"The future, obviously, is computer wargames."
Dunnigan, The Complete Wargames Handbook
The technology of board and miniature wargaming
has not developed much over time. In these genres,
four-color printing and acrylic paints are perhaps the most
important innovations of the century. Computer wargames, on
the other hand, have been almost entirely dependent on advances in
technology for their form and progressive improvement.
1960 to 1980
The earliest computer games were wargames. Space War, a game
simulating spaceship battles, was invented in 1961.
generally regarded as the first widely popular computer
game, simulated tennis rather than war, a
large portion of early computer games involved war themes. Space
Gunner, and Space Wars
were all part of the first wave of arcade and home-computer
games. In these early days, however, the practical
limitations on processing power and graphics led to games that
concentrated more on reflexes than intelligence. Some
exceptions existed, like TANKTICS and other games authored by Chris
Crawford and various wargaming companies. These games often
offered opportunities for solo play, which was valuable for many
gamers. Still, many early games simply offered players an
opportunity to play conventional board wargames on computer
screens -- an exercise of dubious value. Also, the
artificial intelligence of computer opponents was, generally
speaking, pathetic in comparison to a human opponent.
1980 to 1990
Popular computer wargames during the early 1980's generally looked
to fantasy role-playing games rather traditional wargames for
their inspiration. Games such as Wizardry
might be nominally termed squad-level wargames, in that they
largely involved series of combat simulations. However, these
games borrowed the fantasy and magic vocabulary of role-playing
games, and kept the role-playing perspective of focusing on one
character or at most a group of six characters.
While playing against a computer opponent obviously
made cooperative "role-playing" impossible, the addition
of graphics capabilities, solo play, and some arcade elements
compensated for this. Some popular
games, like the original Castle
Wolfenstein, utilized the Wizardry "kill and
explore" formula in more historically recognizable
settings. In Wolfenstein, the player assumed the role of a
captured American soldier during WWII. The objective of the
game was to escape from a vast castle full of roaming SS soldiers.
Another trend that began in the early 1980's was the increased emphasis on
combat simulations which had started with the tank-simulation game
Zone. With increased graphics capabilities and
improvements in processor speeds, flight
simulators ceased to be clunky pixilated line drawings and
began to capture the look
and feel of actual flight. Other simulation games emulated the
experience of tanks and submarines.
Meanwhile, traditional war games, such as Strategic
Conquest and Imperialism
continued to improve their features and adapt their rules to
better use the capabilities of computer technology. Strategic
Simulations Incorporated, which had established a solid
reputation with traditional wargamers, continued to improve its
board game crossover product line while often introducing products
in the combat simulation market as well.
The Present Day
Computer wargames today come in a dazzling variety of
forms. The adventure, simulation, and board crossover genres
have been enhanced to take full advantage of the capabilities of
the modern microcomputers. Sid Meier, now affiliated with Firaxis
Games, has been at the forefront of these advances, producing
titles such as Gettysburg,
Antietam, and Civilization.
In addition, various new gaming genres have emerged. Chief
among these new forms have been: the first person shooter, the
online world, and the real-time strategy game.
First person shooters
It was only a matter of time (and technology)
before someone combined the maze combat model of Wizardry with the
three-dimensional graphics engines of flight simulators. Castle
Wolfenstein 3D which was distributed for free by id
software was the first game to do this effectively. The
plot was essentially the same as the original Castle Wolfenstein
-- the only difference being that the player's screen showed the
castle (and bullet-ridden SS) from a first-person
perspective. Id built on the popularity of the game with
their next title, Doom, which soon made the "first person
shooter" genre, as it came to be called, the most popular
type of computer game on the market. Today's first person
shooters typically include online multiplayer options which allow
teams of players connected by a local area network or through the
internet to fight against other teams in custom- designed
photo-realistic settings. Players can customize their own
appearance through the use of "skins."
Often extended groups of players form associations (such as the Quake
Clans) with their own hierarchies and cultures. One
extremely popular first-person shooter is Tom Clancy's Rainbow
Six, in which a team of players act as a counter-terrorist
group. The game has received praise for its realistic
treatment of tactics, technology, and combat (a single gunshot, or
at most two, can kill any player or opponent).
Online Worlds began with Ultima
Online, which essentially allowed several thousand people to
play a standard fantasy computer game at the same time.
Current alternatives to Ultima Online introduced within the
last year are Asheron's
Call and Everquest,
both of which offer fantasy worlds similar to Ultima Online,
though presented in a first-person perspective. Though these
are currently the only serious offerings in online world games,
there are rumors that the gaming industry plans to introduce
several games within the next year or two that will offer
expansive online wargaming worlds incorporating multiple combat
simulators. It is now technically possible to create games
where vast teams of players participate in simultaneous worldwide
combat campaigns on the land, air, and sea.
Real-Time Strategy Games
Real-time strategy games are now among the best selling games on
the market. Command
and Conquer, Age
of Empires, and Myth are
perhaps the best known real-time strategy games today, though Warcraft
was the game that popularized the genre. In most of these
games, players begin with only a few resources (perhaps a few
civilians) in a corner of a map. Their opponents are
similarly situated. By gathering resources, training
fighting units and building factories and equipment, players
gradually establish powerful armies and defenses which they then
deploy against their opponents. The label "real
time" derives from the fact that all units operate
continuously (there are no movement "turns") and will
sit idle or continue in their current activity unless the player
commands them to do otherwise. Obviously, this can create
time management problems when a player is attempting to control
fifty pieces engaged in separate instances of combat at various
points on a large map.
Computers today offer almost limitless
possibilities for wargames, though creating a detailed and
state-of-the-art computer wargame often involves investing over a
million dollars in development. Though computer games may
have some shortcomings, their incredible capabilities do make them
the future of wargaming.
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See David Pescovitz, "Modern Art," Wired,
November 1999, at 285.
Actually, Ultima and Wizardry were also derivative of the original
games, such as Zork, which were extremely popular during the mid
1970's as an alternative to Pong. These games generally
involved exploring a fantastic world and solving problems.
Games like Ultima and Wizardry simply added graphics and
role-playing combat models to this formula. (Adventure
games, by the way, led to the development into MUDs and MOOs,
which are definitely not wargames, but are incredibly interesting
Ultima Online was plagued by two problems. The first problem
was technical: the game's servers often did not work properly,
resulting in crashes that could destroy hours of progress.
The second and more interesting problem was the fact that the game
permitted players to kill each other -- which resulted in many
more experienced and powerful players terrorizing and killing
novices for small profits or the sheer fun of it. Despite
player protests, Lord
British (the owner of the company and designer of the Ultima
series) refused to disable this feature in the game.