Q&A: EALA's Louis Castle
One of the real-time strategy genre's great minds talks about the new Command & Conquer 12-pack, the future of the genre, and tanks versus dwarves.
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The real-time strategy genre of PC gaming hit its stride in the mid- to late-1990s, with games such as Blizzard's Warcraft, Ensemble's Age of Empires, and Bungie's Myth: The Fallen Lords paving the way for today's hits. However, preceding all those games was Westwood Studios' Command & Conquer in 1995, a game that really put players in charge of a battlefield in real time. The series went on to garner high marks from critics and gamers alike and is largley credited with shaping the RTS genre.
The franchise turned 10 years old this year, and to commemorate the occasion, Electronic Arts, the current owner of the series' brand, is releasing 12 C&C games for $39.99.
GameSpot had a chance for a little question-and-answer session with Louis Castle, vice president of creative development at Electronic Arts Los Angeles and cofounder of Westwood Studios.
GameSpot: First of all, happy birthday to the franchise. Ten years is quite an achievement. A couple of questions about the bundle before we get to the nitty-gritty. $39.99. That seems like an awfully good deal for the package, especially for a top-tier franchise such as Command & Conquer. Why the low price point?
Louis Castle: We wanted to give back to our loyal community and avid fans and feel that this price point allows all of our fans a chance to own a great C&C collection, remastered to work on current operating systems, plus a special DVD of commemorative video features. We're also asking the C&C community to submit videos telling us why they are the biggest C&C fan, and they may be featured on the DVD. It's a great way to let the fans feel a part of C&C history and to help us celebrate the 10th anniversary. The compilation also serves as a great way for gamers to experience the series and get into the legendary franchise for the first time.
GS: Do you have a particular game in the series that you're especially proud of?
LC: I guess I have two. Tiberian Sun was an amazing product that went beyond just the launch of a game and felt more like a worldwide cultural event. The core game elements introduced in Tiberian Sun found their way into nearly every real-time strategy game that followed, and the storytelling was the best in the series, in my opinion. I was also particularly proud of the work on Red Alert Yuri's Revenge. Yuri's was the first RTS title I recall that had such diverse tactics for each side, yet felt tremendously well balanced and offered almost endless fun through the innovative ways you could combine units.
GS: Anything you look back on with the dozen games and realize, "Ehhh... That just didn't work as I had hoped," or, "We could have done that better."?
LC: I'm sure I could come up with many things on every title I've worked on that might have been better. Then again, the biggest mistake I think our industry makes is to try and do too much in a single game. Every C&C title has many things to celebrate and enjoy, and each one leaves you wanting more. That is the sign of a great series that takes risks and is not afraid to change in order to evolve. If I had to name a few specific examples, though, I wish we would have started with the multiplayer modes of Renegade and built the single-player experience around those elements unique to the C&C universe. I also wish we would have made deformable terrain and unit "veterancy" more meaningful in Tiberian Sun--and that the original C&C would have had more diversity of units.
GS: Did you go back to any of these titles and rework anything for the anniversary release?
LC: We intentionally kept the games the same, although we did apply various patches already available to the public to fix bugs and improve balance in multiplayer games. This is truly the collection of your favorite C&C games in their original presentation.
GS: The first obvious question with regard to Command & Conquer: What is the future of the franchise?
LC: We are calling it the first decade for a reason! We absolutely intend to continue making games in the C&C franchise, but nothing has been announced at this time. For all the fans reading out there, I assure you that you haven't seen the last C&C game.
GS: Real-time strategy games are still alive and well, and C&C really helped shape the genre. Most gamers will agree that RTSes are best suited for PC gaming. Do you find this also to be true? And what do you say to people who claim that PC gaming is slumping?
LC: I believe that the core compulsions of RTS games have been best realized on PCs to date. Part of this is due to the computing power of consoles and the nature of multiplayer gaming, but another significant part has to do with interface design. I personally believe there is an interface design that will bring the most compelling aspects of RTS to the broad world of console gamers, but despite many great efforts, I do not think we have seen it yet.
GS: Are there any plans to take the franchise beyond PCs again? Next-generation consoles are becoming more PC-like, but their specs remain the same throughout their lifetimes. As a developer, is this attractive to you? Could we see C&C on the Xbox 360 or PS3?
LC: As a developer, it is very attractive to me to offer game experiences and franchises I believe would be very compelling and satisfying to console consumers. Conceptually, any of EA's currently PC-focused products could appear on the next generation of consoles, including C&C or any fictional universes that have lived within it.
GS: We have to wonder about the state of the C&C team at this point in time, considering that key talent has already left the studio, such as executive producer Mark Skaggs taking a leave of absence, Dustin Browder leaving for Blizzard, Joe Bostic (a member of the Tiberian Sun and Red Alert teams) starting up Petroglyph, and, of course, the departure of Joe Kucan, who played the role of Kane in the Tiberian games. How have these departures affected the status of the C&C franchise and of development on future projects in the franchise?
LC: I am really proud of the talent that has been a part of this franchise over the years. I count some of the guys that have worked on this series among my best friends, and I truly believe that they are phenomenally talented. However, everyone who works in games knows that making a game is a collaborative effort and that it takes the combined efforts of many, many talented people to deliver a great game. While I'm excited to see my friends exploring new opportunities, I also couldn't be more excited about the team that we have in place on our current RTS game, The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth II. Mike Verdu is not only a creative leader inside of EA, but was also key to the development of C&C Generals and C&C Generals Zero Hour. We have many longtime fans of the series and core RTS gamers on the team who are talented designers, engineers, artists, and producers. I'm really proud that the game has a legacy that draws the best talent in the business.
GS: Real-time strategy games have evolved greatly since the Dune 2 days. We're now seeing things like increased emphasis on role-playing elements (such as persistent characters that gain experience in battle and that retain that experience across different games), shifts in focus away from traditional resource gathering, and games that focus heavily on unit micromanagement. Do you see any larger trends or directions in which RTS games are headed? Do you think those directions are where they should be going? And how will the C&C series eventually help guide that direction?
LC: I don't think the answer to this question could fit in your interview! In short, yes, I recognize the various approaches to the genre that have focused on one aspect or another. However, what I feel will drive the genre and individual franchises will be innovative ideas versus excellence in execution. The latter is becoming a standard offering of all top titles. As a general trend, I think RTS games must become much easier to intuitively understand and interact with while increasing the level of simulation to allow for far greater depth and emergent behavior. I am personally in favor of keeping the player in the role of the conductor and strategist of the battle versus the micromanager of individual units. Of course, I hope we will continue to drive toward these ideals in our RTS titles.
GS: Massively multiplayer online games are obviously either hit or miss. What are your thoughts on them in general and on massively multiplayer online real-time strategy games in particular? Can a MMORTS work as well as an MMORPG? Can C&C fit into a persistent MMORTS?
LC: While I am not as much an expert on MMOs, I recognize them as very powerful gaming experiences and deeply respect those who dedicate their lives to making them, maintaining them, and playing them. I personally find that I don't play MMOs longer than any other type of game, so I am far from an expert on these games. I have seen dozens of designs for how an RTS could be a MMO, but I have yet to believe that any of them give me the fantasy I desire of being one commander in a battle with many others on every side of the conflict. Perhaps that would pull me in for more than it would take to finish a good RTS game, but I doubt it. There are just so many games to play that I feel like a kid in a candy store: How could I possibly stand in front of the chocolate when there is so much more to experience?
GS: For the past few years, we've seen EALA's team hard at work on Lord of the Rings games. Is there a stress on the studio to concentrate on this current gold mine? Surely working on a dwarf isn't as exciting as working on a Sherman tank.
LC: I think the Battle for Middle-earth team would beg to differ, even though, yes, working on tanks is very exciting. With the recent unification of the rights with the Lord of the Rings fiction, the team has been able to unlock the world of Middle-earth and build a much deeper, richer, and bigger game with Battle for Middle-earth II. The Lord of the Rings RTS games are very exciting to work on, and building within a world imagined by one of the best authors in history is a different but equally satisfying experience to working on your own ideas, or, for that matter, a particularly interesting segment of history.
Our LA studio is continually working on multiple franchises, and the Battle for Middle-earth series is widely successful, has been critically acclaimed, and continues to have one of the strongest fan communities.
GS: Is there any other genre you'd like to shift focus toward? Or there any other settings you see yourself making games for?
LC: I have made games in just about every imaginable genre over my decades in this business, and I'm always excited to work in another one. That being said, I feel there are great advances that can be accomplished in our existing franchises and genres, and I would be very happy spending many years just trying to explore those depths.
GS: Anything else you'd like to tell your fans out there who are dying for a new C&C game?
LC: We are always working diligently to bring C&C fans and gamers everywhere new experiences, and we are absolutely committed to our celebrated C&C franchise. So until we have something official to announce, tell us what you want! We have a community manager who never tires of getting e-mails from passionate fans.
GS: Thank you very much for your time!