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GameGuy: The ďTurn-by-TurnĒ Edition
By Mark H. Walker
Let's dispense with the usual snappy
beginnings and get right to the point. After all, this is a serious issue. What
we are discussing is no less than the demise of a genre. A genre whose early years
helped to define computer gaming, but one that has lately fallen --with a
couple of notable exceptions-- into financial doldrums. The genre in question
is turn-based strategy, and to believe some pundits you would think that these
games are on their last leg.
I don't buy it.
I know that there is room for improvement,
switches to be thrown, concepts to be matured, and corners to be turned in
order to clear a place for turn-based strategy in our gaming future, but that's
nothing new. Five years ago RPGs were on the road to an early grave. Now both
the Baldur's Gate and Diablo
series have sold over a million copies, and Dungeon Siege hasnít lost any money either. †But what will it take to throw turn-based
strategy's switches? Two words: Innovation and immersion.
In a sense, innovation is a no-brainer, but
with turn-based strategy innovation takes on a multitude of faces. Face one is
a new sell-through model.
Turn-based strategy, and its cousin
turn-based wargaming, do not (Civilization- and Heroes of Might and
Magic type games excepted) appeal to a wide segment of the gaming
population. For example, Talonsoft's critically acclaimed Rising Sun didnít
even sell 100,000 units, yet Dungeon
Siege seems destined to sell well over one half-million copies. Accordingly
it's hard for turn-based strategy developers/publishers to buy shelf space in
your mall's Babbages. But that's okay, I say that they should quit trying.
The Internet is a store tailor-made for
niche publishing. A wargame need not compete with The Operative: No One
Lives Forever for a hot end cap position on the Internet; there is plenty
of room for everyone. Yes, the sales will be lower, but so are the expenses.
The 'net cuts out the middleman, reduces overhead and eliminates buybacks. In
short, a developer makes much more per unit, so they can live with selling
fewer units --a scenario tailor made to this genre's lower volume sales.
The second face of innovation is topic.
Turn-based strategy has long been the enclave of world domination games such as
Civilization, Alpha Centauri, and Imperialism, fantasy games such as Etherlords,
Disciples, and Heroes of Might and Magic, galactic conquest
games such as Reach for the Stars
and Space Empires IV, and wargames such as Panzer General,
The Operational Art of War, and
Combat Mission. Yes, there are exceptions; Armies of
Armageddon, Age of Wonders, Odium, X-Com: UFO Defense, Incubation, and Missionforce:
Cyberstorm come immediately to mind --although nearly all of those have a
wargame heart beating under their science fiction or fantasy skin. Although
each enclave has been enjoyable in its own time, to grow the genre, turn-based
strategy needs to branch out.
Incubation, X-Com, and their ilk, have done their share of branching, and at least in X-Com's
case, been financially rewarded for going out on their gaming limb. On the
other hand, I nearly cried when I discovered that Combat Mission: Beyond
Overlord (my nomination for that dubious "Game of the Year"
title), will visit World War II's Russian front in its sequel. Iíve since
gotten over myself Ėin fact, Iím writing the Combat Mission 2 strategy guide.
My point is that there will always be a
given segment that will buy East Front wargames, Civilization games and
galactic conquest games, but it's a diminishing segment. Folks tire of the same
old wine in a graphically new bottle. Let's be different. How about a game on
gang wars, evolution, or one depicting the famous science fiction armored
mercenaries, Hammer's Slammer's saga? I don't know. Nevertheless, although
I'm not sure what the next big turn-based strategy game will be, I'm sure it
won't be a galactic conquest game with mind-numbing minutia, or a Civilization
clone (unless Sid Meiers designs it and then all bets are off).
Innovation's third face is the game engine
itself. Many turn-based games are simple "I-move-then-you-move"
affairs. The system works well, and it's one that I often enjoy. But to pull in
new gamers, developers must design new, innovative takes on turn-based gaming. Combat
Mission's turn-based simultaneous resolution is one of the best examples,
as was Semper Fi's phased activation, and as I've said before,
Squaresofts' Active Time Battle (ATB) system, is just begging for a strategy
That brings us to the second word...
immersion. People want to live inside their games. They want to be blinded when
lasers flash and smell gunpowder when muskets fire. They want to brag to fellow
gamers of their troop's heroic deeds and grimace when they die in battle. One
of the best ways to immerse people is by making them care, and one of the best
ways to do that is blending strategy with RPG. The original Panzer General
gave us the first taste of that RPG/strategy formula and it went on to sell
gobs of games.
Sound and graphics --when employed
properly-- are another immerser (sic). That doesn't mean slapping some 3D
models on a hex grid, as Talonsoft did with The Operational Art of War,
but rather using a computer's capabilities to create that "you are
there" feeling. Again, Combat Mission's 3D graphics put you at
ground zero, wondering when that Tiger tank will crest the ridge and lay its
gun on your puny Wolverine tank destroyer. But Combat Mission isn't
alone, long before its release, Incubation's 3D polygonal monsters were
enough to give pause to all but the most jaded gamer.
And that, in a sentence, is what turn-based
strategy games need to do --give pause. They need to shake up what has come
before in order to survive. Part of that shaking is adapting a new sales model,
part is learning to innovate through topic and engine, and part is devising new
ways to immerse gamers in their games. If developers/publishers can do that the
genre will not only survive, but also thrive. Otherwise one of our pastime's
oldest genre may bite the dust.
© Mark H. Walker, LLC 2001
H. Walker is a veteran interactive entertainment journalist who has written
over 40 books including his recently released Medal of Honor and Wizardry 8
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