Thursday, May 16, 2013

No Frills Strategizing

Why do strategy game designers go to such trouble to create interesting, balanced, challenging systems only to wreck gameplay when it comes to map design?

I was recently playing a bit of Heroes of Might and Magic 4 for old times' sake. All I really wanted to do was play the game. Not a scenario where I have to chase down a particular goal or where I'm given a specific bonus, but the game in its full rags-to-riches kingdom-building glory. I want a sprawling map on which to expand my presence through varied and balanced challenges, with as many choices to make as possible. I don't want some scenario that pigeonholes me into taking a skeleton army cross-country to kill a witch. That's not strategy. It's an RPG campaign.

And that would be fine, in small doses. However, out of HoMM4's dozens of available maps, there are only a handful which simply allow one to play the game concept in its unaltered form, without extra limitations or story-based objectives. Of those, only a couple are large enough to allow for the sort of megalomaniacal empire-building which lies at the root of turn-based-strategy appeal.

Ah, for the good old days. Back in '97, I was an 8th-grader just getting into computer games. Dragged to a holiday gathering by my parents, I spent the afternoon catching up on the latest greatest electronic entertainment news with the hosts' son who was around my age. Back in those days, instead of pre-ordering everything blindly, we had these things called 'demos' which one downloaded painstakingly over dial-up to try out a limited form of a game before spending money on it. Shockingly anti-capitalist, I know.
The name of the game that afternoon was Heroes of Might and Magic 2, or at least the demo thereof. It consisted of one good-sized map. No story, no artificial extra limitations on gameplay, no ridiculous bonuses like starting with all buildings already built. The selling point was not some cinematic or a simplistic introductory mission to pad the player's ego, but the fantasy town and army-management experience in itself. I must've played that thing... well, never mind how much.

The central concept of a game like HoMM or Civilization is not warfare in itself, but empire-building. It's the standard setup for real-time strategy as well: you start with one "core" building and expand from there. Growing your dominion over the world from humble beginnings of one settler and one warrior is not just one feature, but the central theme of the genre. Granted, there have been a fair number of examples of TBS or RTS which are created from a squad-management mindset, in which strategic choices are made before a mission and the bulk of gameplay is limited to tactical decisions. My favorite examples are Mech Commander and Warhammer 40k: Chaos Gate. It must be tempting for the designers of a more traditional-styled strategy game to try to provide that sort of gameplay as well, with ready-made map scenarios. These can be amusing diversions, but they are damaging if they begin to take over a product whose basic mechanics were never designed to accommodate them.

As positive examples, one can hold up games which use random map generation, such as the Civilization series. They are built for replayability, as my endless list of lost matches in Civ4 can attest. Scenario creation does not interfere. On the other hand, HoMM titles always contained too many types of interdependent, interactable map elements to ever be workable as random-generated worlds. They depended heavily on map creation.
While strategy games were still two-dimensional, the lack of developer-generated maps for regular gameplay was easily compensated for by map editors shipped with the product. Anyone, even a third-rate biology student with lycanthropy on his brain and no knowledge of programming (nobody you know) could shuffle game elements into something both functional and aesthetically pleasing. Starcraft thrived on user-created maps with no scripted events whatsoever. As strategy game engines became more and more complex though, programming language wormed its way into the supposedly user-friendly map editors. Even molding the three-dimensional terrain added a discouraging set of challenges and the mechanics for creating simple, core-gameplay maps were buried under endless options for scripting events and modding in-game objects.
So, as games got better, much fewer players became able to create content. A lack of maps can severely undercut the playability of games made by designers who grew up with the huge HoMM 2&3 custom map community.

But for the next half of this post, I'd rather talk about Majesty 2 in particular.

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