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Heya Space Cadets,

Strategy is what I’m talking about today. I’m pretty much done with designing the combat model for DD2, and I can bring up all the gory details at a later entry, and off I am onto the other stuff that ties the game together.

Strategy is such a wide net though, and its hard to get into talking about it because of just how broad the subject is. Strategy games usually fit into a few niches that we just assume are what they are, like how people call Diablo an “action RPG” despite the fact the only tenuous connection to an actual roleplaying game is the use of stats to represent player avatar power progression. I think that’s almost as weak as saying it is a an “action novel” because they both use printed text.

Strategy has a similar problem. Most games have strategic thinking in them, in the strictest sense of the word. You need to plan out what you want to do, try to do it, and then adapt as situations change. Platformers have the least emphasis on strategy I suppose, as do some other games that are more “skill” based than “plan” based, but add a puzzle or two into there and that’s as strategic as any RTS, I would say. I’m not going to try and define all the elements of what strategy is or does, I’m just ruminating on strategy game subjects a little bit as I bring up the beginning of what Delve Deeper 2’s strategy is all about.

I do get a bit annoyed at the emphasis on twitch reactions in most strategic games. Since as far back as I can recall, I want to play the King on a battlefield, with one of those maps that show the territory and little wooden soldiers to represent forces, and then draw big arrows or shove them around with those tiny pushbrooms. It is a very abstract feeling, sure, and very similar to a board game. But I like the sense of power and command I get from saying “Army 1, go over there. Army 2, take that hill.” In those situations my command is my input, and then I’m tasked to think about how best to adapt to my enemy’s movements.

This is not the feeling I get from a game like Starcraft, where I’ve heard people talk at length about the great virtues of needing to control every single little idiot on the battlefield personally. I’ve even heard people claiming low squad sizes were better. An intentional limitation designed to be less than you need? That’s a virtue? Sounds like an oversight. Squads, when Dawn of War and Company of Heroes had them, were such a boon for me and to this day I see a yawning divide between different strategy games bridged only by their desire to force me to bother with all kinds of micro-management nonsense. So what can I do to fix that in my own game?

Well, some people like micro, but those people are strange to me. I regret to inform them that The Deepening is more focused on keeping your attention where the fun stuff is, like moving your heroes, or setting up your base, or building your tunnels. I also want to remember that base building is an important element of DD2, but if you just end up building it the same way each time, there’s really no point. We’ve got to make it so base-building is a strategic choice.

See, that’s the thing about strategy, it really boils down to the way you react. The saying goes that “no plan ever survives contact with the enemy,” but that doesn’t mean you don’t make plans. It means that you need to have a backup, and be flexible. Many games use the repetition of the same process as a core element of the game, but unless I’m really changing something up, those first 5-10 minutes before I have an infrastructure running are mostly wasted time. The emergence of “no rush” rules might be seen as crap designed to keep the slower, crappier players from having to learn good build orders, but I think it comes from an idea that people want to see the big, glorious battles and don’t really enjoy winning or losing from an SCV rush or knowing they can never come back from a mere second or two of wasted time leading to an inevitable loss.

That’s fun for some people, but it isn’t strategy anymore, it’s a quick-draw duel. If you’re both doing it the same way, and just trying to be faster or better at it, then you’ve drained the strategy out of it.

When people build bases in DD2, I want there to be a strategy involved. Not just a plan, but a counter-plan. I want the bases and the infrastructure to be as important as troop movements, if I can. Not in the passive way of “Oh, he did this, now he has more money” or even the somewhat strategic “Oh, he built less troops, but now he has a nuke to shoot at me” way. Too often we allow a separation between the troops and tactical gameplay and the strategic gameplay.

The main strategy of the game is to secure space on the hex grid. Secure it as in take it and keep it from the enemy. That’s how you make money, sure. But its also how you give yourself more tactical options when an enemy squad arrives. The new combat model was designed to put an incredible importance on positioning and tunnel control. If you just fight like you did in DD1, you’ll lose terribly to someone who fights using the tunnels to surround, bypass, or flank his enemies. You need to fight more like ants than men. To quote Star Trek, players need to display three dimensional thinking, and not just move directly at their foes.

Now, combine that with the importance of digging tunnels and capturing space, and then of securing those spaces with infrastructural improvements and you’re making a small step. But in most games you build a base, maybe put some walls and turrets around it, and that’s as far as you can go. You never really do anything like laying down roads or rails so you can wheel heavy artillery towards your enemy. Sometimes you may set up a quick travel node, but that’s much less interesting because the focus there is bypassing terrain rather than controlling it. People tend to treat territory as a nuisance, and only show the slightest interest in areas on the map where there are resources or some other node to control. Even then, the focus is only on those materials. Nothing about the terrain, other than if it does or does not grant money to make more troops or build more factories, does the player have an interest in, or any reason to.

I don’t want to make bases like beehives clustered in nodes around the map. I understand that, quite logically, players will want to isolate delicate structures far away where they are safe. But by finding ways to force players to make use of the entire terrainscape, we are going to see people battling not just for parts of a map, but the whole map. You’ll pick your battles, but you might spend an enormous amount of money and blood warring over an area of the map without a single resource node on it. I think that would be perfect. Realistic in a sense, but also strategic in a way I cannot think of many games being. How am I going to make Mud Hex 0412 interesting enough to fight over when there are so many, and without stuffing it full of money or other assets you want to harvest and bring back to the base?

Let’s talk again tomorrow.

Spacelab Signing Out

To sum all this up, I think most games like to lay out “funnels” for units to bypass, treat fliers as special in that they bypass funnels but have no other special features to them, and make the game strictly about the economics of mineral harvesting with a cursory bit of interest paid to actual army usage. There are exceptions–Supreme Commander treated airplanes somewhat like actual airplanes, or how Company of Heroes makes resource node control more distributed than centralized… but it all seems to be mostly the same. I’m going to fix this entire problem with one of the simplest concepts in gaming: Pipes.

Neil Wickman is in the market for a good Plumber.

He has been working for Lunar Giant studios since its inception as one of the lead designers and the Creative Director. Listen to him @LunarNeil on Twitter.