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.
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!