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Where did RTS Go? Discussion with Former C&C Devs, Grey Goo Devs

Posted on September 8, 2014

Command & Conquer may not have been the definitive “first” game in the RTS genre, but it was a milestone in gameplay and mechanics that paved the way for future titles. The 90s and very early 00s saw the rise of “strategy” as a genre, with RTS championing its market dominance. In a very similar fashion to the present-day flood of MOBAs, early RTS and campaign strategy once comprised what felt like the majority of popular titles.

rts-wallAbout 25% of my RTS collection, ordered chronologically and then by series.

Command & Conquer was just a small piece of that. We saw the arrival of Age of Empires, Age of Mythology, Empire Earth, Shogun: Total War, Ground Control, and the sleeping giants that spawned a decade of games – Warcraft and StarCraft; campaign games also grew, with large thanks to Civilization, Rise of Nations, Galactic Civilizations, and Hearts of Iron; city builders like Zeus, Poseidon, Caesar, Settlers, and Pharaoh also carved out a niche in the overarching “strategy” marketplace.

All of these examples worked to establish a long-lasting reign of RTS, grand campaign, strategy, and city-building titles. The industry goes through phases – as a toddler might do with toys – and aside from StarCraft II and a scant few RTS alternatives, it has long felt as if the RTS phase has past. Westwood was cannibalized by EA Games, Ensemble Studios was disbanded by Microsoft, and Sierra went on extended hiatus. Strategy is still here, it's just taken on a new form over the last few years. That form is primarily centered around single-character control with unit-based abilities, a far cry from the days of Red Alert, AoE, and Total Annihilation.

We had the opportunity to ask former Tiberian Sun and Red Alert developers about RTS as a genre, its future, and quite simply, where it seems to have gone. In the below video, we're joined by Grey Goo Lead Designer Pat Pannullo, a former C&C developer at Westwood Studios.

Pannullo tells us early in the video that “RTS is here to stay,” emphasizing that:

“RTS split in two directions. On the one hand, you had the ultra-complicated, micro-intensive, unit abilities, and it kind of turned a few people off. There are a lot of people who are really good at it, but for the more casual crowd, they just couldn't get into it because it was too much. The other direction was MOBAs: a lot more simple, single-character, unit abilities and upgrades through itemization and leveling, but it gets a little repetitive after a while. You have to buy new characters if you want to try something new, it's the same map over and over again... the original RTS got lost somewhere in there.”

Pannullo indicated that it's ultimately up to players to determine the desired style of play, then went on to explain Grey Goo (which we got hands-on with, more on that soon) and its target audience. The Lead Designer thought aloud on what makes RTS so appealing as a genre:

“When I first started in the industry, it was explained to me by Brett Sperry – the President of Westwood – [that] 'RTS is like toy soldiers that you played with as a kid that you can move around in real-time.' The ultimate fun of RTS is getting a whole bunch of stuff, attacking your friends, blowing stuff up, and having a good time. Big giant battles, lots of explosions, and cool stuff to play with.”

There's Hope Yet

MOBA games certainly don't appeal to all refugees from the unarguably more limited modern RTS marketplace. StarCraft II's final installation looms on the horizon, Legacy of the Void, and will likely be making noise some time within the next year; Grey Goo felt like a true return to Red Alert roots and focuses on different gameplay than the more unit-complex SC approach; Planetary Annihilation sees a revisit to one of the very first RTS games of its kind, Total Annihilation.

As Pannullo said, RTS is here to stay. There was a lull in releases over the last few years – especially with the disappearing act performed by the defunct continuation of C&C in F2P form – but it looks as if we're getting a series of RTS games shipping in 2015.

For those specifically interested in Grey Goo, as discussed in the video above, we'll have full preview coverage coming shortly. The game is expected in 1H15.

- Steve “Lelldorianx” Burke.