls, making this already gorgeous game that much better.
These games represent only a few examples of the RTS genre, but these ones have affected their respective spaces in that genre profoundly, some even having effects beyond it. While Command & Conquer stuck to its roots throughout the years, it provided solid and consistent RTS content, showing that, if nothing else, how to efficiently create fun and interesting RTS titles. The Warcraft line of RTS redefined itself twice, improving upon itself and creating then new hero-centric strategies in its third installment, as well as allowing for the development and rise of Starcraft into RTS legend, and Warcraft 3’s custom maps brought us the now worldwide MOBA of DOTA 2. Age of Empires went on to cover many more historical military eras, such as the medieval and renaissance times, and even partitioned off into mythological grounds with Age of Mythology. While Homeworld only had one direct sequel, other games such as Endless Space have been inspired by its groundbreaking design. Indeed, without any one of these titles being present, the landscape of RTS would be wildly different.
- “Who knew a canceled license with Games Workshop would lead to the rise of an industry giant in its own right? But Warcraft: Orcs & Humans was just that.” Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. PC/MS-DOS, Blizzard Entertainment, 1994.
- “What Warcraft and Starcraft began, Command & Conquer kept going, popularizing the genre with modern conceits.” Command and Conquer. PC/Mac, Westwood Studios, 1995.
- “The Age of Empires series has seen so many installments and expansions, a definitive collection with HD Remaster has had to be made, just to collect the earlier iterations.” Age of Empires 2. PC/Mac, Microsoft, 1999.
- “Very much deserving of its own honorable mention, Homeworld took everything learned with previous competitors, and dialed it all the way up to 11, with a push towards realistic perspective and proportions.” Homeworld. PC, Sierra Entertainment, 1999.
A man of many talents, Clayton has worn several hats. His work focuses on visual mediums like film and gaming. A practiced martial artist and a graduate of Johnson and Wales University with a Bachelor’s in Graphic Design & New Media, he brings both tactile experience and academic credentials as measures of his considerable expertise. Clayton is both Manager of Steam-Funk’s core writing staff and part of the firm’s senior creative team, helping craft both The Living Multiverse and firm policy.
- Blizzard Staff. “Blizzard Entertainment: Classic Games.” Blizzard Entertainment, Blizzard Entertainment, blizzard.com/en-us/games Accessed 16 January, 2020.
- Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. PC/MS-DOS, Blizzard Entertainment, 1994.
- Warcraft: Orcs & Humans Game Manual (Orc Book). Blizzard Entertainment, 1994.
- Warcraft: Orcs & Humans Game Manual (Human Book). Blizzard Entertainment, 1994.
- Command and Conquer. PC/Mac, Westwood Studios, 1995.
- CNCNZ Staff. “GAMES: Command & Conquer – GDI Units.” CNCNZ.com, CNCNZ, cncnz.com/games/command-conquer/gdi-units/. Accessed 16, January, 2020.
- Microsoft Staff. “Definitive Edition.” Age of Empires, Microsoft, ageofempires.com/games/aoe/. Accessed 16 January, 2020.
- Age of Empires wiki ageofempires.fandom.com/wiki/Age_of_Empires
- Gearbox Staff. “THE LEGENDARY SPACE RTS HAS ARRIVED.” HOMEWORLD Remastered Collection, Gearbox Software, 2016, homeworldremastered.com/. Accessed 16 January, 2020.
- FANDOM Staff. “Homeworld: Ships.” Encyclopedia Hiigara, FANDOM, homeworld.wikia.com/wiki/Category:Homeworld:_Ships. Accessed 16 January, 2020.