['Design Lesson 101' is a regular column by Raven game designer Manveer Heir. The challenge is to play a game from start to completion - and learn something about game design in the process. This week, we take a look at Massive Entertainment's PC real-time strategy game, World in Conflict.]
The majority of real-time strategy games on the market follow a similar formula: collect resources, build a base, pump out units, research upgrades, demolish enemy, win. Resources are at the core of the strategy in these games. Given two similarly skilled players, it can often be expected that the player with the most resources will win the game.
These systems rely on divvying up the resources among the players in the game. One player gathering resources reduces available resources for another player at any given moment. When there is a fixed amount of resources on the map, it reduces available resources for other players permanently.
Massive goes a different route with the resources in World in Conflict
and is able to create a more intimate experience because of it.
Design Lesson: World in Conflict minimizes resource management, allowing the game to concentrate on constant action through tactics rather than large build times
World in Conflict
has a simple resource management system. The player is given a fixed amount of resources to obtain units with. Shortly after you requisition units, they are air-dropped into the game, eliminating the need for building bases. Immediately, this leads to a unit-centric, tactical feel to the entire game.
By giving the player a fixed pool of resources, the decisions that have to be made are reduced, but not minimized. You must still make unit selections. Do you wish to have a mix of air and ground forces, or would you rather have a squad of heavy tanks that are vulnerable from air attacks?
Once those decisions are made, the player attempts to take their objectives. The number of units being controlled are usually under a dozen (in single player at least), so every unit matters. When a unit dies, however, the resources that were allocated to obtain the unit are not lost forever.
Instead, what World in Conflict
does is return the resources to the player. Not immediately, however. Instead, the resources trickle back in over time. Your resources aren't constrained by how well or poor you are doing in the game (at least not constrained for very long).
By doing this, World in Conflict
avoids the snowball effect that exists in many real-time strategy games. In many games once a player gets the upper hand, it quickly snowballs into victory without much chance for retaliation by the opposition.
The death of one unit can be replaced, but not immediately. You may have to wait a couple minutes in order to be able to afford replacing that unit. If you incorrectly spent all your unit points on an air force, only to find the enemy base swarming with anti-air defenses, you can get tanks next time instead.
There still is a disadvantage to losing units, however. There needs to be consequences for a players choices, both positive and negative. Otherwise, the tactical decisions made will be meaningless.
In World in Conflict
, the negative consequence of losing a unit is the time it takes to get a replacement. Having less units affects the player's ability to hold control points. Holding control points affects the drop-position of new units. If the player is forced to drop units further back from the front line of battle, it's more difficult to reinforce, take new control points, and make positive progress in the game.
Due to this, the player cannot just haphazardly throw units towards the enemy. Throwing an entire squad off to die isn't viable. It will take a decent amount of time to fully regroup. You may be on a timed objective, meaning each second is critical.
With so few units per player, it is important to make each unit and decision count. This combined with the fact that you don't have the manage building bases, means the player is working directly with the units for the majority of the game.
By directly working with the units, the player is involved in the action more often. You are not managing a fight on four different fronts. Instead, you are making sure your mortars are taking out distant targets, and that your anti-air guns eliminating incoming helicopters. You are making regular, tactical decisions rather than just defaulting to whatever the AI wishes to do with your units.
This creates a more intimate feel to the combat, since you deal with small numbers of units. Additionally, this style leads to more constant action within the game. There is rarely a case where you build up an army to march over the enemy. Instead, you quickly receive units and move them to strategic locations for combat.
You are constantly, actively engaging in combat and squad tactics, not deciding what discipline to research for upgrades and building up base defenses. World in Conflict
, more often than not, is a game about taking, not defending.
With this, Massive has been able to make not only an excellent game, but one which caters to many types of gamers. It has a feeling of constant action, not one of waiting. This opens up the genre and makes it potentially more palatable for gamers who do not like the slower pace of many real-time strategy games.
At the same time there are enough tactics involved on the unit level to make decisions important and deep, for the real-time strategy fan. This gives World in Conflict
a unique feel from most other real-time strategy games and helps it feel new and interesting during play.
Bonus Design Lesson: The intimate approach to tactics in World in Conflict allows the game to tell a strong, emotional story
In the single player campaign, the USSR invades Seattle during the Cold War. In it, you plays as Lieutenant Parker, who is commanding a squad during the invasion.
The story introduces you to a number of characters through in-game cinematics, dialog during play, and out-of-game cinematics. There's a captain who often doesn't listen to authority. There's the colonel who consistently takes big risks. There are the grunts who you get to know on a personal level.
There is a real story going on here with actual characters, and Massive works hard at trying to forge an attachment between the player and the characters. You learn about their back-stories. You learn why they are fighting, what they've been through in their pasts, and how they react to adversity.
This is reinforced in-game by the small squads you control. By having such a unit-centric approach to the game, I often felt empathy for my units. In games, such as Relic's Dawn of War
, I have often just amassed the largest army possible, damn the casualties, and marched forward to victory.
Because this isn't possible in World in Conflict
, my emotional attachment to my individual units was greater. I didn't want to lose units, not just due to tactical issues, but because I actually felt like a Lieutenant commanding a company of soldiers (at least what I imagine that would feel like). I felt empathy for the characters in the game. I got chills at times and even felt a small amount of sadness at specific points in the game.
None of this could have been accomplished without feeling that close, intimate attachment to the units of World in Conflict
. The design decision to make a game focus on a small force of units, rather than large armies, enhanced my empathetic response to the story, as my emotion bond to the characters was reinforced by the gameplay itself.
This results in a well-told narrative, filled with emotion and character, something which many real-time strategy games lack.
[Manveer Heir is currently a game designer at Raven Software. He updates his design blog, Design Rampage, regularly. He is interested in thoughtful critique and commentary on the gaming industry.]