'Age of Empires IV' and Real-Time Strategy Games' Rocky History

By Matthew Smith

Real-time strategy is having a moment.

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition regularly cracks 20,000 simultaneous players on Steam, putting it in league with legendary RPGs like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. 2020’s unexpected remaster of the original Command & Conquer saw more than 42,000 concurrent players on Steam at launch. And gaming’s largest companies, including Microsoft and Tencent, are bankrolling studios behind new RTS entries like Age of Empires IV, which is set for release on October 28.

This resurgence is good news for fans of real-time strategy games, but the genre must adapt to tastes of modern gamers. Fortunately, the developers behind tomorrow’s blockbuster real-time strategy games are mindful of the genre’s past mistakes.

The Golden Era

The seed of the real-time strategy genre was planted when Chris Crawford published a treatise on the future of real-time gaming, titled “The Future of Computer Wargaming,” in the debut winter 1981 issue of Computer Gaming World. He argued that “real-time play is both more realistic and more challenging than turn sequence play. This may sound obvious today, but in the early 1980s, it was a direct challenge to a status quo that saw computer strategy games as replicas of physical, turn-based miniature wargaming.

Crawford put his ideas into action with 1982’s Legionnaire, an early real-time strategy game that pit squads of Roman troops against AI-controlled barbarians. Legionnaire was innovative, but also a bit ahead of its time. The game proved real-time play was technically possible, but it was a challenge, as contemporary computers could only handle small, static maps, with a couple dozen visible units at most.

Still, the concept began to catch on. Games like The Ancient Art of War, released by Brøderbund Software for MS-DOS and Apple II in 1984, and Herzog Zwei, released for the Sega Genesis in 1989, pushed the boundaries of real-time play. These ideas cumulated in 1989’s Populus, a “god game” from Peter Molyneux’s Bullfrog Productions. Populus wasn’t a real-time strategy game, but it did have an attractive, intuitive interface that will be recognizable to fans of the genre.

If these games provided a blueprint, it was Dune II that laid the foundation. Released by Westwood Studios in 1992, it was the first game to mix base building, unit command, and resource gathering with real-time gameplay and a mouse-driven graphical user interface. It meshed the adrenaline rush of an arcade game with the complex strategic decisions of a turn-based empire builder. The game was only a modest hit, selling about 250,000 copies in its first few years, but it convinced the game’s producer, Westwood Studios cofounder Brett Sperry, that a follow-up was necessary.

Yet Dune II didn’t receive a direct sequel. Sperry, frustrated with the restrictions and costs of licensing an established franchise like Dune, pushed Westwood to gamble on a new, original IP that riffed on modern warfare and the technology that drove it. Louis Castle, speaking to Computer & Video Games magazine in a 2008 interview, said Westwood “wanted players to imagine that their computer at home was a terminal to a real battlefield that communicated directly with your units in the field.” The team at Westwood took inspiration from media coverage of the Gulf War but added its own sci-fi spin.

The gamble paid off. Command & Conquer hit stores in 1995 and sold more than a million copies in its first year, establishing Westwood as a leader in a new, breakout genre. The studio doubled down on its success with the release of Red Alert in 1996, which sold even more quickly than its predecessor and included an online chat program, Westwood Chat, that players could use to organize online games. Westwood’s rapid release of two blockbuster titles put real-time strategy on the cover of PC gaming magazines, not only in the United States but across the globe.

The market, hungry for RTS games, used to be able to support roundups like this one in Computer Gaming World, with more launching each year.

Photograph: CGW Museum

David Kim, lead game designer at the newly formed Uncapped Games and former designer on Starcraft II, was introduced to Red Alert while growing up in South Korea. “Red Alert was the main game everyone played multiplayer,” Kim says. “I really got into it, and we would play after school.” Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and Australia were also prime markets for real-time strategy games, with new RTS games frequently topping the charts in these countries.

But the success of Red Alert was the tip of the iceberg. Blizzard Entertainment, which had earned a reputation for quality with its own hit real-time strategy franchise, Warcraft, stormed onto the scene with 1998’s Starcraft. Kim and his friends, like many PC gamers, jumped on board the new game and never looked back. Blizzard’s sci-fi RTS rocketed up the charts, selling 1.5 million copies by the end of the year to become the best-selling PC game of 1998. It would go on to sell at least 11 million copies, a figure that predates the 2017 release of Starcraft: Remastered. Activision-Blizzard has not released sales figures for the remaster.