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.
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.
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.
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.
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!