Age of Empires II topped video game sales charts across the world shortly after its release in late 1999. It’s unlikely that an RTS could come close to that achievement today. Why is that?
What happened to RTS games?
RTS games are less popular now because they are not big revenue drivers, PC gaming is less popular relative to console and mobile, MOBA games have grabbed strategy market share, and many RTS games are just straight up hard and take a long time to resolve.
However, the RTS genre isn’t necessarily dead and there are plenty of underrated RTS games with passionate player bases in 2023.
First, let’s dive deeper into the reasons for the relative decline in the popularity of RTS games:
The best RTS games have great longevity
Now hold on a second. Isn’t it a good thing that a game has fantastic replayability and ages well? Well, yes – for the players.
For the developers and publishers, not so much.
If players are happy to replay the same content over and over (RTS games are known to be addictive), they’re going to be less interested in spending money on new titles.
If the end goal is maximizing return on investment, which it very often is, there are plenty of better options than RTS games.
Other genres (like FPS and MMORPG, for example) are also easier to monetize via microtransactions.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that traditional resource collection and base-building RTS games are absent from recent lists of highest-grossing games and best-selling games by units sold.
There is a self-fulfilling cycle at work here: RTS games won’t ever feature on those lists if developers and publishers don’t make them because they’re less profitable.
This is also the reason why we now rarely see innovative new releases like the genre-bending RTS/FPS hybrid games that were more common in the early 2000s.
RTS PC games were always the best
RTS games have always been best experienced using a mouse and keyboard: Even the most casual RTS games are far less playable with a pad or on a phone.
Gaming has become more accessible over the past decade or two. The barrier to entry for anyone with a relatively modern smartphone is low, and the up-front cost for a console is much more budget-friendly than for a gaming PC with decent specs.
With console and mobile gaming now so popular, PC games face much more competition for our time.
Console is King
Consoles are a more affordable option (yes, I know they are still out of many gamers’ budgets – I simply mean relative to gaming PCs) and most AAA studios focus their attention on console-optimized titles.
So why can’t we have loads of great RTS games on console? Well, there are some but the truth is, the genre has never felt right when played with a pad.
Big-budget console games are also often graphics showcases. Traditional top-down RTS games look far less impressive in comparison.
Mobile is… also King
RTS games do feature on mobile devices. Tower Defense games, for example, are wildly popular.
Part of the reason they are popular on mobile is that each round resolves relatively quickly. Being able to pick up and play quickly is exactly what mobile gamers are looking for.
Compare that to classic RTS games and it’s easy to see why they don’t work on mobile.
The free-to-play model and, by extension, pay-to-win mechanics that dominate mobile gaming would also destroy any chance of an enjoyable PvP experience in a fully-fledged mobile RTS.
To add, plenty of genres work well as mobile ports from console or PC, but that list doesn’t RTS games. Fewer potential platforms mean less potential profit for developers and publishers.
MOBA vs RTS
DotA may have popularised multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games but Aeon of Strife is generally accepted to be the first game in this genre.
Aeon of Strife dropped during the late 1990s heyday of real-time strategy PC gaming and was, in fact, a custom map made for RTS classic Starcraft.
Few could have predicted that a modded starcraft map would birth a genre that brought in $300 million in global revenue per month in 2021. More importantly for RTS games, MOBA has become the dominant strategy variant among casual players as well as on the esports circuit.
What is the difference between an RTS and a MOBA?
In MOBA games, players control a single unit as part of a small team that must utilize its units’ complementary abilities to defeat an opposing team.
In RTS games, a single player controls all macro aspects of a team, army, or faction – from resources and economy to unit production and battle tactics. Gameplay speed can vary in RTS games from slower, more economy-focused games like The Settlers III up to hectic APM-fests like Starcraft 2.
Actions take place in real-time in both genres. MOBA can be considered a subgenre of real-time strategy.
RTS games are hard
Another thing that holds RTS games back from more mainstream success is the fact that many of them are so damn hard.
Players using strategies based on maths and winning by APM (actions per minute) rather than creativity can make higher-level RTS multiplayer gameplay unenjoyable (at least it does for me).
It takes a relatively long time to learn how to play RTS games, with their numerous different mechanics, hotkeys, and strategies (which is one reason why strategy games are great tools for learning more generally). This knowledge is also not always transferable to other RTS titles.
Compare this to genres like FPS, battle royales, or platformers in which learning curves are typically much faster and much more forgiving and skills are much more transferable (once you’ve played one shooter, you’ll have a pretty solid idea of how to play the next one). Even turn-based strategy games are often much easier to pick up for casual players.
So… is RTS dead?
RTS may have taken a back seat as other more accessible genres have come to the fore on console and mobile, but it certainly isn’t dead.
Age of Empires 2, Age of Empires 4, and Starcraft 2 all have strong esports communities with the best players competing regularly in big-money tournaments.
Numerous Starcraft II prize pools have topped half a million dollars and six-figure prize pools are also not unheard of for Age of Empires tournaments.
Many other games besides the above have active online multiplayer ranked ladders.
At the time of writing this article (on a regular weekday evening), no fewer than 11 new and classic games tagged RTS were pulling in over one thousand viewers each on Twitch.
I imagine streamers playing RTS games are prime targets for backseating on Twitch – but arguably any engagement is good engagement for getting RTS more exposure.
Admittedly, that audience is a tiny fraction of the viewers gorging on FPS and MOBA titles, but it’s nevertheless proof of strong continued interest in RTS games.
Will RTS games make a comeback?
I think it’s unlikely that RTS games will make a comeback to the top of the sales/revenue charts. RTS is simply too inaccessible to be suitable for mass audiences.
However, exciting new RTS titles are announced and released all the time and there will always be a solid demographic to whom these games will appeal.