How "Turn-Based" Became a Bad Word

Keith Burgun's picture

Most of us who are heavily involved in games and game design realize the massive benefits to simple, classic turn-based mechanics. I'm not going to say that turn-based is "better" than real-time any more than a screwdriver is better than a hammer; they're just tools which we can use to get the job done. These days, however, many game designers are indeed using a hammer to nail in a screw, and building some pretty shoddy birdhouses. So many games coming out today would greatly benefit from a turn-based gameplay mechanic - often you can see that the designers knew this, but that something held them back from using one. Today I'm writing about what this something is - a deep-seated cultural mistake that we make about games in general.

The reason we hesitate to use turn-based mechanics in our games is because we do not embrace the qualities that make games unique.  Instead, we spend most of our time chasing after what makes other mediums great - great visual art, great storyline, great cinematics.  If you understand what a game is, you understand that none of these have anything to do with what makes a great game.  The properties that define a game are things like rules, goals, feedback, actions, and resources.  Chess, Galaga, and Dungeon Crawl are no worse games for lacking pre-rendered cutscenes, elaborate stories, or realistic graphics.  There is - and has been for many, many years - a striving to make games look more like a cartoon, or more like a movie, or more like a book - or more like so many things, and this is at the heart of why "Turn Based Is A Bad Thing".

Firstly, I hope we can all agree that there are a lot of games that come out that should be turn-based, but aren't.  I would cite examples like the Total War series, Fallout 3, and most Bioware games.  Even if you can't agree with this, you can surely agree that there's a general feeling that turn-based is unpopular.  These games are real time, but not because that was the best mechanic available.  People, developers, and most of all publishers believe that turn-based is bad because it's "unrealistic" and it's "slow".  Ironically, the reason it's slow is because the developers tried to make it realistic!

They think it's slow because... well, in most modern games, it tends to be rather slow.  This is, however, not because it's turn based, but rather because it's turn based and it has to have somewhat "realistic" animations.  First let's look at turn based board games - are they slow?  No, they are not... a player is always playing, or considering his next move.  They achieve this by having no animations or cutscenes or anything at all in the way of pure gameplay.  If you play Advance Wars on the default game settings (combat animations on, normal map movement speed), a mission takes about three to four times as long as it does when I play with as much of that stuff "off" as possible.  Final Fantasy Tactics is a great game, but if you play it a lot it does tend to drag way more than it needs to.  I get to play so much more Fantasy General with all animations turned off.  I think it's a very good thing for a game developer to ask this question:

"What percentage of the time your game is running is your player playing, and what percentage are they watching something un-dynamic happen?"

I personally believe that players should be "playing" upwards of 80% of the time that a game is running in front of them with a controller in their hand.  I do understand that there are some physical limitations to this, like disk-read time, load times, etc.  And it's also good to have brief moments of breathing room, especially after reaching goals.  But these days, most games are hovering between 20 and 40%.  In Super Mario Brothers, I'm making decisions about 99% of the time - decisions like when to jump, how long to hold the A button, whether to try to jump for those coins, how to maneuver around that Paratroopa.  In Tetris I'm making meaningful gameplay decisions practically 100% of the time.  A game like Fallout (1 or 2)does it pretty well, and the aforementioned Advance Wars and Fantasy General are good about this if you tweak the right game options.  I'm not against animations in games, but I do think it is a bad thing if players have to wait for your animations to be over to continue playing.  Everyone remembers how silly this got for some of the summons in Final Fantasy VII and VIII, but in a course of days or weeks played, even a one-second delay adds up to a ton of time you spent not playing, but watching.

Pictured:  Not Gameplay.
Pictured:  The player waiting idly while his GBA plays an animation.

To game designers, and especially turn-based game designers:  Let go of realism!  Stop making the mistake of thinking that good games come from their realism;  "reality" is just one set of rules that sometimes can be a good model for game design, but it always has its limits.  If you had to "keep your balance" and "go to the bathroom" in Half-Life 2, that would have been more realistic, but less good.  So for you turn based game developers - don't worry about realism.  Players sat down to play your game - let them.


Anonymous (not verified)
I agree with your premise

I agree with your premise that turn based shouldn't be a dirty word and that it can be done right. However, you have to face the fact that turn based games are inherently slower than real times games. In a turn based game, as you say, one player is always playing. In a real time game by definition every player is always playing. This means that turn based game scale poorly with the number of units being controlled and the number of players taking turns.

Could you imaging running a 25 man raid in a turn based mmo?

Keith Burgun
Keith Burgun's picture
Joined: 09/06/2010
Of course!
Anonymous wrote:

I agree with your premise that turn based shouldn't be a dirty word and that it can be done right. However, you have to face the fact that turn based games are inherently slower than real times games. In a turn based game, as you say, one player is always playing. In a real time game by definition every player is always playing. This means that turn based game scale poorly with the number of units being controlled and the number of players taking turns.

Could you imaging running a 25 man raid in a turn based mmo?

So your point is basically what I said in the beginning of my article - that it's a tool, good for some things but not all. I would never say turn based is right for all kinds of games, that'd be silly. But you did get *my* point, right - that there is an unfair bias AGAINST turn based games.

assemblerex (not verified)
poor journalism

Obviously you have an attention span or ADD issue. Turn based games have had animation all the way back to
x-com , when you watched the enemy move during their turn.

This added depth to the game, the helpless feelings you had as your men were cut down and best of plans laid waste.

If you don't like waiting in turn based games, go play a RTS,
as it is REAL TIME with no waiting.

a real gamer.

Bret (not verified)
your rude comment

I find this comment blatantly rude and I think it's missing the point. The speed of chess, a classic turned based game, is usually defined by how long it took for you to figure out what move you are going to make. It's the same with other turned based games like x-com. You're talking about the amount of time it takes to think about your move, and Keith isn't talking about that. When you make your move, the game takes it's actions almost instantaneously. That's the speed he's talking about. X-com animations only add a visual element, so it would be like having to wait for a chess game to play out animations when a queen kills a pawn every time. That's the 'slow-down' that he's talking about. I don't even think Keith is saying that x-com animations would be a bad thing, only that he might suggest having an off switch for them when you are tired of watching them over and over again.

I don't care how much feelings you had for those animations or how profound you felt over seeing your units die. If you can't see the point of this article and stubbornly cling to these slow animations, then you don't have any imagination. If you play without animations on, and you don't feel the same 'helpless feelings' - then it's like you're reading a book and can't imagine what the characters look like. People that play chess feel dramatic feelings all the time of competition, loss, and power - and they don't need slow animations either.

Any real time game is by definition slowed down to display the passage of time. When you choose to move somewhere you have to take all the steps it takes to get to where you want to go. It takes time to swing your sword or shoot your gun. Let me be completely clear.

In a real time game - you fly a jet for ten minutes to your destination.
In a turn-based game - you pick where your jet is going to go, and it is instantly there (again, barring some cut-scene that slows gameplay)

Does that make any sense to you? Or are you just being a prick.

sascha/hdrs (not verified)

"...what makes other mediums great - great visual art, great storyline, great cinematics..."

Actually, make that: "...what makes other mediums great - great visual art, great cinematics..."!
I can't find too many modern games that feature a "great storyline"! Most of them come with the premise of a superficial Hollywood movie. Anyone thinking that Mass Effect or Dragon Age had a great Story? Sorry but I must disappoint you and tell you that you obviously never played a game with a great story (or read a book etc.).

As for 'turn-based' I agree with the article but I don't even mind animations that are used during turn-based gameplay. Advance Wars is one hell of a enjoyable TBS game. Anyone ever played Jagged Alliance? I'm sure I wouldn't like that game as much as I do if it was real time!

Anonymous (not verified)
I agree with the writer that

I agree with the writer that "Turn-based" has certainly become taboo in today’s gaming world. The author makes other assertions that most games are repetitive and do not provide the player with good and or original story/ game play/ content/ etc, which I also agree with. Aside from the other issues that come with a swell of popularity and inflation of the videogame market, turn based games have been dwindling because of an attempt for publishers to appeal to a wider more mainstream market by trying to make the game "feel" fun.
For most of my life I have been a fan of RPG games and in the 80's and 90's JRPG's dominated the market and had a very definitive style. Almost all of those games were turn-based however and many people I attempt to show the game to were not hip to what they perceived to be a lack of skill requirement and therefore boring. I enjoyed the strategy in developing my characters and implementing a style that was synergistic and thought out.
Crono-Trigger and FFX were two games that I thought did very well with the turn-based combat system. Both games had speed modifiers that would influence the proportional number of turns a character would get against a monster per attack, so haste over a short or long period of time was always an effective tactic. Crono Trigger's combat gauge acted in kind of a hybrid real-time vs turn based system that to this day I find effective.
Aside from good examples there are plenty of games that suffered from a lack of turn based playstyle, most recent and notably is Square Enix's FFXIII. That game, aside from it's many, many game play issues had a super crappy combat system that only let you control one character and "Hope" (no pun intended) that the other characters acted properly during combat to achieve your ultimate goal. This felt to me like a very loose and fast way of playing the game. And yes while there is indeed strategy needed to shift paradigms and successfully achieve your goals it was sloppy, tedious and not fun. Even FFX-2's job system worked far better than XIII's.

Hopefully JRPG's and some American RPG producers will see the light and get back to what made their genre great.

Loi (not verified)
Modern Turn-Based Games

I think that a couple (not all) of recent Final Fantasies have done very well in this department. I'm not talking about the MMO style FFXII (although that's a very good example of blending the two types of gameplay, with options to keep battles running or pause them as you make changes to your characters abilities they're about to use) but older examples such as FFX-2.

People may agree or disagree at whether the game as a whole was good, but I found the battles to be very quick-paced. The attacks are executed instantly, with gorgeous animations, to the extent that if you held down X (for the many random battles you can easily win and only involve constantly basic attacking) attacks from your entire party were happening every second, with nice visuals accompanying them as you could choose your next characters ability whilst the animation for the last one was being performed.

Contrasted with watching my brother replay FFIX that he downloaded for PS3, many battles involve waiting to input a command, then waiting even longer for it to be shown on the screen. A thoroughly slow process (especially in random battles where the animation to load the battle was long and tiresome, even on the PS3 which should be able to instantly load it) and meant that one was spending upwards of an entire minute on a redundant battle they would easily win, such as one in a low-level area, even if they escaped.

Turn-based can be done well, though in the examples of the JPRG (a dying genre) most of the Japanese developers seem to either embrace American style of play by making games more realtime, or overly shunning it (new Dragon Quests) and maintaining their often painfully slow battle sequences.

TL;DR: FFX-2 did turn-based quickly and prettily, though no other games seemed to have progressed to this point and either still crawl at a snail's pace or adopt realtime.

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Turn-based Rules!

Yes! I was so happy to log in and see such a great feature. As you know, I'm a big fan of turn-based games (even now I'm pining for the new Civ), and always regretted that CRPG designers saw them as unprofitable. The last few I played (Temple of Elemental Evil and The Ruins of Myth Drannor) just didn't satisfy. TOEE was decent but not great, and Myth Drannor was a disaster. Sadly, I bet a lot of people's notions of turn-based CRPGs come from these games rather than the true classics. I resisted Baldur's Gate for many years because I knew the real-time w/pause would be a disappointment. As it turns out, the game's other merits compensate, but I would have much preferred a turn-based game.

CRPG designers seem to have a lot in common with adventure game designers. It's like they have a loathing for their own genre and insist that it has to be more like another one. That's how we end up with games like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect. Those are fun games, but they'll never be fun in the way that Fallout 1 and 2 were. I guess they figure that people just aren't excited enough by pure turn-based gameplay, and will only bite if it looks and feels like a first-person or third-person shooter. Of course, this all ties into the bigger discussion about how designers are making games for publishers rather than for gamers. If a designer isn't given creative control and the resources to achieve her vision, what could we ever expect but junk?

I must disagree with your definition of game, though. I have seen that line of reasoning in other places, most notably in Espen Aarseth's work (and those of his school). I see no compelling reason to view gameplay in isolation. The fact is that the non-ergodic elements (to use his lingo) are just as important if not moreso. Videogames are a very complex and sophisticated aesthetic experience. Attempts to reduce them to the level of a card or dice game just seems myopic to me. Rogue purists like to make that argument as well; "it's all about the system, the system, blah blah." The fact is, Rogue is fun in brief spurts and then you move on. It has never drawn me in the way a good story-based game like Betrayal in Krondor did.

You mention chess, so consider how much fun it is to play Battle Chess. Obviously, it's not the same as playing regular chess, but that's the point. The animations and so on add a great deal of interest to a game that some might find dry or boring. In any case, I enjoy both Battle Chess and regular chess. Of course, it would get old after awhile, but I don't expect a game to be fun forever. I bet it would be fun again after a few years, though, when you've had time to forget the details.

There are plenty of badly designed games in which the cut scenes or animations become repetitive. There are also plenty of CRPGs (Final Fantasy is the grossest offender in my view) that bore you to death with repetitive random encounters. A good designer would wish to avoid either mistake.

Keith Burgun
Keith Burgun's picture
Joined: 09/06/2010
Thanks for the great comment,

Thanks for the great comment, Matt!  Very well put, especially the part about games being designed for publishers, not for gamers.

You bring up Battle Chess, and I would actually use that as a point in my argument's favor... for in the grand scheme of things, Chess is just as much fun as Battle Chess.  Of course I enjoy Battle Chess as well as regular Chess, but in either case my joy doesn't come from watching canned animations, but from the strategies and counters my opponent and I employ.  With this said, I did not mean to say that gameplay is in isolation - theming does matter, but I think we have gone completely insane with how much theme we think our games need.  Chess, normal chess, is themed quite well.

"Of course, it would get old after awhile, but I don't expect a game to be fun forever. "

Well actually, Chess is fun forever.  The animations are the only part that gets old, after seeing them only a dozen or so times.  This is my point - watching canned animations is fun only so many times, but great gameplay is forever.

Thanks for reading!

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Keith Burgun wrote:

Well actually, Chess is fun forever.  The animations are the only part that gets old, after seeing them only a dozen or so times.  This is my point - watching canned animations is fun only so many times, but great gameplay is forever.

That is a good point. The only way Battle Chess would be fun forever would be if the animations were dynamically generated. I guess something like that would be possible, and it would be fun when the system surprised you with something new. I suppose they could just load it up with so many different canned animations to avoid repetition, but arguably even with thousands you'd eventually get fed up with them.

Then again, some people enjoy watching the same movie or reading the same book over and over again. So maybe this is more of a personality thing than anything intrinsic to the game.


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