An Introduction To The Course:
Ever since being popularized by 1994’s “Warcraft: Orcs and Humans”, the Real Time Strategy genre has held a large share of the gaming market. Gaming series such as “StarCraft”, “Command & Conquer”, “Company of Heroes” and “WarCraft” often reach top ranks in gaming sales charts. The “StarCraft” series is one of the prime examples of a successful RTS – the original 1998 game sold over 11 million units worldwide and is to this day considered a national sport in South Korea, where multiple professional leagues exist, in which gamers compete for hundreds of thousands of dollars every season and which are broadcasted live on numerous television channels dedicated to nothing but “StarCraft”. Its 2010 sequel “StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty” managed to sell over 1.8 million units on the first day of its release. Seeing that, it’s safe to say that the RTS genre is by no means a niche market and is one of the juggernaut genres of gaming on par with MMO’s, First Person Shooters, Racing games and Role Playing Games.
The Free Market:
However, despite their immense popularity, RTS games have so far failed to achieve much success in the most recent gaming trend – “free-to-play”. The free-to-play model has been around for quite a while, first becoming popular in South Korea and then making its way to the Western world. Free-to-play games are online games that are can be downloaded and played for free, and they rely on optional subscriptions and item shops in order to generate revenue. Recently, the free-to-play model has proven itself to be viable and is now becoming more and more mainstream with such companies as EA, NEXON, AERIA and NCSOFT investing millions of dollars into their F2P projects.
Most of the popular gaming genres have already successfully transitioned into this new free-to-play model, producing great, solid free-to-play experiences: if you’re an FPS enthusiast – “Alliance Of Valiant Arms” is sure to provide you with a fix of intense action; if you’re into MMORPG’s – “Allods Online” and “Dragon Nest” may be something up your alley; and if you’re in search of a DOTA alternative – “League Of Legends” may be something you’d like to check out. If, however, you are an RTS fan, things are quite different.
Like I said before, RTS games have never really managed to achieve much success in free-to-play. One may argue on the reasons of it but the fact stays the same – the RTS genre falls behind all of the other “big” genres when it comes to transitioning into free-to-play. That doesn’t mean, however, that there have not been games that have done fairly well and deserve your attention. Here are the best of them (in my opinion):
“Saga Online” is a fantasy-themed MMORTS game, in which you take control of armies that consist of a variety of different unit compositions. “Saga Online” can be quite fun for a short amount of time but after a while it starts to seem that the game doesn’t have enough substance and a high-enough skill cap (the concept of micro, for example is practically nonexistent) for you to have something to return to after your first honeymoon period with the game. The game’s graphics aren’t anything special and come off as uninspired, but, on the other hand, the game isn’t as resource intensive as other RTS titles. Overall, “Saga Online” seems to be a fairly competent title that can give you multiple of hours of genuine enjoyment if you are a casual strategy player (this is why I don’t recommend spending any money in the premium shop).
“World of Battles” another fantasy-themed MMORTS game that, for the most part, does what “Saga Online” does but does it much, much better. The graphics are extremely clear and crisp, some of the textures look stunning even compared to recent retail titles. The gameplay itself resembles “Saga Online”, but has a lot more depth to it. “World of Battles”, much like ”Saga Online”, allows you to create unique roasters for your team. What sets its unit creation apart from that found in “Saga Online” is how deep and complex it is. One is free to create an army from any of the ten classes across nine races (and you can mix the races if you want, this is not restricted) and, I kid you now, can even decide what kind of armor, helmets and weapons every particular unit type will wear in battle. This game mechanic is so well-executed that you may overlook the other, less glamorous aspects of the game like it’s shallow combat and primitive micromanagement mechanics.
Even though “BattleForge” cannot be considered a “true” RTS game, because of its reliance on trading card game mechanics, I simply could not exclude it from the list. BattleForge is the product of EA’s free-to-play division, the division responsible for, among other titles, “Battlefield Heroes”, “Battlefield Play4Free” and “Need For Speed World”. The graphics found in “BattleForge” are by far the best in any free-to-play real time strategy game and are among the best in free gaming period. The gameplay is fluid and unique, the battles – often hectic and a ton of fun. The game’s soundtrack, something you rarely draw attention when talking about a free-to-play title, is quite pleasurable to hear and fits the mood of the game excellently. Overall, one can rest assured that “BattleForge” is by far one of the best options a budget-gamer when it comes to strategy games.
Extra: Company of Heroes Online:
“Company of Heroes Online” was a free-to-play version of the legendary World War II themed “Company of Heroes” series. It boasted sharp graphics, solid gameplay and an RPG-like progression system, allowing your “commander” to learn new abilities and skills. Having played the game while it was still available, I must say that this game was exceptional and played a lot better than most retail strategy games. The singleplayer gameplay was extremely in-depth and the player-versus-player was incredibly competitive. The graphics were clear and the interface was intuitive (as you would expect from a “Company Of Heroes Title”). Unfortunately, THQ, for one reason or another, pulled the plug on the game in 2011, riding us of the best free RTS to ever see the light of day, a game whose success might have urged other developers to venture into the strategy genre.
MOBA’s: The Second Frontier:
Sometimes incorrectly labeled as strategy games themselves, Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games are the juggernauts of the modern free-to-play market and, because of their similarity to RTS games, are of interest to us in this article as we can try and find that one thing, that hidden variable that could potentially make RTS games “work” in the f2p market.
Originally emerging as a simple mod for the Blizzard’s hit RTS game “WarCraft III” called “Defense of the Ancients”, MOBA games have grown and evolved over the years and now boast millions of players and are now becoming even more popular than most MMORPG’s. “League Of Legends” and “Heroes Of Newerth” have, much like the pay-to-play StarCraft II, become a sort of a spectator sport, with tournaments being viewed by thousands of fans via online streams and live in the “eSports Arenas”.
A brief trip back in time will tell us that the first successful free-to-play game to immerge in the genre (and to popularize the concept) was “League Of Legends” by “Riot Games”, released on October 27, 2009. Upon release, the genre-defining game was bashed by critics for the lack of content and polish. “GameSpot” gave the retail “Collector’s Pack” of the game a mediocre 6.0 rating, stating that the game is “rough and lacks content”. In subsequent months, “Riot”, in an attempt to aid the situation did a lot of patchwork and began to update the game restlessly. Around this time, “League Of Legends” began to steadily enlarge its playerbase and has eventually evolved into one of the most-played games in the world. A similar thing happened to “Heroes Of Newerth”, a close second in playerbase, but only instead of the “miracle patchwork” the playerbase-enlarging trigger was the moment when the game went free-to-play (originally “HON” was a buy-to-play title). After seeing how popular both “HON” and “LOL”, other game developers began making their own MOBA-style games, most of which gathered enough attention to be commercially successful for the development houses behind them.
So what made this genre so successful and why is it so popular with free-to-play gamers?
Speaking in layman’s terms, one might deduce that the answer is to be found in the roots of the genre. That the ever-so-popular original DOTA (the place where most MOBA gamers started out), despite being immensely popular, had a few problems that didn’t allow it to grow beyond a certain limit. Firstly, the “game” was mod and so one had to have “WarCraft III” in order to play “DOTA” and, secondly, the mod was not aging well-enough to attract a more casual “graphics-whoring” gamer. This created a demand for a newer, better looking “DOTA”-like game. “Riot” seized this opportunity no worse that Alexander Of Macedonia would seize an opportunity for an all-out attack with “League Of Legends”, offering players an experience that was in certain areas superior to “DOTA” in a new, shiny package with improved visuals and, best of all, did it for free. Also, unlike most free-to-play game studios, “Riot” didn’t put game-breaking premium mechanics into their item shops and instead focused on only offering EXP boosts, avatar unlocks and custom skins, which made the game more appealing to a player that didn’t want to spend money in order to have an equal playing field with others. Bearing all of this in mind, it’s actually quite hard to imagine “League of Legends” not succeeding.
In short – “Riot” saw a large amount demand for a free “DOTA”-like game and fulfilled it excellently. It all boiled down to the right, capable people being in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing.
So what can RTS developers learn from this? Well, first of all, a free-to-play game studio must always remember who they themselves are and what their core audience wants. The most successful free-to-play games are those that are good at mimicking Pay-to-Play titles and adding twists to already-working concepts: “Alliance Of Valiant” arms is a game that, although is different in its own right, took a lot of inspiration from “Call Of Duty 4” and added on to the formula; “Runes Of Magic” provide players with an experience quite similar to “World Of WarCraft”; “League of Legends”, like we said earlier, is a play on “DOTA”. From all of this one may assume that, say, a well-executed game similar to “StarCraft II” with a good, balanced cash-shop would probably become quite popular and that perhaps this is that variable, that secret formula RTS developers have been trying to find so religiously.
Extra: The Future: The Truth Can Only Be Learned By Marching Forward.
As far as the future goes, the free-to-play RTS market may soon be revived with the release of “End of Nations”, a well-executed, stunning-looking game that is due to release on June 12th 2012. The game boasts an exceptionally-high production value and is looking very promising. Perhaps “End of Nations” will be the game that will do what “Company of Heroes Online” couldn’t and raise interest in the genre. Having not played the game myself I cannot say more, but if I were you – I’d be sure to check MMOBOMB.com for future updates on the game!
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