The Genesis of Real-Time Strategy
It may seem odd to start a history of a genre of PC games with a console title, but the first instance of real-time strategy was almost certainly on the Sega Genesis back in 1989. Herzog Zwei is a two-player game in which the object is to destroy the enemy's base. Each player has a main base, several smaller bases under his control, and some neutral bases unclaimed by either side. The only unit you control directly (with the gamepad) is your fighter, which can change from an aircraft into a land unit. In keeping with the console gaming spirit of the times, Herzog Zwei focused on your commander unit, and everything else was supporting cast.
Herzog Zwei is perhaps a hybrid action/strategy game, but the idea of commanding individual units in real time by giving them orders and then letting them go is one that hadn't been seen on this scale before. A big part of the game involves your own unit, which uses much more fuel in its fighter form but is also far more powerful in this mode. Troops and vehicles cost money, and managing fuel and monetary concerns is the forerunner of RTS resource management. Herzog Zwei involves many of the elements found in modern real-time strategy games, like the battle for bases, although these bases are fixed in place and can't be built by either player. Troops can infiltrate another base and capture it, but in the end, the objective is the destruction of the enemy's main base. Unlike in modern RTS games, damage to one's base can't be repaired. It's a simple concept with a fascinating number of strategies. There is even a split-screen mode so that you can see what your opponent (human or computer) is doing.
Herzog Zwei preceded the first PC real-time strategy game, Westwood's Dune II, by almost three years. Sperry remembers Herzog Zwei, which to him was a pioneering console title. "I played Herzog Zwei and enjoyed it," he said. "Some of my peers thought Herzog Zwei was an influence on Dune II. That's a compliment; however, the games that helped trigger the genesis of my RTS concept were Eye of the Beholder [a role-playing game that Sperry designed] and its forefather, Dungeon Master by FTL."
Herzog Zwei may not have directly influenced the development of Dune II, but it showed that developers were toying with the idea of strategy in real-time gaming. The next game in our history is generally acknowledged as the first RTS computer game. While it was a sequel, it had nothing to do with its predecessor's style of play. Instead, it created an entirely new genre.