This is 100% the experience most people have with strategy games. So to the extent that 4X (eXpand, eXplore, eXploit, eXterminate) games tend to be varieties of strategy games, they elicit a similar "this is it?" reaction.Talvieno wrote:I'm not saying I dislike 4X altogether; I'm just saying I've had some bad first experiences with them. The ones I played were fun until you got closer to endgame, where they became a micromanaging grind just to stay afloat. As you got even farther, it got to where you almost felt like you could just sit back and skip most turns - although, if you did, the AI would beat you in the end anyway. I found the experience frustrating.
The essential problem, however, is not end-game micromanagement. That's a symptom. The underlying problem, I believe, is actually inherent in the nature of strategy itself: a good strategy wins (or loses) long before you find out whether you've actually won (or lost). The rest is just waiting to see this finally happen.
Waiting, generally, is not fun. This is the fundamental problem of making a game out of strategic play.
The nature of strategy is that it applies over large areas and long spans of time. You can set a strategic plan into action, to be carried out at the operational and tactical levels, but because all the individual results at those levels must accumulate over time into strategic information, it takes a while before you find out if your strategy was good or bad.
Seen in this light, the problem with strategic games, including most 4X games, becomes clear. One you're at about the 2/3 or 3/4 mark in 4X games as typically designed, your final strategy has been set in motion. The game, at that point, is essentially over. As your strategy gets applied, it will either win or lose the game for you. Now you're only whacking the "Next Turn" button repeatedly to see how you won or lost. And that can't help but feel like pointless busy-work. It's an unsatisfying ending.
This problem is compounded by 4X games that define the core gameplay loop as frequent management of units, perhaps in the belief that "players will get bored if we don't give them something that needs to be done every ten seconds." At this point you have what says it's a strategic game, which should elicit and reward deep, perceptive thinking, but whose actual mechanics demand and reward quick, focused thinking. Players who feel something is off are correct. They are recognizing an unresolved game design conflict, wherein the tactical-level mechanics of the game (unit movement) block the player from experiencing the strategic-level fun (large-scale pattern perception and planning) that a true strategy game must deliver.
Even the most highly-regarded 4X-style games, such as Civilization and Master of Orion 2, fall victim to this. The last stage of these games, like other 4X games, is just button-mashing mop-up. It's boring.
This appears to be a hard problem in game design. How do you deliver actual strategic fun without resorting to lower-level mechanics that eventually become tedious? No developer of whom I'm aware has figured out a good solution to this problem yet. (Proposed counter-examples to this are welcome.)
So we keep getting 4X games that either devolve into pointless end-game grindfests, or else have some feature bolted on that causes them to stop being true strategy games (I'm looking at you, real-time clock). And we wonder why 4X games aren't more popular.
I don't pretend to have The Answer to this problem myself. I took a swing at it a few years ago in words in Key Features of a True Strategy Game, but I haven't had the chance to actually implement any of these notions to see if they work or not.
That said, I think the following design choices would result in more satisfying 4X games:
Get rid of individual units. The moment you include individual player-movable units as a feature, even if you "chunk" them to a strategic level (e.g., one object represents an army or a fleet), the temptation is nigh irresistible to make the core gameplay loop all about the player moving those individual units around on the map every single turn... and that is how you get the end-game micromanagement grind. In a truly strategic game, the most you would do is provide goal guidance to administrators and general officers: "Admiral, I expect you to secure these three key resource centers within the month," or "Doctor, this agency must produce one breakthrough technology in both of these two sectors by month's end." Note that the key concept here is delegation. (The power of delegation -- of telling an NPC to convert a general goal into individual practical actions -- to support strategic play is why I got so excited when Josh started talking about the delegation of projects to NPCs in LT.)
Make gameplay choices continuous, not discrete. In other words, the actions the player performs most frequently in a strategic game should not be a hundred repetitions of "do this one specific thing," but rather "continuously seek to accomplish this general goal until it's completed, impossible, or I tell you to stop." Another way of saying this: let the player manage logistics at a high level. Even if the player doesn't move units, it's a necessity for strategic (and thus 4X) games that logistical choices must matter. Minimization of logistical cost is half of strategy. (Maximization of resource value is the other half.) So players need to be able to tell the game "move this strategic resource from this source to these destinations," and for the game to keep doing this on the player's behalf until it no longer needs to, or it can't, or until the player tells it to stop. The commitment of resources as a one-way and continuous choice that can't be altered immediately makes strategic choices matter. So when the player directs the distribution of a particular strategic resource from its creation point to its usage points, it has to take time for this movement to happen, and it needs to apply continuously over time. These features enable strategic decision-making to be, and feel, different from the much more frequent and immediately responsive tactical gameplay. (I'm aware of the argument that Master of Orion 3 was unpopular because it tried to abstract away micromanagement. My rebuttal: had it tried harder, and been called something else, it might have been more successful.)
Include personnel management. This isn't as crucial as the above two suggestions, but it's valuable enough that it's worth considering. Because strategic play choices are carried out indirectly and have consequences over time, there's room for the personalities of leaders to play a useful and fun role in accomplishing the player's strategic goals. (This may make more sense when you think of NPC leaders as a strategic resource.) Grooming new leaders whose skills and weaknesses better align with the player's strategies, and letting the player manage conflicts among leaders on how best to accomplish goals, can add intriguing variation to how a player goal is executed. Human influence can do fascinating things to "the best-laid plans"! Thus, leader management can become engaging gameplay activity that to some extent replaces not being able to move individual units.
Opposing strategies should be perceptible and plausible. In additional to the internal challenge of smart logistical choices, a strategist must face the external challenge of competing strategies that are intended to accomplish other results. A 4X game needs other players, human or AI, whose goals oppose the player's in some way. This usually isn't too hard; what's not always done well is reflecting these opposing strategies to the player. This doesn't mean explicitly telling the player things like, "Emperor Alex -- Primary strategy: economic theft." Part of the fun of strategy (or the problem, outside of games) is to try to figure out an opponent's large-scale intentions, based on seeing the individual tactical actions taken in the world and perceiving a pattern to those actions. So these patterns (for a game) need to exist as an opposing player's intent; they need to be comprehensible so that the player can figure out an opponent's intent based on that opponent's visible low-level actions; and these intentions need to seem rationally plausible as a plan for advancing the opponent's interests and not merely random, irrelevant activity. A good strategy/4X game will be designed so that opponents have a strategy, their gameplay choices seek (like the player) to execute this strategy effectively, and, given data and time and perceptiveness, the typical player can figure out an opponent's strategy so that it can be countered.
Know when the game is over. A good strategy game will continuously assess the state of the game world versus the selected victory conditions and will know when further player choices will have a negligible effect on the final outcome. The game may may continuously tell the player the odds of strategic success, or it may try to simulate the strategic version of the "fog of war" as a way to encourage the player to try to accurately perceive the pattern behind an opponent's actions. Either way, once this calculated "chance of victory" value reaches a certain point, the game should announce that the contest is all but won or lost, and give the player the option to stop playing or to keep going to see the final state of the game world. It may even offer to simulate some additional turns until a stable state is reached. The important thing is that the game itself recognizes when the victory conditions are met, and it doesn't mindlessly ask the player to keep performing mechanical actions that no longer have any meaningful strategic consequences.
These ideas apply to any strategy game. But they should also improve 4X games in particular because they're directly aimed at supporting large-scale exploration, pattern-perceiving, and planning fun -- the features that combine in 4X games to make this a genre unlike others.