According to my YouTube analytics, females only make up 3.2% of my viewers. Oh dear, something here is horribly wrong, I thought females were supposed to make up 50% of the world’s population! There’s nothing special about RTS in that regard; gaming is still a male dominated community overall, but over the past decade or so, we’ve seen a massive cultural shift that’s been gradually balancing that out. I think that’s fantastic, I for one am glad to see more women playing video games, getting involved with gaming communities and joining the industry. However, RTS seems to be left behind and still lacks the diversity that other genres can boast. It’s a tragedy because RTS games and women are my two favourite things! If only there were more overlap between them. So why is there this lack of women in RTS games? It’s a tricky question, and it’s what I’ll be exploring and attempting to answer with some of my observations, despite the fact that I am indeed, not a girl.
Introducing more gamers to RTS is the greatest challenge; RTS suffers from a lack of popularity for a few reasons, but mainly due to the incompatibility with gaming consoles. A household console is how most people discover a passion for gaming, whether it’s playing an Xbox at a friend’s house or sharing a PlayStation between siblings. Even if this spark leads to PC gaming, there’s generally going to be a lack of awareness and appreciation for RTS games since players are never introduced to it when playing on consoles. The lack of exposure is a result of RTS’s state of decline; if RTS were as prominent now as it was 15 years ago, then RTS would naturally be more ingrained into the overall gaming community. I would argue it’s no harder to introduce a girl to RTS as it is for a guy, but almost all RTS players seem to be male because of our upbringing in a time when RTS was abundant, but diversity in gaming was not. Perhaps the more pressing concern is the current generation of young gamers, boys and girls alike, are missing out on their exposure to RTS, leaving RTS communities as a static group of core players. It’s quite a generalisation, but I think it addresses the heart of the issue.
But that can’t be the whole story, if women make up such a significant part of the current gaming community, then why aren’t more of them dabbling in RTS? If you’ve ever been to a gaming convention or a community event, it’s obvious just how many girls are actually into multiplayer gaming. But go to a gaming tournament, and it leaves you wondering where they all went? Why is it that so many females will attend a viewing event to cheer on their favourite eSports teams, but when it comes to competing themselves at a local tournament, only a fraction seem interested? Women appear to be just as capable as men when it comes to competitive gaming, and if anyone tries to tell you otherwise, they should play a game of StarCraft against the 19th ranked WCS (World Championship Series) player, Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn. Scarlett is but one woman out of 100 professional StarCraft 2 players ranked in WCS ladder, which makes us wonder why aren’t there more women involved in eSports? There’s not going to be any simple answer to that, and that’s not what I’m trying to answer here, but I think it exposes another underlying issue; the vast majority of women don’t seem compelled by the competitive nature of RTS games.
It seems like a reasonable conclusion to come to, after all, games that are similar to RTS without the competitive multiplayer aspect are quite popular amongst female demographics. But if the explanation were that simple, then why do games such as Counter Strike or various MOBA’s have such significant female player bases when they are just as competitive as RTS? If you analyse the appeal of MOBAs, the competitive aspect is only a small part of it. MOBA’s are compelling for plenty of other reasons, including some shared with RTS, but MOBAs stand out in how they’re social team based games with an integral focus on utilising the synergy of your team’s classes and characters to drive you towards victory together. You might have landed a critical stun which allowed your team to engage, or perhaps you were able to shield your ally just in time to save their life. The team play found in MOBA’s creates a strong sense of comradery and contribution, whereas RTS is more about the interaction directly with your opponents.
Even when playing team games, RTS still offer little cooperation and synergy with your team mates compared to just fighting multiple enemies alongside your allies. RTS games lack the team coherency that makes MOBAs and other genres so compelling, and as a result, they lack the social and cooperative elements which can be a powerful inspiration for new gamers. MOBAs are also far less daunting to get into compared to RTS, from the player’s perspective, MOBAs feel small scale compared to RTS because the roles and mechanics are distributed among the team members and specialisations. Learning a MOBA is broken up into smaller steps.
StarCraft 2 offers a great game type called Archon mode, which allows two players to control the same army against another duo that both share their own. Imagine if this were bumped up to five players sharing control of an army, this would play out much like a MOBA. Each player would share a role such as one player managing the economy, one could maintain production, and another could handle harassment and so on. This would make getting into StarCraft more comforting because the scope of each player’s responsibilities is narrower, and would serve as a valuable motivator by providing the fun team interaction, coordination and shared victory that MOBAs benefit from. Using StarCraft as an example isn’t ideal, but an RTS designed from the ground up around the concept of shared control or task specialisation could serve as a solid entry for new players to the genre.
Introducing RTS to new players is only half the struggle since the stressful learning curve is off-putting. One of the reasons is the lack of clear and rewarding feedback for having a successful moment. In an FPS or a MOBA, the result of pushing an objective or killing an enemy player is visible. Your score will go up, the enemy has to wait to respawn, perhaps you’ll earn some money, and there may even be an announcer with a deep voice to yell out “killing spree!” These moments provide a rush of excitement which urges a player to crave more, whilst serving as fun highlights that allow a player to enjoy the match, even if they lost.
Gratifying moments found in RTS games are inaccessible and unintuitive at first. Advanced knowledge of the game is required to understand the implications and context of player interactions; you need to create your own excitement through mastery of the games mechanics and deliberate decision making. A new player requires patience and needs to spend time learning an RTS game well enough to create satisfying gameplay. In this period, they can rapidly lose interest and move on, especially since RTS often lack the transparency to demonstrate why a player lost. The desire to challenge oneself and improve is one of gaming’s most fundamental driving forces, but it only works if the goals to reach and the means to improve are made clear.
Though positive moments might be hard to come by at first, frustrating moments are in abundance. Whether it’s forgetting a crucial upgrade or neglecting stealth detection, minor oversights can have drastic consequences or be outright game losing. These punishing errors occur all the time since RTS is taxing both physically and mentally. Utmost speed and precision are required to perform the results of constant decision making, simultaneous management and multi-tasking. This can be overburdening to new players because it creates room for failure and off-putting mistakes. RTS is a hard ladder to climb, especially since the small communities of RTS games result in newbies being matched up against experienced players.
RTS games are known for their multiplayer focus; whilst they always offer a single player campaign and the option for skirmish versus AI, the single player components are typically sub quality. Playing against the AI is repetitive and shallow since it’s more about learning to abuse the AI’s flaws instead of playing tactically and being challenged in constantly changing ways. The campaigns in RTS lack the strong narrative of other genres; RTS games are forced to rely on cutscenes and mission briefings since the large scale renders individual characters insignificant and telling a story through gameplay almost impossible. Narrative is a great tool for introducing new people to gaming; it gives them a reason to stick with a game even if they’re not entirely comfortable with all the mechanics. I’m incredibly multiplayer biassed, but StarCraft 2 is the only modern RTS I view as having a campaign which delivers fun and varied gameplay on top of a compelling narrative. Coincidentally or not, whenever I meet a girl who’s played a modern RTS game, it’s almost always StarCraft 2. Focusing on better narrative driven campaigns would help, but that’s ultimately not playing to the strength of the genre.
I think the main weakness of RTS is that single player is generally crappy and teaches bad habits, which exacerbates the enormous learning curve where losing is stressful and progress unclear. It’s no surprise that RTS games are such a niche and difficult for new players or casual gamers to embrace. RTS is ultimately not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but more effort needs to be made for RTS to be welcoming for new players, instead of just throwing them in the deep end. Tutorials need to engage a new player and get them excited to experience more. Most RTS tutorials take themselves far too seriously and end up as just a mundane chore. Offworld Trading Company packs its tutorial full of humour, making it a pleasant learning experience and captures the player’s interest right from the beginning. The great tutorial is just the start of why Offworld Trading Company is what I’d consider the friendliest RTS for new players.
Offworld Trading Company is a simple concept, but it contains substantial management and strategy without the taxing multi-tasking or the speed and precision of most RTS. It does away with violence and individual moments of frustration and failure, which will be a welcome change for many and makes it suited for children. Playing against the AI is fun and challenging, which provides an experience similar to that of playing multiplayer, which is a rare blessing for an RTS. Unfortunately, Offworld Trading Company’s biggest downside as an introductory RTS is how it’s not particularly suited for cooperative multiplayer,
The immense leap of trying multiplayer for the first time in an RTS shouldn’t be as difficult as it always is. Skirmish versus AI should be more representative of fighting against human opponents, it’s never going to be perfect, but playing against AI shouldn’t feel like an entirely different game with alternative mentalities. There should be more to ease players into multiplayer such as in-game specific multiplayer tutorials and challenges which showcase typical gameplay and demonstrate what to expect from real opponents. StarCraft 2 had a brilliant idea with its Practice League; an exclusive League only for new players that slowed down the game speed, giving them a more comfortable pace to learn the game.
I’d argue that girls not making up a significant player base within RTS games is not as much a cultural or social problem; it’s more a consequence of RTS’s lack of popularity on PC, let alone on consoles. I don’t see this changing anytime soon, but the situation could certainly be improved by intentionally designing RTS to be more welcoming to new players. An RTS created from the ground up to embrace social team play with fewer responsibilities could serve as an excellent entry for new players into the genre, similar to Heroes of the Storm as an introductory MOBA. The other half of the problem is finding ways for RTS to appeal to children, because if younger gamers take an interest in RTS, then there will ultimately be more diversity. If I were to try and introduce a girlfriend or a young sibling to RTS, I would start with Offworld Trading Company.