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Games Domain

Detail vs. Realism

[This article first appeared on the now-defunct website Games Domain Review in 1998. It was used as required reading material at the US Army War College in a course about simulation. It is reproduced here to save it from the vicissitudes of Internet caches.]

No one disputes that wargames are, above all, games. They are only a representation of their subject matter, rather than the real thing. As such, they are subject to a certain amount of abstraction. I think that this has bothered many wargamers to some extent, so that many of them clamor for games which are a more “realistic” representation of whatever combat they are attempting to depict. Wargame discussions are filled with exchanges about how a certain game could be made more “realistic.” No matter how complex a game is, there are always people coming up with one more rule for what is, on its face, an almost risible attempt to create an electronic depiction of war. What usually happens is that instead of more “realism,” all the games get is more “detail.” The two things are completely different.

There is a well-worn cliché (that I’ll trot out anyway) which illustrates what happens when a game tries to cater as much as possible to the “detail is realism” crowd. A number of years ago (1979), Simulations Publications Inc., that now-defunct bastion of board wargaming, responded to what it thought was the will of the wargaming hobby by publishing a game called Campaign for North Africa, which tried to model the North African campaign at such a small scale that it could physically incorporate as many aspects of the situation as humanly possible. I believe (although after all of these years I don’t recall) that there was a record kept of the number of “Fuel Points” consumed by each vehicle. It gave gamers exactly what they had asked for when they returned their “feedback” cards to SPI: an incredibly detailed monster wargame where nothing was left to abstraction. Of course, representing fuel available to a truck with “Fuel Points” is an abstraction in itself, but this didn’t matter. While the game was a sophisticated design, it was completely unplayable. Some people blame this design attitude for dragging the company into bankruptcy.

It was inevitable that wargame designers would see computer games as the answer to the bookkeeping dilemma. A sophisticated design could hide all of the “messy” aspects of a game from the gamer, leaving him to (I hate this cliché with a passion) “concentrate on command.” I made it pretty clear in a previous piece that I think trying to accurately model the “command experience” of an actual battlefield commander is futile because no matter how much control is taken out of the player’s hands, the player has orders of magnitude more control over the battlefield than any real life counterpart could have. However, the computer can relieve the player of having to make some game calculations that would otherwise be quite cumbersome. In this way, some bookkeeping can be left in the game without having it burden the player.

However, this luxury with bookkeeping has been taken to such an extreme that I think that the “game” is being removed from wargaming just as surely as it was removed from boardgaming by products like Campaign for North Africa. The problem is that there is a growing gap between what designers are building into their game engines, and what the gamer can comfortably assimilate when actually playing the game. In short, too much that directly affects the play of the game is being hidden from the player and thereby robs him of the chance to make decisions, which is the heart of playing a game.

I have been following, with some interest, the discussion board maintained by Big Time Software regarding its computer games. For the past several months, this board has been dominated by people clamoring for the release of Computer Squad Leader. What I have found fascinating is the seeming dichotomy between those who want a simple port of the boardgame and those who yearn for a game which incorporates every possible detail regarding World War II combat. Few people come out and say it, but no matter how many details have been mentioned previously, someone always ends up adding just a couple more. Big Time Software seem to be very sympathetic to the latter view, but temper this with a promise to make most of it “invisible” to the gamer. Unfortunately, as I point out below, this is impossible to do if one wants to actually keep the final product a “game.”

The same bizarre attitude has been displayed by those anxious to see Star-Games’ creation, Pacific Tide. The discussion board for that game has included questions and suggestions for the designer regarding what should be included in the game. For those unfamiliar with the premise, Pacific Tide is an operational/strategic-level game of the Second World War, Pacific theatre. Some are calling it the next generation Pacific War (referring to Gary Grigsby’s classic). All sorts of wonderful “feature tidbits” have been proposed, many of which have been mercifully lost to the God of Stale Messages. One recent one suggested that the game allow ships to combine their fire-fighting capabilities in some way and be able to send damage-control parties to other vessels. Keep in mind that the game will depict the entire Pacific theatre of operations. In boardgaming, this kind of unnecessary detail was called “chrome,” and excessive amounts of it led to systemic collapse as the players became unable to manage its implementation. The effects of superfluous chrome in a computer game are manifested in more insidious but equally catastrophic ways.

Imagine the following scenario: I am playing some hypothetical game at the regimental level about the 1943 spring battles in Russia. However, the game is handling fuel for my component battalions down to the individual tank and truck. Super-realistic! I plan to counterattack my opponent’s overextended units this turn. However, it is possible that if it goes poorly, I will not have the fuel to extricate myself. Or will I? To find out, I will need to calculate all of the appropriate fuel expenditures. Having the computer handle this for me does no good: I need to know what my fuel situation will be after my proposed move, but I need this information before I actually perform it. In other words, I need to re-create all of the calculations the computer is doing in order to make an intelligent game decision. All in the name of “realism.” Worthwhile? Watch me as I select “Exit” from the game menu.

Of course, one could argue that I’m not meant to have to calculate these things for myself — I just need to command (remember, I’m “concentrating” on that!) and all that other stuff is for the computer to decide. Hey, if I run out of fuel, that’s part of the game! Never mind that it is quite likely that it would have been possible not to run out of fuel in the above situation, given the proper maneuvering. Had I been able to evaluate the options for myself, I might have successfully kept my panzers mobile. However, by including too much detail for me to track, the game has effectively robbed me of the ability to truly “play” the game. Instead, I simply play with the game, moving units around without being able to use them to my full advantage. The game becomes, essentially, a toy.

One of the most important attributes of any game I can think of is its ability to provide me with the need to make decisions. I see that my attitude is shared by some, as a fellow named James Taylor posted exactly these sentiments to the CSL discussion board. In essence, a game should provide the players with a multitude of decisions to make. He calls these “Decision Points.” The more Decision Points a game has, the better, as long as the player can effectively evaluate his options when they come up. A tactical or operational wargame limits these to the maximization of the units under one’s command (although the choices involved can be extremely rich). A strategic game such as Computer War in Europe adds the decisions involved in building one’s forces, so that the type of force one has available for use will be determined largely by production decisions. The tactical and strategic aspects thus complement each other by rewarding the player who makes smart choices. These are all excellent examples of game decisions that are necessary for each player to make. The sign of a good game is when the person who makes the best decisions wins the game. The sign of a toy is when the players don’t have the information they need to make informed decisions, or when so many variables are involved that proper evaluation is impossible for a human player in a reasonable amount of time.

Some may counter that the value of the computer is that it can make these evaluations for the player based on extremely detailed calculations, but then present the gamer with a straightforward result for his consideration. For example, a game might have very detailed supply rules which govern movement, and the movement calculations themselves might be quite involved (incorporating not only terrain but the capacity of the road net and the number of vehicles in each hex — imagine a systematic attempt to simulate German traffic jams in the Ardennes in December, 1944). However, the computer handles all of these calculations, and all the player needs to do is click on a unit and then move the cursor around the map to see how far the unit can move. Sounds perfect, right? Most wargames these days allow players to see the limits of movement for that turn for a given unit. However, a great deal of wargaming (or any gaming) has to do with the ability to plan ahead. For example, I may be facing an opponent in difficult terrain from which I cannot dislodge his units. However, I see that there is a hex behind his lines which is crucial to his retreat routes. Should this hex be captured, the mechanics of the game dictate that most of his units will be trapped and destroyed. Thus, capturing this hex would clearly be a sound “strategy,” if it is in fact possible. But is it possible? That is the key question, and in the above example of movement modeling, it is possible that I would be unable to make this determination. What if the hex is two turns away? I need to be able to decide whether to drive for that hex now, or pursue some other move. If my cursor method of movement determination tells me how far I can move this turn, what about next turn? Simply adding a feature that could tell me how far a certain unit could move in two, three, or more turns would be unhelpful, as a sophisticated movement model like the one above would have to take into account supply status and road usage at the end of the turn to calculate the next turn’s movement factors. While this might be the most “realistic” way to design a game (or at least the most “detailed”), it ultimately detracts from the decision-making part of the game. To my way of thinking, this is decidedly bad.

In no way am I suggesting that game designers stop using sophisticated tools to model the abilities of units in wargames. What I do advocate is that these tools be used in such a way that the data they yield are presented to the gamer in a way that can be used to make intelligent decisions. What this approach requires, however, is a basic comfort level regarding abstraction on the part of the game designers. At some point, things have to be reduced to a relatively simple set of numbers, no matter how complex the process that produced them. An excellent example of this is TalonSoft’s tactical-level Battleground series (now thankfully extended). Set at the battalion level, the game does a nice job of providing a reasonably detailed Napoleonic combat model while keeping the game mechanics simple enough that players can predict the range of possible outcomes of their actions so as to best utilize their troops. The combat table is relatively simple, and not only it but the factors that go into determining a unit’s fire strength at a given time are spelled out exactly, so that a player does not have to wonder, “If I fire this battalion at that artillery battery, do I have any chance of doing some damage? And how much?” He may ask these questions (and he should), and the answers are easily obtainable. Someone who doesn’t take the time to incorporate them into his strategy is bound to lose. Combat losses are tracked in increments of 25 men, which makes it easier to calculate combat strengths while avoiding the “all-or-none” results of early boardgames. Had this series gotten its start today, it might very well have tracked casualties by individual troops, and recorded how many shots each grenadier had fired, how wounded each soldier was, and even whether his performance was impaired because he hadn’t recently had a drink of water. The way I see things going now, it seems that game designers think that making the best game possible means making the game as detailed as possible. In my opinion, this simply makes it the most “detailed representation possible.” It is not necessarily the most realistic, and it is certainly not the best “game.”

The question then becomes, “are people even looking for the best game?” In some cases, it seems not. Once again, it appears that many people simply want to see as much detail in a game as possible. One poster to Big Time Software’s discussion board announced that he felt that “everything should be modeled as closely as possible to the real thing right down to the type of bayonet each soldier carries and how he is likely to use it.” For this gamer, apparently, the important thing is that the engine simply contain as much data as it can hold. How the player uses it is unimportant. In fact, the player shouldn’t have to use it at all, since he later states that “while you should have a model of a squad that has say ten men — one armed with a revolver with six rounds and twelve rounds of spare ammo, and nine men armed with Lee-Enfield Rifles with the proper loadout of ammo — you shouldn’t have to worry about what each man is going to do at a particular moment.” This is a sentiment I have seen expressed over and over by various people (although certainly no one that I actually play games with). The problem with this attitude from a game standpoint is that the player becomes less of a player and more of a spectator, watching things happen to his units rather than using them to their best competitive advantage.

TalonSoft’s new The Operational Art of War has taken this to a ridiculous extreme. Units in the game have combat strengths displayed on them. However, these are not the actual values used by the game to resolve combat. To quote from the manual: “[quick reference numbers] are simply the sum of the total strengths in each category for all equipment assigned to the unit, multiplied by the unit’s Morale, scaled to fit the game displays. The unit’s actual internal strengths, used for all game calculations but not displayed, are much larger numbers. At the low end (displayed strength less than 3) there can be quite a bit of real difference between units that show similar displayed strengths.”

In other words, we have the following situation: the game provides the player with a great many numbers for each unit, but these only approximate the actual values that the game engine is using to resolve combat. In addition, since the combat algorithms are a secret, the numbers the game does provide are almost useless. It is like asking, “What are my chances for success in this attack?” and getting the answer, “Five.” Five what? Five out of ten? Five out of a hundred? Five out of five? Then add the fact that the “five” might actually be four or six and you don’t even know it.

The answer, though, is not to simply publish in the manual all the formulas the game is using. Big Time Software has promised to make public all the formulas used by their Computer Squad Leader, while at the same time bragging about how realistic (read: “detailed”) the game model will be because of all the factors it takes into account. The problem with making combat models use differential equations (I exaggerate) is that I am certainly not going to solve a differential equation every time I want to attack. I may be aware of how my attack is going to be resolved, but in this case I am not going to try to evaluate this in order to play the game. I simply have a different idea of what is “fun!”

Other gamers have different ideas. As long as the detail is in the game somehow, some players feel that it is sufficient. In fact, player “control” can even be seen as a bad thing. One GDR reader recently wrote to me that he wished that Great Battles of Caesar didn’t reveal the battle damage that units had received. In other words, when attacking with a unit, it would be impossible to tell whether that unit would soon reach its TQ limit and be subject to rout, or whether it was fresh. While this may be closer to the information available to an actual commander, the player is not an “actual commander,” but rather is a person playing a game. As I said in a previous feature, if games represented only that information which was available to actual commanders, and limited their actions to those things they could actually have done in real life, computer wargames would be unbelievably boring. Nevertheless, players justify many of the limitations described above because they are more “realistic.”

What is the reason for this attitude? I can only hazard a guess, but if pressed my response would be that players are looking for more of a “role-playing” experience out of their computer wargames than they are getting. For such players, the actual competitive game aspect is much less important than the feeling of being “immersed” in the time period being simulated. Players of this sort might want to be panzer commanders or platoon leaders or Adolf Hitler, but they definitely do not want to be just game players. For such a person, any perceived abstraction is undesirable because it causes the game to be less “immersive.” Ideally, such a player should never run into a number, because life isn’t about numbers! It’s about life! The real thing! Even if it exists solely in your mind and on a computer screen. The thing that really puzzles me is the fact that game companies think they are satisfying gamers’ desires for more “strategy” when, in fact, despite the huge amount of data in these new games, we are actually getting less and less “strategy” as more of a game’s function moves beyond the player’s control.

By advocating more “player control,” it may appear to some that I am coming down on the side of “player omnipotence,” which is something that the “more like life” crowd tends to object to. After all, a battlefield commander doesn’t have complete control over his units, so why should a player have this? The answer is that the game player is playing a competitive game which is, ideally, a test of his skill against that of his opponent. Taking control away from the player decreases his opportunity to make informed decisions, which is what skill is all about. The only reason to try and exactly mimic the problems of a battlefield commander is if you are somehow maladjusted enough to think you actually are a battlefield commander, in which case I cannot help you.

As part of my second opinion of Sid Meier’s Gettysburg several months ago, I briefly addressed what I felt were the links between an interest in history, an active imagination, and wargames. I made it clear that I wasn’t the type that was interested in an “immersive experience” along the lines of a first-person shooter. In fact, in an editorial about graphics and gameplay in wargames, I joked that at the rate things were going, it wouldn’t be long before one could buy a game which combined Quake 2 with tactical Napoleonics: play an Old Guard grenadier in 3D! After reading the piece, our Strategy Editor Tim Chown remarked to me that such a game would probably draw a lot of interest! Sure enough, included with the voluminous mail response to these articles were one gentleman’s comments which said that he had high hopes that eventually it would be possible to participate in large multiplayer “virtual Napoleonics” games where — through the use of some sort of VR helmet attached to the computer — players could each take the part of a single soldier, so that someone could play the role of Marshal Davout and issue orders to division commanders scattered across the world, as the smoke of the battlefield obscured one’s vision and communication was restricted to dispatches carried by couriers, as well as actual speech between players in “virtual proximity.” If this is the way wargames are going to eventually go, you can go ahead and give away my seat: I won’t be getting on that bus.


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