I’ve recently played a great deal of Age of Empires 2. It’s one of my all time favorite games, and one I’ve played since I was nine. After sinking dozens of hours into it recently weeks (while I had plenty of homework and other responsibilities to attend to) I’ve taken to considering what makes it so engaging.
When it comes down to it, real time strategy or RTS games are incredibly mathematical and bare bones, practically revealing the formulas their code use to determine the game logic. Baldly listing each units stats, gathered resources, player scores, and more: they’re a glut of open information. But I would claim that none of this represents the true appeal.
What they represent is a simulation of a high pressure multitasking environment. In an RTS game, you’re not responsible for economy or military in turn, but both at once. You must simultaneously actively engage the enemy and manage your civilization’s resource gathering to ensure victory.
While a great array of action video games can provide the thrill of combat, few genres put as much mental strain on their players. The RTS model demands a constantly active player; one who is constantly attending to all aspects of the game world. I believe it’s in this pressure that the games hold their appeal.
In addition, it’s quite a fulfilling god complex to be directing an entire civilization versus a single avatar. This level of macro control is rarely seen in other genres, and almost never occurs in the physical world. It’s a singularly unique appeal: having a great deal of power and using it to ascertain victory.
Consider that RTS games rely on evoking a sense of extreme stress and encouraging power fantasies in their players, they don’t appear to deliver a particularly healthy experiences. Unfortunately, I feel far too wrapped into them to consider abandoning such an intriguing type of game world. Plus, it can always be argued that they improve multitasking skills.