An overview of what went right and what went wrong in Kane’s Wrath, from the developer's standpoint.
28 April 2008
Fort Leavenworth, a US Army garrison deep in Kansas, has a special significance. It is home to the Center for Army Lessons Learned, comprised of a special group of individuals whose job it is to review military operations for the purposes of improving future operations. The officers there break down operations bit by bit to see exactly what components were successful and what components failed.
I think it would be interesting to do a similar analysis of Kane’s Wrath and I think now is the time to do it. Kane’s Wrath has been out for more than a few weeks, and the gaming press has previewed it, reviewed it, and mostly forgotten it. This is not a review of the usual type; it’s not an attempt to play through the game and merely see what’s fun and what isn’t, though I certainly hope to get into some of that. What I am to do is take the developer’s perspective and see, from their view, what parts of Kane’s Wrath should be repeated in future games and what parts should have been left on the cutting room floor. There two main things developers care about, which I’ll come back to time and again in this piece: sales and reactions—obviously, the two are closely, but not entirely, connected. For those who are less interested in the more details analysis--in other words, why
I think each lesson should be learned--and just the bottom line, I've provided the lessons in bulletpoint form at the end of each section.
Release, Patching, and Press
EALA has said a great deal of their commitment to patching their games and extending the development cycle post-release. This commitment, should it be realized, is undoubtedly a positive. Consistent and quick addressing of issues when they occur and the addition of new content is a sure way to win fanbase support, generate positive press on internet sites—though print media rarely cover patches—and extend the life of a game. For all its initial problems, the patching of C&C 3 was generally good, if slightly slow. For that game, EA opted to include a day one patch, both to help mitigate piracy concerns and to address some late-breaking issues—and there were quite a few.
Kane’s Wrath has suffered in this regard. The game shipped with a number of issues, both in terms of balancing and online structure. Chief among these are desync issues with online play, which still plague a very high number of online games today (anecdotally, I find that I rarely play consecutive games without getting a desync, and I had three games in a row end in desyncs recently). Balance issues also are present, including a large one with the Scrin Mechapede. Developers shouldn’t underestimate the demoralizing effect these sorts of problems have on players; few want their games to end prematurely, and few want to lose time after time to the same unbalanced tactic. Worse still (and least excusable), with Kane’s Wrath EA was forced to concede that much of the substantial effort put into patching C&C 3 was neglected and not included in the initial release. This reflects pretty poorly. For every day these issues go unpatched—and it looks like it will go unpatched for at least a month—fans feel little except growing resentment and frustration, and community relations people need to work overtime to try to stem the tide of bad publicity. Ultimately, the release of Kane’s Wrath gets low marks.
Obviously, these issues are best avoided in the first place. Simply put, more time needs to put into developing and testing the game. C&C 3 lacked a proper beta version and Kane’s Wrath, though there has been no official word, seems to be following in this tradition. In short, the development cycle is being consistently rushed.
A bit of digging seems to reveal that the reason for this is purely financial: EA has timed the releases of both C&C 3 and Kane’s Wrath to occur just before the end of their fiscal year (both games released in the last week of March, and EA’s fiscal year ends March 31st), providing a last boost of revenue. For C&C 3, the company proceeded to use the release as a highlight of their earnings discussions with investors [pdf]
. In short, pushing the game back even a month would have financial implications for the company (or so their analysts seem to believe—I contend otherwise), as the game is already pushed to the very edge of the quarter. This strategy is acceptable from a developer’s standpoint if the financial benefits outweigh the costs of rushing the game. For the last two games, it’s failed, as the products have been obviously rushed and shipped with a number of issues. This ties in to the critical reception of the game.
Kane’s Wrath has been generally received by the press as mediocre, despite some relatively ambitious expansions, such as the new factions, sweeping campaign, addition of Global Conquest, and epic units. The reason for this, I think, is the lack of refinement. The single greatest downside to the strategy outlined above is that the press generally rarely reviews or plays patched games, but rather the 1.0 version. Few individuals wait for a patch to buy a game. What EA should realize then, is that the 1.0 version is the version that is largely sold and reviewed; if it’s rushed, good patching can reverse some of the negative fan reaction (as with C&C 3), but rarely will those patches offset the bad press (and connected bad sales). The simple fact is this: had it been version 1.09 of C&C 3 that was released rather than version 1.0, sales, fan reaction, and press reaction would have all been significantly improved. Because EA elects instead to essentially ship beta-like software for the fans and press to review, the game’s reception naturally suffers and, with it, sales.
- Commit to patching issues as they arise, as this leads to positive fan reaction when done well, as with C&C 3 in some instances, or negative press, as with Kane’s Wrath.
- Realize that the 1.0 version of the game is the one that is reviewed and played the most, and test and refine this version of the game to benefit from better reviews and sales.
- Don’t sacrifice the 1.0 version of a game in order to meet a financial deadline. Realize that, financially, this can be counterproductive, as noted above (for the record, requests for comments from EA about these overriding financial concerns were not answered).
Campaign, AI, and FMVs
This is a bright spot for Kane’s Wrath and the lessons are generally positive. The end product is much improved over the version shipped in C&C 3. The missions are generally well-designed and creative. Designer Sam Bass’s notion of “the sweep of history” is well-received; there is a lot of explanatory power in the campaign and overall the missions themselves deserve a B+ or A-. Also well done is the integration of the subfactions and missions, for GDI and Nod—the Scrin aren’t really present. The Steel Talons, ZOCOM, the Black Hand, and the Marked of Kane all have more depth as a result of this. The AI is very well done and is aggressive from the beginning of each mission. The only two weak points are the fact that sometimes units seem unreasonably overpowered (such as the Wolverines in mission four) and that some parts of the missions seem gimmicky, in which the AI performs unrealistically, always having units in the perfect location. In short, to create difficulty, EA sometimes stretched the “knowledge” of the AI too far, and gave it too many convenient breaks. Overall, though, both the conception of the campaign and the individual missions themselves are well done.
Turning to the FMVs, Joe Kucan is worth every dollar EA pays him (which between you and me, I’m sure is quite a few). He is the sole bright spot of the videos, though even he at times seems a little forced. Carl Lumbly is also mostly good, though at times overacts. Still, his character has some depth and fits nicely into the story. Natasha Henstridge is fair in her role, but never manages to establish herself as a trusted link for the player. In Red Alert 2, both Lieutenants Eva and Zofia were able to do this. It is odd that it worked out this way, as EA tried to lend more depth to Henstridge’s character, with her actions and motivations regarding the Tacitus and the player—ideas that I generally appreciate. Ultimately, though, little actual mission information is presented in the video briefings from any of the characters, but particularly Kovacs; rather, the player is to rely on the text presented while the mission loads. It is likely the game would be better served by presenting this information in some level of detail—as most past C&Cs have—through the characters themselves. This will tend to lengthen the development cycle, I would guess, as it requires more coordination between the mission design, writing, and filming parts of the team. Ultimately, though, the end result would feel a lot more cohesive and engaging, benefiting the overall campaign experience. Lastly, the notion of exploring the sweep of history is good, but the campaign did feel like it should have gone a bit further and showed more of what came after C&C 3. Exploring the canon more and showing how the story continues to unfold would have generated more fan discussion about the single-player campaign and taken some of the heat off the multiplayer issues.
- Moving away from the type of missions in C&C 3 was a good improvement.
- Integrate the story and the subfactions to contribute to Sam Bass’s idea of the sweep of history. Try to find ways to include this in future C&Cs.
- Don’t radically change the course of the AI development, as it’s very good, though occasionally unrealistic.
- Campaigns need to advance the story more, not just fill in holes in the narrative. In short, compared with the level of information added from past C&C expansions such as Firestorm, the information added in Kane’s Wrath seems just a bit lacking.
- FMVs would benefit from more continuity in characters and from more engagement with the player, explaining what the coming mission will entail, as in past C&Cs.
Subfactions, New Units, and Epic Units
Last year, I criticized EA
for only adding two subfactions per side. I thought that this would mean that there simply wouldn’t be enough to play with in the game. I got it wrong. Though the game would certainly benefit from three subfactions per side (and though I don’t buy for a second EA’s claim that a vanilla faction is as interesting as another subfaction), there is enough contained in the two new subfactions, generally, to generate interest. A third subfaction per side would have been a welcome addition—and one that would really be impressive—but two is enough for a decent score, if only because they are generally well done. As noted above, the Nod and GDI ones integrate well into the campaign, emerging clearly out of parts of the story. The Scrin, less so. Their subfactions are weaker, less differentiable, and less connected to the story. The basis for each subfaction isn’t merely something like “strong airplanes” but rather a more nuanced history of the ZOCOM members or of the Marked of Kane. It would be nice if these subfactions, particularly the GDI ones, figured more prominently into the FMVs. The Scrin subfactions, with no real backstory, history, or depth presented are much less cohesive. It is difficult to identify a theme in each beyond mind control or something sans nuance.
The concept of Epic Units is really nice. They are game changing in a way that a superweapon simply isn’t. Their presence on the battlefield significantly forces opponents to alter their strategies. It does not seem that they significantly decrease unit spam, however, as often the best way to counter them is to mass large numbers of tanks and infantry (there is rarely time to get an epic unit of your own ready in time). This is another area that could have used a bit more time in refining, as the balance of epic units seems a little bit off at times (the Redeemer in particular, according to most players). I’m also not sure that the customization benefits are as pronounced as they should be. On the whole, though, this concept works well, though it, like almost everything else, is held back by a rushed development cycle that didn’t afford it enough time for refinement.
There were also a few units added to each side. Some, like the Shatterer, work really well and fit a nice niche in the combat chain. Others, such as the Hammerhead, don’t seem as useful. Visually, there’s not enough differentiation for the new Scrin infantry, which all generally look like little bug-like things scurrying about the battlefield, though they have diverse abilities. I’m not sure adding more mind control in the form of Cultists was the way to go, but certainly it’s a defendable decision. Units like the Mechapede show creativity, as do some of the support powers, such as the fake Temple of Nod. Other units don’t work as well. Among these are the Purifier and the Slingshot. The former works against EA’s goal of encouraging unit mixing; pair a good sized group of upgraded Purifiers with a Mantis and there’s an instant army ready to stomp through enemy units and structures with little strategy needed. The Slingshot is also a pretty radical change for C&C—the only previous unit that was as powerful against aircraft was the Aegis Cruiser from Red Alert 2, but its power was severely constrained by the fact that it was limited to the sea. The Slingshot seems to make AA guns, Missile Squads, and Pitbulls all significantly less relevant. In general, these “super-counter” units don’t enhance the gameplay. Other new additions, such as the Confessor Cabal, seem to encourage unit massing (indeed, online, one sees a good deal of upgraded Confessor hordes alongside Black Hands serving as an attack force).
- Though three is significantly better, two subfactions per side are enough.
- Vanilla sides need to be present to round out multiplayer, but they still aren’t very interesting.
- Integrating the singleplayer story and the subfactions works very well and makes the Nod and GDI subfactions have a lot more depth than the Scrin ones.
- The concept of Epic Units—units that change the game by their very presence—works well, much better than the Mothership ever did, for example, though their effect on unit spam isn’t as clear as one might think. This could be offset by giving them area of effect based weapons.
- Avoid gimmicky units like the Hammerhead or Cultist. Avoid others, like the Slingshot and Purifier, because they destroy the combat chain (which is otherwise generally well-constructed). The addition of new units is of course a requirement for an expansion, but further testing likely would have revealed some of these additions as counterproductive because of their effect on unit massing or on other units in the combat chain.
One of the biggest selling points of C&C 3 and Kane’s Wrath was the idea of RTS as a sport. EA dedicated tremendous resources to getting C&C 3 into gaming competitions and to promoting the concept of an “e-sport.” Their marketing, including the idea of C&C TV, has been effective, but it has been undercut by numerous flaws in the game and in the added features.
First, the gameplay flaws. Kane’s Wrath has been lampooned by top RTS players as too luck based, and there is some merit to this argument. It reflects poorly on a game when the #1 ranked player for that game—and a player who EA has publicized and who has earned a good deal of money playing the game—decries the game
as poorly designed. Yet, in many respects, it is. There is the strong presence of unit spam, frustrating to top and casual players alike. There are the many desyncs and bugs that shipped with the game—and it is the shipped version of Kane’s Wrath, not the patched version, that will be used in major tournaments, another reason for not rushing the shipped version to meet a financial deadline. There is what top players have decried as “build order poker” in which one never knows what one’s opponent is doing until it’s too late because of the way that the early game is designed. There is the interface lag which constrains the ability of top players to compete at their top speed and frustrates them. There are the extraneous features such as the telestrator and commentator modes which are rarely, if ever, used, yet tied up significant developer resources. The flaws are definitely present and, as yet, remain uncorrected. Until they are corrected, and it may be too late to correct them in Kane’s Wrath, EA won’t realize its goal of creating RTS as a sport. Indeed, most of the publicity it’s generated in its innovative attempt at this has been starkly negative.
- Back up a marketing campaign with a well-produced game and relevant features. The marketing of Kane’s Wrath was great, but the features simply don’t deliver the experience promised with regards to RTS as a sport.
- Realize that being the first in the field—the first to formally attempt to publicize RTS e-sports—doesn’t mean that fans will flock to the game. Top players are a demanding bunch, and not producing a game that meets their high specifications will only generate more publicity and highlight more flaws for more people as a result.
- Realize that e-sport status is not truly achieved by buying entry into big tournaments, but by making it worth the while of top players to play your game, both financially and by appealing to their competitive spirit. Issues like build order poker and interface lag detract from the skill needed to win, and, as such, encourage top players to go elsewhere or to complain, causing public relations nightmares.
There’s not much to say about Global Conquest, because, well, there’s not much there. The idea is a really good one, and it could have added a lot of depth to the expansion. Ultimately, though, it comes sans story and is basically a form of advanced Skirmish with some decent mechanics for coordination of a global army. It’s notable to see how much Global Conquest was glossed over in reviews by fans and the press: few have found it particularly engaging. There are enough good mechanics present though, to give it potential for future versions. Indeed, it might work best in conjunction with the campaign, but as a self-contained part. The bottom line here though ties back in to the common theme that we’ve seen run throughout this piece: spending more time on development, adding, testing, and refining features, would have created more depth and better gameplay experiences. This is true for other parts of the game, and it is especially true for Global Conquest, which feels like a throw-in add-on rather than a well-planned enhancement.
- Decide what Global Contest should be. Is it a campaign? If so, it needs a story. Is it a series of structured skirmishes? If so, then it needs something to make it more interesting than merely a series of skirmishes (the Generals Challenge, for example, wasn’t terribly interesting, but even that had the aura of each battle being radically different because of the new General).
- Utilize the worldmap mechanics in future games. There’s enough potential here for really immersing the player in how global the fight is, something that no C&C has done effectively (Red Alert 2 came close with its varied locations, and Tiberian Dawn did well in showing the scope of a battle across a single continent).
The Common Theme
Which of the lessons above is most critical? I submit that it is the one that occurs the most, namely, don't rush the development of a game. It's easy to look to the next earnings report as the only point that matters, but, fundamentally, I believe this logic is flawed. I have no objection to game companies making money, and even designing their games so that they do make money; I just don't think that the current strategy is optimizing profits (and, if you'll look at EA's profits, or lack thereof, I think you'll see why). Kane's Wrath had a lot of potential. If EA commits to patching it and refining it, it could be a top RTS game, if it's not too late to salvage it. If game companies took a few more months to refine and test their features, whether it's eliminating demoralizing desync bugs, fixing rampant imbalance concerns, or spending time deepening features such as RTS as a sport and Global Conquest, the game would be better. It would get better reviews. Fans would enjoy it more. Top players wouldn't rip the game for poor gameplay. Ultimately, it would make more money. As a fan, this is not my concern; my concern is a fostering a fun C&C game. But, naturally, as a company (though maybe not as a development team), EA's concern is the bottom line. If there's one lesson Kane's Wrath should teach them, it's that the current strategies with regards to the bottom line aren't working. The moral of the story: deliver a high-quality, refined game with depth that isn't beset by financial demands, and the profits will take care of themselves.