Checkmated

Recently, my friend Nat issued a plaintive cry for help regarding his strategy game problem: he thinks he likes them, but whenever he plays them he finds them too hard to actually enjoy.

I have this problem, too. Unlike Nat, though, I don’t really blame myself (at least, not in toto). I blame the games.

I can say this because I think I’ve played more strategy games than Nat, with a bit more success, enough that I’ve thought about why I don’t enjoy some of these games.

Afraid of Commitment

The first, somewhat obvious problem with many of these games is that they take a long time to play. That’s not to say that long games are bad, but rather, in strategy games you can often create a terrible position for yourself early in the game and then not know you’re doomed for, literally, hours. By the time you find out that you’re screwed, if you’re like me, you have completely forgotten (or, as Nat points out, never even begun to understand) what you did that was actually wrong. Without understanding your mistakes, improvement is difficult or impossible. This is compounded somewhat by games that have unclear victory conditions or time limits.

The problem here is not one of game length, but rather one of feedback and specificity. Using a game from antiquity for an example, in QQP’s classic game The Perfect General, each battle had clearly defined victory conditions, a scoring system, and turn limits. In other words, each turn you could evaluate whether your current strategy brought you closer or further from victory, and you knew how much longer you had to bring things to a resolution.

Strategy games where we don’t win can be fun: the battle of Thermopylae, or for that matter Pearl Harbor, are celebrated and simulated and enjoyed by gamers today. What sucks is not losing, but having no idea that you’re losing until 4 hours in.

The Curse of the Easy Tutorial

This happened to me just last week while trying out Matrix Games’ recent remake of Close Combat, called Close Combat: The Longest Day.

The game begins, as these games so often do, with a step-by-step tutorial on playing the game, and an introduction to the sorts of tactics that are needed to win. The tutorial is closely guided; that is to say, there’s no way to make a “wrong move” during the tutorial. The only menu options that are enabled are the ones you are ‘supposed’ to use next.

After wiping the floor with the filthy Nazis in the tutorial missions, I leapt into the first real mission, at which point my entire platoon was mowed down in a brutal hail of gunfire and flamethrower fuel within a matter of seconds, with no idea of what I did wrong.

A good tutorial, in other words, shouldn’t just show you what strategy will let you win. It should show you why that strategy lets you win. And it should show you what it looks like when you’re not winning.

You’re Giving Me A Complex

I’ve written about this one before: complexity is not richness. If you’re creating a strategy game, and it’s a sufficiently big one, it is more important, not less important, that the UI be absolutely, positively, drop- dead simple. Quoting my review of Commandos 2 once more:

For example, A readies an attack, unless you want to use your fists, in which case you press Q. In the example I gave earlier, the Sapper would use the I key to cut the wires, D to detect mines, click on the mines to retrieve them, and then P to place mines. If the Sapper wanted to place a satchel charge, he uses the B key, but to throw a grenade, he’d hit G (but if his friend the Driver wanted to throw a molotov cocktail, he’d hit S).

If I was designing that game, all of those actions would be done by hitting the big red button in the middle of the screen. That button would be called the DO SOMETHING button, and it would figure out from context what it was that you wanted to do. If I absolutely couldn’t figure out what it was I needed to do from context, I’d throw out my design and start over.

I’m exaggerating for effect, yes. But only a little. Ask yourself if Civilization or Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri was actually improved by the late-game ritual of looking at each of your 43 workers and telling them exactly what improvement they should be building, or if it just pissed you off.

Right. Me too.

The complexity of your game should consist in the interaction of the game’s elements, not in the interaction of the user interface.

Interestingly, some of the iPhone strategy games, such as Uniwar and Reign of Swords get this exactly right, possibly because on that platform, they are forced to. This is yet another reason to play games on your iPhone instead of your Windows PC, as if you needed one beyond “they’re with you 247.”

Just Like Heaven

You may have detected a pattern here, and if so, you’re right: the things that make great strategy games great are the same things that make all other great games great: accessible UI, transparent mechanics, and a system which rewards you for playing the game rather than punishing you (where “reward” doesn’t mean “you win the game”, but “you have fun whether winning or losing.”)

A number of computer strategy game players (and, for that matter, developers) grew up playing old-style Avalon-Hill board games. This means that we have, unfortunately, an ingrown willingness to put up with needlessly complex bullshit. You can see this in the willingness of some to dismiss any strategy game that’s actually accessible (say, Panzer General) as a “beer and pretzels” game. There are two responses to this. The first is that if you are the sort of person who thinks beer and pretzels are bad, you are beyond redemption. But the second is that the great promise, the great power, dare I say the great miracle, of computers is that they can take care of all of the complexity and hide it from us.

Let me close by telling a story that has nothing to do with computer strategy games, but everything to do with computers and how we can use them, or fail to use them, to manage complexity.

In the 1990s a number of competing UNIX-like operating systems were being actively developed. You’ve all heard of Linux, of course, but two of the alternatives were FreeBSD and NetBSD. The FreeBSD people went to some lengths to make their install process easy. One day, I needed to install NetBSD on a machine at work, so I grabbed the distribution and began the process.

One of the first things you had to do was partition the disk. In FreeBSD, this was so simple you basically didn’t even have to think about it. In NetBSD, there was a command line tool that engaged you in a dialogue that went something like this:

Enter the number of cylinders per disk: (the user would enter “1024” or whatever. I am making the numbers up.)

Enter the number of sectors per cylinder: (the user would answer “512”).

Enter the number of sectors per disk (this is the number of sectors per cylinder times the number of cylinders.):

And I just sat there, slack-jawed, in contemplation at the sheer bone- headedness that I was sitting in front of a computer that was asking me to calculate, by hand, the product of two numbers I had just typed in.

Now, had I brought this issue up on the NetBSD mailing lists at the time, there is not a single doubt in my mind that this would have precipitated a whirlwind flamewar where someone who thought they were Very Very Smart™ would explain to me All The Really Very Important Reasons™ that they had to write an install script that was a complete and utter disgrace, an install script that by its very existence degraded humanity and did violence to 10,000 years of civilization.

But the real reason they wrote that script was that, at the time, they just didn’t want to do the work to make the product accessible.

I don’t think that computer strategy game developers, generally speaking, have that bad attitude. I think they want people to play their games, and to enjoy them. But it’s easy to forget what it means for a game to be accessible when you’ve spent your life playing games that weren’t designed with that in mind.

So this is my longwinded response to Nat. Nat, it’s not you. Really. It’s not. It’s the games. Sturgeon’s Law applies to strategy games too.

The thing we need to do is not “learn to play strategy games,” but learn to be better at buying only the 5% that are actually good.