Debate rages as to what the first originating RTS actually was, the results largely dependent on the age and nationality of the participants. The ZX Spectrum had some early entrants many many moons ago (1984 saw both Stonkers and Nether Earth); the MSX saw Herzog in the late 80s—but only in Japan; and 1989 saw its sequel Herzog Zwei on the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive) which introduced many of the genre conventions. But it was 1992's Dune II by Westwood Studios (later of Command & Conquer fame) that established the form and the tropes of the RTS which are known to the masses today.
In comparison to Turn-Based Strategy, Real Time Strategy has players take action whenever they wish (within the constraints of how often any particular action can be taken). Play will continue for other players and entities in the game even if one player sits back and does nothing, rather than breaking up the sequence of play into discrete turns for each player, which brings multiplayer matches down from hours or days to minutes. While this leaves less time for strategizing and encourages "twitchy" play-styles, it makes commanders less omniscient, allowing for ambushes and distractions to work better.
Almost all games of this type are based on ground combat on a 2D map, with various terrain and obstacles adding interest to the battlefield. Airborne and seaborne units are sometimes incorporated, but they are seldom realistic in terms of speed and performance (almost all aircraft in RTS games can hover, cannot change altitude, and have unlimited fuel and ammo).
What order you construct buildings in, and how quickly you do so, is often the most important factor in deciding the outcome, to the chagrin of some players.
The genre also possesses a number of aesthetic conceits, so typical to its presentation that they often confuse even the games' creators (Note: the first three are probably inherited from tabletop wargames):
- Units are rarely depicted to scale, not even with each other. Buildings are shown about as high as mountains, vehicles tower over the structures that constructed them, and infantry are nearly as large as the vehicle that can carry ten of them.
- A single "unit" onscreen rarely represents what it appears as. Rather, the single soldier is supposed to represent anything from a squad to an entire company, a hero unit usually includes their personal honor guard, and even a solitary building is probably symbolic of an entire complex.
- In order to make things manageable in realtime, little details like ammunition, supply, noncombat casualties, fatigue, communication, and maintenance are conveniently swept under the rug.
- Despite the realtime moniker, a certain amount of chronological compression usually applies, with week or month long battles taking minutes in-game. Still, developers often fail to keep time to scale with itself, allowing buildings to be constructed faster than they were destroyed, and new upgrades to instantly propagate to soldiers in the heat of combat.
Enhancing one's forces with better equipment and training makes perfect sense, but while a few titles do use plausible terminology for requisitioning new gear, training specialists, retooling factories and deploying the finished products to active forces, most use the peculiar choice of "research" for the process. This gives players the surreal image of scientists doing research on the front lines, making miraculous breakthroughs almost immediately, and then promptly forgetting whatever it was, every single level.
Pathfinding isn't necessarily especially weak in RTSs, but in other genres the player is usually too busy running along a linear path thwarting pre-scripted ambushes to notice. Not so in an RTS. Since RTSs take place in enormous, twisty campaigns and the player is constantly shepherding large numbers of units with a perfect view of their incompetence, the tendency of unit AI to unnecessarily bumble around the map in response to choke points, and clump together when attacking, becomes all too glaringly obvious.
For common tropes, see Strategy Game Tropes.
Compare Strategy RPG.
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