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Turn Based vs Real Time

November 3rd, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 1 Comment · Blogs, Design

I’ve always thought that the division of strategy games into turn based and real time categories was artificial. How a game tracks time is, in my opinion, less important than what it expects the player to do within that time.

Soren Johnson seems to agree with me. He just posted his August Game Developer column on his blog and it neatly lays out the issues that game designers have to think about when they make the call on how their game will be played.

Therefore, the most important thing to focus on is not the labels themselves but what types of gameplay they represent. For example, the tower-defense game Plants vs. Zombies is ostensibly real-time, but its characteristics are more in line with traditional turn-based games. Besides being solely a single-player game, the gameplay itself is strictly deterministic, even moreso than many turn-based games. The map consists of five tracks along which the zombies progress, each with exactly nine slots on which to place defensive plants. Furthermore, the zombies’ behavior is entirely predictable – Pole Valuting Zombies will always jump over blocking Wall-nuts, even if that means falling right into the jaws of a Chomper plant. The game may look chaotic to an observer, but – like most tower-defense games – the strategic play is built upon predictable enemy behavior. The real-time mechanics simply provide time pressure, not the other qualities usually associated with the format, such as chaotic play or a multi-player mode.


One Comment so far ↓

  • Nathan Hoobler

    Not to be contrary, but I don’t think Soren is agreeing that there isn’t a difference at all, but the contrary — while section quoted states some exceptions to the rule, the rest of his post details how turn-based versus real-time games are structured very differently, and thus have very different play dynamics.

    In fact, I think Soren leaves out the biggest difference between how real-time and turn-based games play – the dramatic tension. He alludes to it somewhat with his reference to the One More Turn Syndrome (“Hmm, it’s 3am – I should probably go to bed. Let me just finish up this turn and see how it plays out first…”). In real-time games, your actions and their consequences are all intermixed and coming at you simultaneously. Furthermore, the consequences of a single action in real-time games are usually not that substantial – you can often reverse them quickly if you change your mind, or if the situation changes. For turn-based games (I’m using Civilization as a mental model here) there is a constant flow of dramatic tension within and between turns. At the beginning, you have a large number of possible courses of action; as you move your units, you see intermediate results, and your options for action dwindle; finally, at the end of your turn, you have acted completely, and the attention shifts from “what can I do” to “what will the AI do” — from action to consequence. This last part leads to the compulsion to click the ‘end turn’ button, and see what happens. The brilliant part, I think, is that after seeing a sometimes dramatic reveal and change of the entire world (war on multiple fronts, diplomatic shifts, technology discoveries that fundamentally change your strategy or game mechanics) you’re given the maximum capacity to react and respond again. Thus, the player’s mental state is constantly shifting from “let me just do this one thing” to “ok let me see how it worked out”. When well designed, a turn-based game can have the highs and lows of tension just like boss fights in an action game, or sub-climaxes in a film.

    Of course, he’s absolutely right that there are some games that blur the lines (Paradox’s games are an excellent example, and I think Sins of a Solar Empire can be as well, depending on the game speed), but I do think there’s a fundamental difference in how players think when presented with turn-based as opposed to real-time systems that would be very hard to blend across.

    (Sorry for the short novel of a comment :))