Friday, March 20, 2009

Context to the battles

I was listening to Troy Goodfellow's (Flash of Steel) podcast 3 Moves Ahead today (episode 3) and they were discussing Empire: Total War. E:TW was highly criticised by Tom Chick, one of the contributors to the podcast, in his Crispy Gamer review.

What interested me about their discussion was "do the tactical real time battles need the strategic layer". Putting aside the debate of whether the strategy layer is actually good (you can read my other blog, Veteran Gamer, for this type of thing.), I will be looking at whether it is needed and what alternatives exist.

Is it needed?
What does the strategy layer offer? If you assume, for the moment, that the strategy layer is not fun enough to play on its own, why include it? In the case of Total War games, the most impressive element of the game is clearly the real time tactical battles. That is what makes up the adverts and that's where the development money went. So surely people view the campaign as just getting in the way. However, people insist on playing it.

The reason is they give the battles context. This is an example of the strange phenomena of games. People needs rewards. This is completely bizarre when viewed with a purely logical mindset. Gamers play games to have fun (or to escape or whatever), that is the real reward. However, players need something in game too. Achievements are another example. Your gamer score counts for nothing, and yet people insist on playing the game again to get all the achievements. Why do they need the excuse, if they are enjoying the game enough, why can't they just play it again?

I'm not a psychologist, so my answer is simply that humans are illogical and, as game designers, you must cater to this.

Context provides this reward. What is the point of winning the battle on its own, where is the reward? However, if your battle contributes to winning the war, then suddenly it is worth while. Yes, this is ridiculous, what does winning the war grant you; nothing. But it doesn't matter any where near as much, as you don't finish the campaign half as often as you do a mission.

A possible explanation for this need of context is that it helps immersion. In real life, there are no isolated fights, there must be some external purpose, no matter how basic.

OK, so context is needed, but what if you want all of your game to be fun. What alternatives exist to the campaign mode found in Empire and the like? Well obviously you have the traditional linear mission mode. Now sometimes, I think it is very easy to be snob like in your favourite genre. Recently, Resident Evil 5 came out. A lot of people lashed out at the controls. Immediately, Resi fans struck back with "this is how it has always been, you just can't HANDLE the controls". Just because this is how it has always been does not mean it isn't time for change.

I make no such judgements over RTS fanatics, I have played enough to consider myself, at least partly, amongst them. I also freely admit that I don't normally bother with linear campaign missions.

I think part of the attraction with these spiralling campaigns is they make an emergent story line (the best kind of story, in my opinion, when it comes to games). Also, I think with linear missions, some of the immersion, i.e. the point of not just playing the real time element, is lost. You can only win, if you lose, you restart, you will only advance in a set way and you cannot deviate from this. It isn't helped that the stories are usually predictable and unimaginative.

One campaign I did like was Dawn of War 2. I think this excellently combined the two methodologies. It keeps the linear missions, which means you are very rarely distracted from the heart of the game, but keeps a strong sense of context. The whole campaign just feels more real than other real time strategies, including Dawn of War 1 (ignoring Dark Crusade and after, they suffered from a different problem entirely). The use of optional missions which provide optional benefits creates the reward system and interesting decisions for the player. As does war gear and levelling up your troops. True, there is a scripted series of events and you can't lose. The difference is, it feels like you have some control over the story and, because it is the same units with the same names, you get an emergent story that feels unique to you. Does your scout squad get annoyed they are often viewed as cowards? Do you try and balance which units get deployed so they don't get upset?

The campaign is excellent for a number of other reasons which I detailed in my review of the game. However, the key thing is, it doesn't distract from the meat of the game, it just gives the missions context and reward.

Overall, I don't think the campaign mode needs to be as complicated as Dawn of War (and believe me, that isn't complicated) All it needs to do is provide you with a believable back story before you begin the mission, and a reason to finish it other than pure advancement. Other great things include continuity between missions and interesting decisions that don't take hours to have visible effects. It is a real time game, and if your decisions don't have an immediate and obvious impact, then they become a drag and just taking you away from what you want to do. In some ways, I think this is where TW games fail. A turn can take as long as a turn in Civ. In Civ, that's what you want, in TW, it is taking you away from that.

No comments: