So far that all sounds pretty good right ? Good art, flashy explosions, multiplayer only, different generals. It could have been the return of a big franchise that got progressively worse over the years. Then the cancellation came as a big shock.
It all comes down to design?
I had played the game before the beta started and gave them feedback, but the damage was already done. If you listen to the community, half of what you will hear is how the business / unlock model was terrible, as it took way too long to unlock things and it all was too expensive. While certainly true, this could be fixed by just a simple numbers tweak, a smart designer will come up with in a couple of hours. This is not going to cancel a project.
"We are not making the game you want to play"
- Victory Studios
This posts acts a bit as extension of my article about the current state of RTS games, but its not required knowing that one. This article however has some fun balancing examples for designers and gamers alike, we point out issues, but it is not so much about solving them and trying to make the world a better place this time.
So what went wrong with Command & Conquer Generals 2 ?
As the sequel to a highly regarded (and great fun, although terribly balanced) title, people had high hopes towards Generals 2, and I have to say that I was looking forward to it as well.
The screenshots looked great, it had nice graphics and looked like the original Generals with updated visuals and hopefully evolved, or exactly the same design choices. (depending which kind of fan you are).It promised to be a free to play title that would focus on multiplayer, while maybe bringing a campaign at a later point. So all development time to build a multiplayer experience, with multiple generals for everyone to enjoy, in a ever expanding free to play model, where players can expect more content down the road and spending some money while they're at it.
Inconsistent balancing and readability
Something was immediately clear after only 30 minutes of gameplay.
The pen & paper prototypes / achetypes and the general balancing was a mess. Archetypes are what makes an RTS. (if you're not a designer: specific strengths, weaknesses, usage cases, difficulty levels, risk-reward patterns that define a single object/unit...)
Some examples to illustrate my point:
Nearly every unit was effective versus everything ingame. It felt like every unit did around medium-ish damage, and had around medium-ish health, making not choices, but numbers matter. If you had a couple of small arms infantry squads, they could shred your bigger tanks without problem, while the bigger tanks did also decimate them easily, something that you would not see in any other C&C or any other RTS.
The general dynamic is that small arms are weak versus armor and cannons are inefficient versus masses of infantry. Counters like that were missing entirely or were very underdeveloped.
You had units like the GLA Quad Cannon, which was a overpowered low-cost anti-air unit in Generals 1. Intended as anti-air and anti-infantry unit, it also had high damage versus smaller vehicles and could damage heavier ones as well, making it simply too versatile, especially for its very low cost. In G2, they seemed to blindly copy the over-tuned concept, just to give it the range of an designated artillery unit (so it could out-range base defenses) and even more damage on top of it.
While this was just a single imbalanced unit, one of the major problems was the missing consistency. Taking the Quad Cannon as example again. It was the designated mobile anti-air/infantry unit, at least that's what the archetype should have been. The other factions, such as China, would obviously have an competing archetype unit as-well.
The Gatling tank. Its literally the same anti-air concept with a Gatling instead of 4 machine guns. Just that it wasn't. The Gatling tank could attack ground and air in Generals 1, just like the Quad cannon, only to be weaker overall for no reason, while having a spin-up time on top of that. Unlike the Quad Cannon, It did no meaningful damage versus vehicles, although adequate given the specific anti-infantry and anti-air role.
The G2 counterpart acted virtually the same. Getting back to the consistency argument:
Funnily, there were Gatling base defense towers as well. Please notice the 2 guns, while doing the same damage! It was an anti-infantry tower, that was only able to target ground units, while the Gatling tank could shoot both! While this is problematic on three levels so far, we now have to note that there exists a Overlord heavy tank that could equip a Gatling turret on its turret head. The special thing about it ? It could only target air.
I know that was confusing, so here a quick recap:
Gatling tank = Air + Ground
Gatling turret = Ground only
Gatling on tank = Air only
Then, to continue with the flow, it got sillier with the fact of China was having two base turrets. One base turret being the already called Gatling tower, designated anti-infantry defense. The second turret being a flamethrower turret. As you may guessed, flames are most effective versus infantry. A second anti-infantry tower, but none versus tanks, none versus air ? It even had around the same range making it simply redundant.
If it does not fill a clear role or archetype, then you probably don't need it.
Gif (New Window)
And this kind of crazy inconsistency dragged through the whole game.
Click on the pic to see a gif, how 2 heavy double-barreled tanks (a concept so ridiculous it was only tried once in real life) shoot 15 consecutive shots point-blank on a artillery truck, while the artillery still takes them down to half health while killing 2 infantry troops in the process. I mean this is a very basic thing. A traditional archetype and expectation of artillery is having high damage output and range to make up their bad direct confrontation, and vulnerable hull. Twice a no for Generals 2. Not only are they a moving armored fortress, they can also shoot directly. No minimum range, no exposed weakness, it's even faster than the tanks!
Not fulfilling expectations is an easy way of confusing players but not even following your own conventions with large inconsistencies is really harsh. Artillery being weak at close range is a very logical expectation people know from many dozens of games.
In their defense, they had the worst possible inspiration for their unit balance, in name; Generals: Zero Hour. Don't get me wrong, I loved the game, but the Zero hour add-on brought imbalance in atomar scale. Zero hour players will know.
Lets have a look at the SdKfz 165 Hummel 150mm Artillery Tank.
Hummel means Bumblebee. It is a superb archetype example. It has very defined strengths and clear weaknesses, as it is a very functional real design with a lot of thought going into it.
First off, it is a artillery unit. It has very high damage, but this is coming with the downside of having a longer reload time, meaning slower rate of fire compared to a normal tank, and the need of being stationairy to be effective. Then we have the far superior range, but that range brings decreased accuracy and longer aiming time with it, another weakness.
The engineers did not design those weaknesses, they are a logical consequence.
Then we have the hull. The engineers did only give it a thin hull, as it simply did not need real armor. With its long range, it would never be in direct confrontations, and not meet any enemy tanks in ideal case. So they used a thin hull, saving production cost and time, and making it faster, but giving it a clear weakness. (And we have another real-life balance consequence, lighter = faster)
As it did not have a rotating turret, it would also need to rotate the whole vehicle to shoot at
another target, leaving it heavily exposed at the back and top, another weakness translating excellently into potential gameplay.
Meeting a stray tank, or getting into an ambush, would capitalize on its weaknesses, and leaving no chance for a win, as it can hardly fight back nor survive strong direct hits. Exactly the opposite of what artillery did in Generals 2 if we remember.
On a side note, Artillery is very favorable towards spamming, in games and in real life.
The main weakness in its offensive power, is the low accuracy over such high range.
If we now have 30 of them with the same low accuracy, suddenly this weakness is levered, and we have a extremely lethal effective area, making each unit more effective in a mass than alone, something we usually want to avoid in games, as promoting spamming is not healthy for the game and its players.
Only cheap tactics
As I described in my last article, cheese strategies were always a big thing in RTS in general, but they were as bad as never before. Since every unit was remotely good versus every other unit, it did not really matter what you built, as long as you built enough of it. (Pic: Spam on small scale)
Many people simply spammed the standard small arms infantry, constantly flooding the map, as they were efficient versus everything. Spam was very apparent, especially as there were not many options for the player. Turtling or just barraging the enemy with giant piles of artillery was also a common sight.
Due to the maps being too big and having no focus, controlling locations on the maps was mere a thing of staying undiscovered for a while and then getting resource gatherers killed from time to time without a real chance to react, as distances were too long to react to anything in time, unless you heavily fortified every position. In Dawn of War 2 per example, the maps promote engagement, while the maps in Generals 2 promote being alone and undiscovered for as long as possible,
Lack of variety & units
Very simple to explain here, there was just not enough variety. (Which was a main pillar of the game however) They worked on different generals, that should offer new playstyles and variations of known units, but there were no units to begin with. The base factions did not have any real choice at all. You had 4 tanks, two infantry units, two air units and that was about it. And there were no deep interactions or meaningful choices to make. you just would take what you could theoretically build.
The USAs second infantry unit was a spotter, so they had effectively one infantry unit that could combat. How is a player NOT going to spam units blindly in such a scenario. Imagine the unit variety of one of the latest C&C and divide them by 3, without increasing individual unit depth substantially.
Victory also cut the interesting skilltree / unlock system generals offered and replaced them with less meaningful active skills (whose unlocked after no apparent reasons) which were the main impact the generals would make, as they had no big unit, or building changes to back up their strong implications. (Image: General with 3 exclusives only?)
There were some other issues, the upgrades were not obvious, the buildings had strange and wrong implications about what they did, the icons were hard to understand, unlocking units was not obvious what you had to build, the outgame progression had little impact (...)
Too much pressure
With all those issues, and no apparent way to start fixing things, plus the severe lack of content, the problematic monetization, the constant pressure from the playerbase and the publisher(?) they must have lost their head somewhere along the road, but of course that is only my interpretation. I wish Victory games the best for their next project, and if you want to learn more about archetypes and RTS balance, check out Generals: Zero hour, they do a lot right and lot wrong, you will get so much insight. (+ its great fun)
See you ingame!
- Eric Krutten
A short and fun journey into balancing, archetypes and the Generals series.
Archetypes and why C&C Generals 2 got cancelled
10 July 2014 by Eric Krutten "Shrike"
Please keep in mind that English is my 4th
Language and there will be errors.