Real-Time Strategy Games: History and Evolution – The Narrative Design Exploratorium™

Real-Time Strategy Games: History and Evolution

Avalon Hill's

    In 1992 a game was released by a developer started by Louis Castle and Brett Sperry, then called “Westwood Studios” their game was titled “Dune II: the Battle for Arrakis.”  (see North American box art and gameplay video clip below) Taken from the epic styles of traditional war-games past like those of publisher Avalon Hill, specifically their game Dune. The game has up to six players, select a race, build a stronghold and attack your opponents for resources and power. The object of the game is to seize opponents strongholds. This is done with a player driven strategy of economics, military, religion, and treacherous diplomacy. The Dune video game had one primary difference. Rather than turn-based systems of the Avalon Hill games, the video game is meant to be occurring in “real-time”, that is, without turns. The core gameplay of Westwood’s Dune II involved picking a race, building a stronghold, and taking over opponents strongholds. The real-time elements centered around three major activities, building and upgrading units and strongholds, managing and gathering resources for military and industrial needs, and finally, combat with opponents and sand-worms.

Dune II the Battle for Arraksi US Box Art
    In a war-game the player is given vast agency, in the direction of armies on battle maps. In Dune II it was if H.G. Welles “Little Wars” had come to life for us not in the parlor but on the screen. This perspective is neither 3rd person, nor omnipotent, it is a multitude of perspectives, a strange space above men, but below gods. Without attachment to a central perspective the player is free to manage and direct a seemingly living war-game strategy system. Now called Real-Time Strategy Games (RTS) the video game type has been in constant evolution for the almost 20 years since it’s inception. Like the entire game industry itself, RTS has evolved from a graphics and cinematics standpoint, but RTS has seen a slow evolution in storytelling.

Litte Soldiers for Little Wars

    Let that not diminish the sheer genius of the collective iterative innovation of the RTS game type itself. Unlike other styles of videogames RTS puts the player in charge of an army of his/her own creation and sets them free in a virtual sandbox to play. Though “Dune II” did have one predecessor, a little known title called “Herzog Zwei” in which the player commanded individual units in an effort to destroy their opponent’s base. What is most interesting from a storytelling standpoint was the perspective, or seeming lack there of, the games seemed to have little to do with the stories of individual characters, they exist somewhere between 2nd person omnipotent and 3rd person and allowed the player to ‘command vast armies’. From it’s inception the stories for RTS where all seemingly war-based, even 1st generation RTS titles like Blizzard entetertainment’s groundbreaking 1994 fantasy game “Warcraft: Orcs and Humans” was nevertheless about war.

    The natural competitive ludic nature of RTS is
somehow rooted deeper than the game type itself. Even stories from
mankind’s earliest days are seemingly always about war and power

creation myths, most stories created by contact between civilizations
seem to be centered around ‘struggle’, a competitive play in time about
who defined history. Even the primary players in a story are called
“protagonists”, from the Greek root proto “first”, and agoniste
“competitor”.  Developers of RTS themselves seemed to be caught in competitive game to define the future of RTS.


In the years that followed the battle to one-up the RTS game type. Resource types, unit types, new races, better AI, it was a bit of a mechanics shop. 1997 saw the release of a game called “Total Annihilation” arguably the birth of 2nd generation RTS, from a mechanics standpoint. It wasn’t until the next year that storytelling would see 2nd generation RTS content with the release of a well known science fiction title, “Starcraft“, a Blizzard
product. The storyline was epic in nature, covering 3 eons, or
episodes, which dealt with the rise and fall of three races. Though
seemingly not more than an evolved “Dune II”, what was most interesting
was the fact that playing through the entire game required the player
to assume three very different sides. Each portion reinforcing the
abilities of the race to which it is ascribed. The next year 1999, a
little known Vancouver developer, Relic Entertainment, released its
launch title “Homeworld”. Though in play-mechanics the game built on
the foundation, it created a new expectation for an engrossing
storyline. Since then RTS evolution has centered again on technology, Blizzard Entertianment’s 2002 release the ever popular “Warcraft III“, and Ensemble Studio’sAge of Mythology“, being works that crossed us culturally into 3rd generation RTS. Stories and battlefield realism where becoming key to the RTS experience and fans wanted more. In 2006, Relic Entertainment became one of the top RTS developers, with the release of “Company of Heroes” and “Company of Heroes Opposing Fronts” (COH), games akin to Avalon Hill’s “Advanced Squad Leader”, the RTS game type was brought a new level of realism, tactical gameplay and dramatic story previously unseen in the RTS genre.
With top-notch multiplayer and singleplayer design, riveting
storyline,  rich characters and the beauty of the game engine
“Essence”, COH created a new standard by which to measure the RTS game type.

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This page contains a single article by Stephen E. Dinehart published on July 7, 2008 4:47 PM.

Life and Narrative Structure was the previous entry in this blog.

Writing for “Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts” is the next entry in this blog.

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Author Stephen E. Dinehart is a producer, designer, writer, and artist. You can find out more about him on his self-titled website.

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