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.


sascha/hdrs (not verified)
@Matt yeah those annoying

@Matt yeah those annoying force-repeated cut-scenes after you die! A staple of Bioware games!

Mark Vergeer
Mark Vergeer's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Interesting discussion

So in essence turn based strategy games are very much like the old game of chess. Which is a great game and always fun to play. CPRGs can have a lot of elements of chess in it as well. I quite liked the Final Fantasy series where you have to think about which spells to use and how to anticipate an attack. What drew me to it - the nice battle animations eventually became very tedious to watch and caused me to take multiple breaks from playing.

Back in the day I loved the original Sid Meier's Civilization game which I ended up playing a lot on multiple platforms. What also drew me in was Dune where the real-time element imposed on an interface that sort of looked like a turn based top-view strategy game. For me that really added to the gameplay as it forced me to not only be very strategic about my choices but also put on the pressure on this decision making process. This was even more refined in games like Red Alert.

I am a big fan of retrogaming and that probably has to do with the fact that most of my programming days were spent coaxing the old 8-bit machines into something that resembled video-games of the ' bad homebrew kind'. What intrigued me was gameplay and game rules and how that can hugely affect the whole experience of something that basically looked the same. A deck of cards has this ability as well - how many single player games are possible with a deck of cards? The hundreds of variants of Solitaire can be frustrating or relaxing. Back in the day of the old 8-bit home systems the capabilities of the hardware was very limited and you saw a huge variance in gameplay and ideas. Often multiple gameplay mechanics were combined over various levels/places in the game. Then as technology caught up stratums of gameplay/types of gameplay became more defined. Games could end up looking great but gameplay could be rather shitty - buying and playing video-games became less straightforward. Nowadays games that are produced are very much alike, it's the FPS, the RPG the Fighter and the sportsgame. Of course this is very simplified but marketing strategies for the big consoles and PC are more or less focusing on these big gaming chunks. The graphics and visuals and the adrenaline rush is something that seems to be very important with this so consoles and PCs are chugging away depicting lush realistic environments leaving little room for AI, innovations or gameplay for that matter. To avoid melting of the machines they put in cutscenes so that they can cool off a little (LOL). Innovate too much and the game will bomb and the producer will go out of business. Teams creating the games are huge so the stakes are high and it's better to play safe.... Turn based-games are looked upon as being old fashioned - perhaps not even as marketable and therefore undesirable.

Turn-based gaming itself is a simple game mechanic allowing for the player to think out strategies and when he/she is up to it make the next move. An element of time can be introduced to put on the pressure but it remains just that. Making a game turn-based can open up a huge amount of processing power to make a game more elaborate and sophisticated. This route is more or less ignored as the designers want us to interact in real time with virtual pets, environments some even go as far as to do away with the controller completely.

The iPhone/Android/Symbian mobile platforms show a huge amount of different games ranging from simple minigames to the big games we see on consoles and also on this platform the move is more towards 'real time 3d action'. I downloaded Epic Citadel (free demo running the Unreal 3D engine) for the iPhone 4 and I must say I was amazed by the lush environment. Luckily there's still room for innovation and I think the original turn based Civilization is coming to the iPhone and Android platforms! Yeah!
Still I do love turn based strategy games on the iPhone even more as it is easy to pause the game and pick up again later. Or simple arcade games. Yum Yum.

The Indie game developers on the 360 could possibly make a change and have the freedom to innovate or go back to turn-based game mechanics. Who knows. It seems money talks and money is conservative....


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