I've been playing RTS games seriously since C&C came out in '95, mainly focusing on C&C, Total Annihilation and Empire Earth, along with a few months of WC2, Red Alerts, SC, Homeworld, WC3, C&C Generals and Empires: DotMW and probably a few more best forgotten. My point is I have some experience.
The genre has certainly come a long way since then! C&C, a great game I had lots of fun playing competitively for 2 years, would crash and burn today if launched today for the simple reason that game balance between GDI and NOD was so skewed (NOD bikes, anyone?). Back then, one simply accepted the fact that one side was stronger than the other, and either played the best side in order to win, or the worst for the challenge.
Attitudes sure have changed since then, and for good reason - few people would enjoy playing black in chess if black lacked the queen unit! It's bad enough that white has the initiative.
The thing with small-scale RTS games like SC, Generals and DoW etc. is that the confrontation is early and fierce, and a blunder in the first skirmish will cost you the game vs a skilled player. So will an inferior build order or bad expansion/teching strategy, as they should. Maps are small, and there's not a lot of free ground to be taken, so the fight for the shared resources is of paramount importance. And since the vocal bunch among us have begun caring more about good gameplay than marveling at the prettyness of 3D tanks and the sheer coolness of online gaming, it's imperative that all sides and maps are perfectly balanced so one can't "just pick side A" to guarantee a win. And so, achieving a perfect balance between all the sides is gaining a lot of importance. Vocal people are what are heard, after all.
Blizzard has shown that a game's success can *hugely* gain from being a great competitive online game, with neigh-perfect balance and an almost flawless online matchmaking service. I believe at one point, SC had sold 3 million copies - 2 million of those being in Korea! Thousands of people ARE actually pro SC players, earning good money doing what they love.
Imagine X years from now. Games released have the basics down pat: they're pretty, cool and fun to play, and hopefully there's something new and innovative about them that makes them stand out from classics decades past - a reason to play them. They have no lethal bugs; in fact, that have no lethal lacks of any kind - different language versions are compatible, the game installs and runs well on all systems (focus more on scalable gfx quality, guys), and the online matchmaking service has basics like friends list, arranged team games, competitive and non-competitive areas and much more we haven't thought of yet.
Which leaves the question of how to achieve the critical, perfected balance that lends long life to a game with already great gameplay and mucho coolness factor. I humbly suggest the following idea to any game designer and developer that wants to take advantage of it, free of charge:
Most designers, however talented and dedicated to creating great games - I admire and thank you all - usually just don't cut it when it comes down to abusing various tactics. So, spend a little money hiring pro gamers to test your games. Employ these gamers all the way thru developement, and when the game is released, continue to employ them. *gasp*
Have them play online, picking whichever side is deemed weakest or vulnerable to rush A, B or C, or whichever side their opponents wish, and have them prove balance is fine by simply winning consistently with the weakest race! Have them available for challenges online, and have the replays posted of how to stop rush A, B or C, as well as generally play well.
The argument thus becomes: If they can stop rush A, beat side 3 and handle players abusing unit Y, so can you, with enough skills and experience. Yes, it might be tough to combat rush C, and yes, it might be easiest playing and winning with the default human race, but if the Pro Gamers are having no trouble maintaining an excellent win rate regardless of what is thrown at them, obviously the rush/side/unit can be effectively countered and beat, given proper knowledge, preperation and execution.
It goes without saying that in order for this to work, in order for the replays not being too revealing etc., gameplay must resemble that of Go's (best strategy game ever, impossible to utterly master) more than that of Tic Tac Toe's (sillyest game ever, trivial to utterly master).
Granted, RTS games are still mostly bought by people who will never even try them online, and so the pretty units and stuff is still the most important thing in order for a game to sell. Granted, I don't know anything about creating and publishing games, and I don't know anything about deadlines or priorities or why a game could possibly ever ship without different language versions being able to play together (was it really not tested even once?). But if I were in the business, I'd be drooling at Blizzard's success, and go about achieving gamebalance in a professional manner - just like the design and developement of the game is left to professionals!
It's time for the RTS genre to grow up and seize it's rightful, utterly dominating role as the passtime of choice for the growing hordes of casual and serious online gamers alike :]
PS. There's a reason TA came out on top of gamespy's Top 25 RTS Games Of All Time, right ahead of StarCraft. There's such a huge variety in the game depending on map type and size, there's enough to satisfy any desire. You have your small land rush maps, your metal maps with huge income rates, your air maps, small island maps, huge mountain maps, all-sea maps etc. etc. It took me half a decade to do it all enough to feel it was time to finally move on to something new (actually, I mostly stopped to dedicate myself more to my job as a pro gambler), and the game is still going strong, with just as much action as DoW or most other new RTS's enjoy. Moreover, the admittedly randomly discovered genius of including self-produced resource structures, allowing for exponential growth in base if so desired (well balanced versus claiming more of the map and the imbedded resources therein) hugely added to the strategic depth and sheer variance in possible effective build orders and approaches to the entire game. Curious fact: The game's brilliant creator, Chris Taylor, reportedly sucked beyond belief at his own game.