I love games and music, and one of my favourite game genres is RTS. I don’t know which led to the other, but one thing’s for sure: RTS music slaps. I would argue that it is one of the best genres for awesome, listenable music that you can put in your playlist. For example, RPGs have great music too but their soundtracks are too eclectic, as they are strongly themed to specific levels or characters. Action games can also have great music but they are very situational, with a mix of stealth, action and boss tracks. RTS games have a perfect blend of strong yet consistent themes, and the gameplay gives the music plenty of space to develop itself, not being dictated by the action onscreen.
In this post we’ll review great RTS music from its golden age, from the mid-90’s to early-mid-00’s. We’ll see how diverse studios and composers take different approaches to what style of music to use, and how they serve the game.
A brief history of golden age RTS music
The start of the RTS golden age (variously reckoned to be somewhere between Dune II and Command and Conquer) coincided with the wide availability of CD technology, and RTS music rode this technological wave and showcased high-fidelity soundtracks. The genre is perfect for music, its 10-30 minute gameplay sessions allowing uninterrupted, extended play. While Dune II had to use limited chiptune, by the time games like Command and Conquer came around, everyone jumped onto the CD audio bandwagon, since music is so key to RTS games.
The golden age is often characterized by the fierce rivalry between Westwood (Command and Conquer) and Blizzard (Warcraft, Starcraft), but was by no means a two-horse race, with quality releases from many other studios such as Ensemble (Age of Empires), Relic (Homeworld, later Dawn of War and Company of Heroes), Cavedog (Total Annihilation), and not to mention the numerous clones and contenders. The best of these entries also had fantastic music.
Great RTS games continued being released into the 2000’s but the genre tapered off in prominence. The 2010’s saw a brief resurgence with Starcraft II and various Age of Empires remasters, but new titles became rare. Nevertheless, the genre is healthier than it seems, with dedicated followings and titles like Age of Empires 2 and Total War occasionally appearing in top-50 most played charts. And throughout the years, great music remained a hallmark of the genre.
Let’s look at a few prominent composers/studios and how their music evolved.
Frank Klepacki / Westwood
Frank Klepacki, Westwood’s main composer for most of their RTS titles, started early with the studio, at 17 years of age. His early work included that of Dune II, which adapted music from the Dune movie. The music recreates the orchestral, synth-heavy and bleak soundscapes, but is very much constrained by the chiptune technology of its time. The advent of CD audio definitely expanded the capabilities of the music, and its remake, Dune 2000, showcases the musical lineage much more clearly.
The two Dune game tracks are not direct remakes but contain a lot of common elements. You can clearly identify the influence of the film score in the Dune 2000 version.
Klepacki’s most notable work came with Command and Conquer and its spinoff Red Alert. These games established his signature style, mixing electronic sounds and samples with rock and metal riffs, styles that are difficult to achieve if not for high-fidelity CD audio. Hell March is the breakout hit, wonderfully blending sounds of soldiers marching into a heavy metal beat, but Act on Instinct is a better example of this signature style. Its mix of newscaster-style voice clips and industrial metal perfectly evokes the game’s modern, techno-thriller setting.
Compared to its contemporary strategy games, which were slow-paced and had staid or somewhat dorky fantasy settings, Command and Conquer was fast, fresh and hip, thanks in no small part to its soundtrack.
Hell MarchRed Alert was the spinoff that overshadowed the original, including in its music. Its title track Hell March not only helped win several soundtrack-of-the-year awards, it also became the signature track for the game's sequels too, with remixed versions in each game. While each version is great in its own way, the contrast between the first and second is especially interesting. Despite being slower than the first, Hell March 2 manages to sound higher energy thanks to its richer layers and electronic styling. Showcasing Klepacki's maturing style and techniques, which closely resemble his self-described signature "rocktronic" style, the Red Alert 2 soundtrack was a welcome return to form for many fans who had mixed feelings about Tiberian Sun's slower, moodier turn.
Tiberian Sun shifted the series to a darker, apocalyptic, and slower-paced setting, and this is reflected in its soundtrack. Gone are the pumping beats and voice samples, replaced by moody synths and lots of ambient sounds.
In this soundtrack Klepacki collaborated with Jarrid Mendelson, who really came into his own in Emperor: Battle for Dune. An underrated game overshadowed by its contemporaries, Emperor represented many firsts for Westwood’s RTS games: a truly 3D engine, 3 radically different factions, and the use of different musical themes for each faction. Klepacki returns to the series for House Atreides, giving them a Dune-conventional theme, and prolific studio veteran David Arkenstone contributes an excellent heavy metal soundtrack for House Harkonnen. Mendelson’s dark synth House Ordos soundtrack was a standout, perfectly capturing the faction’s cold, ever-scheming personality.
Not An Option
This per-faction soundtrack approach culminated with Generals, which - owing to being made by a studio that had just a small part of Westwood lineage - was created by a different, yet very capable team: industry veteran Bill Brown and occasional collaborator Mikael Sandgren. Brown’s experience with past award-winning soundtracks like Rainbow Six is on full display in the USA faction’s orchestral-electronic tracks, evoking the techno-thriller themes of the USA being the good guys fighting international terrorists using high tech. The bigger surprise is in the excellent tracks for the China and Global Liberation Army factions, which feature tastefully-used ethnic samples and styles. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a game whose factions have big, bombastic personalities.
Contenders and PretendersIt's hard to understate how dominant RTS games were in the late 90's. Westwood in particular once accounted for 5% of the video games market - all platforms. It's therefore no surprise that clones were aplenty. Some were more successful than others, but even the less successful clones had surprisingly good music. Melbourne House released Krush Kill 'n' Destroy and sequels during this time, enjoying relative success in a few markets like its home market Australia and some unexpected ones like South Korea. Although mostly dismissed as inferior clones of Command and Conquer, it did feature great music from local artists.
Post-golden-age, Westwood’s franchises enjoyed further quality releases in Command & Conquer 3 and Red Alert 3. For genre and music fans, Command & Conquer Remastered Collection is particularly worth getting, with original and remixed versions of classic tracks. Meanwhile the fanbase continues to hope for a continuation of Generals.
In the late 90’s, during the peak of the RTS golden age, two studios emerged with stunning RTS releases and a dramatic approach to its music: Cavedog and Relic. Both debuted with award-winning titles, and were lauded for their atmospheric music, which set new bars for video game music.
Cavedog’s Total Annihilation, a 3D game featuring vast robot battles, had an unusual musical direction. Composer Jeremy Soule took the unprecedented approach of using a real orchestra to perform the epic, sweeping themes, evoking imagery such as crashing waves, verdant forests and sombre wastelands. This helped the soundtrack stand out from its rivals, and paid off well, winning best music awards, and some reviews even singled out the music as a highlight of the game.
Relic’s Homeworld set new benchmarks for atmospheric gameplay. With a space opera story that deals with heavy themes like genocide and cosmic horror, and remarkable visuals made with the assistance of astronomist consultants, it is indeed high praise when many reviewers said that Paul Ruskay’s music was on par with the rest of the game’s quality. In addition to ambient space drones and a prominent use of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Ruskay effectively uses the desert metaphor to describe space nomads, using Arabic and South Asian musical elements to evoke the utter isolation and desolation of space.
Although Cavedog met an untimely demise, Soule’s critically acclaimed works made him one of the most highly sought-after composers in the industry. His signature style of moving orchestral pieces brings some much needed colour to Relic’s next RTS franchise, Dawn of War. The game takes place on an otherwise conventional ground-based battlefield with small unit numbers, and it’s the haunting choirs in the soundtrack that remind the player that this was 40k, the grand, grimdark universe spanning millions of worlds. The Space Marine themes in particular give the faction its unique dignitas.
Post-golden-age, Relic reached newer heights with the Company of Heroes franchise, leaving the Dawn of War and Homeworld franchises in relative neglect with sporadic new releases. The creators of Total Annihilation resurfaced to create the Supreme Commander series, which had its moment in the sun. Looking back, these were two studios who proved that RTS - and video games in general - can evoke dark, powerful emotions, through the power of music.
The early golden age of RTS was dominated by Westwood and Blizzard’s rivalry. For a time the two studios released frequently, with each outdoing the other in rapid succession. The two studios also had very different philosophies, which engendered fierce loyalty among fans, and endless debates on which was superior. At least in terms of music, Blizzard started out behind - while Warcraft II had a well-crafted, medieval-orchestral soundtrack, it was notably shorter and less varied than Westwood’s similar offerings. The belated release of StarCraft saw a marked improvement. Here the composing team turned out a fantastic soundtrack, with distinct styles per faction. The Terran space cowboy themes were a standout, but the Zerg themes also deserve praise for the way dark synths and screaming guitars give a sinister, insect-like feel. One shortcoming is that the soundtrack is still rather short, at only 3 tracks per faction.
Blizzard took a big step up with Warcraft III’s soundtrack, taking the winning formula from StarCraft and notching it up to 4 unique faction themes. This time round the faction themes were done by different composers - like Westwood did earlier with Emperor: Battle for Dune - with each composer putting their personal touch on the outstanding themes. The Undead themes were my favourite, with catchy beats yet creepy atonal riffs, reminiscent to music from Diablo.
Blizzard were known for quality yet infrequent releases, which is both a blessing and a curse. The only notable RTS contribution post Warcraft III was StarCraft II, which featured an overall greatly enhanced soundtrack, especially the Terran faction’s more faithful rendition of the space cowboy theme. With Wings of Liberty being free to play, it is well worth checking out for RTS music fans.
Ensemble’s Age of Empires series took a unique approach to RTS games. By leaning heavily into historical accuracy, they carved out a strong niche, starting with the great yet somewhat janky Age of Empires, and perfected with Age of Empires II, a game so compelling that its remakes continue strong to this day. This was followed by the interesting spinoff Age of Mythology towards the end of the golden age.
The games span thousands of years of human history, and this vast scope represented a big challenge for its music. How do you represent music from a time so distant and alien, and across dozens of different cultures around the globe, while still functioning well as game music for modern players? The music team headed by Stephen Rippy seems to have chosen a middle path, combining the sounds and styles of ancient instruments with a modern sensibility to create unique soundtracks.
Without being familiar with historical music, I cannot fairly judge the success of this approach, but the quality of the music definitely advanced by leaps and bounds with every iteration; AoE’s music was passable yet interesting, AoE2 had some bangers mixed in with average ones, but AoM’s soundtrack was exceptional, with some reviewers stating it was one of the best of the year. It had diverse period instruments like the ney flute and tabla drums mixed with modern electric basses, guitars and keyboards, with high production values that feature some live orchestral pieces.
Ensemble would go on to release Age of Empires III before fizzling out, but the franchise lived on stubbornly, enjoying remakes and expansions to this day. The Definitive Editions of the classic games are well worth checking out especially if you missed the originals, and look out for the same treatment for Age of Mythology.
The golden age of RTS saw rapid innovation as virtually every studio brought new features to the table. This was the case for music too; studios got better and better at creating good music, with new techniques and higher fidelity.
Early RTS games like Dune II and Warcraft used MIDI or AdLib-style chiptune music, but by Warcraft II, released just two years later, Blizzard went with a SoundFont-rendered orchestral soundtrack, with much more realistic instrument sounds. Westwood leap-frogged Blizzard in this regard, releasing Command and Conquer earlier in the same year, but with high fidelity CD music with a mix of recorded and electronic instruments and samples, albeit in a totally different style. Total Annihilation released the following year blew everything out of the water with a real orchestral score, and this represented a tech pinnacle: soon almost every studio followed suit, using real instruments and high quality digital alternatives and high fidelity audio.
Dune II (1992)
Warcraft II (1996)
Command and Conquer (1996)
Total Annihilation (1997)
If you consider that OPL was first released in the mid-80’s and gaming consoles did not get universal CD-quality audio until the 6th generation around 2000, RTS games managed to do in 3 years (Warcraft to Total Annihilation) what it took 15 years for the rest of the industry to do, for audio tech, which is simply astounding.
The RTS golden age coincided with tremendous growth in the gaming industry. At the dawn of this time, studios were small and plucky, but by the early 00’s and the end of the golden age, staff and budgets ballooned to rival that of large Hollywood blockbuster productions. Music production value tracked this, going from a single in-house composer to multi-person teams producing high quality, multi-theme soundtracks, sometimes enlisting veteran composers that also worked in TV and film.
The earliest RTS games like Dune II, Warcraft and Command and Conquer featured a single in-house composer, producing music in a way that’s more or less the same as any other game project - a single, multi-track soundtrack, reflecting the theme of the whole game. Warcraft II pioneered, and StarCraft exemplified a new approach: per-faction soundtrack, that reflected the unique factions and their character. RTS games have always had different factions, but before StarCraft, their differences tended to be minor, with a few unique units, abilities, or stat differences. StarCraft showed how factions could be mechanically distinct, changing the entire play-style, and this was complemented perfectly by the soundtrack. Of course multiple soundtracks also multiplies the music budget, and StarCraft had two more composers assisting, yet had to make do with a smaller soundtrack per-faction. Other games with unique faction soundtracks followed, like Westwood’s Emperor: Battle for Dune and Generals, as well as Blizzard’s Warcraft III, to great effect. Each required multiple composers to manage the load. You might think that Ensemble’s Age of Empires series could also benefit with per-faction soundtracks, given the unique flavours of the civilisations, but the sheer number of factions made this unfeasible, and those games remained with the single-soundtrack approach.
Ensemble experimented with other music techniques in Age of Mythology. The excellent soundtrack also includes mellow versions of most of its in-game tracks, which are used in certain cutscenes and custom scenarios. This technique works quite well, to add variety to the game’s pacing, given the narrative-heavy nature of its campaign. The game also has another dynamic music technique: when a town centre is under attack, the music switches to a dramatic one, and fades away to the usual, chill soundtrack once the attack is over. This technique is somewhat less successful, given the jarring transition and how difficult it is to properly follow the tension of an RTS game - sometimes the most crucial moments are small skirmishes during key moments rather than large battles. Nevertheless it is interesting to see attempts at dynamic music in RTS.
Music, like many other aspects of RTS games, have matured after its golden age, as the genre stagnated. But by examining its history, its key titles and soundtracks, we can learn a lot about how to make and enjoy great music for games. Many of the best soundtracks are highly listenable and can easily go into your playlist. For those who want to (re)visit some great soundtracks, here are my top recommendations:
- Command and Conquer: this series is all about Frank Klepacki’s signature “rocktronic” style, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, definitely find a copy of the Command & Conquer Remastered Collection. Many tracks in this and the Red Alert series were good from even the earliest games, but if for some reason you want more, check out some of Klepacki’s non-game work too.
- StarCraft: the Terran faction’s space cowboy soundtrack is so iconic, and Glenn Stafford’s prog-rock background keeps it fresh with the tracks constantly evolving. StarCraft II is generally the better version, although StarCraft is still very enjoyable. Same goes with the factions, although Terran music is the most well regarded, the Zerg faction is pretty cool too, but in a dark-synth kind of way.
- Dune: for dark sci-fi this franchise’s unique setting offers the perfect thematic backdrop for some unique tunes. Empire: Battle for Dune’s Ordos and Harkonnen soundtracks are top-notch, but Dune 2000 remains my favourite rendition of the kind of epic desert sci-fi war that exemplifies this setting. If only there was a new Dune RTS…
- And last but not least, here are some of my single-title favourites: Age of Mythology (looking forward to the remake), KKND2, Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War, Total Annihilation, Command & Conquer: Generals (sorely needs a sequel or remake)…