Command & Conquer is one of the big innovators to real time strategy games today, but unfortunately fell off a cliff because of radical changes to the formula that makes Command & Conquer what it’s known for.
The basic formula goes as this, build a base, build army, destroy the opposing base. Now there’s a lot of steps along the way to achieve that such as gathering resources and building the appropriate buildings and defenses etc. but before Command & Conquer IV that formula stayed consistent and still holds fairly well in today though it does struggle to really make a game shine out unless it has other quirks.
Let’s go over the changes over the years to see how the formula
Tiberian Dawn & Red Alert – Tiberian Sun & Red Alert 2
This is where Command & Conquer shines the most. These were all made by the original company, Westwood Studios. Besides having the base ideas in place and giving the Soviets (Red Alert Series) and GDI (Tiberium Series) the best vehicles the main quirk of this era was this: the more of a specific building build the faster the production of the unit those buildings produce, do you have more than one War Factory? Tanks will build faster. More than one barracks, infantry come out faster. More construction Yards? Quicker building production. The drawback however is that you may only build these units out one of the buildings that you designate as the primary building.
The main point I want to bring is that this is a fairly logical system, for example if I have one factory I have a basic time stamp on when a product is done, if I another factory that does the same thing the time stamp decreases because another factory has taken part of the effort that the first factory would have to do which makes the process faster and it only gets faster if I have more and more factories.
It seems very simple on paper but the result is that player can build up armies very quickly and there’s a more interesting strategy when spamming construction yards where you can build base defenses very quickly and even build all the way to the opponents base (Because buildings increase your build radius which is what limits you from building anywhere on the map.) The only other real extra quirk is in red alert 2 where infantry are able to garrison building which gives infantry a way to defeat vehicles.
Command & Conquer: Generals & Zero Hour Expansion
This was the first ever game made not developed by Westwood Studios (Though not the first game under the EA license). Besides the modern setting which is a different take compared to the theme of a parasytic lifeform (Tiberium Series) and Time Travel (Red Alert), a fair amount of changes were made the formula albeit the main idea is still there.
The main quirk for this is that instead of having multiple buildings of the same type give a quicker production time, the player can build units from multiple of the same buildings, but there is no decrease to the time it takes to build the unit. Unless you build enough of one building you will only get slower results compared to the previous games when building up armies.
The other main change is an introduction to a tech tree. This gives each faction access to special units of the faction as well as special faction abilities. The Zero Hour Expansion harps on this even more with the Generals Challenge where you pick a specific branch of a faction that has a niche of an in-game mechanic where the tech tree is even more tailored to that general’s play style.
Tiberium Wars & Red Alert 3/RA3 Uprising
This is where The Tiberium Series & Red Alert Series truly start differentiating themselves in terms of game play mechanics (Besides setting and factions of course). Red Alert 3 Inherits the Tech Tree that was used by Command & Conquer Generals, however this tech tree offers only off map abilities and does not offer any sort of unique unlock able unit for in a game meaning. The other specific quirk is a basic ally system where the game will understand that two players are on the same team (Obviously done when setting up the game) and as a result both players incomes are shared and players can build off each others build radius which is very handy if two players go for one specific base.
Tiberium Wars sticks to its more traditional self and unlocks faction-specific abilities from buildings only. However the specific quirk that is inherited is that it receives unit specific upgrades unlocked from buildings which can enhance the effectiveness of certain units. Other than that nothing much is new to the Tiberium Series other than a new playable faction.
This was the last or rather most recent attempt to change the C&C Formula but the result was that it strayed off to far and ended up falling flat on its face trying to be unique.
The big change in this is that there is no actual base building, rather your HQ can be moved (something that seems to derive from how players can repack construction yards, which has been in the game since Red Alert 2, aside from C&C: Generals & and C&C 3) the result is that the player’s HQ is mobile and can move freely around the map though however all your units do spawn from this one HQ.
Now you do have some choice on what options you have available to you based on which type of HQ you choose but there is no tech tree to delve into, just 3 choices for what your HQ is and that’s what decides you units and abilities.
The big quirk that C&C 4 uses is point system where players gain point by taking capture points on the map. Unlike previous games where you defeat your opponent through annihilation only, players must outlast one another in a war of attrition.
The end result is that C&C 4 is a poor man’s version of Company of Heroes where even CoH has more base building involved compared to C&C 4 and more importantly the choices in Company of Heroes are more adherent to the play style of a specific faction. The other point being that Company of Heroes had a lot more in depth mechanics that surrounded how units counteract one another.
How can the formula be changed without changing everything completely?
Simply put there is no basic way to add changes to the formula without doing massive changes. You can add a lot of side parts to the base formula such as a tech tree, hero units (Supreme Commander), and unit upgrades to create balance. But there is no exact way to change it, considering that RTS’ such as Total War and EU IV are what really lead strategy games both are series that use fairly robust mechanics when it comes to large scale battles of huge world map decisions when playing politics. The end result is that the current basic design of Command & Conquer becomes unattractive because you can’t really do anything fancy with it.
Perhaps one thing that could be done is go back to a more basic point where mechanics were much more simple, by this I mean perhaps when trying to design a game that has the formula of Command & Conquer, developers should start by looking at it’s original state in Tiberian Dawn & Red Alert, this is where the formula is at it’s most basic and what could happen is that developers can take the formula to a new route instead of the route that EA went with the franchise. One idea that come to mind when doing this are: possibly making a more logical route which is the base that some would argue that Command & Conquer did with it’s mass production quirk in the original strategy games. Perhaps developers could add more to this idea such as adding time stamps which make certain unit, buildings & more improve in some way, to me this could be an interesting idea that I would want find out has ever been done before (Besides Age of Empires, but that was an upgrade that was usually initiated by the player and not by in-game time)