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GDC 2011: Strategy Game Veterans Look At The Genre's Biggest Challenges

A number of the industry's biggest names in strategy games, including Blizzard's Dustin Browder, Stardock's John Shafer, and EA2D's Soren Johnson discuss the major problems facing the genre.
In the GDC 2011 panel titled "Strategy Games: The Next Move," strategy game veterans Tom Chick, Soren Johnson, Dustin Browder, Ian Fischer, and Jon Shafer discussed the challenges facing the genre, and what future titles need to do to refine their mechanics and find economic success. Moderator Tom Chick, veteran games writer and strategy game enthusiast, opened the panel by asserting that strategy games are now in a "golden, or even platinum age," with big-budget titles like StarCraft II and Civilization 5 succeeding along with single-developer projects like AI War and Gratuitous Space Battles. Chick admitted, "I came here to talk about the problems with strategy games, but I'm at a bit of a loss." Blizzard Entertianment's Dustin Browder, game designer for StarCraft II, began the critique of the genre by noting that modern titles don't put enough emphasis on their design, and instead implement flashy camera systems and other features to attract players that may prefer action-heavy genres such as first-person shooters. In order to reverse this trend, Browder encouraged designers to look at classic incarnations of strategy games that pre-date video games by centuries. We need to "maintain core values that have literally existed for thousands of years," he said. Soren Johnson, who previously worked on the Civilization and is now a part of EA's social games division, insisted that modern strategy games should become simpler and include "transparent rules," making the games easier to understand for players of all skill levels. He also noted that the price for strategy games needs to drop, because if prices remain in the $50 to $60 range, "certain genres will disappear." Continuing the themes discussed by the other panelists, Ian Fischer of Robot Entertainment argued that strategy games can survive by limiting their target audience, saying, "They don't need to appeal to everyone." Another issue facing the genre is the steep learning curve that deters new and inexperienced players. Stardock's Jon Shafer, known for his work as lead designer of Civilization 5, said that until players no longer need to find strategies on YouTube other outside sources, strategy games will continue to appeal only to the most dedicated players. Chick then discussed the prospect of new business models to support strategy games, citing StarCraft II's three-product release plan and League of Legends' free-to-play model as examples of new ways to monetize strategy titles. Elaborating on StarCraft II's monetization plan, Browder admitted that splitting the game's single player campaign into three parts led to some serious challenges in the multiplayer space. "We don't want to muddy the game with lots of the same units, but we have to add something to add value so people will buy the products," he explained, wryly adding, "but that's a problem for another day." Shafer said that strategy games with smaller budgets are still viable, and can often provide more depth to smaller, more dedicated audiences. "Making games in the middle market allows for depth that keeps people interested for a long time," he said. "I don't feel the need innovate in business -- I just want to make fun games." With games of all genres moving into the social space, Johnson praised the new opportunities available on these platforms, including persistent player identities, and real social relationships. He pointed out, however, that few games have successfully taken advantage of these features. "There haven't been many interesting or challenging games on Facebook," he noted. "We still have a long way to go." The panelists also discussed the opportunities cooperative play offers to the genre, though Chick argued, "a lot of work can still be done in terms of artificial intelligence." Shafer immediately responded to Chick, saying, "I don't think it makes financial sense to make great AI," arguing that budgets can be more efficiently allocated to other areas of development. Browder noted that while Blizzard hasn't broken the bank when developing its AI for StarCraft II, a number of obstacles arise when creating believable AI. He explained that the "difficulty lies in making AI feel human," noting that StarCraft's AI cannot learn player positions and the like unless it uses the very same means as a human player. Finally, the panelists touched on the possibilities of strategy games on iOS devices, with Chick noting that these touch-based devices allow strategy games to mimic or harken back to the simple and refined mechanics of traditional board games, providing new opportunities for developers to focus their design.

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