31-May-2002 Paul Mallinson goes back in time to look at the spectacular Command & Conquer from Westwood Studios We're back in 1995, it's The United Nations' Year Of Tolerance, John Major is Prime Minister for the fifth year, The Gulf War is over, Chechnya is at war for a second year, Everton beat Man Utd in the FA Cup and the PC gaming world is heralding a new messiah on the block yet again - Westwood Studios' amazing real-time strategy (RTS) game Command & Conquer. A game that set the standard for point-and-click 'toy soldier' style strategy games, and forever lived on in the spirit of other RTS classics that followed it.
Before Command & Conquer the PC had comfortably played host to numerous turn-based strategy games. Mostly they were interface-heavy clunkers with overhead maps and the kind of titchy graphics that would make your eyes screw up. Even worse - they were invariably graced with fantasy or ultra-real war settings and involved hex maps, which made them even more off-putting. The PC needed something hard and refreshing, like an unexpected shag at a party, to get the genre going again.
It wasn't actually the original Command & Conquer that gave birth to the resource management gameplay concept that defined the series - it was a little-known sequel called Dune 2, developed for the Sega Megadrive and converted to other formats by Westwood in 1993.
Dune 2: Battle For Arrakis, to give the game its full UK title, was a hit, though didn't set the world on fire. It had unit-based combat, real-time strategy, resource anagement (you'd mine 'spice' to create new assets) and the now famous isometric tiled viewpoint. Most strategy fans loved Dune 2 and realised it had special addictive qualities. Strictly speaking it was the blueprint for real-time strategy, one that laid the foundations for C&C - as Wolfenstein was to Doom, so was Dune 2 to C&C. Joe Bostic, designer and programmer on Dune 2 and lead programmer and original concept on Command & Conquer, expands on this: "I think the appeal was the combination of plausible sci-fi military units melded with the real-time aspects of Populous with a light splash of the unit progression found in Civilization," he says. "We weren't exactly sure it would work at first, but when we had so much fun playing it in the office, we knew we were on to something." And indeed they were.
THE POLITICAL CLIMATE Command & Conquer came next. Westwood's development fraternity knew they were making magic with Dune 2, but wanted to learn from previous mistakes and create something even better. Thus C&C development began in earnest early in 1993. "Command & Conquer was originally a fantasy game with wizards and warriors," reveals Louis Castle, co-founder of Westwood Studios, "but Brett [Sperry - co-founder of Westwood] felt strongly that a contemporary war environment would be more accessible for most people so the game moved into 'modern war' and the C&C fiction began to take shape."
By 1994 the world was a politically gloomy place to live. The Gulf War had ended, though not satisfactorily so, and Saddam Hussein remained in power. Did this climate affect the game's design? C&C's lead designer Erik Yeo thinks so. "Absolutely. The decision to go in the direction we did had already been made, but everything that went on in the world just gave us more and more ideas." Louis Castle agrees: "War was in the news and the threat of terrorism was on everyone's mind. That definitely had an effect on the fictional world of C&C, though a 'parallel universe' was created to avoid dealing with the sobering issues of a real war."
Joe Bostic also thinks so: "The Gulf War ultimately played a large part in moving away from the initial fantasy direction and toward modern sci-fi." So the game began to take shape and new ideas came thick and fast. The introduction of 'Tiberium' as the mined resource for building and expanding replaced the 'spice' from Dune 2."The idea for Tiberium," comments Bostic, "was inspired by the science fiction B-movie Monolith Monsters - a must-see movie, in my opinion." On top of that, semi-realistic landscapes and military vehicles were introduced instead of the pointy, floaty ships of Dune 2. "It was a good decision since modern vehicles are much more recognisable and real," adds Bostic.
Development of the first C&C was speedy, focused and fun. As Bostic says: "It was so much fun that I would sometimes marvel that I actually got paid as well... I recall one time when we were secretly coding the dinosaur levels into the game management didn't know we were doing it) and they accidentally popped up during a test when management was in the room. We had to do some fast explaining, but the cat was out of the bag. At first they were upset, but decided to let us 'have our fun' and the missions stayed in the game."
Louis Castle says, though, that it wasn't really a "working party" style atmosphere in the office and that because everyone was working on numerous titles at once it didn't offer much time to look back and celebrate. Erik Yeo goes for the middle ground: "It was generally quiet and mostly professional," he says, "but we always had fun. We were making games for a living, so there was always a fun side to everything."
WHY SO SPECIAL?
The 'fun' sentiment came across in early builds of the game. Many early beta testers found themselves entwined in the Command & Conquer universe within a few hours of playing, and it suddenly began to sink in at Westwood that it had a potential classic on its hands.
Joe Bostic remembers this part of development fondly: "It was sometimes difficult to get the playtest department to test," he laughs. "I would often find them starting a campaign to test one element of the game, and before you knew it they got carried away and were playing for fun. In a way, this is a compliment to the game, so I wasn't too upset." Erik Yeo also noted the excitement in Westwood's playtesters at the time: "I overheard the QA guys excitedly swapping war stories from multiplay sessions once," Yeo enthuses, "and I also noticed they were spending their free time playing a game that was supposed to be work, which was encouraging." Louis Castle suggests that this rubbed-off on C&C's coding team and drove them to previously unseen levels of commitment and passion in their search for the best game possible. But what was it that made the game so special? Why did the playtesters love it so much?
"It was the fact that you could move around troops and tanks in a virtual sand-box that harkened back to the days of playing with toy soldiers," says Joe Bostic. "Also the fact that you could squish guys with your tanks..." Erik Yeo and Louis Castle have their theories as well: "The resource model and base management were important but never overbearing or impossible to learn," claims Yeo. "Multiplayer was always interesting because it could last ten minutes or several hours and playing real people is always more interesting than AI. I think the solo-play mission design and pacing was good enough to keep people up late."
"I have always been amazed with the loss of time experienced by the player," says Castle. "The realisation that you've been playing for hours and it felt like minutes. Plus, the basic mechanics of balancing creation, defence and offence in a struggle over limited resources."
PHENOMENON When the game was finished and the reviews came in, Westwood was chuffed with the response. Most critics loved it, despite a few minor niggles, and magazine covers and awards came thick and fast. But did the developers realise at the time how big the Command & Conquer name would become?
"No, I can't say we knew it would become the phenomenon it did," says Louis Castle, "but we were ready to push it, and the sequels, as far as we could. The mixture of a rich strategic game with the action of real-time decisions felt to all of us like a revolutionary idea for the strategy genre. As big as the game felt we had no idea it would become the beginning of the largest market segment of PC games."
As previously touched upon, C&C was not without its problems. In early versions units and troops would take wayward routes to their destinations, leading to a "mini backlash" from fans after the initial frenzy calmed down. "Find-path logic was always a problem," admits Joe Bostic, "especially in dealing with bridges and traffic jams. That said: complaining about AI and game imbalance has been directed at every RTS game since Command & Conquer first came out. We made only a couple of minor balance adjustments in the patch, but otherwise were pleased with how the gameplay and balance turned out."
It's ironic, C&C raised standards so much, that nothing less than perfect AI was going to please fans from that moment on. But where C&C really excelled was in an aspect of the game that required real human intelligence to work properly - not AI - and that was multiplayer. The fact that up to four people could play a game simultaneously was fairly revolutionary back in the DOS days of 1995, and really caught the imagination of the public, as Louis Castle points out.
"C&C actually had multiplayer, which was extraordinary in itself. Many games did not consider the potential of connecting real people together to play a game. A real-time strategy game seemed nearly impossible at the time because of the very slow connection speeds of computers. Beyond that C&C has always tried to be a sport activity where both players play with a fixed set of rules but this sport requires brains as well as fast reflexes." But what made C&C multiplayer so addictive and special? "The multiplayer aspect of C&C was special," says Joe Bostic, "because you could battle your friends and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with clever gameplay - in a world that was exciting and fun. I found that even if I lost, I would learn new strategies and tactics that would often prove successful in subsequent battles. Naturally there would be subsequent battles for hours on end."
Erik Yeo also has an honest view of the multiplayer magic: "I think there is something special about interacting with other people from anywhere in the world," he says "and then hitting them with tanks and nuclear weapons! I bet that gives me away as American, doesn't it?" Yes it does, Erik.
15 MILLION SOLD WORLDWIDE Command & Conquer went on to become a legend - with 3 million units of the original game sold worldwide, and 15 million of the franchise - and lives on to this day in the likes of C&C Renegade; the forthcoming C&C Generals; and in hundreds of other strategy games that have 'lifted' mechanics straight from Westwood's past C&C titles; games like Age Of Empires, Total Annihilation, Starcraft... the list is almost endless.
But did this success make any of the developers rich? Joe Bostic thinks so, but not in the money sense: "I'm rich in experience of being a part of creating a genre that entertains millions of people to this day. I wasn't in it for the money, but I'm not poor, if that's what you mean."
Louis, Joe and Erik are all still working in the games biz at present, and are still trying to reach RTS nirvana almost 10 years after the first Command & Conquer game came into being, though - as Erik Yeo concludes - it's much harder now to release a blockbuster of C&C's magnitude. "The level of expectation has really changed," he says. "People always expect games to be fun, but for each C&C or Half-Life or Diablo the expectation increases. People want the games to be everything the one before it was plus much more. Speaking as a gamer, that's not unreasonable. However it makes development time and costs skyrocket."
Which is very true. Our expectations of new games have never been higher, and making good games has never been more expensive. That said: the RTS genre is still thriving, and that is all thanks to Command & Conquer - a real-time strategy game that changed the world in more ways than one.