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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