Interview: Louis Castle

Co-founder of Westwood Studios, Louis Castle, needs little introduction for anybody who’s been enraptured by the thrill of real-time strategy games. Along with Brett Sperry, Joe Bostic and Eydie Laramore, he created the revolutionary RTS franchise, Command & Conquer, prompting millions to devise battle plans in front of their computer when they should really have been working.

In 1998, EA acquired Westwood and Castle went on to become general manager of the publisher’s Blueprint Studio. Last spring he left the behemoth to lead InstantAction and its impress digital distribution service. At Develop this year, we sat down with the man that showed us all another side to strategy games to look back through the Command & Conquer anthology. Castle shared the series’ humble beginnings, what he thinks of C&C4 and what the future holds for the RTS genre.

This year marks 15 years since the release of Command & Conquer, a game that introduced a generation of people to the RTS genre. Did you ever envision it would become so popular?
Louis Castle: Well, no, of course not. You never know when you’re building something that it’s going to be that popular, that big. But we had a pretty good idea with Command & Conquer. Dune II had done very, very well anecdotally. Sales-wise it didn’t do as well because it was heavily pirated, but everybody knew the game and it become a favourite amongst many people, so we knew we were working on something great. Knowing that, when you’re getting close to the end of a game, and everybody in the office is playing it all the time, you know that you’ve got something pretty good, right? They can’t enough of it. So that worked out pretty well. I would say we had no idea it was going to be something that people would still be talking 15 years later, but obviously we knew it was going to be a good game. You only hope for that kind of success.

Why does C&C’s story of world order, terrorism and the fight for the ultimate resource, Tiberium, continue to resonate to this day?
LC: If you think about the Frank Herbert books, the spice melange, which was the Dune spice, was sort of a homage to oil. And the desert planet Arrakis was definitely very intentional to harking back to the warring tribes in the Middle East. So for us to then take that gameplay which we had designed around that universe and create something that’s seminal in our own world, we could have made it about oil, I suppose, but that seems a little too direct, so by having this alien invasion of this substance it made it a little bit more mysterious and it allowed us to upset the geopolitical environment.

The basic premise of C&C as a story was a backstory that would create these battles. Since we wanted to make a very structured and ordered group of people battling against a decentralised organisation, it made a lot of sense to have established governments fighting against terrorism. Of course, we put out C&C in 1995, many years before our current world situation. But every back then, Joe Bostic, Brett Sperry, and Eydie Laramore, they really saw that the world was going to a place where the next war was not going to be between nations, but was really going to be more of a war of ideology. A war between those who feel like they’re representing the under-class and those who represent the establishment, and the fight against those two. So that was the underpinnings of C&C as a story and it felt like it would resonate with not just today’s world, but anytime in past. You can go back to almost any time in history and have some similar analogies going on.

Did the later games follow that model?
LC: They definitely drifted quite a bit. The first C&C took itself very seriously. People look at it now say it was kind of campy, but we were honestly doing our best and I think that’s why it was successful in a way, because we took it very seriously. The next game, Red Alert, was meant to be a little bit more whimsical, a little more fantastic and more fun, and divorce ourselves from the real horrific parts of war with a strategy game with a story that felt like an old 50s movie or something. So that was setting the Red Alert universe on a path much more deliberately campy and whimsical, and the C&C path on more of a grim, social commentary. I’d say Tiberian Sun kept with that theme very well, because it was very dark. Certainly, Red Alert 2 stayed on the other track very well.

I think really the big departure was Generals, because it was a different team, a different group of people. They really liked the StarCraft games, and they built the game mechanics around StarCraft and the world was heavily influenced by Bing Gordon at EA. And it was built around literally being today’s world. I don’t know that I would have done that. I respect the decision they made, but it certainly didn’t belong in the original C&C or Red Alert ethos. The Generals products were good games, but I think they were a little too close to home.

It’s probably an usual comparison, but if you watched Twilight Zone episodes, many of the episodes were a commentary on current politics or current society; prejudice, communism versus capitalism, everything. They would do these stories, but they were never about the exact topic, they were always about something that would make you think about that. So by making it a fantasy, they were able to hit it head-on and make a social commentary. And I think that’s what was so nice about the original C&C. By making it a fantasy, we were able to hit terrorism head-on and make a very strong social commentary that you can expect terrorism if you become tyrannical or imperialistic. So if you really look at it, the beauty of the first C&C and Tiberian Sun is the Brotherhood of Nod didn’t see themselves as the bad guys, they saw themselves as the liberators, as the good guys, and that made them more believable. The problem I have with so many stories is it’s clearly black and white, evil versus good. I like the stories where evil is more a matter of perspective.

C&C was also ahead of its time in terms of ideas and methods used to tell its story, from letting players choose mission progression with tactical outcomes to the live action FMVs of media broadcasts and in-game mission updates. It must have been an ambitious task to bring all of these elements together.
LC: Yeah, sure was. C&C, after Dune II, was originally a swords and sorcery game. It was going to be wizards and fighters and fantasy. It hadn’t been called C&C yet. Brett decided that it should be contemporary because it would be more accessible for people. So once we decided to go contemporary, the decision was to make it feel like you were logging into a terminal, almost like war games-style, and becoming a real commander of real troops. Once we made that decision to go for a realistic fantasy – there were no 3D graphic cards – 2D graphic images were just not going to come across as being real. So we had this big CD that had lots of space, why don’t we fill it with video? And once we knew we were going to fill it with video, we had already done some games where we were shooting in the studio, we said: “Let’s just start filming and build a studio.” The very first sequences that Aaron Powell, one of the lead artists, did, he literally walked back-and-forth in front of a sheet, then chroma keyed out the white, and used his silhouette for the guys on the deck of the aircraft carrier, and that started our whole studio experience. We hired Joe Kucan who became the director of the film pieces and, of course, played Kane.

That was interesting, because we were auditioning for the role of Kane. We were talking to very well known actors – C&C has a rich history of hiring well known actors – and as we were interviewing, Joe kept saying: “No, say it like this…” They would go back-and-forth, and we were watching the tapes, and Brett called Joe and he goes: “I got to tell you, we know who the best Kane is, but it’s you.” He was a little taken aback because he wasn’t sure that it would be good for him to be directing and acting – he’s a training actor and very talent guy. Ultimately, he decided, “Yeah, I’ll give it shot.” Ironically, he’s become one of the best known villains in any media. [Laughs] He’s really well recognised. The guy doesn’t age.

The charismatic Joe Kucan is now a cult figure. Do you think C&C would be recognised as it is now if he wasn’t the face of the series?
LC: I think it’s very difficult to take anything as complex as a hit franchise and take out one element. People would say: “It wasn’t a success, except for (blank).” But I think you could say it might not have been a success if it didn’t have everything. So, I don’t know that C&C would have been what it was without Joe. Probably not, and maybe without the full motion video stuff it wouldn’t even have been successful as a game. Who knows? It’s very difficult to say. Clearly, it added something to it that I thought was very valuable. Based on what we saw with Generals as a franchise and Red Alert and C&C, the FMVs, the actors, they brought something to the game and to the story that I think was quite enchanting. Until such time that we can do games that look as good as Benjamin Button… and even then you’ll still need actors, but maybe you could go to full CG. But CG characters still feel pretty obviously non-human. So, yeah, I think he had a huge contribution and without him it wouldn’t be the same.

Getting to the gameplay itself, how did you go about balancing the forces of GDI and Nod in the original C&C and beyond?
LC: At the very beginning we talked about the game in much the same way as a sport, we wanted it to be fair. The original C&C had multiplayer over LAN cable, but not over the internet. In that game, many of the units were very similar, so the balance was a little bit easier because the sides were subtly different, but they weren’t dramatically different. The superweapons were more different than the base units, but the base units; you both had troopers, you both had tanks. Really, Red Alert was the first game where we tried very hard to make those sides as different as possible. I would say it reached its climax with Red Alert 2 and Yuri’s Revenge. With Yuri’s Revenge you actually had three completely different sides, each of which had to be played completely differently to be successful, each of which had very equal balance. When we put it out in the world you could see it was almost equal in the people that were successful in the rankings of which side they chose.

The way we balanced that was we just test the crap out of it. The testers usually figure out all the exploits and they figure out how to maximise each side. So you keep balancing it till you get roughly the same number of people passionate for each one of the sides that they believe is going to be successful. It’s very difficult to do. One of the things that C&C always had were these hordes of units. Putting unit caps makes it a lot easier to balance, but it always felt artificial to us. It was just hard work. It was one of the reasons that the first C&C was so later, it took us well over a year longer than we thought.

You’ve always had a history of adding a lot of depth to the C&C expansion packs, and even re-balancing the games.
LC: Yeah, it includes all the patches. We were patching on a regular basis to try and keep it fair. Whenever did an expansion pack we would include all the patches that had come up-to-date and patch the expansion pack too. The expansion packs really made the game a much better experience. I always tell people, Red Alert 2 was a phenomenal game, but when you added Yuri’s Revenge it was just seminal. That’s actually one of the fun things about being online now, is we get to keep adding to our games after they ship. And we get to know exactly what people are doing. We can measure what they’re doing. We don’t have to guess and speculate what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. You can try something, and if it doesn’t work you can go back to the other version.

Is there anything from today’s online universe that you would have used to make things easier on your past projects?
LC: Oh, god, yeah. And there’s so much I would bring in now. The last year has been an incredible education. If I was going to build another real-time strategy game right now, I know exactly how I would do it. It would be online from the day it was a prototype. I would be measuring everything and really tuning the game based on what people do and how they perform, versus what they say or what they think, or what the designers think.

RTS games have struggled in their transition to consoles. Do you have any views on how developers should approach making RTS games for consoles?
LC: Yeah. I’ve worked really hard to try and make them a great experience on the console. I was very proud of what we did with Battle for Middle-Earth II, which I would say was the first, truly robust full-featured RTS on a console that you could play. Other people ported, but they were never playable. Maybe it wasn’t as good the PC. I would argue that you were able to play just as well on the console. Once you learned the controls, you were able to be just as effective as somebody with a mouse and keyboard. At the end of the day, we did that one and we did C&C3, which I think was even better. Those guys did some great stuff with the radial menus and things. And after that, EA decided to focus only on the PC. It’s sad in a way because I think we were on to something that was really fun. When you think about both of the games we did on the console, the console controls were designed for a console, but the games were really designed for the PC and then ported to the console. I think if we had designed them from the ground up on the console we would have been able to build a spectacular product.

Speaking of designing a console RTS from the ground up, what do you think of Ensemble’s Halo Wars?
LC: I only played a little bit… Halo Wars struck me like a lot of other games. It just didn’t feel well seated in the mythology. So I had an expectation when I went into it. The game was a fine game – the guys at Ensemble always made good games – but it wasn’t scratching the itch that I wanted. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it didn’t feel like Halo to me. It felt like some game that had the Halo license and that left me a little cool.

It might just be that the universe of Halo was always about the Master Chief. So it felt like a very individual-centric universe. So here you have this Covenant versus the marines and it just didn’t feel right. It felt like a game that was an OK game, but it just didn’t have anything to do with Halo. And that doesn’t make any sense in a way, because I know they had all the units. But I love the Halo games, I’ve played all the first-person shooters. Halo Wars, it was OK, I didn’t really strike me.

The one that really surprised me, what I thought was a spectacular game, was Company of Heroes. The guys at Relic did such a wonderful job on that. It really surprised me because, although it reviewed incredibly well and everybody I talked to loved it, it just didn’t sell anywhere near what people thought. I thought the theme of World War II was good and their battles, maybe not completely accurate, were historically relevant in much the same way that Age of Empires was, and yet somehow it just didn’t click. I liked it, and I don’t know why others didn’t.

Relic also made Dawn of War
LC: Yeah, they made the Dawn of War’s. Those are a lot of fun. I’m a big Games Workshop fan. It was fun just to be in that universe. And, again, those games for whatever reason didn’t click as well. The Total War’s never got me either. I’ve always loved the Blizzard games. Of course, been partial to Westwood one’s because they were what I wanted to make. Relic has made some of the best RTSs and for whatever reason they’re not quite as strong from sales. I think StarCraft II will do phenomenally well worldwide and it will make a bunch of people go out and start chasing the RTS genre again.

Do you think it will be good if StarCraft II reinvigorates the genre, then?
LC: I think it’s good and bad. It’s good because it will create a lot of copycat products. I think it’s bad because there aren’t many people trying to offer other varieties in the same space. So I think it will become ‘the way that you make RTSs’ which then propagates their demise, because once you have everybody making the same kind of game then there’s no reason to buy anything other than StarCraft. So I would hope that we could find some other people in the space. I believe in the genre. I believe that really deep strategy games, that you have to be balancing multiple things at once, they shouldn’t go away because it’s always very interesting. The guys at Petroglyph are doing some massively multiplayer stuff that’s pretty neat.

EA released C&C4 earlier this year as the final chapter to the Tiberium arc. How do you feel about the ending to C&C4?
LC: I think that the team they had doing it was a very talented team, they worked on a lot of the other C&C products. They were seriously resource constrained when it came to trying to make the product they wanted to make. I’m a little disappointed by the product at the end of the day. Not because the team didn’t do a good job with what they had, I just think it was under resourced to be the finale. I thought the story was interesting. It wasn’t the way we had originally envisioned it, but that’s OK. They were the ones who were in charge of the canon at that point, so it’s up to them to decide how it ends.

How might you have envisioned it differently?
LC: I don’t want to speculate. We had our own ideas in the very beginning that Brett, Joe [Bostic] and Eydie had come up with. It was supposed to be Dawn, Sun and Twilight, it was a three-part series. So it ended up becoming four, because they really didn’t conclude it in three. I don’t think it was exactly the way we had imagined the universe ending. They did a job of wrapping it up with their own story, but it was different from the way we would have done it.

In your eyes, what’s the legacy of Command & Conquer?
LC: It’s one of the spectacular franchises… the Red Alert universe is still out there and can keep going forward. The Tiberium universe is the only one that’s put a cap in it. And even then, you could always do more Tiberium games if you wanted to. I would say the legacy for me: it was a great ride for a long, long time. It started a whole genre of products. It reminds me of the old adventure games with Infocom and Sierra, the heyday of the adventure games, and now I would say a lot of them are coming back, with Drake’s Fortune and things like that. They’re action adventures, but they’re still adventure games. So I think at some point it will come back again, and I would imagine they’ll keep making C&C as its one of EA’s bigger franchises. In the meantime though, I’m really happy with the way C&C has affected my life. It seemed to bring a lot of people, a lot of joy, and that’s good.

Read about Castle’s next conquest, InstantAction, in part two of our interview.

Aaron Lee

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