Tobold's Blog
Friday, January 02, 2009
Complicated games

So I'm still looking at single-player PC games in parallel to playing World of Warcraft. I mentioned having some fun with shooter games, but traditionally I am more interested in strategy and role-playing games. But looking at the strategy games on offer, or coming out soon, I noticed that there are a lot of them that are terribly complicated. The whole Europa Universalis series seems to be completely unplayable for the layman. The latest offspring of the Total War series, Empire (to be released in March 2009), will take hours to learn for a newbie, having countless strategic and tactical options in both the round-based strategy map game and the real-time tactical battles.

The comparison with shooters is striking: The shooter genre has evolved without getting any more complicated. A dozen keys is all you need for them. The development concentrated on better graphics and story-telling, but a modern shooter isn't much more complex than Wolfenstein 3D.

It would have been possible for strategy games to develop better AI and story-telling as well, but especially on the AI there has been very little evolution. So to make strategy games more challenging, the developers often add more options, and more micro-management. The result is games that are hard to learn, but easy to master once you know how everything works. Just the opposite of a good game. Most strategy games with a selectable difficulty level are actually equally stupid on every level, they just cheat more on the higher difficulties.

Sometimes developers try to capture a wider audience, by making easier strategy games, like Spore. Spore consists of several games, each of which is a simpler version of existing strategy games. The last and main stage, a 4X space game, is considerably easier than lets say the last Master of Orion. But it is still rather fiddly, and has little strategic depth. Instead of enabling you to win by making better strategic decisions, it adds silly arcade elements.

So what the strategy game genre would need would be to return to its roots, make games which are a lot easier to control, and don't have millions of options. And then work on a much better artificial intelligence, so that one would need to play better to beat the higher difficulty levels, without the computer cheating. Anyone know such a game?
One of the best strategy games of 2008 was Sins of a Solar Empire. Great game, lots of fun, and the developers are really keen to make good games rather than just the cash, something very refreshing after seeing games laid down with harsh DRM.

Stardock, the developer, even went as far as to release the gamer's Bill of Rights, 10 rules about what players should expect from their game and games developer. Check them out:
I highly recommend Europa Universalis and any other Paradox game. Europa Universalis 3 and Hearts of Iron 2 are their best games but they have a slightly steep difficulty curve. Nothing a average RPG player can't handle though.
Civilization: Revolutions for the console is pretty streamlined and has a lot of complexity taken out.
I like the Total War series (I don't like the name) and I can hardly wait for Empires.
But I know what you mean. I would love to see a new Panzer General or a slightly more complex version of Axis and Allies.
Well Starcraft 2 seems to be elevating the story aspects of the single player campaign to new heights. The game itself seems to have retained the simplicity of its first iteration while still allowing for the incredible depth that has turned it into an e-sport in southeast Asia.

Civilization: Revolutions would also be a contender, at least if you're looking for a console experience. On the PC side, perhaps you might even try Civilization: Colonization which obfuscates some of the more arcane bits of Civilization.

Lastly, have you tried Rise of Nations? It was the last strategy/rts game that I got into besides Civ and it is one of the most approachable I've ever experienced. Should be able to find it extremely cheap now.
There's an absolutely brilliant game called Warhammer Age of Reckoning...

Sorry for being trollish.
There are lots of good single player games out there. I'd personally recommend to you Bioshock(which can be purchased off steam for $4.99 right now). Bioshock is a shooter (which you aren't good at) but it also incorperates some RPG elements and has a fantastic story. The graphics and art are also top notch. Played on EZ mode Bioshock is pretty tame. You can't die in the game as you always will res almost like you do in WoW. I played the Xbox360 version and then grabbed the PC version as it was only $5. Go for it.
You should try Kohan if you haven't already. The big names coming out in any given year may not always be the biggest innovators in a genre.
EU: Rome is about as simplistic as you can get man. You must have just read the "feature list" and didn't actually play the game. It's very shallow.

Not that that's all too bad, I really enjoyed the game for the month I could play it before they patched it and made it unplayable on my video card (Nvidia 8800 GTS).

But if EU: Rome is too complicated for you, you'd better steer clear of strategy games altogether. And I'm not just saying that to be condescending ... it's a fisher price game.
I think what's needed in strategy games is a gentler learning curve rather than less complexity. Games like Civ and Sim City just wouldn't be the great titles they are without gazillions of little options to tweak on and improve your effectiveness. But those two games are also very good at not requiring you to learn how to tweak gazillions of little options until you're playing at an advanced level and need the extra oomph.

Simple games lack depth and won't keep people's attention for long. Even Starcraft was amazingly complex at its core, while retaining an 'easy to learn, hard to master' learning curve.

Of course, for every game that gets it there's plenty that don't - Eve's greatest strength, its depth, complexity, and completely freeform gameplay, is also its greatest weakness as that depth is presented in a manner that must be mastered, not all at once, but fairly close, giving it its legendary learning curve.
Eve does not have a learning curve - it has a learning cliff.
Good AI has been an issue ever since the dawn of computers and attempts at making a chess program. So I doubt that any current company will make an AI that doesn't cheat that is truly as competitive as playing another good player.

That being said, there are still plenty of good strategy games out there, although some are showing their age. Someone was talking about Sins of a Solar Empire, which was good, and I like their older title, Galactic Civilizations which is mostly just another version of MOO. And those turn based, "stack of heroes" games such as Heroes of Might and Magic, Kings Bounty, and Warlords were pretty good and challenging, too. I also think I remember reading that they're coming out with another version of Majesty/Medieval Conquest? I'll buy that when it comes out.

What I'd also welcome is an expansion pack to Fantasy Wars. I guess it didn't sell well enough for them to warrant one? Shame, really.

Question for the rest of you, when is Empire due out? I liked the Total War series, so it looks pretty good.
I take back what I said about no expansion for Fantasy Wars. Apparently it's already been released in Russia, and the English translation is in the works.
EU: Rome is about as simplistic as you can get man. You must have just read the "feature list" and didn't actually play the game. It's very shallow.

I did somewhat more than that. I saw some gameplay videos, and read some reviews. Quote: Tiny buttons, menus within menus within menus, it all can make it a real chore to play. Worse still, it chases away those who might derive pleasure from the title just because simple acts are so daunting and difficulty to pull off.

These are exactly the features I think strategy games shouldn't have. Fiddly menus, complicated settings, being a chore to play.
I know what you are talking about Tobold! I used to play SC all the time with my brother and when I went to try a rts after several years off I found that they all seemed to be online vs games with single player campaign as an after thought. I have seen some great interviews about SC2 that make me think the single player will be great though.
I think thats part of the reason I cant get into modern shooters. I look at them and think "this is the same thing since wolf 3d, doom, etc".

And they're lacking a big nazi with chain gun arms saying "guttentag!"
Reviews never tell the whole story. There are a lot of menus, but I'd say a solid half of them are there for RPG lovers only. You can ignore ALL of the character-specific menus if you want and just focus on trading/killing. And trading is nothing more than clicking the country's trade button then selecting the import/export that yields the most gain - so really you can just focus on killing/expanding if that's all you want.

Anyways, did you ever play Lords of the Realm 2? It was the first PC game I installed on my old 486, and it is one of the first I install on every new computer I get. It is one of the best turn-based strategy games I've ever played, and it might have the simplicity (yet awesomeness) you're looking for.
I keep meaning to try King's Bounty after reading a good review from Wolfshead. It sounds like the sort of game that I enjoy. (I'm an old Tactics and MOO/MOM fan.) In the meantime, I'm enjoying Final Fantasy Tactics A2, with its kinder, gentler Judge system. It's not a perfect game, but it's scratching my Tactics itch for the moment.
If you haven't yet checked out Mass Effect, I highly recommend it. It's part PRG, part tactical shooter. It's very heavy on the story development with probably half your time spent in interactive dialog sequences. But to me, the story and characters were compelling and deep enough to keep me hooked.

As to strategy games, I highly recommend Sins of a Solar Empire and Galactic Civilizations II.
If you still wanna try your hand at shooters I recommend Left 4 Dead. For a shooter it allows for some fair decent strategy, if your teammate are friend or not asshats.
I'm not sure how much you can improve the AI.

Shooter AI isn't quite as dumb as it used to be, but it's a very different thing to get a bot not to run right at the enemy and maybe take cover vs. getting a computer AI to figure out intelligent diplomatic moves and to properly attack and defend.

And whats your deal against games that take time to learn? So you lose for a while before you get the hang of it. Strategy games cater to people who like spending 6 hours working on building ques and engaging in diplomacy. Tarding it down to Spore levels would kill the game, as in this instance the hardcore are pretty much the entire market (as shown by the fact that Stardock makes the premiere 4x game... not exactly a big name).

And the original Master of Orion wasn't simple. The only real evolution in the genre is the building que, which is a mixed blessing, since it gets a bit ridiculous when you have to lay out the plan for 40+ planets.

The secret recipe for success in every strategy game from Civ 4 to Gal Civ to Total War to Monopoly is this: In the early stage of the game expand as fast as you possible can. Sacrifice everything to get as much real estate as you can without tipping over into bankruptcy. Once you have bagged your real estate. priority one is getting tons of money. Everything else flows from having more money than everyone else.
I found the AI in CIV IV Beyond the Sword (2nd expansion or 3rd??) was quite well done. It still did the usual cheating at higher difficultly levels and once you played it a few times it could get predicatable. But it was excessively ruthless and bloodthirsty at times and employed many strategies that I, as a player, would usually employ with great sucess.

Damn... all this talk is making me want to play some more... I wonder if I still have all the install DVDs...
If we've mentioned RTSs via Starcraft2 and Sins, consider what Relic are doing with Dawn of War 2. Strong RPG elements, story arc decisions that "matter", focus on action and combat, not base-building and resource-collection, but plenty of room for tactical cunning.

Less complexity, more fun. I hope it's as good as the previews suggest.
Tob whats with all these single player game blogging ? are you bored already with wotlk ? i know it is way shorter than TBC expansion and for some people they already met the same gear/rep grind treadmill at endgame. So what you think about wotlk ? look at what this guy saying :
WoW: All players will burn through WotLK faster than they did TBC, increasing the churn rate. WoW will launch in new areas of the world and count those players towards its own overall sub number (despite more than half of those not being full-paid subs), which counters the effects of the above and WoW retains its 11 million ’subs’. The new raid content will be beaten the day it is released live by top guilds, but it will be considered tuned ‘correctly’ despite the churn. More daily grinds in 09.[/quote]
There are a few very good "RTS Lite" games out there that keep the controls and options fairly simple - Battle for Middle Earth and Company of Heroes are two of my favorites. I guess you could always go for Darwinia but I found that just too minimalist for my own tastes.
Tobold, buy a console. Most of the games are insanely fun and really simple. For example, Gears of War II is amazing in its simplicity and total immersion...Fable II is possibly one of the best RPGs ever made, short but simple and fun! And can be a complex as you like..
As a fun, casual, and easy to play strategy game that nonetheless is able to constantly ramp up the difficulty - I highly recommend the game Oasis by Mind Control Software. It manages to combine exploration, developing technology, and city building, into a game that takes 5-10 minutes per round. I really wish they'd put out a sequel as I've re-played it enough times I'd love some new maps!
It sounds like your key complaint is really artificial intelligence, as complexity definately pre-dates the computer for these types of games. Have you ever seen a strategy game (paper and counter) called Home Before the Leaves Fall? My God, is that a complex monstrosity.

I think, in a lot of ways, the RTS genre is what you are talking about. Easy to learn hard to master yadda yadda. The advent of real time battles, necessitated simplicity. Warcraft 1 and 2 were much simpler than their turn based parents because one simply did not have enough time for the level of detail present in the turn based games at that time. Controlling each and every one of your soldiers is definately what I would call micro management, and for me, that style lost its luster quite some time ago. For instance, I enjoy the campaign map in the Total War games more than the real time battles (though I like that I control units not individuals, and the morale factor, physics, etc. of the real time combat.)

There is certainly room for both "Risk" and "Home Before the Leaves Fall." The same is true of the computer world. The major complaint I have, is why cannot I play the massive campaigns in the Total War series against a human opponent? Sure, they would take a terribly long time to play, but that was no different with the old table top games that took months to play out. The humman opponent would truly make the strategy board in Total War fascinating!

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