For millennia, the legacy of Ancient Rome has loomed large in our collective cultural imaginations. Even today there are countless releases of books, films, and TV shows celebrating the cultural legacy of Rome, from the fearsome gladiators to epic imperial conquests.
But what about video games? When exploring the depictions of Ancient Rome in gaming, there are of course a few major titles that spring to mind. There’s the hugely successful Total War series, an excellent exploration of Roman geopolitics that has sold over 20 million copies and scooped up a ‘Game of the Year’ award on no less than three occasions. There are video game’s inspired by popular movies, such as the highly-regrettable and critically-panned title The Gladiators of Rome, released shortly after the famous Russel Crowe film in an attempt to cash-in on a wave of Gladiator fever.
However, when compared to other media, video games inspired by Ancient Rome appear to be increasingly thin on the ground these days. Could this be due to a spate of critically unsuccessful releases scaring off game developers? Or is there something else at play? Let’s take a look at the position of Ancient Rome in the gaming world, to explore what the future may hold for this fascinating and entertaining topic.
Gladiator Gaming: The Glory Days
While the gaming public has not enjoyed a commercially successful Gladiator title for a while now, things weren’t always this way. The 90s and early 2000s could be looked back on as a kind of golden age for Ancient Rome-themed games, with a number of hugely successful and pioneering titles hitting the shelves throughout these years.
The 1990 Electronic Arts game Centurion: Defender of Rome, released for MS-DOS and Sega Genesis, was one of the first to ever pioneer real-time strategy in gaming, as well as the now commonplace concept of choice-based narratives. The hugely popular game requires the player to use diplomacy, violence, and ally-building to become the next Emperor and was one of the biggest releases of the year.
This title was shortly followed up by a quick succession of smash-hit Roman games. More strategy games followed in the form of titles like Asterix, and the now-iconic Total War: Rome, which launched the series into household name status, being one of the most critically-acclaimed strategy games ever made to this day.
Strategy games died out in popularity during the 2000s, to be replaced with combat-focused gladiator games. Most of these did not find the same level of success, but major releases such as Colosseum: Road to Freedom made a big splash, and still enjoy a significant cult following today.
Rome in Gaming Today
Since those heady days, developers clearly went through a long period where they lost interest in the genre. Things have picked up again in recent years though, but it is unclear whether this renewed focus on Rome has paid off with sales. The most telling development was the much-hyped release of the Xbox One game Ryse: Son of Rome, a mega-budget combat game which was one of the first releases on the console. Despite a multi-million dollar ad campaign, sales were poor, and critical reception was lukewarm, leading to speculation that Ancient Rome as a genre was finished.
Very recent developments do suggest that the tide is turning, however. Following the flop of Ryse, big producers pulled back and allowed smaller developers to fill the void and produce a different kind of Roman content. There was the surprise indie hit Domina in 2017, a particularly clever 8-bit PC game which reveled in the decadence and popular imagery of Ancient Rome. Similarly, smaller games have capitalized on the image of the era to launch crossover games, such as the popular Gladiator’s Gold slot on the casino site Betway, which allows players to win real money whilst playing against the backdrop of the Colosseum. It certainly seems that smaller-scale games are becoming the new playing field for Ancient Rome.
While immersive, big-budget Roman games have faded from the limelight, some major releases are also continuing to borrow heavily from the imagery. Last year’s smash-hit combat game For Honor is primarily a Medieval fantasy game, but borrows heavily from Ancient Roman motifs such as gladiators and centurions, suggesting that the imagery of the time still has the power to enchant audiences.
What Does the Future Hold?
Much like the city itself, the appeal of Ancient Rome is eternal. Recent developments are suggesting that players may not be interested in the kind of immersive content which tries to heavily to recreate Rome, but rather simply enjoy the imagery and the things that the period now stands for in the modern world. The actual history may no longer have much appeal, but the decadence, brutality, wealth and adventure that we associate Rome with are always going to have plenty of appeal among gamers of all stripes.