How "Turn-Based" Became a Bad Word

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Keith Burgun's picture

Most of us who are heavily involved in games and game design realize the massive benefits to simple, classic turn-based mechanics. I'm not going to say that turn-based is "better" than real-time any more than a screwdriver is better than a hammer; they're just tools which we can use to get the job done. These days, however, many game designers are indeed using a hammer to nail in a screw, and building some pretty shoddy birdhouses. So many games coming out today would greatly benefit from a turn-based gameplay mechanic - often you can see that the designers knew this, but that something held them back from using one. Today I'm writing about what this something is - a deep-seated cultural mistake that we make about games in general.

The reason we hesitate to use turn-based mechanics in our games is because we do not embrace the qualities that make games unique.  Instead, we spend most of our time chasing after what makes other mediums great - great visual art, great storyline, great cinematics.  If you understand what a game is, you understand that none of these have anything to do with what makes a great game.  The properties that define a game are things like rules, goals, feedback, actions, and resources.  Chess, Galaga, and Dungeon Crawl are no worse games for lacking pre-rendered cutscenes, elaborate stories, or realistic graphics.  There is - and has been for many, many years - a striving to make games look more like a cartoon, or more like a movie, or more like a book - or more like so many things, and this is at the heart of why "Turn Based Is A Bad Thing".

Firstly, I hope we can all agree that there are a lot of games that come out that should be turn-based, but aren't.  I would cite examples like the Total War series, Fallout 3, and most Bioware games.  Even if you can't agree with this, you can surely agree that there's a general feeling that turn-based is unpopular.  These games are real time, but not because that was the best mechanic available.  People, developers, and most of all publishers believe that turn-based is bad because it's "unrealistic" and it's "slow".  Ironically, the reason it's slow is because the developers tried to make it realistic!

They think it's slow because... well, in most modern games, it tends to be rather slow.  This is, however, not because it's turn based, but rather because it's turn based and it has to have somewhat "realistic" animations.  First let's look at turn based board games - are they slow?  No, they are not... a player is always playing, or considering his next move.  They achieve this by having no animations or cutscenes or anything at all in the way of pure gameplay.  If you play Advance Wars on the default game settings (combat animations on, normal map movement speed), a mission takes about three to four times as long as it does when I play with as much of that stuff "off" as possible.  Final Fantasy Tactics is a great game, but if you play it a lot it does tend to drag way more than it needs to.  I get to play so much more Fantasy General with all animations turned off.  I think it's a very good thing for a game developer to ask this question:

"What percentage of the time your game is running is your player playing, and what percentage are they watching something un-dynamic happen?"

I personally believe that players should be "playing" upwards of 80% of the time that a game is running in front of them with a controller in their hand.  I do understand that there are some physical limitations to this, like disk-read time, load times, etc.  And it's also good to have brief moments of breathing room, especially after reaching goals.  But these days, most games are hovering between 20 and 40%.  In Super Mario Brothers, I'm making decisions about 99% of the time - decisions like when to jump, how long to hold the A button, whether to try to jump for those coins, how to maneuver around that Paratroopa.  In Tetris I'm making meaningful gameplay decisions practically 100% of the time.  A game like Fallout (1 or 2)does it pretty well, and the aforementioned Advance Wars and Fantasy General are good about this if you tweak the right game options.  I'm not against animations in games, but I do think it is a bad thing if players have to wait for your animations to be over to continue playing.  Everyone remembers how silly this got for some of the summons in Final Fantasy VII and VIII, but in a course of days or weeks played, even a one-second delay adds up to a ton of time you spent not playing, but watching.

Pictured:  Not Gameplay.
Pictured:  The player waiting idly while his GBA plays an animation.

To game designers, and especially turn-based game designers:  Let go of realism!  Stop making the mistake of thinking that good games come from their realism;  "reality" is just one set of rules that sometimes can be a good model for game design, but it always has its limits.  If you had to "keep your balance" and "go to the bathroom" in Half-Life 2, that would have been more realistic, but less good.  So for you turn based game developers - don't worry about realism.  Players sat down to play your game - let them.

Comments

davyK
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I think its quite short

I think its quite short sighted to dismiss a genre. I say that and diss the FPS - though I'm a fan of Doom64 and quite enjoy Timsplitters2, Outrigger and the odd game of Call of Duty (though that's because I really like the Wii FPS control setup).

Not a fan of turn-based strategy gaming but I absolutely love Worms Armageddon which in my book nudges Bomberman close for best multi-player single screen game. It's the turn-based nature that really makes that game.

Keith Burgun
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Huh?

Who's dismissing a genre now?

davyK
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Don't think your getting my

Don't think your getting my point - even in a genre I dislike I can find something enjoyable....

Bill Loguidice
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Genres and parallels
davyK wrote:

Don't think your getting my point - even in a genre I dislike I can find something enjoyable....

I agree and I think everyone HAS to agree because it's only logical. I think a good game is a good game regardless of genre. I'm sure we've all been surprised at one time or another by trying a game in a genre/theme/whatever that we were either indifferent or downright hostile to and ended up enjoying it.

In regards to the main blog post itself, I also agree with the basic premise. It's something I/we have railed against for some time in regards to making games 3D (with polygons) instead of 2D (with sprites) and the associated changes in perspective, simply because some hypothetical standard of the day demands it, rather than what the game would actually be best suited for. This might translate into creating a game (and this is particularly prevalent in board game style games) with a view that's difficult to make anything out, whereas a simple 2D overhead/top-down perspective would be far superior, though wouldn't necessarily be as flashy. There are significant parallels.

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Bill Loguidice
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Chess

Chess on computers has always been an interesting conundrum for me. Somewhere in the mid-80's, chess games began to move away from modified top down views and began to experiment with 3D views. Now, for me, I need to play chess with standard pieces - no Civil War chess set in beautiful pewter - because for whatever reason I'm unable to easily associate, for instance - in my Civil War chess set example - infantryman = pawn. So right off the bat it's clear that I have very specific associative requirements. So once these angled/3D views began to pop up in chess games, naturally I almost always (Sargon III for the PC oddly enough had an excellent angled board, where I could clearly see the pieces) reverted back to the plain old 2D overhead modified viewpoint (the board is seen from above, but the pieces are seen from the side). The same holds true today. Even with hi-def visuals, I still find myself going back to the plain old 2D board for clarity and in order to actually enjoy the experience I want to enjoy. In some extreme cases this is not even an option, and if that's the case, I don't even play it.

So this certainly goes back to the original point of abstraction to the point of distraction. At what point does putting all the fluff around the game began to take away from the game itself? Honestly, I can see many people not having the same issues I (or seemingly, others, like Keith) have with this, but the key is to have the options in place to eliminate any of the fluff that either slows the game down (as the cut scene examples in the blog post) or distracts from the core gameplay (like my going from a 3D board to a 2D board in chess). This has permeated EVERY genre though and will no doubt continue to do so. A good example of this is baseball games. Now baseball is a slow game by its very nature, so anything that further slows the game down is a big no-no in my book. That means "realistic" things like the batter walking back and forth from the dug-out or the whole team running on and off the field between innings. Conceptually this is cool and it might be nice to see it the first time, but after a while, you just want to play the CORE game. Sadly, from a design standpoint, this idea of speeding things up (or more specifically, giving the player the option to turn various unnecessary elements off) seems to come and go. It was certainly a welcome addition to the latest Madden, but did it really have to take all these years to become a standard feature? And what about other games? How long, if ever will it take them?

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Keith Burgun
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Of course! Because clarity is always
Bill Loguidice wrote:

Even with hi-def visuals, I still find myself going back to the plain old 2D board for clarity and in order to actually enjoy the experience I want to enjoy

Of course! Because clarity is always more important for games than visual beauty. There's already a medium that's about visual beauty - namely, the visual arts. Games are about gameplay. Remember that not all games even *have* visual elements (such as verbal word games, or text based games, for example). For those that do, the visual elements need to serve the design. Aesthetic beauty is a nice bonus, if you can add it without taking away from the clarity.

As for whether people would turn animations "on" in a game that starts with them off - well, I do think this depends a bit on the type of game, but if it's a turn-based game in which you have several units to move, I do think most people would either keep them off, or turn them back off after trying it with them on and realizing how much slower it is.

Matt Barton
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I don't think games should

I don't think games should ever have cut scenes that you can't skip, period. This is especially annoying if you die and have to replay a long cut scene that wasn't all that great to begin with. Secondly, I like being able to turn off animations or audiovisual bells and whistles. I generally like to have everything on the first few times I play a game, but once I'm absorbed I like to turn that stuff off, especially if it strains the processor. Overall, though, I think we should go a step further and say that if the player is ever compelled to skip something, it shouldn't be in there anyway. The same for the animations. If its only purpose for being there is eye candy, it needs to go. Besides that, it's such a waste of graphics and art. Why dedicate so much time and energy to something that has no real impact, when you could have dedicated more resources to improving the AI, adding more dialog, combat options, and so on?

Consider magic spells. If you're going to bother animating them, you should make sure the animation is essential to the gameplay. Perhaps the color, intensity, shatter effects, or some other aspect of the animation reveals information to the player. Maybe the color and size of a fireball is related to how much damage it does. That way, you're communicating relevant information via graphics, not just using them to distract them.

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Bret (not verified)
Final Fantasy: Tactics
Matt Barton wrote:

Consider magic spells. If you're going to bother animating them, you should make sure the animation is essential to the gameplay. Perhaps the color, intensity, shatter effects, or some other aspect of the animation reveals information to the player. Maybe the color and size of a fireball is related to how much damage it does. That way, you're communicating relevant information via graphics, not just using them to distract them.

Final Fantasy: Tactics, one of my favorite turn based games of all time, had those long magic spell animations as well as summon spell animations. I think in that game, the bigger the damage, the longer the animation was. So the longer animations were saved for the spells that affected every person on the other team in a big way. I'm in total agreement with having a way to skip animations for people who don't want progress hindered by the 100th time they've had to see a Bahamut summon. Maybe there should be something small enough to show who got hit and how many hit-points they lost. Either way, I think there is something to be said for Final Fantasy: Tactics (and some other games) having a fairly balanced gameplay to animation ratio out of the box.

If the developers want animations in their game, they would be wise to consider what you said about making sure the animation is essential to gameplay.

Keith raised an interesting question. Would people turn on animations if they started off playing a good game from the very beginning with them off?

Matt Barton
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Yes
Bret wrote:

Keith raised an interesting question. Would people turn on animations if they started off playing a good game from the very beginning with them off?

Absolutely. If you paid for the animations, you would naturally want to see them.

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Troy Wilkins
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The Art of Computer Game Design...

I agree with you Keith. I'm guessing you have read the book "The Art of Computer Game Design" by Chris Crawford, which although a little dry (to me anyway) in places (and written a long time ago now), is still just as relevant now as it was in 1982, in my opinion of course.

If you or anyone else wants to read it, it's available in full at the following address: http://www.vancouver.wsu.edu/fac/peabody/game-book/Coverpage.html

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