The state of the strategy genre

GDC 2011: Veteran developers from Blizzard, Stardock, EA2D, and Robot Entertainment discuss what's wrong--and right--about today's strategy games; Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is coming in "six months to a year."


Who was there: Ian Fischer (Robot Entertainment), Soren Johnson (EA2D), Dustin Browder (Blizzard Entertainment), and Jon Shafer (Stardock).

Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is coming in
Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is coming in "six months to a year."

What they talked about: After a brief introduction in which he praised the current era as a golden age for strategy games big and small, the moderator asked each of the panelists what is wrong with the strategy genre. Browder said he worries that strategy games will "lose their souls." He used the History Channel as an example: "It used to be about history. Now it's about Ice Road Truckers!"

Johnson thinks that strategy games need to be simpler. He frets that games don't get their message across. "Don't be afraid to cut to the chase," he said. He said that designers shouldn't be afraid to cut down on content, since "more isn't better." He thinks that AAA games are too expensive and that middle-tier titles--even ones that sell 1 million--don’t interest blockbuster-hungry publishers anymore.

Fischer disagreed, saying that he wants strategy games to offer more features like Paradox's World War II title Hearts of Iron, not less. Shafer also disagreed with Johnson, saying that there still is market for "middle games." That was a reason he went to Stardock, and he held up Sins of a Solar Empire as an example.

Browder then explained the thought process behind splitting up Starcraft II into three parts. He said the team felt that the game was too grand in scope, with 90 missions in total. He said the next installment in the series, Heart of the Swarm, would be coming out in the "next six months to a year."

Fischer said it used to be simple making strategy games: A studio ships a game, and then its dev team splits in two to work on the sequel and expansion packs. Now, "It's the Wild West" with downloadable content, free-to-play models, and microtransactions. Johnson said League of Legends was an example of a microtransaction-driven strategy game, with players spending money for just a tiny bit of boost and other minor upgrades.

Johnson was asked about his Facebook game, Dragon Age: Legends, which the moderator called "The Facebook game for people who hate Facebook games." He said the powerful draw for his game is persistence, as it is a turn-based tactical role-playing game. The game will also encourage players to share characters, which can be grouped into parties.

The moderator then asked if publishers should spend a lot of money developing enemy AI. Shafer said that it doesn't make a lot of sense financially, but Browder disagreed. He said the Starcraft II AI was very carefully designed so it can't cheat, since it doesn't know the player's location.

Quote: "I don't think we need to innovate on the business side. I just want to make great games."--Shafer.

Takeaway: Although all four developers have plenty of experience and credibility, the recurring disagreements between them suggest the strategy genre will continue to be shaped by a number of different approaches and philosophies.

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Avatar image for shadow_wolf113

EA and Blizzard wouldn't know actual strategy if it came up and smacked em in the face. They specialize in producing bird's eye views of Call of Duty. Games like Sins, anything made by Paradox, Supreme Commander 1, and the Total War series is what we need more of, not more Command and Conquers and their ilk.

Avatar image for randomtext

Does it surprise anyone that the EA guy wanted to simplify things and cut back on content?

Avatar image for madu86

<< LINK REMOVED >> like blizzard doesnt?

Avatar image for ragnar320

@farukcorreia yea i wish they would too red alert 3 was pretty fun and new. AND FOR EVERYONE ELSE THERE MAKING A C&C GENERALS 2 AND IT DOSENT LOOK LIKE THEY GONNA F$%& IT UP LIKE C&C TS 4

Avatar image for cccp3000

I think that strategy games have two essential aspects: The story line, which should be either realistic or CONVINCING. And the tactical experience, which is to be fun and mind moving, which lets the players try different tactics and still keep the game enjoyable, so that each time the players play the game over and over again it would to be a new experience and not boring, so that the players can explore new ways to play and reach high states of mind, and personally I think THAT is the main challenge for game developers.

Avatar image for farukcorreia

I miss Command and Conquer Red Alert series... One of the best most fun games I ever played. Ea please revive Red Alert... please...

Avatar image for abess55

i look at the game of Rise Of Nations as a great example here, the game may not have much of a story line but it does allow for some great strategy and has more than one res. now lets look at the CC world, C&C RA2 you still only have ore but you have ore collectors and you have different levels of oar, C&C RA3... set ore collecting spots, thank goodness some one piled all this gold into a box for me. O and dont get me started on the idea of adding "generals" to that game... what was that all about

Avatar image for mrmime777

I think he means simpler like Creative Assembly meant simpler going from Empire to Shogun, in that the focus should be to cut away bloated "features" and focus on what you're there for, the tactical gameplay. Too many impressive but unnecessary features often take away from the strategic element rather than enhancing it. If they made an Age of Empires IV as elementally enjoyable (yet relatively simple) as the first I'd probably be playing that right now - it's simple but deep strategy, and that's always been the most addictive and successful formula. Like a car, easy for anyone to pick up and drive but really hard to master everything under the hood.

Avatar image for SauhlGood

omg johnson should just go make games for toddlers, hopefully he'l be relegated to making no name ip's...or just stick to his turn based games... Civ series... which is good, but not in the slightest difficult.

Avatar image for FMD129

@lakers808 Totaly agree man, no matter the discussion between these CEO's about its rights and wrongs Strategy is not going anywhere. As long as there are tactitions waiting to command armies, there will be strategy pushing it.

Avatar image for RTSgamer32

"Johnson thinks that strategy games need to be simpler." That's retarded, that defeats the whole purpose of Strategy in the first place

Avatar image for RTSgamer32

lindallison yeah, thats why im starting to play TBS games like GalCiv2, Civ4, Heroes 3 and other games

Avatar image for RTSgamer32

CarlosY2Jericho is AoM any good, im willing to try it, never really got into AoE tho, i hated AoE3 but i do have AoE2 tho but i rarely play it

Avatar image for RTSgamer32

pudgexd I don't think that would be the only reason why they removed LAN of the game, it might also be the fact that Browder wanted the players to use their Battle Net system to have a great Multiplayer Experience. However this doesnt make much difference for me because im more of a Single player guy when it comes to RTS's and TBS's.

Avatar image for gradux

@madcat46 lol i completely agree with you see what they did to C&C franchise? very disappointing.. well just as long as it makes money who cares about us?

Avatar image for vernholio

@ZakMcKracken With you 100%... Here's to hoping that Stardock keeps their moniker as an Indie house (even though they probably aren't all that "Indie" anymore). Their constant desire to better their games at the request of their fans -- not to mention just having such open ears to us -- is a testament to their products, and the way the market should be! Yeah, I know, I know... "Elemental: War of Magic". But, not every game can be a gem (even though I still play it, anyway!)

Avatar image for brunorr

My favorite strategy game is the original CnC. It was slow compared to the modern games but it allowed you time to analise and plan what to do. Battles were much more calculated. I still like Starcraft2 for example but today's games are as much action games as strategy.

Avatar image for boarwar

Strategy games dont need.... 1. impressive graphics (good and ok are good enough, your a general not a foot solider) 2. UNIT CAPS (ruin the game, just when your kicking ass, you stop building units and play out a mediocre match) 3. weak strategy (rushing and strong units are fun, but it should take longer to destroy a base the size of a large city) I hated warcraft 3 when all my friends where sweating it, it was cartoony and reminded me nothing of the classic. The CNC games were amazing, now their graphics are great, but kill frame rates, and unit caps are a terrible terrible idea.

Avatar image for shakmaster13

Paradox Interactive is my favorite publisher/dev. The games they push out can be a bit rough, but with an active community and dev-player discussions on their forums many things can be accomplished, and that is how they have been able to pump out so many good grand strategy games in little time.

Avatar image for GITY69

<< LINK REMOVED >> I couldnt agree more. I was looking through my library the other day at the games i enjoy the most, and was surpirsed to find most of them are paradox. I mean europa, crusader kings, mount and blade, just to name a few. The strategy gaming world is much better thanks to them, add to that a fantastic mod community for all these games and great support from the dev/pub. Paradox is quickly becoming my favorite.

Avatar image for klitfelt

Just give us a new CnC game as they use to make them.

Avatar image for ZakMcKracken

I thought the History Channel/Ice Road Trucker comparison was spot on. Publishers will go for the easy to digest strategy titles that appeal to a wide audience. I am afraid true strategy is in a decline. My hope lies with Indie developers.

Avatar image for yeah_28

i like turn based strategy games like galactic civs and total war's turn based map, but my heart is in classic real time strategy games, and those have been dissapearing, the last ones i loved were warhammer 40000 and act of war, and they changed the warhammer sequel into a different genre, company of heroes was great too but already loosing the feeling a little bit, i need something like age of empires, and i dont like much the science fiction style of starcraft, so what can i play? if a new classic styled RTS of world war 2, modern war, or ancient times came out now, with the old base building and resource gathering, i think it would be a huge succes

Avatar image for Guardsman485297

All i got to say is, the Total War side of the strategy coin is pretty epic. Even though its buggy, the turn based and real time mix makes for some interesting wars between strategists and tacticians.

Avatar image for Gruug

All I can say is that if you like strategy....look at what Paradox Interactive and Matrix Games have in their respective stable. BOTH have put out top notch, top quality games that you can not get from the likes of Activision or Electronic Arts. The only other company that has attempted to put out a quality strategy game is Take 2 with latest 2 Civilization games. I personally find myself playing a lot more of Mount and Blade: Warband published by Paradox BECAUSE of the strategy side of the game then I do playing any of the Call of Duty or Battlefield games combined.

Avatar image for arcpkc

Simpler? Does not compute. If you want the formula for a great strategy game, all you have to do is look at the Civilization series. Civ-Rev was the best console strategy game by far I've ever played. Nothing else even comes close. I still play it once or twice a year. Unfortunately sales didn't seem to reflect this.

Avatar image for FoeCrusher

Hearts of Iron is overly complex I spent about 20 hrs trying to figure out how to play. At the end of that I didn't even have a decent understanding of how to really do much of anything effectively. If you want more than a handful of people to play (and you need to if you want to make any money) they have to be reasonably accesible.

Avatar image for tyrosxps

"Johnson thinks that strategy games need to be simpler." that's just stupid, that's why it's called a strategy game. It has to be complex so the players are forced to use, wait for it.... "strategy" to play it. Jeez, I thought they were only dumbing down RPGs, now RTS too? What is this world coming to?

Avatar image for lakers808

strategy games are mind-bogglers and that's how they should be. I'm a diehard strategy-gamer and I'm sure there are millions like me out there, the srategy genre ain't gonna just disappear

Avatar image for bebomania

Too many recent strategy games take the approach of dumbing down the content to be more accessible to a wider audience, if i look for anything in a strategy game it is complexity and depth as everything else including nice bright special effects i can get from any other run-off-the-mill game...but that is not what i want. Nice graphics are...nice, but damn well make sure the core and complexity is there in the game to really challenge the players creative and strategic minds.

Avatar image for jubdeidamasta

I loved strategy games pre-"zerging." To me it was always great fun to build up a massive army to crash my enemies!

Avatar image for Ladiesman17

The Strategy genre just need cutting-edge graphic..... IMO Shogun II looks great....

Avatar image for methodium

I wished the strategy genre would get back to the micro intense game like Myth II Soulblighter . More tight close tactical battles where elevation and molotov duds can turn a game around in seconds ... for good or bad .

Avatar image for Evenios

Yeah Stacraft II is not the "golden age" Of such games. Sins of the Solar Empire is MUCH better but instead of Stardock creating a better looking and more epic sequel they choose to make the Elemental magic crap which in my opinion was totally idiotic. To be honest i really dont see all that many "Great" Strategy games lately and feel a lot of them have been 'dumbed down" look at Spore and the years before it came out how great we all thought it would be. while it was kinda need it did not turn into the great deep game we were hoping for! and of course yet again instead of them making a deeper sequal they decide to go for an action adventure darkspore crap. :-p

Avatar image for lindallison

how is this the golden age of strategy games...maybe the golden age of RTS's - but RTS is only one side of the genre...

Avatar image for DarkBuhamut

Wish ensemble studios was still around. AoE is a great franchise. I want AoE 4 not this AoE online crap

Avatar image for paulosouza

Are you f*ing kidding me Browder? SC 2 AI was CAREFULLY DESIGNED? IT DOESN'T CHEAT? On the supposedly "insane" level, which should be an extremely good and reactive AI, it receives 7 minerals per trip of worker (instead of 5) and it automatically counters any unit composition you have. Play as Zerg against an AI Protoss and mass Roaches, it will misteriously (without having ever scouted you) have tons of Immortals. Make mass Banshees as Terran and it will misteriously have dozens of Turrets/Cannons/Spores in his base already and lots of anti-air on his army. SC 2 is an amazing game, but the AI designed for it is absolute crap. The computer never varies its build orders. It never changes from the 1-base pushes. A good AI in this game would be one that has varied strategies, that cheeses sometimes with Cannon Rushes or Gateway pushes, and awesome micro (so you can train against it). A good AI should have in its build orders a fast expand and amazing defensive capabilities (based on instant reaction times which only a very good player would have).

Avatar image for kdawg88

'Golden Age' my a__! They failed to mention the near monopoly that StarCraft II has over the genre, partly due to its being a fan-service; a graphical update to Brood War.

Avatar image for blahblahblah999

Absolutely agree with Fischer. Once you've invested the time in games like hearts of iron, you struggle to go back to the starcraft clickfest. They also have an insanely loyal fanbase.

Avatar image for tooki

Johnson and EA are completely off-base. It seems like what they're trying to do is reach gamers who aren't normally interested in strategy games, not current strategy gamers.

Avatar image for mythentity

I was hoping for Supreme Commander 3 which contains the epicness of SupCom 1 AND the performance of SupCom 2. But alas, they can't even release Kings and Castles this time. My last hope in strategy games may boil down to turn-based genre or turn-based real-time hybrid like Total War.

Avatar image for Spybreak

Oh I just thought it would also be interesting to hear what Gas Powered Games' Chris Taylor has to say on this matter. Enjoying Supreme Commander 2 atm, mainly because I can play this one lol.

Avatar image for Spybreak

It would have been interesting to hear a developer from Relic's point of view on this as well. I've enjoyed strategy games beginning with Dune 2 but Company of Heroes really blew me away and I think really progressed the genre. It would also be neat to hear from the Petroglyph guys since they're veteran C&C people.

Avatar image for params7

Age Of Empires 4 or Age Of Mythology 2 now please :(

Avatar image for megakick

WOW and DOTA are rts but i guess people forget that. not every rts game is like starcraft.

Avatar image for icemelter07

I dont think most devlopers or gamers truly understand whats ment by more content. More content should not be an exta unit or a slightly more shiny unit. It should be more options on how to win the game, more scenarios to play, various AI tactics, and more options to customize your play style so that you and everyone else isnt spamming the same thing waiting for the other person to break. Thats more content. Its something that adds to the overall gaming expirence, not some gimmicky trinkit.

Avatar image for Shardz7

The state of the strategy genre: stale and predictable. Quite a few people will get upset over that statement and claim Starcraft 2 has saved the world, but in all fairness...we have seen the almighty Zerg Rush before but with LAN play. It's nothing new, just refined a bit. I can't imagine the genre changing too much, but there needs to be some innovation in the mix to kick us off for another few years. We saw the "same old thing" and a LOT of it last year and I think we are ready for something incredibly different.

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