Feature: Reports of Strategy’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

When 2K Games announced that the forthcoming X-Com game would switch genres from a turn-based strategy to FPS, it was an obvious cash grab on the publisher’s part. It’s undeniable that the FPS genre has higher commercial ceiling than strategy, but at the same time it has a much higher financial risk. So 2K Games was hoping to roll the dice with the X-Com name and come up with a new FPS franchise.

Christoph Hartmann, president of 2K Games sees it differently. In an unbelievable interview published yesterday, Hartmann rationalizes that it’s not so much the money, but because turn-based strategy games are “not contemporary.” This is a pretty oblivious statement from the publisher of one of the most popular strategy series around, Civlization. But he manages to dig himself a deeper hole with a laughable music analogy:

“I use the example of music artists. Look at someone old school like Ray Charles, if he would make music today it would still be Ray Charles but he would probably do it more in the style of Kanye West. Bringing Ray Charles back is all fine and good, but it just needs to move on, although the core essence will still be the same.”

In the music industry, there’s a highly technical term for this: selling out. Hartmann can try to sugar coat it all he wants, but to say that it’s not entirely driven by money is disingenuous. His assertion that strategy games are no longer contemporary is misinformed. Sure, it’s a niche audience compared to the heyday of strategy gaming, but there are still excellent titles coming out today.

Dune Wars is an impressive total conversion mod for Civilization IV.

Any discussion of modern turn-based strategy games has to begin with Civilization. Even though it was released six years ago, I still play Civ IV occasionally. One game that sticks out, in particular, was a massive multiplayer game against coworkers. It took months to finish at two turns a day, and even though I ultimately had all my cities nuked, it was a great deal of fun. Civilization IV just has a certain timeless quality to it, and its well-designed mod system allows it to be extended in fairly dramatic ways.

I’ve recently been playing Dune Wars, an impressive total-conversion mod for Civ IV. The mod places you in the shoes of one of the many factions in the Dune universe, all vying for control of the spice planet Arrakis. Some of the general concepts are very much Civilization: you found cities, grow armies, and manage allegiances. But the way these concepts are utilized feel very different. Your cities, for example, can’t really grow that much due to a lack of water. The tech tree and unique aspects of each faction make strategies pretty divergent depending on who you pick.

But the distinguishing feature of Dune Wars is the implementation of the spice resource. A good 60% of the map is desert, which only a small number of units can traverse. Either it needs to be an air unit, a sandworm, or a worker with desert suit technology. Once you can get to the desert, there’s massive amounts of lucrative spice. However, your spice harvesters require a decent amount of maintenance, because sandstorms and the aforementioned sandworms go after those harvesters. This creates an interesting dynamic, because all factions are either trying to mine Arrakis for all the spice it’s worth, or terraform it into a paradise.

Gal Civ II features an excellent AI which doesn't need to cheat.

I mention this to point out that there is still a very passionate community around strategy games. The amount of time and effort it took to make Dune Wars wouldn’t have been spent on what Hartmann argues is an essentially dead genre. If anything, the critical and commercial success of Civilization V proved that there still is a market for strategy games. Now granted, Civ V had some issues initially that made the AI a bit too easy to defeat, but I’ve been meaning to go back to it now that many changes have been made.

There’s also Swedish publisher Paradox Interactive, who have been churning out strategy games for the past 13 years and aren’t showing any signs of slowing down. Like with the Adventure Company, Paradox finds smaller developers who want to make a strategy game, and do their best to get it published. Of course, this means that they do release some middling strategy titles. But they do have some series which are fairly popular: Europa Universalis, Hearts of Iron, and Sword of the Stars.

Then there’s the darling developer of strategy gamers: Stardock. Previously a developer of only Windows extensions, over time they also jumped into the gaming market. Operating with a fairly small team, their Galactic Civilizations series was reasonably successful for them financially. Gal Civ II features some of the best AI in modern strategy gaming. The only thing that prevented it from taking all my time was a lack of multiplayer. Last fall, Stardock released Elemental, a magic-based strategy game, which unfortunately had a rocky launch. They’ve made some strides forward, and hopefully when their expansion comes out the game will be on more solid footing.

Frozen Synapse is a simple, yet addictive, tactical turn-based strategy game.

I think something important to take away from both Paradox and Stardock is that there simply is less financial risk in making a strategy game. I wouldn’t be surprised if 2K’s new X-Com FPS will cost upwards of $40 million dollars to produce, which means it would have to sell 2-3 million copies in order to break even. On the other hand, many high-quality strategy games can be made for much less money than that. The art budget, for example, can typically be much smaller given that you aren’t going to be closely inspecting most characters. That means models can be produced more quickly, and much fewer animations are needed. The sound design is similarly simplified by the perspective.

This is why you see many indie developers releasing strategy games. Frozen Synapse, a turn-based tactical strategy from Mode 7 is a great current example. It has an addictively simple concept where your squad is up against an enemy squad. While you’re figuring out what to do on a turn, you can play your squad members’ actions, to see what would happen if your enemy didn’t move at all that turn. Of course, your enemy is going to be moving, so what you see in the preview will never coincide with exactly what happens. Once both players have locked in their moves, the turn plays out and you see how well you did against your opponent. Sometimes it goes really well, other times you’re decimated. I haven’t had the chance to play the competitive multiplayer yet, but it seems like it would be a great deal of fun.

If Hartmann wants to listen to Led Zeppelin in the style of the Jonas Brothers, then he can enjoy having his ear drums explode. In the mean time, I’ll be playing one of the many quality strategy games out there. And I only even talked about strictly turn-based games in this article. There are, of course, the games that mix in real-time components, like Sins of a Solar Empire and the Total War series. And then there’s the fully real-time games which, as Starcraft II proved, can still be blockbuster titles. One game I won’t be playing, however, is the X-Com FPS. I’m guessing that’s going to be a financial gamble that won’t pay off for 2K Games.

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