Easy There, Tiger, That's a STRATEGY Game

Eagle-eyed Civ-aholic Troy Goodfellow spotted an odd subhead on GameSpy’s Civilization V preview that promised, “It’s not just for the hardcore anymore.” This brought Troy up a little short.

It’s not? When was it? Is Civilization a hardcore game for hardcore people? I tweeted my curiosity and was met with a nice chorus of replies from friends and colleagues. Former PC Gamer Editor in Chief Gary Whitta pointed out that Civ gives him migraines, and of course it is hardcore; anyone can pick up a shooter and know what to do. Kombo’s Tiffany Martin said that I was seeing the game from inside my strategy gamer bubble where Civ is positively user friendly compared to, say, Hearts of Iron.

Reading this, I felt a mixture of bewilderment and outrage. Because the Civilization series has always made a point of keeping the door wide open for anyone who is interested in giving it a try, and it still gets written off as a niche title because it is a strategy game.

This touches a raw nerve. I still remember a community of gamers that seemed less picky and less intimidated by genre barriers. My friends and I were thirteen year-old renaissance men, talking Civ at morning recess (my friend CJ once proposed that we discuss “Feats of the Phalanx”, because the quirky rules of Civilization sometimes led to a phalanx wiping out a modern battleship or artillery), describing TIE Fighter dogfights over lunch, and chainsawing our way through Doom by night. Mindless, savage violence comprised no more than a third – well, definitely not more than half – of our gaming lives. Strategy was just another kind of game, but not another kind of gamer.

I still don’t really accept the categorization and audience-splitting that is widely taken for granted, especially because so much of it seems arbitrary. To my way of thinking, Civilization is more accessible than a Call of Duty, Team Fortress 2, or even an Arkham Asylum. Those games all presume motor skills and intuition that have been honed by years of 3D action gaming, but good luck if you didn’t grow up playing games like that. Acquired tastes like Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, and any JRPG are treated like general-interest videogames.

“But those involve basic skills,” you say. Most gamers can use WASD or dual-analogue sticks to drop the crosshairs on a target, and anyone can press the buttons required to advance the story in a JRPG. True, but what does a game like Civilization really entail?  Not on the intermediate or advanced difficulties, but at its most basic.

Not a lot. No motor skills, certainly. And the game is wonderfully self-explanatory. You start in the Stone Age, you build a city, and then it asks you if you want to research The Wheel or Hunting. It doesn’t require a lot of insight to figure out what those technologies might let you do, and the game makes sure to tell you the specifics right there in the research window. And that’s pretty much how Civilization rolls. Common sense takes you 85% of the way, the game’s own tooltips and help text take you the last 15%. All you have to do is make some plans, try to think ahead, and play along.

But the moment a game, any game, asks you to do those things consciously, it gets the marginalizing treatment. Which is ridiculous, because these are no more special skills than walking or speaking. You can’t get through a day without hatching a plan or adapting to circumstances.

On Three Moves Ahead, I think there’s a good reason that Tom Chick jokingly calls every game he happens to like a strategy game. Maybe he is just trying to bother Troy by bringing up shooters, but I suspect he has a point. The games I engage with are the ones that force me to strategize and live by my wits. It doesn’t matter if they are shooters, flight sims, or wargames: if it demands planning and tactics, I probably like it.

Now you could argue that these other genres have proven to have broader appeal, either through sales or through the readership drawn by articles covering them. But I can’t help but think we’re in the presence of a self-fulfilling prophecy here. If people are constantly being bombarded with the message that a game is somehow for an elitist niche audience, they’re going to be turned off well in advance. Eventually they might decide the entire genre is for specialists, with no room for the mildly interested novice. Then we get more articles that begin from the position that a game or a genre is flawed because it is too hardcore and too demanding, and something different should be done to convince more people to give it a try.

We can’t be pushing developers to make strategy games for people who don’t like strategy games, but that’s what we’re doing when we say that Civilization is somehow suffering from a major accessibility problem. Do you honestly think anyone would have run a preview where someone asked Infinity Ward, “So, some people really disliked the fact you had to control your character and shoot other characters in a modern military setting. How are you going to fix that problem with Modern Warfare 2?”

I’ve always considered convincing people to try new things to be a part of my job. There are a lot of reasons why someone might not like EU3, but when I wrote about the game, I tried to show the reasons why someone might love it, even in spite of those obstacles. Fourteen years ago, my friend CJ begged me to give Civilization a try, despite the fact that it sounded lame, because Civilization is not a name that promises action and excitement. But I tried it just so he would shut up, and that experience changed my life.

The irony of the story is that I was basically right about Civilization. It was a civilization builder with square units and cities on tiles. I built granaries and invented simple tools. There was no action, and no excitement in the sense that I usually used the word. It turns out I didn’t really know what I would like. That was my problem, not Civilization’s.

  1. I think if you posit a continuum of strategy games, you’d have to put Plants Vs Zombies on the “easy” end, and EU3 somewhere on the “hardcore” end. The Civ series has always struck me as being more towards the hardcore end of things…

    • I’m not even sure I’d put Plants vs. Zombies on the continuum, since I’ve always found the game to be much closer to a puzzle game than a strategy game. And I think there is a hell of a lot more about PvZ that could turn people off or frustrate people than there is in a Civ title.

      But I think this approach already leads to trouble on two fronts. First, how easily can we slot RTSs onto a strategy continuum with PvZ and EU3? Strategy contains a lot of genres. Second, I’m wary of tacitly accepting the whole “this is for everyone / this for hardcore players” dichotomy. I think it’s a lot more fluid that than that. I think people occupy different spaces on that continuum at the same time. It’s not like they move from left to right and stop when things become “too hardcore.” That’s not what people are responding to in a design.

    • Skyrider
    • March 16th, 2010 2:33pm

    Ah, “hardcore.” A much used and abused word in gaming. A darling of marketing types and those who rely upon a dollar-menu vocabulary. A distant relative of of “gnarly,” another abused term in its day.

    • Graham
    • March 24th, 2010 3:49am

    I don’t disagree with you on the whole but I think that your argument is misleading.

    And the game is wonderfully self-explanatory. You start in the Stone Age, you build a city, and then it asks you if you want to research The Wheel or Hunting. It doesn’t require a lot of insight to figure out what those technologies might let you do …

    These aren’t self explanatory at all. In real life hunting and the wheel are ideas that we are all familiar with but within the context of civilization 4 they represent abstract in-game mechanics.
    Or take religion, everyone knows what religion does but they can’t somehow convert that into any but the vaguest understanding of what the civ4 system is, never mind how to use it to their advantage without scouring the civipedia.

    The difference between more and less hardcore games is, I think, the learning curve, and civilization does not have an easier learning curve for calling it’s systems and mechanics by familiar names. It is possible to pick up civ4 and start playing, but knowing what gold and an economy are wont help you guess when you should adopt a cottage heavy strategy, and when you should focus on pushing missionaries and building shrines…

    • So I’ve been mulling this over for a couple days as I get ready for PAX East, and I think you’re underestimating how much using “familiar names” to describe game elements eases that learning curve. It’s not enough to get someone playing Civilization at an advanced difficulty level, which is where micromanaging improvements and city specialization really comes to the fore. But I think at the “basic level” I was concerned with in this piece, it’s enough to allow players to muddle through.

      Civilization doesn’t actually demand that I totally understand what the hell I’m doing. It uses the a priori knowledge I take into the game to push me in the right direction. The wheel allows me to build roads. I may not really grasp that my city is surrounded by tiles producing different values, and that a road will generate trade or that it will reduce movement costs for units moving across them, but intuitively I understand that roads help move goods and people across terrain. And when the tooltip shows that the technology leads to “Pottery” with “Agriculture” or “Fishing”, that also makes sense. The wheel helps enable pottery, and food-production creates the need for devices to help with food preservation and transport.

      So I look at “Fishing” and see that it will allow me to produce work boats to, well, go fish and bring in more food for my growing city. It also lets me research Sailing. Seems to make sense.

      The game is full of those types of relationships. Without really grasping the mechanics, I can intuit my way through a fair amount of Civ. We got culture and religions? Temples produce culture and make people happy, but you need a religion to build them? Sounds about right to me. While I use these rudimentary understandings to play the game, I am continuing to learn the finer points as cause and effect become more apparent.

      It’s not just that Civ uses familiar names to describe its elements. Those elements do a decent job of aping the real-world concepts to which they are referring, and so they give the novice an entry into the game.

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