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C&C December 2012 Community Summit - Hands On Report

By methuselah - 20 Dec 2012
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Command and Conquer Generals has been a kind of Bermuda Triangle for me a time sucking void to which many failed classes, significant loss of sleep, and anti-social behavior may be attributed. However, for all the time I have lost to this game, it has given me much in return. I can directly attribute my role on, to this game. Consequently, I can also credit Generals with my career as a web developer, and many travel opportunities over the years. One such opportunity came along just over a week ago, when EA invited me out to get a hands-on preview of the game I have been waiting nearly a decade to play: "Generals 2*".

The Event

I won't go into many details about the event itself simply because it is what was learned from the event that carries the most interest. EA very graciously flew myself and nearly a dozen or so other community leaders from all over the world, to their Los Angeles studio for a sneak peek and some hands on time with the game. For two days, we played Command and Conquer ("Generals 2") and engaged in incredibly open and candid dialogue with the development team including the studio's General Manager: Jon Van Caneghem.

This community summit was NOT a show and tell it was a proper focus group session in which EA was more interested in gathering our feedback than simply showing us the game and sending us on our way. While past community summits have always included feedback sessions, I felt this to be the first community summit in which EA was actually asking for direction and guidance on their progress. The reason for this is not because EA's new C&C team is clueless (quite the contrary a point I will touch upon shortly), but because this game was being shown to the community early enough where feedback and suggestions could be implemented. Past summits have always showcased a game that is too far along in the development process for meaningful changes to be implemented.

EA's New C&C Team

As excited as I was to visit EALA again, I knew it would not be a reunion. This was largely a new team, and most of the old crew Aaron, Greg, Jeremy, Gavin, Raj, David, Amer, Jim, and Chris have moved on to other things. My beloved Generals universe was now under the direction of brand new leadership, brand new designers, brand new culture, and a new monetization model. Did they "get it"? Did they understand both the fundamentals as well as the details that characterized Generals gameplay?

The answer to those questions appears to be yes. The most important thing to note is that they have not yet begun to think about ways in which they will monetize this game. Their only focus so far has been on the product itself making sure that fun, fair gameplay comes first. The development team fundamentally understands that monetizing this product at the expense of gameplay is pointless you can't monetize anything if everyone stops playing the game after a few months. Fears of a pay-to-win fiasco are essentially unjustified at this point. Of course, there are still a thousand ways EA could improperly monetize this game (intentionally or not), but this team does in fact "get it" you can't monetize a bad game. Period.

Concerning balance, this team is taking a very data-driven approach, and has developed a number of sophisticated scenario comparison tools to aid in determining a rough framework for balance. Their balance designer, Jeremy Townsend, has a solid grasp of two important concepts:
  1. That purely symmetric balance is boring. You need balance and variety, in order to have a gaming experience that is as fun as it is fair.
  2. That there is a distinction between numeric balance, and gameplay balance. Many of the tools he has developed focus on numeric balance: using statistics and raw numbers to get a close approximation of which build order timings are overpowered, and which units are too cost-effective. However, he understands that gameplay is not about raw numbers the human element can substantially affect the cost-effectiveness of units, and the viability of certain strategies and build orders. To help zero in on balance issues, Generals 2 will actually report enormous amounts of match data which can then be used to analyze the true cost-effectiveness and usage patterns of units and strategies.

The Command and Conquer Platform / Live Service

So what is the game? There's a bit of confusion as to what it should be called. *EA refers to it as "Command and Conquer: A free live service that will initially launch with Generals universe content." In the interest of consolidating that mouthful, I will refer to that content as Generals 2.

What this means is that Command and Conquer is a platform a single set of Frostbite 2 engine files and Origin online services that will power brand new content from all of the C&C universes (eventually). Being a live service, it means that the most fundamental part of the business model and monetization strategy is to have real post-release support, and evolve the game based on a mix of data and community feedback. This is a key difference from past C&C games, where post-release patches had to be built into the development budget ahead of time. This meant that post-release support had a fixed and very limited life span, and was actually not in EA's best short-term interest (of course, one could argue that it was in their long-term interest, but that's another matter). Instead, this new game cannot be monetized unless people stick around for a long time, and in order to do that, EA must support it post release. This time, it is in their best short-term interest (and mid-long term interest) to keep players happy. Post-release support is "baked in".

The Game Mechanics

To get right to the point, Generals 2 is a proper RTS. It's not an RTT or MMORTS/RTT masquerading as an RTS (World in Conflict, C&C 4, End of Nations), it's a "Oh hey, this actually plays like a sequel to Generals, and feels like a C&C game" game. There is resource gathering. There is base building. There is real time combat. There are three unique factions. It's a solid return to what we had taken for granted prior to the creation of C&C 4. It should be noted that at this point, all of the following information is based on a current pre-alpha/alpha version of the game, and is subject to change.

1. Base Building
Dozers and workers are back! Yes, base building is carried out by fragile, harass-able construction units. This means Generals 2 will not suffer from the base crawling Whack-A-Mole that plagued C&C 3 and RA3, nor will it suffer from the inherent "cheapness" of defenses instantly appearing exactly where you're trying to harass your opponent. Defenses must now be placed strategically and with some forethought, rather than deployed reaction-ally. Stopping your opponent from building anything in or near your base is as simple as killing the fragile unit doing the construction. One difference between this game and Generals 2, is that there is grid-based placement rather than free-form placement. Buildings adhere to a grid, and rotate at 90 degree angles (similar to RA3). However, this is not finalized.

2. Resources
Resources are the same, but different. Supply piles are the main resource nodes, and you can place a resource collection facility near the supply pile. Multiple gatherer units will move back and forth, gathering from supplies and dropping them off. The flow of these resources is gated, meaning you cannot gather at an unlimited rate there is a maximum optimal number of gatherers to build per supply pile that you control. This means EA can tune the economy to avoid unit massing, and it requires players to take on the risk of controlling an expansion if they want to increase their income rate.

In addition to supply, there is also now another resource type: oil. This is not the same as oil derricks from the original Generals, whereby you still gained the same resource/currency. Instead, this is an entirely separate resource that you need in addition to supply, in order to build advanced units and buildings. Yes, it's the equivalent of Vespene Gas from StarCraft, and no, it's not the end of the C&C world as we know it. While C&C games have traditionally only had a single resource to worry about, the addition of a second resource has enormous benefits for adding strategic variety and depth to the game. Further, this new resource is incredibly easy to gather: just build an oil derrick on an oil field, and it automatically ticks money for you.

There is presently no late-game resource like Black Markets or Supply Drops. All supplies (including oil fields) eventually run out and there will come a point where players have no way of earning any additional money. There were pros and cons to the old "indefinite late-game income" of Generals, and therefore their absence in Generals 2 is not necessarily a bad thing.

3. Tech Trees
Each faction has a unique way of teching up. Unlike Generals whereby each faction had a single tech facility that unlocked all units and upgrades, each faction in Generals 2 has a unique way of teching up. It's actually very similar to the tech tree variety found in Red Alert 3. Unfortunately I cannot go into any detail regarding the tech trees for each faction, but I can say that the tech trees are much richer than what we saw in Generals.

4. Infantry
To confirm what we've seen in various trailers and screenshots, infantry come in "squads". The squad nature is purely cosmetic: infantry are still single controllable entities, but visually they just happen to be composed of multiple people.

The Little Details

Generals 2 has some great fundamental mechanics in place (workers, gated economy, deeper tech trees, two resource types), but what about all of the nuanced details that really gave Generals its magic? The short answer is that it's far too early to tell. Not only is Generals 2 barely in alpha, but the "little things" in Generals and Zero Hour were discovered over a period of ten full years. We simply will not know whether Generals 2 has fully managed to capture the magic of the original until it has gone through a similar crucible.

What we do know, however, is that Generals 2 will have the same opportunity that Generals had. Builder units means base crawling and defense Whack-A-Mole won't get in the way of unit combat. The gated economy and current economy scaling emphasize manageable-sized armies of units whereby good control will mean more than raw numbers.

Skirmish & Gameplay Modes

Yes, skirmish will be included with this game, along with different gameplay modes such as PvP and PvE (player vs environment).


The team behind Generals 2 seems to "get it", and have moved Generals 2 in a direction that is comfortably true to the original, and in some ways, better. However, this merely gives the game potential and only time will tell if Generals 2 lives up to the magic of its predecessor.

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