Strategy and Games Today

Most games these days in the category of ‘Strategy’ offer little in the way of strategizing for a player.  Players simply accept it and adopt the strategies given to them without realizing that they aren’t given much input into the strategy they use, simply because that’s how it goes.

The reason players don’t realize this is because they are blinded by a fanciful story telling that is crafted around the strategy they use.  Trying to rescue a good person being brainwashed into an evil queen of a horde of monsters, is a story, StarCraft II in this case.  At no point is the player actually asked if he wants to rescue her.  What if the player wants to exterminate her along with the rest of her horde, and thus save the galaxy?  That option we will never know as the player is never given the option to choose that strategy, all in the names of a story that is the real reason people play the campaign.

Other games like Mass Effect offer different story arcs for different choices.  This actually allows for more strategy than supposed strategy games.  Choices offered may be simplified, but there is still choice about how you go about the task you are given at the start.  The choices you made result in consequences later on.  Other possibilities may open up or close because of the choices you made.  All of this adds up to the strategy that you the player chose for your game.  However there is still not 100% free choice here, and the excuse is that they’re telling a story.

Also known as Star Control II for us veterans.
Also known as Star Control II for us veterans.


Going back to older games, I’m going to look next at Star Control II, also known these days as The Ur-Quan Masters.  Here you are dumped into the story with a powerful ship, and a short term goal:  Find out why Earth broke contact so many years ago.  From here you discover the story that the alliance against the Ur-Quan lost, and now Earth is imprisoned under a slave shield.  The game, after a short tutorial, gives you a few ideas on what steps you could take to reverse this outcome, and then it asks you what you think you should do.

Honestly, most people at this point chose option 2.
Honestly, most people at this point chose option 2.

Many players these days may feel lost at this point.  The game hasn’t told them specifically what to do.  They could work on building an army of ships, or they could meet and join forces with other races, or they could simply go fight right now.  However instead the game simply asks the player what they think they should do, and in fact there is no wrong answer at this point.  In effect, you are thrown into a sandbox, but what you don’t know is there are some far reaching consequences to your actions.

I'm not just talking about getting married to the blue alien babe.
I’m not just talking about getting married to this blue alien babe.

I’m posting about this now, because there is a game company out there that is trying to recapture the strategy in the strategy genre, only their games are being misunderstood by gamers.  Just like in this classic above, players are given a short tutorial, and then thrust into a game, only with a goal, but only a vague idea of what they might do to accomplish the goal.  I’m talking about Arcen Games.

 I’m hoping to just provide tools for players to refine their thinking on “what might a good intermediate goal be?” And some ideas on “what are at least the standard ways I might go about that?”  And then leave it at that.  All the extra cleverness and side things, and more complicated stuff, people can figure out on their own.  –Chris Park, Founder and Lead Developer of Arcen Games

They aren’t being held down by ideas like, “the story must guide the player,” and “player choices can’t change the ultimate outcome of the game.”  However many gamers take one play at their games, feel lost, and give up, rather than realizing that the story is theirs to write.  I am writing this because I hope to help players realize what was missing from their experience, and how they themselves provide it.

In AI War, the war is over already, and you’ve lost.  Your only hope is to lie low, build strength without the AI noticing, and strike back, destroying it’s main processing nodes at it’s home world before the AI can decide to deliver the final blow to you.  The universe is huge, and how to you go about it is up to you.  There are many right strategies you can use, and many more wrong ones.  Which are which you will not be told, and could even change from game to game.  Along the way you will learn that the AI does not think or operate the way we do.  A successful strategy will capitalize on our strengths against their weaknesses, without exposing our own weaknesses.  The fun comes from figuring out how just to do that, and making your own story, of your victory, or your glorious final stand against the AI butchers that betrayed you.

In Bionic Dues, you are the last hope for a city overrun by a robot menace turned against it’s former human masters.  You have one chance to build up enough strength to defeat the robot final assault, otherwise the city will be nuked to prevent the rebellion from spreading further.  Evacuation is impossible as every city is already overcrowded.  Can you do what it takes to save the city despite all odds, or will this story once again be about a glorious defeat

They are coming out with a new game in less than a week.  The Last Federation.  I don’t know that much about the game yet but from what I’ve seen, it’s a grand strategy game with a turn based tactical fighting simulator wrapped inside.

Combat Footage from the Alpha

However yet again, after a short tutorial, you will be thrust in a game, where there is no story guiding your actions.  Instead you have to decide for yourself how you will build this federation.  Who will be a part of it.  What do you do with the people you leave out of it.  How do you end the petty bickering.  There are lots of ways to do all of this, it’s up to the player to figure it out as it’s his story.

In short, next time you get a game and you feel yourself wondering if the developer just didn’t bother to put in a story, perhaps the idea was in fact for the player to come up with their own story of how they did it.  Try to bring out the inner story teller in yourself and tell the best story you can, and then share it with others.  You might find yourself having more fun than if they had simply told you what the story was in the first place.  You’ll never know unless you try.