Wednesday, June 15, 2011
In recreating the C&C universe for the tabletop, I wanted to stay true to the feel of the games while adding my own twist. I did NOT want to slavishly recreate the games in metal. For example, in C&C1 (Tiberian Dawn, or just "Dawn" from here on out) GDI uses Grenadiers, infantry units who carry around a satchel of hand grenades and throw them as a primary weapon. It works in game, but it's ridiculous as a real-world concept. A dedicated grenadier, that I can see, but he would be armed with a semi-auto launcher. So I'll discard some ideas completely, modify others, and take some directly from the source material.
Another consideration is finding miniatures to represent the forces in play. For the First Tiberian War, this is not incredibly difficult, as most units are copied from real-world weaponry. However, some things (such as a man carrying a satchel throwing hand grenades, or the Disk Throwers from Tiberian Sun) will be more difficult. In this case, I want to find a model that is conceptually close to the aesthetic and function of the in game unit.
Finally, my main concern will be infantry and vehicles directly supporting infantry, because I play mostly skirmish games.
Command & Conquer was one of my favorite game series when I was growing up. It was fun, stylish, and had this weird sense of morbid humor that really made it stand out from bland fantasy or science fiction settings of its peers. The series had sci-fi trappings, but they were grounded in the real world. The games had stories and characters, but the real story was about our planet evolving, leaving humanity behind to try and come to grips with the fact that we don't belong in our own world anymore.
Alas, after Westwood's takeover by EA, the series has lost most of its appeal for me. Red Alert 2 was a great game (and to be honest, I think it's the best game of the series, even if it's not my favorite), and Generals and Zero Hour were also fine games if not really belonging to the Command & Conquer series, but Tiberium Wars took one of the greatest apocalyptic settings in PC gaming and ran it into the ground, while Red Alert 3 careened off into super zany territory without keeping that connection to our world that gave the other games in the series their bite. Tiberian Twilight doesn't even deserve more than a sentence dismissing it as a complete failure.
While the series' mechanics are brilliant, what really inspired me was the story that they told. I'm not referring to the actual plots. Those were pretty generic, if well told through in game events and cutscenes that took themselves just seriously enough. No, Command & Conquer's real story is the transformation of Earth into a hostile environment via Tiberium, and how people with different philosophies come into conflict with over this fact.
You have GDI, futile trying to maintain the status quo in the face of environmental catastrophe. Then there's Nod, who draw from the disenfranchised segments of the world and seek to embrace the changes Tiberium brings, convinced it is the next stage of humanity's existence. Then there are the Forgotten, mutants who are imbued with super-human abilities by the alien substance consuming their bodies from within. Finally, there are the civilians, people just trying to get by in a world that becomes more and more hostile every day.
There's a lot of great stories to be told from this setting.
Thursday, January 27, 2011
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Sunday, January 9, 2011
Giant blue crystals in your backyard.
C&C, on the other hand, has one resource. Credits. You get credits from bonus crates, selling off your units and structures, or by harvesting Tiberium.
Ah, Tiberium. Tiberium is at the heart of what makes the C&C games so damn compelling. Most strategies for taking down an entrenched opponent rely on blowing their Harvesters to smithereens then bleeding them dry - something that is possible because Tiberium, unlike the Minerals in Starcraft, are usually only found in large quantities away from your base. Thus, most games of C&C revolve around the sides fighting over the substance.
One of the things I keep harping on is cohesion, the idea that the closer a game's mechanics and narrative, the more satisfying it is. So it's a definite point in favor of C&C that the game consists of fighting over Tiberium while framed within a narrative of two sides... fighting over Tiberium.
Speaking of narrative, C&C's is pretty top notch. The full motion video briefings, while a bit hokey, are well written and directed, and the fact that most of the "actors" (nobody except Joe Kucan, the director, had any sort of acting experience) are members of the design team gives it this endearing "community theater" quality. Watch this:
But take a look at this briefing:
Everything you need to know at a glance.
Another thing that's rather different from modern games is the way the game eases you into its world. The game makes you play the first couple of missions with a very low tech level - limited to basic infantry and vehicles, slowly adding the more advanced units one at a time. Even base building is approached differently - harvesting Tiberium is introduced in mission 3, for example, after the player has spent enough time learning how to move these new-fangled "units" around.
The last thing that I want to discuss that really sets C&C apart is how all of the player's controls are represented on the battlefield. Your buildings are built from a construction yard - if that gets taken out, you can't build anymore. Your harvested Tiberium is stored in silos - run out of room and any extra you gather is wasted, and if you can capture an opponent's silo then you can steal all of his money. Even your minimap is tied to a structure (the radar) and will go away if you lose power - knocking out an opponent's power plants not only makes his base operate slower, but takes away battlefield info. Even the "macguffin" resource that most games hand wave away ("Why the hell is this super valuable mineral deposit still here, unmined?") is tightly woven into the game's world - Tiberium is spreading unstoppably. In fact, if you don't harvest it, it will spread over the entire map, transforming healthy trees into bloated "blossom trees" which seed Tiberium spores.
If you've never played it, you should do so. EA recently released the game as freeware, and some have made up a handy installer to get it to run pain free on modern systems, as well as increase the default resolution. Be sure to download the movies and soundtrack!
Saturday, August 28, 2010
Real-Time Strategy. Sounds simple, right? A strategy game, but in real time. No turns. But just like our old friend the "Role-Playing Game" that genre label is often slapped on games that have little to do with "strategy."
For the purpose of in-depth critique, we're going to need to split two concepts - strategy and tactics. Strategy is the long term strategic allocation of resources. Tactics are the precise ways in which those resources are used.
Different games emphasize these two concepts to different amounts. Behold! A Diagram!
So here we have a game like Command & Conquer, where your primary focus is on resource management (but there is a tactical element, as you must control your units on the battlefield.) Starcraft has much more emphasis on controlling your units in battle (special abilities, micromanagement, things like terrain elevation and tree cover being factors) but still utilizes long-term strategy to a degree (using resources to build units.) Games like Myth and Ground Control, on the other hand, have pretty much zero resource allocation - micromanagement of your troops is VERY important, but you can't choose the makeup of your forces before the mission begins (well, you can to some degree in Ground Control, hence it appearing further up the Strategy axis.) Total Annihilation and Homeworld (which didn't make it on there, but is a masterpiece and so deserves mention) both involve a heavy emphasis on controlling individual units, but I would stick Homeworld below Starcraft in quadrant IV of the graph - high tactics, lower strategy.
If you're familiar with these games, you'll probably gravitate more towards some quadrants then others. Personally, I find I really enjoy games in quadrant I and IV, but dislike II and III (despite not being able to really come up with any good examples. That's pretty much a "dead zone" most designers try to avoid.) I like grand strategy. I like micromanaging small elite units. I dislike micromanaging small elite units while also running a damn war.
Which brings us to the next key concept - abstraction.
In Command & Conquer, when you build a rifleman from a barracks, you are not literally assembling a human being inside the structure, training him, and arming him for $100. And when that same rifleman destroys a tank, it doesn't mean that he managed to make an Abrams explode with small arms. And the reason why that tank didn't blow him into itty-bitty pieces with the first shot isn't that flesh is somehow immune to high explosives.
That would be silly.
No, C&C employs a very high level of abstraction. That rifleman represents a squad of soldiers who are primarily armed with small arms. The $100 price tag for training them is simply an arbitrary amount representing the proportional cost of equipping and deploying the squad relevant to other units. The rifleman kills a tank not with a rain of bullets, but with man-portable anti-tank weaponry like RPGs or LAWs. And the tank shell is less effective against infantry because the squad can disperse and take cover, allowing them to fight effectively against a weapon designed to hit large metal things.
You'll notice that most RTS take the path of high abstraction when it comes to user interface and fiction. Units are trained and equipped with nothing but a few pieces of gold, wood, tiberium, or food. A "mighty army" consists of some footmen and a pair of knights. Your buildings look like doll houses compared to your infantry. And (my favorite) a chubby man can take over an enemy installation using nothing more than his trusty shovel.
Total Annihilation is an exception - everything literally is built on the battlefield. By nanomachines. 'Cause everyones a ROBOT. Sacrifice is pretty low as well - since every unit is magically summoned by a wizard, and it's a game about Gods mucking about, so everything can be explained my "it's magic, moron."
The level of rules that the player is allowed to perceive is also a measure of abstraction. Starcraft does not hide its mechanics at all. Click on a unit and what do you see? A detailed breakdown of its health, special abilities, current armor, how much damage it will do, what upgrades are applied. Click on a unit in C&C and what do you get? A healthbar. Helicopters get pips representing remaining salvos, and transports get pips representing capacity. Starcraft revels in it's gameness - giving you every possible bit of data you could want. Other games don't let you see the inner workings as clearly.
Mechanics can also be abstracted. In C&C, a game whose mechanics are highly abstracted, units are limited to two weapons. Combat is fairly simple - the forces will shoot at each other until one is dead or they receive new orders. Attacks will always hit (unless it is specifically marked as being able to miss) and in general, things like cover and elevation are ignored.
In Total Annihilation, ever unit is a 3d object that takes up space. Every shot is a projectile that must travel to its target and will impact on any obstacle that happens to be in its way. Very low abstraction there. Also- very impressive.
Abstraction applies to any genre, not just RTS. FPS, RPG, all abstract things to different degrees. And that abstraction will have a pronounced effect on the feel of a game. When people whine about a game not being "realistic," they usually mean one of two things - the game is being thematically inconsistent (Phoenix Downs don't work if you die in a cutscene) or the level of abstraction employed by the game is unsatisfying to some level. System Shock 2 suffered from this, especially when it came to weapon degradation. Seriously, your guns fell apart like a Vegan during physical exertion in that game. Did wonders for the tension and atmosphere, but damn it are you really saying my gun goes from fully operational to rusty junk in a matter of three magazines?
Expect me to use these terms frequently. I might even draw more charts!
Command & Conquer.
Man, just typing that brings back memories. Back in elementary school, we would periodically receive these Scholastic newsletters selling educational things - mostly young adult novels and the like, but there were a scant few educational games offered as well. Stuff like Putt-Putt goes to the Moon, Oregon Trail, and Command & Conquer.
One of these is not like the others.
A friend of mine gave me a copy of Command & Conquer Gold for my birthday when I was 9, and at a whopping 90 megabyte installation it taxed our poor beige box pentium to its limit. We even had to double our RAM to an absurd 8 megabytes before I could play it properly, with videos and everything. I loved it. It was like Army men, but cooler - lasers, tanks, helicopters - all completely awesome.
There was a period where our computer broke, and since I couldn't play the game, I would bring the manual to school and my friends and I would pore over it at lunch, discussing all the awesome units and make up grand stories about our digital exploits.
What are you giving me that look for? We were cool, ok?
Anyways, I have played this series more than any other over the years, and as I've grown and matured I've found that it is one of the few games that I still hold in such high regard. It's more than simple nostalgia.
So what is so damn appealing about this game?
There's an old saying - "Amateurs talk about Strategy. Professionals talk about Logistics." In any conflict, the winner is the side with the best logistics. America didn't "beat" Britain in a military sense in our war for independence - we just outlasted them because they had to cross an ocean to get to the warzone. The Yankee Scum didn't defeat the South in the War of Northern Aggression because they were better fighters (scientists have calculated that a Confederate drummer boy was the equivalent of four and a half Union soldiers) but because they had all the industrial might in the country and cut off the Confederacy's supply line to Europe in the dastardly Operation: Anaconda.
The focus of ANY game of C&C involves this:
Resources. Money and Power. Your supply chain. If you cut off your enemy's power supply, you can cripple his production, static defenses, even his minimap - all by taking out one structure. Knock out his harvester, and not only does he not have income, but he can't produce fighting vehicles while he's waiting for that expensive harvester to build.
You could go so far as to say that C&C is a mining game that happens to have people with guns in it.
That's a bit over the top, of course, but the fact is that the dominant mechanic in C&C is logistical planning and resource management, not military strategy.
What this means is that it is extremely intuitive. I don't have to spend an hour researching the manual to discover the nuanced ways in which my Templars can turn the tide of a conflict with perfectly positioned spells - All I have to do is keep mining Tiberium, which lets me buy tanks. Or I can spend money on better base structures. Which lets me buy bigger tanks. Or I can build some static defenses, which will help protect my base from being blowing up and taking away my ability to build tanks. But I need power to fuel that growing base. But building more power plants means I have more structures to protect, which means I need more defenses...
It's simple, but it ain't stupid. And I love it for that.
Oh, and Command & Conquer shares with Wing Commander the honor of being the only two franchises in existence to pull off Full Motion Video.