Articles: An Intro to Game and Mod Design: Part 4

Part Four: How Goals Affect Balance: C&C 3 as a Case Study
An Analysis of Balance in C&C 3
C&C 3 is an interesting game in a lot of ways. From a design perspective, the game takes a lot of bold steps. First, the game sets its goal as being “fast, fluid, and fun.” Fun is of course very subjective, fluid refers very much to the game's interface setup and responsiveness, and fast refers to the game's pacing. These are not necessarily bad goals and the only one people can really quibble with — fast — is negated when you have two players who tend toward drawn out battles facing each other; for example, my first C&C 3 game against an opponent of equal strength lasted nearly two hours.

But what about my main principles of equilibrium and variety? C&C 3 doesn't stack up nearly as well in that respect, despite what I perceive to be attempts to do so. First, C&C 3 features three sides which are all very stereotypical in their differences. GDI is a side of brute force; Nod is a side of stealth and yet still power; and the Scrin are a side of late game dominance with the best units but early game struggles. In my mind, that is too simplistic a design. GDI wins by getting its tanks upgraded with Rail Guns and storming the enemy base. No matter when the tank roll happens — either an early game rush or a late game counterpunch — GDI will almost always win through a tank storm, because their other options are too limited. Their aircraft are expensive, and though the Firehawk is useful because it serves many roles, expensive. The inclusion of the Zone Trooper was a nice step towards variety — finally a strong infantryman that can hold its own — but proved too cumbersome to manage in large groups (most players rather build tanks and C&C 3 rewards them for doing so) and too slow to really keep up with an attack force that might need to travel across the map. GDI was billed as straightforward, and they indeed were.

Nod is probably the strongest side in C&C 3 but it again suffers from a lot of the same problems as GDI. Its forces consist mostly of three or four main units. In the early game, a rush of Scorpions is strong, especially when backed by Venoms. In the late game, large groups of Avatars with Stealth Tanks for anti-air capacity are unbeatable (except when they face an equally large group of Tripods or Mammoth Tanks). Playing as Nod, I get the feeling that as long as I use Scorpions and Venoms early and Avatars and more Scorpions later, I'll be very hard to beat. The odd thing is, Nod has a lot of attempts to bring more units into the fray. Beam Cannons can charge up Obelisks, Hallucinogenic Grenades are designed to make infantry more useful, and Shadow Teams are designed to provide an offbeat attack force (or another way to rush early). But it's not enough. At nearly every level of human vs. human play, Nod wins through Avatars, Scorpions and Venoms.

Lastly, the Scrin are stereotypical in that they are very weak early, yet very strong late. It's very hard to fend off a strong rush as a Scrin player, and it's very hard to fend off a strong Scrin attack late game. Units like the Corruptor and Gun Walker are nearly worthless once the Scrin player gets Tripods. The Mastermind is a nearly unstoppable Commando unit when it's properly used — it almost has no counter. Tripods are among the strongest units in the game once a Scrin player has them; Planetary Assault Carriers rule the sky while Devastator Warships rain down plasma discs on all that’s below. But that's not equilibrium or variety. That's essentially setting a clock of ten or twelve minutes and saying that if a Scrin player can last that long, he'll win every time because he can build loads of three or four different types of units. Once again, I view that as boring and unimpressive because it ultimately makes for tedious gameplay.

Greg Black's a smart guy. It's somewhat arrogant of me to suggest that I can critique the EA design team and that I label their work as "boring and unimpressive," right? What needs to be understood in understanding my critique is a final point of game design: know your audience. Who is your consumer? For EA, it’s their goal to make a game with a shallow learning curve that rewards competitive gamers — the best micromanagers on the planet. This is why their game design, in my view, is styled in the way it is. They want C&C 3 played by the best competitive gamers in the world, and even though the majority of their consumers might appreciate some more nuanced gameplay, most people are going to be happy (for a little while), with what they've done. All Star's audience, and the audience of a lot of mods, is very limited. C&C 3 will be bought more times in one city than All Stars will be downloaded worldwide. It's perfectly reasonable for someone to look at All Stars, think it’s too complicated or not for them, and play something else. As a designer who's not in it for money, it's mostly irrelevant to me whether All Stars get X thousand downloads or X + 5 thousand downloads. The team is creating the mod for fun, and as such, will create what it wants to create. The designers of C&C 3, understandably, are in a different boat. They do it for a living, which is at once empowering and restrictive. They are paid to make games that sell, not necessarily games that are fun. It's two different types of game design, and if you look at the design of quality mods in development across the community and the design of C&C 3, in my view, it shows.

Read on to Part Five: The Art of Playtesting

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