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What are Real-Time Strategy Video Games?

by: Daniel Loyd ; edited by: Michael Hartman ; updated: 4/17/2012 • Leave a comment

A good real-time strategy game can be a blast to play. But if you're new to the genre, what should you know before you begin? There are new terms to learn, most of which are very similar from game to game, and a description of the features of a RTS game will help you no matter which game you play.

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    What is an RTS (Real-Time Strategy) Video Game?

    A Battle During a Real-Time Strategy Game, Click to View Larger Image Real-Time Strategy video games are themed around a battle between multiple sides. Each side has units with varying strengths and weaknesses against other units. Playing a an RTS game challenges a player’s abilities to prepare defenses against attacks while developing an attack force against his enemies.

    One of the major distinctions of Real-Time Strategy games when compared to Turn-Based Strategy games is that their gameplay continues as time passes. Whether a player chooses to make an action or not, opponents will continue to make their own moves. Usually, the object of a Real-Time Strategy game is to defeat an opponent, while manipulating resources to your advantage, and to the disadvantage of your opponent.

    Now, let’s look at some of the main features of Real-Time Strategy games in detail.

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    The Map

    Most Real-Time Strategy games employ a feature called “Fog of War”, which places a dark shadow over most of the map. This shadow may be solid black, blocking out the sight of all terrain and units under it, or a faded dark color, with only terrain and known buildings shown. When you start a Real-Time Strategy battle, the first thing you should do to come up with a battle plan is to get familiar with the map layout, if the terrain is visible through the fog of war, or if fog of war is nonexistent on the map. Of course, the more you play on this map, the faster this step will be. Look for terrain that will slow down or even block movement of certain units, or tight spaces that would be hard for groups of units to move through. Pay special attention to buildings or objects that you know will give you strategic advantages, and assume your opponent will try to gain control of these areas as well.

    If the fog of war is a solid black color, the situation is as if you were new to the battlefield, and unfamiliar with your surroundings. At the beginning of each game, small, cheap, and usually fast scout units can be sent out into the dark areas to reveal more of the map, new terrain, and maybe even an enemy base of operations.

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    Base of Operations

    Base Defenses from Command and Conquer 4 Your Base of Operations is your home on the battlefield. While you may have battle-ready units spread all over the map, the heart of your economy (more on this later) and unit production is here. Any buildings or objects that will help you produce and maintain units will be in this area, and failure to protect these buildings will usually result in your defeat. While units can be effective in defending your base, there are usually support structures designed to help against certain attacks. For example, some cannons might make short work of tanks advancing on your base, but would be useless against aircraft overhead. A good base defense should be prepared against all types of attacks.

    Other support buildings can help process resources and even keep your unit production buildings running efficiently. Most buildings have requirements that must be met before they can be built, including a resource “price” and less advanced structures that must be built before it. As your base of operations grows, its ability to create more advanced and numerous units will also grow.

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    Supplies and Supply Lines

    While a player can usually create more units during a game, another mechanism called “resource gathering” is used to control unit production, and force players to make decisions. “Resources” or "supplies" are a generic term for any material that a player collects to pay for the construction of structures or units. A player’s economy can be healthy or weak depending on how many resources the player is in control of. Do you spend more resources now for a powerful unit that might give you an advantage, or do you save up for a larger force of units? Or should you bolster the defenses on the weakest side of your base? Wise usage of your resources will be a big boost to your battle strategy. Since resources are important in building your military, an important aspect of defeating an enemy is crippling their income of resources, since their unit output will be severely impaired.

    The next page will continue discussing supplies and supply lines, and the importance of forward bases for protecting your income of resources.

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    More About Supplies and Resource Gathering

    A Forward Base Collecting Supplies in Command and Conquer Generals Every RTS game has different ways of gathering resources. In some games, special structures will grant you an income, and building or gaining control of more of these structures will increase your resources. In other games, resources are placed at specific parts of the map, or even off-map, and certain units will be responsible for transporting these resources back to your base of operations so that they can be used. In a situation like this, your economy has a supply line, which can be vulnerable to an enemy attack. If a supply line is under attack, your income is in danger of failing. Forward bases usually take the place of supply lines, and resource drop-off structures can usually be placed near the resources, greatly decreasing the length of the resource gathering cycle. A few other structures or units nearby can help defend your forward base from enemy attack.

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    Technology

    Near the beginning of a Real-Time Strategy game, most of the units and structures will be the most basic and least powerful. To get the most out of your military force, you will have to follow the “tech tree”. A tech tree consists of all of the units and structures that you can build. If you were able to look at a graphical representation of a tech tree, you’d see that most units and structures have a requirement that must be built before that particular unit can be produced. For example, you might be able to create light tanks if you built a factory, but you might also need to build an advanced weapons depot before you could create larger, more powerful vehicles. Since each component of a tech tree has more components branching off of it, the tree analogy fits well. Start from the roots, and eventually your technology will branch out, giving you a wider variety of structures and units to build.

    Another important aspect of technology in Real-Time strategy games is “research”. In most RTS games, there are also upgrades that you can buy for your military force. When you click on one of these upgrades, you are “doing research” on better equipment for your units. These upgrades can be purchased as if they were units, but are usually not manifested as a unit on the battlefield. Instead, once they are purchased and have finished developing (just like normal units must be built, upgrades usually take time to research), they will automatically strengthen your current units and units built in the future. Upgrades also usually have an order in which they must be researched, so they usually are part of a tech tree, or have their own.

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    Support Abilities

    Support Abilities Superweapons, quick reinforcements, diversion attacks, even mid-battle repairs can all be special “Support Abilities” in a Real-Time Strategy game. Once these are made available, they are generally placed in boxes near the edge of the screen. Support abilities can be very powerful, thanks to their ease of use, and can sometimes be enough to turn the tide of a battle if used at the right time. To use a support ability in most games, click on the box of the ability you want to use, and target a portion of the battlefield with it. Support abilities usually have a “cooldown period” where they must recharge before being used again, otherwise overuse could make the battle too easy for one player.

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    Real-Time Strategy Games Victory and Summary

    After a player overwhelms another player’s defenses and base of operation, victory will soon follow. Complete destruction is sometimes required, but other times only a certain building or unit is to be targeted. Maybe even a certain score must be reached. Whatever the conditions are, complete control of the battlefield is generally the outcome.

    A Real-Time Strategy game can be challenging, because a player must focus on and control many parts of his forces almost simultaneously. If more than two players are playing, alliances may be formed, and one player may help protect another from enemy attacks. The more experienced you get at protecting your weaknesses and exploiting your opponent’s, the more successful you will be while playing Real-Time Strategy games.

    Source: Author's own experience

    Screenshots contributed by Noah Loyd, all taken from the Command and Conquer game series.