Strategy Gaming: Part II An exploration of the real-time gaming genre from Warcraft to Black and White.
By - Mark H. Walker
In a matter of speaking Warcraft and Dune II were little more than warm up acts, sent onto the real-time stage to pump gamers up and prepare them for the main act. That act strode on the stage in 1994.
Command and Conquer: Tiberian Dawn
Titled Command and Conquer: Tiberian Dawn, the game blew open the genre. From the game's cool install routine to the spellbinding full-motion video cutscenes, both developer (Westwood) and gamers (you and me) knew that they were playing something special. Pitting the good guys and gals of the Global Defense Initiative against a terro-communist-like organization called The Brotherhood of NOD, Tiberian Dawn threw more fun at gamers than anything on the market.
Tides of Darkness
Maybe it was the near future weaponry, maybe it was good game design, or maybe it was the commando... "Hey, I gotta present for ya." Whatever the case, Tiberium Dawn overcame balance problems and weak artificial intelligence to stake a place in every strategy gamer's heart. Selling over a million units during its shelf life, the game not only invaded hard drives the world over, but made publishers, marketers, and game designer's sit up and take notice. This was REAL money.
Of course Blizzard had already figured that out, and they were preparing to trot out their own money magnet. The magnet went by the name of Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness. Resplendent in 640 X 480 super-VGA graphics, Tides of Darkness was one of the prettier games of its time. Additionally, it offered both a strong multiplayer suite and something which today's gamers take for granted, a mission editor. Sales, like the game's dragons, soared and Blizzard became the preeminent game development studio in the word.
By now even the slowest publishers could see the writing in the real-time sky and the "Command and Clone" rush of 1996-97was on. Unfortunately, the years produced some forgettable titles such as Microprose's This Means War and Topware Interactive's Earth 2140. Gamers were proving to be quite the critics and wouldn't play trash just because it was real-time trash.
But although the years produced their share of dogs, they also birthed thoroughbreds. It was during this time that Bungie and Microsoft helped spawn the fixed-unit real-time sub-genre. Bullfrog's Myth: The Fallen Lords and Microsoft's Close Combat not only started their own franchises, but proved that real-time strategy could have more than strategy; it could have tactics too. Following the footsteps of Strategic Simulations Incorporated's (SSI) Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat (which released a year before Bungie's or Microsoft's games) Myth and Close Combat made gamers' cherish every soldier on the battlefield. Building units wasn't an option, you took the units given, employed them well -- using their strengths and weaknesses against the enemy -- and you won. It was much more involved than the Command & Conquer tank rush gamers had come to expect from the genre.
Age of Empires
Also more involved than the typical real-time strategy click-fest was another Microsoft release. A game that was to influence the making of our 2001 game of the year, this title combined a dose of historical realism with a heap of fun to sell a gazillion units. The game, of course, was Age of Empires, and it fired the imagination of strategy gamers and historians alike. On the other end of the spectrum, a group of developers famous for their Freddie Fish children's franchise would crank out the surprise hit of 1997. Titled Total Annihilation, the game looked great, utilized 3D terrain, and effortlessly depicted battles between hundreds of futuristic units. It became the multiplayer game du jour, propelled Cavedog Studios into their brief 15 minutes of fame, and launched Chris Taylor into a new studio and design project -- Dungeon Siege.
Command and Conquer
Command & Conquer, Warcraft II, and the games that quickly followed, paved the way for a flood of real time strategy games. Surprisingly, many were very good. Most either took what had come before and did it better, or infused the genre with influences from other gaming genres. Activision's Battlezone was a good example of the latter. Combining elements from strategy and action, Battlezone not only won critical acclaim, but managed to sell over 100,000 units -- a number which was rapidly becoming the industry's benchmark for minimal success.
Unfortunately, Westwood seemed unable to infuse the Command & Conquer franchise with any new blood. Yes the series continued to sell well, but Red Alert, Tiberium Sun, their sequels and dozens of add-on packs, all had a rehashed feel that was hard to shake.