Strategy Gaming: Part V -- Real-Time vs. Turn-Based Strategy Gaming: You've Come a Long Way, Baby!
By - Mark H. Walker
So, by now you are darn close to becoming a real-time and turn-based guru. We've spent in the better part a week looking at the history of strategy (both real-time and turn-based), examining its big hits, its not so big hits, and what made each what they were. Now, it's time to compare the two genres to find out what makes each stick and what their strong and week points are. If you're veteran gamer, you may already know some of what I'll discuss below. On the other hand you may find something you didn't know, or a slant on gaming you had never considered. Bottom-line, be you God's gift to gaming or the rawest rookie, you'll find something to peak your interest.
Obviously, the basic difference between real-time strategy and turn-based strategy is real-time's continuous play. That continuous play, however, births a plethora of differences both large and small; we are concentrating on four: tactics vs. strategy, artificial intelligence, action, and sales. Although you can argue that there are many more distinctions, those are the differences on which I'll focus.
Strategy vs. Tactics
This is a subtle yet significant difference. To understand it we first need to understand the difference between strategy and tactics. Think of strategy as the big picture. For example, in Civilization III your ultimate goal affects your strategy. In other words, do you intend to conquer the world with a strong military or out-research your opponents? In Simon and Schuster's Real War, strategy consists of whether you intend to take out that Independent Liberation Army base by producing a massive amount of aircraft and attacking from the air, or cobbling together a massive ground force and assaulting the ILA by land.
Tactics is all about how you win each battle. For example, exactly how your ground forces will assault that ILA base is a tactical consideration. By and large real-time strategy games are long on strategy and short on tactics. The inverse is true with turn-based strategy and wargaming. Of course there are exceptions. Most real-time exceptions come from the fixed-unit side of real-time gaming. Games like Close Combat, Ground Control, and Shogun are good examples of real-time games that reward sound tactics.
No doubt all real-time strategy games include some tactical elements. But these elements are not as rich, nor challenging as those found in turn-based games. Orchestrating an Earth 2150 Eurasian Dynasty tank rush is challenging, but not nearly as complex as coordinating a silent facility take down in Red Storm's Shadow Watch. Perhaps the reason that real-time strategy games rely less on tactics lies in their artificial intelligence (AI).
Your processor has to work hard to run a real-time game. The screen needs constant refreshing, sounds must be processed, and decisions on unit placement, movement, and construction must be made on the fly. There is no pause while the processor takes its turn in real-time strategy. That takes a lot of processor power. On the other hand, turn-based games are significantly easier for the computer to manage. If for no other reason than the computer can order its actions, place them in a liner queue so to speak.
Given these assumptions, it should come as no surprise that turn-based games have a better artificial intelligence. Pure and simple, the computer running a turn-based game has more time to "think." Couple that with our visual expectations of real-time strategy -- i.e. no one wants to mouse around an ugly game (which requires even more processing power) -- and it's easy to see how real-time comes up on the short end of the processing stick. That lack of processing power usually translates into mediocre artificial intelligence. Furthermore, numerous producers/developers have told me that AI doesn't always get the highest developmental priority. So, if you're looking for a challenging AI, look turn-based. After all, real-time strategy has the ultimate equalizer up its sleeve: humans can't mouse units or make decisions as quickly as a computer, which brings us to the primal difference in the two genres.