Oh boy, it’s a new turn-based strategy game! I love when…
Oh. It’s a real time strategy game. With pause. Well, let’s give it a try. I’ve said before that I dislike RTWP, and not just because it makes for an ugly acronym. To illustrate why, let’s play a few hours of the latest RTWP strategy game “Strawman Keep”, a 4X game all about building a fantasy empire with wizards and dragons and orcs and such. Maybe there’s a dash of steampunk tech for flavor? I dunno. Use your imagination.
(Since Strawman Keep doesn’t actually exist, I’m going to throw in some screenshots from Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, a classic of the 4X genre. I played several hours of it as part of writing this column, and was reminded of just how good it was.)
Okay, we’re off and running. Except, I’m just sort of sitting here with nothing to do. We’re early in the game and there aren’t any decisions to make. If this was a turn-based game, I could just hammer the “next turn” button until something interesting happens. But now I just… wait? Maybe I should run solitaire or Triple Town in another window so I can play a game while waiting to play this one?
NOTICE: Your wizard has gained a level. What spell should he research next? Note that he’s going to stand around doing nothing until you pick for him, so be quick! Decide now! Time is passing!
Okay! Decision time. Finally. So I can put some points into snare spells, or I can go for area damage, or I could…
NOTICE: The Dwarves have completed the defense tower and are now standing around doing nothing while you pay them. What should they build next?
Hm. So which decision do I need to make first? I can pick a wizard research goal or I can give the dwarves something to do. Which decision is more important?
NOTICE: Your scouts have found an enemy encampment!
Shit. Is looking at the scouting info more important than making a decision about which decision I need to make with regards to the dwarves or… uh. What was the other thing the game asked me? Wait. Where did that notification go? Was it…
NOTICE: Your Archer has gained a level. What ability should she…
DO YOU MIND? I’M TRYING TO CONCENTRATE!
Now I have four decisions to make and a meta-decision about which decision is most important. Of course, some of the later notifications closed the earlier notifications. Or moved them. Or minimized them. So now I have to make a meta-decision, but first I need to go back and get a handle on everything that just happened and figure out what got closed.
I guess I just need to reflexively pause when a decision comes along? But then, why doesn’t the game just do that anyway? And while it’s doing that, why doesn’t it just skip all the waiting around between decisions? Why does this game need to be real-time? Why do I end up waiting for the computer? This is backwards!
And once I clear out this traffic jam of information I’ll just end up sitting around waiting again. Fine. I’ll just speed up the game until I get to the next decision.
Gameplay set to 2X speed.
Hm. Still nothing is happening.
Gameplay set to 4X speed.
No? Still nothing? Maybe faster.
Gameplay set to 8X speed.
Gameplay set to 16X speed.
NOTICE: Orcs have been spotted far away.
NOTICE: Orcs have been spotted close by.
NOTICE: Orcs are at the gates.
NOTICE: Orcs have breached your defenses.
NOTICE: Orcs have kidnapped the king.
NOTICE: Orcs are raiding the vault.
NOTICE: The dwarves have finished building another section of wall and need new orders.
NOTICE: Orcs are writing rude things on the walls of the castle.
NOTICE: Orcs are having a weenie roast on the burning remains of your village.
AH! Slow down! Normal speed! Normal speed! Pause! I have to tell my defenders to deal with this!
NOTICE: Too late. The orcs are gone. You’re screwed. You might as well re-load the game at this point.
Okay. Let’s reload and I’ll try this again. I’ll just tell my defenders to attack these guys and…
NOTICE: Your champion has been incapacitated. [GAME AUTO-PAUSED.]
Shit! My guy went down! I’d better pause! *Hits pause button, which now UN-pauses the game*
NOTICE: Your archer has been incapacitated.
NOTICE: Your rogue has been incapacitated.
NOTICE: The dwarves have completed building the moat and need new orders.
Damn it! Pause!
NOTICE: Okay, the game is paused now, but you’re basically boned.
I can’t build a dragon hatchery until my wizard unlocks level three fire spells. I wonder how far away that is…
Oh. My wizard is still sitting here doing nothing because an hour ago the “What should the Wizard do?” dialog got lost in the storm of popup notifications. So let me look at the tech tree and see how far off I am…
NOTICE: The dwarves have finished building a lamp-post and need new orders.
Arg. Okay, so I should just pause the game myself whenever I have to make a decision, unless that decision is one that comes with its own auto-pause, in which case I should be careful to NOT hit the pause button. However, this means that time stops while I’m reading all this crap in the menu. I actually WANT time to progress if nothing is happening, since that means I’ll spend less time waiting around.
This Just Doesn’t Work for Me
These games are about making decisions. The game presents you with choices, and then you weigh the pros and cons and decide what you want to do. If it’s turn-based, then each decision can be presented in an orderly way. The game looks at everything that happened in this turn, and can sort events so that you deal with “The Kingdom of Jerkassia has declared war on us” is delivered before stuff like “Dwarven building team #350 needs new orders.”
But this real time stuff creates this problem of “hurry up and wait”. I want to be engaged and informed, but instead I’m either bored or overwhelmed. If I’m making a decision, then any new notification is a distracting interruption, and if I’m not making a decision then I’m sitting around waiting for something to happen.
Real time makes a lot of sense when playing against humans. If this is a game about clicking fast and ordering units around using hotkeys, then I understand the need to keep the clock running. That makes a lot of sense in terms of a twenty-minute skirmish between human players. But in a ten-hour campaign of empire-building, this constant wrestling with the clock is maddening. I end up getting bored with nothing to do but wait, but trying to skip the boring stretches creates the risk that I’ll be overwhelmed in a surprise burst of activity.
RTWP supposedly has the advantage that it doesn’t get bogged down in combat in the late game. In Civ, as you steamroll the enemy nation the game has to stop so you can watch the animations as each one of your tank units blows away an enemy pikemen unit. Yes, that’s tedious. RTWP lets you ignore those fights and do something else while they happen in the background, but that doesn’t really address the root of the problem, which is that the interface has no idea what things will be important to you and which are trivial. In real time, you end up with your adviser voice incessantly chanting, “OUR UNITS ARE UNDER ATTACK!” and you don’t know if that’s just more tanks vs. pikemen, or if some of your guys have gotten themselves into a real scrape with something dangerous where you need to intervene. In any case, RTWP is just trading one time-sink for another. Instead of wasting your time with dozens of meaningless battles at the end of the game, it constantly wastes your time throughout. Rather than doing away with turns, it seems like a better solution would be to offer a player a single summary of all the “trivial fights” (however we decide to define those) rather than making them watch them all.
I like real-time games where I can push a button and make cool stuff happen: Shank a dude, push a dude off a ledge, shoot a dude, toss a dude out of a window, set a dude on fire, etc. Thats fun.
I like turn based games where I can compress months of activity into a single orderly turn that contains a number of interesting decisions presented in an orderly way.
But real-time with pause has the weaknesses of both and the advantages of neither. You don’t get the visceral thrill of real-time, but you don’t get the satisfaction of making orderly decisions. What is this supposed to simulate, anyway? A king that thinks at super-slow speeds and requires a week (seven seconds of game time) to make a simple decision?
This is not to say there’s no place for real time. Sim City and Roller Coaster Tycoon games are fine. They’re more about building and the simulation tends to run fine if you don’t pounce on every decision. In fact, the games don’t really directly prompt you for decisions. You don’t need to tell the police to chase criminals or manually shut down a ride when it malfunctions. Likewise, tower defense games make sense in real time.
I think a good rule of thumb is this: Is most of your contribution to the game going to take the form of decisions in response to popup notifications? Are you commanding forces that will STOP acting and begin drooling on themselves without direct orders? (Like researchers.) Are you playing AGAINST an aggressive enemy that gathers power while you dither around with interface screens? If so, then I don’t think real time is a good fit.
So that’s why I don’t like real-time with pause. I don’t get the appeal, and I actually find it to be really irritating on a moment-to-moment basis. I guess I’m in the minority on this. I never see a backlash from a community expressing frustration that an upcoming game is going to be RTWP. But for me it digs way down and sets of my atavistic dislike for nested problems.
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