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Sam Bass, lead designer on Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight, has worked at Electronic Arts Los Angeles on the Westwood-originated series for a long time, and has seen the audience for RTS games shrink over the years.
He says this game, developed in parallel to other installments in the series, is a conscious effort to save the RTS genre from itself -- to keep it from becoming the domain of only a completely hardcore audience, as has happened to the flight sim genre.
While StarCraft II will undoubtedly be one of the biggest releases of the year, this is a genre that is struggling to evolve with the times, suggests Bass. In this interview with Gamasutra, he describes how the team approached a design that will satisfy both new, inexperienced players and series veterans at the same time.
How long have you been working as an RTS designer at EALA?
Sam Bass: I came to EA in 2002, and I did Medal of Honor for awhile, then I moved over to the RTS group with Battle for Middle-Earth II. I've been a senior or a lead designer on all our games since then.
What was the genesis of this particular project? It's being painted as something with a unique direction -- more evolutionary gameplay mechanics, and the last game in this series.
SB: C&C4 is interesting, because it has been a skunkworks project for a couple of years. We did C&C3 in 2007, then we moved on to Kane's Wrath, the expansion pack, and Red Alert 3, but at the same time we had a little skunkworks team developing C&C4.
We figured, if we're going to do a Command & Conquer 4, we didn't just want to do C&C3 but with higher resolution, and trot out Kane again and go, "Look! Kane!"
We wanted to actually come up with different forms of gameplay within the RTS paradigm -- keep the C&C elements of fast gameplay and lots of units, but adding more team play elements, objective-based multiplayer elements. We wanted to see what we could do. It's gone through a ton of revisions before we actually started full development on this [incarnation], which was about two years ago.
What was your role during those early times, when it was overlapping with Kane's Wrath and the rest?
SB: I was actually the lead on Kane's Wrath when the skunkworks team was doing it. We actually kept borrowing people from that. (Laughing) It's been in pre-production and discovery phases for a couple years as we worked it out. We didn't want to just go, "Hey! Here's this new thing!" until we were sure it worked and it was fun, because we do have a lot of new elements in the game compared to previous ones.
That does always seem to be a particular concern with RTS. When you look at the most well-known RTS series -- C&C, Warcraft, and particularly StarCraft -- they actually have relatively few sequels considering how long they've been around. If they were any other genre, like action games, they would probably have three times as many entries in them by now. That must make it all the tougher to decide, "We're really going to change direction with this one."
SB: Exactly. It's also the conclusion of the Tiberium saga. So it was a really big deal. We wanted it to be weighty; we didn't want it to be just another sequel. Command & Conquer has been a franchise that I've loved since I first started out as a game developer. The first one came out when I had my first development job and nearly caused my first game to not ship, because we were playing too much C&C.
Back in '95?
SB: Right. So we approached it with a great deal of seriousness, asking ourselves, "What are we going to do with it?" We wanted to move RTS forward a little bit, because the central RTS paradigm of "build your base, do some harvesting, build some units, go kill the other guy" has been around a very long time and, compared to other genres, hasn't evolved significantly. We're starting to see some different evolutions from the various developers now.
I'd say Relic is doing really interesting work in bringing evolution to the genre.
SB: Yeah, Relic's doing some really interesting stuff; they're bringing in a lot of RPG direction with their games. We wanted to see can we keep the RTS-style "build a bunch of tanks and blow stuff up" fun, but also add a more class-based approach.
One of the problems -- maybe I wouldn't say "problems," but one of the things about classic C&C play is that it favors rushing -- building a bunch of tanks and moving in fast, doing micro-play where you're really good at clicking a thousand times a second. Our lead balance designer Jeremy Feasel clicks so fast I cannot see his fingers. I'm not that guy; I like to build the base. I'm a bit of a turtle.
We thought, "Can we come up with different ways to play, where the guys who want to rush can still rush, but it's actually tactically or strategically valid to play in a more base-building or defensive way?"