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 🙂
I think this is an interesting point. I think it in a way resembles the arguments within the music industry. I listen to a lot of extreme metal and there are always arguments about what genre a band will fall into resulting in very mixed genres. For instance a band isn’t just a metal band, it has to be a “melodic viking power metal” band. It’s not just a first person shooter, it’s a “first person real time strategy adventure” game. I think this is a perfect example of our need to place order on everything by classifying it.
my thinking on the matter is that you’re looking at one of the failures that trends and popular culture have. there are A LOT of Warcraft 3 fans out there. i’d even venture to say they haven’t even bothered to take a look at Guild Wars or Dark Ages of Camelot. On the same note, how many Halo kiddies have ever actually TRIED Deus Ex? it seems to me that our gaming culture gets ahold of something trendy that is enjoyable, it gets elevated so high over the rest that the rest isn’t even really there to them. it’s almost religious to them.
Maybe you can call it “sort of rts” =)
On marketing of underworld.. I see the history in a slightly different light.
When iD was making wolf3d, they had all sorts of more “intelligent” features planned from the original wolfenstein that they were remaking in 3d. They sort of got lazy and dropped all the “more advanced” features and ended up with a “simple” shooter.
Now, if the people at lookingglass had, in mid-project, figured “heck, the fighting is the most fun in this game, let’s just drop all the extra junk”, maybe we’d be waiting for ultima underworld wars 2008 now..
Start a new genre, say, “Planitia-licious”.
Now say it multiple times, fast. Feel the rythm, baby …
I recall in film school learning that a genre goes through three basic stages. The first is the birthing phase where the rules are discovered and experimented with. Then you have a “classic” phase where the rules are now agreed upon and everyone follows them. Then you have a third phase where people get bored of the genre and blow it the hell up. I think we’re starting to see this excellent third phase in games. I think we’re going to see a move away from strictly classical elements of genre and into newer interpretations of those genres. And I think Planitia might be a part of that.