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.