Wayward Strategist

Is Grey Goo an Homage to classic RTS? Part 1 – Economy and Basebuilding

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For a while now, I’ve made no bones about Petroglyph’s Grey Goo being one of my better-liked and recommended RTS titles. From its art direction, to its simply-told but well-crafted story, to the amazing cinematography of its cutscenes and mission briefings to its at times gleefully elegant game-play mechanics, I find a lot to recommend in this game.

But one thing that’s always struck me as an odd assertion is the marketing angle the game has taken. Descriptions of the game have leveraged Petroglyph’s Westwood pedigree in claiming that Grey Goo is a throwback or an homage to the golden era of RTS – a modernization of the old Command and Conquer formula, if you will. At first, I accepted this on faith as it were: after severe setbacks with End of Nations, it made sense to create a more traditional RTS. But, after playing the game for a while, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was really what Westwood’s games had been like? And, if so, what the significance was of any similarities Grey Goo might have to classic Command and Conquer.

With the help of the wonderful CNCNET, I’ve done some side-by-side comparisons and I’m ready to weigh in. In part one of this 2-part series, I’ll be taking a look at the economic and base construction systems of classic Westwood RTS Tiberian Sun as they relate to Grey Goo – not to cast aspersions on either title, but to understand this modern game in the context of one of its most venerable predecessors, and to see what can be made of the game’s informal claim to be a tribute to classic RTS games. Part 2, to be released a week or so from today, will focus on pacing, map design and unit design.

Let’s go!


Economy

I’d like to start with one of the foundational aspects of RTS game play – the act of growing one’s economy and building a base. In both Tiberian Sun and Grey Goo, adding additional resource harvesting capability is notably non-trivial. Refineries, for factions in both games, are some of the more expensive structures in the game – especially in early game, when factories and barracks are considerably cheaper than expanding economic capacity.

Please note, for the majority of this and the subsequent article, I will be focusing on the Human and Beta factions and largely leaving the Goo out of the picture. The Goo have some passing similarities to the Zhon or the Aliens from Earth 2160, but are fairly standalone in terms of production mechanics and have virtually no basebuilding, as Mother Goos serve the role of production structure, Havester, Refinery, tech structure, etc. Therefore, I feel that in most cases drawing comparisons to other titles is unwarranted. Please take this as a recommendation of the Goo faction design, for it is meant as one.

In the case of Grey Goo, Refineries cost 800 catalyst while factories cost 150, putting Refineries at roughly 5.3 times the cost of Factories. And yet, Refineries are vital to growing one’s economy, though getting additional refineries in the early game puts a player in the position of stalling out their economy entirely for upwards of a minute. Tiberian Sun it its turn does Grey Goo one better, with its refineries totaling 6.67 times the cost of Barracks, not counting 1400 credits for additional Harvesters (though this does defray the cost of having to build additional refineries).

Overall, however, one is able to make a pretty direct comparison between Grey Goo’s resource system and that of Tiberian Sun. While fairly minor deviations exist, at the core of both game’s economic model is a resource spread over a geographic area (Tiberium being in irregular fields while catalyst vents are underground and tend to form in veins or rivers) harvested via a multi-part system – either Extractor/Harvester/Refinery for Grey Goo, or Harvester/Refinery for classic Command and Conquer games – often at fairly long distances and vulnerable to dedicated harassment. Grey Goo can even be looked at as providing an interesting alternative to the C&C system by allowing Harvesters and Extractors to be replaced for free, while allowing exploding Harvesters to ‘strike back’ at enemy forces with their death throes doing area effect damage.

Grey Goo seems to do homage to the classic C&C model, while trying to streamline it and make it more friendly (for lack of a better term) – both Harvesters and Extractors are free, but Harvesters are fairly easy to kill. This makes harassment of harvesting operations effective in stalling or limiting an opponent’s income, but not outright crippling them as can happen in the Command and Conquer games. An analog could also be made to the Refinery/Caryall/Harvester system from the Dune games, as Caryalls mitigate the effects of Spice Melange being often pretty far from the player’s base of operations.

I cannot let Grey Goo off scott-free in the economics department, however. Command and Conquer’s Power mechanic adds an additional layer of complexity to those titles’ systems that I find lacking in Grey Goo. The requirement to purchase additional Power Stations to manage one’s power level and thereby enable new tech structures, turrets, etc is actually fairly important in keeping the player working and the game interesting at all stages, while the Human and Beta ‘must be attached to Core/Hub’ system is overall more simplistic and more seldom a source of tension in the game – though Grey Goo’s Human players may contest this, as critical conduit junctures going down at importune times can really throw a monkey wrench into the finely oiled machine that is the Human base.

Basebuilding

Economy and basebuilding go hand in hand, of course, and Command and Conquer’s classic system is well worth considering. There are a number of significant differences in the design of Grey Goo and that of Tiberian Sun (as representative of classic C&C design). In fact, in this regard the differences are so marked that it’s kind of hard to decide where to start.

Perhaps it would be best to start with the similarities between Grey Goo and classic C&C… For most of the tech tree of both the GDI and the Brotherhood of Nod, there are very significant overlaps in the functions of different structures, as you see in Grey Goo with the design of the Beta and the Humans. Barracks, Factories, Refineries, Power Plants: they all are more or less analogous.

Returning to Tiberian Sun as I did from a span of many years, I was actually a little surprised to note the similarities between the basebuilding of the GDI and the Brotherhood of Nod. It certainly made me appreciate Petroglyph’s decision to keep the Humans and Beta somewhat similar, with small Factories and Large Factories, walls, and many other structures of analogous functions. Units, well… I’ll get to those shortly. However, it should be noted that a rough similarity between production mechanics across factions is almost assuredly a trait taken from classic C&C titles.

Continuing on to the differences, I’d like to talk of the players’ ability to multitask construction projects. Unique from a StarCraft or a War Wind (etc), the Command and Conquer games put meaningful bottlenecks into the very nature of construction. The only producer of structures in the early game is the MCV, which ultimately means that for the earliest minutes of the game, only one thing can be built at a time: turrets, factories, anything – one at a time, until additional MCVs are built and unpacked into Conyards. This is what I like to call “single thread” production, and it makes the act of building (or rebuilding, as the case may be) a base non-trivial, especially in the early minutes of the game or in between attacks. This plays in to the Power mechanic, as Power Plants are critical targets, enabling a player to take out their enemy’s ability to produce units or utilize the minimap without committing the resources to kill those structures. Furthermore, when rebuilding, a player must take the time to produce power plants alongside tech and production, committing precious seconds to ensure they have sufficient power to keep themselves going.

Grey Goo, in contrast, has less of a hard bottleneck for production – basically, each faction is only limited by resources in terms of what they can produce at any given time. If a Human player wants to drop a dozen buildings at once, they can, though they might stall out their economy in so doing. Beta players are somewhat more restricted, as all of their structures have to be attached to hubs, so hub space can be a premium and a bottleneck for production, and Goo players have a limit of 4 potential health bars per Mother that limits what they can produce at any given time, but in effect these bottlenecks are less severe than you see in older C&C titles.

Grey Goo does an excellent job of streamlining the RTS process of basebuilding, however – the Factory/hub/module system, by which the production capability of a single type of production structure can be modified via add-ons, is a very clever way of handling unit production in my mind. Also, the fact that each faction in Grey Goo has a slight twist to this mechanic is interesting and welcome. While the Beta determine what a factory can produce based on what else is attached to a hub, the Humans require a player to attach add-ons to the individual factory – each system is capable of a wide range of subtle variation, from Beta having 3 factories sharing a single add-on, or 2 factories sharing 2 add-ons, to Human factories being constructed to share 1 of their add-ons, with unique add-ons on either side, there’s a lot of versatility to Grey Goo’s system.

To be honest, I tend to prefer the C&C method of power generation and bottlenecking production to the MCV/Conyard – it might be nostalgia talking, but the system feels like it tends to make a player’s decisions feel more weighty.

However, I feel like Grey Goo’s production system is my preferred one: the flexibility of the Factory/add-on system is overall more interesting than having barracks/war factory supplemented by tech structures. I’d call Grey Goo’s tech system more ‘wide’ than ‘deep’ in that Tiberian Sun has the player build a chain of structures to unlock all of their units, while Grey Goo ties both tech and production capability to add-ons that can be built in any order.

Conclusion

As far as resource gathering is concerned, the influence of classic Command and Conquer titles is quite clear in Grey Goo, with some kudos going to Petroglyph for making the system less of a slippery slope, and some finger-wagging on my part regarding what I see as the elegance of classic Command and Conquer titles’ power system and the premium cost of being able to produce multiple structures at once.

In the next article, I will be discussing the respective games’ unit designs, map design conventions, pacing and unit caps (or lack thereof). While I think it evident that Grey Goo bears some genetic resemblance to Command and Conquer’s older titles in its mechanics, I feel that it attempts to make some quality of life improvements in terms of the game’s slippery slope, and to make its tech tree “wide” rather than “deep”.

While I would love to draw up some value judgments about the relative merits of Grey Goo as related to Tiberian Sun, I feel that my argument would be lacking without looking at the other facets of the game’s design, so I’ll reserve a concrete statement on this for the conclusion of my next article. I do hope that it’s evident that I’m attempting to be fair to both titles, and look forward to any feedback I may receive.

Please leave me your thoughts in the comments.

See you on the battlefield!

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