Codex Gamicus

Real-time strategy video games
Basic Information

Real-time strategy video games (often abbreviated as RTS) are strategy video games which do not have "turns" like conventional turn-based strategy video games or board games. Rather, game time progresses in "real time"; that is, it is continuous rather than turn-by-turn. Even so, many such games still require players to follow a progression of events, especially relating to the order in which structures and/or units may be constructed.

Though some game genres share conceptual and gameplay similarities with the RTS template, recognized genres are generally not subsumed as RTS games.[1] For instance, city-building games, construction and management simulations, and games of the real-time tactics variety, are generally not considered to be "real-time strategy".[2]


The genre that is recognized today as "real-time strategy" emerged as a result of an extended period of evolution and refinement. Games that are today sometimes perceived as ancestors of the real-time strategy genre were never marketed or designed as such at the original date of publication. As a result, designating "early real-time strategy" titles is problematic because such games are being held up to modern standards. The genre initially evolved separately in Japan, the United Kingdom, and North America, afterwards gradually merging into a unified worldwide tradition.

In Japan, the genre's beginning can be traced to Taito's Western Gun (1975), SEGA's Space Tactics (1980),[3] and Nihon Falcom's Galactic Wars (1982),[4] a space-themed strategy game where the player was given limited time to make decisions, making it the first real-time strategy game.[5] Another early real-time strategy game was Bokosuka Wars (1983), an early tactical/strategy RPG (or "simulation RPG");[6] the game revolves around the player leading an army across a battlefield against enemy forces in real-time while recruiting/spawning soldiers along the way, for which it is considered by Ray Barnholt of to be an early real-time strategy game.[7] This led to several other games that combine role-playing and real-time strategy elements, such as the 1988 Kure Software Koubou computer strategy RPGs, First Queen[8] and Silver Ghost, which featured an early example of a point-and-click interface, to control characters using a cursor.[9] Another early title with real-time strategy elements was SEGA's Gain Ground (1988), a strategy-action game that involved directing a set of troops across various enemy-filled levels.[10][11] Technosoft's Herzog (1988) is regarded as a precursor to the real-time strategy genre, being the predecessor to Herzog Zwei and somewhat similar in nature, though primitive in comparison.[12] Other early examples from Japan include Galactic Wars (1982) and Lord Monarch (1991).

At least one source considers the Intellivision's Utopia (1982) by Don Daglow to be a precursor to real-time strategy.[13] In Utopia, two players build resources and carry out combat by proxy. It contains the direct-manipulation tactical combat now common in that the players can assume direct control over a PT boat and sink the opponent's fishing boats. However, the game used a turn-based strategy interface, though one where the turns are timed.[14] In North America, the oldest game retrospectively classified as a precursor of real-time strategy by several sources is The Ancient Art of War (1984)[1][15] from Evryware (distributed by Brøderbund). In the United Kingdom, the oldest precursor was Nether Earth, published on the ZX Spectrum in 1987.

1UP considers real-time examples prior to Herzog Zwei to be tactical rather than strategic, due to most lacking the ability to construct units or manage resources.[16] Herzog Zwei, released for the Mega Drive/Genesis in 1989, is the earliest example of a game with a feature set that falls under the contemporary definition of modern real-time strategy.[17][18] In Herzog Zwei, though the player only controls one unit, the manner of control foreshadowed the point-and-click mechanic of later games. It introduced much of the genre conventions, including unit construction and resource management, with the control and destruction of bases being an important aspect of the game, as were the economic/production aspects of those bases.[16]

Westwood's Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (1992) featured all the core concepts and mechanics of modern real-time strategy games that are still used today,[19][20] such as using the mouse to move units, and gathering resources,[1] and as such served as the prototype for later real-time strategy games. According to its co-designer and lead programmer, Joe Bostic, a "benefit over Herzog Zwei is that we had the advantage of a mouse and keyboard. This greatly facilitated precise player control, which enabled the player to give orders to individual units. The mouse, and the direct control it allowed, was critical in making the RTS genre possible.”[21] It featured the core concepts of RTS games: resource-building, base development and direct unit control.

The success of Dune II encouraged the development of such games as Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (1994), Command & Conquer (1995), Total Annihilation (1997), Age of Empires (1997), StarCraft (1998), Warzone 2100 (1998), Empire Earth (2001), and Empires: Dawn of the Modern World (2003). In fact, the designers of Dune 2 traced its spiritual lineage back to the real-time simulation SimCity (1989) and their previous game Battletech: The Crescent Hawk's Revenge (1988), 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 video 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.

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 way points allows the player to give multiple movement commands to a unit at once. Most games also give each unit strengths and weaknesses, discouraging players from simply (and unskilfully) 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.

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. It has become something like to a tradition for single-player campaigns to include at least one mission with no base construction or resource-gathering; typically at the start of these missions the player is given a number of combat units, occasionally with a "hero" unit. These units must be used to complete the mission in a level which is usually mazelike; often additional units can be gained as reinforcements or rescued as the mission progresses. These missions eliminate the resource-gathering, or "macromanagement", as it's called, and focus solely on micromanagement.

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: Reign of Chaos, 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.

Macro-management games[]

On the other end are the macro-management games. These games have more of a focus on economic production and large-scale strategic maneuvering, and include games such as Total Annihilation.


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 cut-scenes.

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

RTS adaptation to consoles[]

Real-time strategy games, have had an immense production increase on next generation consoles. Due to more demand, and widening space of RTS games, more and more developers are attempting to produce a strategy game.

However, many strategy games have a reputation of needing a massive quantity of buttons to properly function, and still be unconfusing (Which explains why the PC was perfect). One of the main problems, viewed by critics, is RTSes on the console either have too much difficulty controlling all the units on screen ultimately destroying the players' experience, or are simplified to the point of being too easy. Here are a few of the methods that have been adapted to attempt to solve the problem:

  • Voice control (Tom Clancy's EndWar)
  • Command wheel (Halo Wars)
  • Point and click system (Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth 2)


Graphically RTS games have evolved from 2D board-like view of Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty and Warcraft: Orcs and Humans to visually-richer 3D with more detailed environments, such as in the first, Warzone 2100, and later games, such as Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, Empire Earth, and Command & Conquer: Generals.

As companies are striving to come close to a 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 Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth from Electronic Arts.

Two notable games were also released in 2005: Act of War: Direct Action and Age of Empires III. Both games featured realistic physics (Age of Empires III used the Havok physics engine), realistically destructible buildings and ever more stunning graphics. In addition Act of War boasted a well developed technothriller story by Dale Brown told via machinima and live action cinematics. Games like Company of Heroes also made a name for themselves thanks to their cinematics, graphics and realistic physics, in addition to the story, which was based on the real life World War II, the level of strategy implemented and the high level of the AI.

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.

List of early RTS games[]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Adams, Dan (7 April 2006). The State of the RTS. IGN. Retrieved on 2007-05-31
  2. Bruce Geryk. A History of Real-Time Strategy Games. GameSpot. Retrieved on 2008-03-31 “Although games such as Populous and SimCity are certainly played in real time, these give rise to the "god game" genre, which includes such titles as the city-builder series from Impressions, Will Wright's innovative designs, and much of Peter Molyneux's work, including the upcoming Black & White. Games in this genre tend to appeal to their own fans, and while there definitely is an overlap between these two genres, gamers generally see them as distinct from one another.”
  3. 3.0 3.1 Space Tactics, SEGA Retro
  4. 4.0 4.1 Galactic Wars, Giant Bomb
  5. Galactic Wars, MobyGames
  6. Bokosuka Wars (translation), Nintendo
  7. Dru Hill: The Chronicle of Druaga, 1UP
  8. Official Site. Kure Software Koubou. Retrieved on 2011-05-19 (Translation)
  9. Kurt Kalata (February 4, 2010). So What the Heck is Silver Ghost. Hardcore Gaming 101. Retrieved on 2011-04-02
  10. Sega Ages: Gain Ground, IGN, July 20, 2004
  11. Top 10 Renovation Games, IGN, June 17, 2008
  12. Herzog Zwei, GameSpy
  13. Total Annihilation Redux. Retrieved on 17 December 2006
  14. Utopia, GameSpy
  15. RTSC Historical RTS List. Retrieved on 5 August 2006
  16. 16.0 16.1 Scott Sharkey. Hail to the Duke. Retrieved on 2011-03-01
  17. Zzap! Issue 68, December 1990, p.45 - Amiga Reviews: Battlemaster. Retrieved on 17 December 2006
  18. Are Real Time Strategy Games At Their Peak?. Retrieved on 2 September 2006
  19. The Essential 50 Part 31: Herzog Zwei. Retrieved on 17 December 2006
  20. Walker, Mark. Strategy Gaming: Part I -- A Primer. GameSpy. Retrieved on October 28, 2007
  21. The History of Command & Conquer. NowGamer. Archived from the original on 26 June 2011 Retrieved on 5 September 2011