Before I get started on today's post, including a sort-of scientific experiment, a couple of anecdotes, plenty of exaggerations, and one far-flung prediction, I want to announce a contest of sorts. That's all I'm telling you now, though. The details will be provided in a post to be done immediately after this one, so don't leave after you finish reading. (It'll be done well before you are with this, trust me.)
In case you've been living under a rock this week, Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, came out. You may be asking me why anyone cares about a sequel to a game in a niche genre that came out 12 years ago, especially when it's being made by the same company that developed World of Warcraft, the world's premier MMO, and Diablo, the definitive dungeon crawler.
In which case I would respond: "Have you ever been to South Korea? Starcraft, all by itself, is just as big there as, say, pro Football here in the states." There is at least one TV channel devoted solely to Starcraft.
Of course, that's far from the only reason. It was a hit here too, and has been accorded classic status like nothing else in the genre. That last little point, "in the genre", and the phrase "niche genre" up above, demonstrate the basis of this article.
Starcraft is an RTS, which stands for Real-Time Strategy. Other notables include the Command & Conquer, Age of Empires, and the more recent Supreme Commander franchises. I would say that none of these, except for the original Starcraft, and maybe not it, have ever achieved the notoriety of something like Halo or God of War.
Consider the possible reasons for this. First, the RTS is an extremely cerebral sport. It's all about the strategy, the counters, and the build orders. Even the basic resource-collecting, base-building system is much, much more complicated than most genres. In a shooter like Halo, the basics are move, point, shoot, jump, and reload. In an RTS like Starcraft, the basics are hub builds workers, which harvest resources (usually of 2 or more kinds), to build training buildings, which build units, which take up supplies, which need more buildings. That's just the base-building aspect, and you are expected to learn all of this in the very first mission. I'm not kidding. "Build 10 marines" doesn't sound very hard, but if you've never played an RTS before, it could take some figuring out. You don't just jump into an RTS and excel, like you can with most other types of game. Luckily, the combat itself isn't nearly as complicated, and much closer to other types of games.
The second reason is that RTSes are generally PC games. This is because of the controls. RTSes have so many different commands and require such precise movements that it is very difficult to work well on a console. In a normal RTS, it's not unusual to use most or all of the number keys, ctrl, shift, alt, both mouse buttons, the mouse wheel, and half the letters on the keyboard regularly. This isn't an exaggeration, either. At least not much of one. RTSes thrive on hotkeys. (Hotkeys, for those of you who don't know, are keyboard shortcuts to accomplish actions. B to build, for example) Hotkeys are kind of impossible on a console controller, with the result that we have a greatly dumbed-down control scheme, which results in annoyed veterans and unsatisfied newcomers.
Therefore RTSes generally end up as PC-exclusives. Many console gamers consider PC gaming to be "dead", so they think that since RTSes (which most gamers at least recognize) are on the PC, it must be a dead genre, or at least not important or viable. This is based on a misconception. PC gaming is not dead. Steam, Valve's content delivery and update service, is thriving, and it's a relatively recent addition, becoming common with the release of Half-Life 2 in 2004. Just because you don't know any PC gamers does not mean they don't exist. (BTW, it's impossible for you not to know any PC gamers. I am a PC gamer!) Okay? Good. Let's continue.
Although these are possible reasons, are they enough for us to consider them "dead", or "niche"? First, let's give a statistical definition for these terms: No game in this genre is main-stream enough to acquire a end-of-year award nomination in any category without limitations. This means no system or genre awards. Now, let's check this. (If you want to know, I'm using Gamespot, and IGN. as they have the most comprehensive and easy-to-use awards. Citations at the end.)
***WARNING: Lots of statistics here, results of the Best of 2009 awards. If you don't care about the specifics, skip to the next group of asterisks and capital letters.
... Ok, one site down. Grand total of one nomination from Gamespot, and that one is in Strategy. RTS didn't even have its own category. The game was Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War II. (Made by Relic Entertainment, who also developed the spectacular Homeworld space RTS... in 1999.) To its credit, it's a fairly well known name and got an 8.5 at that particular publication. Interestingly enough, the franchise also has an MMO to its credit: Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. For the purposes of this experiment, however, this nomination is disqualified for being specifically for the "strategy" genre.
Next, G4. As far as I can tell, there isn't a single one anywhere on the list. Of course, there wasn't a strategy or even PC category in this one either, at least that I could find. (If anyone find the official list on the G4 site and it has a PC category, I apologize for my inability to find it.)
Last stop: IGN. The aforementioned Halo Wars won the strategy genre award for the Xbox 360. Of note is the fact that the PS3 section didn't even have a strategy category. Might as well skip the Wii, but I didn't, and nothing there. Obviously the PC genre has a strategy category, and Empire: Total War wins it. The Total War series is one of the biggest modern RTS franchises, but it doesn't have base-building, instead focusing on the tactics and strategy of the combat itself, while also focusing more on realism. Also in this category is a repeat of Dawn of War II.
Empire: Total War also got nominations in Visual Excellence and, surprisingly, GotY, but, this being the PC category, none of these count. Worth mentioning, though. I give the DS and PSP categories a once-over, but nothing there. The only portable game I know of that could possible be called a RTS is Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, and that's being charitable. (I like the game, it's just pushing to call it an RTS)
Finally to the overall awards. Skipping most of the genre awards, I do stop by the strategy category to see no less than three, including the winning Halo Wars. The other two were also mentioned earlier, of course, those two being Empire: Total War and Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War II. Nothing else in any of the other categories.
(Disclaimer: No, there's not more stuff about IGN's because I like them better. It's because there were more categories, and thus more nominations.)
So, in short, with the disqualifying of the console and genre awards, there are a grand total of zero nominations for an RTS game, so it qualifies for our definition of "dead". Note that if you took out either of these qualifications, it would have quite a few nominations. Only one victory in any category at all, though.
So, having covered the possible reasons the genre could be dead, and having come to the result that the genre is indeed dead, we bring ourselves to the obvious question: Will it stay that way? Or will Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty bring this tradition-heavy genre back to its glory days?
My first impulse is "Yes". Wings of Liberty will no doubt garner many nominations, if not awards. Personally, I think it's a shoe-in for best multiplayer and best PC game, and also for at least a nomination in sound and story. I also think it's in the running for overall GOTY--so far, anyway. (BTW, my top 5 so far: Mass Effect 2, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, Red Dead Redemption, and God of War III) We can also be reasonably sure that the Zerg and Protoss follow ups, Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void, respectively, will be similar in quality and critical acclaim.
We must ask ourselves, however, whether this will truly resurrect the genre as a whole, or just spawn bad copies that will fail to succeed and superficially impose the genre on the minds of gamers as a whole. At this point, there's no possible way to know. We can guess and predict, though, and that is the most important part of today's post.
Personally, I think it will. There are enough quality games of this genre lurking on the shelves and in the minds of today's gamers, and there is enough of a tradition and history to the genre that developers won't have to look far for inspiration. Many will try, but few will succeed. That's not rare, though. How often have you heard the term "clone" recently? (I'm looking at you, Darksiders, and you, Dante's Inferno. To be fair, though, the latter was actually a good game and brought a decent game of the style to the 360). I think in upcoming years, the term "Starcraft clone" may become nearly as prevalent as "Halo clone" or "Call of Duty clone". Enough of them will be original and polished enough to truly succeed, though, and someone will finally figure out how to do a truly amazing RTS on consoles. Though that last may be wishful thinking!
I may be wrong, though. I hope I'm not, but I may be. Perhaps one of you has the right idea. Think you do? Post it in the comments to preserve it, so you can point to it and say "Hey, I called it way back in 2010, and I can prove it! Look here!" Just keep in mind that I will do the same if I do turn out to be right, after all!
Sources: Gamespot.com, IGN.com