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Encyclopedia > Real time strategy
Dune 2 (1992), an early RTS

A real-time strategy (RTS) game is a type of computer strategy game which does not have "turns" like conventional turn-based strategy video or board games. Rather, game time progresses in "real time": that is, it is continuous rather than turn-by-turn.



Age of Empires (1997), Invasion of an enemy

The precursor of modern RTS games was The Ancient Art of War from Evryware (distributed by Brøderbund) in 1984, followed by Nether Earth for Sincair ZX Spectrum in 1987 and Herzog Zwei for the Sega Genesis in 1989. However, the genre was defined by Dune 2, which at once introduced the core concepts of RTS games: resource-building, base development and direct unit control.

The success of Dune 2 encouraged the development of such games as Warcraft, Empire Earth, Command and Conquer, Total Annihilation, StarCraft, Age of Empires and Empires: Dawn of the Modern World. In fact, the designers of Dune 2 traced its spiritual lineage back to SimCity and their previous game Battletech: The Crescent Hawk's Revenge, a real-time wargame without base-building elements.


Because of the generally faster-paced nature (and the usually shallower learning curve), RTS games have surpassed the popularity of conventional turn-based strategy computer games. In the past some traditional strategy gamers regarded RTS games as "cheap imitations" of turn-based games, arguing that RTS games had a tendency to devolve into "clickfests", in which the player who was faster with the mouse generally won, because they could give orders to their units at a faster rate. Real-time strategy enthusiasts counter that micromanagement involves not just fast clicking but also the ability to make sound tactical decisions under time pressure. It is noteworthy, however, that due to the games being shorter because of the faster pace of the game and absence of turn switching pauses, RTS games are far more suitable for Internet play than turn-based games; this is indubitably an important reason for their popularity. Furthermore, turn-based games are ill-suited to meet the increasing demand for realism from casual gamers and they require a greater time commitment than real-time strategy games.

Total Annihilation (1997), Core base.

The more recent generations of RTS games usually have features which reduce the importance of fast mousework, enabling the player to focus more on overall strategy. For example, queuing allows the player to put in an order for multiple units at a single building instead of requiring the player to return to that building to order the next unit built whenever a unit ordered earlier is completed. The ability to set waypoints allows the player to give multiple movement commands to a unit at once. Most games also give each unit strenghts and weaknesses, discouraging players from simply (and unskillfully) overwhelming an opponent with so called "rush" tactics or "swarm" tactics in favour of more balanced armies and some strategy.

Generally, most RTS games follow the same general pattern:

  1. Build up your base and forces (your economy).
  2. Acquire more resources.
  3. Attack the enemy, attempting to deprive him of resources and destroy his infrastructure.

However, some games do not allow the player to create new units, or build bases. Some of these games include Myth and Ground Control. These games are purely tactical, forcing the player to make do with the units he or she is given. You could even further define these types of games as RTT, real-time tactical, games.

Most RTS games also feature single-player campaigns -- a series of missions where a human player plays against the computer with a defined scenario and objectives, usually within the context of a background story. Often each mission has a different style of play, sometimes dramatically so.

Warcraft III (2002), Humans fighting orcs

Finally, some RTS games, most notably Homeworld (1999), have attempted not only to break away from the traditional turn structure of strategy games but also from the idea of a 2D board. These games are played on a 3D battlefield.

Of the games that do allow the player to build up a base and an army, they seem to be diverging into at least two main camps: micro-management and macro-management.

Micro-management games

Micro-management games allow an army and base to be built, but they limit the size of the army (sometimes, rather severely). The purpose of this is to create more of a tactical atmosphere, and to prevent one side from simply cranking out units and throwing them at the enemy until he collapses.

By limiting the size of the army, the game requires the player to intelligently utilize his "partially" limited troops. This is more similar to the purely tactical Myth-style games. A good example of this type of game is Warcraft III, where further units require more upkeep. To simplify the control, however, the player can combine individual units into groups. This is even more found in the game ArenaWars, where every player only has 1000 credits to build units. If the unit dies the credits are refunded. Combined with very limited unit choices and specials, the game is extremely balanced and forces the player into the most farstretching tactics and micromanagement ever seen in a game.

Macro-management games

Homeworld 2 (2003), Hiigaran Carrier

On the other end are the macro-management games. These games encourage the creation of more massive armies, and often automatically take care of the "details" of individual unit control by organizing them into formations, intelligently maneuvering them, or using their special abilities automatically. One of the first such games was Knights and Merchants (1998). Other well-known examples of these types of games are Cossacks, Ground Control, and the Total War series.


Some games, especially on the video game consoles, use RTS merely as a vehicle to tell the story. For example, in the PlayStation 2 game Kessen (2000) the player has a limited control over the units, as the game unfolds historical battles with a heavy use of cutscenes.

Massively multiplayer online real-time strategy (MMORTS) games combine aspects of massively multiplayer with real-time strategy.


Graphically RTS games have evolved from 2D board-like view of Dune 2 and original Warcraft to visually-richer 3D with more detailed environments, such as in Warcraft III, Empire Earth, and Command and Conquer: Generals.

As companies are striving to come close to cinematic level of visual quality, the improvements in graphics accelerate. In 2004 two landmark games were released: Rome: Total War from Creative Assembly and The Battle for Middle-earth from Electronic Arts. Both games recreated realistic massive battles for the first time. Rome: Total War brings thousands of units in realistically simulated battles, while The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth payed more attention to recreating familiar environments and battles from The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.

The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth

Two notable games are scheduled for 2005: Act of War and Age of Empires III. Both games will feature realistic physics (Age of Empires III uses the Havoc physics engine), realistically destructible buildings and ever more stunning graphics. In addition Act of War boasts a well developed technothriller story by Dale Brown told via machinima and live action cinematics.

Future games

Future games (starting from about 2007) are likely to further enhance the realism of RTS games, giving each unit a limited intelligence, similar to how it's done in MASSIVE (and to some extent in The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth) and generating unit animations procedurally (currently all games use recorded animations done with motion capture or manually), similar to how it's done in NaturalMotion's endorphin software.

See also



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