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The Eight Greatest Features

August 8th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 12 Comments · Design

Juuso at Gameproducer.net has just posted what he thinks are the 7 greatest things you can put in a game that would appeal to him. It’s a fairly wide ranging list, but I’d collapse his number 6 (reflective water) and 7 (details), since, for me, reflective water is a little detail. It’s nice, sure and adds reality to the unreal. But it’s not like it serves much purpose beyond that, just like his theoretical flocks of birds.

He asked others to write their seven greatest features, and, since I won’t be blogging for a couple of days, I thought I’d throw this out there for discussion.

Here are my eight greatest features for strategy games. Not every game needs to have all of these, but they are things that appeal to me. Why eight? Because I had seven but thought of another one and didn’t want to remove any of the others.

1. Random maps – This is huge for me. Even if you have a lot of maps like Command & Conquer 3 or really pretty maps like Empire Earth III, nothing beats randomness, even if it is patterned randomness like you find in Age of Empires. One of the great strengths of the Civ games, Imperialism or Combat Mission is that you never quite know what you are going to find. Sure, this isn’t really feasible if you are doing an historic battle or even some grand strategy games, but random maps add longevity to otherwise pedestrian games.

2. Rollover Tooltips – These is the most important interface innovation ever. There’s really no excuse not to use them. They can serve instructional purposes or provide detailed information beyond what’s visible on screen. They free the player from having to look for things in the manual or the online encyclopedia. Games that don’t use them start with a count of 0-2.

3. Clear Iconography – Okay, this is another interface thing, but stuff on screen shouldn’t look like other different stuff on the same screen. If you have hero units, make them stand out, like in Rise of Legends. And there’s no need to be subtle here, Creative Assembly, all right? Why the hell am I always mixing up my skirmish cavalry and my lancers, or my archers and my really good archers? The great thing about the NATO symbology is you always know what unit type is what. There’s no chance of mixing up your self-propelled artillery and your armor. Empire Earth III has moved to exaggerated, cartoonish units to get away from this sort of crap – it plagued the second game in the series. Some people think this is a mistake; I think it’s brilliant.

4. Multiple Valid Starting Options – You can’t really eliminate the “build order” mentality, but you can do a lot to reduce its influence by not forcing the same moves on everyone the moment the game opens. To quote one of the Laws of Geryk, “If you are making a game of World War II and there is one single best way to invade France, you should just start the game after the invasion of France.” One way to do this is to make each side in a game radically different (Age of Mythology, Rise of Legends) since this forces re-evaluation based on who you are facing on which map. Another way is to make different kinds of play immediately possible and viable for different sorts of players (Europa Universalis, Civilization). If you find all your beta testers start a game in exactly the same way, maybe you should rethink the design a little.

5. Layered Diplomacy – This doesn’t work for RTS and Wargames, but is necessary for anything approaching 4x. What I mean here is more than a love/hate, peace/war relationship. If peace and war are options, then preparation for war and relaxation during peace should be possible. War should rarely just pop out of nowhere; if there is a sudden declaration of war it should be immediately obvious why it happened. The Paradox games do this well, Civ IV does it well. Imperialism got it cold with a really simple diplomatic system. The Slitherine grand strategy games failed miserably on this level. The Total War games often seem arbitrary in their diplomatic side, creating wars just to keep you from winning another one too easily. (Yeah, yeah, balance of power. But three province Pontus doesn’t care about Carthage.)

6. Real Superweapons – This is for the RTS people. I love superweapons. But they have to be more than just the biggest weapon on the end of the tech tree. They should take effort to mobilize and then be more than a match for any four or five normal units. The effort involved should be enough to make rushing for them prohibitive, but if you are willing and able to make that investment, you should be able to just stomp things.

7. Special Powers with Cool downs, not one shots – Another RTS thing, and learned, like superweapons, from Age of Mythology: The Titans. The problem with one shot powers, like most of the races in AoM had, is that you run the risk of never using them. The tension between conservation and firing away is a good one, in principle, but if you fire too soon with Zeus’ lightning bolt, for example, that’s pretty much it. A powerful spell is gone. The expansion gave Atlantis powers with limited uses and a cool down period. Age of Empires III lets you refresh some cards in the final age, a fine compromise. Cool downs seem to be design law now, so hopefully the one and done is gone.

8. TCP/IP and LAN Connection – I understand the appeal of using proprietary internet multiplayer lobbies like Gamespy or EAOnline. It keeps a community together, makes it easier to track numbers of players and get ladders going. But please make TCP/IP and LAN not just possible but feasible. Considering how much difficulty I often have even getting a TCP/IP game going in those titles that support it, I wonder if it’s even tested properly. But let me LAN or do a direct internet connection. Because I always forget my login password.

Feel free to add, amend or attack.


12 Comments so far ↓

  • Jon Shafer

    I have to admit that I like your list better than the one you linked to. ;) My list would probably be a bunch of weird abstract things that aren’t quite as specific as “reflecting & transparent water”… Perhaps I’ll find the time to make it just to see what’s in there. ;)


  • Scott R. Krol

    Good list, Troy. Personally I would change #4 from “Multiple Valid Starting Options” to “Multiple Strategic Options”. Besides the opening move I like seeing plenty of player choices throughout the game, allowing different methods of play. Far too often there’s usually only one track to success.

  • Scott Lewis

    Fantastic list, Troy. I agree with Mr. Krol’s modification to item 4.

  • Juuso

    Great list Troy. It’s fun to see how differently you can approach “features” – and how different features or gameplay elements are attractive to different people. For example, I enjoy strategy games but to be honest, “random maps” haven’t been something I’ve spent time with. In fact, I’ve enjoyed more *creating maps*.

  • Dave Long

    Random Maps rock. I’ve also become fond of the Ensemble coined term “Manly Random”, where you simply randomize everything from map, to starting position to the side you’re going to play. It’s like chucking the chips in the air and letting them fall where they may and then saying GO! It’s… um… manly!

    Best real superweapons ever IMO are the Titan units you could build in Warlords Battlecry II. They’re almost perfectly balanced into the game because they’re so hard to kill but they’re not invincible. They just seem to be exactly the right combination of “Holy crap it’s over!” and “I can stop that thing!”

  • Troy

    I’m sticking with my original number 4, in spite of Scott Krol’s good point about variable strategy all the way through. All of the features I’ve listed are advisable but not required for a good game. Variable strategic paths in the midgame are a sine qua non for me at this point in my life. It’s not a favorite feature, it’s a necessary feature.

    Dave, “Manly Random” is a new term for me, but that’s how I always play if possible. I don’t like knowing which side I’m playing until the game starts, which is probably why I never get very good with anyone.

  • Alan

    I’m a bit proponent of co-op play, and rather than rant about the sorry state of multiplayer, I’ll focus on the positive aspects of being able to play with my friends without worrying about disparities in skill level.

  • JonathanStrange

    Good list. However, I think we could have all of those in a game and still have the suckiest game that ever sucked. When a list of must-have features for a strategy game doesn’t include a kick-ass A.I., then we are all diminished. We should hang our heads in shame, sir, hang our heads in shame. BTW, about feature #6: sure, we’d all like REAL superweapons, but with our restrictive gun laws, how many games could pass that test?

  • thk123

    Fantastic list, some very good points, although not so sure about the Super Weapons. Mine are:
    1. Online Multiplayer
    2. Map Editor
    3. Customisation
    4. Brink of Death
    5. No locked content
    6. Save whenever
    7. Custom music
    You can read explanations on my blog (click my name)
    My list sort of turned in to gripes at the end, with what is missing from games. I went for less obvious ones (like JonathantheStrange suggested good AI) because then all the lists would be the same.

  • Paul

    Great list!

    (side note, how could anyone list reflective water as one of SEVEN components of a great game…oy)

  • George Geczy

    I’m glad you included #8 (TCP/IP and LAN) – I agree 110%. A lot of big publishers seem to also lean towards forcing a central online login as a means of piracy protection (key check etc), but it seems overkill to me (as most invasive piracy protection tends to be). Let people start up and play on their home networks without forcing a production number on them.

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