Giving up on the “1P Strategy Game”

I’ve long had this vision of the “1P (one player) digital strategy game”: a system that you can play over and over again, that has a match structure with a win/loss outcome, that has interesting decisions, that has a ranking system more comparable to an online matchmaking or Elo than a typical “Easy/Medium/Hard” style difficulty settings on a 1P videogame. The 1P videogames I’ve always dreamed of had these qualities:

  • Mechanically deep and systemically driven – perhaps even if that means it’s got a learning curve
  • Endlessly replayable, with 1P ranking systems (“single-player Elo”)
  • Framed as almost more like a sport / abstract strategy game, and therefore light on narrative.
  • Also along the same lines, you don’t get metagame bonuses that you can take into matches (i.e. unlocking better cards etc) – the game is always fair and basically just gets harder the better you get, to match your skill level and keep you at 50% winrate.

Auro and Gem Wizards Tactics meet these criteria quite well, I think. A number of people have played and enjoyed my games over the years, which is a wonderful blessing! But I also think in all that time I’ve really only met a small handful of people who understand why I value this one-player strategy game thing, specifically. Pretty much everyone I’ve exposed this concept to is just confused, and people frequently even argue with me, telling me that these systems I’m pursuing are actually “puzzles”; that a “1P strategy game can’t exist”. That’s a little bit annoying to me, because I don’t think Gem Wizards Tactics feels at all like a puzzle. Indeed, one of the main starting points for the design was that it wouldn’t be a puzzle, standing in contrast to the highly puzzle-like nature of Advance Wars.

I don’t really care about words, though, as long as we all agree on the concepts. I think the bigger problem is that this pursuit of the 1P Strategy Game has really hampered my games’ ability to connect with players.

In the case of Auro, the game originally had a full Story Mode with a final boss and cutscenes and everything – but we deleted it at a certain point because we really wanted to focus the attention on the replayable ranked play mode (and a few other reasons). In 2016 we tried to apply a “tournament” setting to the game, but that’s a pretty ambitious idea for a game about a wizard moving through a weird dungeon thing and bumping monsters into the water with spells, and we didn’t put much effort into explaining it anyway.

For Gem Wizards Tactics, I always kind of thought of the heart of the game, the “standard” mode, as Ranked Mode, which meant that our other modes like Story Mode and Campaign got a lot less design-attention. Most of the fundamental gameplay decisions were made with Ranked Mode in mind, not Campaign or Story mode. So, while I’m proud of *all* the modes in Gem Wizards Tactics, I do think the non-Ranked (or Custom) modes are a little bit less “cooked” than I’d probably like. (I’ll be doing a post-mortem on GWT soon, so stay tuned.)

Overall, I think that these games, while extremely fun for those who sort of powered through the contextlessness and really dove into the gameplay, are mostly just a little bit alienating for your average player. It’s not like it strikes them as bad or anything; my games do not get many bad reviews at all. It’s more just that it’s part of what leads players to kind of just, quietly, silently, choose to play another game instead – one that does provide more context.

Meeting people where they are

A big part of being a creator – at least, a creator who wants their art to connect with other people – is to meet people where they are. You need to create things that are mostly or fundamentally something people are already comfortable with and already-love; once you do that, you have actually a lot of room in the details to be very original. It’s just… you have to get them in the door first. You have to avoid confusing people or frustrating people in certain ways. Even super “frustrating” games like Dark Souls, are actually, on a very fundamental level, extremely “normal” and arguably even generic. Like, you’re a guy in armor fighting skeletons and moving around in this hell world. You do attacks that do damage to health bars, you dodge, you power up… it’s actually a very normal videogame on a basic level, including in the way that it’s narratively contexualized. The details are where it gets very weird and unique.

It’s taken me awhile, but I feel like I have a much better sense of where people are at this point, just from playing games in related spaces and from years of getting feedback about my own games. The good news is, people *do* want strategy systems, or at least systems that involve strategy! But they want it in a package that sounds more like something that has some or all of these qualities:

  • Super easy on-ramp, which usually means mechanically on the lighter-weight side
  • Clear off-ramp (i.e. you “beat the game” after X hours and are then more or less done with it)
  • Framed as more like an “adventure” of some sort; heavier on narrative; more of a holistic “experience” perhaps
  • Metagame bonuses, unlocks, new powers and stuff that trickle out throughout the experience.

I think there’s a bunch of reasons for why this is what people expect, but a lot of it comes down to “accidents of history” type stuff (isn’t everything?). I think a big part of the explanation is that the videogame industry exploded in size throughout the 90s and 00s, at a similar time when computer graphics technology was also exploding. This meant that the way we sold videogames was often based around hyping the computer graphics technology (think screenshots, blast processing, HD and 4K graphics, 60FPS and so on). Given the highly commercialized nature of videogames (perhaps this stands in contrast to board games), it also doesn’t hurt to have these products be things that you complete or consume rather quickly and therefore have a constant need for new ones.

In any case, when humans get involved, they build culture. And the culture of videogames is mostly: narrative, lighter-weight, easier to learn, an adventure, lots of metagame, a thing that you complete. I tend to kind of think to myself: “players sort of want all videogames to be RPGs”, which isn’t exactly true, but there’s a kernel of truth in there.

Games need context

Part of me wanted to frame this article as entirely an external thing: I wanted to make X, but people don’t want X, they want Y, so I guess I’ll have to make Y. But actually that’s not really the case. I think I also want Y, too. I really wanna make an RPG – I’ve been saying this for years. So… it’s actually just a moment in my life where things are turning. It could also be that I’ve just completed the project now, having made two games that demonstrate what the 1P strategy game could look like.

In general though, I guess a thing with games is that they really need context. Humans in general aren’t usually content to just play; they want play to be contextualized, either by some narrative or by some “tournamentality” or some other social context (playing with friends would be a common one). Single player games are kind of tricky, in that they tend to be pretty context-less, unless that context is in the videogame itself. I think this is a really big reason why 1P videogames are so often heavily narrative.

So yeah I have two different reasons for coming to the same conclusion. On the one hand, I’m getting a lot of feedback over my career that people don’t really want the 1P strategy game as I’ve envisioned it (at least, not now). On the other hand, I myself am actually kind of more attracted to things like RPGs or even visual novels these days than I am anything in the 1P strategy game space.

Going forward

The two games I’m working on now for KBGames are Castle of the Secret Arts, and Spellstorm. CotSA is a 1P, narrative driven CCG/visual novel; it’s much more along the lines of what players expect when playing a single player videogame. It’ll have one game mode, and probably one skill level (maybe a second harder skill level is unlockable, like a Master Quest type deal). (Actually, there is a third potential very small game in the works for KBGames, but it’s multiplayer-only. More news on that later, perhaps.)

Spellstorm is a traditional multiplayer tabletop card game. Notably Spellstorm will have a 1P mode – which actually has taken off way more in tabletop over the past few years. This is not a development that I would have expected 10 years ago when I set out on this journey to pursue this kind of system, but it is pretty exciting. And it is vindicating, actually. These tabletop designer board games, the vast majority of which are undeniably “strategy games”, increasingly ALL come with a way to play 1P. And people are doing them, and they’re pretty popular. So I don’t know, maybe my idea wasn’t so crazy – it’s just that the videogame audience is really not looking for that, perhaps for cultural or similar reasons.

Of course I’m a little bit sad that this 1P strategy game dream I started so long ago is coming, at least for now, to an end. I think it started, actually, around 2010, after I released 100 Rogues; I experimented with some rules for that game (a traditional Rogue-like that Apple Corporation has since destroyed) that spun the game into that direction, like making the final boss unkillable for awhile (we later undid those changes as they weren’t really appropriate). But I think I’ve made two strong standing examples of what such a game could look like. Brett Lowey has also made a bunch of games in this arena (my favorite is Solar Settlers) which you should also check out if you haven’t already. There are a small handful of others who have made games in this space as well, such as Fabian Fischer who you should also check out.

As is often the case, the headline of this article sounds a little more extreme than what I’m really saying actually is, perhaps. I still will make strategy games! I still will make 1P games. I still will make digital games! I’m just hoping that the games I make are better able to worm their way into your heart. Because that’s really the biggest lesson of all as a creator, I think: figure out how to make people LOVE your thing. If they love it, they will look past all of its flaws. That’s what videogames have been surviving on for years.

Thanks for reading!