Is the RTS a dying genre? Ironclad Games’ Blair Fraser recently proclaimed it so in an interview. But with the death for other genres already having been declared in the past, even for PC gaming itself, these live on. While Fraser isn’t wrong that there is decline in RTS sales overall (RIP golden age of the late 90s-early 2000s), the hyperbole is a reach.
Fraser claims that “RTSes…are very niche now” and that he feels it’s a shame because ”that’s what I make. Or made.” He seems to be signaling his and Ironclad’s shift into what that studio considers to be an evolution that incorporates moving away from traditional RTS. He’s called Ironclad’s next project, the MOBA Sins of a Dark Age, an evolution for that genre. It’s a boast, no doubt, but we’ll give them time to prove that. It’s a tricky thing, because the previous incarnation of SoADA included Commander mode, which would’ve brought more of a traditional RTS feel to the MOBA genre. Instead, Ironclad has scrapped it in favor of a Guild Wars 2-style dynamic events system called Realm Quests. Ironclad isn’t the only company tinkering with its game to remove RTS elements. Nuclear Dawn, an FPS-RTS hybrid game, now has a mode that make the RTS side of the game optional.
Sins of a Dark Age
However, if one looks to multiple platforms, ideas, funding methods, and a degree of realistically grounded expectations, then creating an RTS, tactics, or turn-based game in today’s market can be both successful and profitable. A lot of indie developers that grew up on the RTS are still making them now, or even for the first time. With certain game production software having gotten cheaper and more accessible, this has only fueled taking the plunge. One need only look at the numbers of copies sold of RTS and other strategy to estimate a realistic goal. And that’s what any good game producer or indie developer would do anyway, regardless of genre. Unless it’s a one-person passion project, you’re going to need a plan, and if that plan involves any sort of investment of time and money, knowing your market is key.
Let’s talk adventure games for a moment. Adventure games once sold quite well, LucasArts had a ton of memorable titles, and other devs followed. We hung out with Guybrush Threepwood and helped Manny Calavera. Sam & Max took us on crazy adventures. Today, adventure games are still around, albeit with smaller budgets and audiences. Many declared adventure a ‘dead’ genre for not appearing on the sales lists. Until one does. The recent success, and several Game of the Year awards, for Telltale’s The Walking Dead, shows that sometimes a game in any genre will break through. The Walking Dead has sold approximately 8.5 million episodes (the entire game is five episodes) across multiple platforms.
Wargame: European Escalation
New funding possibilities also help to change the playing field a little bit. Kickstarter and its ilk have been instrumental in helping several projects get off the ground. Games like Castle Story, Planetary Annihilation, and War for the Overlord have been made possible this way. Endless Space and its GAMES2GETHER initiative –part fundraising, part community participation project, has been successful enough that an expansion has been announced. The rise of free to play has its part. All in all, even Fraser agrees that evolution is key. But in declaring base-building dead, and moving away from traditional RTS gameplay and tactics the key to success, he’s kind of missing the point.
Last week, EA shelved its Medal of Honor franchise after poor reception and sales for the latest edition. Just because shooters are a huge and lucrative genre, there are disappointments there too. Talking about the RTS as if it’s a dying genre ignores small projects, passionate individuals, and those perhaps less than publicly vocal gamers who love these games but don’t go on forums or Reddit.
Yes, StarCraft is “an anomaly”. Not every reboot will be XCOM. Sometimes an idea will have to be done on a shoestring or funded via creative means. There are new RTS games, mods (Age of Empires II just got its first new content in 13 years in the form of an unofficial expansion), and projects heavily influenced by the genre still alive and thriving. If there wasn’t passion or money in it any longer, we wouldn’t see more games being announced. And we do.
Just in the past week, we’ve seen multiple 4X, turn-based, and realtime strategy games and expansions announced. Look at a grand strategy game like Crusader Kings II. Out just under a year to acclaim, it sold very well, and that has led to five DLC expansions, as well as countless mods and contributions from the community (The A Song of Ice and Fire one is particularly notable).
Crusader Kings II - The Republic
Of course, for all the successes from indie studios and major ones alike, yes, there are bound to be games that sell in disappointing numbers. Yet, that’s just part of the game, so to speak. Just like movies, books, or other media sold for our entertainment, occasionally something isn’t up to snuff. Or it’s great, but not backed well or lacks word of mouth. Making XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a risk, but the game was made with care, and word of mouth (along with stellar reviews), really helped the game along. Age of Empires Online had a classic franchise, a talented bunch of devs at Gas Powered Games, and the backing of Microsoft. And yet it just wasn’t making enough money. There are more turn-based and tactical games now. MOBAs have obviously exploded. The strategy genre is still a varied one, but nearly every genre has its shifts.
Evolution is key, but shifting development and means with your audience can still make a traditional RTS a success. If it’s “niche”, that isn’t a dirty word if you respect the genre but keep to realistic goals. It doesn’t guarantee success, no, but it also doesn’t mandate an early funeral for traditional strategy either.