Feature Article

Grey Goo, and the Rise, Fall, and Rise of the RTS

Doctor, nothing will stop it!

What has happened to the real-time strategy genre? StarCraft II is huge, obviously, but the heyday of the economy-driven RTS seems behind us, replaced by strategy games that have stripped away base-building systems while focusing on combat. The tactical micromanagement of games like Dawn of War II and Company of Heroes 2 reigns supreme.

Developer Petroglyph, known for real-time strategy games like Star Wars: Empire at War and Universe at War (they really like war over there), recognizes the gap, and it's ready to fill it with Grey Goo. I recently saw Grey Goo in action, and was immediately excited by it. Three diverse factions that play differently from each other, one of which that's like nothing I've ever seen. A comprehensive approach that harks back to the classics of the genre like Age of Empires and Command & Conquer. A sci-fi visual style that reminds me of Ground Control II, one of my favorites strategy games of all time. These elements and more are the forces behind my enthusiasm for a game that could fulfill my need for new, interesting RTSs.

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Petroglyph doesn't use the words "classic" or "archetypal" to describe its game, preferring instead to use the term "vintage." Petroglyph lead game designer Andrew Zoboki is quick to point out, however, that Grey Goo is not just a blast from the past. "One of the many lessons we learned from our previous games is that players are looking for something new and fun and don't want a clone of some other game is out there with a minor variation," Zoboki says. "They are hungry for a fun experience and we want to give it to them. Grey Goo is that game."

Why does that gap exist in the first place? A decade ago there were countless real-time strategy games on shelves, and the genre dominated PC game sales. Even rebundled classics like Red Alert and Warcraft II were making their way onto armchair strategists' hard drives; players' hunger seemed insatiable. Zoboki has a theory as to why real-time strategy fell out of favor. "The genre's evolution has headed in a direction that made the genre more complex and difficult to play. Many of the mechanics for how an RTS plays and what is needed to differentiate skills are hidden from players or rely on near perfect execution rather than strategy."

Introducing the Beta. Don't get on their bad side.
Introducing the Beta. Don't get on their bad side.

Market oversaturation was another factor. "At one point there were roughly 15-plus RTS games coming out in the same year. When you have so many competitive products everyone is looking for a gimmick to get them a piece of the total RTS player pie, and the players themselves get burned out on the genre. Additionally, many other RTS games took the route of making the genre more complex as to stand out from their competition because the market was so saturated. Increased complexity without depth, along with a combination of supply of RTS games being greater than the demand, means you're no longer able to make money, hence driving a lot of the publishers to shy away from the genre."

So back to basics it is. Petroglyph aims to make infrastructure development, economic management, and strategic and tactical combat equally important, while keeping the basic mechanics relatively straightforward. Grey Goo isn't about the speed of your clicks, but about the strength of your strategy.

One of the many lessons we learned from our previous games is that players are looking for something new and fun and don't want a clone of some other game is out there with a minor variation.

Andrew Zoboki, Senior Game Designer

Petroglyph demonstrated the game to me, but I didn't get to see strategy in action. Rather, it showed me what makes the factions so different from each other. The first I saw in action was the Beta, which attaches enhancement modules to core structures, and can ultimately construct giant customizable superunits that float slowly across the map, bringing vast devastation with them. Another was the Human faction, whose structures reminded me of StarCraft's Protoss race, all clean lines and blue glow. Unlike the Beta, Humans must extend their reach from their central base using a Tetris-like system of structure placement. In the case of both factions, you can place resource-gather structures anywhere within a certain range of a resource node. The closer the building is to the center of the node, the more resources you can gather, a simple tweak to traditional mechanics that's so brilliant, I don't understand why it hasn't appeared earlier.

Then there's the Goo.

As the Goo, you begin as a single blob of nanotechnological soup, separating into smaller blobs that can ultimately morph into combat units. I've never seen anything like the Goo in a strategy game, and my only regret from the time I spent during the faction demonstration was that I didn't get to see what kind of trouble the Goo could create in a full three-faction battle. Zoboki assures me, however, that Grey Goo is rife with strategic possibilities.

No Caption Provided

"Each of the races in Grey Goo gives the player a unique set of mechanics with which to solve their common RTS gameplay challenges," says Zoboki. "Each faction doesn't just approach the gameplay aspects of infrastructure development, economic management, and strategic and tactical combat differently but also caters to different play styles. Ranging from a player who likes to build massive fortresses and turtle up to being extremely aggressive and building small bases across the map, there is a faction that will suit every player for their own personal preference. Every faction has racial themes and mechanics that separate them out from each other, from the Tetris like base building mechanics of the humans, to the modularity and customization of the Beta, to the extreme flexibility and mobility of the Goo."

If anyone's up to the task of balancing three disparate factions, it's Petroglyph, whose Universe at War stuck three wildly diverse factions into a single game and somehow made them work together. It's a wonder that we haven't heard much from the developer in recent years; Petroglyph continues to improve its MOBA, Battle for Graxia, but has generally kept a low profile. I asked Zoboki is the lessons the developer learned when making a MOBA could be applied to Grey Goo in any meaningful way. His response was an enthusiastic "yes!"

Why must such pretty places be spoiled by violence? Won't someone think of the Goo-children?
Why must such pretty places be spoiled by violence? Won't someone think of the Goo-children?

"There is a lot that can be learned from the success and failures of MOBAs and the emergence of that genre," says Zoboki. "We have incorporated much of that knowledge into Grey Goo. The most obvious example is in the player interface. The unit and structure build menu that utilizes a similar QWERT command system as is popular in MOBAs. The design for the hotkeys being in that layout was focused around giving the player an immediate hot key solution and easy to remember combinations to build units and structures without having to have a lot of hand movement. By keeping similar key combinations constant through each of the races, the system allows for a player to fall back on what they learned from a previous race when playing a new one."

I've been ready for a game like Grey Goo for a while. As much as I love the most prominent strategy games from recent years, I yearn for that thrill of building bases and sending out scouts into a world that I've never seen before. Thankfully, Grey Goo will let me do that offline, on the Internet, and even in LAN get-togethers (there's another "vintage" option to embrace!). Petroglyph wants their game to be fun for everyone. And since I'm included in that list, I can't help but want to get my hands on Grey Goo as soon as possible--presuming, of course, that the Goo can be washed off when I'm done.

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Kevin VanOrd

Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play bass in Rock Band.
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