Legacy of the Strategy Genre

I have chosen to research the strategy genre because many of my favorite games have serious strategic elements. Originally I believe strategy games were targeted towards teaching military strategy, so leaders of forces would do a better job thinking ahead of their opponent. I do not believe that strategy games are limited to teaching military strategy anymore, such that there may be strategy games used specifically for a military however the genre itself has expanded greatly with many upon many subcategories. People from many walks of life play strategy games for many different purposes.

The very first strategy video game was called Invasion and it was made for the Magnavox Odyssey. Invasion was released in 1972. The board game Risk played as inspiration for Invasion. The game is played with up to four players, but two minimum. Each player is given a section of land with a portion of the castles. The goal is to conquer all of your opponents castles. To conquer your opponents castle you had to attack them, either they had to be directly next to your castle you’re attacking from or you had to use a ship to be able to attack a non neighboring castle. Either you attacked them with an all or nothing stealth attack or you could launch a regular attack. The attack was done with a high velocity ball which had to be blocked. If it was then one attacker would die but if it wasn’t, two defenders were killed. This would continue until either the attacker gave up, was all killed or the defender had two or less defenders left. Then if the attacker won a follow up battle inside the castle would take place where the attacker would have to “guess” where the ball would land on the screen. Each guess would cost the life of an attacker, so you had as many chances as you had surviving attackers. This would progress until one side was victorious. The magnavox odyssey was innovative in itself for blending board game and video game. Invasion was innovative itself with the use of more than just one form of attack, with gaining of gold to purchase armies or ships - a choice. The game was sold as a package which didn’t have a chance to do very well because the Magnavox Odyssey carried with it a number of issues. The biggest issue of all being that even salesmen were saying the wrong information, that the Odyssey could only be played on Magnavox television sets. Some core elements from Invasion that can be seen in Strategy games of today are resource management, what to spend your limited resources on and where to attack your enemy from or where to put your defenses.

The first commercially successful strategy video game was the game Eastern Front (1941) by Chris Crawford. Some of the reasons the game was so successful were because of its graphics, artificial intelligence, one of the best war games for the personal computer, joystick controls and its scrolling map. The game is set in Germany & Russia during World War 2,between 1941 and 1942. Each turn in the game is one week long, and the game ends on March 29th, 1942 after 41 turns. The player controlled the German forces. There was a scoring system in place with the ability to reach a maximum of 255 points, while anything over 100 was deemed to be good. The real German forces of WWII are estimated to have scored between 110 and 120 during that time period. This wargame was the first to feature a smooth scrolling map. Also the terrain is varied from flatlands, rivers and swamps to forests and mountains with each effecting movement differently. Another innovation is the changing of the seasons, causing for example rivers to freeze over. The winter season affects not just mobility but supply levels as well. There were no games that were deemed sequels to Eastern Front (1941).
The creator of Eastern Front (1941), Chris Crawford, left the commercial gaming industry in 1992 to pursue his dreams of interactive storytelling. Since 1992 Chris has taken two stabs with a storytelling engine, the first being Erasmatron and the second being Storytron. Sadly though neither succeeded and Chris Crawford has had to take a step back from his ambitions to reevaluate what can be done. In the future Chris plans to release a slimmer version of Storytron, one that to his hopes overcomes the failings of previous attempts.

The first strategy game that I remember playing was a game called Panzer General. I remember the tactical control of battles, trying to make sure I didn’t lose any units in any battle. I also remember trying to decide which units to purchase, playing through the campaigns to be victorious. When you play a scenario you can choose to play as the Allies or the Axis, against the computer or another player in hotseat mode. If you choose the campaign you play as the Axis, and play through the war. However you could win the war as the Axis and even invade the United States.  Some innovations that Panzer General brought were that individual units improved through the fights with experience and could be stronger for the following battle. Another innovation the game brought was with branching multiple endings. For example to be able to invade Washington D.C. you must acquire major victories in the invasions of both Britain and in Moscow however if you didn’t acquire those major victories then the best you could get in the game would be a major victory in the final defense of Berlin as Germany is invaded. Yes this game did inspire me to continue playing strategy games, as turn based strategy games remain one of my favorite genres to play. In fact I’ve spent years just playing turn based strategy games. I do look back on Panzer General every so often and want to play it again, although the game was so popular they have been working on bringing Panzer General around again with Panzer General Online. I would agree with a statement that says playing Panzer General helped refine my gaming preference moving forward, a great example of this would be the fact that I spent probably two years of my gaming life playing a game called MegaMek which was a translation of the tabletop game Battletech into an online simulation. Many characteristics are shared between Battletech and Panzer General, more than I perhaps ever thought of until now. However I do not find myself comparing the games I play now to the memories I have playing Panzer General.

When I was growing up there were many popular strategy games, the Command and Conquer series, XCom series, Civilization series, Starcraft, Warcraft series, Warlords series, Fire Emblem series, Warsong, Shining Force, Bahamut Lagoon, Ogre Battle series, Final Fantasy Tactics, Star Control series, Deadlock, Dune II, Homeworld series and I have to believe I missed a few. At one point or another I have played every game on this list, some years or even decades after they were released. During the golden days of the arcades strategy games were mostly played on board games and if there were any strategy arcade games they never took off. Reading through the list of series and strategy games popular during my childhood I think back remembering the good times I had playing the different games.
Between 1980 and 1985 the game known as Lords of Midnight was the most popular strategy game. The game was so successful because of a few different fronts. First off the game featured panoramic views, very detailed units for the time and had an incredible storyline. The game introduced a groundbreaking technique called landscaping which provided a perspective correct view of the lands. This landscaping view was unique at the time and was something future game developers learned from. To win the game the player could essentially play the game in two different methods, either one leading to victory. The player could play the game as a straight adventure game or as a war game, either way could lead to victory. However a player could play both paths simultaneously and win what was deemed as Epic.

Between 1986 and 1990 the most successful strategy game would be Warlords. Warlords was a successful game due in part to the fact it was coined a good game for those who liked Empire or Reach for the stars but were looking for a fantasy setting. Also the simple user interface was something well liked. One of the strongest aspects of the game was its sophisticated artificial intelligence. There were four key elements to the Warlords game: units, heroes, cities and diplomacy. Units were for the most part disposable units that could be “mass” produced. Heroes were singular units, which could being the strongest unit you may possess. Cities would be the route to victory with management of production of new units and owning 75% of cities on the map. Lastly diplomacy was limited but if you managed to attack someone without declaring war first all other players could instantly declare war on you.
During the time period between 1991 and 1995 there were three games that were wildly successful and greatly influenced the future of the strategy game market: Civilization, C&C and Warcraft II. However one of these three stood up above the rest as the most successful and equally as influential, and that game is Civilization. Civilization was simply enormous in scope, with limitless strategies and a surreal experience. Although the 4X sub genre of strategy games was not coined for a few years after Civilization's release, this game established the core concept of what that sub genre is all about: Explore, expand, exploit and exterminate. The game was able to strike a near perfect balance between complexity and accessibility.

From 1996 to 2000 one game stood out above all the rest, that game was Starcraft. Starcraft applied the RTS formula to a T when Blizzard created it. With Starcraft though Blizzard was able to introduce a very deep and rich story, with some of the best voice acting ever heard at the time. Something innovative about the story was that the campaign of the single player was told from each of the races perspectives in a progressive manner.  Also rather than just two different races or groups Starcraft created three distinct races that were each unique and equally balanced. To this day new RTS’s are compared against the original Starcraft.

In 2002 Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos was released. This game was the best strategy game released between 2001 and 2005. In part its success was due to its strong story, solid gameplay, the multiple sides and the fact that its multiplayer would keep players entertained for years to come. Something innovative from the game was how the initial stages were no longer a race to the best, now the start of the stages was more interesting and less of a formula. In fact the multiplayer game spawned the MOBA sub genre. Defense of the Ancients (DotA) was created within Warcraft III, which was the inspiration of League of Legends.
League of Legends was the most influential and successful game of the 2006 to 2010 period. The game is truly free to play. Where most games coined that are in reality pay to win, everything purchased for the game is solely cosmetic, there is no way to win with just spending money. The game also featured an enjoyable game design, creative champion design with strong customization and featured lively visuals. League of Legends was built upon competition and geared for eSports.

There have been many successful strategy games released from 2011 to current time, however the most influential might have to be XCom Enemy Unknown. One of the reasons for the game's success was its engaging experience that ended up being very addictive. Another was simply that it was bringing back a classic, but it didn’t just take the name and make a flop, Firaxis brought it back right and was highly praised for that. Some of the strongest points of the game were its character progression and the tactical combat which was no cakewalk.

Some sub genres of strategy games are widely popular while others are not but do remain strong subgenres. The subgenre known as 4X, short for “explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate” is an interesting subgenre in that it has some of the most popular series ever made for strategy games yet doesn’t get many games made. The Civilization and Total War series are two of those very popular series, remaining so to this day. 4X games usually have deep and complex gameplay containing paths to victory which do not require you to win with military power. However these games can take a tremendous amount of time to complete with the level of management required from the player.

Another subgenre is real time strategy which vastly popular with series like Warcraft, Command and Conquer and Starcraft. Starcraft although released over 15 years ago continues to be played by millions of players worldwide. I think although these games are considered strategy in title they are more tactical, with skill and reaction time or dexterity being more important than strategic thinking. This doesn’t mean to say that I think they should be removed from the strategy genre altogether, I just think it's important to understand the differences. That being said I think these games remain popular for (generally and relatively) quick matches players can have, with varying settings and using some strategic thinking combined with skill.

A new subgenre that has grown quickly in the last 6 or 7 years really is the Multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA for short. This sub genre can be considered a subset of real time strategy games, although they are different enough to be considered separate subgenres. For many of the same reasons that RTS’s are popular, MOBA’s are too. An additional reason I feel this genre is so popular is that the games in it are typically free to play, thus opening itself up to many players who wouldn’t otherwise pay to play.

A further sub genre is one known as real-time tactics is similar to RTS however this subgenre is differentiated in that resource management in non existent with no base or unit building. This subgenre is not as widely popular as RTS’s, which I believe has to do something with the player vs player component in that RTS’s are more challenging for PvP while RTT’s strength is in its player vs computer.

The next sub genre to view is turn-based strategy (TBS). Turn-based strategy and real time strategy games can be very similar with their strongest difference is in the pace at how things are done. Where with RTS the player must manage an entire army, building, multiple battles all at the same time, a player in a TBS can be patient and think critically. Although very popular games have been made in this category over the decades, its popularity has waned in recent years due to the market trending more towards RTS. I believe this would be in part due to time constraints, where a TBS game could take a great deal of time to complete against the computer or against another player.

Next on the list are turn-based tactics (TBT). This subgenre is similar to real time tactics in that they both emphasize individual units, lack base or unit building or resource management. Although this sub genre doesn’t tend to draw gigantic sales it has a very strong niche market. Strong TBT with strong RPG elements are generally my favorite type of game to play.

Technically speaking, wargames are a subgenre of strategy games as well. The majority of these games tend to be tactical, fighting the individual battles. However the strategic elements are very important and the reason the player spends most of the time in the fights is because they simply take longer. Where a battle could take 30 minutes to hours, making strategic decisions rarely takes a substantial amount of time.

As I discussed when talking about each of the main sub genres of strategy games, some are more popular than others with some being wildly popular. One of the common reasons for popularity is the competitive element, in more than just a first person shooter manner. Another common reason for the category being popular is that games can be played over a relatively short amount of time. However a commonality with other sub genres is that matches/games take a long time to complete and people don’t have the free time to devote.
The future of strategic video games is strong and varied. Although some sub genres may be more popular than others, none are dying or on life support. I believe a few of the sub genres will continue for the foreseeable future to be strong in commercial development while others will gain strength in the independent development community. AAA developers don’t want to and for the most part can’t take risks. If they make a flop it could destroy their company so most likely they will continue to work on RTS’s and MOBA’s where known money is at. However smaller, independent studios will make everything, including RTS’s and MOBA’s. They can take risks. In fact one game currently in very early development is Battletech being made by Hare-brained Schemes. It is unknown exactly what sub genre the game will fit into at this time, but based upon what has been said about it thus far it will most likely be a turn-based strategy game. Thanks to platforms like kickstarter many independent studios are now able to get additional funding for games which there is a market for but publishers were unwilling to take a risk on.

In the next 6 months there are going to be many strategy games released. A few that are highly anticipated are Starcraft 2: Into the Void, XCom 2, Might and Magic Heroes VII, Total War Warhammer, Banner Saga 2, Sid Meier’s Starships, Star Trek Timelines...etc. Honestly when I started digging I was shocked at how many new strategy games are being released in the next 6 months. This just goes to show how competitive the market is in general.

The audience for strategy games expanded  in the 90’s from just wargame enthusiasts to most PC gamers. Although there have been many games made for consoles, traditionally consoles haven’t had a large growing of strategy games. I don’t know if strategy games will ever get a following in the casual market, or those outside of regular gamers. Part of this comes down to the complexity and time involvement. However traditional gamers have been and most likely will always be potential strategy game players.

My opinion of strategy games in general hasn’t really changed from the time I was a child. I was captivated by strategy games in the mid to late 90’s with games like Panzer General, Warcraft, Final Fantasy Tactics and C&C. I still love to play games like them, however I may not be as good at RTS’s as I once was, simply for the fact that skill plays such a large role in those games and that is something you must use quite a bit to be very proficient at.

Gamers of the strategy genre could have stereotypes, but more so based upon the sub genre they play the most. The two stereotypes that jump out the most are RTS’s and MOBA’s with hardcore gamers and wargames with someone like my father, an older player, a thinker, who doesn’t play a variety of game types. I don’t necessarily think either stereotype is true. First with RTS’s and MOBA’s the reason hardcore gamers may come to mind is that there are people who play these games basically as a profession, that they compete in the tournaments around the world and make a living from doing just that. The second was with wargamers about the thinker playing only wargames. I am definitely an example who counters that stereotype as I do play some wargames but I also play just about every other game type out there.

After having researched the history of strategy games, my appreciation of how it has evolved has surely been solidified. Perhaps I never thought of the intricacies that have occurred but now I see where a lot of the sometimes subtle growth spurts occurred.  Video gaming is still growing and evolving, there is no way to know what the future may hold for it. Just because sitting here writing this paper I can’t think of how the genre can grow doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Perhaps I could sit back and ponder the different types of methods for competition, and compare them to strategy games in general and see if there is something new that would be worthwhile to try. Time will surely tell how things will change but at one point real time strategy games didn’t exist, nor did massively online battle arena. I know Panzer General is being brought online, so who knows if maybe they’re able to introduce something new to the genre with this reincarnation if you will.


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