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Why modern strategy games are faced with an uphill battle

Published: 20:29, 30 August 2019
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After our lengthy and likely to be continued romp through the very best that strategy games have to offer, it's time to talk methodology and have a look at the generally unenviable position the genre occupies in the modern gaming landscape.

Before we get into why modern strategy titles generally fail to reach the iconic status some of their forefathers have, the criteria for our expanding Hall of Fame list deserve some elaboration.

We sat back and tried to figure out what would qualify as "traditional" for strategy games, or rather at which point a game is starting to stray from some relatively basic genre definitions and conventions.

What we came up with was fairly straightforward, and might even seem a little too basic at first glance:

  • Some sort of base building has to be possible
  • Combat has to take place under similar conditions for all parties
  • Resource gathering has to be present in some form
  • Advancing along a tech tree has to be featured
  • Needs to display a measure unit diversity
  • One game per franchise

Doesn't seem like much, right? We were lenient enough to allow for a free pass if one of these conditions were questionable in our strategy lineup, but a lot of prime candidates didn't make the cut.

Gas Powered supreme commander forged alliance screenshot showign giant robots and armies Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance

Ground Control would have made the list, but there's no base building or a proper tech tree. We would argue the same to be true for XCOM or Battletech, which also fail the second criteria, since your enemies are spawned in from somewhere "outside of the screen" and are unrestricted by limitations placed on the player. The combat in those scenarios amounts to fighting mobs, rather than a similarly equipped adversary.

The Europa Universalis series and its various outgrowths are a particular elephant in the room, since they do tick most of the necessary boxes. All of them are clearly strategy games, but none of them can get all the way down the checklist without stretching almost every listed criterion to near-breaking point.

Whether or not a particular strategy title adheres to our set of criteria is by no means an indicator of a game's quality, as the likely cause for the decline of the genre lies elsewhere.

It is true that strategy titles were rarely AAA heavy-hitters and that the rise of console popularity has reduced the genre's market viability considerably, but the Civilization series sells millions of copies with each iteration, right? Older titles are getting remastered left and right, and barebones mobile incarnations such as Clash of Clans are doing quite well - so what's going on?

Cyberlore deadlock 2 screenshot showing overland map of planet with bases Deadlock II: The Shrine Wars

Well, strategy games are a lot harder to nail down from a design perspective than most other genres for one. It's no easy feat to deliver the foolproof sensation of empowerment that a lot of shooters and RPGs live on for other genres. Trying to pull it off was part of what gave birth to MOBAs, which then turned around and cannibalised a part of the traditional strategy audience.

Things not being tough enough, "nailing down the basics" is easier said than done for strategy. Sure, a shooter can get away with pretty graphics and solid gunplay, even if everything else is flimsy, but a similarly reliable formula has yet to emerge for strategy games.

As a result, strategy titles are usually faced with an uphill battle from the moment of inception. There's no such thing as a safe bet when it comes to the genre as far as publishers and potential investors go, unless one can bank on brand recognition. This neatly explains the rise of remasters and ever-increasing numbers dangling off the back end of the most profitable titles.

There's precious little blame to go around for this state of affairs, as strategy games are a niche made up of niches.

Most hits that crop up from time to time gather a cult following that can help spawn a franchise, which will then proceed to take a chunk out of the already humble overall playerbase and make it hard for the developers to innovate. These cult followings are usually notoriously resistant to change and grow only at a snail's pace.

The easily missed point is that innovation is key for a genre where the only reliable element of staying power identified so far is Civilization’s one more turn phenomenon. Any remaining markers of quality design and therefore market success are a lot more fuzzy.

Elipse screenshot of submarine titans showing base and underwater alien attack Submarine Titans

Most of the games from our list have some sort of major feature or selling point that wouldn't commonly be the first to come to mind for strategies. Homeworld heavily focused on the story and characterisation ; Alpha Centauri explored philosophy ; Battlezone shifted player perspective - each had what one might call a twist to its design on top of more-than-solid strategy foundations.

Delivering a strategem in the current climate isn't impossible by any stretch of the imagination. Amplitude Studios seem to be on the right track with their Endless series. Their first game was a 4X strategy set in space; the follow up landed on a planet, kept the sci-fi setting but was, in essence, a fantasy hex-based kind of deal; the third game is a rouge-like dungeon crawler, and their latest release was a direct sequel to the first.

Amplitude seem to be vaguely aware of the idea of "risky"; but apparently don't care enough to dilute their work by considering it more than barely at all. The results were some of the finest strategy games in recent memory, especially Endless Legend.

How they manage to get away with this under Sega is entirely beyond me, but they must be doing something right on the financial side of things, or their current project Humankind would have never been greenlit.

K-D perimeter screenshot showing based protected by shield and rocky landscape Perimeter

What the future holds is hard to tell at this point, with titans of the genre such as Relic Entertainment and Creative Assembly working on Age of Empires IV, Kickstarter efforts like Iron Harvest nearing release, and even a Stronghold sequel on the way - all likely to appear in 2020.

Indie undertakings like They Are Billions or Northgard aren't far off the mark either, and if any bold or unexpected entries are to join the strategy family out of the blue, it will most likely be from the small-scale and independent side of the industry.

Nobody is expecting a revolution of Minecraft or PUBG proportions in the strategy space, but can you blame a man for wanting those few games that strategy enthusiasts do get in a year to really count?

 

In case you are wondering what list we keep going on about, here's the multi-part series arranged for clickable convenience: Part1 - Part 2 - Part 3

The very best PC strategy games of all time, of all time

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A man with an axe running through a forest in SCUM

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