Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Complete Information

Strategy games are a real cause for game design woes. In this article I'll be talking specifically about the subset of strategy games where you control multiple units, and the positioning of allied and enemy units is crucial to strategic success or failure. This is a relatively broad category, and can include games such as Frozen Synapse, Starcraft 2, Advance Wars, and Final Fantasy Tactics.

Even more specifically, I would like to talk about the concept of fog of war in such games. Fog of war, defined simply, means that you can only see what your units can see. Alternatively, other games allow you to see everything on the field regardless of proximal allied units.

Many games have fog of war (Starcraft 2), many lack it (Final Fantasy Tactics), and some switch back and forth between levels or modes with and without it (Advance Wars, Frozen Synapse). Is fog of war useful for creating more strategic depth, or does it add needless frustration and force the player to resort to trial and error tactics? The answer is: it depends.

An insightful thesis, I know. The plan here is to outline when fog of war works, when it doesn't work, and why.

Whether it's good or bad, fog of war changes the way you have to play the game. It completely alters what viable strategies look like. For example, in Starcraft 2, high-level play revolves around scouting what your opponent is doing and reacting to his actions. If you can't see his base, you don't know what to prepare for, and it's mostly a guessing game. If you have a scout out, skilled opponents will actually delay buildings until the scout is dealt with, so that they can continue to hide their plans. Scouting is a key strategic focus.

If you could see the entire map at all times, these kinds of tactical plays would be removed. It would change the focus of the game from scouting and reaction and strategic choice to simple manipulation and action speed. That is not to say that micro-manipulation is unimportant in Starcraft 2 as it stands, but simply that it is not the only thing to consider. Starcraft 2 is a game where fog of war increases strategic depth.

Advance Wars is a good example of a game where fog of war decreases strategic depth. In order to fully understand why, we must first examine the main source of enjoyment that comes from strategy games in the first place. A good strategy game is one in which you can analyze the position you're in and come to a reasonable conclusion about an optimal or at least adequate play that will increase your position and thus your chances of winning.

In Starcraft 2, very often the best play involves scouting your opponent for information in order to guide your subsequent plays. As such, information is only partially hidden in Starcraft 2. You can uncover any hidden information through the course of well-rounded play. With no adequate scouting units in Advance Wars, the same kind of intelligent play is not encouraged. Information in fog of war levels is completely hidden, with the only possibly way of uncovering it being to incur substantial loss.

There is once level in particular I remember in Advance Wars that was a great example of fog of war ill at work. The enemy had hidden artillery across a narrow bridge. There was an alternate way around, but it was long and would require many turns to traverse. Since the level had a time limit, the obvious choice was to attempt to cross the bridge. Unfortunately, that only ended in your entire army getting obliterated by the artillery. You lost the battle, but now you knew for next time that there is artillery there.

That is horrendous design for a strategy game. In this case, playing based on the best information available in-game isn't enough to make an informed decision. If you make your decisions based on the construction of the level (which is what strategy games are intended to have you do), it leads you into the same trap again and again. You have to play with additional information only learned through failure to have a chance at success. It's spitting in the face of the core of what strategy games should be.

I am not saying Advance Wars is a bad game; it's enjoyable and the levels without fog of war are very fun and strategically deep. Imagine the same level described above without fog of war. You know the artillery is there all along, and you can formulate a plan to cross the bridge if that's still how you want to approach it. You will sustain losses, but they are calculated losses rather than arbitrary losses, and the possible strategic choices are increased.

What it comes down to is this simple concept. If the fog of war completely hides information from the players, it's probably a bad design choice. If players can only compensate for the fog of war through trial and error, it is removing strategy elements from the game and replacing them with thoughtless repetition. Only if the fog of war increases strategic options should it be employed. Fog of war should not be treated as a tool to increase challenge, but rather a tool to increase options.

1 comment:

  1. Good post, particularly the bit about having a "life-toll" in Advance Wars. This is a problem that many, many games face, which turns them a bit more into puzzle than game.