March 11, 2001
More powerful microprocessors are killing commercial strategy games, and cutting off a valuable source of wargaming ideas for professionals.
Strategy games let you play with the big picture. Any national leader has to play out long range options, even if only in his head. Failure to do so brings disaster. Beginning in the 19th century, we had strategy games that looked like games, and not just a map with pins on it. In the 1960s, strategy games became a commercial product. It was the commercial wargame publishers who discovered why there was never a big demand for strategy games in the past. Strategy games were complex. OK, they were no more complex than tactical level games, but they required more thought. They required strategic thought. You had to plan far ahead and make contingent plans as well. Most wargamers preferred tactical level games, where you plan for now and execute right away. Sure, you have to plan in tactical games, but the decisions in strategy games reach a little farther out, just enough to make for a niche market. Marketing surveys indicated that the older and more experienced wargamers had more of a taste for strategic wargames. Unfortunately, players of these manual wargames had to have substantial math and analytic skills, as well as an interest in military affairs. Fewer than one percent of the US population fit this profile. Over a hundred commercial strategy games were published in the 1970s, and the Pentagon paid attention.
Salvation came along in the 1980s. Personal computers made it possible to automate many of the complex game procedures and details. You no longer needed a rare skill set before you could use a wargame. All of a sudden there were a lot more strategy games, and a lot more people able to play them. Initially, there was one major problem, the lack of an electronic display that could provide the, literal, big picture. That became less of a problem in the late 1980s, when more powerful electronic components increased the pixel count and color depth considerably. In 1991, the most popular strategy game to date, Civilization, was published. The graphics were crude by current standards, but good enough to do the job in the early 1990s. Alas, that same increase in computing power made possible the very thing that would soon make it much harder to publish useful strategy games.
But before the glitz took over, there were many innovations in computer wargame design that enhanced the quality of strategy games. In 1981, Eastern Front appeared. Using the superb (for the time) graphics of the Atari PC. The game had excellent artificial intelligence for the Russian side, demonstrating that the basic principles of strategic military thinking need not require a lot of computer resources. Clear thinking and efficient implementation make all the difference.
In 1987 Battlefront was published. Although less successful with artificial intelligence, the game did allow the player to use subordinates to command units. This game also provided a map and scenario editor, something that became standard with many games in the future. Providing the tools to "roll your own" is essential for a Strategy Game, especially one for professional use.
A year later, Annals of Rome appeared. This game demonstrated how political and military elements can be integrated in a game. This is another element that benefits greatly from the use of a computer to keep track of a large number of elements, and the calculations required when these elements interact.
The hard times began in 1992, when Castle Wolfenstein 3-D appeared. This game took full advantage of the more powerful capabilities of the new VGA graphic standard. The graphic cards capabilities advanced more quickly than that of the PCs themselves during the late 1990s. The ability to put more pixels on the screen at a faster rate made it possible to produce the "First Person Shooter" (FPS) type game. Wolfenstein wasn't the first of the FPS genre, but it was so ably executed that it defined what a FPS had to be ever since. Now you'd think that an FPS wouldn't have any impact on strategy games, but they did, simply by crowding out wargames and defining what future wargames would have to look like to be competitive in the marketplace. The same thing happened twenty years earlier when role playing games (Dungeons & Dragons) appeared and began to eat into the historical wargames market. Fiction outsells non-fiction, a fact everyone discovered about the same time D&D appeared. Some science fiction games had been published earlier and wargamers were somewhat dismayed to see them outselling historical wargames by a wide margin. History does repeat itself, especially when it comes to market development.
FPS games also made much of the principal feature any successful game must have, addiction. The first hit arcade game, Pong, appeared in the early 1970s and succeeded because it was addictive. In 1975 it was available for game consoles. These "game machines" were actually the first "personal computers" and appeared about a year before the PCs with keyboards (the Apple and TRS Mod I.) Arcade games, as expensive stand alone units that had to be fed quarters, made money by being addictive. Because of the steady supply of quarters, the arcade games could afford the best graphics available. But the game itself had to be addictive enough to keep the quarters coming. By the mid-1970s, microchips were cheap enough to sell game consoles for home use. The graphics were not quite as good as the stand along arcade games, but they were good enough to sell millions of consoles and many more game games. The principal ingredient of arcade game addiction was continuous movement. For that reason, these were called "twitch games." The better your were in the eye/hand coordination, the better you did with these games. Strategic thinking was not necessary. By the late 1970s, arcade games were bringing in more money than movies.
Castle Wolfenstein 3-D was a twitch game that was marketed brilliantly, being made available initially as shareware on BBSs and the Internet (the web was still being invented at the time.) This gave wide and rapid exposure to an innovative and addictive game. A retail version was then made available. The Wolfenstein developers cleaned up and inspired many other gamer/programmers. The clones soon followed.
The success of Wolfenstein and it's many clones and successors gave developers the idea that snazzy graphics ("eye candy") could enhance any game. They were right and in 1994 Warcraft arrived. A strategy game with stunning graphics, it was also real time, rather than turn based. Now Warcraft was not the first strategy game to use the constant movement angle. NATO Commander did that in 1983. But using better graphics and more powerful PCs, Warcraft did it better. Actually, there are turns, but the software uses time slicing to make the "turns" so short that the action appears to be constant. The computer controlled forces will wait for a fraction of a second for you to move, and then perform their next action. This technique was borrowed from arcade games. Warcraft was also based on fiction, not history. It proved very addictive and kept players very busy.
Games like Warcraft, and a flood of clones, were called Real Time Strategy (RTS) games. This is something of a misnomer. While there is a lot of strategic planning involved (you must find raw materials, build things and allocate resources), the continuous action is the anthesis of the decision cycle that strategic planners have to deal with. The stress on continuous action, or "click fest" does not allow the thoughtful strategist to shine. One can make the case that the intense atmosphere of RTS games do hone ones strategic skills, much like drills prepare athletes or soldiers. But we want strategy games for practicing the use of strategy, not for getting ready to do so. Some RTS games allow players to pause the action for planning. Others allow for simultaneous execution. But all of them spend most of their development budget on the eye and ear candy.
The commercial wargames industry is also a victim of its own success. In the 1970s, it cost less than $50,000 to bring a manual strategy game to market. Most of the money went into designing the game. The computer strategy games of the 1980s cost ten times that. Today it costs millions of dollars. The actual design of strategy games takes only a few percent of the development budget. The higher costs require higher sales. By shifting the emphasis from strategy to game, sales are much increased, but you don't get a game that's useful for the professional, or of much interest to anyone familiar with strategy.