Wanted: A New Paradigm

By James Cobb 08 Aug 2016 3

Recently, in the context of playing Early Access title Blitzkrieg 3, the question arose “Are RTS games really wargames?”. My initial reaction was 'Not Again!?’. This discussion started over twenty years ago when computing power allowed continuous-action wargames to compete with the then-dominant turn-based model. My reaction was that the argument was over a distinction without a difference. RTS and turn-based games are both wargames.

Although still very early in development, Blitzkrieg 3 demonstrates the similarities between RTS and turn-based games and how they have borrowed from each other. Both have infantry, artillery and cavalry/vehicles. Both can include resources or some kind of 'cost' for unit deployment. Units, be they sprites, icons, or symbols, interact the same way with each other. Even the animation can be the same: infantry scream and fall down, artillery booms, buildings collapse and vehicles burn. Regardless of whether you're playing Scourge of War: Waterloo or Campaign Waterloo, as the French you must coordinate attacks better or get the historical result. Even graphics don't represent a dividing line - Blitzkrieg 3’s historical campaign map uses the same “spreading ink blot” effect seen in Gary Grigsby’s War in The East.

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The main difference between the two genres is the time players have to make or execute decisions and even that is only marginally significant due to 'pause' function. “Pause” even cuts down the clicks-per-second factor for reflex-challenged gamers while better game design had made the rush tactic in most recent RTS games a non-starter. Players of Civilization games may think they are more reflective than those playing Rise of Nations but they flatter themselves.

My opinion on the matter has always been the same: the two genres require almost the same skill sets. RTS games are wargames – period, QED. Nothing to see here, move along.

Or So I Thought

In one of those sleep-killing brain flashes that plague old retired people, I stepped back and reconsidered the whole question of wargaming in all of its niches and genres. I saw parallels in wargame semantics with contemporary political and scientific controversies. Old terms used to define discussions hinder explanation of concepts instead of clarifying them. Political commentators toss “liberal” and “conservative” around as if their meanings have remained the same since Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century. In fact, their connotations have melded, separated, only to meld again with each generation, but the writers and talking heads keep using the same terms because they are handy tools to avoid deep thought and provoke irrelevant arguments. Similarly, some scientists reject quantum mechanics and cling to Einstein physics as if it were an absolute. Those scientists dislike quantum mechanics because it is messy; to quote the man himself using a gaming metaphor “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.”

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In gaming as well as politics and science, we see unstoppable changes but the changes have outstripped our vocabulary. The old terms and labels not only hinder progress but mask the nature of these changes. Old categories are intellectual comfort food. They are congenial, they do not challenge us, they don’t disrupt our paradigm. However, an excess of old thought, like excesses in comfort food, is hazardous to our health – in this case, our hobby.

In Wargamer's recent article series on the future of wargaming, Jeff Renaud did a fine job describing the technology that is changing our hobby. We can name all the new parts and can envision future innovation. What we are unable to do is to fit the new parts into our old categories and paradigms. We trip over labels and terms such as “RTS” and “turn-based”, confusing ourselves and others. We need a new vocabulary and paradigm to describe what we “play”; even the word “play” hits a wrong note.

Blitzkrieg 3 represents in its early stages what a modern RTS game can be. The units range from individual soldiers to platoons. The mechanics are the usual “left-right” click with units’ special abilities being displayed in a separate area for activation. Graphics are superb. Missions have sub-quests that unlock more friendly troops or assets like air strikes. The historical campaign has linked mission where success in Poland as Germany leads to Belgium and so on.

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But the first step in developing this new paradigm lies not with games, or game developers. Paradox Interactive, AGEOD, Shenandoah and VR Designs have been doing that for a few years. Most of the negative comments cry “I don’t understand this game” or “How can I play this game so that the outcome is what I want”. The answer to the first question is either work harder with the manual, YouTube or the forums. The answer to the second is to stop buying new games and hit the bargain bins and eBay. The desired outcomes are already out there in existing games. The rest of us should take a breath and consider what we want future games to be. Should we broaden them to include more politics, economics and command structure? Should we drill down on the tactical level for even more detail? Will new technological advances allow us to combine genres and create new paradigms?

Can I describe and name the new & glorious future? No, but I’m working on it. I invite every gamer to join me and re-think what our hobby is about.

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