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Everybody’s Different: Empire Earth III and RTS Design

March 15th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 7 Comments · Design, Mad Doc, RTS

We don’t want this place to turn into Media Corner, so let’s get back to strategy games.

A few months ago, I had a chance to see a very early build of Empire Earth III. (I wrote up a preview in the April CGM). Since I wasn’t a huge fan of the other Empire Earth games, this was an assignment I took with low expectations. The standard operating procedure in sequels is just to pile more and more stuff into a game, and then shine it up.

Mad Doc is certainly shining it up, but they are cutting back on the stuff. There are only three factions based on rough geographic areas (West, East, MidEast) and there will be fewer ages to level through. All in an effort to heighten the distinctions between the nations and open up player choice. I was told that there might be templates within these factions (Germans would a tank track template, for example) but this was not a final decision and would certainly detract from what they saw as the strength of their system, player customization of the races.

The three factions are very different from each other, but now you can take one of these factions and tailor your advance through the ages to match your play style or your likely opponents. It’s a powerful design idea based partly on ceding power to the player.

Though Mad Doc would like to think that this is another brilliant and original idea (which it is), it’s also a step that Big Huge Games took with Rise of Legends, though Reynolds and Co. didn’t take it this far. Rise of Nations had a lot of quite distinct nations. Each played slightly differently, though, in the end, the experience of playing one or the other didn’t change from Maya to Nubia to Russia. So the pseudo-sequel went with three completely unique races with tech trees so deep and wide that you could relearn the game even within the Vinci branch. An excellent game of breadth along the Age of Empires model yielded to an excellent game of depth along the Starcraft model.

The peril of depth, though, is that it is hard to balance right. Game testers need to try a lot of possibilities and may not play a single build often enough to get a sense for how it breaks the game system. As uninventive as it is, the +1 Gold, +3 Horse Speed design allows you to take stuff away, too, making game balance a matter of math. (Not that it always works. Remember the Teutonic Knights in Age of Empires II.)

I really need to do a genealogy of RTS games to track when the desire to make each race unique finally won out over general sameness. These games can be grouped into families well beyond the direct descendant model, and it might be worthwhile exercise to track the cross-pollenization of ideas through the subgenre.

Anyway, I am actually and honestly looking forward to Empire Earth III. There’s still a little trepidation (I’m still not sold on the quest system in the campaign game) but Mad Doc should be given credit for doing some really radical redesign of a game that could have just faded away. And it can’t be worse than Star Trek: Legacy.


7 Comments so far ↓

  • Alan

    Unique units have been around since the days of Dune 2, but for the most part the sides shared the same generic units. Command & Conquer expanded upon this idea, with the result that the tech tree diverged gradually. Both sides would start with comparable units, but the endgame consisted almost entirely of unique units. If I had to guess, I would say that Starcraft was the tipping point where unique build trees evolved into a viable design.

  • Troy

    Yeah, all that stuff I know. But there was a time when the pendulum tipped decisively in favor of the Starcraft model over the Warcraft model. Which games picked up on the SC model? When? Why? Did consumers respond? For a while there, SC lived in harmony with the “slightly different” design; now I think there is no going back to that, at least for major titles.

  • Alan

    I’m not entirely sure about that; games like AoE III still rely on the tried and true AoE build mechanics.

  • Troy

    To an extent, but not as much as they once did. Look at Age of Mythology. Even Age of Empires III has the Turks (a radical difference) and the Warchiefs expansion really mixes it up. I think Ensemble has decided that this is something that gamers want.

    And while AoE3 is generally still variations on a model, it is increasingly isolated in the RTS market. There’s that, Cossacks, some WW2 RTS games and not a lot else. Looking down the line, I can’t see any major RTS that follows the marginal difference model. I am certainly missing something and haven’t played SupCom yet – some people have said that all the differences end up melding into one big sameness there.

  • Dave Long

    I’ve been thinking that it might be time for someone to make a truly chess-like RTS. Two equal sides fighting on a relatively equal board. Turn all players loose with the ability to create the same things (maybe with a veneer of graphical difference on top) and really find out who’s the best.

    For the campaign players, it’s no big deal. They still get XX campaign missions to play with new units introduced as the game wears on. For the multiplayer folks, they can finally stop grouching about which side has the gamebreaker unit and just focus on who’s better at econ and combat.

    Would certainly be interesting to see how something like that plays out…

  • Alan

    Players can already do this in most modern RTS games by picking identical factions on a symmetric map.

  • JonathanStrange

    I don’t mind that certain factions might have unique, powerful units as long as there is the possibility that a skillful competitor could counter by using the enemy superunit’s increased maintenance or decreased effectiveness in certain terrain against him. Or if that can’t be reasonably done to affect the overall situation, I do like if recruiting my faction’s version of the enemy superunit doesn’t result in my superunit looking exactly the same, except in a different color. Superficial true, I don’t want my elite cavalry looking exactly like the barbarian’s cavalry.