I have been struggling with how to actually quantify micromanagement in strategy game design. Which designs lead to more required micro and which kinds eschew micro for broader strategic manipulation and planning?
I still hold to the concept that strategy games should be about testing your planning capabilities against an opponent's. There are games in the "strategy" genre that focus on execution more than planning, astute observers usually refer to these games as "Tactical."
This post will summarize a number of factors involved in determining how much micromanagement a game design will require of its players.
The scope of a game acts as a multiplier for individual unit micromanagement requirements. A game like Company of Heroes has a severely limited scope. You have perhaps ten manipulable units on the field at the height of an average game. Note that we don't care about the literal soldiers on the battlefield here, we care about manipulable units. What the manipulable unit consists of doesn't matter--all that matters is that when you issue orders, you must give them to the entire unit.
Scope can be confusing to think about, because Company of Heroes and Men of War share the same metaphorical scope--that being less than ten squads of infantry and less than five vehicles. If you examine mechanical scope by thinking about then number of manipulable units, you'll see that Men of War has a wider mechanical scope because each individual soldier in each squad can be manipulated, whereas you can never subdivide squads in Company of Heroes.
Orders per Unit
Once you have figured out how many units players handle when they play the game, you then have to examine what each of those units can do. In turn-based games, this is easy because you can look at possible orders per unit per turn. In real-time games the calculus becomes a bit more difficult because you must look at the number of orders that can be given to units as well as the number of units that may demand attention at once. (I'll address the issue of unit count variance throughout matches at some later time.)
How many kinds of orders can you give to units on a given turn? In Tactics Ogre, you can move, attack, and turn each of your units in each turn. Silent Storm, in comparison, allows you to do any combination of moves, attacks, turns, pose changes, and aiming actions in a turn. Clearly units in Silent Storm require more micro-management. In a turn-based game this affects how fast the game can be played. Games with a lot of micromanagement should have battles resolved in a relatively low number of turns, lest the player tire of the endless manipulation of his units.
We can also look at the number of kinds of unit actions in an RTS as well. In Men of War, you can give your units a wide variety of orders--there are easily over ten kinds of orders (ex. attack, attack-move, move, change stance, reload, change ammo, lay sandbags, lay barbed wire, lay mines, rotate, change weapon, manage inventory, etc.) Men of War has a wider mechanical scope than Company of Heroes, and Company of heroes has fewer than half the number of kinds of orders. Generally a unit in CoH will be able to attack, attack-move, move, change firing mode, and use one or two special abilities. We can therefore categorically say that CoH requires less micro to play effectively than Men of War does.
Complexity of terrain also plays a role. If terrain is very complex, like in Men of War where each wall, building, and piece of debris can be used as cover from any side, the fine-positioning of units matters which causes the player to have to move units more often and with more precision.
Analyzing individual orders
Playing a strategy game consists elementarily of multiple players (some of them may be AIs) giving orders to units. We've examined the nuances of order volume and how it effects micro-management, but we must also examine how the game designer defines the game world and how orders interact with it. We must examine the nature of orders and note how much attention they demand and how much physical precision on the part of the player they require.
In Men of War, you have to take line of sight and line of fire into account whenever you position a unit. You need to make sure there isn't some small rise in the terrain between your unit and what you want it to shoot at.This means that you have to minutely tweak the movement of individual squad members so that they will stand in a optimal-enough position. The difference between a decisive victory and a terrible defeat can be as small as a machine gunner standing slightly out of cover or being in the wrong stance and not having line of sight on an area. There's a lot of micro required when even issuing individual orders in Men of War.
In Company of Heroes, you move an entire unit and its members decide where to stand. Line of sight and line of fire are pretty easy to intuit based on what the map looks like. Rarely are there small hills that will maddeningly block your line of fire without being immediately noticeable. You also know that the simulation isn't terribly precise in Company of Heroes, so if one guy is standing out of cover but you still have the green shield next to your unit's icon, the unit is OK and you don't have to make more adjustments. When giving movement orders in Company of Heroes, you need to do less work--there's less micro--than when giving movement orders in Men of War.
As we've seen, strict simulation can lead to a signficant increase in micromanagement requirements.
The amount of tweaking you have to do to each unit also is greatly effected by the interface. Men of War gives you no particularly good way to check the line of sight and line of fire of your units, so you have to press a number of keys to check to see if your machine gunner can fire over this overturned crate or if they'll just stand there staring dumbly at it as the enemy mops up the rest of his squad.
Too dumb to leave alone?
In RTSes micromanagement requirements also stem from poor or non-existant AI. If you have to constantly babysit your units in order for them to survive, as you do in Men of War, the micro-requirement balloons. RUSE has a lower requirement for micro, though, because units will make attempts to kite enemies who have shorter range and generally try to fire at the most important targets first.
Please leave a comment if you think I've missed something. I'm sure I haven't touched on all the factors--I've primarily focused on combat.
Busy for a bit
4 days ago