October 27, 2008 12:00 AM | Simon Carless
[One of the reasons I love having Editor-At-Large Chris Remo working with us at Gamasutra is that he, well, knows stuff about games. And this means we get neat interviews like this, talking about the live-action festooned, semi-gonzo update of the C&C Red Alert series.]
After lying dormant for several years, the long-running Command & Conquer real-time strategy franchise got a revival from EALA's RTS team with the high-profile and well-received Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars.
Now, the team is days away from shipping Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, the latest entry in the series' zanier alternate history spinoff line -- which hasn't seen a new title since 2001's Red Alert 2 and its expansion.
C&C3 re-established the franchise's trademark live-action full motion video cutscenes, which we recently quizzed the developers about, and for Red Alert 3 EA has built a rather insane marketing campaign around them.
We sat down with EALA senior producer Amer Ajami and producer Greg Kasavin to discuss Red Alert 3's development, including the series' heritage, challenges in simultaneously creating PC and Xbox 360 versions, the history of the RTS dev team, and why the game is influenced by Red Alert 2 more than the first game.
Did you develop the PC and Xbox 360 versions in parallel?
Amer Ajami: Yeah, and by the same team.
Greg Kasavin: This is the fourth game that we [the RTS team] have released on the 360. In the 360 market for RTS, we've been growing, and not just because of the work that this team has been doing, but you look at what else is out there with what Ubisoft is doing, what Microsoft is doing. Clearly that market is... it is certainly not as big, but it's constantly growing year on year.
How these games generally perform at retail?
GK: They do well. We're not supposed to quote our internal sales figures, but the NPD data is out there. Certainly, we wouldn't be working on them if they didn't do well. And EA holds higher standards, a different definition of what successful sales are than most other companies. So, they do very well.
And it bears mentioning that in Europe, and in Germany in particular, the C&C series is huge. I don't know that the average Command & Conquer developer can readily articulate why.
I suspect that it has a lot to do with the PC platform remaining so strong there.
AA: Correct. And, interesting enough, Russia is now a big emerging market for C&C. I was there earlier this year and the following that we had was kind of surreal.
GK: They knew the most about the game. At the [press] event they would follow up and know all the details and everything.
So they still sell better on PC then?
AA: Again, without quoting actual data, we do sell -- I don't want to say significantly better on PC, but -- well, certainly with every release, the 360 catches up with the PC, but the PC is still the lead platform from the sales perspective.
What about as a development platform?
AA: Yeah, also from a development perspective. Although this is the first time that we actually took on the development of the 360 internally. When I say internally I mean the actual PC team. All 360 SKUs that we've done for our previous RTS games were also developed by an internal team, but one that worked alongside us. This is the first time that the PC team was responsible for both platforms. Greg, was essentially the producer in charge of the 360 SKU.
It seems like there'd be two challenges. One is that the series goes back so far on the PC as compared to the console; does that create marketing or awareness issues? Then there's interface -- I've played recent C&C games on console at press events, but when I buy my own copy, it's the one with the mouse. Do you battle with that?
GK: With regard to the game itself, we think it stands on its own, even though there's a "3" in the title. Basically, the setup is that it wipes the slate clean, and it's this new world that the characters enter into. We think it's a pretty fun, weird, and crazy place. It's a deeply strategic game. You are not going to win just by throwing one type of tank at the enemy; you have to think about what you are doing.
But at the same time it's got, we think, a really appealing premise to it. There is nothing that necessarily feels PC about it. It seems like it's just as accessible of a concept to whichever audience enter.
So as a player, if you are amenable to the control, you are not going to have some weird historical barrier.
GK: Right. And as for the controls, that was our big goal with the 360 version of the game, to come up with a control scheme that lets you accomplish the things that we wanted to accomplish on the PC front.
This was to be able to micro-manage battles effectively and to be able to pull different types of forces into and out of battle and switch their weapon types, and be able to do all these types of things quickly without struggling.
We came up with a variety of ways to make that happen in a way that the average player is going to be able to execute on the 360 just as well as on the PC. I think the high-end tournament-quality player is still going to be superior with PC controls. But for someone like me -- I've been playing RTSs for years and I consider myself an intermediate player -- I am not going to win any tournaments, but I can hold my own. I am basically as proficient on the 360 controls as I am with PC.
Hopefully, people will find that these controls deliver on that. The controls that we released in [Command & Conquer 3:] Kane's Wrath for 360 were sort of a step in the direction the RA3 controls were taking.
AA: It was a test bed for the RA3 controls. It was developed by the team largely through the feedback through Greg that we essentially gave to the team developing Kane's Wrath to see if it was viable.
It's interesting that you chose to call it Red Alert 3. It's similar to Bethesda with Fallout 3. Red Alert 2 came out seven years ago. You've got to assume a sizable chunk of the players may not have played the previous ones. And yet you still have the confidence to say, "It's that series and I am going to put a number on it, and that's it."
GK: I know what you mean. There's an interesting phenomenon with that. It happens with movies also sometimes, like Spider-Man 2. It has a much bigger day at the box office than Spider-Man 1. Intuitively, it doesn't make sense. You'd think that the audience would be limited to whoever saw the first one, but there is some kind of groupthink around it and even people who haven't played Red Alert might talk to their friends.
AA: They know somebody who has played Red Alert. Conversely, if you had played the first two there is a lot there to appreciate.
GK: Yeah, as long as there is the impression that it's not going to be this continuation of some complicated story that you have to have played the other two games to even understand. We definitely didn't want to that going into it, especially since Red Alert 2, is, what, seven years old now?
But a lot of people on the team hold Red Alert 2 to be pretty sacred among real-time strategy games. So we definitely wanted to live up to a lot of the cool ideas in that game.
You were telling me before that Red Alert 3 derives more from RA2 than RA1. Can you elaborate on that?
GK: From my point of view, I think Red Alert 2 had a more defined tone, period. Red Alert 1 took itself pretty seriously compared to Red Alert 2. Red Alert 2 had something really, really special about it. You can go back and watch the cinematics right now and there are still just as great today, apart from the compression quality.
AA: Even fictionally, it didn't seem like Red Alert 1 knew what kind of game it wanted to be. In one cinematic, they had Kane, who is a staple of the [main] Tiberium franchise of the C&C games.
Yeah, I remember that.
AA: Red Alert 2 was the game that said, "You know what? This is our own branch. It's not related to Tiberium or C&C except in name." In that sense, Red Alert 3 is a continuation of that tone, rather than of RA1.
GK: And it lends itself overall a feeling to the game that is pretty unique. There are plenty of serious war games out there that are heavy, whereas something like this has much more of that graphic novel, over-the-top action feel to it that pokes a little bit of fun at itself, but in hopefully a pretty clever way. It's just more distinctive, and hopefully will be more memorable to players than another serious World War thing that weighs on them.
It's almost hilarious the extent to which you guys have been highlighting the insanity of the game world in the marketing. When you're conceiving the fiction, do you ask yourselves, "God, how do we top this last ridiculous thing?"
AA: It's not so much pressure, it's just not putting... Often times, when we worked on previous games, especially the Lord of the Rings games, there are a lot of limitations that you have to stay within. Working on this one, it was the first game in a long time where, really, that limitation wasn't there. Those handcuffs were off. It was more a sense of, "What can we do?" rather than pressure that we have to make this as crazy as possible.
GK: At the same time, you'd be surprised from seeing the end result how conservative we can be in terms of the internal logic of the world -- just making sure that within this everything is sensible.
So you ask yourself, "Would somebody really need war dolphins with sonic disruptors [an Allied unit]?"
GK: Yeah, exactly. It was really important to us to make at least the three factions feel very cohesive so that they don't seem random. All the units in the faction feel like they belong to some particular ideology that's interesting and at least vaguely plausible and likable. Depending on which side you're playing, the other two guys are the bad guys, but we wanted players to be able to feel good about all three of these sides. They all have cool characters.
Was that a challenge with the Japanese faction, since there was no existing Red Alert faction to draw from?
GK: Yes, though with that faction, we had so many cool places to dig into, so many pop culture allusions. And we have a lot of people on the team who love giant robots or anime. Those influences all went into a big melting pot and hopefully we came up with something that doesn't feel slapdash. It still feels very cohesive, but it's pop-culture inspired.
AA: At the same time, if you look at the history that the Red Alert franchise concerns itself with -- alternate versions of World War II -- the only major world player that Red Alert 1 and Red Alert 2 didn't explore was Japan. Of course, Japan was a huge part of World War II.
It felt logical as well to include them into the game and use them as the vehicle with which we drive a lot of our experimental gameplay, such as transforming units. It's stuff that we wanted to do in the game, but we really didn't want to affect the Soviets and Allies too much. Those are two factions where fans of the series would have felt disillusioned if we transformed them too much.
GK: They have really well-established gameplay.
So how long were you guys in development?
AA: Well, we officially started on Red Alert 3 about 18 months ago, about March or April of 2007, though a small group of the RTS team initially did a little bit of pre-production on RA3 back in late 2004, early 2005.
As the second team was working on Battle for Middle Earth II, they found out what they wanted to find out about RA3, and then they rolled on back into BFME2, and here we are years later.
We primarily have one main RTS team, and then we splinter off smaller groups of that to fulfill whatever needs the company asks from us [such as expansions].
It seems like the EALA RTS team has gained some prominence in the last couple years. When did it form?
GK: It was for [Command & Conquer:] Generals, right?
AA: Well, even before that, we have certain team members who have been around since Red Alert 2 [released in 2001], and even before that, with Nox [from 2000].
GK: Yeah, it's basically spun off. I don't know how best to put it, but some of those guys do hail back from the Westwood days. There are definitely connections. The guy who's our story and cinematics producer, Michael Pedriana, he hails back from those days. He worked on Red Alert 2, and it was very important to all of us to capture that same type of spirit and tone with the cinematics of this game. He came from those days and knew what that was like.
AA: The majority of the team's DNA comes from Westwood Pacific originally, and then it became EA Pacific. But, we do have some actual Westwood employees still working with us -- one of our senior modelers worked on Command & Conquer 1, back in '95.
GK: That's a guy who dates back to Dune II -- one of the six Dune II programmers. It's incredible.
It seems that EA is putting increasing focus on Command & Conquer as a franchise compared to how it was for a few years. A lot of the properties that EA picked up in the late 90s or early 2000s, especially the old school PC studios EA picked up, are not very prominent anymore. What gives you guys this kind of focus?
GK: What came to mind for me immediately is the success of Generals, although for a lot of hardcore C&C fans, the debates kind of rage on as to whether Command & Conquer: Generals is really a true C&C game or not, because it did a lot of things differently. But it was a successful game and many would hold that it's a really great game. And I think that kept Command & Conquer on people's minds.
AA: And I would argue the hardest core C&C fans hold Generals and Zero Hour to a much higher standard than all the other C&C games.
GK: That's true. Zero Hour is considered one of the best Command & Conquer games from a competitive standpoint and everything. Just gameplay-wise, it did a lot of cool things. So, I think, that helped make the reception of Command and Conquer three much more favorable up front. Because people were like, "Oh cool, it's the guys who did Generals, and Generals is awesome." Then, in the end, Command & Conquer 3 had to stand on its own legs now.
AA: I think the &C franchise would have been successful even had there not been this gap. If you look at the reasons why there was a gap between Generals and C&C3, we had this opportunity as a company to work on The Lord of the Rings movie license. We're all C&C fans, but a lot of us at the time were also hardcore Lord of the Rings fans, so we really jumped at the opportunity.
That took the team essentially offline for three-plus years from doing C&C games, because we did two mainline Lord of the Rings games. We did one for the Xbox 360. We did an expansion pack. So now, when we got those out of the way, it was time to kind of go back to our roots.
C&C: Generals was my first game in the industry. And the engine that was developed for that game was also co-developed by the guys at Westwood Pacific in Irvine, California and the original Westwood team in Vegas. And at the time that we were working on C&C: Generals, the Vegas team was working on the original iteration of Command & Conquer 3.
It's actually funny. If you look at all of the different iterations that C&C3 went through, it's like the third or fourth iteration of the game was the one that was finally released.
GK: If Lord of the Rings didn't exist, C&C3 would have probably come sooner.