Articles: An Intro to Game and Mod Design: Part 3

Part Three: Creating Variety: All Stars as a Case Study
Composing Factions to Create Balance and Variety
For C&C All Stars, I was limited to the units and structures of past C&C games, which meant that I couldn’t really add my own ideas for units into the mod (generally, they will be some limiting factor in terms of design, whether it’s the engine, the story, or something else). What this meant, though, was that I had to bend the mod’s concept a bit to create full fledged sides. Sure, no one would ever consider a Minigunner an “All Star” unit, but if I wanted the design to be something other than Mammoth Tank vs. Apocalypse Tank vs. Overlord (see above about creating variety), I needed to create full fledged sides, which meant including everything from basic infantry to the best units in C&C lore.

The first step is to try so give each side a sense of character. Because I was combining sides across games, I would have both deception-based and force-based units to choose from for each side, though the details obviously varied (deception vs. force being the main distinguishing principles that Westwood and EA use in all C&Cs). This also meant that I couldn’t use those two principles for my three sides, because each side would, quite naturally, have elements of each. Ultimately, what this forced me to do was to use the natural variety across the games—since I each series was a side, there was a progression of technology across the games which meant that there was some evolution of the units—to create variety within the factions, and to use more nuanced elements than just deception vs. force to create a higher level of variety.

For example, a unit like the Titan was an excellent choice for inclusion for the Tiberian side because it was a) visually unique because mechs are only featured in Tiberian games (Medium Tanks, my original choice when I was uncertain about the feasibility of mechs in SAGE, also appear in Red Alert) b) a key building block of the GDI forces in Tiberian Sun that definitely met the team’s criteria for an All Star unit and c) easily positioned as a main battle tank of the Tiberian side without anyone feeling that it was out of place or unfaithful to the original. Once I had the Titan in place, though, I realized that there were a lot of other secondary Tiberian units that I wanted to include. Units like the Stealth Tank, Disruptor, Juggernaut, Hover MRLS, APC, and Nod Buggy all were meritorious of inclusion simply because they met the first two criteria I outlined above. The solution, therefore, was to craft the Tiberian Coalition as a side that relied on its support units very heavily. This was done through a couple of decisions. First, while the other two sides had Overlord and Apocalypse Tanks, which could be built without limit, the Tiberian side got the Mammoth MKII, which, as in TS, had a build limit of one. The Mammoth Tank from Tiberian Dawn is arguably more recognizable, but we wanted to move away from creating too much similarity between three sides. Again, creating variety but maintaining equilibrium creates entertainment value. Letting every Tiberian Coalition player know from the beginning that they would be able to build only one heavy tank at a time set the character for the side, but set a more nuanced character than simply saying “you must rely on deception and speed to win.” This was because the Tiberian Coalition couldn’t rely on speed to win; its fast units weren’t fast enough to compensate. What the Tiberian Coalition relied on, according to my original design document, was “using a core army, augmented with their support units.” This idea of mixed support units is something I’d like to see more of in games. Too often, getting to the highest tech level means that a player gets access to the crown jewel unit, which is good against everything and whose only real drawbacks are price, build time, and (usually) a weakness against aircraft, so that building as many of those units as possible is key to winning. What I wanted to see with the Tiberian Coalition was to make it a weak side, unless the player could learn to mix his units. Sure, Titans were good, but they had better be backed up with nearly every other unit in the Tiberian arsenal to be successful.

This leads me to my variety within a faction point. I think there is a tendency for designers to fall for the grandiose units—the Avatar and Annihilator mechs in C&C 3 might be examples of this—that when they are in a group, are unstoppable, except by another side’s equally large group of counterpart units. This, in my mind, is poor game design, because it eliminates all sense of variety. Almost all infantry are forgotten. Base level vehicles are forgotten. Aircraft are forgotten, except when they, too, are created in large numbers to serve as a change of pace attack force. The reason I’m proud of my work with the Tiberian Coalition side is that the player cannot do this. Sure, that one Mammoth can be created and upgraded with two different upgrades, and even flown all over the battlefield with a Carryall, but it’s still just one unit that will fall quickly if it’s not used in a mixed force. Yes, the ORCA bomber is strong, but each one requires its own helipad, so you’ll never see a fleet of 30. The base level tank—the Titan—is the only tank that can be built in any quantity greater than one, so players are forced to use it if they want any conventional armor units. Across the board, creating this variety in attack and defense makes things more interesting.

This idea of mixing works in multiple ways. With the Tiberian Coalition, no unit was singly strong enough to merit being the only unit in an attack force—variety was forced within the attack force. With the Red Alert side, I had another set of variables to work with. In general, Red Alert games are known for their huge army sizes with great numbers of tanks or aircraft. It would be unfaithful to the history of C&C to suddenly change things around so that Apocalypse Tanks had a build limit of one, or so that they suddenly couldn’t sometimes serve as an attack force unto themselves, capable of hammering land and air targets. The option that remained, though, was to create variety in the types of attack forces used; that is, if a good Red Alert Alliance player played a good Tiberian Coalition player, even if the Red player didn’t mix units within an attack force (why would you bring lots of Grizzlies with Apocalypse tanks, for instance—their speed advantage is negated by the Apocalypse tanks lumbering nature, and they are significantly weaker), I wanted him to have to use a lot of his units in some respect to fully get the most out of a side. This is why the Reds side has units like the Minelayer—you wouldn’t include one on an attack run, but it was very useful in the right hands for slowing down your opposition—and the Longbow—a pack of upgraded Longbows can set up other attacks by forcing the enemy to spend time and money on air defenses that can keep up with the Longbows mobile nature and ability to reload in the field. This type of variety is a different type than the Tiberian player; here, the Reds player has a lot of options to choose from, and simply must determine which are the best ones, and which work best together. That kind of choice can still be fun for a player, and creates entertainment value. Out of the Reds side comes the image of variety within variety. A designer wants to make each side varied and at equilibrium, like I said, but because he wants to keep away from the army-dictated-by-one-unit problem, he must vary his ways that he creates variety.

The last side in All Stars is the Generals Elite. The goal for this side was to combine the common threads of USA, China, and GLA (the Generals Elite was also the only side where I had three full sides to cull units from). The approach I decided to give this side was the basic idea of war strategy in general: avoid taking damage while dealing out as much as possible. In Generals, the USA side did this with high tech units like the Avenger and Aurora Bomber, both of which I had included in the original design (though, as an example of the excellent input of a team, the Avenger was cut in favor of the Quad Cannon because I had favored the USA over the GLA too much in my original design, something I wasn’t even aware of). China achieved this goal with units that soaked up a lot of damage and healed nearby units, like the Overlord Tank. The GLA achieved this with relatively faster units, like the Scorpion Tank. Putting all these units together allowed me to craft a side that was quite strong in the hands of a talented player, because when the units were used properly, the damage taken to damage dealt ratio could be very low, an idea I always thought was intriguing.

In theory, in a truly balanced game, the best player should win the majority of matches. The guiding principle in design, then, has to be to make this the case. The idea should never be to restrict the player or funnel a player, but rather let the sides be flexible enough so that the human element can be added to them in many ways and so that the best player can win. This is not to say that the learning curve should always be steep, but is to say that there should be depth in a game so that an experienced player who can micromanage well is given a challenge no matter what side he plays as. A simple balancing system in which one side is strong early and the other strong late isn’t very interesting, because that frustrates players who can’t get to the late game. All in all, the design has to let the sides be equal, and let the deciding factors come from the humans, not the game.

Read on to Part Four: How Goals Affect Balance: C&C 3 as a Case Study

An Introduction to Game and Mod Design by Blbpaws
Part One: An Introduction to the Elements of Game Design
Part Two: An Introduction to Balance
Part Three: Creating Variety: All Stars as a Case Study
Part Four: How Goals Affect Balance: C&C 3 as a Case Study
Part Five: The Art of Playtesting