Game Over Online ~ Interview - Command & Conquer: Generals (c) Electronic Arts

Interview - Command & Conquer: Generals (c) Electronic Arts

Published: Monday, February 10th, 2003 at 05:39 PM
Written By: Jeff 'Linkphreak' Haynes

Game Over - Interview - Command & Conquer: Generals (c) Electronic Arts

You’d be hard pressed to find a gamer who wouldn’t be able to admit the massive impact that Command and Conquer has had on the industry. Each title in the C&C universe has single-handedly redefined and re-invented the concept of the military strategy game, proving that solid strategy and engaging storylines and full motion video cutscenes could bolster game mechanics. Fans of the series have validated Westwood’s hard work over the past eight years, becoming one of the most rabid communities to support a game. So you can only imagine the eager anticipation that Command and Conquer: Generals spawned when the title was announced.

In development for almost two years, C&C: Generals has been under the watchful eye of executive producer Mark Skaggs. No stranger to RTS titles, Skaggs was instrumental in the development and production of Red Alert 2 and Yuri’s Revenge, and his influence has been felt on other Westwood titles, such as Nox and Command and Conquer: Renegade. I recently had a chance to speak to Westwood’s 5-star general about some of the features players can expect in his latest project. C&C: Generals will be in stores on February 11th, and we’ll have a full review of the game up shortly. In the meantime, enjoy the following interview!

Jeff Haynes: What are some of the basic features of C&C: Generals?

Mark Skaggs: Where to begin? Well, as you know, there are three sides: The U.S.A., China and the GLA, who are the bad guys. There are 22 missions in the game, separated across three campaigns with a training mission included. And the training mission is actually a real mission. It’s not one of those, “go here, go there, shoot this target.” It’s actually one where you go and blow up a chemical plant that the GLA are running. There’s a multiplayer option where up to eight players can play at once over LAN or the Internet. We have skirmish mode, where you can fight up to seven AI combatants. You can also put some enemy AI commanders into a multiplayer game, team up with a friend and cooperatively play against them. Our AI is really cool in that it never plays the game the same way twice. Our lead designers really spent a lot of time making the AI very reactive, and scripted a lot of different strategies into the game, so they won’t ever react the same way every time. For example, the AI may send an attack to probe your defense, and if you don’t protect against that effectively, they’ll send a second and third attack, but the next time you play that mission, it’ll do something completely different. Oftentimes, you’ll hear games proclaim, “We’ve got really great AI,” but what we have in Generals is something that people haven’t ever seen before.

So, the nature of each side again: The U.S. is full of high-tech hardware, using plenty of bombs, missiles, jet planes and powerful tanks. China’s main strength lies in its large population, and they actually gain a support bonus when they group together, firing faster and causing more damage. They also have nukes and a newer version of the flame tank, which is a classic C&C unit from way back. Finally, the GLA are low-tech scavengers, and act almost like insects. Once they infest an area, they’re very hard to get rid of. For example, if you manage to destroy a GLA building, you have to make sure that you completely destroy the entire area, including the tunnel network underneath its foundation. Otherwise, a GLA member will climb out of the rubble and start to rebuild the structure! They also have tunnel networks that they use to get to any point on the map, which can be especially effective in multiplayer games. You may be fortifying a base when all of a sudden a worker will just set up a tunnel inside your walls, and GLA units will just come pouring out of these holes.

One thing that wasn’t mentioned at last year’s E3 is the reinvention of the Generals concept. Initially we had an idea of the player choosing between different generals for their side, each with their own tactical advantages and abilities. But as we continued on, we redesigned that idea and thought, “Wouldn’t it be better if the player was the General?” Instead of being presented with a stock set of abilities, each player could choose which upgrades and abilities they wanted. Now you acquire experience points, which you can strategically use to purchase new powers that we call Generals Powers that can be used to affect a portion of the game for a limited amount of time. You’ll gain more experience points if you actively seek out combat. If you want to turtle, that’s okay, but you won’t gain access to some of the higher level upgrades in the game.

Jeff: Was there a specific balancing problem with the Generals concept that was presented at E3?

Mark: We had that idea, and we kept trying to work it, but we’d have a problem. However, we’d say to ourselves, “Hey, we still believe in the idea,” and we’d put a Band-Aid on it. We kept running into problem after problem, and we’d continually put Band-Aids on it. Finally, in late August or so, we looked at the way the game was going and said, “You know what? We’ve got so many Band-Aids on this thing, it’s not going to be any good. Let’s throw it all out, and go back to the idea where you are the general, you gain experience points that can be used in a system that’s almost an alternative tech tree.” It added a tremendous amount of depth. We wanted to get away from the whole “pick-a-General” thing. First of all, what does he look like when he’s on the battlefield? Generals in the real world do not go out and shoot; they’re not Arnold Schwarzenegger or Rambo. It turned out to be a smart decision, and it’s easy to understand. You don’t have to sit there and wonder, “Which General am I? What does he do?”

Jeff: So there’s no definable tech tree in Generals as there has been in previous C&C titles?

Mark: There is, but the experience point system is in addition to the tech tree. What we’ve found is that the point system allows people to play the game the way they want to play it. If you want to go along and play just like you would another C&C title, you can do that. However, the point system would come in handy when it came down to planning out your overall strategy. Once you’ve gotten a certain amount of points, you may sit there and say to yourself, “Okay, I want really good base protection, so I’ll get the EMP Pulse instead of Artillery Training.” The next time you might say, “All right, I tried this ability and didn’t like it, I’ll try another.” On the other hand, if you’re playing a friend and he uses a power that you’ve never used, you may say to yourself, “Wow, that was really effective! I have to try that out.” There’s quite a bit of flexibility in the strategy and the gameplay.

Jeff: Can you give me an example of the use of a General Power?

Mark: Sure. Let’s take Emergency Repair as an example. As I’ve said, you acquire these powers through experience points. Our selected power of Emergency Repair allows you to repair and heal damage to units much faster than the regular rate. Well, let’s take this power and place it into a multiplayer game. Before, if you were playing cooperatively with a friend and he was getting destroyed by your enemies, you might have to say, “Hey, I can’t help you, because by the time I get my tanks over there, they’ll be dead and my base will be defenseless.” Now, all you have to do is click Emergency Repair on your ally’s troops, and they’re status is automatically improved.

Jeff: How many difficulty levels are there in Generals?

Mark: There are three difficulty levels: Normal, Hard, and Brutal. The reason why we broke it down that way is because we know that people usually don’t like to play on the level that they’d probably be comfortable with. Personally, I know I don’t like playing easier levels; I’d much rather have a challenge. Well, Generals will give that to players, because the difficulty level really does match its description. Brutal will give even the most veteran C&C player a lot of trouble.

Jeff: Is there a next-generation EVA present to brief the player during each mission? If so, how does it fit within the “realistic” setting of Generals?

Mark: Well, let’s take a look at one of the missions. Before every mission you’ll receive a visual map of the region in the world where the action is going to take place, followed by a briefing given to you by your side’s military advisor. Typically, you’ll be informed as to what’s going on in the region, the history of the conflict so far, or other things that will prepare you for the upcoming stage. The game will then transition from this loading screen where your objectives are stated to in-game action. A lot of people think that I’m showing them separate cutscenes or animatics when I show them this transition, but everything is being handled by the game’s engine. It’s something we’re very proud of.

Jeff: Speaking of the engine, was it built from the ground up or were there other components that you repurposed from previous titles?

Mark: There was a component that we got in Las Vegas called W3D that helped with the rendering. It affected some core features, like taking the polygons and rendering them into the program. However, a majority of the other items, such as the AI, were programmed from the ground up. We’re really excited about this new engine because it’s going to serve as the platform for which all following C&C titles will be based on.

Jeff: In previous C&C titles, the use of propaganda has been a significant factor, primarily in how it interacted with civilians. Are there bonuses for protecting civilians if you’re the U.S., utilizing civilians to power the military machine if you’re China, or eliminating civilians in the case of the GLA?

Mark: Actually, we wanted to try to figure that out, but it wasn’t working gameplay-wise. So as we started reworking the idea on the GLA side, we thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to incite a riot with civilians, kind of like what happened in Black Hawk Down?” The end result is the angry mob, which starts out with a couple of guys throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks. Later, you can arm them with AK-47s and they’ll roam around the map causing chaos. But other than that, most civilians will typically run away from chaos.

Jeff: Speaking of Black Hawk Down, are there any historical situations that you tried to implement that are specific to one side or another, such as the U.S.?

Mark: What we did was we took inspiration. There’s one mission where some pilots get shot down while they’re chasing a bad guy through a city, which is kind of inspired by Black Hawk Down. There are angry mobs all throughout the town, so you have to be careful with your pilots. There’s another one that’s a beach landing, which is obviously inspired by the Normandy beach landing and other invasions. It isn’t just one of those cool gameplay mechanics where we just decide to throw it in there. At one point we were thinking about copying Black Hawk Down, but then we started worrying about getting the historical accuracy right and other facets, and that just isn’t fun. So we used them as sources of inspiration.

Jeff: How are resources handled in Generals, since Tiberium isn’t present in this game?

Mark: The majority of resources are placed around the map in supply dumps, and as you’ll notice, each side has different ways of gathering resources. The GLA has a worker who’ll walk over to a supply dump, pick up a crate and carry it back to the base. The U.S. will use a Chinook to airlift supplies to the supply center, and the Chinese will use a supply truck to load up provisions. You are also, unlike other games, able to generate money inside your own base as a last resort. The GLA can create a Black market that pumps out money into their bank account, the Chinese employ hackers to hack the Internet for cash, and the US get supply drops of additional money.

You’ll still have to worry about resources and supply dumps that are scattered around the map, as well as fighting for control of sorely needed funds. For instance, when you play against the computer, especially on the Brutal difficulty level, the AI will start to send out supply-securing teams and base expansion teams to set up protection for their units and start taking in extra cash. You can just turtle in your base and hoard supplies, but you only get experience for fighting, so you won’t get any Generals points. What will inevitably happen will be the guys with the Generals points will start dropping Generals powers on you, and that’s the end of your game. But when all the supplies on the map have been exhausted and you still need to protect your base, you’ll have that option still available to you. It offers a lot more flexibility to the regular game.

Jeff: Are there any heroes in the game similar to Tanya, Yuri, or the original Commando from C&C?

Mark: Yes, there are a few. There’s Black Lotus, who works for China. She’s a very sneaky spy who can hack computers, steal money and cloak herself from the enemy. The U.S. has a guy named Colonel Burton, who can plant bombs on buildings but can also climb cliffs. Finally, the GLA has Jarmen Kell, a sniper who can actually take out the drivers of vehicles.

Jeff: How did the events of September 11th affect some of the features within Generals, especially the GLA and their terrorist actions? Were there any features that you had to remove?

Mark: Well, when September 11th happened we’d been in development for quite a while. In fact, some of the early engine work was going on, and we sat back and said to ourselves, “Are we doing the right thing? How do we totally avoid exploiting this sensationally, and how do we avoid people thinking these thoughts even if we stay away from this subject?” So we decided that there would be no planes flying into buildings. Very simple, straightforward stuff like that.

But we kept true to the idea of the asymmetrical battle of the game. We tried to think, “How could the GLA stand up to the U.S.? It’s impossible!” Well, the game is bound in a way that they can, because they’re not going to survive a toe-to-toe fight because the Americans are too strong. But they have all of these sneaky things they can do along with their upgrades that give them a chance. Finally, we also decided that this is twenty years in the future, and all of the stuff that’s currently going on is over with, so this is a new time with a new conflict. We asked a bunch of people what they thought, and a lot of people said that they liked the relevance and how modern it was.

Jeff: How was the decision to focus on more realistic, more modern technology made for Generals?

Mark: Well, we looked at some of our previous titles and said, “Well, Red Alert is kind of alternative history, and Tiberian Sun is alternative future/sci-fi,” and we wanted something in-between, so we decided on modern day. What we recognized is that it managed to strike a chord with more people, and so we kind of evolved it. It was kind of a practical approach, because there weren’t a lot of mystical features in the idea. Plus, machine guns mounted on the backs of pickup trucks, Comanche helicopters, tanks; people know these vehicles and understand what they are and what they can do.

Jeff: Did you get any help or research on the weapons from the military or were you merely using historical schematics and information to create units?

Mark: We had some generals lined up to talk to us, and then Operation Anaconda happened, and they all became unavailable. But one of the people at EA had access to a military strategist, and we asked him to come up with some creative ways to face attacks from certain scenarios. So we used that and also tried to look at where we are today and extrapolate what might be here in the future. For example, the Comanche helicopter is in development now, so in the game’s timeframe, it’s here. But we also wanted to keep it really light. We had one guy go really deep into military research, and there were moments where we had discussions of, “Well, we can’t exactly do that because it isn’t exactly accurate.” Well, fun is first, accuracy is second.

Jeff: At one point it looks like you have the Predator Scout drone as a spy plane for the American side…

Mark: That had actually been going on for a while, and in fact when we first started the development no one had actually seen the Predator. No one had seen that kind of shape before, but the design had been all over Scientific American, Popular Science, the Future of the Military, and then all of a sudden it becomes popular last spring. So we said to ourselves, “Well, there goes our idea!” But it’s okay, because when people see it on CNN, and then they see it in the game, people always say, “I always wondered what those things were like!”

Jeff: How has the ubiquitous tank rush been handled in Generals, and is there a tactical problem for those people who prefer to use this tactic?

Mark: Well, a tank rush only happens in one of two situations. The first is early in the game, when someone has the chance to pump out a ton of tanks and get to someone’s base before they have adequate defenses, or late in the game, when someone has just been hoarding money and has been pumping out tanks. The second part will always happen if you let someone just build up their forces, but in Generals we have plenty of defenses that shred tanks very easily. Tuning the game so base defenses are established quickly at the start, as well as providing some forces at the beginning of a mission solves the first part.

We’ve also made it so that rockets are very effective against tanks. We recently had a tournament in the studio where it came down to our lead designer versus our lead tester. Literally a battle between a guy who’s played the game for thousands of hours and the guy that built the game. Well, our designer comes rumbling down the map with 3 Chinese Overlord tanks, and the tester comes up with 4 rocket infantry. So everyone thinks that the infantry doesn’t have a chance against the tanks. Well, the tester researches laser sighting, something that not many of us had used because it seemed pretty wimpy. Actually, what laser sighting does is it increases the accuracy and rate of fire of the rockets. So the tester lines up all four rocket infantrymen against one tank, and boom! That tank goes down. Shortly thereafter, the other two go down. Four little guys took out 3 tanks. So you might think these guys are the best thing in the world, but they’re horrible against infantry. The answer comes not from creating the one unit that counters another, it comes from the economy and from what we’ve termed the combat chain, where one unit is taken out by one unit, which can be taken out by another unit, etc.

The biggest reason why we had this tournament during the last few weeks was to test the ultimate playability of the game. When people play, they want to win, and they’ll use every cheesy tactic, they’ll use rushes, but during the tournament no one used rushes. If anyone would use them, you’d expect it to be the testers, because they’ve been playing the game for months, so they’ve had a chance to come up with something. Even when we opened the game to the public multiplayer test, they would post on our boards, “Hey, use this!” and someone else would say, “Nope, this unit would kill it.” “What about this?” “Nope, this one will kill that.” There was even one whole thing going about how it wasn’t the tank rush, but the Comanche rush. Well, you know what? A quad cannon for the GLA can shred six Comanches. Six to one? That’s not cost effective!

Jeff: Are there any allies in the game? At E3 there was one mission where the U.S. and China teamed up against the GLA…

Mark: That’s one of the cool gameplay mechanics that we like to do. It adds additional conflict to any scenario. For example, if you pick the GLA and you’re fighting against the Americans, all of a sudden the Chinese and the U.S. might team up to fight against you. Or if you’re the U.S., China might give you a base and a nuke as you’re fighting against the GLA.

Jeff: Speaking of nukes, how did you balance nukes, since everyone nowadays considers nukes to be the ultimate weapon?

Mark: Well, the Chinese has the nuke, which has the damage and the area affect of radiation. The GLA has a Scud Storm, which has the damage and releases biotoxins. The U.S. has particle cannons, which if you take the idea that this is twenty years in the future, means that we have space-based weapons platforms. Some people might say, “Hey, that sounds just like the ion cannon from C&C!” Well, we’re just thinking a few years ahead. You can target an area with the particle cannon, and it’s still active, so you can drag it around. This means you have the option to concentrate a large amount of damage on one enemy, or spread the damage around amongst smaller groups and buildings. We knew they wouldn’t be identical, and we set it up so they would be base crackers, not game enders. But if you get the final weapon and strong Generals powers thrown at you at the same time, while it’s not a game ender, it leaves a huge amount of chaos.

Jeff: Considering the amount of time C&C has been around, how do you guys continually manage to raise the RTS bar with every title that you put out?

Mark: It’s being careful not to be conceited. We could do the whole, “We’re the best” thing, but we’d rather not do that. Instead, we prefer to keep hungry, diligent, and watchful. We’ve been working on this game in its current incarnation for little more than a year now, and as you’re going through the development cycle we continually find ourselves saying, “You know, it would be so much cooler if we could do this,” or, “It would be cool if we had this in the game.” We’re always looking for things to put into the game to make it better. We might go to the movies and say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could get this Matrix effect in the game?” Well, we can do that! So I think it’s never being satisfied with our own stuff. The other thing is not getting bored and kicking out something with the idea that people will just buy it, because if we get bored with it, then its time for something new, such as new features or a new concept to keep it fresh. For example, we purposely went through and crushed a number of C&C standards, like the sidebar. It was good for its time, but it’s in the way of the units and their functionality. I think not sitting back and having a lot of experimentation on a product keeps you fresh and edgy, and gives you a lot of ways to come up with a ton of creativity.

Jeff: Will there ever be a return to previous C&C Universes?

Mark: Of course! I can’t talk about those now. We consider Generals to be a 3rd fiction, because it hits the history of the modern and the future, but we’ll have more information on all of that later.

Jeff: Finally, out of the three sides in the game, which one do you continually find yourself going back to play when you have free time?

Mark: I’d say it’s between the U.S. and the Chinese, because they’re easier to play. We were actually worried about just how hard the GLA were to play, but we’ve been surprised to discover that people come up with really amazing GLA tactics, with plenty of sneak attacks and ambushes. But I’m more straightforward. I love the Tomahawks and I love the Inferno Cannons, as well as the jets and the Comanches. We’ve been doing our multiplayer tests, and we were paranoid that people would never play the GLA because they would never win. Well, we’ve found that the U.S. is the most popular side to play; however, we discovered that the win percentage was split pretty evenly between the three factions, around 33-34%.

Jeff: Thank you so much for taking some time out of your well-deserved vacation to answer our questions, and we look forward to C&C Generals coming out on the 11th!

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