[In this enlightening opinion piece originally printed in Game Developer magazine, EA Maxis designer and former Firaxis (Civilization 4) lead designer Soren Johnson details seven common pitfalls that can hold back a strategy game, like overly aggressive anti-piracy measures and adding story in the wrong places.]
Amongst computer games, the strategy genre is one of the oldest and proudest, with a strong tradition, running from M.U.L.E. to Civilization to Starcraft and beyond. Nonetheless, certain design mistakes keep being made over and over again. Here are seven of the most common:
1. Too much scripting
Strategy games have a direct lineage from board games, and the fun of playing the latter comes from understanding the rules and mechanics of the game world and then making decisions that have consequence within that world. Computerized strategy games allow a single player to experience this same world on his or her own.
At some point, however, strategy developers began to create lengthy, scripted scenarios as the single-player portion of their games (In fact, the recent World in Conflict shipped without a single-player skirmish mode altogether). These scenarios have a peculiar feeling - they use some of the same rules as the core game while often violating others. The AI takes action depending not on its own development rate or strategic priorities but on whether the human has hit certain triggers.
In many scenarios, in fact, the human cannot even lose because -- when defeat approaches -- the script will freeze the AI and starting pumping in free units for the player. Further, these scenarios are often built around specific "objectives" to achieve, such as destroying a specific structure or capturing a single point.
This artificial environment takes decision-making away from the player. Not only is there only one path to victory, but the player's performance along that path may not even matter. Games without interesting decisions get boring quickly.
Fortunately, some recent strategy games, such as Sins of a Solar Empire and Armageddon Empires, have returned to open-world, random-map gameplay -- without pre-set objectives or artificial triggers -- and are reminding us of the joy of cohesive and consistent strategy games.
2. Too much stuff
The temptation to pile extra units and buildings and whatnot onto to an already complete design is strong. Indeed, I have seen many developers describe games as simply a collection of stuff ("18 Weapons! 68 Monsters! 29 Levels!").
This approach is wrong-headed. A game design is a collection of interesting decisions, and the "stuff" in the game is there not just to fill space but to let you execute decisions. Games can provide too few options for the player but -- more commonly -- games provide too many.
How many is just right? Obviously, there is no magic number, but it is possible to come up with a good rule-of-thumb for how many different options a player can keep in his or her mind before everything turns to mush.
Blizzard uses the number 12 to make sure their RTS's don't get too complex. StarCraft averaged 12 units per side. So did WarCraft 3 (not counting Heroes). And you can bet that StarCraft 2 is going to be in that neighborhood as well. In fact, Blizzard has already announced that, for the sequel, they will be removing some of the old units to make room for the new ones.
Players must be able to mentally track their in-game options at one time, and putting too many choices on the table makes it impossible to understand the possibility space.
3. Limited play variety
No matter how good your game, it is going to get stale after awhile. It's unfortunate when a great game doesn't take the few steps necessary so that players can change the settings to create alternate play experiences.
Company of Heroes is an incredible tactical RTS, a watershed moment for the genre - but the game allows neither Axis vs. Axis battles nor matches with more than two teams. This design choice may fit the fiction of WWII, but it significantly reduced the game's play variety.
An example of an RTS that got this right is the Age of Empires series. Not only could you mix-and-match any combination of civilizations and players and teams, but you could also design your own map scripts.
I remember one interesting Age of Kings map that had almost no wood but tons of stone and gold, which turned the game's economy upside-down. The game even allowed multiple players to control the same single civilization (one could control the military, the other the economy, for example). Thus, I've played 2-vs-3 games of AoK where the sides with 2 civs was actually controlled by 4 players (and, in fact, handily won the game!).
These simple variations probably doubled the life-span of AoK amongst my group of friends. Significantly, these options should be orthogonal to the game's core mechanics -- they need to add variety without adding complexity.
4. Black box mechanics
Sometime during the late-90's, around when Black & White was being developed, the concept of an interface-less game came into vogue. The idea was that interfaces were holding games back from larger, more mainstream audiences.
Ever since then, I have noticed a discernible trend to hide game mechanics from the player. Age of Kings shipped in 1999 with an incredible reference card listing every cost, value, and modifier in the game.
For modern RTS's, however, it's unusual if the manual actually contains numbers. I want to emphasize that the answer here is not to bathe the players in complicated mathematics in the name of transparency. Instead, designers should think of their interfaces as having two levels: a teaching level and a reference level.
The teaching level focuses on first-time players who need to know the basics, like how to build a tank and go kill the bad guys. The reference level should answer any question the player can think of about how a game mechanic works. It is perfectly fine, by the way, to put this info inside of a separate in-game resource, like the Civilopedia.
Rise of Legends implemented an interesting version of this two-interfaces idea. Most of the popup help in the game had an "advanced" mode that you could unlock by holding down a key, giving you significantly more details about the game's underlying mechanics.
5. Locked code/data
Protecting your code and data is a very natural instinct -- after all, you may have spent years working on the project, developing unique features, pushing the boundaries of the genre. Giving away the innards of your game is a hard step for many developers, especially executives, to take.
Nonetheless, we released the game/AI source code for Civ 4 shortly after shipping, and -- so far -- the results have been fantastic. Three fan-made mods were included in the game's second expansion pack -- Derek Paxton's Fall from Heaven: Age of Ice, Gabriele Trovato's Rhye's and Fall of Civilization, and Dale Kent's WWII: The Road to War -- and so far, these scenarios have been heralded as one of Beyond the Sword's strongest features. These mods would have been nowhere near as deep or compelling (or even possible) if we had not released our source code.
For many PC developers, I'm preaching to the choir, so I'd like to be very clear that the problem is worst amongst strategy games. For whatever reason (perhaps the lack of a pioneering developer like id Software?), strategy developers have been much more closed off to modding than their shooter and RPG brethren.
There are exceptions, like Blizzard's fantastic scenario editor for WarCraft 3, but by and large, strategy modders do not have many places to turn for platforms on which to work, which was one reason we felt compelled to focus on modding for Civ 4. Giving stuff away can feel good. It should also feel smart.
6. Anti-piracy paranoia
The damage that piracy does to our industry is impossible to calculate but also impossible to ignore. Few company heads can be as brave as Stardock's Brad Wardell, who chose to leave out copy protection altogether for the Galactic Civilization series (They encourage paying customers by providing on-line updates to players with legitimate serial numbers.).
Having some sort of mechanism to stop casual piracy is a given in the industry, but what is not a given is the hoops companies will make their customers jump through just to be able to start the game. The most important question to ask is "will this added security layer actually increase our sales?"
A good place to be lenient, for example, is with local multi-player games -- in other words, can players without the CD join a multi-player game hosted by a legitimate copy. Starcraft let you "spawn" extra copies of the game that could only join local multi-player games.
Allowing unlimited LAN play was our unofficial policy for Civ 4 as well. The game does a disk check when opening the executable but not when you actually launch the game; thus, a group of 4 friends could just pass one disk around for local multiplayer games.
We do not believe players are willing to buy extra discs just for LAN parties, which are rare events. However, we would love for new players to be introduced to Civ in these environments, encouraged by their friends who are already fans. At some point, they are going to want to try single-player -- in which case, it is time for a trip down to the local retailer to buy their own copy.
7. Putting story in the wrong places
Story and games have a checkered history. Too many have suffered from boring cut-scenes, stereotyped characters, and plots that take control away from the player. Especially problematic are games which don't let the player fast-forward through cringe-worthy dialogue.
The worst offense, however, is when a story gets stuck somewhere it really doesn't belong. Like in a strategy game. After all, strategy games are the original games. Humans first discovered gameplay with backgammon and chess and go; it's a noble tradition. The "story" in a strategy game is the game itself.
Picking a specific example, how much better of a game would Rise of Legends have been if Big Huge Games had given up on creating a story-based campaign and instead iterated on the excellent turn-based Conquer the World strategy layer from Rise of Nations? Ironically, the campaign mode was my favorite way to play RoL. I loved that you could only acquire technologies and advanced units on the strategic map between missions, which helped simplify the core RTS game.
However, I enjoyed the campaign in spite of the story, not because of it. The key point here is that, for the sake of chasing a story, Big Huge Games missed a big opportunity to match a great core RTS game with a simple, overarching strategy layer that could be infinitely replayable. They are not alone; almost every other RTS developer seems to be falling into the same trap, and it is time for this trend to stop.