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What Makes Strategy Games Exciting?
by Evan Jones on 11/08/11 04:19:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

The following is a rough recollection of a talk I gave at the San Francisco IGDA’s Pecha Kucha night on October 19, 2011. I don’t have a recording of the talk, so this is a composite of my notes and what I said, to the best of my memory. As a result, this piece is a bit more conversational than my typical writing style.


Pecha Kucha is a format where the speaker presents twenty slides of twenty seconds each, and the slideshow automatically advances. The challenge to the speaker is to present his or her points in a concise manner. It’s a difficult but rewarding format!


Hi, I'm Evan Jones. I work for Lolapps, where I'm a gameplay programmer on Ravenskye City and a designer on an unannounced project. Today I want to talk about strategy games - particularly the difference between what's fun and what's exciting, and the threads in common between Chess, Starcraft, and League of Legends.

 

There are lots of games like go that are fun and deep, but they aren't really that exciting. And I feel like there's something that separates a game like go from a game like Starcraft. I don't think it's the graphics or the sounds or the fact that one’s in real time. I think it’s in the design of the game itself. (In this talk, I’m not going to cover asymmetrical games or score-based games.)

 

So what do we mean when we say “exciting?” In short, drama creates excitement. And in order for drama to work, you need there to be active, sustained conflict with an uncertain outcome. Take Peggle, for example. It’s not the least bit exciting while you’re aiming a shot - it’s only when the ball is in motion, and the outcome is uncertain, that the drama happens.

 

So the first thing an exciting game needs is an incentive to conflict. The game has to encourage the two sides to begin fighting as quickly as possible. Why? Waiting around for something to happen is boring. What’s important is that the game itself has to provide the reason for the conflict by having a disadvantage to standing still. It can’t expect the players to charge into each other just because.

In chess, the opening moves of the game place players in direct, immediate conflict. All your good pieces start out behind a wall of pawns, so you have to move the wall forward. And you start the game close enough that you’re fighting the other player as soon as you move the pieces forward.

In Starcraft, you have to scout your opponent as quickly as possible to find out whether you’re getting rushed or not. And then you have to destroy your opponent’s scouts as quickly as possible so you can get back to building in secret. Either way? You have to build a small army immediately. This jump-starts the conflict.

In League of Legends, you’re weak in the beginning of the game and you need to gain experience to level up; otherwise you’re going to fall behind really fast. The game automatically sends units out to the middle of the map that provide experience points. So you have to go out to the middle of the map - and that’s exactly where your opponents are going to be.

An antipattern to this rule is Final Fantasy Tactics. The reason why FFT is exciting is because the AI is aggressive for no good reason. It doesn’t need to be; it just is, because threats create drama. In a multiplayer match, players play much more conservatively, and it’s less interesting.

 

The second thing an exciting game needs is increasing entropy of game state. In other words, the farther along the game gets, the more likely either side should be able to win. This works both ways: the player who is behind should have a higher chance of winning too the farther along the game goes. Why is this important? You want the game to end with an explosive finale, not a slow trickle - it creates more memorable endings.

In chess’s early game, the king is totally protected and both players have lots of powerful pieces. But as the game goes on, it gets harder to protect your king because you have fewer pieces to defend it. But it’s likely the other player is in the same boat, so the odds of one of you being able to set up a checkmate increases.

In an early game fight in Starcraft, both players might go into the battle with 10 units. If it’s a close fight, the winner might escape with 2 units: no big deal. But in a late game fight, where both players go in with 100 units, even if it’s a close match, an army of 20 units is enough to do serious damage, causing the end of the game.

In League of Legends, the penalties for losing a team fight increase over time. In the early game, if one team gets wiped, the other team can push a bit in their favor, but they’re still weak and the wiped team will respawn soon. In the late game, both teams are nearly godlike, and if one of them gets wiped, not only are the respawn times longer, but the surviving team is strong enough to take out the main objective without any resistance.

An antipattern to this rule is Civilization. Maybe it’s the nature of what it’s trying to mimic, but Civilization starts out in an unstable state and gets more stable over time. Near the end of the game, you really have a good idea of who has a decent shot of winning and how. It gets really difficult to change things.

 

The final rule is that an exciting game needs to be winnable from behind. This means that the losing player needs to be able to win without first becoming the winning player. At the moment both players know who is going to win, the drama ends, and the game becomes boring. How do you accomplish this in a game’s design? Detach your victory condition from your means of accumulating power.

 

This one’s so important that I’m dedicating two slides to it. Take Star Wars, for example. When it gets down to the final battle, the drama comes from the fact that both sides are getting closer to their victory conditions. By the end of it, each side is literally seconds away from winning! It would be boring if the rebels won by gradually whittling the Death Star down.

In chess, even if you’re in a really powerful position, you never feel truly safe because one check can lead to a sequence of forced moves that cost you the game. Imagine if chess’s victory conition were eliminating all of the opponent’s pieces. This is actually harder to do than capturing only the king, and intuitively one might think that more capturing equals more drama. But it’d be boring, because the drama ends long before the game does! (Try it if you don’t believe me.)

In Starcraft, there are plenty of tactics that allow players with small armies to inflict big damage. Getting invisible units before your enemy gains the ability to detect them. Building defensive cannons outside the enemy base and encroaching on their territory. The net result? Even if you have the stronger army, if you’re building up against the wrong kind of threat, you lose.

In League of Legends, the losing team can backdoor their way to victory. The backdooring player says “I’m not going to fight the enemy team; I’m just going to march into their base and destroy it before they show up.” In this way the losing team can win even while controlling less power on the field.

An antipattern to this rule is Risk. Like many games that follow a tug-of-war pattern, this game gets really boring near the end. The reason is that as both players develop a critical mass of units, neither player gets closer to winning because the cost of engagement is too high. So players have a tendency to turtle up and do fewer things.

 


So, thanks everyone for listening! (And thank you for reading!) Make sure to follow me on Twitter @chardish.

 


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Comments


Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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Great talk.



I think that most of your points how to make games exciting, especially the competitive multiplayer ones, are universal for any game.



The strongest argument i think is the "winning from behind" or "turning of the tides" approach and I honestly believe that a lot of MMORPG devs should take a long hard look at this mechanic.



It is the sole reason why for example World of Warcraft raids are essentially boring. You slowly chip away on a HP-bar, and the closer you come to the enrage timer, the more it becomes boring.

The first few minutes of raiding are usually the most exciting ones, gauging your teams strength against the challenge (boss), after you figure out you are doing enough DPS to take the boss down, or enough healing to outlast his enrage, you know you have won.



Large-scale MMORPG battles (as all of them should be, hence the MASSIVE in MMO) approach strategy games very closely and I think would benefit from strategy game mechanics more than RPG-mechanics and balancing.



I've yet to see a MMORPG where in a raid/dungeon (strictly PVE here) you can "win from behind" by ingenious tactis or situational, dynamic thinking (at least not as a viable mechanic in its design).

Adriaan Jansen
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I think designing such a PvE system would be really hard. Basically, "you can win from behind" means "everyone can win until the game is over". This can be by an error of the winning side, or a strike of ingenuity from the losing side. This is easy to project on players, since to make mistakes is human, and creativity is a human trait.



For an AI opponent, you have to simulate these things. Lucky for us, AI seldom is perfect, and little errors occur quite often. However, when the players win from such a point, they often don't feel as winners but cheaters, so I doubt this is the right way. You can also determine that the AI opponent goes blank for a random period of time, but it just isn't an honest mistake. I think players will see through this very quickly.



Worse even, an AI can't have a stroke of creativity. It's always an imperative pattern, and a player will always see through the possibilities, since they are strictly defined. Only a very, very complex AI would be able to fake this feature. I just don't see it happen, also because player would feel cheated by an all powerful being in the context, namely the game. It's like losing a match to the referee.



Excitement is often put into games in the form of increased stakes/punishment. That way you can't win on a creative moment of clarity, but you can lose in a bad moment. This also keeps people on their toes. It's not as fun as a creative blow, but it works.



Good read by the way!

E McNeill
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I love this sort of analysis. Thanks for posting it.



Another way to solve the problem of drawn-out end games is to put quick, powerful positive feedback loops into the system. In Risk, for example, the end game tends to go by very quickly once the initial combat has started, since the winning player starts earning massive armies through cards. Once the game has been "decided", the mop-up is quick and often spectacular. Such feedback loops are a common way of making a game winnable-from-behind and adding entropy.

Tiago Costa
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Printed... two sheet of paper now standing in the side of my monitor and I'm updating my multiplayer board game to enhance it with these...



Thank you.

Simon Ludgate
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The excitement and drama of a PvE battle in a WoW raid is very different from a competitive strategy game. Arguably, a PvE raid battle is about execution, not strategy, and has more in common with Dance Dance Revolution, where you have to hit all the right arrows at the right time, than chess. The excitement increases over time, especially as you get closer to the enrage timer, much in the same way that watching winning lottery numbers pop up gets more exciting the more numbers match your own. Matching the 7th number to win the big jackpot is a lot more exciting than matching just one number. Basically, the mechanic of a PvE battle in an MMORPG is like taking a test where you have to get a certain percentage to pass. The closer you are to that percentage, the more uncertainty comes from each subsequent move. If the test is too hard or too easy, it isn't exciting. Fairly obvious there.



But that's not really relevant to this discussion, because this post is about excitement and drama in competitive strategy games, not cooperative MMORPG mechanics. I'm particularly interested in the "winning from behind" vs "slow trickle to victory" issue. Many times, the type of strategy game I like, the slower paced or turn-based games like Sins of a Solar Empire or Civilization, often suffer from the trickle-to-victory problem. Sins especially suffers from this issue, and I often end up just quitting the game when I "know" I've won. It's kind of like Chess, where you know you can force a checkmate, but you're playing against an opponent who takes 15 minutes per move and you've got 12 moves to go. It's just agonizingly slow.



The dissociation between means to power and means to victory is right on. I really like that analysis. In Sins, you win by controlling all the planets, but each planet you control also boosts your economy and makes it easier to control more planets. The game is interesting when most players are on an even footing in terms of planetary control and there are lots of skirmishes as players probe each other's borders for opportunities to take over and hold territory, but once a strong inroad is made, it tends to snowball to victory, much like in other territory conquest games like Civilization or, as you point out, Risk.



In contrast, I've had a lot of fun playing the Battlestart Galactica board game because the winner is very much unclear until the game ends. Cylons often have a sudden, come out of nowhere victory and the tension of that event happening continually drives the game forward. Now that I look back with your analysis point in mind, it turns out that the means to power are not tied to the means to victory. Whether you have 10 fuel or 1 fuel, either side still has the same amount of "power". And losing all your skill cards, while diminishing your power, doesn't actually put the other player any closer to victory.



Perhaps one of the crucial differences in BSG is that there is no territory to control. Perhaps territory control itself inherently conflicts with the "win from behind" effect? The Death Star fight in Star Wars wasn't about territory control: as you point out, the Rebels didn't have to whittle away layers of defense to defeat it, but just hit the one sweet spot. Backdooring in League of Legends is explicitly saying "I am ignoring the current control of territory and going straight for the objective". Incidentally, the dominant strategy in LoL is to maintain territorial control: the defensive team that is willing to wait for the enemy to make a mistake tends to win, leading to prolonged "trickle to victory" matches where the winning team waits for the losing team to make a foolish attack while desperately trying to turn the tide of battle.



If territory control is the problem, could a fun strategy game without territory control really exist? Or is territory control an intrinsic part of strategy gaming? If these are three irreconcilable issues (you can't have strategy without territory, you can't have win-from-behind with territory, and you can't have good strategy without win-from-behind) perhaps "good" strategy games are a logical impossibility...

Adriaan Jansen
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This made me think about my old warcraft III games. There I would pick orcs and just turtle out the first 10 minutes, building some raiders (quick units with a high bonus attack against buildings). While the enemy was having me under siege, I ran my 7 or so raiders to their base and destroyed their whole economy. I had no territory control, but I was still able to win.



I think that territory control works against the "winning from behind" because it leaves so much time for anticipation and reaction. The warcraft example worked because of fog of war and because of the fact that their map control did not make it so much harder for me to hit them. This works so bad for turn based games because technically, there is a lot of time to anticipate. Games like Civilization also tend to show enemy strength quite clearly, giving you even more time to anticipate.



I think we can learn a lot from football (soccer) here. A team can dominate the whole pitch, but 15 seconds is enough to get a long ball forward and score on the counter. Compare this with League of Legends, where it takes at least one minute to get from your base to their base and destroy the opponents base, while teleporting back will take 10 seconds, and fallen opponents have a big chance of already being revived at the moment the countering team arrives at the enemy base. This only doesn't go for deep late game, where player can plow through defenses easily and the penalty of dying is big.



Maybe the key is more that territory control should make winning easier, but should not make losing so much harder?

Bart Stewart
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Great, thought-provoking (but I repeat myself) analysis.



Like Simon, I also found the "win-from-behind" pattern most interesting. That got me thinking why I enjoy Civilization and 4X games like Master of Orion. It occurs to me that these anti-patterns are important (and fun) because they demonstrate a competing design rule: what the player does should matter.



If a losing player can execute a come-from-nowhere surprise win, that's certainly exciting... but does it feel fair? By contrast, when I win in Civ or MoO I know it's because I've effectively executed a series of actions over time in support of a sound strategic plan. If I lose, it's because I failed to do this, not because I didn't get a lucky break, or have my kart artificially sped up to remain competitive, or through any other mechanic intended to create end-game drama.



Is there a good way to reconcile the competing "the end-game must be close" and "what the player does must affect the end-game" design perspectives?

Evan Jones
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You raise good points, and you remind me of something I didn't mention in my talk:



While the loser should be able to win from behind, it should be *harder* for him to do so than for the winning player to maintain her path to victory.



I brushed on this quickly during my talk, but: The easiest way to do this is to make increased power (the ability to affect the game state) aid in achieving the victory condition, but having lots of power is not itself the victory condition. This will lead naturally to Hail Mary plays where the losing player decides to abandon the quest for more power and instead go straight for the victory condition itself.



Another approach (sometimes the two work together) is to make late-game decisions more critical than early-game decisions. If done correctly, a late-game loss from ahead makes the player feel his late-game mistakes were more contributory to his loss than his early game successes. If done incorrectly, he may feel like the early game didn't really matter at all (like in a rubber-banded kart racer.)

Lars Doucet
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(Great article, Evan!)



I think there's another thing going on with 4x games and their cousins ala Moo / Civ, etc.



Generally, all your opponents in those games are other empires - ie, other players like yourself. So, once you've built up a super-huge empire of total kick-buttitude, there's no big final challenge, because once you've risen to sufficient end-game power you've necessarily deprived all the other empires of vital oxygen. At this point the end-game is mop-up.



In a multi-player scenario, this is when the other guys concede and just say "gg." In a single-player scenario, this is when some huge end-game challenge should sweep in. Moo 2 did this a little bit with the antaran homeworld, but even that was pretty anticlimactic.



Basically, once I've united the entire world/galaxy under my iron fist of doom, I want something satisfying and challenging to smash said fist into :)

Michael Joseph
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Pecha Kucha is a format where the speaker presents twenty slides of twenty seconds each, and the slideshow automatically advances. The challenge to the speaker is to present his or her points in a concise manner. It’s a difficult but rewarding format!

---



that is a pretty cool way to force concise presentations.

Achilles de Flandres
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Great article Evan. You really hit the nail on the head.

Christopher Plummer
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Hi Evan, I liked your article but I don't agree with the "the losing player can win without first becoming the winning player" tenant that you are putting forth as exciting and adding drama. I can't stress enough that nobody wants to feel cheated, and that watching people cheat doesn't hold a candle to watching two competitors reach their max potentials while facing off against one another.



What I feel you mean to say is that it must be extremely difficult to hold the lead in all of the paths to victory (i.e. there is no winner until the end), and that players of equal skill can disrupt leads made by their opponents in one path by switching to another one, or turning the tables so to speak (i.e. the meta-game).



Starcraft has 3 paths, which are for the most part present in all strategy games: Gather, Mass, Tech. Players are making a choice to specialize in one of these as a means to get ahead with almost every action they do, starting with the race they select. They are hard counters of each other; Gather < Mass < Tech < Gather. However, none of these are a magic button in themselves. They provide an infinite number of crossroads which allow players to change the course of the game, and ensure that every game has the chance to be something new. That's where the drama comes in.

Tiago Costa
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I think he meant the "APPARENT" winning player...



Since you can use sneaking tactics to overcome an enemy that at first seemed way more powerful than you.



The catch is that the almost winning then loosing player must recognize that the other player has made a valid move and won the game fair, also enhancing the drama for future games.

Jonathon Walsh
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Well think about that statement in the course of Starcraft 2. While technically you can't win without being the 'winning player' it is possible to become the winning player at the same moment that the game is objectively 'over' and any reasonable opponent would surrender.



Extreme examples would be something like the "Archon Toilet" where you could vortex with a mothership (suck all units into a single spot) and then kill all those units instantly with splash damage from friendly archons who enter the vortex. That can jump someone from a losing position to an immediate victory by having such an overwhelming advantage afterwards that there's no way for them to lose and their opponent should surrender.



A more moderate example would be getting a clutch baneling flank/attack on an enemy Terran player who's out of position shifting the game from being behind to having such an army advantage your opponent has no hope and should resign. The same can happen by sniping a spawning pool (leaving Zerg unable to defend themselves and have them quickly die out) or getting a very decisive drop that cripples your enemy.



The gist of it is that while you technically get into an advantage position before you win, it happens so suddenly and so dramatically that the moment between when you get an advantage and when you've objectively won (whether or not your opponent has resigned) is almost non-existent. For a game to be exciting and dramatic the above situation has to be possible. To use a fighting game example, even when behind and on very low health it's possible that you can get off a super or combo that instantly drops your opponent without having a time where you have a life advantage and haven't won.

Christopher Plummer
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@Tiago



Generally, the first rule of any game or sport contains the victory conditions. These are the only criteria that can determine whether someone is a winner or a loser. "Apparent winning player" means nothing because it discounts the all important element of time. Every coach, player, or gambler worth anything will tell you that giving this too much credit is one of the quickest ways to ensure a loss.



Being ahead in a victory path does not mean that you will win the game; being ahead in all victory paths at all times does. Good games make it extremely tough for opponents to perform the latter - a shutout, and make it easy for players to disrupt one.



I would also argue that sneaky is a style of play, or perhaps a strategy. There is no correlation between sneaky and coming from behind. If you have everything you need to satisfy a victory condition and you are able to execute then you are right where you need to be; it doesn't matter how much more stuff the other player has.

Christopher Plummer
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@Jonathan



You speak of these things as if they are luck based, when in-fact they require planning, a definitive set of resources, and proper execution. Even if you stumble into the situation, you're not behind because you brought enough firepower to get the job done.



If we're talking about the mop-up phase of any game, then I think we are referring to the toughness in being able to stay on top of every victory path again. Sure someone could technically "come back" but it's like checkmate in X moves; that person does not have a say in whether they comeback, they are completely reliant on their opponent tripping over themselves.


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