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Starting From the Middle

December 6th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 8 Comments · Design, Me

I think and write a lot about accessibility of strategy games. I do this for a couple of reasons. First, I love them and want more people to play them. I think strategy gaming scratches an intellectual itch (the desire to see a plan come together, the balancing of timing and resources, the original narrative drive) that few other genres really do in one go. Second, larger strategy games are generally designed with a lot of information under the hood and since I am a communicator by training and profession, I am genuinely interested in how to efficiently convey this information to a new audience.

So this is a topic kind of central to how I think about game design, and has become moreso as I’ve aged and seen how few strategy games really understand how to make a UI approachable, how to design a tutorial, how to scaffold learning. At one end we have Tropico 4 and Panzer Corps, which are fairly intuitive and at the other we have Pride of Nations and War in the East and a very unclear path from one to the other, even if you were interested. I used to believe firmly in gateway games and progression, but now I am not sure.

The big problem, however, is that I can’t really write about how hard or easy it is to get into strategy gaming because I am already there. I’m a missionary in the colonies trying to explain to the local population how awesome my God is without really understanding how ridiculously silly this all must seem to people with a different cultural context. Even with games I still only barely understand (like Pride of Nations), I am starting from a middle point – I know what prestige means, I know how a production chain works, I can look at the economic system and understand how it is different from other games and what that might imply regarding my decisions.

As I’ve noted many times, this has been a year with very little new gaming for me. My job taxes my brain in ways that often mean I resort to the comfortable games I know in the evenings, or to sequels of games I already love. (I now intimately understand, by the way, why there are so many sequels – give the gamer the feeling of playing something new without ripping them from their comfort zone.)

God help me if I ever try to teach a future child how to ride a bike. It all seems so obvious from where I sit.

As I mentioned on the latest podcast, I will soon be recording a video in which I will explain why Rise of Nations was a great learning RTS – what it does in its design that other base building RTSes of its era and since have not done especially well. But I worry sometimes that even here I am retconning a few experiences and reading from design something that may not be the case in actuality.

There are, I think, a few hard and fast rules that strategy games should follow in order to keep new players interested, and I’ll try to set those out either in a video or in my book. Or a blog post if I am starving for content. But a new player is not necessarily a new strategy gamer, and the two have very different needs I think, depending on where they are coming from. Some things that Civ, for example, does very well to seduce gamers, would be completely out of place in AI War or Imperialism.

At Pax this year, Kerberos Games producer Chris Stewart and I talked about board games and how they are really an essential element of any video game design class. That any game design student that doesn’t learn how board games or pen and paper RPGs work is missing something important in their education. The more board games I play and learn and am taught, the truer that feels to me, especially when it comes to displaying information and getting the player hooked into the mechanics quickly. I definitely need a twice a month boardgaming group to help me crack some of these issues I have with writing about strategy gaming from the middle – my core readers and listeners get what I am saying. But I’ve a bit of the evangelist in me, too.


8 Comments so far ↓

  • Josh Bycer

    In the past I’ve tried to broaden my strategy game horizons with games like AI Wars or the Dominions series and I’m met with a wall of inaccessibility.

    One of the problems I feel has to do with UI design, the designers assume that the only people who are going to play the game are either experts of the genre, or fans of previous games who know all the little touches of their UI. I’ve always hated having multiple layers of screens to find out something that should have been on the main screen.

    Because each game uses its own custom UI it makes it that much harder to understand. Yet as you mention, you can’t do the same conventions in one strategy game that you can do in another.

  • Wes

    I agree that a lot of strategy games are their own worst enemy in this regard. I mean, how difficult is it to create a series of tutorial missions a la Warcraft to gradually introduce players to new concepts, as well as both their own units and their enemies’ units? I would have loved to have learned EU3 that way instead of just slogging it out and trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

    I don’t feel that dropping me in the strategic deep end and expecting me to swim is a great way to do things… yet so many games seem to do this. And I wouldn’t say this is limited to computer games — 51st State is kind of like this, actually. Give me tutorials, examples… anything!

    Boardgames twice a month sounds about right for me, Troy. In fact, I’m trying to arrange something for this Saturday afternoon, if anyone local is interested. Probably at a nice Irish pub near me here in Etobicoke.

  • Don

    Quite agree, there’s a gap in the market. In theory I should love a game like War in the East as it’s an era I find interesting and I like large scale strategy. But from what I can gather it’s a steep learning curve, there’s no demo and the price is too high to be a casual buy-and-drop-if-I-don’t-like-it game. Few games seem to be hitting the sweet spot at the moment.

    But earlier today I read about Achtung Panzer on RPS and that looks like the kind of thing that might be closer to the middle as Troy sees it. Here’s the link for anyone interested: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2011/12/06/wot-i-think-achtung-panzer-operation-star/

  • Vinraith

    I worry a little bit about the constant cross pollination of discussions about strategy games and discussions about board games. Don’t get me wrong, I understand how board games are profoundly relevant to strategy games, and how they function as design labs for new mechanics and the like that can be tested far more easily in a cardboard and paper environment. However, speaking as someone who does most of his strategy gaming solo, I think they also tend to produce games which are better geared to MP than SP.

    An excellent example of the opposite would be AI War. There’s a game that’s purely asymmetric, where one side has been designed from the ground up to be played by the AI rather than by a human. The result is much more satisfying, IMO, than the vast bulk of games where an AI attempts to play a set of mechanics designed with a human player in mind. Part of the reason AI is so weak in so many games is that AI simply don’t work the same way we do.

    As to the post above, that RPS Achtung Panzer piece begs two immediate questions:

    1. When do we get a 3MA on the game?

    2. How is it possible that Tim Stone hasn’t ever been on the show?

  • Bruce

    The problem with strategy games is that they are for nerds.

  • Don

    @Vinraith >How is it possible that Tim Stone hasn’t ever been on the show?

    Excellent thought, the RPS guys have been fairly lazy recently when it comes to doing their own podcasts so there’s a good chance he’d have the energy to pontificate on 3MA.

    For anyone interested who doesn’t have RPS on their favourites here’s a link to Tim’s regular strategy/wargaming post, The Flare Path: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/tag/the-flare-path/

  • Troy Goodfellow

    We are all great fans of Tim Stone and he has been invited multiple times. He’s a little shy. But we never stop asking.

  • Vinraith

    Maybe you just need to get him drunk, Troy.