I see this misconception all the time, so in an effort to clear things up: performance is not the problem for RTS’s; or at least it’s no more a problem than for any other genre. With a big budget you could create an RTS that looked like Battlefield when zoomed in if you wanted to, no problem at all. The problem for RTS’s is ‘responsiveness’ .
Here is an exercise:
- Open the windows calculator program ( if you’re on win10 ).
- Quickly hover your mouse back and forth over the buttons; take note of the buttons highlighting.
- Try clicking various buttons quickly; take note of the numbers appearing on the calculator screen.
- This is what high responsiveness looks like.
Then: Repeat the exercise in a high-fidelity 3D game of your choice, by using it’s in-game UI like an inventory or skill screen. Jump back and forth between the calculator and the game to compare responsiveness.
- Notice the absolutely colossal difference.
Please note that the responsiveness of a program ( whether game or not ) can not be improved forever simply by getting a better PC; there is a hard limit on how responsive a program can be depending on how it is coded (rendering pipeline in particular).
My example above had to do with UI responsiveness, simply because that is the easiest practical example to give, but UI is besides the point here; what is really important for RTS’s is the responsiveness of the game itself - i.e. how quickly actions in the game are able to respond to your inputs. RTS’s, at least traditional ones like Starcraft / AOE, needs to be the Win10 calculator of computer game responsiveness; if they aren’t they will simply feel terrible to play. Other RTS’s, like Supreme Commander, are designed in such a way that responsiveness doesn’t matter much for it’s gameplay, which allows it lots of freedom to do fancy stuff that limits responsiveness (like unlimited unit-pop and massive zoom levels).
A good comparison genre when it comes to ‘responsiveness’ are FPS’s. You will notice that responsiveness exists on a scale and any given game will be designed around what responsiveness it can achieve. At the low end is Arma 3, it has absolutely terrible responsiveness but gets to do lots of really fancy large scale simulation stuff because of it’s willingness to sacrifice that responsiveness. The Battlefield series is a sort of middle ground with ok responsiveness. Call of Duty has very good responsiveness actually but pretty limited map sizes because of it. High (RTS worthy) responsiveness is achieved by twitch shooters, most notably DOOM Eternal. DOOM Eternal is the Win10 calculator of computer games. Other high-responsiveness FPS’s include CS:GO and Unreal Tournament.
So here’s the challenge for AoE4 in terms of responsiveness: it needs to be able to achieve Win10 calculator / DOOM Eternal levels of responsiveness, but while having hundreds of active units, probably thousands of trees that must be individual interactable objects rather than a single static render, while supporting up to 8 players with their own simulated economy and unlimited building capacity and, most challenging of all, the players should be able to jump back and forth to any part of the map - as often as they’d like - regardless of action going on, without any loss of responsiveness.
EDIT: Ever wondered why games like Total War, or Frozenheim above, always have that smooth momentum to controlling the camera? It’s because the programs aren’t responsive enough to support direct 1:1 camera input; if they allowed direct input as an option it would just feel choppy, delayed and terrible, and the lack of responsiveness would be made clear as day. So they go for that momentum-style camera because it feels smooth and doesn’t require good responsiveness. Of course, for an RTS like AoE4 that kind of camera control is absolutely unnaceptable.