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How, exactly, do you design a strategy from scratch?

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What exactly is a strategy? How do you distinguish a good strategy from a bad one? How do you determine when a game has a strategy versus when it does not? I feel like this one's so basic it's like trying to define the word "the." Sure, we all know what it means, but what does it really mean? I'd like to test people's definition with a small caveat-- the definition can't have anything to do with war, fighting or combat of any kind. A friend and I used a wonky made up game to help flesh out exactly what a strategy is and what distinguishes a good one from a bad one: Zombies On The Playground. Our objective was to analyze how to come up with good strategies a kid might use to escape a school infested with zombies. It was structured so as to move away from the well known arena of combat (which is so prevalent that I think it makes it hard to dig beneath the surface beyond offering examples of strategies). What we came up with was this: The Basics 1) In general, a strategy arises from at least two options which are different routes to one or more goals 2) A strategy generates different result / consequence once executed (or there would be no point in choosing one or the other). A good strategy generates a significantly different result / consequence. 3) Each option carries with it a different level and/or type of risk. 4) A good strategy is one which will not be effective in all situations (else it becomes a dominant strategy) nor ineffective in in most situations. Now The More Nebulous Parts What are the actual elements of a strategy?
  • The actual elements of the strategy are those actions / tactics which arise from the situation the player / avatar finds himself in and which would reach a desired goal. Daydreaming, for example, might be an action, but probably not one that would reach a desired goal when flesh eating monstrosities are chasing you.
  • More specifically: Strategies arise from a series of natural (and effective) responses to a situation. To this end, elements / actions that fall outside the situation make for strategies which do not resonate with the player. (Example of a bad strategy would be kids being able to lead zombies into quicksand, which you wouldn't expect to find in a school.)
  • The elements must arise from the execution and interplay of rules which the player understands in advance. If zombies are repelled by fire, for instance, then the use of fire becomes a strategy (contingent on other rules, such rain/water putting out fire, which makes the strategy effective only in certain situations). A good strategy keeps this consistent (zombies shouldn't suddenly and inexplicably lose their fear of fire just because of a level load.)
  • Each element/tactic can be considered a chain of moves / actions which, taken together, allow the player to achieve a certain goal.
  • Each element/tactic results in a change in game state or resources (???).
What do you think? I'd like to see if this can be extended or improved, or hear what you think. If possible, I'd like to keep this general enough to apply to a wide variety of game mechanics, which is another reason for the restriction on combat (violate it if you have to, but try to generalize it to noncombat games if you can).

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I think it's a good start, but not abstract enough.

I'd go towards Go. Turn based, with a large branching factor (one move impacts many later moves).

Abstractly, games are an initial state, a end condition (optional) and a series of 'interesting choices'. The choices change the state, which create new choices.

A strategy I'd consider to be a series of those choices that follow a pattern.


As for good/bad, depends on if you mean to the designer or the player. And the rules of the game. Most every game has strategy imo. The differences come in the nuance and variety that the rules allow.

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One way I visualize strategy is to think of a “decision” graph. For example, you are given choice A and B. If you execute on choice A now you have choice C and D and so on. This builds a tree that represents all of the choises someone has. Now, I think strategy and devising a strategy are made up of the following:

1 - Identifying what choices are available now
2 - Identifying what choices will become available upon picking a certain path down the tree, then doing the same thing with the next choice.
3 - Identifying the impact of a certain choice anywhere in the tree.
4 - Selecting a series of choices (a path through the tree) that will either maximize some positive, minimize some negative, or a combination.

In my option, #4 is really the strategy but #1-3 are important because we never formulate a strategy with complete knowledge of all choices, their impacts and what choices we'll have then.

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Re:

Quote:
What exactly is a strategy? How do you distinguish a good strategy from a bad one? How do you determine when a game has a strategy versus when it does not?


I would just like to point out that a strategy is an heuristic/plan/algorithm to solve a problem that a player devise. It is not a property of a game. A game does not 'have' a strategy.


A strategy consists of:

o At least one defined goal
o A list of action/reaction Laws


In the Playground Zombie example, this is a complete strategy:

o Strategic Goal: Scare the Zombies away
o Action Laws:
1) If Zombie is in throwing range and you pickedup something, throw it at the Zombie
2) If you have nothing to throw, scream.

I think that you are trying to discuss is what makes a game rich soil for the player to grow strategies, i.e. The elements of a strategic situation.

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Strategy can be as simple as patiently waiting for guard patrols or as complicated as systematically eliminating the enemies food supplies to destroy their army.

The only way you know when a strategy is good is when your thought process pays off and you succeed.

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I'd propose that a strategy boils down to a choice of tactics that the player choses to exploit while trying to reach their end goal.

First, the player has a choice of tactics that he/she can exploit.
I'd divide these into 4 categories: Time Burning, Weak, Strong, Exploit.
In general we should ignore the Exploit tactics other than considering ways to remove these tactics.
The others go in order of resource cost vs utility gain.

A Time Burning tactic, like daydreaming, may not cost any time or resources to begin, but in the end costs you a lot of time for "no gain".
You haven't killed any zombies, or got yourself, your friends, or your girlfriend any closer to safety. But this tactic can still be very
useful in an over arching strategy, as it can keep you in place (in danger or out of danger) long enough for another tactic to reach its
payoff.

A Weak tactic relies on known mechanics, but only exploits the direct cause-effect chain of that mechanic. Often a weak tactic can become
less effective. These tactics tend to provide moderate gain. With the "zombies fear fire" mechanic, weak tactics would mean lighting lots
of stuff on fire, or using very simple fire implements like a torch. The cost of a weak tactic may or may not be directly apparent. At a
glance, it is often cheap, as resources are easy to find and the time to implement is close to nill. At a second look, resources aren't
always going to be abundant, and the same resources could be put to more effective use.

A Strong tactic relies on known mechanics, situation, and a bit of insight. Often these tactics never become ineffective. The can provide
moderate to very high gain. With the "zombies fear fire" mechanic, strong tactics would mean making a mote with gasoline, or making a
Molotov and lighting one of many zombies in a crowd on fire. The cost of a strong tactic may or may not be resource intensive, but
requires insight into surroundings and expenditure of time. Though, they often use a scarce resource, or one commonly sought after for a
weak tactic.

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If you want to pursue the topic on a theoretical/abstract level, I suggest reading Artificial Intelligence, A Modern Approach [amazon].

They give a good abstract approach to defining AI, and terms like rational agent, utility and strategy, and touch topics like logic, search, planning, game theory, etc.

Roughly from the top of my head, they define a rational agent being an actor who acts in a world to maximize a given outcome (measured by some performance function, "goal"). A strategy is the set of rules that defines how an agent acts in each choice situation. It could be a dictionary that tells for each game state the appropriate action to take. Under this definition, naturally each game has at least one strategy (can't really put an actor to a world where the actor couldn't make decisions at all). A rational agent follows a strategy that is rational w.r.t. the goal.

So, we can distinguish one strategy being better than another by seeing that it gives better values for the performance function than the worse strategy. This could be really easy or perhaps just impossible. Also, proving that a strategy is rational might be impossible.

Talking at a level this abstract is really stupid if you're focused on a single application, but we might consider agents in different types of worlds, having traits like
- discrete vs continuous decision-making (go vs rts)
- deterministic vs stochastic events (chess vs backgammon)
- partially vs fully observable (poker vs tic-tac-toe)

Then it makes more sense.

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Go as an example seems a bit simplistic because it does not include randomness or time pressure, both of which are huge factors in many computer games. It might also be interesting to look at the difference between games which have a single, predetermined goal, and games which have multiple or more freeform goals.

I would start analyzing this problem by making 4 lists:

- What are all the basic categories of goals that occur in gameplay, whether game-determined or player-determined? (eliminate all enemy units, gain control of all territory, obtain the maximum amount of money in the minimum amount of time, do A points of damage in time less than B while taking less than C points of damage yourself, obtain N of resource X, obtain rank/title Y...

- What are all the elements which are used by a game to keep score? (e.g. time, money, units, territory, resources, hp, mana...)

- In what ways is the game 'smart enough' to recognize the player's input? Player actions are generally limited to multiple choice and context-sensitive pressing sequences of buttons over time. Joystics may add pressure-sensitivity, special types of controllers like the wiimote can add spatial sensitivity, some games even use microphone input, but really the ways in which a computer can understand human input are ridiculously limited and account for the main differences between game strategy and real-life strategy where stuff like 'sentence wording' and 'body language' are things we apply strategy to every day.

- Finally, how can a game's internal math act upon the player's input, and to what extent can the player understand this math and use that understanding to predict the results of their actions? In games which include randomness, the player's strategizing likely has a lot of probability and statistics involved. Turn-based games are typically about algebra, especially when these games feature wearable equipment or spendable stat points. Some game designs actively discourage strategic play by hiding numbers and being sensitive to units of time or degrees of pressure smaller than the player can sense, or by not giving the player any feedback on their actions unless the player happens to satisfy a major game goal. In these cases strategy is mainly composed of the player's cultural knowledge of what is usually good and bad to do in a particular context, and their subconscious 'training' by the game. Also they can do external research and/or hacking to try to discover the numbers and goal conditions hidden within the game.

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Eh, time pressure and randomness are factors in computer games, but not terribly relevant to the intrinsic abstraction.

Time pressure adds a choice regarding what to pay attention to, and a degree of difficulty towards getting things done. Randomness just influences the game state (random maps) or the likelihood of a result. Just more data to weigh for the choice. They're just rules for the game not so much changing the definition itself (imo).

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I agree most with Telastyn, but perhaps that's because he's pretty much the only one keeping his post short enough that I read his entire argument. :)
Here's my take on it:

A strategy is an action or series of actions designed to cause a later action or later create a state.


Well, I'd be surprised if anyone thought that was *too* specific. It's borderline useless, IMO, but still has some use. For instance, here is something that almost seems to fit in the definition, but shouldn't (IMO):

>You desire to move a mouse cursor, so you move a mouse.

Why not? Because it's not really "later." A strategy would be more like this:

>In the future, I will want to move a mouse cursor, so I should plug in a mouse now.

These tasks are no more complicated (moving a mouse vs. plugging in a mouse), roughly speaking, but one has immediate results, while the other will yield benefits only in the future.

I would, for example, argue that what Wai described is not a strategy. A tactic, perhaps, but not a strategy. The goal was to scare zombies, so he screams or throws objects and the zombies get scared. His current actions are not designed to cause a future benefit, they are done to get the immediate results. On the other hand, distracting the zombies by getting a friend to scream, and then using that to run around them and grab your lunch that you left on the swing set, because it is longer term.

Where is this dividing line between short term and long term? No clue, and it definately depends on what scale we're looking at. Perhaps it is that short term effects play out before we are given another chance to make a decision (eg: the zombie's becoming scared immediately after your scream) while long term ones don't take effect until after more decision opportunities (eg: a piece placed in Go, later letting you form an eye). By that definition, a game has strategy if (and only if) its results take longer than a player's ability to react.

And on a similar note, I would like to point out the difference between tactics and strategy. Tactics implies short-term results, while strategy implies long term results. Subtle, but necessary for this conversation, IMO.

Sorry that wasn't as short as Telastyn's posts. :(

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