I’m surprised there aren’t more ship-based strategy games (ocean or space). The barriers to entry are so much lower than humanoids. No movement animations, simple backgrounds, generic sound effects. Ships remove the need for dozens of different unit models and each one is far simpler to create. Most importantly, they let you abstract away all those pesky considerations that come from trying to approximate something chaotic like melee.
I’ve played three hex-based strategy games in the last few weeks. Age of Fear 3 I thought was far too simple for an “old school strategy game. I liked the other two (Steam Tactics and Ancient Frontier which I’m currently wrapping up). I usually prefer fantasy over sci-fi but in these 3 cases my preferences were reversed. Age of Fear 3, the sole fantasy game, was by far the least enjoyable.
It occurred to me as I was playing Steam Tactics, and then again with Ancient Frontier, that they are no more complex than AoF3 yet I was not mentally penalizing them to the same extent. Part of the blame lies with AoF3 which had a lot more wrong with it than just a missing tactical layer. But the rest was due to the characters; steampunk planes in one and classic space-ships in the other.
Shape of Numbers
Despite our hobby being essentially moving numbers around the shape of those numbers makes all the difference. With planes and ships my brain was not constantly jostled out of its suspension of disbelief. Even though Steam Tactics’ planes behave nothing like their real life counterparts my mind simply does not find it as offensive as human foes ignoring each other as they walk by towards other targets. Likewise, the fact that AF lacked even directional awareness (ships spin on a dime to shoot in whatever direction you want regardless of facing or momentum) did not bother me as much as not being able to sidestep my own troops in AoF3.
My best guess is that there are two factors at play. The first is a version of the uncanny valley – we’re just more bothered by things that approximate humanity and I think it even extends to static counters on a game-board. The second is raw familiarity – the ratio of sword to air fights I’ve seen is probably greater than 100:1.
If I was a game developer on a budget in search of a setting I might be tempted by these relaxed design constraints and start mentally assembling my cast of aliens. But there’s a cost and depending on your game, it might be a crippling one; the moment you wrap a character in a vehicle you lose the tenuous connection that makes us care for our pixels in a way beyond their statistical value.
In Steam Tactics each unit was specifically piloted by an RPG character. From a character building point of view I had a lot more invested. I evolved, listened to and cared about them to an extent.
The moment combat began it was not actually them in the planes. The planes were units, they had abilities and I played accordingly. In AF several of the units are piloted by such important character that their loss ends the campaign. Yet I still treated them as nameless vessels to be moved about like chess pieces.
AoF3 managed to get me to care about generic mushroom archers far more than I did about any unit in the other two games, and it did it despite me not liking the game very much. This made me more invested in combat than I would have otherwise been. I made irrational moves to sacrifice some units for others based only on fondness, going out of my way to ensure my favorite drider got the glorious killing blows regardless of who actually needed the XP. I made emotional decisions instead of being the perfectly efficient commander the other two games brought out.
I’m trying to think of an exception to this rule and I can’t. There are dozens of humanoid based games that I cared deeply for and not a single vehicular. Sometimes the story sucks me in but it’s never helped by emergent emotions created on the combat field.
Even in highly abstracted games like Civilization, the units I feel affection for after a long play through are invariably riflemen and calvalry despite seige weapons being crucial and tanks being far more effective.
There are solutions to make the creation of humanoid assets easier. Rimworld and Battle Brothers are both excellent games that got away with not showing limbs to save on production; although Battle Brothers can suffer from the same nameless-vehicle problem once your units get heavily armored and turn from a uniquely motley crew into a horde of faceless armored tanks. Thinking of ways to humanize vehicles is harder. Can you think of an example that does this well?