With a tally of twenty games stretching back to 1995, four developers and innumerable fans, few strategy franchises have enjoyed the kind of long-standing popularity and success as the Command & Conquer series. Now, in the year 2013, C&C is being given new life in the custody of a new developer working with a new engine and a new business model that reflects EA’s newfound fondness for social and free-to-play experiences.
Strategy Informer sat down with Senior Development Director Tim Morten to talk what impact those changes have had, why BioWare settled on Generals and how the developer has balanced bringing AAA production values to a free-to-play game.
How did you go about developing this one with so much history, so many angles you could have approached from. Why Generals?
Tim Morten: The franchise has such a history, seventeen products and everybody has experienced it from a different direction. Of the three Command & Conquer fictions though – Tiberian, Red Alert and Generals – it had been almost ten years since Generals had been revisited so we were due to go back to that. It turns out that Generals really was the fan favourite, too. It was one of the most successful selling universes and just the amount of requests on the forums for us to go back to that universe were astounding, so it felt like the right choice.
The obvious question to ask is what does the free-to-play model allow for that the traditional business model doesn’t?
Tim Morten: I am really excited about this shift in how we develop. We didn’t necessarily know what to expect at the outset but we quickly started to realise that it’s very liberating for game development. Before we had to finish every feature that we wanted to put in front of players for a deadline to get on a disc, to get in a box, to get on a shelf. Now, we still want to develop the same breadth of features, but instead of having it all done at launch we can start with the core foundation of the game and then continually add to it. We can incorporate feedback while we do that too, instead of just guessing for day one.
Do you think there’s been a shift in perception with the core gamer perhaps becoming more open to playing free-to-play games?
Tim Morten: Yeah I do. I hope that the gaming audience starts to embrace free-to-play gaming as evocative of the same quality as in boxed products. There is a certain class of free-to-play games that are flash-based or mobile based that – not that they’re bad games – but they’re not at the same level as what we would describe as AAA quality. So we’re very sensitive to the perception that quality will somehow be compromised by this approach. Thankfully, some other products – World of Tanks, League of Legends – have really shown that it’s not about the business model; it’s about delivering a good game. First and foremost that’s what we’re focused on.
I’ve seen the game in action and it certainly looks fantastic. How do you balance bringing those AAA production values to the game knowing you have to recoup those costs down the line? There must be some risk there?
Tim Morten: Well we’re hoping that players will feel that the content that we do offer for sale is compelling and is worth spending on. I think part of the beauty of the model is they’ll have an opportunity to preview that before they spend anything so they can be confident that their purchase is worthwhile. We’re being very thoughtful about what is free, how you acquire content by playing the game and building up points versus spending money. Hopefully we’ve got it right, but we’ll learn more after we launch.
You’ve described it as a platform and not a game, as well as an ever changing experience. How far down the line do you expect to be supporting C&C? Is this the Command & Conquer platform from now on?
Tim Morten: As long as there is demand we will keep producing content. Nothing would make us happier than to be making new factions in the Generals universe ten years from now, even though we do want to explore Red Alert and Tiberium on this new platform and new fiction altogether.
And you’ve confirmed single player, right?
Tim Morten: Yes! Single player means many things to many people. At launch we’ll have a Skirmish mode that supports single player, we’ve got another mode that’s co-op against AI called Onslaught Mode. Post-launch we very much want to explore things like mini-campaigns and more traditional story-based content. And again, by nature of being a live service we have the opportunity to get the balance right with multiplayer and with Skirmish and then use that foundation to build story out.
How deep will the social features run? Are we looking at something like Battlelog?
Tim Morten: I think social engagement is so important. We’ve got a core set of features we’re going to launch with that will hopefully provide enough connections and enough abilities to share with friends that it satisfies the initial desires of players. Over time we’re going to make that richer and richer. We’ll add things like clan support and tournaments. We really want to develop it out to the point that different audiences, like the eSports audience for example, will feel as though the feature set they want is there in the game for them.
Is this being viewed by EA as a completely new chapter in the Command & Conquer timeline. It’s a new developer, a new platform, a new engine, just how much of a restart is this?
Tim Morten: Yes, it’s a substantial rebirth of the franchise. There is some continuity there. We’re very fortunate to have an original Westwood team member and other team members who are veterans of past Command & Conquers. But I think the environment has changed, the technology has changed, the whole business has changed and this is a chance to re-envision it.
What were the core Command & Conquer features you felt were vital to keep intact?
Tim Morten: We really, especially after Command & Conquer 4, took a hard look at what we as a team believed made real-time strategy and Command & Conquer fun. If you’re going to call out maybe four specifics I think resource gathering, base building, building armies and having that individual unit control as you attack, those are the key components. But there’s that other piece that’s harder to enunciate; the very tactile, visceral feel of ‘what does it feel like to build a structure?’ in terms of build up animations, the audio feedback and the UI. We spent a lot of time just on those basics. We’re re-implementing everything from scratch so it’s a chance for us to look at it and say, ‘oh I see why units have that voice response when you click on them’ – it gives you an essential sense of immersion and feedback.
Has how Frostbite changed the way you both developed the game and how it plays?
Tim Morten: Going in we thought the impact would just be visual and once we got the game up and running in Frostbite we realised that the impact the physics-driven destruction would have on the game would be more pervasive than we first thought, in a good way. I think perhaps the biggest impact is in the networking backend. All of the past Command & Conquer games were peer-to-peer, which meant they were susceptible to players being affected by the slowest machine, the slowest connection and cheating. Having this client server-backend has really changed that I think. It’s increased the quality of experience for everybody tremendously.
This interview was originally published on Strategy Informer.