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Jon Shafer, Blogger

February 5, 2013

6 Min Read

You can read more of Jon's thoughts on design and project management at his website. You can also find him on Twitter.


Strategy gaming faces many problems - will they be solved?

Strategy is among the oldest and most beloved gaming genres. But all is not well with this venerable stalwart. The list of issues plaguing digital strategy games is growing, and if this trend isn’t reversed it could result in this form of entertainment becoming completely marginalized or transformed as the technology used to consume entertainment continues to evolve.

In this article I’ll be analyzing the biggest problems with the genre, and on Wednesday I’ll be offering up my answer for them.

Lack of Clarity

The very essence of a strategy game is evaluating situations, crafting plans to achieve a goal, and adapting as necessary during execution. Many titles fail right from the start, and don’t provide players with enough information to properly evaluate what’s going on. There are two major culprits here.

The first is 3D graphics. High-detail art is great for providing immersion, and there is certainly value to this even in the strategy genre, but many times the priority has become good graphics for the “sake” of good graphics. The target of effectively conveying information is forgotten, and the game suffers as a result.

Another pet peeve of mine that’s particularly pertinent to to this genre is bad user interface and tutorials. If players A) don’t know what’s important, or B) don’t know what tools are available to them, then how are they supposed to make meaningful decisions? Sure, some people will plow forward until they’re able to eventually figure the game out, but why turn away everyone else?

It’s easy for developers to forget what it’s like to play a complex game for the first time. Effectively teaching new players is one of the most important elements to get right, and unfortunately it’s also one of those done wrong most often.

Wait, so... what's going on here?

Solving Puzzles is Not Strategy

Finding solutions to  puzzles can be interesting and fun. But it’s not strategy. A truestrategy game has no “correct” solution, and instead offers players a variety of tools to achieve a goal. It’s impossible to achieve perfect balance, so there will always be some puzzle-like elements in all strategy titles, but some completely abandon this pursuit and can be boiled down into a small subset of correct play.

Anyone who has been reading my articles for a while knows I’ve spoken at length about the vital role player adaptation can and should play. The entertainment provided by a strategy game comes from facing a challenge, developing an answer for it, and then overcoming that challenge. The key is that final piece. Overcoming. The tougher and more frequent the challenges being overcome, the more enjoyable the experience.

Puzzles can only be overcome once, and as a result offer almost no replayability. The reason why the Civilization games can remain interesting for so long is because it takes much longer to “solve” the variety of situations players can find themselves in.

Puzzle games can certainly be fun, but they're not strategy games.

Midgame Drag

Have you ever been playing a grand strategy game and about halfway through said to yourself, “you know, this isn’t really all that interesting any more… maybe I’ll start a new game.” Well, the three of you who said “no” – sorry, I know you’re lying! Many titles in this genre seem to lose steam about halfway through. Why is that?

The reason is that these games tend to outstay their welcome. A good analogy would be a long-running TV series which stays on the air simply because it keeps making money. The writers might have wanted it to end a while ago, but forces outside of their control are keeping it going. The only place where this analogy doesn’t work with strategy games is that the designers do have the ability to cut the game off whenever they so choose.

Many of these games continue slumbering onward because their subject matter demands it. In a game that claims to cover all of history, it would be a big faux pas if the developers said, “well, the game stops being fun around 1600 AD, so we’ll just end it there.” Such a decision might make sense from a game design perspective, but it would be a marketing nightmare. And so they have no choice but to continue sputtering on until they finally collapse across the finish line.

But why do they lose their momentum at all?

A moniker often used for empire builders is “4X”, for exploration, expansion, exploitation and extermination. Unfortunately, once you get halfway through a game the first two Xs – by far the most enjoyable for many players – are pretty much wrapped up. Unless you really enjoy watching meters fill up or have a particular love for the less-than-perfect combat systems these games tend to feature there’s really not much left to see. And so we quit and start over.

Okay... now what?

Too Much Fluff, Not Enough Strategy

As we’ve already noted, the essence of a good strategy game is having the information to make difficult, interesting decisions. A trap many games fall into is to include so much stuff that determining what’s important becomes difficult. And that’s not fun. If players can’t wrap their head around the options available to them, how are they to choose one? And even if they do, how can their choice have any meaning?

The foundation of Unity of Command’s brilliance is its minimalism. No aircraft, no Panzer Mk IIIEs, no AP versus HEAT ammunition. But those elements which areincluded are all clearly important and worth your full attention.

There is certainly room for more detailed strategy games, but that doesn’t absolve developers of analyzing every aspect of their work and honestly ask themselves, “could my game be better if this were removed?” Much of the time the answer to that is “yes.”

So I’ve done an awful lot of complaining about the state of strategy games, and you might be thinking, “well, if he’s so smart, what would he do differently?”

In fact, that question will be answered in full starting Wednesday morning, when I’ll be announcing my new game and we’ll be embarking on a new lengthy series of articles.

See you all then!

- Jon

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Jon Shafer


Jon Shafer is a lead designer at Stardock Entertainment, currently directing an unannounced project. Prior to working at Stardock, He was the lead designer and principal gameplay programmer for Civilization 5 while at Firaxis Games. Jon lives in Michigan and (when he's not fighting-the-good-fight on behalf of PC games) spends his free time cooking, listening to podcasts and playing strategy games/RPGs.

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