Stressing Fantasy in Real-Time Games

At GDC, EALA's Louis Castle, famous for his innovations in the real-time strategy genre at Westwood, talks about the state of RTS

GameDaily BIZ: You essentially founded the genre of RTS games as we know them today. How would you say the genre has evolved in the last 10-12 years?

Louis Castle: I would say that since Dune II, which sort of set a kind of play mechanic, there have been a number of evolutions in various types of gameplay mechanics in the genre, but there haven't really been very many revolutions. So as much as I've been really excited about features that have been put into the games and then expansions to the interface, I would say that it's pretty much the same control mechanism and it's something that's become very well learned and very well ingrained. And to some extent that's what's been so difficult about re-imagining it onto another device because it's so well ingrained. "This is how you do it," and once you're really sure that this is the way you have to do it then it makes it hard to think of other ways.

BIZ: Going forward, what is your vision for the RTS genre? Where does it need to go?

LC: Well I've always believed that the fantasy of controlling entire groups, be it military which is armies (we haven't seen many RTS games that aren't military but they certainly could be) ... but I think that's actually what's exciting is that fantasy. We are really still very crude in the way that we deliver all this stuff, when you think about sort of the ultimate experience of being a really connected general. You know there's been a lot of television and books that talk about people controlling the battle from a war room or a van, from Aliens to Ender's Game the book and all sorts of things. This fantasy is really compelling and really strong. I think the whole industry, frankly we're just scratching the surface of it. As audio/visual gets better, as our control mechanisms get more refined, as the audience gets more accustomed to how to address or accept the fantasy, I think we're going to get some really exciting stuff.

BIZ: You mentioned books and movies. Do these influence your design? Where do you get your inspiration?

LC: Whenever I start a game I try to immerse myself in the mind of the consumer that I believe I'm going to try to get to, and I'm a voracious reader so it doesn't really matter to me. I can pick up a book on philosophy and then something on science, then one on poetry; it's okay with me. So I guess where I start from is just a lot of research in the mind of that consumer. I really try to understand what they perceive the entertainment experience to be, especially if it's well established. It's harder of course if you're trying to do something new.

So for military games of course I read a lot of military history, a lot of strategy, Art of War, types of thing like that. I'll go back and reread some of the classics to kind of get myself back in that mindset. And recently, actually Wikipedia and the Internet in general with fan groups and stuff is just a wealth of information to kind of really immerse yourself in the mind of that consumer. And I think any creator of entertainment, whether it be for games or television and film, if you talk to them you'll find they pretty much do the same thing. When you kick off you really want to get an idea of where things are at.

BIZ: RTS games have been a bit of a niche market thus far. How will they break into the mainstream?

LC: Well I suppose it depends on what you think of as mainstream. We have an audience of people that will buy games for the PC. And when we introduced real-time strategy games at that point in time everybody had written off strategy games as being too complex for the majority of PC gamers. And within just a couple of years it became the largest selling genre. So despite the fact that it might be a little intimidating to somebody who looks at it for the very first time — and that's actually a problem which I'm hoping to address with this product [Battle for Middle-earth II] — it really is something that is very compelling... the whole basic mechanics of exploring, of building up your resources and then engaging in a battle that is both visceral and real-time and tactical but also strategic where you sat down and had to make a plan and execute a plan.

So it's been my belief, my firm belief, for a long time that those mechanics, those core motivations absolutely should and must work on other platforms. It's just that for whatever reason, we haven't presented the idea in a way that felt accessible and at the same time expandable enough or deep enough to give people the real sort of feeling of control that they want to have when they're playing a game with many... we've had games about one, we've had games about two, and we've had games about few, but there haven't been any games on consoles especially about many. And that's what's really compelling about this genre and these types of products. So hopefully this is the first of many, many products in this genre and that it will expand wildly, [laughs] especially with the online play.

BIZ: In the "What's Next" panel you just participated in you said "less is more" and mentioned that most controllers have too many buttons for the mainstream audience. So in what ways does this affect your design philosophy? How do you go about simplifying things to make them more appealing and accessible?

LC: It's a really interesting problem to make something that's both obvious and accessible and easy to understand but at the same time something that takes a great deal of time and energy to learn to its fullest power and ability... I do believe that there's just too many buttons and gadgets on the controllers and that the fundamental controls of any product ought to be just the two analog sticks and a button, maybe two. And if you can't really experience the entire product in a satisfying way with just those sort of minor input devices then you're probably over engineering the interface elements for basic play. That doesn't mean that the rest of those things shouldn't be accessible. In fact, I believe that the right thing to do is to approach each of the other buttons as either verbs or adjectives so that in the mind of the player they're composing sort of simple sentences of command. [For example,] "Grab all the goblin warriors and send them to my base."

BIZ: Along those same lines of simplifying controls, some have suggested that RTS would actually work quite well on Revolution as the controller could be used to highlight and move units easily. Is this something you're looking at?

LC: Well if you start asking about the Nintendo controller or game systems that haven't come out yet, that's sort of like what I'm going to be doing next year or something. [laughs] It's just so hard to comment on something you can't touch and feel yet. I can give you all sorts of theories on how that might work, and I think it's very interesting that Nintendo is going out and creating different input devices because it's inspirational from a design point of view. But as for whether or not they would work for one genre or another, it's just too early to tell for me. I just spent two years getting to the point I'm on; with trying to reinvent a joystick or controller for real-time strategy, I'm sure it would take a long time to synthesize those ideas onto other platforms.

BIZ: As a side question to that, do you think that might limit third-party support somewhat for Nintendo because they have to kind of readapt/reinvent the control schemes to different genres?

LC: I'd only be paraphrasing what you heard at the Nintendo keynote but Nintendo is willingly taking a lot of risk; [that's] what you're really addressing here. But with creative risk comes potential for a great reward, and I've always really admired Nintendo for their ability to focus on high-quality execution on their key brands and to really make sure that their products are delivered at a standard level that retains a freshness and devotion from the fans. So when people all cheer because they see Zelda on the screen, and really visually that was not anywhere near as compelling as it might be if it were on some really powerful piece of hardware versus the DS, but people are excited because they know that Zelda just means a quality game experience. So I really admire them.

You asked a very specific question about third party and I think that's actually been the hard part for me to get too excited about stuff with Nintendo because they have a very deliberate way of going about their market, and from a game industry point of view there are few people that are invited into that realm or that party and not everybody gets to participate, which is unfortunate for those who don't who want to but really good for those who do. So it's a different strategy.

BIZ: RTS games are typically linked to the PC experience. Do you believe that they can be successfully adapted to be compelling for the portable market?

LC: I firmly believe that the core compulsions that drive the devotion to real-time strategy on the personal computer ought to be and at some point will be experienced on a variety of devices, not just the consoles that I'm currently trying to tackle but on handhelds and cell phones and everything else. But, I don't know what that game looks like yet because I'm just really trying to take one step at a time and trying to address one thing. And I do not believe that really even as happy as I am with what we've done that it's the final step by any means. I know it's just the first step on a long journey of realizing the potential of the genre. And frankly, even on the PC I think there's just tons of room for improvement. So the quick answer is yes, I think it's going to be everywhere, but I couldn't give you specifics at this point. I have spent some amount of time thinking about handhelds and how it applies to this genre but not to the level that I could really comment on because I don't the prototypes and everything to validate that.

BIZ: Now that EA has the book rights to LotR in addition to its film license, how did this allow you to improve the second Battle for Middle-earth?

LC: What's really exciting about the unification of the rights is because we have all the rights to the literary fiction as well as the movies for the first time ever you have a company that can take those elements of the books that everybody who read the books are really enamored with and then realize them in the sort of visual style of the films without worrying about getting sued. [laughs] So it's really nice because... now you finally have an opportunity to really explore those things in a way that's consistent with the films; that's a wonderful opportunity and one that I think we've leveraged heavily in Battle for Middle-earth II for both the PC and the console.

BIZ: In what ways will Battle for Middle-earth II be different than the PC version when it comes to Xbox 360? How are you taking advantage of the 360?

LC: As I've mentioned I've been working on the idea of the mechanics for the interface for quite some time. It's only been relatively recently that we've had a full team working on the entire product [for 360]. Although I've been working on prototypes for two years, the full team's only been working on it for a little over a year, which is still an enormous effort; a completely separate team working only on adapting content for a new platform is really kind of an unheard of commitment and I think it speaks to just the sort of passion we have for this genre and how much we believe in it.

And so what we've done is we've actually ripped out everything that looks like a user interface from the screens that get you in or out of the game to how you set up a quick match or a multiplayer session to exactly how you control the game and we've replaced it with stuff that's specifically designed around the Xbox 360 — not just any old console but actual 360, the way the whole thing looks looks a lot like it was built from the ground up for the Xbox 360 because it was effectively. And so what we've come up with aside from adapting a lot of stuff from the previous version, or previous platform, we've also added some new stuff. We have four new multiplayer modes, we've added voice over IP so you can play and listen to people getting torn up if you're winning or cursing you or laughing at you if you're being beaten, and that's really changed the experience quite a bit and made it a lot of fun. We even have things like achievements, which is really a very 360 kind of thing; those achievements unlock heroes that you can then use in a multiplayer session, so we've really embraced everything about Live, everything about Xbox, and I think all that's going to come through loud and clear to the fans.

BIZ: Finally, considering Xbox 360 and working on next-gen projects, how do you stay efficient and keep costs down when working on a huge project like LotR?

LC: It really is about efficiency. Right now people are really stressing out about how much it costs to build things. You know, "My God you have to spend X amount of million dollars to build a product." At the end of the day, I think if you talk to anybody and they put their hand of their heart, they'll tell you that we're not being anywhere near as efficient as we could be. And so for me the challenge really is finding those people who focus in specific areas and actually further honing down — it's almost counterintuitive. Like, take people and further narrow them down, further focus them so that they can deliver the highest quality productivity of their particular ilk as quickly as possible and that's going to help overall run a much more efficient production.

And that's a very big challenge when it comes to management structure and I think what we have to do is reexamine how we organize our businesses. We can't have these sort of Roman hierarchical management structures anymore... and Neil [Young] has really helped to reimagine how we might work as teams and I think that's helped a great deal in driving more efficiency. And frankly, a lot of the things that you've heard at all these talks is that we have to find other ways to monetize our intellectual properties, and that's another way to drive efficiency. So efficiencies aren't just cost efficiencies; they're also productivity efficiencies and I thought Mark Cerny's comment was an excellent one on that panel in that if you believe that costs are going to double and revenues are going to stay the same or even decline, if you're chasing your costs you're really chasing the wrong thing.

You have to chase the revenue side. You have to try to drive larger monetization of the things you're building, even if that may cost even more than what you thought, because that's where you drive the overall business efficiencies. And those who are trying to belt tighten and scrimp and pinch are ultimately missing the thing that's driving this whole business, which is the quantity and quality of the entertainment experience. So the road to success is going to be littered with the bodies of the fallen [laughs] that have tried to save a nickel here or there and failed to deliver the entertainment experience that the consumer wants.

BIZ: Thanks very much; it was a pleasure chatting with you.

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