Monday, December 19, 2005

The Art of Building Empires

Real-Time Strategy games and their evolution over the past decade

Most of us will be familiar with Chess, and recognize it as a strategy game that requires thought, cunning and for the really good players, a fair amount of planning. As we all know, chess is a turn-based strategy game, where each player has to wait while the other thinks and executes his move on a board. In the computer gaming world though, there exist different genres of strategy games: Abstract Strategy, Simulation, Real Time Strategy, Turn based and City Building. Over the years though, while turn based strategy games have enjoyed very niche popularity, Real-Time Strategy games have emerged at the most popular because of the quick micromanagement and quick thinking required.

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. Players play simultaneously, and opposing armies and economies are built at the same time. Early computer strategy games adhered firmly to the turn-based concepts of their board game ancestors, where--by necessity--players had time to plan their turns before their opponents had a chance to move. Here, I'll be referring to the (harvest - build - destroy) type of games, which has arguably seen the most evolution and popularity since the genre was first defined. Real-time strategy changed all of that so that games would begin to more closely resemble reality: Time was limited, and if you wasted yours, your opponents would probably be taking advantage of theirs. These games are played either against computer opponents or against human players over a network or over the internet. Imagine playing in the persona of Joan of Arc and defending France against the English, or Genghis Khan in his conquest of Europe, or even an army of the human race fighting to save earth from destructive aliens in space battles - all this and much more is possible by playing some of the best games created this decade.

A brief history of how the genre started: in the early 80's game developers were toying with the idea of introducing war strategy into their mostly action packed shooting and gathering games, but were limited by the technology available at the time as well as the difficulties in getting the elements to strategy to work correctly in a simultaneous play setting. Dune 2, released in 1992 and was the first real-time strategy game which defined the genre, and even today's games have a lot in common with this classic. Whwasn'tit wasn't a huge commercial success, Dune 2 went on to inspire hundred of game developers to create better, faster, and more complex strategy games.

I was first introduced to the genre of turn-based strategy games in 1995 with Heroes of Might and Magic, an epic series of games that survives to this date - version 5 of the series is due to be released early next year. While turn based strategy has it own charm, when the original Command and Conquer series was released, I became an instant fan along with gamers all over the world who were delighted to play a real time strategy game that looked great and played well. Blowing up tanks, building aircraft carriers and playing multiplayer in real-time lead to a huge jump in fun playing a strategy game. Then cam e along Warcraft 2 in 1996 (in India), and that set the stagebeginininge begiing of the strategy game revolution. The Warcraft (Blizzard) and Command and Conquer (Westwood Studios) series were bitter rivals over the next few years, each trying to outdo the other in terms of features, gameplay and graphics. So who won the battle of the most played strategy game at the time? According to game historians, Blizzard, the makers of Warcraft, won by a huge margin - but not because of Warcraft! In 1998, Blizzard released arguably one of the best strategy games ever made: Starcraft. Not only did this game become a huge hit with gamers, it pushed the genre to a completely new level; world of real-time strategy hasn't been the same since. In a time where there were other good strategy games like Command and Conquer: Red Alert, Total Annihilation, Dark Reign and the classic Age of Empires 2, Starcraft just cleanly ripped apart the competition with its simple to use interface, deep strategy possibilities and addictive gameplay.

Age of Empires too needs a mention, as one of the best strategy games ever created; but it was too complex for some people, and while it got very pdidn'tar, it didn't see the kind of numbers Starcraft did.

Fast forward to 5 years later: Warcraft 3, Age of Empires 3, Command and Conquer: Generals, the Homeworld series and Rise of Nations are just some of the RTS games that have attracted a lot of fans. While the basic premise of these modern strategy games hasn't changed much, (the harvest, build and destroy theme still applies) the games are a huge step ahead of their predecessors. For one, they're all 3D games, with beautiful environments which can be zoomed into and camera angles can be rotated. What this means for the player is immersive graphics with unprecedented attention to detail, among other things. Zooming in on one of your 40 tanks and being able to see the tank commander giving orders, or clicking on a hero and watching his cloak blow in the wind and his sword gleam are just a couple of example of what I mean by detail. Today's powerful computers and graphics cards have made this possible, and the future looks even better. Future games are likely to further enhance the realism of RTS games, giving each unit a limited intelligence and experience levels, similar to what Warcraft 3 and Age of Empires 3 have already done to some extent.

Multiplayer strategy games have always been amazing fun, because of the fast gameplay and intense micro and macro management required. But multiplayer strategy games have always had a "ceiling" of 8 to 12 players playing simultaneously, simply because more players controlling armies would create serious performance issues for everyone. But the killer RTS type for the future is the Massively Multiplayer Online Real Time Strategy (MMORTS). This new type of strategy game combines real-time strategy (RTS) with a large number of simultaneous players over the Internet. It is a type of massively multiplayer online game, and this genre is set to be the next revolution in strategy gaming. These are early days, and while the current MMORTS games out there are still a little raw, once the big publishing houses like Blizzard get in the foray we can only expect nothing but more beautiful graphics, more addictive gameplay and intense online strategy gaming in the coming years.

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