The rise and fall of real-time strategy games is a strange one. They emerged gradually out of experiments to combine the excitement and speed of action games with the deliberateness and depth of strategy. Then, suddenly, the genre exploded in popularity in the latter half of the 1990s—only to fall from favor (StarCraft aside) just as quickly during the 2000s amid cries of stagnation and a changing games market. And yet, one of the most popular competitive games in the world today is an RTS, and three or four others are in a genre that branched off from real-time strategy.
At 25 years old, the real-time strategy genre remains relevant for its ideas and legacies. And with it deep in a lull, now is the perfect time to give it the same in-depth historical treatment that we’ve already given to graphic adventures, sims, first-person shooters, kart racers, open-world games, and city builders.
Before I start recounting the history of the genre, some quick ground rules: as in all of these genre histories, I’m looking to emphasize innovation and new ideas, which means that some popular games may be glossed over and [insert-your-favorite-game] might not be mentioned at all. For the purposes of this article, a real-time strategy game is one that involves base building and/or management, resource gathering, unit production, and semi-autonomous combat, all conducted in real time (rather than being turn-based), for the purpose of gaining/maintaining control over strategic points on a map (such as the resources and command centers).