Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Confession: I am bad at strategy games

 I actually don't know how to play strategy games.

I can fake a good game of StarCraft, because I spent a few years of high school memorizing build orders and counters. None of that is stuff I learned in the game, although I practiced it in the game. It's all things other people figured out, shared, tested, and canonized as "pro strats". 

The strategy games I play maintain a balance between expanding to gain access to more resources, and risking overextending yourself. You need to expand to increase your income to buy more units, but more territory means more surface area for a hostile army to smash through, disrupting your plans and putting your hard-won settlements in danger. I understand how this works in StarCraft, where every map has an easily accessible (and defensible) expansion node. Every build order has a set of conditions for you to establish your second base. You scout for your opponent's base, see what strategy they are attempting, and adjust your build order to react. At low levels, where I am comfortable, seeing your opponent is putting everything into an early rush and shifting to defend yourself is enough to take control of the game. At high levels, scouting and skirmishes lead to counter-builds and counter-counter builds until someone makes a mistake under pressure. I know this because for a time all I did was play, read and watch StarCraft matches. I spent a lot of time invested in StarCraft. Unfortunately, very little of that has translated into other games in the genre.

It's amazing how the strategy genre seems uninvested in teaching players the strategy of the game. Civilization essentially throws you into the deep end after a cursory explanation of basic mechanics. Right click to move units, use Settlers to make cities, the Production statistic makes more stuff and hills have the most Production. They tell you what to do. The traditional strategy game tutorial does not discuss: How do you think about opportunity versus risk? The Civilization tutorial does not discuss: what is the optimal build order? When should you think about building a new Settler versus building a new Warrior? Why would you choose to research Archery over Writing? They do not tell you how to think about these things, the underlying "why" of one choice should be made over the other. It leaves you to stew over these choices which seem critical, but without the tools to understand the consequences of your choice. You are left with the "what" but not the "why". 

I'm sure the trial and error is part of the fun, and that's fine. And also, a game of Civilization is like 60 hours long? I have about an hour of free time a night after putting my kids to bed and cleaning up. There are still Pro Strategy videos and YouTubers and Discord channels. At this point in my life, I would prefer to spend that time in a game. Not reading about a game, or watching a game, or failing at a game 40 hours in and starting over to try and grasp at abstract principles. Clearly, there exist people who understand the what and the why. Fighting games have been working on their tutorials over the past decade to include players in the incredibly complex, arcane language and principles of the genre. These tutorials go beyond simple basics and try to show not just what moves can be done, but the reason for specific moves to be done. 

I picked up Total War: Warhammer 3, which is my first Total War game. I am baffled by how to properly compose an army. I am unsure of how aggressively to expand, when my cities seem like an enemy army could descend on them at any second and it's too expensive to maintain an third or fourth standing army. What buildings do I build? Which demon lord to I dedicate tribute to? The game came out recently, and the online guides I found are either incredibly basic or entirely focused on the endgame. The tutorial was mostly focused on making sure I know what the interface did. I have no sense of the cost/benefit of any of my actions. I feel overwhelmed. It's been like this for the last few strategy games I've picked up. I thought I enjoyed this genre, based on my time playing StarCraft and Alpha Centauri as a teen. Maybe I've burned out? Maybe I don't want to spend all my time reading about strategy online? 

This post really stuck out to me, especially points 4 and 5: "Why does a game's UI or UX need to be well-designed when fans will create in-depth guides for free?..." I don't know what the "right" design looks like for strategy games as a genre. My design principles are that I would like to have information about the decision I am going to make, and if that decision has long-term consequences, I would like help calculating the long-term impact. If building a Settler instead of a Warrior incurs a temporary penalty but confers a long-term multiplier, helping me calculate the exact nature of the long-term multiplier helps me understand why it's a good decision. If getting 10% more damage per attack means battles end 3 rounds earlier and saves me 4 hit points per engagement, I would like to know that exact information instead of having to break out a calculator or a spreadsheet to figure it out myself. To some extent, this "solves" the game by making decisions easy. Another way of looking at "making decisions easy" is it removes busy work only done by the truly dedicated and gives me the best information available to make my decisions. If that removes all the interesting tension from the game, it's possibly not a game I wanted to play to begin with. 

The ultimate danger in playing designer is that games must be marked "complete" and shipped. That constraint on development time leads to picking and choosing which features to implement. If it comes down to choosing between "make calculations more legible for novice players" versus "add another faction", it's hard to argue that my preference is the correct preference.  Yet when fighting games added detailed information about why their games worked, and not just how, they expanded their audience beyond the traditional hardcore players. Is it so impossible to imagine that making strategy games more legible would bring new people in to the fold?