Devlearning: Introduction

One of the things I've always found interesting, playing through game series, is how you can see the development team learning through how pieces of their games change over time.

The example that first got me thinking about this kind of thing was the first four (and a half) Command & Conquer games, and more specifically the fairly clearcut case of walls.

Here's what the original game had:

These were 25, 50, and 100 credits respectively. Chain Link was identical to Sandbags, except it took more damage to be destroyed, while Concrete Walls could not be run over by heavy vehicles, would block many projectiles (Some of which couldn't actually damage the wall!), and were able to absorb a lot of punishment.

In my own play I found Chain Link fencing to be a bad choice. It was twice the price as Sandbags, but it brought basically nothing to the table. Heavy vehicles would roll right over it and not notice the increased HP, and the durability increase wasn't even enough to particularly slow down Grenadiers or Rocket Soldiers, which were some of the only units that even cared about the difference.

I also found Sandbags to only really be useful because they could be used as cheap ways to separate buildings. Only Concrete Walls were a serious defense against much of anything.

And while the campaign 'unlocked' walls in steps, in tech tree terms they all had the exact same requirements: nothing. There was no using Chain Link because you haven't built the building that unlocks Concrete or something.

So then we go to the next game, Red Alert:

We have three wall types again... except not really. Barbed Wire and Sandbags are, mechanically, the same thing, they just provide visual distinction between Allied and Soviet bases. Prices are unchanged: 25$ for Sandbags/Barbed Wire segments, 100$ for Concrete Wall segments.

So it looks to me like Westwood Studios came to the same conclusion I came to, back in the day: Chain Link had no purpose in the game, and was thusly removed. But they either were okay with Sandbags being useful as a way to space buildings better, or hadn't yet concluded that Sandbags were an awful defensive tool.

Then we go to Tiberian Sun:

Sandbags have gone the way of the dodo! Now Concrete Walls (still 100$ per segment) are the only basic wall at all (Albeit with different graphics for the two factions), and we've suddenly gained gates (250$ for a single gate, which covers three tiles) so it's possible to 'seal' a base completely against the likes of enemy Engineers while still allowing your own units to enter and exit. Neat stuff.

Instead of Concrete Walls being treated as the 'advanced' wall type, they're now the basic wall type, with Firestorm Walls (for GDI) and Laser Fences (For Nod) filling the role of advanced wall. Both of them require power and are less susceptible to being destroyed. (Firestorm walls through temporary invulnerability, Laser Fencing by virtue of the individual segments being insanely durable and only the posts being meant to be destroyed conventionally)

I liked this a lot, though I always felt Firestorm walls were more of a gimmick than a proper gameplay conceit, and Laser Fencing was a neat idea that had somewhat shaky implementation.

Special commentary:

Tiberian Sun does have Sandbags, but they're not something players can build normally anymore. They're basically just for campaign purposes, which is fine as they always worked okay for that purpose in the prior two games.

Anyway, before continuing to Red Alert 2, we come to my 'and a half': the expansion to Tiberian Sun, Firestorm, did not add any new walls, but it tried an experiment with the existing Concrete Walls and Firestorm Walls. Instead of placing wall segments painstakingly one at a time (Which was always one of the biggest hurdles in actually using walls in real play) now you can 'auto-complete' walls. If you have a wall segment up, and set another nearby, the intervening tiles are filled in for free. (Incidentally, this was clear variation on how Laser Fencing fills in between Posts, and probably was inspired by the Laser Fencing code)

However, Firestorm also jacked up the price of Concrete Walls and Firestorm Walls, presumably to try to keep the price-per-segment somewhat consistent. This is... a bit of a doomed effort, honestly, and I never understood why Firestorm thought this was a good idea.

So, Red Alert 2:

No advanced walls. No Gates. Just Concrete Walls, with a graphic for each side. We drop back to 100$ for construction/click, while retaining the auto-fill feature, which effectively makes Concrete walls much cheaper in Red Alert 2 than they ever were before. A full 5-by-5 segment will cost 400$ while placing 16 tiles of walls, That's a per-tile cost of 25$ -the same as Sandbags of the days of yore.

Now, in actual practice you'll basically only achieve that specific pricepoint when walling off your Construction Yard (You are protecting it from Engineers, right?), but even when making a straight line of walls you'll still tend to hover more around 40$ per tile. And in cases where you're reconstructing walls that have been punched through, it can actually be even cheaper than that -a per-tile price of 12.5$ is totally doable.

This is basically the logical end-point of classic Command & Conquer: finally you have cheap, tough walls that don't require a lot of tedious clicking from the player to get in place, which are still pretty trivial to blast through or bypass with siege units, so they're not pushing the game to be overly turtle-y or anything.


So this is the kind of thing 'Devlearning' posts will be going over: cases where you can clearly track how the developers learned as they went, and make inferences -some interesting, some fairly mundane- about what they were trying to accomplish and how well prior attempts did or did not do and so on.

Next time, I think I'll be poking around at the Donkey Kong Country series.


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