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Battle for Console-Earth: Louis Castle on Developing RTS Games for Xbox 360


January 13, 2006
 

Louis Castle is the Vice President of Creative Development at EA Los Angeles, where he provides creative input on a number of popular franchises, including Medal of Honor, GoldenEye: Rogue Agent, Lord of the Rings, and Command & Conquer, the series he helped create over a decade ago at Las Vegas-based Westwood Studios, which he co-founded in 1985.

Westwood is of course, with some room for argument, the creator of the real-time strategy genre, with 1992's Dune II often considered the first RTS, and 1995's Command & Conquer considered the genre's refining moment. Castle knows a thing or two about the genre, and in this exclusive interview with Gamasutra, he discusses re-envisioning RTS interface with a console controller, for this summer's The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-earth II for the Xbox 360.

Designing the First RTS

"When we built our first real-time strategy game, we weren't trying to take something that already existed somewhere and put it somewhere else," Castle said. "We were actually looking at a broad variety of products we loved, and we felt these turn-based strategy games had something exciting, and we thought, 'Wow, with computers and mice, wouldn't it be great if we took off the constraint of having as much time as you wanted and made it a speed chess kind of game?' And that drove everything in the decision-making process. It worked around the fundamentals of a mouse as a pointing device, and that's what lead to the innovation that became Dune II. So for many years, the approach of taking these kinds of games to consoles was to take those same metaphors of moving, pointing, clicking and typing, and map them to the gizmos on a controller. And when we did that, we did that to the best of our ability, and I would say that a lot of the ports we did were successful. But they fundamentally lacked an important approach, which was to treat the controller as a controller. They were all flawed fundamentally."


Louis Castle

Castle's approach to the Xbox 360 version of The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth II was to approach the RTS genre as if it were never on the personal computer.

"I said, 'Let's go back to the beginning.' Let's look at these strategy games, as if they were new. How would we approach it now? Let's pretend that there never was a mouse, and all we had were consoles. How would we bring this about?

"The first few prototypes that were under that approach worked very well, and we were using a variety of different engines in-house, and it became very clear that the thing that we had working was really adaptable to some of the material that we had on hand with Lord of the Rings. And after we started doing that, we realized wow, this is kind of hot, this is working really well. Why don't we go onto the holy grail – this new platform, the Xbox 360 – and use what we're doing with Lord of the Rings, but make it a unique console design."

The Xbox 360 version of Battle for Middle-Earth II is, at its heart, the same basic game as the one coming out for the PC next month and as Castle says, "very deliberately so. The hundreds and hundreds of man hours that goes into this series of products, the number of people…there's a phenomenal amount of work going into unit balancing, map designing etc., it would be silly to redesign that stuff."


The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth II

"People will want to say, 'this is a port,' and well, it is and it isn't. It's actually a re-imagining of the core compulsions that the PC games had, and in a way that's inherently intuitive to a console controller. It's a huge undertaking, and we've got a fairly large team working around the clock to make it a quality product."

"It's more an adaptation of an existing product than simply a port."

Castle is remaining tight-lipped in regards to what this re-imagined control scheme actually entails. "The core innovative ideas, I can tell you, are at once tremendously simple and easily replicated, so I think that once we've proven that this is a viable approach – which we have, through focus tests and such – I'd imagine we'll have a lot of imitators."

"The things I've given you so far are the sort of key issues. We're not treating it as a mouse, it doesn't have a big complex display, it really is native to what you think of with camera movement and navigation for a console game. And I can leave you to imagine from there."


The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth II

Entertainment Environments and the Xbox 360

"The reason that our UI is the core to all of this is, really, almost every single feature of the PC product is available through a layering of interface. So it has the compelling part of being able to pick up and play, but there's ways to do almost everything you can do on the PC, and even some that you can't. We took a very hard look at all the experiences in the PC product, and adapted what we felt would be good for console gamers. Obviously it's not just the interface; we have done a huge amount of work on making the product a true console product."

"One of the things we've learned over the years, is that when you're sitting in front of a television screen, maybe ten feet away with a controller, it's a totally different entertainment environment than sitting in front of a PC. And that alone, just being in that environment and being able to manipulate the game, is a different experience. And when you add on to that the people that have an HDTV, and the 720p output of the 360, it's phenomenal. This is an experience that frankly couldn't happen until now."

Of course, the improved display resolution isn't the only feature of the 360 that Castle is taking advantage of. "The necessity in an RTS, a war strategy game, is that you have to simulate the entire battlefield all at once. People have looked at first-person shooters as the pinnacle of visuals, and the uninformed might ask why strategy games don't look as good. And it's only recently that they're starting to push for that sort of visual appeal, and the reason it's taken this long is that so much of your machine is used to make this massive war going on, that you really don't have much to push the graphics side. The wonderful thing about 360 is that it has enough horsepower to push those visuals and have a good refresh rate. That wouldn't really be possible on older consoles."

And of course, there is the addition of Xbox Live support, including voice-over IP. "I'll tell you something. If anyone has had a LAN game with an RTS in an office of fifteen to twenty, or eight or even just two people shouting over cubes at each other, it's a hugely different experience than playing alone," said Castle. "Being able to do that with anyone in the world? That's phenomenal. If that's the only thing we brought to the product, that would be great, but it's only the tip of the iceberg. The Xbox Live features, like 'king of the hill' and 'capture the flag,' are very well understood among players, and now they can do that in a strategy context, rather than as a first-person shooter."


The original Command & Conquer

Evoking an Emotional Response

"We're not trying to, at the end of the day, just sort of make a game, as much as we're trying to evoke the same emotional feelings that the audience had watching the films," Castle said, of his basic design philosophy. "We want to capture that sort of awe and wonder of watching these huge fantastic armies going at it, but we also want to have some say about which armies do what. So when we're building these products, we're looking at these films and going, 'We want to have this same emotional response.'"

"Chris Crawford had a whole talk on the evolution of taste, and it was a really fascinating observation to me. When you look at any entertainment medium, the first things done are those that are overtly sexual or violent, because it's the crudest powerful emotion we can evoke in a human, and the easiest to get at. As you get older, you start to evolve your taste, you become somewhat of a connoisseur of entertainment."

"With all forums of literature, eventually we get past the sort of guttural, crude forms of inspiring emotion. We have decades ahead of us to explore human interactions."

"What made Lord of the Rings a great series of films was just as much about the actual human actors, the sense of heroism, as much as it was a spectacle of graphics and fantasy and all, and it all came from the literature. If you look at them in some way, they were the most sophisticated piece of the puzzle. All we can do is borrow as much of that wonderful thought process and condition as we can, and try to inject into that something new that helps to expand the IP."

Castle is a firm believer in bringing established intellectual properties to the interactive medium in a meaningful, provocative way. "With IPs, it seems like all the good properties are taken, but it's not true, it's just that the obvious properties have been exploited. The most tragic thing someone can do is take a property that is popular and totally misguide the interactive experience."

But there are, of course, challenges. "Comedy is hard to do in an interactive system, it's all about setup and delivery. If you give the player control, it's really hard to get right. If you take away control, it's not a game. Way back with Day of the Tentacle and games like that, like Grim Fandango, that sense of comedic timing is really hard to do. [Tim] Schafer is absolutely brilliant when it comes to comedy in our medium.

So I think that IPs that lend themselves to run around and shoot things have been easily exploited. It's hard to make games in that category well, but from an intellectual point of view, that's the easiest to exploit."

So, is Castle satisfied with the level of emotion he's put into this new title? "Yes, absolutely. The reason I'm satisfied is that we really captured the emotional experience you get when watching those grand battles, but even more than that, within just minutes of picking up the controller, you've forgotten that you're using a controller. You feel connected to the world, you're manipulating the environment, traveling through it easily, and because of that, the interface sort of dissolves away and disappears. And only when you're trying to do the most sophisticated kinds of things, only when you're really out there do you remember that, oh yeah, I have to hold a button down. So that, to me, is where I really feel like we've hit the success, that it's just so simple."

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