Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
Now roses are too.
That’s my favourite Age of Empires enemy conversion joke. I’m telling it now because Age of Empires is back with a new sequel in development at Relic. It’s hard not to be excited about that: Easy to fondly remember the sprawling ambition of a game that sought to take us from clubs and stones to centurions and ballista in under an hour. Impossible not to admire the nerdy love for history that saw the series build campaigns around Barbarossa and Montezuma. There’s something inherently PC gaming about all of that.
Related: the best strategy games on PC.
But there’s also something terribly ‘90s about it, too, which doesn’t feel so great. There’s a danger in letting the RTS genre grow lumpen and static. Shouldn’t it have other big licenses to rely on by now? And if not, why haven’t they materialised?
The decline of the RTS has been well-documented; suffice it to say that Ensemble Studios, the outfit who made every numbered Age of Empires game, are not around any more. Many of their staff now work at Robot Entertainment, funnelling their skills into a more contemporary action and tower defence hybrid – Orcs Must Die!. Blizzard are still in the genre, but leaning heavily on esports to justify their continued investment in the StarCraft series.
Command & Conquer, the other dependable member of the ‘90s Big Three, seemed to die with its latter-day custodians at EA Los Angeles. Everything about that studio’s last days suggested they were on thin ice: from the name change to Danger Close, to the logo that depicted two stick figures huddled under an umbrella as bombs rained down. Sure enough, two Medal of Honor games later, the studio was folded into DICE. EA’s efforts to reboot C&C since have stayed in the Stone Age.
Nowadays, the triple-A RTS lives at Sega, of all places. The publisher’s European division has quietly become a first-class stable of strategy studios: from Creative Assembly and Relic, to Football Manager’s Sports Interactive and Endless Space’s Amplitude. This truth has clearly not escaped the notice of Microsoft, who charged Creative Assembly with bringing Halo Wars into the modern age. Relic’s Age of Empires IV is part of a trend.
This isn’t what a healthy genre looks like, though. It’s consolidation – matching the biggest names in RTS nostalgia to the handful of great strategy studios who’ve weathered the years. It’s a sensible way of shoring up the success the genre still has. But where will the next blockbuster RTS come from, if no major publisher is willing to take a punt on a title that isn’t pulled from a now two-decade-old golden age?
You can argue that we’ve already had it, and it was Dota. The decade’s biggest new genre evolved out of the RTS, beginning as a Warcraft III mod before taking over the world as League of Legends and Dota 2. But perhaps the MOBA is also the biggest obstacle standing between the triple-A RTS and a creative renaissance.
For one thing, any contemporary RTS faces a struggle for independence from the influence of lanes and hero units. Dawn of War III and Total War: Arena both feel like games with one toe tentatively dipped in the MOBA money pool. It’ll take designers of extraordinary confidence to ignore the shadow of the richest genre in PC gaming – to reinvent the RTS in spite of the MOBA, rather than in awe to it.
For another, the MOBA is an extraordinary brain drain. When LoL launched in 2009, Riot Games employed around 100 people. By 2013 it was 1,000, and the company hasn’t stopped hiring since. The design leads behind Uncharted 3 and Eve Online now work at Riot – not to mention a host of former Blizzard employees, headlined by World of Warcraft lead systems designer Greg Street. MOBAs are the games that developers are playing, and it shows.
It’s worth noting that Street spent a decade at Ensemble on the Age of the Empire series, becoming its last lead designer before the studio was shut down. If Street ever harboured plans to spearhead the resurrection of the RTS genre, they’ve been placed on hold indefinitely during his three-and-a-half-year run as lead game designer on LoL.
It’s lovely – really lovely – to see Age of Empires again. The series was a formative part of PC gaming that introduced a generation to both history and clicking a lot. But an old license in the hands of a dependable studio is indicative of a genre on life support, when what the triple-A RTS really needs is space to breathe.
This feature was originally published on August 22, 2017. You can read more about Age of Empires IV here.