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World Enough And Time

December 7th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 10 Comments · Design, Me

Bruce’s recent post on Soldiers of Anarchy and my half-formed rant about tutorials are certainly products of our age and experience. It’s not that we are wiser – my list of follies in the past twelve months would be great fodder for Renaissance woodcarvings. It’s more a realization that time is short and games should have gotten better at not making us do what often feels like busy work.

Last night, I got a Formspring question about Field of Glory, Slitherine/Matrix/Hexwar’s great miniatures wargame. What I don’t think I really addressed in the answer is just how easy it is to sit down and play and figure things out as you go. Scenarios run from the small to the huge, the system makes an intuitive sense that you often cannot get in wargames from later periods (flanking, skirmishing, and the like are easy to understand) and there are really no barriers to eventually understanding the battle system once you get past the basics.

The strange thing about time, though, is that once you have invested it, the pay off never really stops. Take the Paradox super big strategy games – I got into them when I had more time than I will ever have again, so it takes very little for me to get a new one and pick up where I left off unless the system is especially obscure. Someone my age with no pressure to learn these games will be at a loss for a while unless they can find the time to learn them. Divine Wind will change a dozen systems in Europa Universalis 3 that I have mastered (and I dread that) but I know I will get them. Someone just making the effort of learning EU 3 in the last month will have wasted all that time and might struggle a bit with the Paradox way of doing things.

The irony, of course, is that I love games and systems that require study. I want to get better at games but not just master them in the first week. The exploration and experimentation that comes with a good game, be it a real time game like Starcraft 2 or a turn based game like Civ, are very important to me. One of the many reasons Disciples 3 was so terrible was that there was no payoff for sticking it out longer; the game never really got better or more interesting after I had invested hours and hours.

But then, this is my job. If I find it hard to get into a game or to make time for its crap then I am not doing it well. I sometimes wonder if one reason strategy games have fallen of the front page is that the generation that went to school with them hasn’t the time to keep up or teach their own children, who are now able to get the instant gratification.

What does this mean for games like, for example, Imperialism – the greatest slow burn in strategy gaming history? You would watch numbers change and adjust sliders and then all of a sudden dramatic things would happen. I hate to be pessimistic, since I believe the strategy genre is as rich and diverse as it has ever been, and the move to the console and mobile space has led to a lot of creativity. But I can swear that if I were not paid to play Patrician IV – another slow burn, I would not have found time for it.

Part of the reason I am trying to introduce some non-strategy gaming friends to the genre is to understand how and why the genre still works, where the appeal is for people who were not schooled in it or whose gaming experiences are more frenetic. The more I love strategy gaming, the more I want to understand why that is.

Man, I should write a book.


10 Comments so far ↓

  • fmdickerson

    Troy –

    I appreciate the detail in answering my formspring question, both here and on the formspring site. I find it really hard to commit to any of the Matrix games, given that they are expensive, rarely go on sale (and never on truly significant sale), and usually do not have demos. The way you describe Fields of Glory here makes it sound like exactly what I am looking for. Also, the last few podcasts have been stellar, even by TMAs already high standards.

  • Jason Lefkowitz

    “I find it really hard to commit to any of the Matrix games, given that they are expensive, rarely go on sale (and never on truly significant sale), and usually do not have demos. ”

    Indeed, this is just an amazing flaw in Matrix’s business strategy: their games are priced quite expensively at launch, and then they never get cheaper, even as their appeal fades with time and advancements in technology. They’re charging USD$70 (!) for Harpoon, for example, which came out in 1989, for Pete’s sake. It makes no sense at all.

  • Plankton

    I am on the same page as the others about Matrix’ games. Some of them on Steam would be nice as well ^^

  • Plankton

    Oh damn, pressed submit too early … I wanted to comment on the article itself.

    I have a very diverse interest in games ( though I am a PC only gamer, at the moment), but strategy is probably my favourite genre overall. It’s just so tough to invest enough time into all of these. I am basically still playing EU3 and Civ5 and didn’t even get to the other strategy games this year. There is also stuff like Fall from Heaven which I have installed but not played it.
    Problem with strategy games is that they are so open ended. There is never a point where you can beat them and file them away with your mind at peace.
    And then there is the backlog of all the genres … just bought another 2 games on Steam today, just cause it was 4 euros.

    Boy, we got serious problems, don’t we? :P

  • D506

    Hearts of Iron 3 really brings this home for me. I bought it the day it came out, since HOI2 is one of my favorite games. At first, it was unplayable, being so slow and buggy. My initial excitement wore off before the patches to make it playable came out, and I just can’t seem to find the time to go back and learn it no matter how often I intend to.

  • fmdickerson

    Speaking of Matrix Games, another release today that I want but cannot justify buying. Gary Grigsby’s War in the East (WitE) is out today, running at $89.99 if you want the printed manual. There is no demo.

    Matrix argues that this price is fine because the game (a) is complicated to make and (b) is cheap on a per-entertainment hour basis. I’ll address these arguments in reverse order. The “cheap per hour” argument is flawed, because they are comparing WitE with non-computer game forms of entertainment. What matters to me, when I am making my purchase decisions, is what the opportunity cost of buying WitE is vis-a-vis my game purchasing budget. If I knew in advance I would love it, it would not be such a big deal. But not knowing, it makes more sense for me to spend that money on stuff from Steam that goes on ridiculous sale. If I can get 7 or 8 games for the price of WitE, it is going to need to really pull me in to satisfy more entertainment hours.

    As to complexity, there is definitely the possibility that Matrix is pricing some of their audience out of the market. I would consider taking a flyer on this for $50, and would almost certainly buy it at $40 (which would leave enough in my games budget to pick up RUSE or Field of Glory). I realize that they presumably have better information on their market than I do, but it seems that they might have more success with games like WitE and Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge if they were willing to make them more accessible from a price standpoint.

    Also, for what its worth D506, I too loved HOI2 (and Arsenal of Democracy, which is worth it just to run HOI2 at 1920×1200). I also could never get really interested in HOI3, even though I spent a fair bit of time with it. I prefer both EU3 and Victoria 2 to HOI3.

  • steve

    “Indeed, this is just an amazing flaw in Matrix’s business strategy: ”

    You or I lack the data to insist this is a flaw in their strategy. In order to justify lowering the price, you have to assume an increase in demand. It’s entirely possible that they maximize their revenue by keeping prices high, that lowering prices would only lower revenues with a minor expansion of absolute numbers of players. Gamers get way hung up on numbers of players, numbers of copies sold, etc., but the only thing that ultimately matters to a business is revenue.

  • fmdickerson

    And of course, lots of people who complain about the price, like me, wind up giving in eventually anyway. At least I’m not claiming to “boycott” like the Modern Warfare 2 dedicated server crowd. I just wish it were cheaper, so I could play more Matrix games.

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    Oh dear, I know that feeling. I spent sooooo many hours of my childhood playing Civ 1 and Civ 2. I have spent a bare fraction of that playing Civ 4 (and now 5) because I am just too busy. Multiplayer Dominions is also too much for me for me to even approach the 24-hour turnarounds that people favour. So many more examples I could list…

    I think certain TBS, paradoxically, are better at instant gratification than real-time games. In particular, compare Civ (hit enter, instantly have something to do on your new turn) with EU3, especially if you have a small country.

  • fmdickerson

    And…Field of Glory goes on sale 2 days after I buy it. Sad for me, but good for those of you who haven’t played it – the game is quite good.