Strategy games have entered a new golden age thanks to eSports, Let’s Play videos, boring AAA games
The past decade hasn’t always been great for fans of strategy games. Twenty five years ago they were in their first golden age, but by midway into the 2000’s things weren’t quite as great.
The fervor over the RTS genre was stagnating, as StarCraft hibernated and Warcraft became World of Warcraft. Compounding that, for a time the focus of the games business shifted to the consoles where RTS games and most other strategy sub-genres rarely worked well.
But for a long list of reasons, strategy has come back to the fore in the gaming industry.
“On 3 Moves Ahead, I think we've been riding pretty high for a while,” said Rob Zacny, host of the popular 3 Moves Ahead strategy podcast and a freelance writer specializing in strategy gaming. “eSports have been good for strategy. Yeah, there's fewer traditional RTS games, but you see more cool stuff like Wargame: Airland Battle. Paradox have hit their stride with Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis 4. And there are so many smaller games that I literally can't keep track of all the good options.”
“Strategy gaming has been in a golden age for a few years now,” said Troy Goodfellow, founder of strategy gaming site Flash of Steel, and PR representative for Paradox Interactive. “It's hard to pinpoint when it started - it's a little easier to look at the first great strategy golden age 25 years ago and say ‘Aha, SimCity was the turning point’. With perspective, we might be able to do that. But if you look around, it's impossible to not see it happening.”
Today, we see a revival of the strategy genre hinged largely around sub-genres that used to be relatively niche within strategy gaming. The genre with the biggest blockbusters, real-time strategy, never really recovered and today only StarCraft 2 is left to represent the RTS.
Nonetheless, we have amazing games coming from established studios like Firaxis with both Civilization V and XCOM: Enemy Unknown. But the real strength of the strategy boon is in Europe. It was in Sweden that Paradox Development Studio built two of the best grand strategy games of recent years: Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis 4. Croatia is home to 2x2 Games which built the indie darling Unity of Command. The cult classic Mount & Blade comes from Turkey. Wargame: Airland Battle is French. Total War: Rome 2 is from England.
“This is a golden age for strategy mostly because designers and gamers are finding new ways to communicate with each other and this feeds back into design in very important ways,” said Goodfellow.
Among the top reasons for the widespread resurgence of strategy games, Goodfellow said that one of the biggest reasons is the stagnation of the AAA games business.
For years AAA games have been focused on action and spectacle, but now Goodfellow thinks that gamers who are looking for some intellect and innovation in their games are getting bored with those titles and moving on to more in-depth games. As budgets for AAA games soared higher and higher, the games themselves tended to get less challenging and often less interesting which has driven many gamers into the arms of niche strategy games.
It’s about more than just failures in the games business though. The renewed rise of board games has also gotten people used to the idea of thinking analytically about their games.
YouTube has also played a large role, according to Goodfellow. He singled out Let’s Play casters for pioneering a new way of communicating the complexities of the strategy genre to new players who might ordinarily have been intimidated by the depth of some games.
“The rise of video streaming and YouTube Let's Plays has served as one of the best genre crusading tools ever,” he said. “Most games are pretty intuitive to play, but of the biggest of mass strategy franchises, only The Sims is obvious in how to play it. If you are curious about a game that has a theme or history you like, you might get turned off by all the menus or lack of gorgeous eye candy. But YouTubers have found a space to teach a game, tell a story about the game they are playing and get hundreds or thousands of viewers to try new things.”
As an added bonus, strategy games are always new and different, so they can’t be spoiled by watching a Let’s Play in the same way, say, Bioshock Infinite could.
eSports and beyond
It's also worth remembering that all three of the most popular eSports at the moment are action-strategy games. League of Legends and Dota 2 aren't your typical style of war game, but they're very much entrenched in team strategy and tactics. And of course, StarCraft 2 is a highly traditional base-building RTS as well.
What's most encouraging about of this combined is that the strategy genre seems to be fluorishing on all fronts. From the smallest niche boardgames on the App Store, to mid-priced titles from Europe, to grand blockbusters like XCOM and Total War: Rome 2, all the way up to the extreme mega-hit League of Legends selling out stadiums. Not only are these games being played by more people than ever, but they're being spectated worldwide by millions.
It's encouraging to note that strategy games are succeeding on so many levels, and with eSports and Let's Play videos seemingly only at the beginning of their rise, the prosperity in strategy gaming could continue for a long time.