Most RTS titles from the big game companies are attempting to move in a direction of eSports. This is somewhat similar to the arch of Magic: the Gathering. If you are not familiar with M:tG it’s the classic CCG that came out in the early 1990’s. When first released most players were hardcore table top RPG nerds playing classic Dungeons and Dragons. The draw of the game was being able to cast spells and magic away from the D&D table. Eventually it became about competitive winning at the pro tour. Creating the DCI (Bonus points if you know what DCI stands for) was an amazingly smart and forward thinking move on the part of Wizards of the Coast. However the tournament scene caused the innovation and the refinement of winning deck design to take over the community. There were really two different games running simultaneously. The people playing ‘just for fun’ and the people playing in the Pro Tour.
The RTS genre is going through a similar change. Warcraft was originally about fun and storytelling. Dark Reign was also a very entertaining, although buggy, RTS game. Blizzard has, however, moved the genre towards entertainment by way of competition. Whether you claim they are learning from real sports, or M:TG or getting their ideas from somewhere else, proponents of esports are definitely aiming to keep players attention by making them compete with each other. It’s an interesting solution to the problem of longevity in AAA title design.
On the other end of the gaming spectrum we have the absolutely amazing success of Minecraft. Some people may say they have gotten a ‘lucky’ hand dealt to them at just about every turn. I think they have tapped something altogether lacking in most game titles. There is no real sport to MC. Not at the moment at least. I personally doubt that Spleef or any other Minecraft activity will ever dwarf the amount of time people spend simply expressing their creativity. At least I hope that is the case. The game is about expressing one’s creativity and has tapped a deep seated desire to create and control a world. The replay value of the game comes not from competition with others, but rather through expression.
Competition is not inherently worse than creative play. It’s just not what everyone is into. The major game labels are missing out on an audience that is looking for creative sandbox play. There are plenty of eSport RTS games out there (Starcraft II, Firefall), but it would be nice to have some more titles out there like Dwarven Fortress, Minecraft, Dungeon Keeper, where yes it is real time, and yes it is strategy, but it also provides the opportunity for creative play.