Designer: Danielle Bunten Berry
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Some consider Dune 2 to be the most influential real-time strategy game. Others claim it was the 1970s mainframe version of Empire that laid the groundwork for RTS games as we know them today. That debate will never be satisfactorily settled, but we can honestly say that the RTS game that deserved the title of "being ahead of its time" is Electronic Arts' Modem Wars.
Modem Wars was created from the ground up as a fun multiplayer game at a time when most companies were focusing on the single-player experience. The game was billed as a sort of futuristic football game, but it used what amounted to infantry, tank, and artillery units. The object was to detect and destroy the enemy's command center, a mobile base with special powers. The game featured a rudimentary terrain model that gave units on hilltops better visibility and cut the visibility of units traversing forests. There was no resource management or unit building to worry about, leaving you free to focus on tactics.
Modem Wars ran at an extremely low resolution and had only a few colors to work with, but the superb mouse-driven interface packed a lot of information into that cramped space. The main playing field was divided into a large tactical map, a smaller strategic overview map, and a small window that displayed unit data. The mouse moved a square cursor on the screen, and hovering the cursor over a unit was all that was required to bring up the unit data. Clicking selected the unit, and movement orders were executed by clicking on a destination. It was an elegant system, extracting the most out of a one-button mouse and providing all the information you needed without requiring you to switch between multiple windows. The function keys were used to switch to a cool black-and-white radar scan mode that could be used to search for hidden enemies, and an equally cool drone mode. Command centers had a certain number of drones that could be launched, remotely piloted, and slammed into an enemy. They also had a complement of rockets to shoot down drones, and many games involved heated long-range wars between opposing Command Centers.
Basing the design around head-to-head modem play gave Modem Wars an unparalleled fun factor, but it is ultimately what caused the game to fail. Consumer modems in 1988 topped out at 1200 baud and were expensive peripherals. The networking technology employed by Modem Wars ensured that the low bandwidth wasn't a problem, but the relatively low installed base of modems was. The fact that you had to scare up a friend who also had a modem (and a mouse, as most PCs in those days were controlled via the keyboard) didn't help matters. Modem Wars may not have been a financial success, but it painted a surprisingly accurate picture of where the RTS genre would eventually end up.