Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Tactics versus Strategy

On the Isotx forums, there's an interesting debate between two developers about MMO design and which (if any) MMO elements require a qualitatively different production process than when producing a game of smaller scale and fewer players.

I'll be posting some of my thoughts about that on Write the Game tomorrow, but here's a copy of my response to a side-discussion which arose. What is the difference between strategy and tactics? Is one a subset of the other?

There is a difference between tactics and strategy, and it isn't scale; it's spontaneity.

A strategy is planned primarily before the encounter. A tactic is planned primarily during the encounter. The emphasis in strategy is preparation. The emphasis in tactics is reaction. A general can use tactics and a footsoldier can use strategies, though each profession generally requires more of one method than the other.

Say my football lands in my neighbor's fenced yard with his unfriendly Rottweiler. I might devise a strategy to distract him by throwing a nice, juicy bone across the yard... just enough time for me to hop the fence, grab my ball, and hop back over. So I throw the bone and the beast of a dog starts to run after it... but he stops and turns around when he notices me hop the fence. Uh oh. Whereas I could have taken hours to plan my strategy, I now have only seconds to decide how I'm going to reach that ball... or if I should just forget the ball and run for my life. That's tactics.

I might have anticipated this possibility in my strategizing, but the circumstances I now find myself in were not entirely predictable: How far is the dog from me? How far am I from the ball? How accurate was my throw of the bone? Why, oh why, did I not notice the second Rottweiler lying in shade behind a bush?! Because I am having to process new information and plan my response within an immediate timeframe, this might still be tactical situation, despite my planning previous to the encounter.

Strategy and tactics certainly exist along a continuum, but they are distinguishable from one another... just as there is no definite border between the colors blue and green, but that does not prevent us from recognizing the two as usefully separate terms.

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