Editorial: RTS Games through the Years

Trap the wind, and set yourself free.
Westwood Studios released RTS game Dune II in 1992.

RTS games are not only a very popular genre on the PC (and that is where these games are really at their best), but they are one of the most lucrative from a revenue standpoint as well. We are an RPG-focused website, to be sure, but many of us have logged countless hours into RTS games as well, with a couple of notable standouts developed by a certain, snowstorm-themed game studio which we will explore a little later on in this article. But we should begin with the game which arguably ushered in the modern era of real-time strategy (RTS) games, and that was Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty, a 1992 MS-DOS title developed by Westwood Studios (with ported versions subsequently released on the Commodore Amiga and Sega Genesis; both in 1993). Players of RTS games today will immediately recognize the fundamental aspects characterizing that style of play from Dune II, with the harvesting of resources (in this case it is ‘Spice’, of course, given the world of Frank Herbert’s Dune), the development of a base, unit production, and subsequent defense of the base and attacks on the enemy. Further into the game it becomes necessary to battle the opposition, rather than simply defend the base, with gameplay following the standard progression of most RTS games to follow. Dune II was re-imagined in 1998 by Westwood Studios as Dune 2000, and by that time the genre had excellent titles from other studios, with one developer in particular helping define RTS games into the next two decades.

It's raining death!
Blizzard’s Warcraft II is a classic in every sense of the word.

Blizzard might be is as much a household name on the PC side of gaming as Nintendo is for consoles (think of how many people of a certain generation referred to any video game console as “a Nintendo”), and of course the company has a strong presence on consoles as well with very successful ports of games such as Diablo III and the recent smash hit Overwatch. But Blizzard was an unknown developer when they released Warcraft: Orcs & Humans for MS-DOS in 1994, and this RTS game began what became the most successful franchise in the history of PC gaming. Its successor, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, released just one year later in December of 1995 for MS-DOS and Macintosh (and ported to Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation in 1997), might be the best entry in the series (or at least this author’s favorite), and remains a rewarding gameplay experience to this day. Sales of these first two entries were phenomenal for PC software, with two million units sold and nearly $100 million in sales for these first two entries in the series. But this was a drop in the bucket compared to what would come next.

And now it's free.
Blizzard’s Starcraft redefined RTS games.

Blizzard continued their incredible run in the Warcraft series with the RTS title Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, released in 2002 for PC and Macintosh computers. This game expanded on the previous titles while retaining the same core gameplay elements, though it did add a new ‘Hero’ dynamic which placed higher importance on a character class which leveled up and learned abilities like an RPG character. This marked a significant change from the standard RTS gameplay style of its predecessors, and was a sign of what would come next for the series. Essential RTS elements were unchanged from the prior Warcraft games, however, with the same reliance on resource management (gold, lumber, and food) base construction and defense, and unit production; with military strategy using various classes depending on which of the races one chose to play in the game. Warcraft III and its expansion The Frozen Throne went on to sell some eight million copies, with a staggering $270 million in sales for Blizzard. But this was not even the biggest title in the Warcraft series, as World of Warcraft would go on to redefine the MMORPG genre and set records that seem unlikely to be broken for PC software as we currently know it, generating nearly $4 billion (and growing) for the company between software sales and subscription revenue.

So epic.
An epic battle in progress in Blizzard’s Starcraft II.

Though Blizzard’s Warcraft franchise was incredibly successful, there was another series from this giant that remains a fixture in the RTS space. Without a doubt, StarCraft took RTS games to hitherto unseen heights, and this is especially apparent in South Korea, where nearly half of the game’s 9.5 million sales were made. StarCraft is a quintessential RTS game, with resource management and unit production characteristic of the genre, and it has been praised for (among other things) balanced play, integration of story elements, and, of course, multiplayer gameplay. One might find many references to StarCraft as the ‘greatest’ and ‘genre-defining’ RTS game, and it would be difficult to argue those points. While Warcraft transformed into the biggest MMORPG of all time, Blizzard’s StarCraft (1998) remains an RTS juggernaut, with a 2010 sequel StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty performing very well and taking sales of the franchise to over 18 million copies sold (for nearly $1 billion in revenue). And speaking of money, the ‘E-Sports’ world would undoubtedly be quite different without StarCraft, which is seemingly far more than a mere ‘game’ to the most fanatical – and certainly no joke in the world of professional gaming.

Wage war on THE SUN ITSELF.
Westwood’s Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun in action.

While Blizzard dominates PC gaming in general thanks to a little game called World of Warcraft, and RTS gaming in particular thanks to StarCraft, the originator of the modern RTS game produced a very successful franchise in the years following Dune II, with the Command & Conquer series, which began in 1995. Westwood Studios was eventually swallowed up by Electronic Arts, under which it released Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun (this author’s first RTS experience) in 1999, and Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 in 2000 (a sequel to the 1996 Westwood original). The Command & Conquer games offer the same brand of RTS gameplay that fans of the genre enjoy, and have been critical and commercially successful. However, even though Westwood Studios helped define what an RTS game on the PC would become, Blizzard took the reigns and re-defined not only the format, but the entire PC gaming industry with their unprecedented successes – with WoW in another universe entirely. But that is a story for another day. So, dear reader, do you have a favorite RTS game not mentioned here? Do you love the genre as much as South Korea does? Are you currently reading this from an internet cafe in South Korea? Let us know in the comments below!


  1. No mention of Total Annihilation? When it came out, the general feeling was that it was going to be the RTS to end all RTS games, but the gameplay was pretty two-dimensional and then, a few months later, Starcraft came out. When Total Annihlation 2 came out a few years later, no one even noticed.

    TA was an all right game (I had one friend who absolutely loved it, but I never really thought much of it and in general I preferred Warcraft II), but Starcraft was so vastly superior that it at once ensured no one even suggested playing TA ever again.

  2. StarCraft was the RTS to end all RTS’s. I know I haven’t played one since then!

  3. It’s a shame Blizzard won’t re-release Warcraft II. They’ve done so for many other games in their catalog, there is no reason why they can’t do the same for Warcraft II.

  4. @ST They considered re-releasing the original Warcraft a while back, but determined that it ‘just wasn’t fun’. And that, I can understand. Warcraft was very primitive. However, Warcraft II would still be fine (I occasionally still play the PS1 version for fun), and with a few interface updates would even be perfectly acceptable. Their attentions seem to be elsewhere, however.

  5. They would have to completely redo Warcraft 1 in the Warcraft 3 Engine with new mechanics and people will either love it or hate it.

  6. It’s a bit of a sad state of affairs, considering even from the business perspective, they literally could just put Warcraft II in a DOSbox-like emulator, put on Steam, and watch the dollars roll in. Shame, myself and others would immediately buy. I still have the Saturn version, and there’s an unofficial Windows version available thru “other” means.

  7. @S.T. that is essentially the business model adopted by GOG; however, Blizzard controls the experience differently, and I can not see them putting out a DOS port like that (and certainly not on Steam as they would have to share profits). I really think there should be a “classic” Warcraft experience that can easily be purchased and run on modern hardware, but they seem to have other ideas about the IP. For now, if I want to play my original CD-ROM copies when the urge strikes, I can legitimately do so on a current PC – but only after going to the trouble of installing an old version of Windows in a virtual machine. I could also dust off one of my old PCs, but that is so far from ideal that it just won’t happen.

    The harder companies make it to purchase and run their software, the more the community will be motivated to take matters into their own hands.

  8. A new “classic” Warcraft experience would be fantastic, but unfortunately if they’ve already deemed the original game not worth porting over, I don’t think they would put together the team necessary to make a completely new game with that “classic” design philosophy. Oh well, I guess at this point it’s a doomed prospect anyway. On another note, the “unofficial” Windows version also has a thriving online multiplayer community as well as the classic story modes and custom scenarios with map editor. Not a bad port and it works on Windows 8.1/10 as well as OS X Sierra.

Comments are closed.