Editorial: What Is Wrong with the Strategy Genre?

Wait, which units are mine?

I have no idea what is going on here.

When I sit down to play a strategy game these days, it seems like I never finish any skirmish games I start. At first I put this down to a lack of time in my adult life, many responsibilities keep me from being able to put several hours into a game in one sitting. But when I return to my saved games, I find that I would rather start over and begin a new game than pick up where I left off. When I looked closely at the games I enjoy I found that it was not I who had changed, the problem was that the games were still following the same patterns as they did years ago.

It is not hard to ignore the fact that strategy games have remained largely stagnant in the 21st century, especially considering that most of the successful titles have been sequels, such Starcraft 2, Civilization 5, and Total War: Shogun 2 – and they are sequels to games that have been around for about a decade or longer. Part of the issue is that developers are not putting enough creative innovation into their strategy games, forcing players to return to sequels of classics. So what is it, exactly, that is wrong with strategy games, and what could the industry do a little different to break out of the current rut and revitalize this genre?

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 do not provide players with enough information to properly evaluate what is 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.

The second is that is also particularly pertinent to this genre is bad user interface and tutorials. If players do not know what is important, or are not aware of what tools are available to them, then how are they supposed to make meaningful decisions? Sure, some people will plow forward until they are able to eventually figure the game out, but why turn away everyone else? It is easy for developers to forget what it is 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 is also one of those done wrong most often.

War... War never changes

The map has been colonised, there is nothing left to do but… skip turns?

I believe customization is a feature woefully lacking in mainstream strategy games, and it is something you think would be a no-brainer for games that appeal to min/maxing nerds like us. Part of the reason why collectible card games, such as Magic the Gathering, can endure the test of time is purely because of the plethora of creative customization options at a players fingertips – so why not try to emulate that in a strategy game? Instead of giving us a playable faction with a dozen units, give us a faction with a hundred units, but force us to pick the dozen from that list that best suit our tastes. Sure, this would be a balancing nightmare, but it would also be a wet-dream come true for competitive players interested the ever changing metagame of online play.

Another option would be to offer the ability to tweak my units, such as by lowering speed in exchange for increased survivability, or adding an additional long-range weapon to a unit in exchange for a higher production cost. Maybe even allow us to design entire units from scratch in an editor before the game begins. Sure, something like this would complicate the delicate balance developers strive to employ in competitive games, but I think the end result would be worth it, and add years of replay value to games that notoriously have a shelf-life of about a year.

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 is really not much left to see. And so we quit and start over.

I believe this is why Starcraft and its sequel outlast other games in this genre. Games do not last long enough to get stale, and the game is gorgeous while still conveying information to the player. Battles are usually fought with a select few units rather than everything on offer. Blizzard have struck gold with this setup and it would not surprise me if it is still being played ten years from now.

What are your experiences with strategy games? Do you favour longer games like Civ 5 or shorter ones like Starcraft? Let me know in the comments!

6 comments on “Editorial: What Is Wrong with the Strategy Genre?”

  1. I don’t mean to be a bit troll here, but did you seriously put the Civilization in with this?

    The Civilization series has consistently revitalized their rules and gameplay mechanics in each incarnation- it’s why some players will still play both Civ IV and Civ V, not because Civ IV is better but because mechanically the games sit apart. In my opinion, the Total War and Civilization series have maintained an audience because they have consistently innovated the mechanics within the series.

    I mean, I can’t speak to RTS games, and certainly Paradox games desperately need a UI and Tutorial rehaul. I just don’t quite understand how Civilization fits in with the criticism here. *wipes foam from mouth*

  2. While it’s true that Civ IV & V do have some mechanical changes, their core gameplay hasn’t really changed. I’ve played all five Civ games and my cities still require food and still use production to complete projects.

    I don’t have much experience in multiplayer, but Civ endgame always seems to boil down to skipping turns while units march around the map. Any peaceful win requires skipping turns while projects complete, and a military win requires waiting while units build and move.

    Don’t take my opinion to mean that I don’t enjoy playing these games though. I will still waste three or four hours in a sitting, even if I never go back to the save game because these are the games I love.

  3. This genre isn’t my strong suit, but all I know about Civ is that the four of my friends who play it and love it, have all dumped Civ V in favor of IV. I just assumed the general consensus was that V wasn’t as good. I don’t really know their reasons for liking IV more, and apparently their opinions aren’t as universal as I had thought.

    My exposure with these games is pretty lacking. I’ve tried both Civ (4 and 5) as well as Starcraft 2, and just wasn’t finding myself engaged enough to learn the ins and outs. Meanwhile all my friends had tons of prior experience in this field, and did try to get me on board. But no one really had the time to get me up to speed properly and I certainly didn’t have the motivation. Coupled with the likely reality that I’m not all that good at this type of game, and I’ve just never been able to get too deep into any of these fine titles.

  4. @Scott – Oh, no, I didn’t take it as you not enjoying the games; apologies if I came off like that. I was in a bit of a rush and was admittedly surprised by the critique. I suppose it comes down to having differing opinions on which elements really constituted “core” elements. (editorial note: Bleh, I keep rewriting the following because every time I get into it I realize how much of a Fanboy I sound like.)

    In my mind the Civilization series (and Total War series as well. Gotta’ give them some love) have changed enough mechanics to justify, if not innovation, at least not being called out for “stagnation.” I think a rather comparable situation is with Dungeons and Dragons- yes, certain mechanics and elements have always remained the same (pick a class, use skill points, roll dice), but each edition offers enough changes to appeal to a different kind of experience. I can’t speak for Starcraft II because I was too late to join the Starcraft party and RTS have always made me cry in a corner after a while.

    More on point with what we agree on, however, it would be extremely nice to see the genre shaken up even more with a new IP of some kind, and perhaps a shift into the console market might offer the change in mechanical gameplay that you’re looking for. I personally think that a large part of the Strategy market’s problems can be traced to it being a primarily PC genre. Hopefully the release of X-Com has shown developers that the genre is actually viable on the console market.

    @Mel – I know that there are those who do prefer IV to V (I think their opinion tends to be that V simplified things too much? I only heard smatterings on forums, so I don’t really know.), but at the very least my friends tend to enjoy V quite a bit.

    I know that for me Strategy games really only came into my radar when I started to live with a major Strategy game player, so I can understand your sentiment.

  5. I’d recommend Galactic Civilizations II. It doesn’t have many of Civilization’s problems. The pace is steady, diplomacy actually works like diplomacy, it stays interesting, and if the end game is in sight for a non-violent victory, it passes by quickly whereas Civ somehow takes hours to finish even after victory is in sight and inevitable. You can also customize units. I’ve been preferring GalCiv 2 lately because it’s less irritating and slow than Civilization.

    I’m re-addicted to turn-based strategy games now as I tend to be when new games aren’t coming out faster than I can play them. I bounce between Civ V and GalCiv 2, and every now and then look up a random strategy game to try. Bought The Guild last March on a Friday evening and played it hours past sunrise. Then went back to GalCiv 2 the next weekend. I don’t let myself start a new game on weekdays… I have self control issues once I start.

    RTS games don’t interest me unless I’m playing with or against friends. I got hooked on and then burned out on StarCraft 2, and have otherwise accepted I just don’t like RTS games that aren’t made by Blizzard. To me, RTS games and turn-based ones are nothing alike. I wouldn’t group Civilization with StarCraft.

  6. I always wanted to play multiplayer StarCraft where the point wasn’t trying to utterly destroy everyone. Like, sure, there can be conflicts over resources, but nobody wants an all-out war. Maybe even have a method of negotiation through economics, alliances, etc. to diffuse conflict. See where that goes.

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