Is Grey Goo an Homage to Classic RTS? Part 2 – Map and Unit Design

Last week, I wrote an article in which I attempted to draw comparisons between the economics and base-building dynamics of Petroglyph’s modern RTS Grey Goo and classic Westwood RTS Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun. Before we continue on to map and unit design, I’d like to take a moment to discuss this comparison.

In marketing and preview articles about Grey Goo, the phrase ‘old school RTS’ came up occasionally. Or, ‘throwback to the glory days of RTS.’ Now, while specific games are seldom mentioned in this marketing it seems that, given the Westwood pedigree of several key Petroglyph staffers, Grey Goo was presumably looking to the Command and Conquer games for its inspiration.

I chose Tiberian Sun specifically and purposefully as a prototypical Command and Conquer title. It struck me that the oldest C&C titles (Dune 2, Red Alert, and the original C&C that has since been subtitled Tiberian Dawn) might be a little too mechanically unpolished by today’s standards to be usefully comparable, and the Red Alert titles make use of layers that obviously differ widely from what we see in Grey Goo, such as naval combat, while Dune 2000 is constrained by its source material (that being the 1984 Dune movie, and not the original novels).

However, in reading feedback to my initial article, it seems that many took exception to my narrow focus of Tiberian Sun as prototype and exemplar of the ‘glory days of RTS’ appropriately noting that Grey Goo’s resource system is perhaps more directly comparable with that of Red Alert 3 or the Total Annihilation model (I take some exception to this last comparison, but don’t have the time to get into details at this moment) than with that of Tiberian Sun itself. To that end I will make an effort, where applicable, to include mentions of a broader range of classic RTS games, though I will keep my focus on Command and Conquer titles since the game was so obviously crafted with their mechanics in mind.

Map Design

Since ‘map design’ is a broad category, and since there are a wide variety of maps in both Grey Goo classic C&C games such as Dune 2000, Tiberian Sun and Red Alert 2, so I’ll keep my observations limited in this regard. Talking about the similarities and differences in unit designs should prove to be more interesting, at any rate. Let’s see where this takes us.

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Both Grey Goo and the classic Command and Conquer games give their resources a fairly significant presence on the map. Tiberium, or Spice Melange in the Dune games, is spread in forests or fields, while catalyst is found underground in pools and rivers. Both require the player to assent to fairly exposed operations – be they Grey Goo human extractors sitting alone in corners of the map, Harvesters wandering off to gather Tiberium from far afield, or Caryalls depositing harvesters all around the sandy areas of Dune in search for freshly deposited Spice; in all of thes titles you see a similar mentality (though you feel more exposed in the classic C&C games, as Harvesters are a significant investment, and Tiberium fields can be quite large).

As may be apparent by now, the general approach in Grey Goo is to take the general concept introduced in classic C&C and modify it in an attempt to make it a bit friendlier or more streamlined. While in C&C, it is possible to ‘share’ a tiberium field with your opponent, the fact that Tiberium is removed from the map as its harvested means that, eventually, confrontation would be inevitable. Coupling this with the permanent nature of fog of war removal and the size of unit sight lines compared to the typical size of Tiberium fields, in practice it’s more common to see harassment and ownership of geographically distinct Tiberium fields than opposing players sharing them, either intentionally or unintentionally.

Grey Goo, on the other hand, places no real restrictions on the size or shape of catalyst rivers. They tend to be small and located in a single geographic area, but some maps have extensive networks of catalyst that span a significant portion of the map’s length or width. In these maps, it is possible to aggressively mine a single deposit of catalyst, or to competitively mine a single deposit at the same time as your enemy, since all connected catalyst vents share a common pool of resources. I desperately wish more maps played with the idea of opposing players drawing from the same catalyst well – there’s so much potential there, but most maps tend to have smaller rivers or pools with 1-2 Catalyst vents apiece. To me, this is a missed opportunity: game designers should celebrate mechanics like Grey Goo’s catalyst system

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Overall, maps in Grey Goo tend to be smaller than maps in classic Command and Conquer titles, with more areas of impassable terrain (Goo players tend to fare much worse in flat, open maps, for instance), and tend to have simpler terrain features: in Command and Conquer titles, underpasses, on-map hazards (Sandworms etc), garrisonable structures and even capturable points like Tiberium Spikes in C&C3 or Oil Derricks in Red Alert 3. The Dune games go one better with wide areas of the map vulnerable to Sandworm attacks, making the very act of harvesting Spice or moving armies across sandy terrain less trivial.

Grey Goo, as yet, has eschewed features like these in map design (though, of course, Beta have garrisonable wall segments, and there is brush that can be seen out of, but not into, which has serious tactical significance). I would point out, though, that with the exception of the Beta Commando there is no infantry class combatant in Grey Goo, and many infantry-specific mechanics don’t seem to have a place in this game. in many ways, Grey Goo’s maps are reminiscent of those in StarCraft or even the modern StarCraft 2, with smaller, symmetrical battlegrounds

I do hope to see Grey Goo’s designers experiment with larger maps, additional terrain features and increased interactivity. I’m not sure if capturable structures have a place in that game, but seeing some of the terrain features in Tiberian Sun made me a bit jealous as a Grey Goo player.

Unit Design

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Now, to the fun part! Units are, to me, the most interesting part of any RTS and I’ve saved the best for last. Command and Conquer is, by and large, a game of economics. The player with the larger army tends to win, units like the Engineer and burrow APC notwithstanding. Furthermore, units in classic C&C games tend to place most of their weight in their armor and weapon types, with perhaps custom, passive characteristics associated with that class of unit. For instance, infantry can be run over by vehicles, though not the Nod cyborg unit. The GDI have a flying infantry, while the Nod APC burrows under the ground (which can in turn be stopped by concrete pads). Some units are good against infantry, some against aircraft, some against vehicles. Some have stealth, some can fly. You don’t really see StarCraft-style spellcaster units, just collections of advantages and disadvantages to balance. And, burrowing flame tanks. There are those, too.

Grey Goo has some similarities with classic, Tiberian Sun-style unit designs, with a smidgeon of similarity to Supreme Commander. A perusal of the Tiberian Sun unit list, however, reveals more varied and oftentimes more interesting unit options than the newer game.

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Grey Goo tends to draw from a more standard list of unit functions than Tiberian Sun (with the exception of the Goo faction, whose production, unit designs, and economic model all deviate significantly from templates found in almost all classic RTS games with the exception of the Zhon faction from Total Annihilation Kingdoms) with each faction’s stealth unit, artillery, main battle tank, and tier 1 units being relatively minor variations on common themes, though often with experientially different results. This is similar to how unit design is handled in the earlier Dune games, including Dune 2000 to a large extent. Tiberian Sun and Red Alert 2 have far more varied unit lists – and more potent end-tier units (excepting the Epics, which don’t worry, I’ll get to!) Regarding Supreme Commander, I honestly feel that in general, units are roughly equivalent to a selection of Tier 1/2 units form that game, without the massive economy or numbers

But overall, units like the GDI Jump Jet infantry, Nod burrowing APC, GDI Disruptor and even GDI disc thrower provide interesting tactical possibilities I feel are lacking in Grey Goo. While the Goo faction focuses on interesting tactical decisions, particularly with Small Protean play, and deciding when to transform into Tier 1 units can be incredibly challenging in close matches. Without upgrades, however, units like the Beta Stalker or Commando are overall fairly uninteresting by themselves.

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I don’t think it’s quite as cut-and-dried as all that though. Though units tend to have more widely disparate functionality in the Command and Conquer series, Grey Goo does have some considered interactions that bear mentioning. Units having fixed turrets (like the Goo Srider or Beta Stalker) are at a disadvantage to turreted units such as the Gladius. Units which can fire on the move, again like the Gladius, are in their turn at an advantage to units which must remain stationary. In fact, many Beta upgrades simply allow certain units to fire on the move, which changes their threat profile against armies that must largely remain stationary to engage.

Upgrades

Taking a nod from RTS such as the Age of Empires and StarCraft series, Grey Goo has unit upgrades. This is not unique in the RTS space, though the classic C&C games did not have them. Additionally, upgrades such as Contagious Goo, which change the nature and use of units fairly significantly. Instead of providing an incremental, stat increase as seen in many RTS games, Grey Goo takes the far more interesting approach of providing options that are 1) mutually exclusive from one another (a player can pick 5 of 15 total options, from subgroups of 3 upgrades each) and 2) that alter the unit more often than providing a pure increase in power. Goo Destructors with Contagious Goo (an upgrade that allows their attacks to bounce to 2 additional targets after the first) are significantly threatening to Gladii or Beta Predator units, and Beta Commandos with their upgrade that allows them to attack air are useful in very different scenarios than their upgrade that allows them to explode upon death. So, Grey Goo does have some interesting considerations in play as well, even with what I consider to be a less impressive list of unit abilities in general.

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Unit Counts

Well, this one is bound to be a bit controversial. I am, personally, a fan of unit counts in RTS games. Do I think 200 might be a bit derivative of StarCraft? Of course. 200 seems to be an arbitrary number to me. That being said, I think unit counts are important: unit population cost (where a StarCraft marine costs 1 unit slot and a Battlecruiser costs 6) is often a factor of how powerful that unit is – higher tier units can have their numbers limited both by resource cost and by popcap. In a game like RA2 or Tiberian Sun, you don’t have that sort of limitation (though in general classic C&C games are more resource-constrained across a match than in Blizzard’s titles).

Additionally, many Goo faction mechanics would simply not work without population counts. Mother Goos have to be limited, and the limit of 11 is obviously related, though I don’t know the math behind that relationship, to the population count. Additionally, Mother Goos and Protean units, effectively the Goo structures, all have population costs. Without these limitations, the Goos reproduction model could easily imbalance the game in frustrating and difficult ways.

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Epic Units vs Superweapons

While games like Supreme Commander are graced with both super weapons like Nukes and Epic (experimental) units, Command and Conquer always went for the super weapon whilst Grey Goo has Epic Units. I believe this is another one of those attempts to ‘balance out’ or remediate issues introduced in the C&C formula. While both superweapons and Epic units are intended to break stalemates, in C&C games, once the superweapon is on the field, it’s very hard to remove from play without a decisive victory within the window of the weapon’s cooldown – you have to crack your opponent’s base to take out their game ender. In the case of Epic units, none of which can be repaired, the player’s use of the unit itself comes with the risk of losing the investment. It’s ultimately, probably, a more ‘fair’ and balanced model, though Vacuum Imploders and Ion Storms are undoubtedly cooler.

Tying in the Unit Count section, Epic Units also cost 70/200 unit supply, which is a pretty large armies worth of units in its own right.

Conclusion

Not too much to say here, I suppose. I think that Grey Goo, while fun, has a ways to go: its unit counts tend to be too low to be interesting with the unit dynamics they’ve chosen, and the combination of largely uninteresting map features (with the one standout of those treelines) with the often frustratingly slow pace of armies as they cross the map without the recourse of transports, can cause gamers some bellyaches. I can only hope that further tweaking and expansions, or a Grey Goo 2, will address some of the issues brought up in this article and its predecessor. “Retro” doesn’t have to mean “simple”

Still, I enjoy the game and will continue covering and playing it. See you on the battlefield!

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5 thoughts on “Is Grey Goo an Homage to Classic RTS? Part 2 – Map and Unit Design

  1. While the only CnC game I’ve played much of is Tiberium Wars I think the series’ build model makes superweapons more attractive then something like AoE or the Craft series. Because defenses come up in a few seconds and can be “saved up” indefinitely a defensive player has a few seconds of leeway. If a wing of bombers come for the superweapon he can popup three AA towers; if not they can be refunded or placed elsewhere.
    I do think the unit design for the Beta and Human factions was less interesting then for the Goo, especially the synergism protean attacks have with the Goo’s economy. Dropping a Mother into the opponent’s army isn’t just damaging him, but could both heal your Mother and expand your economy, if you can kill enough units. Thing is there are a ton of factors that influence the final outcome- how many units the Mother can cover at once, if the opponent splits his units up and into how many groups, the terrain layout. The differences between the Goo and the conventional factions makes this even more interesting- to one side cliffs are an obstacle, while, to the Goo they act as an escape route. Combine all this with the fact that the Goo’s economy grows as its Mothers become tougher and you have a great example of simple mechanics coming together to create something that, in my opinion, is incredibly interesting and nuanced.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “In the case of Epic units, none of which can be repaired” The Beta epic can be repaired on the repair field, but it takes as long as building it.

    Non the less: a good article series and an interesting blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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