The History of Command & Conquer

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A look back at the original RTS franchise - Command & Conquer

Published on Jan 28, 2009

In the dozen years that players of Westwood’s Command & Conquer titles, in their many iterations, have been pointing and clicking their way to global domination, the hugely popular franchise has more than lived up to the promise of its well-chosen name.

It cornered the RTS market, developed into a worldwide branding phenomenon for publisher Electronic Arts, and became synonymous with the genre that it near singlehandedly created. When the original Command & Conquer (retrospectively titled Tiberian Dawn) was released in 1995, it was for many players their first taste of, what was then, a completely new form of strategy war game. Dispensing with the often sluggish turn-based, hex-mapped format that often alienated all but the most avid of strategy buffs from the genre, C&C offered players an instantly immersive, living, breathing tabletop battlefield on their home PC.

With its immediately accessible mouse-driven interface, neatly rendered top-down perspective, and meticulously planned learning curve, the game hooked players in their thousands unlike any other strategy title before it. Building up a functioning base, mining the surrounding area for the all-important Tiberium ore, and amassing an army of small but destructively capable military units, with which to flatten the enemy’s encampment, was a completely engrossing experience. Many players will no doubt reminisce fondly on their first taste of competitive play against a human opponent, or discovering the delights of squashing tiny pixilated enemy troops beneath the tracks of their Tiberium harvester.

Strangely enough though, for the game that would be the genesis of the Command & Conquer franchise, the primary resource wasn’t Tiberium but a substance known as Spice, or Melange. Dune II: The Building Of A Dynasty, released in 1992 for PC, and later the Amiga and Mega Drive, was Westwood’s first real-time strategy (or RTS) war game, and implemented many design features that would become key features of the C&C series. Although not the first RTS game ever produced (titles such as Technosoft’s Herzog Zwei and Broderbund’s The Ancient Art Of War had preceded it), Dune II was an incredibly well-rounded template for what was to come… Based on the universe created in author Frank Herbert’s famous sci-fiseries, Dune II was the sequel to Virgin.

Interactive’s original adventure game, licensed from the David Lynch movie adaptation rather than the novels. “We were working with, and quickly became acquired by, Virgin Interactive,” says Mike Legg, a Westwood veteran of 17 years, now working at Petroglyph Games. “They’d done the original Dune game by Cryo, and thought that an RTS game would fit nicely into the Dune universe. We were also playing Herzog Zwei on the Mega Drive at the time.” Joe Bostic, lead programmer and co-designer of Dune II, C&C and Red Alert, remembers a number of further influences. “We were playing Populous, Military Madness and Civilization and thought a game grown out of the combined features of these titles would be great fun to play,” he says.

Westwood co-founders Brett Sperry and Louis Castle were equally instrumental in moving the RTS concept forward with the Dune licence. The company’s recent RPG Eye Of The Beholder had demonstrated that realtime decision making was a potentially very exciting strategy-gaming element, and they wanted to take the concept into new territory. “Real-time provides more stress to the player,” explains Joe, “which is part of the draw of this type of game.”

“The first thing implemented in Dune II was real-time vehicle combat,” he continues. “Then we added base building and spice harvesting. This process allowed playing the game in some form or another throughout a large part of the development process. Playing the game allowed the luxury of refining the mechanics, which helps with building a streamlined game. Another benefit over Herzog Zwei is that we had the advantage of a mouse and keyboard. This greatly facilitated precise player control, which enabled the player to give orders to individual units. The mouse, and the direct control it allowed, was critical in making the RTS genre possible.”

Dune II crystallised many major design features, which would become characteristic of the subsequent C&C series. The concept of sending out a ‘harvester’ unit to collect valuable minerals and gain income for building military units and structures came directly from the Dune universe. The radar ‘mini-map’ was borrowed from Civilization. The idea of creating separate playable factions (the Atreides, Ordos and Harkonnen) with their own separate story, characters and unique weapons, was influenced by Westwood’s roots in the RPG genre. Dune II pioneered the idea of ‘tech-trees’ in a real-time strategy game, with advanced units and structures becoming available once the player had built or acquired more basic ones. “This sort of tech-tree hierarchy felt natural and probably comes from my experience with the more complex elements of tabletop paper wargames that I was a big fan of,” Joe reveals.

Aside from the harvesters and refineries, many of the basic structures and units created for Dune II would be used, in modified form, in C&C. Wind-traps (power stations), construction yards, radar posts and defensive gun-emplacements would all become integral structures. The dune trikes and quad-bikes became Nod’s bikes and attack buggies. The hugely powerful Devastator was a forerunner to GDI’s formidable Mammoth tank. Similarly, much of the control interface for C&C would be based on the template created during the development of Dune II. “I remember that we were also really excited about having spoken, digitised unit responses in the game,” adds Mike. “I think it was the first time that we had voice as a regular game feature.”

Dune II proved to be a considerable commercial and critical success. Brett Sperry wanted to take the genre further, with an original property rather than a licence. The initial proposal was a complete fantasy setting, but then-recent events, principally the Gulf War, inspired a move towards a more realistic, modern military theme, with a sci-fitwist. Command & Conquer would be the result of many thousands of man hours during a protracted three-year development cycle. “I think Brett came up with the name. Although, before the military theme was finalised we had some RTS fantasy ideas with working titles such as ‘Command & Conjure’ and ‘Conquered Kingdom’,” reveals Joe. “I remember we thought that two same-letter combinations were strong, like D&D for Dungeons & Dragons,” says Mike.

“One of the primary goals for C&C was to streamline the interface,” continues Joe. “The drag-select mouse interface was a breakthrough. In addition, the contextsensitive command mouse-click was another. Being able to click on the ground to move, an enemy to attack, and a friendly unit to select, greatly improved gameplay. Another big improvement was to lump production buildings into a sidebar menu choice so that selecting a factory in order to pick a unit to construct would be more efficient.”

The basic, tiled appearance and primitive, handdrawn sprites of Dune II evolved into more photorealistic semi-rendered units and structures. “The units in the game were not rendered directly,” says Joe, “but hand retouched after being rendered at various angles. It took artist skill to make such low-resolution renders into something that looked very good.” AI and unit path finding also improved considerably. “The AI in C&C was completely hard coded,” Joe continues, “but did introduce the concept of AI teams so that the computer would send groups to attack rather than just individual units.” It wasn’t completely perfect though. “I’ll never forget people referring to ‘Big Willie’s School of Harvester Driving’ due to some of the wacky findpath shenanigans that harvesters used, to get back to the base,” chuckles Mike.

One of the most memorable aspects of the original C&C is perhaps the game’s slickly produced and entertaining storyline, as presented by its famous FMV cut-scenes, which took advantage of the then-new CD-ROM format. The vivid portrayal of the struggle between the squeaky-clean Global Defence Initiative (GDI) and the nefarious Brotherhood of Nod added an extra immersive dimension to the title. Predictably, creating an all-new, original premise proved more difficult than using an existing universe like Dune II. “We created a ‘C&C bible’ that contained backstory and other information and reference materials,” Joe explains. “Not all reference material was written. The old B, sci-fimovie classic Monolith Monsters was a key inspiration for Tiberium. However, creating the movie scripts and characters was a new experience for us.”

“I remember Brett saying that he thought it would have a ton of impact if the characters in the game looked at and spoke directly to the player,” remembers Mike. “For the first C&C, we used a lot of local Las Vegas actors and Westwood staff to appear in the movies. We also had anchors from some of the local news stations making appearances. Artist Eric ‘Seth’ Gooch rocks!” he laughs. “When we did the first C&C, we had a very small, simple studio and green screen. When we got to Tiberian Sun, the sound stage had tons of amazing equipment.” Despite the relatively limited resources available for Westwood’s first shot at live-action video, it still consumed a considerable chunk of the game’s budget. “The general talk at the time was that about half the budget was FMV-related and the other half was everything else,” acknowledges Joe.

Incredibly, the most memorable character in Command & Conquer’s story was portrayed by another Westwood staff member drafted in to bolster the acting ranks on the production. “I had the pleasure of being buddies with Joe Kucan in high school,” remembers Mike, on the subject of the C&C production director, and the face of enigmatic lead villain Kane. “Joe has always been hugely charismatic since back then,” he continues. “He was very active in school and local theatre, and was always a big talent. Joe was a project producer for some of his time at Westwood, and he was excellent to work with. He was a wonderful presence as both a director and actor in the C&C movies. All the actors loved working with him, and really respected his work.”

Rather than a straight ‘rock-paper-scissors’ style of balancing, Command & Conquer’s two sides had very different characteristics. GDI’s technology tended towards heavily armoured but slow-moving units like the Heavy and Mammoth tanks. Nod’s forces used lightly armoured, but faster, vehicles, best suited to swift hit-and-run attacks. Units like Nod’s Stealth tank added an extra, sneakier dimension for players. The final steps of the development of Tiberian Dawn involved extensive playtesting, and balancing the game until the two factions felt evenly matched. “Balancing was made much easier because we played the game constantly. Every evening we would play and then the next day adjustments were made to the units and then play would continue that night. This process was repeated over and over. The unit values were hard coded so in addition to finalising features and fixing bugs, I was hand tweaking the unit stats.”

“We had so much fun playing the game during development that in some way the success was not a total surprise,” Joe admits. “Yeah, it was hard to get people to go home at night,” agrees Mike. “The C&C team was definitely on to something big.” As the game did the rounds of computer trade shows, public feedback was strongly positive. “I remember when the Flame tanks were first unveiled in London at ECTS, and the crowd would get bigger and bigger every time I gave my demo. When infantry caught on fire and started running around in panic, the crowd would cheer!”

Ultimately, the LAN multiplay aspect of C&C is the feature that many would find the most gripping. The ability to wage strategic open warfare against a human opponent had never been explored like this before. Westwood had the foresight to release the game on two CD-ROMs, one for each faction, allowing competitive play from one copy of the game. Designer Joe Bostic’s experiences likely mirror those of many at the time. “The LAN play made C&C really stand out in my opinion,” he says. “It was the first time I could pit my army against an opponent in a virtual sandbox battlefield.”

On its release, the impact of the game, commercially and within the industry, was phenomenal. Freed of Dune II’s niche sci-fiuniverse, and embracing a more contemporary real-world battle sphere, C&C’s appeal was instant among avid PC-owning gamers the world over. Even rival developers were amazed by the game. Origin employees were apparently so taken with it that they bought up the majority of copies in the area around their offices in Austin to set up multiplayer tournaments.

The demand for further content spawned an expansion pack, The Covert Operations, with 15 more difficult single-player missions and a number of new multiplayer maps. Another spin-off, Command & Conquer: Sole Survivor, was an interesting idea that unfortunately failed to gather much of a following with fans. An online multiplayer game, where up to 50 players controlled a separate C&C unit in a deathmatch scenario, it was an experiment that led to the C&C multiplayer mode in the forthcoming Renegade. “The underlying game engine was largely unmodified, but the game design of Sole Survivor really needed an engine specifically designed for that sort of gameplay. It could have been much more than it was if we only had more resources to apply to it,” confesses Joe.

Although the Command & Conquer ‘Tiberium’ universe was undoubtedly appealing, it was arguably surpassed by the game’s first ‘standalone’ sequel, a product which had begun life as the so-called ‘C&C0’. This time around the team took the unusual approach of creating revisionist history with an ‘alternative’ World War II scenario pitching the West against Soviet Russia.

“Red Alert was intended to be a WWII-themed expansion pack for C&C,” explains Joe. “During development we added more units and features to the game and it became strong enough to ship as a standalone product. At the time, we weren’t thinking it had anything to do with the C&C storyline, but existed as a separate timeline. A parallel dimension so to speak, as indicated by the opening movie showing Einstein sending a young Hitler through time and spawning an alternate history where Red Alert takes place.”

“I started at Westwood right after the original Command & Conquer shipped,” says Petroglyph’s Adam Isgreen, a lead designer on many subsequent C&C games. “The original intention was to do a straightup WWII game, with nothing to tie it into the C&C universe. However, as we evolved the story, we realised that we found straight-up history really boring for a game. There were plenty of turn-based WWII games, and that’s exactly what we were trying to get away from. As the concept developed, we realised we had a great opportunity to utilise this game as the prequel to C&C, and had even created this ‘duelling scientists’ plot about Einstein and Tesla, both on opposite sides in this massive tech war, with the technologies each created getting crazier and crazier as the game went on.”

A particularly memorable presence in the Red Alert storyline, and a highlight of many a gamer’s formative years, was the kick-ass female operative Tanya. “We wanted a cool, and sexy, counterpart to the commando from C&C,” remembers Joe. “The commando had such a strong personality that providing a similarly themed character for Red Alert was a must.”

“I was very much into John Woo movies at the time,” continues Adam. “Red Alert demanded something new and something we’d not done before in C&C – a strong female character. Originally, there were going to be two Allied commando-type units, Tanya and Megan. They were both Irish ex-IRA soldiers. Megan was the explosives expert, while Tanya was the ‘pistolero’, gunning down everything in her way. We realised pretty quickly that we didn’t have space to have two commando-type characters, so we kept Tanya and Megan got sidelined. As the script was written, we realised what a great character Tanya was, so her arsenal of abilities and her presence in missions grew.”

“Red Alert was a blast to make,” enthuses Adam. “Everyone in the studio was playing it late into the evenings, and with every new addition we’d get working, the game just got better and better. Dogs, Tesla Coils, the Chronosphere and the Iron Curtain, it was just wonderful to play. The team working on the Lands Of Lore games were constantly yelled at by management because they were playing Red Alert multiplayer instead of working on their own project.”

“Working on a project that everyone is invested in and has full commitment to is an incredible experience. It shows you how game development is when it’s at Tiberian Sun, is notable for one of the most notoriously drawn-out development periods in gaming history. Set 30 years after the events in Dawn, on a Tiberiumravaged Earth, the game’s post-apocalyptic feel and overtly sci-fitheme was a big departure from the original’s more recognisably contemporary setting.

“The main aims were to progress the story and give the player more options in combat,” says Joe. For Adam Isgreen, working on the game was somewhat of a whirlwind experience. “The Tiberian Sun development cycle was crazy,” he admits. “We wanted to make terrain more interactive, make a grander game, and make it even more cinematic than previous C&C games. We were pushing a whole bunch of new technologies (deformable terrain, bridges, underground units and so on) for RTS games rather than focusing on a few key elements to enhance and making those great. In the end this really hurt us because there wasn’t a lot of code that was left from the original games to rely on; everything was new, resulting in bugs and the constant refinement of the entire engine, which slowed development.”

“As the game wore on, we also had some unreasonable deadlines that the team didn’t believe in but management swore we’d make. We didn’t, and the crunching and morale hits were pretty serious for a while. In the end, Sun’s development was as if we took ten steps away from C&C and Red Alert, rather than three or four. The big takeaway from that project is that a sequel doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel, just make what was fun in the first game better. I think we simply strove to make something too grand and that delayed us greatly. Fortunately, the game was still fun at the end of the day, and the Firestorm expansion did address many of the things we wanted to get in originally but couldn’t.”

Finally unveiled in 1999, and four years in the making, Tiberian Sun’s reception was mixed; the result of a combination of factors including impossibly high public expectations and the frustratingly long wait. Seen as revisiting the same territory as Blizzard’s exceptional Starcraft, released the previous year, it required a fairly high-spec PC for the time to be fully enjoyable. Still, the energetic plot, featuring sci-fistalwarts Michael Biehn and voice of Darth Vader, James Earl Jones, was a lot of fun. “He did the game because his grandson loved our games and begged him to do it,” laughs Adam.

Refining the Tiberian Sun engine, Westwood’s next standalone C&C release was a superb return to form. Red Alert 2 told the story of a whole-scale Soviet invasion of the US, and featured the most impressive and well-produced FMV storyline of the franchise to date. With an even greater emphasis on the ‘weird science’ and technology of the original Red Alert, the deliberately campy plot, fast-paced and beautifully balanced gameplay and much-improved graphics gave C&C fans the RTS sequel they had been hoping for. Outlandish units such as dolphins, rocketeers and giant squids added enormously to the game’s entertainment value. “With the addition of the Yuri’s Revenge expansion to Red Alert 2, I think the Irvine team pretty much perfected real-time strategy in its time,” says Louis Castle. “You could take a unit type and stick it inside another and pretty much change its functionality, and in this way you were constantly discovering new units that could be used on the battlefield.”

Westwood’s next move for the franchise, C&C: Renegade, was an unusual one. “We wanted to create an FPS in the C&C universe,” says Joe. “The best part of Renegade turned out to be the team base-versus-base mode. It would have been nice to have identified this earlier in development so that more of the game could have been focused around that style of gameplay.” Renegade failed to meet Westwood’s sales targets, meaning that a proposed sequel never saw the light of day. “After Renegade launched, we’d also created a cool demo for Renegade 2, set in the Red Alert universe. It was amazing to be running along the ground and see Kirov’s dropping bombs from above,” says Mike.

The last C&C release of the Westwood era, Generals, used the SAGE 3D Engine, which had driven Renegade. An attempt to explore a modern theatre of warfare using the C&C style, the game’s three factions, the US, China and the Global Liberation Army reflected a more contemporary power-struggle than the series had done since Tiberian Dawn. Dispensing with the traditional FMV cut-scenes and resource harvesting of the older games, Generals and its spin-off Zero Hour were fine, but they do feel like interlopers in the C&C lineage.

In 2003, EA, who acquired Westwood from Virgin in 1998, closed the company’s Las Vegas and Irvine studios, and relocated those willing of its 100 or so employees to EA LA. Joe, Mike and Adam now work at Petroglyph Games, a studio formed using the talents of those Westwood employees who declined to move, and they have continued to use the skills they gained in creating the C&C series on RTS projects like Star Wars: Empire At War and Universe At War: Earth Assault.

Work on what would become Command & Conquer 3 Tiberium Wars had begun before the split, again utilising the SAGE Engine. The game’s release in 2007 marked the franchise’s return to the console format and brought the Tiberian saga to a new generation of gamers. Although not responsible for the final product, the Petroglyph team were impressed. “Seeing Kane back on the screen in his full glory warmed my heart,” says Mike. “It felt like a bit of the magic and inspiration from the original series was rekindled. Especially with the use of FMV when the industry as a whole had moved away from it for so long,” agrees Joe.

The legacy of C&C and its precursor Dune II is certainly appreciated by Joe and Mike, who were at Westwood from the start. They both divulge their personal favourites of the games they worked on. “I’m most proud of Dune II for the trailblazing aspect of game design, and the original C&C for the sheer fast dynamics and balance of multiplayer,” says Joe. ”I loved the Red Alert series,” admits Mike. “With its wild storyline and weird science, it had so much character, style and imagination. And Tesla Technology!”

We couldn’t resist posing the obvious question to Joe and his colleagues. Would they like to work on another C&C? “You’d have to ask EA!” jokes Adam. “Of course! If the opportunity arose, working on another game would be great,” says Joe. “I love C&C and Red Alert. I’d be thrilled to work and play in those universes again in the future,” adds Mike. We’d be rather interested, too.



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