A friend of mine on the GameDevelopers IRC channel (#gamedevelopers on irc.starchat.net) watched my video blog about Powermonger and pointed out that Powermonger, like Populous before it, was a real-time strategy game, and wondered why it wasn’t recognized as such in articles about the history of RTS games.

Well, because if you presented these games to modern gamers as RTS games they wouldn’t recognize them as such. Because of amber.

In the early days of game design, practically every game was an experiment. Designers would stalk off into radically new directions using newly developed technologies in an attempt to make something truly unique and thus successful.

The problem is that when a developer really hits on a good permutation of a play style it tends to fix that play style in amber, like the mosquitos in Jurassic Park. It “defines the genre”, and thus games that don’t follow the convention don’t count as being in that genre any more.

Thus, in order for a game to be an RTS, it needs resource gathering, base building, and individual unit control. Doesn’t have all these? It’s not an RTS, even if it’s a strategy game that is played in real-time. Seriously, I ran into people online who claimed that Myth and Myth II weren’t RTS games because they didn’t have resource gathering and base building. “They’re strategy games, and they’re played in real-time, but they aren’t really RTS games,” went the refrain.

I once read an article on Salon where a guy bitched about how Ultima Underworld was the first true 3D game and if it had just been marketed more aggressively and more people had played it, first person games would have been slow and cerebral from then on and we wouldn’t have gone down the run-and-gun path of Doom and Quake. I guess he felt that once Quake was released no one ever did a first-person game that wasn’t a straight shooter ever again (well, except for Underworld 2, System Shock, Elder Scrolls: Arena, Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall, Thief 1 and 2, Arx Fatalis, System Shock 2, Deus Ex, Morrowind, Oblivion…)

Now, he was an idiot, but the succession of Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake really did solidify what it meant to be a first-person game in most gamers’ minds – first-person is for shooting. Games that were first-person but didn’t do shooting tended to feel like odd men out, and sometimes it caused them to suffer in the sales department. It didn’t help that most first-person games that weren’t shooters had terribly obtuse control systems.

But that isn’t unnatural or even unwelcome. It just is. It’s just amber.

Now, I will admit that it may be getting to a fairly ridiculous point. I mean, what am I going to tell people when they ask what kind of game Planitia is? I can’t call it an RTS because that will create a false impression in their minds. I can call it a strategy game, but that word covers everything from Final Fantasy Tactics to Civilization IV so it’s not descriptive enough. If I were going to sell Planitia it would be hard because it would be difficult to market – I can’t describe it accurately enough and fast enough to get a random internet surfer interested in it.

Good thing I don’t plan to sell it 🙂