The RTS genre isn’t broken. It just needs a tune-up.
March 31, 2023 at 2:48 p.m. EDT
In this palace of fresh starts, in a small glass conference room down the hall from the cafe, a cadre of video game industry veterans — Frost Giant’s brain trust — was discussing the future of the RTS genre, or real-time strategy.
In an RTS, players control vast numbers of units to gather resources, build bases and engage in combat. The genre has always been popular, but its undeniable heyday spanned from the ’90s to the mid-aughts. Frost Giant, founded in 2020, boasts a staff with decades of combined experience working on RTS titles, and a single-minded drive to create a successor to the genre greats of yore.
Today, the team has a good sense of what that successor looks like. In fact, more than just a sense: Something resembling a game already exists. The team can play it, and they like playing it. In varying stages of completeness (ranging from “we’re playing this” to “we’re planning this”) the game comprises a 1v1 mode; a campaign that can be played cooperatively (and will be expanded upon with purchasable seasonal updates); 3v3 and 3vE modes; and an editor to enable fans to make their own maps.
Just as important as the physical fact of the game, though, is what it represents: An opportunity to make the famously complex — some might even say off-putting — RTS genre better.
“Why, when I get through a competitive match, is my hand shaking from the stress?” Tim Campbell, the co-founder and president of Frost Giant, said of playing RTS games. “Why does losing at this make me want to flip my table and break my keyboard? How can we step into this space in a way that improves the experience for players and makes this more of a joy for them to experience?”
Last April, in that small glass conference room, the studio’s decades of experience were marshaled in service of figuring out what Frost Giant’s debut game would be called. Around the room, sheets of paper held up by blue tape were marked with key pillars of a good video game title, including “Game Fit,” “Cool Factor,” and for Frost Giant’s debut specifically, “Hopeful/Optimistic.” Tim Morten, the studio’s CEO and co-founder, quietly recused himself from the selection process. Broad-shouldered and bearing a thin, near-constant smile, Morten was a selling point for the studio; some Frost Giant employees defected from high-ranking positions elsewhere to work with him. When the meeting began, he agreed to take notes.
The four other in-person attendees milled about, picking names from a large list of candidates drawn up by the entire studio and scrawling them on Post-it notes to be affixed under the appropriate pillar. One sheet, labeled “Foundational,” was meant for names that might still fit the IP 20 years later.
Some contenders began to emerge: Sigma, Stormgate, Earthrise. Cara LaForge, head of business operations, chimed in to say that Wargate, one of the options, “sounds like RTS.” The two-syllable structure, she pointed out, might draw parallels to Warcraft and StarCraft, seminal RTS franchises. (LaForge’s sons, Nick “Tasteless” Plott and Sean “Day” Plott, are fixtures in the StarCraft esports scene).
Third Dawn was another buzzy candidate. Someone asked: Would it register to fans as a winking reference to “StarCraft III”? Just days before Frost Giant announced its arrival on the scene in 2020, Blizzard, the steward of the StarCraft franchise, announced it would no longer develop new content for 2010’s “StarCraft II.” The news felt like a death knell for the series. The name Third Dawn, then, might be viewed as a cutting retort — Frost Giant picking up the baton conspicuously dropped by Blizzard.
Another attendee replied: Would that be such a bad thing?
Frost Giant eventually chose “Stormgate,” a title it unveiled to much fanfare at a major industry event last summer. But the code name used before then — and still, to this day — is Pegasus. The inspiration was Medusa, the code name for “StarCraft II.”
Last year, I played the closest thing to an existing version of Pegasus: a greybox prototype built to help shop Frost Giant’s idea around to investors. In game development, “greyboxing” is a drafting technique, resulting in a no-polish but playable proof of concept. Teamed up in-game with two Frost Giant employees (three-person-team based game modes are a core component of the studio’s pitch for “Stormgate”), I was let loose in a textureless sandbox peppered with mountain ranges assembled from perfectly smooth, overlapping gray cones. Our objective: defend “the homestead” from generic, shambling enemies spawning in waves around the map.
Campbell observed over my shoulder as I played. “You can’t watch someone’s first playthrough twice,” he said after our group notched a win.
In a way, I was the perfect test subject. I had dabbled in RTS games before but always bounced off, never quite feeling comfortable with the genre. Controlling the movement of hundreds of units, monitoring the outputs of scores of different bases, all while fending off enemy attacks — it always made me feel small and stupid. Having seen professional players navigate menus and submenus and sub-submenus with near-algorithmic efficiency, I knew there were strategies and ways of thinking about the genre that I would simply never understand without an academic time commitment.
When I sat down, I set my fingers on the WASD keys by default. But instead of moving a discrete unit on the board like it might in other games, pressing those keys shifted the camera. Sitting beside genre luminaries, I felt way out of my depth.
“You’re our target,” Morten reassured me later, laughing.
Morten and Campbell — lovingly referred to by some on the team as “the Tims” — are veterans of the canonical RTS franchises. The former worked on “StarCraft II” and a canceled Command & Conquer title; Campbell was lead campaign designer on a “Warcraft III” expansion. That experience has informed their approach to “Stormgate,” and perhaps more importantly, shaped their view of who an RTS fan might be. In particular, they see their new game as a corrective to the idea that RTS games are inherently sweaty. The game’s success won’t be measured by how many campaign players opt to become competitive try-hards.
“I’ve had so many people say to me, ‘I’m not a real StarCraft player, I only play campaign,’ ” Morten said. “I’m like, ‘It’s okay!’ ”
Campbell chimed in: “You are exactly like 75 to 80 percent of the audience.”
At Frost Giant, the Tims agreed, it was liberating to be able to think in advance about how to make an RTS game not just comprehensible, but inviting to new players. When Blizzard released “Legacy of the Void,” an expansion to “StarCraft II” on which Morten was co-producer, a cooperative mode released as part of the package became the most popular mode in the game. But the team never designed any kind of onboarding for new players, assuming that the vast majority of players would already be familiar with StarCraft’s mechanics by the second expansion.
The result, Morten said, was that the quality of a new player’s experience depended entirely on how good of a teacher the friend who invited them was. And that’s not to say the default RTS onboarding experience had ever been that great. In many cases, Campbell said, tutorials for RTS games were designed last, after the rest of the game was completed.
“That seems like a logical progression,” Campbell said. “But what’s left out of there is that usually, by the time you finish the game you have a week left until it needs to ship.”
Introducing a newcomer to the genre with “Stormgate” will be a bigger task than just designing better tutorials. It’ll mean convincingly dispatching with the stereotypes strangling the RTS genre. It’ll mean finding ways to streamline mechanics familiar to and even beloved by fans without sacrificing depth. It’ll mean engaging with creators and fans who can evangelize “Stormgate” to new players in the first place.
“Our hypothesis isn’t that RTS is broken and that we need to fix it. It’s that our presentation was flawed,” Morten said. “There’s an opportunity for us to present it in a way that makes players who previously didn’t try RTS come in and feel comfortable.”
Why not just make “StarCraft III?” In 2020, rumors circulated on social media and among StarCraft fans that new RTS games had been pitched — and turned down — at Blizzard. Morten politely sidestepped the question when I asked about those rumors.
“There was no, like, ‘this is the product’ kind of pitch,” he said. “It wasn’t the case that there was a specific product pitched.”
In a later interview, an employee’s allusion to “some ideas” Morten had been floating at Blizzard prompted a quick interjection by a nearby PR person, followed by several unbearably quiet seconds of questioning glances shot back and forth. But pitch or no pitch, Morten felt that the conditions weren’t right at Blizzard to push for an RTS. He decided to go independent.
Around the same time, Campbell shipped the role-playing game “Wasteland 3” and was looking for his next project. He and Morten had talked about building a new RTS for years, but the timing never quite synced up. Now, the stars seemed to align.
The two reconnected at a Starbucks. Opening a studio, they realized, would require much more than just an idea. They needed funding. They’d have to hire staff. And the window to take the entrepreneurial route wouldn’t stay open forever. The two had bills to pay. If he waited too long, Campbell said, work would likely begin on some new game at inXile Entertainment, the studio he was working for at the time. Morten, for his part, was entertaining an offer from Riot Games.
So when Bitkraft, a venture capital firm focused on gaming, expressed a desire to invest, the two took the leap.
“That very much was what made Frost Giant possible, and I think switched us from high concept to, wow, this is actually something we could do for real,” Morten said.
That’s when the real work started. Filing paperwork. Setting up a bank account. Dialing up peers to say “Hey, we actually got funded!” Gathering that first set of employees in person — often spread far apart, in folding chairs, in someone’s backyard. Opening an office. Setting up furniture. Then, of course, there’s an entire game to make.
“It’s a big leap to come join a start-up that has zero track record,” Morten said.
“In the middle of a pandemic!” Campbell interjected, completing the thought. “Just about everybody here was at a big, stable, successful company. That’s a lot to ask out of people. Roll the dice. Take a plunge. Many of them have families and responsibilities and mortgages.”
Jesse Brophy, Frost Giant’s art director, says Morten, a former co-worker, brought him to the studio. But it was Brophy’s wife who convinced him to take the risk.
“I was very worried about the future of my family,” Brophy said. “And [my wife] was very much like, it’s time for you to go do this. This is what you’ve always wanted to do. Go and tackle it. And even if for some reason — which it won’t — it does not work out in the long run, it’s still the right decision.”
The Frost Giant office is dotted with Blizzard paraphernalia: Wooden BlizzCon coasters in the conference room. An “Overwatch” hoodie hanging over the back of an ergonomic office chair. A “Warcraft III” poster signed by a who’s who of Blizzard employees — including Campbell. Idle chatter sometimes turns to recent card games with former Blizzard colleagues. One Frost Giant employee reminisced about a gorgeous hike to the Morhaimes’ house. (Mike Morhaime is one of the founders of Blizzard; he left the company in 2019 to found a new studio, Dreamhaven, with his wife.)
The vibe of “Stormgate,” too, can be described as a mix of the bright, optimistic aesthetic of “Overwatch” and the red, hellish imagery of the Diablo series — both Blizzard products.
Each reference to Blizzard is a reminder of Frost Giant’s rich pedigree. But it also hints, sometimes awkwardly, at the fact that many of these developers chose to leave Blizzard. Gerald Villoria, Frost Giant’s communication director, is one of those defectors.
Villoria got his first job in the games industry at the turn of the century.
“I was in biotechnology at the time, and I was writing game reviews for fun and just sending them out and getting paid 25 bucks for them,” Villoria said. Then, the gaming news outlet GameSpot came calling.
For a few years, Villoria wrote FAQ stories at GameSpot alongside folks like Greg Kasavin (who would go on to write a slew of celebrated titles, including “Hades” and “Bastion”) and Jeff Gerstmann (who later founded the popular video game website Giant Bomb). Then, as often happens in games media, Villoria was laid off.
For the better part of a decade, he bounced from outlet to outlet. A stint writing reviews for Xplay. A few years at GameSpy. Villoria and his wife, who was pregnant with twins, had just relocated to San Francisco when he was laid off again.
“I was looking for work with no health insurance, knowing the twins were coming and they would be born premature, over a month early,” Villoria said. “When you’re unemployed without any savings, that’s a lifetime of debt that you don’t get out from under.”
Villoria was in the hospital, in scrubs and with gloves on, when he got a phone call. It was Blizzard; they wanted to offer him a job on their PR team.
“I said, ‘Yes, can you give me health insurance?’” Villoria recalled. The person on the phone said, “ ‘Go be with your family. We’ll take care of everything.’ And they did. I never had to sign a piece of paper. They made sure everything was covered.”
When Villoria showed up for his first day on the job with his NICU bracelet still on, his new boss told him to go home.
“What that bought me was a reprieve from this feeling I had where you don’t love a company because a company doesn’t love you,” Villoria said. “Companies will only keep you for as long as you’re valuable to them. But it felt like Blizzard cared about me as a human.”
Villoria stayed at Blizzard for 11 years. Toward the end of his tenure, though, the warm feelings he enjoyed when he started at the company — a warmth that was rekindled, over and over, by the work of his talented colleagues — began to fizzle. Blizzard, he felt, had changed, and Villoria began to think about leaving. After talking to Morten, he did.
“What I wanted was to go back to what it felt like at first, when you felt like, ‘This person I work for, I want to be in the trenches with that person,’” Villoria said of his move to Frost Giant. “I want to be helping them do everything they can. I want to feel good about what I do day-to-day.”
If some at Blizzard slowly began to feel ambivalent about the company and its culture privately, in 2021, explosive public allegations of misconduct at the company cast a shadow over the once-vaunted developer. In October 2021, Activision Blizzard was sued by what was then known as California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing. In a sweeping suit, the video game publisher was accused of cultivating a “pervasive ‘frat boy’ workplace culture.” Among other allegations, the suit called out the death by suicide of an employee at the company at a corporate retreat; according to the filing, sexual harassment by male co-workers contributed to this employee’s death.
Both Morten and Campbell said they hadn’t seen the kind of behavior alleged in the lawsuit while at Blizzard. Still, it was a wake-up call for Frost Giant, and a reminder of the importance of actively fostering a healthy and appropriate workplace culture.
“It’s heartbreaking that people had bad experiences there,” Morten said. “I think we feel a tremendous amount of sympathy for those people.”
“Earlier in my career, at different companies, culture was kind of an afterthought. It would just kind of fill in the gaps around what was being asked of the team,” Campbell said. “I think being really proactive and conscious about actively — every single day — working to create the type of culture that we want here, that is welcoming and healthy for the team, and then being vigilant from day-to-day about that, is for me, the big takeaway here. Good culture, healthy culture does not spring up by accident.”
For everyone at Frost Giant, “Stormgate” is a life-changing opportunity. To ship a new, original game. To design a fresh, exciting world. To write an expansive, epic story. To breathe life into imaginative, sci-fi characters. To design new ways of play — new rules and mechanics. To help the next generation of fans fall in love with the genre that all of these developers adore so much. And for those same developers to love doing it, at no expense to their health and well-being.
“These are people who have worked on RTS practically their whole career,” said LaForge, the head of business operations, reflecting on one of the earliest iterations of Frost Giant: A group of peers, imagining what the studio might become, shouting ideas back and forth across a co-worker’s backyard.
“I think all of them have thought deeply about what they wish they’d done differently,” she said. “You know, you stand these things up and you instantly see all the flaws. So I think people came in almost immediately with strong ideas about how they could build things better, smoother, faster, make them more enjoyable. Fix things they wish they had built differently the first time.”