Understanding Video Games text-book

Date posted: May 14, 2006
Updated: May 16, 2006

Playing strategy games is all about priorities. These games demand analytical skill and coolheaded tactics as the player must balance the relation between resources and various elements in the game.

One of the 1970s experiments with the medium resulted in the game Hammurabi (or Kingdom). The player had to take the throne of a feudal lord, planning agricultural strategies for his little kingdom. Wise dispositions resulted in population increases, while habitants would die or move away if the harvest failed.

The genre can be divided in two subtypes: respectively turn based games and real-time strategy games. Hammurabi is an example of a turn-based game, which proceeds in phases or turns, with breaks in between (much like Chess, Stratego, Risk etc.).

The turn-based games defined the genre up through the 1980’s - not least due to their modest demands on processing power. War games were especially popular but designers also experimented with hybrid forms. These would, for example, feature action sequences and a more character-oriented narrative (e.g. Cinemaware’s Defender of the Crown). These hybrid experiments reached a peak with Pirates (Microprose, 1987).

By the end of the decade a new game type successfully entered the scene. Bullfrog released their original Populous, which allowed players to act as gods over warring nations. The novelty of the game was due to the fact that it wouldn’t pause between turns. In Populous players would not have time to carefully plan their next move which the computer would then execute.

Instead the action proceeded continuously - or in ‘real-time’ - which lead to qualitatively different dynamics and a far more hectic gameplay. Later that year there was no more doubt about the merits of this form - the last shreds were swept away by the extraordinarily popular SimCity (Maxis, 1990).

Three years later, in 1993, the real-time strategy games currently predominant form was established. Westwood Studios published Dune II - a surprisingly successful sequel to a far less appealing genre hybrid.

Dune II combined a highly accessible user interface with a carefully balanced in-game economy and strategy. Without a fine-tuned tactical understanding it was impossible to win but the atmosphere would remain hectic as the player could only see parts of the map (game board) where friendly units where present. The enemy could - and often would - be waiting just around the corner.

Dune II led the way for a number of games. These typically had quite little to offer in respect to development of form but quite naturally the potential of networking was later explored.

In the last years real-time games have dominated but old-school turn-based games keep selling.

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