We thought we’d do the year end wrap stuff in two parts this year. Episode 201 welcomed three of our regular guests from last year (Dave Heron, Soren Johnson and Jon Shafer) and asks them for their thoughts on the year that was. Then, in Episode 202, Tom Chick joins the full panel for a chat about what we liked, trends we noticed and what we’ll see going forward.
In each of the episodes, there is some occasional back and forth (more on 201) about what counts as a strategy game or as an RTS or what have you. These are not discussions I especially enjoy having, mostly because they distract from more important things like how specific mechanics work in a given game or parallels across genres. In this case, one of the flashpoints was FTL: Faster Than Light, a game that much of the gaming media has decided is a strategy game (that’s where it was categorized in most end of year polls) even though I agree with Heron and Shafer that is a roguelike descendant of the RPG, with few strategy elements (though, of course, there are tactical elements in the battles; many RPGs and roguelikes have these.) And, unlike Tom, I don’t think DOTAlikes and MOBAs are strategy, even though they evolved out of a pure RTS.
I could go on and on about why some games are or are not strategy games. For me, a strategy game has to have a combination of long term planning (not simply reacting to events), competition for an management of resources (and predictable consequences of this management), clear goals or markers of progress and some conception of space being for more than simply movement (even abstractly understood, like in deck building games – decks are a great blend of resource harvesting and spatial understanding).
Now this is not an either/or situation. Many games cross lines quite well, and most of the best strategy games have strong RPG elements (The Sims, OOTP Baseball, Crusader Kings) where “characters” are given ratings in various skills, and you need to improve or optimize these skills to achieve objectives; The Sims even has lifetime goals which are, in effect, quests. There have been efforts to make FPS/strategy games, rhythm strategy games, etc. All can fit fine under the strategy umbrella and still incorporate elements from other genres. This is not a claim to some sort of strategy purity test. Genre definitions are fluid and elastic.
However, as much as I find discussions of definitions boring (What is a game? What is art?), this does not mean that definitions themselves are always unimportant or arbitrary, though, of course, they can be. It would make no sense for me to open a podcast with a declaration that Far Cry 3 was the best strategy game of the year, or that the latest Mario Kart is a superior driving simulation. Definitions, no matter how elastic we make them or how unsettled they might be, set the boundaries of the discussion.
And the fact that we can have this debate, I think, demonstrates the central role of strategy gaming in game design, and the importance of mechanics in identifying which of these things is not like the other. “Games” is a very big world, and it gets bigger and broader every year – to the point where things that barely have interaction or mechanics at all are considered games because they happen to play out on a screen in pixel art. And in the game world, few things are as broad as the strategy genre, which incorporates wargames, base buliding RTSes, worker placement games, economic simulations and a host of other things.
I still think we have boundaries, though. On the margins there will always be some disagreement.
When I write my book, I will end all discussion – at least only as long as the first person that reads it is away from their computer.