What makes a good RTS game?

For beginners, a good RTS game should have great tutorials, an engaging single-player campaign, a gradual learning curve, and lots of community content. Experienced players want well-balanced games with intuitive and customizable UIs, busy matchmaking servers, and ideally a strong esports scene.

Read on below to find out more about why I think these factors are important for beginner and experienced RTS players.

Beginner RTS player


A well-designed set of tutorials can be the difference between a new player giving up after 20 minutes and racking up hundreds of hours of playtime. 

It’s frustrating when tutorials are difficult to follow, don’t clearly explain fundamental mechanics, or don’t exist at all. 

Screenshot from the first tutorial mission in RTS game Starcraft 2 showing marines moving toward a location with on screen instructions assisting the player
Starcraft 2 has a great set of tutorial missions (Image credit: YouTube/davidangel64)

I think one of the reasons Starcraft 2 became so popular is because it does a great job of encouraging players who are new to the RTS genre with an excellent tutorial experience. A good RTS game quickly gets addictive once you have the basics down.

Good single-player campaign

Imagine if the only option for new players was to head straight into online matchmaking to inevitably get smacked by someone who’s been playing 10 hours per day since release.

Imagine also if the single-player campaign was clunky, boring, confusing, impossibly hard, or all of these. 

Neither of those situations is fun at all.

What is fun for new players is an engaging single-player experience, ideally with an engaging narrative but, most importantly, with strong gameplay and neat introductions to more advanced strategies. 

Plus, not everyone wants to play online, especially those looking for a more casual RTS gaming experience.

Gradual learning curve

A gradual learning curve is created in part by the two points highlighted above (good tutorials and single-player campaigns), but it’s important enough to get a few sentences of its own. 

That’s because a good tutorial and single-player campaign only do half the work of hooking a new player into the game.

The real litmus test for a new player is whether the effort-reward balance is favorable once these first steps have been completed.

A soft landing with plenty of opportunities to try out new strategies with different races or factions is ideal. 

Screenshot of 1v1 skirmish between vikings and franks on age of empires 2 showing light cavalry and galleon units either side of a palisade wall
Age of Empires 2 is an elite RTS game and its numerous difficulty levels are great for beginners looking to gradually improve.

Back in the day as a new Age of Empires 2 player, for example, I appreciated the opportunity to select between no fewer than five different difficulty levels for PvE skirmishes. The easier modes are perfect if you find slow-paced RTS games more enjoyable.

Varied maps

One of the best ways to get better at RTS games is to test your skills in different situations. 

That’s why I think a wide selection of maps is really important for beginners. 

Some maps will suit certain strategies and factions more than others. For example, a map lacking a certain type of resource requires players to adapt their game. 

Lots of community content

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I spend more time watching RTS content on YouTube gaming channels, Twitch, and wherever else than I spend actually playing the games. 

It’s fascinating to see the creativity with which different players approach the games, whether that be with unusual strategies or impressive feats. 

If I’m a beginner looking to get into a new RTS game, one of the things I most like to see is an active community that is constantly pushing out interesting content to support the game.

That can also mean community-created in-game content like custom maps and other mods. 

You never know, you may even be part of the creation of an entirely new video game genre!


As a beginner RTS player, the availability of DLC for a game tells me two things: 

First, the core game is popular enough for DLC to be worth creating; second, I might be able to pick up a bundle including all DLC for a great value price. 

Experienced RTS player


I think the single most important thing for an RTS to get right in order to keep experienced players interested is balance. 

If one faction, unit, tactic, or strategy is overpowered, it pretty much kills the game at advanced levels as all players either use this OP tactic or have to find a way to limit it. 

OP Dwarven defense taken to the extreme in Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth 2

In Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth 2, for example, the dwarves’ defense was ridiculous and any game lasting longer than ten minutes just turned into a stupid, boring turtling stalemate.


Fully utilizing an RTS game’s user interface can be overwhelming for beginners. For experienced players, it’s crucial.

The most important aspect of an RTS game’s UI is hotkey layout and customization. 

When playing at an advanced level, actions per minute matter, and a good hotkey layout is therefore a fundamental requirement. 

Take Company of Heroes 2, for example, with its minimap hotkey bound to 0 on the Numpad with no possibility to rebind. What a disaster. How are you supposed to use that?

In addition to good hotkey accessibility, a clean GUI can also make a good game a great game

Responsive dev team

Even the best RTS games require constant maintenance and updates to ensure they remain fun (and balanced) at advanced skill levels. 

Perhaps a certain unit could do with being nerfed, or there are some bugs that need ironing out on a particular map. 

Whatever they are, problems like these can make a game unplayable for experienced players so if they are not addressed and patched the game will quickly leak active users. 

Busy servers

Most, if not all, experienced RTS players spend most of their time in online matchmaking game types. 

Empty servers with only a small pool of players at a high enough skill level to be challenging quickly become tedious. 

Fewer players in online matchmaking servers also makes it more difficult to match up against opponents with good quality connections. 

It’s hard for RTS games and other similar formats (like RTS/FPS hybrids) to recover once the online community dries up.

Esports scene

RTS games may not be the most-watched esports games and even the top tournaments in this genre feature prize pools that pale in comparison to events like The International. 

However, players at the top of competitive ladders in RTS games still have the chance to make some serious money from their skills if those games have strong esports scenes.

There’s still plenty of money to be made in RTS esports tournaments (source: esportsearnings.com).

Six-figure prize pools in RTS esports events are not unheard of.

Another advantage of an active esports calendar is that it gives experienced players ample opportunities to watch the best of the best go up against each other in a competitive environment. That’s a prime learning opportunity! 

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