Sam Bass, lead designer on Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight, has worked at Electronic Arts Los Angeles on the Westwood-originated series for a long time, and has seen the audience for RTS games shrink over the years.
He says this game, developed in parallel to other installments in the series, is a conscious effort to save the RTS genre from itself -- to keep it from becoming the domain of only a completely hardcore audience, as has happened to the flight sim genre.
While StarCraft II will undoubtedly be one of the biggest releases of the year, this is a genre that is struggling to evolve with the times, suggests Bass. In this interview with Gamasutra, he describes how the team approached a design that will satisfy both new, inexperienced players and series veterans at the same time.
How long have you been working as an RTS designer at EALA?
Sam Bass: I came to EA in 2002, and I did Medal of Honor for awhile, then I moved over to the RTS group with Battle for Middle-Earth II. I've been a senior or a lead designer on all our games since then.
What was the genesis of this particular project? It's being painted as something with a unique direction -- more evolutionary gameplay mechanics, and the last game in this series.
SB: C&C4 is interesting, because it has been a skunkworks project for a couple of years. We did C&C3 in 2007, then we moved on to Kane's Wrath, the expansion pack, and Red Alert 3, but at the same time we had a little skunkworks team developing C&C4.
We figured, if we're going to do a Command & Conquer 4, we didn't just want to do C&C3 but with higher resolution, and trot out Kane again and go, "Look! Kane!"
We wanted to actually come up with different forms of gameplay within the RTS paradigm -- keep the C&C elements of fast gameplay and lots of units, but adding more team play elements, objective-based multiplayer elements. We wanted to see what we could do. It's gone through a ton of revisions before we actually started full development on this [incarnation], which was about two years ago.
What was your role during those early times, when it was overlapping with Kane's Wrath and the rest?
SB: I was actually the lead on Kane's Wrath when the skunkworks team was doing it. We actually kept borrowing people from that. (Laughing) It's been in pre-production and discovery phases for a couple years as we worked it out. We didn't want to just go, "Hey! Here's this new thing!" until we were sure it worked and it was fun, because we do have a lot of new elements in the game compared to previous ones.
That does always seem to be a particular concern with RTS. When you look at the most well-known RTS series -- C&C, Warcraft, and particularly StarCraft -- they actually have relatively few sequels considering how long they've been around. If they were any other genre, like action games, they would probably have three times as many entries in them by now. That must make it all the tougher to decide, "We're really going to change direction with this one."
SB: Exactly. It's also the conclusion of the Tiberium saga. So it was a really big deal. We wanted it to be weighty; we didn't want it to be just another sequel. Command & Conquer has been a franchise that I've loved since I first started out as a game developer. The first one came out when I had my first development job and nearly caused my first game to not ship, because we were playing too much C&C.
Back in '95?
SB: Right. So we approached it with a great deal of seriousness, asking ourselves, "What are we going to do with it?" We wanted to move RTS forward a little bit, because the central RTS paradigm of "build your base, do some harvesting, build some units, go kill the other guy" has been around a very long time and, compared to other genres, hasn't evolved significantly. We're starting to see some different evolutions from the various developers now.
I'd say Relic is doing really interesting work in bringing evolution to the genre.
SB: Yeah, Relic's doing some really interesting stuff; they're bringing in a lot of RPG direction with their games. We wanted to see can we keep the RTS-style "build a bunch of tanks and blow stuff up" fun, but also add a more class-based approach.
One of the problems -- maybe I wouldn't say "problems," but one of the things about classic C&C play is that it favors rushing -- building a bunch of tanks and moving in fast, doing micro-play where you're really good at clicking a thousand times a second. Our lead balance designer Jeremy Feasel clicks so fast I cannot see his fingers. I'm not that guy; I like to build the base. I'm a bit of a turtle.
We thought, "Can we come up with different ways to play, where the guys who want to rush can still rush, but it's actually tactically or strategically valid to play in a more base-building or defensive way?"
So that led fairly directly to the roles of the various classes -- you actually have a "defense" class.
SB: Yeah. That's where the defense class came from -- rather than just running in, can you lock down part of the map?
Then the support class came. The support class was particularly interesting. How do you come up with a caster-type class in an RTS game?
We didn't want it to just have powers; we thought it would be the class that lets you move really quickly across the map, lets you fight on multiple fronts, and lets you interact in combat without being directly involved if you don't want to be.
If you play support, you have a lot of aircraft; you can still go in and blow stuff up with hit-and-run attacks, but it's designed for the player who's still a little tentative about RTS play and wants to get involved and see how it goes without being the guy on the front line.
We came up with these three different paradigms for those classes, and that's how the objective-based multiplayer came about. We said, "Well, if we have three different classes, it can't just be 'kill the other guy,' because you'll want team-based play." So we developed this objective-based multiplayer--it's a little bit like Battlefield. The classes draw a bit from Battlefield or Team Fortress.
It all evolved over a period of time into what we have now, where multiplayer is objective-based. Five-on-five is the core of the multiplayer. You can still play one-versus-one, which is really fun, or two-on-two or three-on-three, but five-on-five is what we primarily designed around. That way, you can have a full range of classes.
We've seen some really interesting combinations. Our beta has been running for about eight months now, so we've seen our community come up with all kinds of crazy stuff we didn't anticipate. That's the fun part when you have that much content -- we have three classes, with eighty-plus units between them. There's a lot in there. You get to really see what the fanbase comes up with, and we feel like we've enabled those options more than we have in the past. There is no one "right answer" to C&C4.
Mechanics related to persistence, experience, and classes, and objective-based multiplayer goals do seem to be spreading these days throughout game design in a number of genres. It's interesting to see how that's even seeping into strategy.
SB: The thing about strategy is that there's always the need for that lock-tight balance. You have to be very careful adding elements, or you can completely break your game.
But yes, it's definitely been spreading. With the persistence, what we really wanted to do was add a smoother learning curve to RTS play. The thing with an RTS is if you load up C&C3 or Red Alert 3 or any of our games and start playing a skirmish game, you've got twenty units and ten powers and all this stuff, and you haven't even had the chance to really get to grips with the game yet.
We thought, "How can we roll stuff out on a global scale?" So as your skill level ramps up, your tactical options also ramp up. That's evolved into the progression system we have now. The thing is, if you're a hardcore player, you can level up pretty quickly. You can get all the toys in a couple hours of play. But if you're not hardcore, it takes you a bit longer. It just balanced out that way.
We do a lot of gameplay testing and usability testing. We've noticed that the less experienced players take quite a long time to get to the more advanced units, which is good, because by that point they're actually comfortable using them. Otherwise, when you get something, you think, "What do I do with this thing?"
The hardcore people, however, already know what they're going to do. They'll get a Mastodon or one of our other giant units, and they'll stomp around the map doing their thing. I think we actually achieved that goal. It's always been one of my bugbears with the RTS: you load up the game, and it's all there. It's a bit much. It's a bit overwhelming, especially with this game where you have three classes per faction and everything. It can make your eyes pop out of your head after awhile.
Have you faced any challenges in communicating the rationale for that type of design, particularly to people who have also been playing C&C for 15 years? I assume they're a small part of the audience at this point, but they're probably also the most vocal.
SB: We have a pretty hardcore community. We actually spend a lot of time interacting with the community. Yeah, there was definitely some controversy, just because there is a certain element in the community that is very resistant to change, especially with a franchise that has this much history to it.
One of the things we did -- because although it's a team-based game, we wanted it to be fun for one-versus-one guys -- was to get a bunch of the top one-on-one RTS players in the world.
We flew them in and spent a week with them playing in the game and rebalancing and retuning and even reworking and redesigning maps to make sure their experience was satisfying.
This game's been through a ton of iteration. There was definitely a bit of controversy. I think, though, once people start playing the game, they tend to get it and have a really good time with it, as opposed to that notion of, "What have they done to my Command & Conquer?!"
I think everyone who's played it has had fun, and that's always the goal at the end of the day -- that they have a good time.
It still is very C&C. You still build ion cannons and blow stuff up and build Mammoth tanks and all of that. All the C&C that I love is still in there.
There's been a lot of discussion about the player implications of the game's online authentication system. What impact has that had on the design side?
SB: In terms of gameplay, basically what it means is whether you're playing single-player or skirmish or multiplayer, it's all global. One of the things I actually really like about it, if you're playing a campaign mission and it's kind of tough, you can go and play skirmish or multiplayer and earn yourself some units or tactical options, and then go back and play that mission with your new toys. You tend to have a better shot, because you have some different ways to play if your strategy wasn't working out.
That's really the thing that drew me towards that strategy. It's always been one of the core goals. It started out much more complex, and we've honed it down to something very refined that people understand -- you just level up.
It always means there's a dangling carrot, which I love. As a gamer, I'm all about the dangling carrot. I 100 percented Mass Effect 2 because I wanted to find everything in that game. We want to have that same appeal, where if people want, they can see every toy we could possibly give them.
That's definitely another design layer that's becoming a bigger deal, what with achievements and other types of unlockables.
SB: It's interesting. It's a model that's almost like EVE Online other games like that, where you're putting in time to get stuff. We're of course not really doing it to that extent, but yeah; I love to earn new toys. I think one of the problems with many RTS games is that you can see everything we've got from the moment you load the game, whereas here you actually have to work towards it. It's not difficult, but it means there's always something new and exciting right on the horizon.
How do you see the state of RTS today? You see EA essentially saying things like, "This team may not even exist anymore after this game, and it's the end of the storyline." It's a very different time than when the first C&C was released.
SB: It's an interesting time to be an RTS developer. Obviously, there's another big RTS coming out this year, which I think will help the market. I have friends working on that, and I'm really looking forward to playing it.
But yes, I think we're a little bit in danger of becoming like the flight sim market, where you're catering to an increasingly small but hardcore audience.
C&C4 is an attempt to grow that audience a little bit -- to open the doors and say, "Hey, people who are interested but terrified because every time they play an RTS they go online and just eaten by an eleven-year-old Korean kid, here are some different ways to play. If you like, you can go in and still participate and still enjoy yourself without being on the front line and getting killed." Then you also allow the hardcore to do what they do.
We're definitely moving in some interesting directions after this game. Obviously, I can't really talk about what they are, but we're evaluating ways to, again, cater to both markets and grow RTS again, to bring it back to the forefront. This is a genre I love, and I'd hate to see it go the way of the flight sim, where it's one development team in Russia doing something really incredible, but that takes eight years to do.
So you see the release of StarCraft 2 as a net positive for you?
SB: I think so, yeah. It's great. Hopefully it'll sell a bazillion copies, and a bunch of people will become much more educated in modern RTS play, and get back online and start playing the games. I think, in the end, it's a good thing.
There's definitely an interesting comparison between StarCraft II and your game. Obviously it's updated, but Blizzard is consciously retaining most of the old-school dynamics of StarCraft.
SB: I think they're catering to their community. They have a huge fanbase in Asia that still plays StarCraft 1. I think they're sort of going in a different direction to us, but one of the things we're both trying to do is bring a lot of production values to the table, so it makes it a little sexier than it used to be. We don't want it to become just a nerdy genre. But yes, it's a different approach to us.
We do want to open the doors and let everybody in, because there are people who know the Command & Conquer name, but who don't play RTS, which is really interesting. They're thinking, "Oh, it's that game with the guy with the goatee."
It's the game where the bases unfold. I've always loved that.
SB: Exactly. I have a Kane bobble-head in my living room, and sometimes people who don't even play games come over and say, "I know that guy!" So we wanted to use that to our advantage, to say, "Hey, it's that guy, and here's a game he's in that you can play even if you haven't played the previous games." Also, you know, we're the epic conclusion of the Tiberium saga, so you probably want to see how it ends, too!
Speaking of Kane, does [actor] Joe Kucan in fact age at all?
SB: No. He's on a diet of human growth hormone and stem cells or something. I really don't get it; that man does not age.
It's a baffling thing.
SB: When we shot the trailer that came out last year for C&C4, we asked Joe to put a little gray in his goatee and look a little bit more haggard, because it would have suited the tone of the story. He took a shot at that, but it didn't really work out, because he still looks pretty much the same.