The allure of strategy games explained
By Patrick Stafford
It’s an accomplished skill, and few possess it.
Being able to think and see two, three or four moves ahead of anybody else is something many people spend years trying to perfect. Browse the business section of any bookshop and you’ll see dozens of titles on strategy and strategic thinking. Warfare is built on strategy – being able to respond to unseen events with limited resources.
Based on that definition, then, strategy has been a part of videogames since their inception, at least in a rudimentary wavy. Pong arguably used limited forms of strategy. But as the medium has matured, strategy games have split into two popular forks: real-time and turn-based games.
But that’s only the beginning.
Not only does each sub-genre carry a significant amount of design challenges, forcing developers to build, test and balance each game ruthlessly, they each carry a grandiose perception. Often seen as the genre for players who want more than brainless action, strategy games aren’t just played for fun, but as a lifestyle.
Titles like Civilization and StarCraft have defined the modern strategy game, setting the bar for cerebral play. But there’s much more they can tell us not only about their design philosophies – they expose a treasure trove of data on the people who play them, and what makes them tick.
Strategy games make us smarter >>
You might be getting smarter if you play a strategy game.
A 2013 study from researchers at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium found people who played a real-time strategy game activated the part of their brains which deals with “cognitive flexibility”. That is, the area which deals with making quick decisions based on multiple points of information at once. It’s a key factor in determining intelligence.
In fact, the study, (Real-time Strategy Game Training: Emergence of a Cognitive Flexibility Trait; PLOS One), argues convincingly that areas of the brain that support cognitive flexibility can be tuned by “engrossing video game experience that stresses maintenance and rapid manipulation of multiple information sources”.
It’s not a surprise, when combined with the general perception of the strategy genre – that people who play them are smart. One of the markers societies use to determine intelligence is their ability to foresee events and manipulate them. (Successful entrepreneurs covet it ruthlessly).
But does that make people who play strategy games smarter? Jon Shafer, the lead designer of Civilization V, says the stereotype certainly appears true most of the time.
Most of the time.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of players think they’re smarter,” he says.
“For games like Civilization, for sure they might have a more intellectual bent. They probably watch more films like documentaries, and many older players may have played hex-based strategy games in the 70s and 80s.”
And why might that be?
According to Jamie Madigan, a psychologist and author of the “Psychology of Video Games” blog, a study by Oxford University social scientist Andrew Przybylski and his colleagues found players tend to gravitate towards titles which allow them to “take on roles similar to idealised versions of themselves”. (The Ideal Self At Play: The Appeal of Video Games That Let You Be All You Can Be. Psychological Science, 23(1)69-76.)
“The results of our work make clear that humans are drawn to video and computer games at least in part because such games provide players with access to ideal aspects of themselves,” the study says.
For a first person shooter, this might suggest the player desires control and authority. For an adventure game, it may point to a love of exploration. Even if a strategy player may not be as smart as they think they are, they certainly fancy themselves an intellectual. Madigan believes so.“You might expect that people who want to be really organised, on task, and competent at taking care of details (i.e., high conscientiousness) might be more likely to play and enjoy strategy games that let them feel competent by doing those things.”
It’s all in the turn >>
The methodology behind turn-based games is pretty simple.
Something happens. You take some time, think things through. Then, based on all the information you have at that particular moment, you respond.
Clearly, turn-based games differ from real-time counterparts by their nature. But beyond the superficial, there are some extensive design hurdles. Jon Shafer says while turn-based games don’t have the “natural” feel of a real-time pace, they instead empower players to decide what tasks are most or least important.
This is a monumental burden, and for a simple reason: pacing in a strategy game is everything. If a player is given too many decisions to make at the beginning of the game, they will become overwhelmed. This is why blended games like FTL allow players to “pause” the action and move avatars around. On the other end of the spectrum, taking too long between decisions can end up with a boring game.
Soren Johnson, the lead developer of Civilization IV, says this is by far the hardest challenge a strategy developer needs to overcome.
“You’re often not aware of what decisions you’re not making, because you can only look at one place in the world at a time. Something important may be occurring you’re not even aware of,” he says.
The solution is to give the player huge amounts of information, but too much in a game such as Civilization or Europa Universalis can become tedious. Without a well-designed tutorial, it becomes like The Matrix – a stream of code without any way to decipher it.
“You can focus on the player in these decisions but a decision that used to be interesting may not be interesting later on,” he says. “Where you first have your units in the first few moves of Civilization, each one of them is not necessarily all that interesting at the start.”
But this is also where turn-based games hit their stride. Being able to stop, think and then make moves based on internalising all the possible information empowers the player and builds up belief in their intelligence.
Shafer says as a result, turn-based games reward “analysis and preparation”. Turn-based players are blessed with time, so aren’t micro-managing details at a quick pace but rather, are carefully crafting individual mechanics to fulfill a long-term goal. The pressure, of course, increases in every decision – and often reaches a point that is incredibly difficult to manage.
A game like Crusader Kings 2, in which players manage a medieval dynasty, is incredibly complicated, not only dealing with combat but inter-family drama. By the end game, it’s incredibly easy to lose track.
On higher difficulty levels, the 2012 reboot of XCOM is fist-bitingly tense. Keeping track of which enemies are positioned and their lines of sight is tantamount to a professional chess match. (With an added personal aspect of personifying soldiers with names – a trait which arguably makes each turn infinitely harder).
This is where Shafer says turn-based games can stand to improve.
“I’d like to flip the genre on its head – maybe games need to do a little bit of a better job in laying out the path ahead,” he says. “I often found that challenging, and it’s something a lot of turn-based games have a little trouble with.”
“Players set their own pace, so the game isn’t telling them how long they’re spending on everything. They’re left to their own to figure out that experience, so you end up with 50 hour games, or 100 hour games.”
Shafer’s current project, At The Gates, attempts to rectify these programs by focusing on the exploration and expanding parts of the strategy timeline, so players can dwell on the “fun” parts before becoming overwhelmed.
“That’s part of what makes strategy so cool, but also intimidating,” he says.
Even with the complicated flood of information, it’s easy to see why players are attracted to turn-based games – they emulate real-world skills. Peter Thiel, the billionaire who founded PayPal, recently gave a lecture in which he said chess skills – he was at one time a professional player – taught him traits such as critical thinking, analytics and spatial awareness.
This is actually why strategy games are so intimidating to newcomers. If you fail, you can’t blame them on the controller being too slippery. Turn-based games are all in your head – losing a match is tantamount to admitting you just weren’t smart enough to win.
“Games as a whole are just basically practice for skills we use in daily life,” says Shafer.
“I think that’s another area where turn-based players tend to be more analytical, and dig into what’s going on. You can research and figure things out, whereas in other games you just don’t have the opportunity to do that.”
If you delay, you die >>
If turn-based games are peaceful, then real-time gaming is downright scary.
If you’ve ever watched a professional StarCraft match, then you’ll know just how stress-inducing the experience can be. Mechanical keyboards are pressed to their limits with players hoping their KPM – keystrokes per minute – skyrocket.
If you delay, you die. Speed is everything.
“Real time games are not at all tedious – they have the opposite problem,” says Johnson, who is himself developing a real-time game about the stock market.
“They demand a lot of players’ focus and mental energy, because you know there is going to be stuff you’re not going to be able to handle. You basically do the best you can to at the moment, wherever it’s pulling your attention.”
In real-time, creating units or units takes a particular number of seconds, which then informs the greater strategy of what can be built, and at what time, in order to both create a dominating force and respond to threats. Not only does this create an enormous amount of stress about how and when to respond – a few seconds’ delay in a build order puts you well behind the competition - it puts developers in an awkward position of making sure the “balance” is right for each unit.
But it isn’t just going fast that will save you in a thrilling match of Command and Conquer. According to the aforementioned Belgian study, playing StarCraft “stresses rapid and simultaneous maintenance, assessment and coordination between multiple information and sources “.
Being able to identify which tasks require your attention right then and there, and which ones can wait, is the key. And while these experts suggest those who play them may have less patience overall, they have the incredible capacity to weigh variables and make instant decisions.
“I don’t have that capacity to bounce so many things around,” Shafer says. “One thing about real-time that’s distinctive is the prioritisation of resources. It’s all about making the best decision you possibly can at that point in time.
"You literally can’t do everything. So for real-time players perhaps prioritisation is something that’s inherently more developed – maybe not so much for turn-based players.”
For real-time players a game is constantly a battle between “micro” and “macro”. Micro being the technical ability to create units and order them around, macro being the over-arching strategy of how to actually win the game.
Johnson says this can create a rift between genres, with real-time players often seen as focusing on tactics rather than strategy. Real-time players will often attempt to win with “rushes”, which involve simply building more units at a faster rate in order to attack quickly.
Self-proclaimed aficionados tend to look down on such tactics, viewing them as requiring less intelligence.
In games such as League of Legends, that criticism appears to hold at least some weight – players literally stick to lanes of play rather than a huge, open battlefield. There isn’t much room to develop a strategy with multiple variables.
But it sure makes things feel more alive.
Jay Koottarappallil, the chief executive of WhiteMoon Games, which is currently developing a digital version of the Warmachine tabletop game, says the real-time genre allows for constant interruptions to make the game more interesting. He likens it to something like Magic: The Gathering, in which players can play “instants” to interrupt play at any time.
For the digital player, that type of move highlights just how important prioritisation can be.
“The idea is that you can cast a spell, then I do the same, and we have this real-time reaction. That can’t happen in a turn-based or play-by-mail concept,” he says.
Koottarappallil’s colleague and co-founder, Scott Campbell, says the “tactics” argument holds little weight – RTS players simply have different sets of skills.
“I think when you get down to it, real-time strategy is about being able to recognise, adapt, and do so very quickly. It’s fast paced and frenzied to the point where it becomes instinctual. You need to be able to develop your plans on the fly.”
Making the next move >>
While the real-time and turn-based genres cover most of the strategy mode, they hardly delve into what happens when the two are mixed.
For a company like WhiteMoon, which is translating a game from the physical to digital, working with strategy elements reinforces just how complicated the translation can be.
“In a tabletop game, for instance, you have freedom of movement,” says Campbell. “You can also make up rules among friends, using scraps of paper for terrain, or whatever you agree on.”
The company, which is working on its game as part of a Kickstarter campaign, says it toyed significantly with the idea of including real-time elements. But after user feedback it had to go back to the drawing board.
“The real-time game is always much, much harder to do,” he says. “It requires much more finesse with controls, and it’s just a huge task.”
It’s a common gripe – Blizzard developers are constantly testing units to see whether one or two seconds’ difference in loading time has an impact on the game. Any change, no matter how minor, usually results in significant feedback – most of it harsh.
For developers, then, turn-based games are infinitely easier.
“Balancing all of these elements is extremely cerebral. And while both are fun, the architecture you require for a real-time game is much more difficult…and for our particular game, it hinders a lot of what we wanted to be able to do,” says Campbell.
But can strategy go further? Can it go beyond fun to teach, impart wisdom or guide players to a better understanding of combat or economics?
Games like Company of Heroes, Total War and Crusader Kings have received praise for their ability to portray history, and the nuances, intrigue and scandal therein.
While all types of genres can impart this type of knowledge – is strategy suited to this type of education by making players repeat historical actions, battles and events?
“We’d constantly be asked if Civilization was a good game for teaching, and to be honest, we’d reply that it’s not really. Or, at least, not explicitly,” says Shafer.
“Our first goal is to make the game fun, and part of that is hooking into concepts that are interesting. Putting the player in a situation that’s vaguely realistic and then giving them potential.”
Soren Johnson is basing his next game on the stock market – hoping to demonstrate how the world’s economic system works by emulating real-time trades.
“It’s not necessarily the type of learning that’s going to match well with something like a multiple choice test, but you do gain an understanding of a system which is where games are uniquely positioned to help teach,” he says.
Which is just as well, because strategy games are making a comeback.
With the release of XCOM last year, the success of strategy-influenced indies such as FTL and the rise of League of Legends and DOTA, strategy fans are gaining in number.
Developers like Campbell are grateful for the attention. Not only so his own games become successful, but so the genre as a whole can prosper.
“Sometime in the late 90s, someone declared turn-based games were dead and they wouldn’t sell anymore,” he says, referring to the growth and failures of games like Total Annihilation.
“Publishers assumed it was just for “smart people”. But a game like XCOM has single-handedly changed the landscape. It’s opened the doors, and now people can see that great, intelligent strategy games can make money.”
“People are jumping on the trend. And I think that’s great.”