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    GameGuy: The “Real Time Strategy” Edition

    By Mark H. Walker

    No one gave me a crystal ball, but I do have a couple of RTS titles worth of experience. Perhaps enough to answer the question du jour: What’s the future of RTS?

    Well, I saw my good friend RTS the other day. He was hunched in front of his monitor lassoing troops, building hundreds of tanks, and looking downright bored. You know what I said?

    You need to get out more.

    If he does, RTS has a bright, bronzed skin, stud-muffin kind of future. If he doesn’t, he’ll end up looking like the pasty-faced folks I saw at E3. Here’s why.

    RTS game developers are spending way too much time looking at themselves in the mirror.  To make their games better, they study RTS titles past, present --and when they can get their hands on them-- future. That’s fine, but it’s not the key to that stud-muffin destiny. Innovation is.

    Now any publishers reading this please note that the following things are not, I repeat (as the Hollywood military types say) NOT, innovation: Better graphics, thousands of units, improved interface, more detail, lame-assed –“Well my brother said he could write a little”—stories, and three hours of poorly acted FMA.

    Innovation, and its first cousin, inspiration, can be found anywhere --books, movies, Sarah Michelle Gellar-- but perhaps the easiest inspiration can be found in other gaming genres. The key to real-times strategy's future is the intelligent cross-pollination of genres. Not only does cross-pollination breed good games, but strong sales. It's not surprising, produce a RTS with strong role-playing elements and you not only bag the strategy crowd, but role-players as well. No news there, but it seems a difficult point for developers to grasp.

    Some folks, like Sweden's Massive Entertainment, got the message. Their "Ground Control" is THE FIRST RTS science fiction game to employ honest by-God military tactics. (Gamer's note, baiting an AI opponent or swamping a defense with Zerglings aren't tactics, merely gimmicks.) Massive dug deeply into turn-based war gaming archives to pull out several features --such as differing armor thickness on tank's front and sides, the ability to hide troops in tall grass, and the importance of combined arms-- and inserted them into smack dab into the middle of Ground Control. The result is an engaging game that challenges the brain as well as the click-finger, and attracts RTS folks AND wargamers.

    Another genre-mixing RTS is Chris Taylor’s Dungeon Siege. Hell, most people would argue if it even is an RTS or rather a role-playing game. Any game that breeds THAT type of argument is also sure to breed cross-genre sales. Role-playing gamers have long battled through the next quest, level, or room, not because of cool spell affects, high polygon count or 3-D terrain, but because they care about the characters they control. Dungeon Siege provides eight of those characters. Characters that battles RTS-like hordes of monsters. So, to paraphrase the Osmonds, it’s a little bit RPG and a little bit RTS. 

    Action games are the third genre that has a lot to offer real-time strategy. Battlezone, Battlezone II, have shown promise and solid sales. But not until Operation Flashpoint did the action-strategy vein produce a blockbuster hit that unleashed the forces of gaming (and the attendant developer's bucks). Make no mistake, a real-time strategy title that puts gamers *in* the shoes of the forces they command will one day make mega-bucks.

    So, if genre inspired innovation is the wave of the future, what **won't** work in the days to come? I think production-based RTS has reached its high-water mark. Folks are tired of building factories. They want to fight. Even games with production based systems --such as the Age of Empires II: The Conquerors-- often downplay resource gathering. Nauseating detail and battlefields choked with hundreds of units are also passé. You think Warcraft III will put hundreds of warriors on the field or concentrate on making the warriors you control interesting? Both detail and tank hordes fall under the heading of what-use-is-it-if-the-game-moves-to-quickly-to-enjoy-it? Of course everything is going 3-D, but that's not innovation, merely the current price of admission into the gaming world.

    Real time strategy is at a crossroads. Those developers who back away from the mirror and walk into the sunshine of genre-inspired innovation will become the bronzed-gaming gods of the future, their titles bought by not only strategy gamers, but action, role-playing, and wargaming aficionados as well.  On the other hand, those churning out the games whose claim to fame is "stunning 3-D graphics" or "control thousands of uniquely animated units," are doomed to sink into the dusty depths of discount bins, only sought by the pasty-faced, gaming hard core.

    © Mark H. Walker, LLC 2001

    Mark H. Walker is a veteran interactive entertainment journalist who has written over 40 books including his recently released Medal of Honor and Wizardry 8 strategy guides

    " "

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