By: Bruce Geryk
Trying to imagine a time without real-time strategy games is perhaps a bit like trying to imagine a time before the World Wide Web: We all know it existed, but as gamers, we can't quite understand how we got along back then. Today, real-time strategy is a staple of many people's gaming diets, and publishers regularly turn to real-time strategy as a primary vehicle for development ideas. Quite an achievement for a genre that didn't even exist for the first 15 or so years of computer gaming. 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. 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.
While it's generally understood what constitutes a certain type of real-time strategy game, it's worth defining the genre to avoid confusion. 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. For the purposes of this history, our focus will be on the games that are generally understood to be in the "harvest, build, destroy" mode that we've come to know and love. This excludes games like BattleZone, which fits more into the first-person genre.
Westwood's chief creative officer and cofounder, Brett Sperry, is one of the pioneers of the real-time strategy genre. He offers some insight into its christening: "A lesser-known fact was the official genre naming that was going to be used to explain the game to the press and players. It wasn't until some time after the game was in development that I decided to call it 'real-time strategy'--it seems obvious now, but there was a lot of back and forth between calling it a 'real-time war game,' 'real-time war,' 'wargame,' or 'strategy game.' I was deeply concerned that words like 'strategy' and 'wargame' would keep many players from even trying this completely new game dynamic. Before 1992, wargames and strategy games were very much niche markets--with the exception of Sid Meier's work--so my fears were justified. But in the end, it was best to call it an 'RTS' because that is exactly what it was."
What follows is the first part of a retrospective look at how this spectacularly popular genre got its start and developed into a major force in gaming today.