command and conquer Games Petroglyph games

Is Grey Goo an Homage to classic RTS? Part 1 – Economy and Basebuilding

For a while now, I’ve made no bones about Petroglyph’s Grey Goo being one of my better-liked and recommended RTS titles. From its art direction, to its simply-told but well-crafted story, to the amazing cinematography of its cutscenes and mission briefings to its at times gleefully elegant game-play mechanics, I find a lot to recommend in this game.

But one thing that’s always struck me as an odd assertion is the marketing angle the game has taken. Descriptions of the game have leveraged Petroglyph’s Westwood pedigree in claiming that Grey Goo is a throwback or an homage to the golden era of RTS – a modernization of the old Command and Conquer formula, if you will. At first, I accepted this on faith as it were: after severe setbacks with End of Nations, it made sense to create a more traditional RTS. But, after playing the game for a while, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was really what Westwood’s games had been like? And, if so, what the significance was of any similarities Grey Goo might have to classic Command and Conquer.

With the help of the wonderful CNCNET, I’ve done some side-by-side comparisons and I’m ready to weigh in. In part one of this 2-part series, I’ll be taking a look at the economic and base construction systems of classic Westwood RTS Tiberian Sun as they relate to Grey Goo – not to cast aspersions on either title, but to understand this modern game in the context of one of its most venerable predecessors, and to see what can be made of the game’s informal claim to be a tribute to classic RTS games. Part 2, to be released a week or so from today, will focus on pacing, map design and unit design.

Let’s go!



I’d like to start with one of the foundational aspects of RTS game play – the act of growing one’s economy and building a base. In both Tiberian Sun and Grey Goo, adding additional resource harvesting capability is notably non-trivial. Refineries, for factions in both games, are some of the more expensive structures in the game – especially in early game, when factories and barracks are considerably cheaper than expanding economic capacity.

Please note, for the majority of this and the subsequent article, I will be focusing on the Human and Beta factions and largely leaving the Goo out of the picture. The Goo have some passing similarities to the Zhon or the Aliens from Earth 2160, but are fairly standalone in terms of production mechanics and have virtually no basebuilding, as Mother Goos serve the role of production structure, Havester, Refinery, tech structure, etc. Therefore, I feel that in most cases drawing comparisons to other titles is unwarranted. Please take this as a recommendation of the Goo faction design, for it is meant as one.

In the case of Grey Goo, Refineries cost 800 catalyst while factories cost 150, putting Refineries at roughly 5.3 times the cost of Factories. And yet, Refineries are vital to growing one’s economy, though getting additional refineries in the early game puts a player in the position of stalling out their economy entirely for upwards of a minute. Tiberian Sun it its turn does Grey Goo one better, with its refineries totaling 6.67 times the cost of Barracks, not counting 1400 credits for additional Harvesters (though this does defray the cost of having to build additional refineries).


Overall, however, one is able to make a pretty direct comparison between Grey Goo’s resource system and that of Tiberian Sun. While fairly minor deviations exist, at the core of both game’s economic model is a resource spread over a geographic area (Tiberium being in irregular fields while catalyst vents are underground and tend to form in veins or rivers) harvested via a multi-part system – either Extractor/Harvester/Refinery for Grey Goo, or Harvester/Refinery for classic Command and Conquer games – often at fairly long distances and vulnerable to dedicated harassment. Grey Goo can even be looked at as providing an interesting alternative to the C&C system by allowing Harvesters and Extractors to be replaced for free, while allowing exploding Harvesters to ‘strike back’ at enemy forces with their death throes doing area effect damage.

Grey Goo seems to do homage to the classic C&C model, while trying to streamline it and make it more friendly (for lack of a better term) – both Harvesters and Extractors are free, but Harvesters are fairly easy to kill. This makes harassment of harvesting operations effective in stalling or limiting an opponent’s income, but not outright crippling them as can happen in the Command and Conquer games. An analog could also be made to the Refinery/Caryall/Harvester system from the Dune games, as Caryalls mitigate the effects of Spice Melange being often pretty far from the player’s base of operations.

I cannot let Grey Goo off scott-free in the economics department, however. Command and Conquer’s Power mechanic adds an additional layer of complexity to those titles’ systems that I find lacking in Grey Goo. The requirement to purchase additional Power Stations to manage one’s power level and thereby enable new tech structures, turrets, etc is actually fairly important in keeping the player working and the game interesting at all stages, while the Human and Beta ‘must be attached to Core/Hub’ system is overall more simplistic and more seldom a source of tension in the game – though Grey Goo’s Human players may contest this, as critical conduit junctures going down at importune times can really throw a monkey wrench into the finely oiled machine that is the Human base.



Economy and basebuilding go hand in hand, of course, and Command and Conquer’s classic system is well worth considering. There are a number of significant differences in the design of Grey Goo and that of Tiberian Sun (as representative of classic C&C design). In fact, in this regard the differences are so marked that it’s kind of hard to decide where to start.

Perhaps it would be best to start with the similarities between Grey Goo and classic C&C… For most of the tech tree of both the GDI and the Brotherhood of Nod, there are very significant overlaps in the functions of different structures, as you see in Grey Goo with the design of the Beta and the Humans. Barracks, Factories, Refineries, Power Plants: they all are more or less analogous.

Returning to Tiberian Sun as I did from a span of many years, I was actually a little surprised to note the similarities between the basebuilding of the GDI and the Brotherhood of Nod. It certainly made me appreciate Petroglyph’s decision to keep the Humans and Beta somewhat similar, with small Factories and Large Factories, walls, and many other structures of analogous functions. Units, well… I’ll get to those shortly. However, it should be noted that a rough similarity between production mechanics across factions is almost assuredly a trait taken from classic C&C titles.

Continuing on to the differences, I’d like to talk of the players’ ability to multitask construction projects. Unique from a StarCraft or a War Wind (etc), the Command and Conquer games put meaningful bottlenecks into the very nature of construction. The only producer of structures in the early game is the MCV, which ultimately means that for the earliest minutes of the game, only one thing can be built at a time: turrets, factories, anything – one at a time, until additional MCVs are built and unpacked into Conyards. This is what I like to call “single thread” production, and it makes the act of building (or rebuilding, as the case may be) a base non-trivial, especially in the early minutes of the game or in between attacks. This plays in to the Power mechanic, as Power Plants are critical targets, enabling a player to take out their enemy’s ability to produce units or utilize the minimap without committing the resources to kill those structures. Furthermore, when rebuilding, a player must take the time to produce power plants alongside tech and production, committing precious seconds to ensure they have sufficient power to keep themselves going.

Grey Goo, in contrast, has less of a hard bottleneck for production – basically, each faction is only limited by resources in terms of what they can produce at any given time. If a Human player wants to drop a dozen buildings at once, they can, though they might stall out their economy in so doing. Beta players are somewhat more restricted, as all of their structures have to be attached to hubs, so hub space can be a premium and a bottleneck for production, and Goo players have a limit of 4 potential health bars per Mother that limits what they can produce at any given time, but in effect these bottlenecks are less severe than you see in older C&C titles.


Grey Goo does an excellent job of streamlining the RTS process of basebuilding, however – the Factory/hub/module system, by which the production capability of a single type of production structure can be modified via add-ons, is a very clever way of handling unit production in my mind. Also, the fact that each faction in Grey Goo has a slight twist to this mechanic is interesting and welcome. While the Beta determine what a factory can produce based on what else is attached to a hub, the Humans require a player to attach add-ons to the individual factory – each system is capable of a wide range of subtle variation, from Beta having 3 factories sharing a single add-on, or 2 factories sharing 2 add-ons, to Human factories being constructed to share 1 of their add-ons, with unique add-ons on either side, there’s a lot of versatility to Grey Goo’s system.

To be honest, I tend to prefer the C&C method of power generation and bottlenecking production to the MCV/Conyard – it might be nostalgia talking, but the system feels like it tends to make a player’s decisions feel more weighty.

However, I feel like Grey Goo’s production system is my preferred one: the flexibility of the Factory/add-on system is overall more interesting than having barracks/war factory supplemented by tech structures. I’d call Grey Goo’s tech system more ‘wide’ than ‘deep’ in that Tiberian Sun has the player build a chain of structures to unlock all of their units, while Grey Goo ties both tech and production capability to add-ons that can be built in any order.


HumanEpicVSGoo (10)

As far as resource gathering is concerned, the influence of classic Command and Conquer titles is quite clear in Grey Goo, with some kudos going to Petroglyph for making the system less of a slippery slope, and some finger-wagging on my part regarding what I see as the elegance of classic Command and Conquer titles’ power system and the premium cost of being able to produce multiple structures at once.

In the next article, I will be discussing the respective games’ unit designs, map design conventions, pacing and unit caps (or lack thereof). While I think it evident that Grey Goo bears some genetic resemblance to Command and Conquer’s older titles in its mechanics, I feel that it attempts to make some quality of life improvements in terms of the game’s slippery slope, and to make its tech tree “wide” rather than “deep”.

While I would love to draw up some value judgments about the relative merits of Grey Goo as related to Tiberian Sun, I feel that my argument would be lacking without looking at the other facets of the game’s design, so I’ll reserve a concrete statement on this for the conclusion of my next article. I do hope that it’s evident that I’m attempting to be fair to both titles, and look forward to any feedback I may receive.

Please leave me your thoughts in the comments.

See you on the battlefield!


  1. Being an older gamer I’ve played from dune up to C&C generals. To me the game comes over only reading reviews and twitch lacking in content namely many fun units to try, limited missions and a small player base considering its an online game. Maybe your article should be why can a new RTS be so limited at that price and by all accounts looks like its a dead man walking already. Rushed out half arsed attempt to fill a void in the market that has failed miserably. Just need to look at the steam stats.


    1. The point of my site, and of this article, is to look at RTS games (in this case, Grey Goo) from a mechanical and educational perspective. As a long-time fan of the Command and Conquer series (though it’s been years since I’ve actively played any C&C game) I found myself interested by the statements asserting that Grey Goo (a game I very much enjoy playing by the way) is a throwback to the classic days of the 90’s and early 2000’s – the so-called “Golden Age of RTS”

      This article and the follow-up I’ll be posting next week are an exploration both of the mechanics of Grey Goo and of Tiberian Sun as a prototypical C&C title, examining the differences and similarities between Petroglyph’s approach today and Westwood’s back in the early 2000’s, no more and no less.

      Should you be interested in purchasing and playing Grey Goo and writing an article like the one you propose in your comment, I’d happily read it and even share it if I found it well written and well reasoned, but I have no plans to write such an article myself at this time.

      Thanks for reading! I’ll be very interested to see what you feel about my thoughts on map design and unit design in these two titles.


      1. I play TS and loved it. I know enough about gray goo from reading the many poor reviews and watched enough of the game on twitch to realise its lacking what I’d consider was personally fun in previous RTS titles. I can’t remember but I watched one guy play through one sides whole campaign nine or so missions with a few lasting a mere ten minutes. As you will know RA and C&C did excellent story driven campaigns that almost seemed endless. For a £30 title I expect more. It’s main mode of play is online with a dwindling player base 116 players current on steam!, Mind you thats better than average of 51 players a day for May. While the mechanics may be of a solid RTS I believe due to its limits it will get repetative and boring real quick as suggested no one is playing this now and that even with a new patch out. It’s biggest flaw in my opinion is it offered nothing new it was simply more of the same with a few eye candy twists. That to me was its biggest crime. bring back the RTS but do it with style and effort to relaunch the genre don’t just keep to the same old formula thinking it has lasting appeal. Buying this to me is throwing my money I’d rather spend on act of aggression as it looks far more promising and what an modern RTS should be. Be interested in your thoughts on AOA than this listing titles sinking quicker than the titanic. Fair point admiring the nuts and bolts of it but if they amass to something mediocre at best its a waste.


  2. Real good analysis. But i find more of Total annihilition in the flux of eco, cause you can build multiple units from different buildings. Remember in TS, you can just improove the rythm of production with more buildings, but you can only build from one building.

    I know you love RTS, i don’t know if you can understand english but i have write a really long article on innovation on RTS. I can clearly add Grey goo in it now, but as i was predicted, hard to fight vs Blizzard and MobA, even with a real good RTS.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My comment from Reddit:

    This is a very interesting article. Seeing the name if the title, I was excited that someone else might actually share my opinion of the game, but after reading it seems that isn’t so. I’ve been meaning to write a review of Grey Goo on Steam, so I suppose this is a good place to start. I think addressing the “homage to Command and Conquer style RTS” aspect is very important because that is quite the claim. I’ll address the same two areas you did. Disclaimer: I grew up playing Red Alert 2 and Command and Conquer 3. I still consider CnC3 and KW to be the best games in the series.
    This was by far the most disappointing part of the game for me. I don’t understand how you could draw a comparison to Tiberium fields at all. The economy of Grey Goo was much more reminiscent of Red Alert 3. Your economy is limited by space rather than availability. I believe this is one of the biggest reasons RA3 fell flat. You have so little control over the power of your economy so that the player feels almost helpless in influencing it. By having a field, it is up to the player how fast they want to consume their resources. You have the option to spend more early game funds building units or building up economy. Grey Goo takes away that choice because there is no way to speed up resource gathering. Even the distance from your refinery to your extractor has no effect except safety. Taking away these options severely limits the strategic options the players have right away.
    Another issue I have is the comparing the cost differences between the barracks and a refinery in CnC to a factory and a refinery in Grey Goo. The issue is that the factory builds everything. Infantry are almost nonexistent and really only represent cosmetic differences in Grey Goo. This means the factory is FAR more important than the barracks. A more fair comparison would be to a CnC war factory. While infantry can never be discounted as useless, tanks tend to be more flexible in use. The ratio is 1:1 there. Suddenly the CnC refinery becomes much less costly in comparison building more than one early on isn’t so crippling to your economy and as I mentioned earlier, they can be placed on the same field allowing for double the resource gain.
    Finally, having extractors and harvesters be free in Grey Goo shouldn’t be considered an alternative. I believe this is a step back in strategic diversity (I’ve been reading too many LoL patch notes). By having harvesters cost money, it means you actually have to worry about their safety. Losing one or two harvesters early can cost you the game. It also allows for the concept of “drafting” harvesters. What this means is essentially building harvesters in your building cue by building a refinery, placing it, then selling it after the harvester has spawned. This is done because having 2 harvesters on one refinery is much more cost effective while also avoiding interrupting your unit cue. So losing a harvester in CnC isn’t just a momentary loss of income, there is actually an additional cost associated with regaining that money flow.
    I would also like to say that I agree completely with your analysis of power. The additional layer throws a wrench into the value of certain buildings. If your capable of taking out only one building, choosing between a power plant or a barracks can be a tough decision. Having meaningful choices is what makes or breaks an RTS.
    Grey Goo tries to combine the CnC and Starcraft basebuilding methods into one. You can place as many building as you want and they are vulnerable while being built but there are no “worker” units. While it wasn’t my favorite, it felt unique. I have to give credit for a system that works. That being said, I think the concept of power would have fit perfectly to provide an additional limit to the player’s basebuilding especially because the Beta can build anywhere on the map.
    I disagree completely on how each game handles tech. To be completely honest, I can’t stand how Grey Goo handles tech. By having four buildings that all cost the same and unlock one or two units each, they all feel very insignificant. When I’m first getting into an RTS and especially in the single player, I like to build a few big bad units that rip my opponents army to shred. The best example I can give for this is Mammoth Tanks with the Railguns upgrade in Command and Conquer 3. Watching those go tearing through your enemy’s base and units is very fulfilling. But, it isn’t easy to get Mammoth Tanks with Railguns. You must invest in the tier 3 tech building and then invest in the upgrade which takes time and money. These investments pay off when you’re greeted by one hell of a tank. The only thing that Grey Goo has that is kind of comparable is each faction’s “epic unit”. These units are exorbitantly expensive and surprisingly dull. When I got to the last mission for the Humans, I was excited to finally get to build the Alpha. I was very disappointed when I realized it was just a generic shoot a laser and be very slow unit. There was absolutely nothing special about what it could do. Sure, the Hand of Ruuk could be interesting if the Beta didn’t have a dedicated turret unit. The only unique thing going for the Purger is it can move over steep terrain. So the build up to getting these units is not fulfilling at all. Whereas each tech upgrade in CnC feels substantial. Moving from tier 1 to tier 2 is a real upgrade that unlocks the next stage of your army. Grey Goo has no progression like this which leaves it’s units feeling very unsubstantial.
    You might be able to tell that Grey Goo has disappointed me greatly. I bought the game during the Steam sale and was extremely excited at the notion of a modern CnC but I feel let down. I look forward to your next article on the game and I hope to weigh in on those subjects just as heavily. I hope you understand that I am not criticizing your work, but rather attempting to create more conversation (seeing how this is the first comment 19 hours after this was posted). You might try posting this to /r/truegaming[1] as well as they do have a bigger community. Let me know if you do and I’ll take this over as well! Thanks for the post!


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