March 8, 2009

Fast and Slow Strategy

I've noticed a gulf in the RTS genre. Some games, like Sins of a Solar Empire and Supreme Commander are going big and slow; they tend to advertise an epic, never-before-seen scale. Others, like Command & Conquer 3 and World in Conflict are going small and fast; they market the de-emphasizing or total lack of base building and the high-action tactical battles. Both share an ancestry in the early RTS games, but these games are getting so different that people are trying to exile them into separate "RT4X" or "Real-Time Tactics" genres. This schism intrigues me.

I should start by noting that I'm a complete partisan here. I played and loved single-player C&C and Starcraft and Age of Empires back my formative gaming years, but my skillz have waned while my hunger for strategic depth has intensified. I was really upset that Warcraft 3 put such a heavy focus on heroes and small unit counts. World in Conflict is keeping me entertained through spectacle alone so far, and I didn't even bother buying C&C3 after so many of my friends praised its fast pace and quick-to-the-punch action.

The simplistic explanation of the schism is that it's all based in differences of pacing preference. Some of us prefer a faster, more exciting experience, while others can't take the heat and thus prefer a game that lets us adequately prepare before stepping into the strained-metaphorical kitchen. To be certain, pacing matters. And I do prefer a game that supports some real, large-scale back-and-forth.

But I think that there's more to it. There's a substantive change to the "strategic" aspect of the gameplay when you are thinking on a time limit. A while back, I wrote about time limits and puzzle solving: "In Portal, the player generally has infinite time to figure out how to proceed. Experimentation is encouraged, and the player can try out whatever and still feel creative when the puzzle is solved. Shadow of the Colossus introduces a major danger factor. You can't sit and try to analyze the colossus for weaknesses because if you stop running, you'll die."

Similarly, in a game that focuses on rapid base-building and battle tactics, the biggest determining factor of victory is the player's skill in getting a base up, running, and producing fast. In games that forgo the base-building, the most important element is maneuvering individual units. Both of these involve important tactical decisions, but it always requires a high degree of mechanical skill on the player's part: knowing the interface, clicking the right buttons in the right order at the right time, and knowing the right instant for each action. Too often, this skill aspect overshadows the tactical one, with many games having a clear "correct" build order or tactical outlook, with skill as the only differentiation between knowledgeable players.

The slower pace of "slow strategy" games allows for a more contemplative match. Discerning the enemy's strategy ahead of time matters much more, for without an effective counter, the match is lost. There's more time to alter strategies or take time to think and plan. Moments are rarely precious.

Keep slowing down the strategy, and you end up in the realm of turn-based games. Perhaps that's where I belong; Civ 2 is calling my name right now. But I also enjoy the action and flow of a real-time game, and the need to stay consistently focused (if not anxious) can be enjoyable. Games like SupCom and SoaSE offer a happy medium in the very wide "strategy" genre.

But if we so readily discriminate Turn-Based Strategy from Real-Time Strategy, I think it's time that we acknowledge that fast and slow RTSs are diverging just as significantly. I know it's getting a bit ridiculous to subdivide a subgenre, but I'm sure that I'm not alone in my likes and dislikes. Fast strategy games may as well be in the action genre from my perspective, and I'm sure that the fans of such games can't stand the snail's pace of my favorite RTS games. A new set of labels might help.

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