Interviews// Command & Conquer Goes Free-to-Play

Posted 27 Feb 2013 16:56 by
Electronic Arts is committed to exploring emerging business models. If you?ve not realised this by now, then perhaps the changes to the long-standing Command & Conquer RTS series might be a wake up call. Abandoning the traditional boxed retail approach, developer Victory Games is instead building a free-to-play game that will evolve over time as gamers offer live feedback.

While some might baulk at the thought of a core strategy game adopting the sort of business model favoured by casual game developers, EA and Victory have faith that the new direction will be much more beneficial than sticking to the old development cycle. Senior development director Tim Morten was on hand to explain to me why this is the case.

SPOnG: The Command & Conquer series has traditionally been a boxed PC game. You?re transforming it into a digital service, so to speak. I wanted to get your thoughts on why you wanted to take the game in this direction.

Tim Morten: Really, it?s an opportunity for us to change our development paradigm in a way that we think is going to produce a better game. For the last 17 years, Command & Conquer was on a regular release schedule, and the teams working on the games had to race to get all the features completed to hit tight deadlines. After the box was shipped... yeah, you?d maybe get patches or expansion packs, but you couldn?t touch that core content.

That?s limiting in a lot of ways. You can?t evolve the game in the way you want it to. And that was something that we didn?t really realise until we approached development on this title towards an ongoing, live service model. With a live service, it?s not about racing to cram everything in a box. It?s about trying to nail the core mechanics first, then building it out after launch based on feedback over time.

It?s just a logical process, which is going to produce something that players are happier with, and make us prouder as developers.

SPOnG: Speaking of changing paradigms, do you think this can be applied to the PC market and the development of PC games in general? The PC industry seems to have undergone a radical shift in recent years.

Tim Morten: I do, it really seems to be going away from the traditional boxed or even single large-release model, to a more iterative online service model. I think that?s what the future holds for the industry as a whole, but we?ll see how it plays out.

SPOnG: The game uses DICE?s Frostbite engine. How are you using that to create a better experience in terms of Command & Conquer, and why did you decide to use the engine rather than make something bespoke or revamp an existing engine?

Tim Morten: There were a lot of limitations with the last Command & Conquer engine (SAGE). It had literally been used for the last decade - ever since the last Generals game. So we went into the Frostbite engine looking to escape some of those limitations. At that point, I think the big things we identified [as benefits] were graphic fidelity (obviously) and also the network backend going to client server.

As we got into it, and we finally got the engine up and running on frostbite, there were some other emergent benefits which we found really cool. I think the physics-based destruction was one of those. That really enhances the look of the game, but it also has an impact on gameplay in terms of accessibility - when you see civilian structures getting knocked down in different parts of the map.

Perhaps the biggest functional impact of the new engine has been the quality of the network experience. When we were peer-to-peer before, players were limited to matching the slowest member of the network?s game performance. It affected the network bandwidth and framerate experience. Now, players are completely untethered - your client will update as fast as your machine can do so, because the server holds the authoritative view of the world. The client just acts as a window to that world. It also really cuts down on the opportunities for people to hack their clients and cheat, as a result.

SPOnG: Was that the biggest hurdle for you to jump over, maintaining a smooth and consistent network experience throughout?

Tim Morten: Well, network speed itself actually isn?t that demanding. We managed to be pretty optimal in terms of how much data we have to send out to the clients. But you?re right, in that architecturally this is such a different approach - the entire simulation of the world has to run on the server instead of having little individualised snapshots from the client?s end. It?s taken a tremendous amount of development to recreate all of the functionality that existed in the old engine into this new architecture.

SPOnG: A game like Command & Conquer, the way it works and is designed, makes it a prime target for microtransactions. That?s certainly a direction EA is going now with its games. But you said that ?Pay to Win? isn?t a direction you want to go. Why is that?

Tim Morten: As gamers, we on the development team feel that it?s a detriment to fall into tiered class systems of the haves and have-nots, based on who pays or doesn?t pay. Our monetisation system is more of an accelerator - whether you?re grinding or paying, you still have to level up to progress through the game.

We keep it fair by making sure you?re matched against other players who are at an appropriate level. If someone?s taken a shortcut and used a boost to level up more quickly, that?s their decision, but it doesn?t mean that they have an inherent benefit. Actually, in some ways, the onus is on them - they have less games under their belt than you might do, as an experienced player whose grinded to that level. Yes, they may have accelerated to get there, but they still have to make sure that they can compete.

SPOnG: The first pack is based on the Generals universe, with following packs themed around classic C&C universes such as Tiberium and Red Alert... is there a broad, over-arching story that binds these universe together, or are they presented as separate entities?

Tim Morten: We?ve talked a lot about this possibility internally. Each universe so far has existed in its own space, with no ties between them. It?s possible that we may explore ways to bring them together. But that?s one of the benefits of having a live service - the door is really open to exploring new ideas like that.

SPOnG: You mentioned that you were exploring new gameplay avenues for the future, like campaign stories. Would that be a way in which you?d experiment with bringing universes together - a one-off crossover campaign, for instance?

Tim Morten: Between the universes? Yeah, it?s an interesting idea. I think... yeah, it?s a fine line we have to walk here, to make sure that fans of the individual universes don?t feel like we?ve violated their sanctity. But at the same time, I think there?s an appeal to that sort of mashup - even like a Street Fighter [X Tekken] idea. We?ll have to see what the future holds on that one.

SPOnG: Having the opportunity to incorporate these classic C&C universes... how much of the game?s development was a challenge (to remain faithful for past titles) and how much of it represented an exciting opportunity to add something new to what is familiar to so many gamers?

Tim Morten: We tried to stay very sensitive to all of that. I think our overarching design process... we try to keep about 30 per cent intact [from the classic universe], and I think you?ll see that in the first Generals pack - many of the favourite units, like the Overlord, are still there. But 30 per cent will be similar to the old games, but modified, and 30 per cent will be altogether new ideas. So our aim is to pay homage to the old, but still keep it fresh. That?s the hope.

SPOnG: You probably won?t have anything to say about this, but... what are the chances of seeing Michael Ironside coming back as a Lieutenant General?

Tim Morten: [Laughs] It?s funny, we have signed headshots of the actors from all the past C&C games, including Michael Ironside, in our office. It would be wonderful to have him come back. One obvious idea might be to bring familiar people back to voice generals, but down the road we have the possibility of adding cinematics and cutscenes, so who knows? We?ll see what the future holds.

SPOnG: Thanks a lot for your time.

Tim Morten: Thank you.

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