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In the purely dog-eat-dog, capitalist mindset that no doubt some EA executives adhere to, there's no reason to revisit or remaster Command & Conquer. Strategy games don't sell as well on consoles, full-motion video with B-list actors has been replaced by motion-captured A-list actors, and the competition for this niche space is stiff. If EA was going to revive Command & Conquer, why not just stick with the free-to-play mobile strategy games that have served the company well?
Fortunately, while capitalism continues to dominate the planet (but not SPACE), a team of folks at EA, Petroglyph, and Lemon Sky Studios got together to revive the Command & Conquer series with Command & Conquer: Remastered, a PC port of the first two Command & Conquer games. The port contains a number of quality-of-life updates, but also enables players to replicate the experience of playing the original games as much as possible.
Last month, producer Jim Vessella dropped by the GDC Twitch channel for a debrief on how the company dealt with updating low-res assets, enabling online play, and grappling with the transition to remote work thanks to the spread of COVID-19. Here's a few key lessons Vessella was able to share on the stream.
Command & Conquer: Remastered is the fourth major '90s strategy franchise to get an remastering treatment in the last few years. According to Vessella, his team at EA was paying attention to the success of the remasters of Starcraft, Warcraft III, and Age of Empires, and began putting feelers out in the Command & Conquer community to begin determining what players would want from a full remaster.
But to act on those community requests, Vessella said that it needed to recover Command & Conquer's source code. Even though EA bought Westwood in 1998, the 2003 'merger' of the studio with EA Pacific resulted in that code vanishing into the wind. Thankfully, the Los Vegas-based Petroglyph Studios, birthed by three former Westwood employees, were able to recover it.
By recovering that source code, Vessella said that the C&C: Remastered team was able to enable a key feature that have become a staple of remastered editions: real-time graphic switching between classic and new graphics during gameplay. Lemon Sky Studios, a visual asset outsourcing house based out of Malaysia, was able to review concept art, renderings from the original game, and other sources to make new 3D assets that mirrored the pixilated assets players were familiar with.
Vessella said the whole process mimicked art asset development for a brand-new triple-A title. After creating those 3D assets, the team ran them through a rendering pipeline that would pump out a 2D sprite. "You'd have usually 32 angles for all the vehicles or eight different angles for animation on a grenadier, and they'd have to re-animate and export that in every single frame to match one to one to enable real-time switching."
Lemon Sky's art refresh even tapped into an ancient conspiracy theory that dated back to the early days of Command & Conquer. In one early mission, a blurry, pixilated asset hangs out in the corner of the map, near where players set up their base. Tapping the space bar and switching the graphics reveals it to be a crashed helicopter, a very normal sight for a game with a '90s-themed vision of war (see the comparison between old and new graphics below).
But Vessella laughed when this particular asset was brought up, because apparently, that "downed helicopter" has been the subject of wild speculation since 1998. Fans thought for years that it was a UFO, a nod to the more science fiction-themed direction the series would take in later years. But all this time, Westwood has insisted it's a helicopter. Apparently, modders have already taken to the Steam Workshop to "correct" this one unique asset.
Originally, the real-time graphics switching was only destined for the revamped campaign modes, but after a round of community feedback, the game's original developers stressed their efforts to expand where players could swap between "classic" and "HD" graphics. "Getting the real-time switching completed in the first place was kind of a piece of technical magic by Petroglyph & Steve Tall, the original lead programmer on Red Alert in 1996. [Originally,] the campaign was the only place we could kind of get it to work properly," Vessella explained.
But after initial playtesting, Tall pushed to ensure players could swap graphics in any of the game's single-player game modes. Though the feature doesn't extend into multiplayer, it's still a neat archival effort to allow newer players to both explore what strategy games looked like in the '90s, while still being able to choose a modern aesthetic if it suits them.
Command & Conquer: Remastered contains a few interesting tweaks that mark the passage of time, and the difficult task of preserving old games. One notable one is that two vehicles have been quietly renamed. The Humvee and Apache were quietly renamed to "light scout" and "attack helicopter" to defer a copyright battle with their respective trademark owners in the world of privatized military equipment.
Elsewhere, the C&C: Remastered developers had to grapple with the unique realities of a title that used full-motion video--its cutscenes, along with its audio, had all been originally mastered for machines with lower visual audio and visual quality, and featured the talents of performers whose contracts didn't necessarily stipulate the remastering of their work.
In some cases, those performers had passed away. "For General Sheppard actor Eric Martin, we were obviously super super sad when he passed, he...wasn't aware of the remaster when we were kicking it off," said Vessella. "But we did get in touch with his family as part of this process," he explained. "They were very happy that he was going to be able to have this kind of legacy live on in the remastered edition."
On the audio side, original composer Franc Klepacki helped the team connect with Kia Huntzinger, who was able to record her audio as the game's in-game announcer. EA has previously explained that all of her original audio had been lost.
One other interesting area of "retouching" is the game's multiplayer balance. When it comes to the single-player, Vessella explained the goal was obviously to recreate the original experience as much as possible. But if C&C: Remastered winds up with a vibrant multiplayer community, those players are in the unique position of demanding balance fixes to games whose original design documents were written over 20 years ago.
And despite the debates around that, Vesella says those balance fixes are coming. One example that was patched out after our interview involved supporting players who've taken a beating in multiplayer, but haven't quite been knocked out of the game. By the game's original design structure, they're effectively defeated, even though "technically" they still have a chance to win.
As Vessella put it, "If you're low power and on red alert, you're completely out of the game. It takes 27 times longer to build something if you're out of power." In EA's mind, this kind of fix is almost like a bug fix, rather than the balancing overhauls you might find in a live game like Valorant. Vessella says some other targeted fixes are being looked at, but even if EA proves conservative with these changes, it's worth noting that they aren't the first developers to "update" these year-old strategy games. After all, when the team behind the Age of Empires remasters got started on the franchise, they began by creating new content that impacted the game's multiplayer.
In some respect, any story published on Gamasutra in 2020 will be touched by the spread of COVID-19. The global pandemic has impacted developers in numerous ways, and when it comes to Command & Conquer Remastered, the switch to work-from-home hit during its "polishing" phase, a time when bugfixing and final playtesting was most essential.
Ironically, that may have been where EA and its partner developers were most vulnerable. Even though the team was used to remote work thanks to the physical distance between EA, Petroglyph, and Lemon Sky, they lost access to EA's advanced testing capabilities. "Our QA team is overseas, in EA studios across Europe and India," explained Vessella. "We weren't able to utilize some of our larger PC hardware testing facilities, because we just couldn't access those. There were certain bugs, certain optimization items we just weren't able to get done in the same way."
It's a strange kind of release then---one that's not as untested as say, an Early Access title, but not one that's passed through the same rigorous QA process as other EA titles.
And yet, despite a global pandemic, the trio of companies involved in reviving Command & Conquer were able to get their game out the door, and revitalize a strategy series that's been dormant for over a decade.
For more developer interviews and select GDC talks, be sure to follow the GDC Twitch channel.