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When did realtime become the norm?

August 11th, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · 6 Comments · Uncategorized

I guess it had to happen. Years of strategy gaming, in both turn-based and real-time settings and my paradigm has finally shifted. I now enter games expecting them to be real time – or at the very least simultaneous turns, like Combat Mission. Turn based games are not only rare, now. They are also not quite what I expect when I learn about a new game.

I’m not sure how or when this happened.

I think I finally noticed it last night when I opened a new game, started playing it and immediately asked myself why the developer didn’t go with real time. Real time is more realistic for a battle game, and a number of developers, like Battlegoat and Paradox, have shown that grand strategy is feasible in a real-time environment. Why wasn’t this game doing what I expected it to do? (Fortunately, the designer anticipated this critique and there were answers in the manual.)

Technology and history kept strategy games in the turn based world for so long that many people still expect their strategy games to be done this way. Every game forum has one or two people who lament the “end” of TBS. They never stop to think that games were done this way mostly because the board game origins of strategy and war games were all based on turns or that the tiny processors of the eighties and early nineties couldn’t handle a lot of stuff all at once. And, except for round based RPG combat or traditional board/card games, no other genre moves in turns.

I’ve never been one to look back on the Golden Age of my youth (except regarding baseball) and have embraced the real time strategy world with open arms. I surprised myself, though, when I started picking apart a game design because it looked like it should have been going faster. Real time games seem more alive, the AI isn’t always responding to things that you are doing, and your typical resource collecting RTS games give you enough time to do what you have to do.

Some games try to blend the two styles. The Total War series grafts its brilliant real time battles onto a strategy map that allots moves in turns. The whole “pause and give orders” thing in many RTS is about stopping to assess the situation like you would in a turn based environment.

And it’s not like I disdain the turn based world. The Civ series is my one huge weakness, and from what I’ve seen and heard of Civ IV, I may need better ergonomics for my office because there’s going to be a lot of marathon sessions. TB games also lend themselves to the sweet give and take of Play By Email – the inexact science of waiting for the next turn to arrive or wondering if your opponent is mad at you yet for making him wait.

But I have crossed that threshhold. And, when I play Shattered Union, I expect that I will wonder why it’s not in real-time, too. (I already know the answer in that case, though.) I have already decided that flight sims are too hard for me, and that today’s shooters make me dizzy. And now I have “real time” as my default setting for strategy games.


6 Comments so far ↓

  • roboczar

    I tend to agree, here. Turn based games are no longer required; they are a thrtowback from the days when you played the game on a paper mat with dice and a 200 page ruleset. You had to take turns or the game was total chaos. Just so happens that this method of gameplay works well with computers that have limited number crunching abilities, as you pointed out.

    But, now that we have computers able to do millions of calculations in a second, there really is no need to limit the player to turn-based and rules-heavy games, when all of that stuff can be automated, and in some cases, automated and hidden.

    I should qualify all that by saying that I *do* actually enjoy the leisurely pace that comes along with turn based strategy games, especially those played with a human opponent over email or some such thing. Games like The Operational Art of War and Korsun Pocket are games that are not only fun, but can be played at leisure, without having to devote hours to a real-time ‘battle’. I think that this will become the increasingly prevailing argument in favour of turn based games, but it’s only a matter of time before games like Combat Mission, Brigade Combat Team, and Armored Task Force find their way from the decidedly niche military simulation genre and into ‘mainstream’ wargaming.

  • Hieronymus @ The Game Chair

    Hmmm, gotta throw up my hand in dissent. I still think turn-based games make much more sense than real-time. The leaders you are simulating didn’t (don’t?) have to make split-second decisions every 5 minutes. I suppose if the pause function worked well enough, and allowed you complete flexibility in what you could order when paused, that would be okay. Sort of like Baldur’s Gate does. But I’m not sure what that adds to a turn-based game anyway.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Dissent welcome, Hieronymus. I know a lot of people feel the same way.

    But, as I noted, grand strategy games that Paradox has done and the simultaneous turn mechanic show that you can make a game both leisurely and real time. This post is more about my own personal attitude and how it has undergone a shift more than a defense of the way the industry has moved.

  • Jason Kozak

    There is one, multiplayer specific bonus, that turn based games have over their RTS brethren: absolutely massive games are actually possible.

    I remember playing Stars! by email 16 players at a time. I’ve yet to see 16 people going at it in real-time, and even if I had, I wonder how good the game could possibly be. I mean, what are the chances of rounding up 16 trusted players that are all available at a specific time of day?

    I really think TBS games need to start taking advantage of this, setting up dedicated servers to run turns, and building the turn-transmission system into the game.

    I dream that in a couple years from now I’ll see a blinking light on my 360, hit the X, and be greeted with a simple message:
    “A new turn has arrived”

  • Jozef

    I agree that real-time games have become the norm. I also agree with what roboczar said, that computers are powerful enough these days to handle real-time strategies.

    However, he neglected to mention that some gamers don’t handle real-time games. I personally still suck at real-time strategy games, other than Settlers II, where I didn’t have to direct my soldiers. As a result, I am purchasing fewer games, but I’m still buying pretty much every turn-based game that has ever been produced. This is not only about personal preference for a certain style (even though the 200-page ruleset still holds its appeal), but mainly about certain game mechanics that I dislike, while liking the overall genre.

    That said, I’d point out to Massive Assault, which was released a year or two ago, and which very successfully merges great graphics and turn-based game mechanics.

  • Michael A.

    I think it is a bit interesting to often see the Paradox games being considered the exemplars of why turn-based games should be extinct. In my opinion, the Paradox games are in fact just turn-based games in disguise. The original EU could have been made monthly turn-based with very little modification (95% of the game’s processing occured on a monthly basis). Even the later incarnations share much of that trait still, although it has become “more” real-time (though still with discrete time steps, i.e., days).

    In my opinion, both can be made to work for most games, but turn-based in fact continues to have the advantage over real-time due to computational complexity: AI can still be made easier and better for a turn-based game than for a real-time game.

    Added complexity = added cost of development, and often for no significant benefit in terms of gameplay. So if a game isn’t aimed at the RTS mass-market, the incentive to go real-time is often lacking.