Frost Giant Studios, a startup founded by ex-Blizzard employees in 2020, is on a mission to revive the golden age of real-time strategy gaming. It recently ran a closed beta for its upcoming free-to-play title, Stormgate, and secured additional funding through a successful Kickstarter campaign. The studio is also venture capital funded and has raised $35M to date.
Real-time strategy games had their heyday in the '90s. The phenomenon started with Dune II in 1992, but the genre really blew up with Warcraft (1994) and Command & Conquer (1995), which expanded upon Dune's design template.
By the late nineties, everyone and their dog were building an RTS. Eventually four franchises rose above the competition: Warcraft, StarCraft, Age of Empires, and Command & Conquer. StarCraft played a key role in the birth of esports: in the 2000s, StarCraft was the de facto esports RTS, only ousted by its 2010 sequel StarCraft II.
By the 2010s, the strategy genre was dominated by MOBAs such as League of Legends and Dota 2, both born out of RTS mods. The first MOBA, Aeon of Strife, was a custom map for StarCraft: Brood War. Defense of the Ancients, a map for Warcraft 3: The Frozen Throne, was a later evolution of the idea. Eventually, of course, Riot created League of Legends, which re-imagined the MOBA as a standalone game.
Today, StarCraft II remains the last true blockbuster RTS. One of the modern experts in the genre, Relic Entertainment, has done well with its Company of Heroes series, but the third instalment was released this year to mixed reviews. Relic was also the developer of Microsoft-published Age of Empires IV, which was received well, but Relic's post-launch support for the title has been meager. Combined with news of recent layoffs at the studio, it doesn't look like Relic will release a StarCraft killer soon.
However, Relic and Frost Giant are not the only companies trying to crack the RTS puzzle: US-based Petroglyph Games released The Great War: Western Front earlier this year, albeit to a lukewarm response. Danish studio Slipgate Ironworks is working on its Command & Conquer-inspired title Tempest Rising, and Canadian studio Blackbird Interactive plans to ship Homeworld 3 in 2024.
Making a great RTS game is hard. StarCraft II’s celebrated gameplay results from hundreds of small decisions gone right, all built on the team’s experience of shipping multiple RTS games. Ideal pathfinding, snappy unit responsiveness, an engaging single-player campaign, and tight competitive faction balance are non-trivial issues, to name a few. RTS developers must execute all aspects of the game at the highest level to deliver an experience that can leave a mark; if Frost Giant has genuinely been able to attract the best RTS talent from Blizzard, it has the best chance of success at claiming the RTS throne.
The response to Stormgate’s closed beta seems to be generally positive, if somewhat reserved. In an attempt to entice fans of both franchises, the gameplay is essentially a mix of Warcraft III and StarCraft II. The maximum resource supply is higher than in either of Blizzard’s landmark titles, allowing for larger armies and more units; however, the time to kill is longer than in StarCraft II, resulting in a slower pace of combat more akin to Warcraft and Age of Empires.
The battles are certainly epic, but suffer from lack of visual clarity. Indeed, the choice of art style as well as readability issues are among the primary problems that beta players report. Still, considering all that can go wrong with a high-profile beta test, Frost Giant is likely very happy with the response.
What does success look like for Frost Giant? First, Stormgate must unite RTS players. Although StarCraft II is the most active in professional esports, the competitive community is split somewhat evenly between Age of Empires II, Age of Empires IV, Warcraft III, and StarCraft II. Even this outcome might not be enough for Storm Giant's venture backers. Famously, one of the StarCraft II expansions, Wings of Liberty, is claimed to have made less money than a $15 sparkly pony in World of Warcraft. To really hit big, Stormgate must revitalize the genre completely, and Frost Giant must acknowledge that its main competitors are not StarCraft and Age of Empires, they are League of Legends and Dota 2.
As daunting as that may be, one should not underestimate the potential of so-called niche games executed exceptionally well. Just ask Larian – before Baldur's Gate 3, turn-based RPG games were considered in the same category.
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