Category Archives: development

A Metric TON of my old Command & Conquer interviews


So, a long time ago, I wrote a retrospective for PC Gamer about Command & Conquer. Like a conscientious hack, I did a tonne of interviews with people who’d worked on the project – far more than I needed to, because it’s always fun to reminisce with your heroes. So here they all are! (NB – I’ve not had a chance to through this and correct the transcriber’s errata, so there will be timestamps and transcription marks in the below.)

Mike Legg, Petroglyph

DG: How did the studio come together? Did it start as a porting house?
ML: Brett Sperry and Louis Castle started the company 1985, when it was just the two of them at first. (I worked with Louis at Century 23 Computers. a local computer store.) I happily joined Westwood in 1986, and there were about 5 or 6 people working there. We were originally working on ports, taking games to the Atari ST, Commodore Amiga. and Apple II GS, but there were also some Commodore 64 and Apple II, and Mac Plus versions mixed in there. The ST, Amiga and Mac were very exciting since they supported the mouse interface.

One of the first publishers that we worked with was Epyx, doing ports of games like Winter Games, World Games, California Games, and Temple of Apshai Trilogy. Another early publisher was Strategic Simulations, Inc (SSI), with titles like Questron II, Phanastie III, Roadwar (2000 and Europa), and ultimately some new original D&D titles like Hillsfar, DragonStrike, Eye of the Beholder 1 and 2, and others. (It’s interesting to note that we worked closely with Chuck Kroegel who was the President and VP of Development at SSI, who eventually became COO of Westwood in 2000, and has been the General Manager of Petroglyph since 2003). Other early publishing partners included Electronic Arts, Disney and Infocom.

DG: Was Las Vegas a good place to come up with game ideas? It doesn’t strike me as, ahem, conducive to work. Did you stay in the same place all through development?
ML: Las Vegas is a great place to make games. Westwood started up with a group of local talent. Most of us had recently graduated high school, while some were still in it. Some of us worked at the same local computer store, Century 23 (mentioned above), and ended up transitioning to Westwood as more people were needed. Westwood stayed in Las Vegas for all of it’s years through 2003, transitioning through 4 different office locations through the years.

With Petroglyph (which has a good chuck of former Westwood people), we are still located in Las Vegas, just two doors down from the former Westwood building. Brett is still in town with his company Jet Set Games, along with his own art gallery and bar. Louis is also in Las Vegas, working for ShuffleMaster, a casino gaming company. I’m delighted to still be close friends with both of them, and get to see them quite often.

DG: Was there any carry-over of teams from projects?
ML: Yes, some people worked closely together between the various projects, helping out where and when needed. For instance, when we were programming Dune 2 (Joe), Legend of Kyrandia (me), and Eye of the Beholder (Phil Gorrow), we shared a lot of core library code back and forth. Sometimes other team members were needed to pitch in and help a project that was wrapping up and needed some extra effort to get shipped out the door.

DG: Who was the hero of the project?
ML: Definitely Brett, Joe and Joe. (As an interesting side note, I went to high school with Joe “Kane” Kucan and his brothers. He was very involved in theatre, and extremely popular with the local crowd). To the best of my recollection, other key members of the team included Eydie Laramore (writing and design), Erik Yeo (design), Eric Gooch (art, also played “Seth” in the game), Joseph B. Hewitt IV (art), Aaron Powell (art), Ed del Castillo (producer), Paul Mudra (audio director), Dwight Okahara (sound), Frank Klepacki (music), Steve Wetherill (tech director), Bill Randolph (programming), Denzil Long (programming). Mike Lightner (design), Glenn Sperry (QA lead), and Chris Rubyor (QA). There were definitely many people that greatly contributed to the project, and were not named here.

As a side note, my wife of 18 years, Maria del Mar, wrote the animated installers for the C&C games, which became very popular for the graphic presentation and audio. Joseph Hewitt now works at Jet Set Games with Brett. Joe Bostic, Frank Klepacki, Steve Wetherill, and Eydie Laramore all work with me at Petroglyph. Brett, Joe and Joe were definitely big heroes on the project. Brett was an incredible visionary for the game, working on the game all day and playing it all night. Joe (Bostic) worked crazy hours programming the game, while contributing to the design of the gameplay mechanics. He loved the game and never ever seemed to leave the office. Joe (Kucan), brought the face of Kane to the game and gave it amazing personality, and made it very memorable and an instant classic.

Joe Bostic, Petroglyph

DG: Strategy games were seen as in decline up to Dune II; why were they? How did that change with it and C&C?
JB: Turn-based strategy games generally appealed to the turn-based board game older player, but by moving the game to real-time the excitement level and appeal increased greatly which was much more attractive to the young computer game audience.

DG: Did Command & Conquer’s success lead to the Westwood buy-out? Are you sad that Westwood got shut-down / absorbed?
JB: Likely the success of C&C helped with the value of Westwood and thus indirectly helped lead to the studio sale. However, regular Westwood staff were not privy to the decision making process, so I’m speaking from speculation.

DG: Do you think RTSes have moved on much since Dune II and C&C?
JB: To a degree, but many of the fundamentals are still the same. The genre is ready for something new. Particular areas for improvement lie in the on-line and cooperative gameplay areas.

DG: Where did the name come from?
JB: Brett Sperry came up with the name Command & Conquer. Catchy name, isn’t it?

DG: Whose idea was the game?
JB: Much of development in those days was cooperative and people wore many hats. I was lead programmer, but also the tactical-gameplay designer, and even created some art for the game. It is hard to say if there was any single person who masterminded the game idea.

DG: How did it develop?
JB: The inspiration was to recreate the imagination of sandbox battles with toy soldiers and tanks. We also wanted to advance from our experience with Dune II. In particular, the need for a context sensitive mouse to give unit commands.

DG: When did you realise you were onto something special? How did it make you feel?
JB: We realized we were on to something when the studio testers would play the game for fun more than play it to test. The tester would start up a game to test some element and it would lead into hours of gameplay unrelated to testing.

DG: I’ve heard that the original idea was for a high fantasy game. Could you tell us more about that?
JB: The original pitch I proposed for C&C was for a fantasy-based world where there were three factions – the humans with traditional medieval technology, the wizards with magic, and the monster faction with access to dragons and other extraordinary fantasy beasts.

DG: If you’d made that version, do you think that in an alternate universe you’re now running World of Warcraft?
JB: Anything is possible in an alternate universe.

DG: Why did you go for a contemporary world rather than any other? And why a parallel timeline?
JB: We went with contemporary military style with near future technology because of the first Gulf war which was in the news at the time. It was felt that familiar military would be more approachable to a wider audience than fantasy would. At the time, fantasy was dominated by Dungeons & Dragons and it was believed didn’t have a wide enough market appeal. We didn’t want to be constrained by contemporary technology and the idea of a parallel timeline allowed us freedom to create.

DG: How do you feel about predicting the advent of a global, fanatical anti-Western terrorist organization?
JB: The foundation of the Brotherhood of Nod was less about terrorist organization than it was about imagining what a megalomaniac Bond-style villain that had worldwide influence would be like. Such an evil faction needed to be strong enough to balance out the forces of good – GDI.

DG: Do you think EA would have allowed you to make C&C after 9/11?
JB: Probably since they were ok with releasing C&C Generals which had the GLA as a faction and that faction is almost a direct mirror of global terrorist organizations.

DG: Where did the idea for Tiberium come from? It’s different from Dune’s spice.
JB: The function and form of Tiberium was inspired by the B Sci-fi movie Monolith Monsters. I believe Bret Sperry was responsible for coming up with the name Tiberium.

DG: The AI cheats so badly. Was this because AI was hard to program?
JB: Computers, especially consumer PCs circa ’92 are no match for the brainpower of human opponents. Battles often started with the enemy base already partly constructed and operational to compensate for this disadvantage. At the time, and probably still true today, this was not considered “cheating”, but rather making the game challenging enough to be fun.

DG: You got rid of Dune’s concrete bases. Thank god. What other building decisions do you think were critical to the gameplay?
JB: The biggest improvement from Dune II to C&C was drag-select of units and implied action with mouse click – ie, click on enemy to attack, click on ground to move.

DG: Similarly, you made missions that had limited unit numbers, structures and resources, which completely altered the play style of the game.
JB: The limited number of units allowed was a side effect of limited ram and limited CPU speed. Without a limit, the game could reach a point where it was unplayable and even cause crashing due to lack of available RAM. The upside of this limitation was that that players had to think more about effective strategy rather than mere numbers to achieve victory.

DG: How important was the mainstream advent of the mouse to managing realtime games?
JB: RTS games are so dependent upon the control that a mouse provides that I’m not sure there is any other control mechanic that will eclipse it in the foreseeable future.

DG: The game was a great leap forward graphically from Dune II. What allowed you to do this? Was it a gamble pushing the boundaries of the time so far?
JB: The visual improvement was due in a large part to better artists and more RAM for art. We also rendered units in 3D and then cleaned them up into 2D sprites. This made the units appear more 3D than they would by traditional hand drawing them.

DG: Multiplayer was possible over modems and LANs, is that right? Was this the first RTS multiplayer? Again, how do you go about defining a genre?
JB: I think C&C was the first RTS multiplayer game. The multiplayer aspect is what really launched the RTS genre as there is endless replayability when human opponents are involved.

DG: You supported cutting edge sound for the time and ran with a futuristic techno soundtrack. How did that happen? Who made the call?
JB: Frank Klepacki is responsible for the excellent techno soundtrack.

DG: One of these technical advances would have been huge, but you crammed them all in. Were you mad or just tremendously confident?
JB: Well, everyone is crazy in some way or another, but the answer is more like we were trying to make a great game that we would love to play ourselves and that passion drove us to add in all the things we could.

Frank Klepacki, Petroglyph

DG: Did Command & Conquer’s success lead to the Westwood buy-out? Are you sad that Westwood got shut-down / absorbed?
FK: It indeed was sad day when the studio closed, was the end of an era. So many great people and great memories. And a lot of great work to show for it.

DG: Do you think RTSes have moved on much since Dune II and C&C?
FK: There has been some key things that have caught my eye in terms of approach, like Dawn Of War with they way they used capture points, or Supreme Commander with the insane zoom out and mass. Star Wars Empire At War’s space battles were epic to me, and its galactic mode was a great layer as well. It seems that having a unique thing or two that separates your game is a good thing, as long as you don’t mess with the recipe for RTS too much or else it starts to get away from you.

DG: Was the highest point of development?
FK: for me it was the general energy of the team working on it. A lot of passion and ideas going back and forth and being able to execute on it right away. There was a definite pulse and excitement about it.

DG: When did you realise you were onto something special? How did it make you feel?
FK: When I started scoring some of the videos, and playing the game at the end of the night against others over speaker phone (long before ventrillo) taunting each other. Was a blast.

DG: Do you think EA would have allowed you to make C&C after 9/11?
FK: Interesting thing about that was that Red Alert 2 was shipping right as 911 happened – There were images of the twin towers on the original box and we had to remove them.

DG: The video cinematics obviously served to define the game, replacing the charming-if-primitive animations of Dune II. How important do you think they’ve been to the games’ long term success. Who was responsible for them?
FK: They certainly became a staple of the series. It was like a reward for completing that part of the game, you got to see a new movie, and they were talking to you, so you felt like part of the story. Before C&C the only game I saw video in was Wing Commander.

DG: You supported cutting edge sound for the time and ran with a futuristic techno soundtrack. How did that happen? Who made the call?
FK: It was an exciting time to score a game back then. I had just finished scoring Kyrandia 3: Malcolm’s Revenge, and it was the first game Westwood did with streaming music in 22k mono, and it was a huge step to take considering everything we did prior was always midi format. Music was now being heard the way it was recorded to sound, and I was using high-end synths of the time period, and guitar to create the soundtrack now for C&C.

The president, audio director, and myself, had a kick-off meeting in my office that consisted of listening to all kinds of music. Elements of dozens of songs were singled out for reference. Everything from Peter Gabriel, to Pink Floyd, to Nine Inch Nails, to various soundtracks. I took these influences and combined them all together along with my own touch, and the C&C style was created. I was allowed to be creative and diverse, no holds barred. I was encouraged to try absolutely anything.

For some of the earliest C&C songs I completed, I included voice samples that we recorded at the office with various employees at the time. However we removed many of the samples later, after it was discovered that they conflict with the voice sound effects in the game, making it a bit confusing to play. This is the answer to why the stand alone CD soundtrack has voice samples in the songs while the game versions do not. The CD versions are in fact the original versions.

Some tracks did not make the cut though. A thrashy number called “Die” complete with distorted screaming was way over the top, and even the instrumental version was cut. A retro 80’s club style song called “C&C 80’s mix” was also cut. A couple other weird numbers were left out as well, like “Reaching out” which played out more like a commercial jingle with asian samples, and also a very chilling art piece called “Hold On” which was in the style of Laurie Anderson. All these clearly did not fit the game, although it was a fun experiment for me. I also recreated the theme “Flight of the Valkries” which was not used in the game but acted as place holder music for a while.

Some of these cut tracks however somehow remained in the code files of the game, and fans would later extract them and wonder what they were for.

Doing underscores to the videos were a lot of fun too. I remember seeing for the first time the scene of Kane shooting Seth and I jumped out of my seat. I thought to myself “This game just got serious!” I also got to be one of the pilots in the cyberspace scene, where I meet an electrifying end. Many Westwood employees made cameos in the videos.

Ultimately, I felt that modem music styles of the time were not really present in any video game, and I wanted to put that influence into it. When the game was released I was very surprised that the music was so well liked by fans – I kind of dismissed it thinking it could only be the die hard fans of the game that liked it so much. But when Red Alert came out, it was even more so, and I think proved that video game music can have as big an impact on people as any other, and is as viable as any other medium. To this day, fans still talk about how much they love the early C&C games and their soundtracks, and that’s pretty awesome that the game has had this kind of longevity.

Rade Stojsavljevic and Joseph. B Hewitt IV

DG: So, tell me about how the game started.
RS: So you want to talk about the evolution, Joseph?
JH: From what I remember back in the day, because I’m old and I have a horrible memory, we definitely wanted to do our own IP. That was the big catalyst, to say “Well that Dune thing was one thing, let’s go and do our own IP”. Believe it or not, the original proposal was a fantasy based game where you have the human race, the undead race and this insectoid race which probably sounds very familiar if you’ve played Warcraft or Starcraft. Tiberium was actually going to be Manna that rained out of the sky. For the longest time I held onto that design document. It was written by Joe Bostik, the lead programmer but at the same time the first Gulf War was heating up and Brett was really keen that we turn it into a modern military game because he thought that it would have a wider appeal. So everything was rewritten very much more modern and then as the storyline developed that’s when it got pushed a little into the future.

DG: How far did you get into that wizards and warriors type game?
JH: It was really just like a 4 or 5 page design proposal and Brett said “no, we want to go more modern day warfare tanks and stuff, because that’ll have a wider audience”

DG: Did you carry anything over from the wizards & warriors stuff – stuff that you would otherwise have carried over to a modern warfare setting?
JH: No, not really, nothing besides the stuff that was already there. There was a resource, you are the resource. You had multiple sides. We definitely wanted to incorporate that idea that the sides aren’t equal. It’s much easier to develop any video game, even if you’re doing a first person shooter, where the two factions are equal. The [3:43 mazes?] are mirrors so that no one really has an advantage. But you really want to do something different so the two sides, they have their own unique feel, play style, abilities. It’s just much more difficult but Brett was very adamant that we would do that.

DG: You had that in Dune 2 originally. You had the top end units…
JH: We just wanted to push that more, so you’ll notice Nod is very much light fast units, stealth technology where GDI was very ham-fisted, bigger tanks, “Hulk Smash” type mentality.

DG: They’re both kind of aspects of the American war machine, though. Obviously Nod have the equivalent of the stealth bomber and the GDI have got the huge main war tanks. It’s both parts of that standard American thing that went out there and saved the world so many times in this century.
JH: Yeah.

DG: Was that intentional or was that just ’cause that’s what you knew and what you could see around you?
JH: Well, no, because the stealth thing is always fun. I think that was more towards why they went that direction was, “Ok, we have the big GDI forces that are the Americans, the big tanks…” but the whole stealth thing can be very ninja / thief.

DG: The future or the insurgents and terrorists, really.
JH: Right. There was a lot of talk about that, what would the next war be? It was quickly being evident that what was going on the Gulf War at the time was very much the Big American Army going “Yeah, look, your forces are really nothing”, so what would the next war be? Once the world learned that, where would it go?
RS: That’s asymmetric warfare.
JH: It would be counter insurgence, and guerrilla warfare and all that sort of stuff.

DG: It was interesting because there hadn’t been a war for possibly since the British sent their Iron-clads into Japan and China and set up the Opium Wars, really, where they just sent boats with guns and steel hulls against people who still had wooden junks. There hadn’t been something quite so asymmetric where they completely decimated what was considered a state of the art modern military army in a few weeks. I guess for you that would be relatively inspirational.
JH: It’s kind of related to that. When we were doing Red Alert, that was originally going to be Command and Conquer: World War Two. It was the big 50th anniversary of World War Two and that’s what we started doing, except nobody on the team was very excited about just, “Oh look, it’s World War Two again, we’ve played with this.”
RS: That was before the slew of World War Two remakes came out.
JH: [Mumbled 06:58 That’s the thing], everybody was doing World War Two stuff. Can we do something different? That’s when the Red Alert stuff started creeping in and the fiction started going, and it became something like an alternate past.

DG: The beginning to that is the most audacious beginning to any video game that I’ve experienced, with Einstein going back in time and killing Hitler.
JH: You know, that was supposed to be a lot more mysterious about what was going on. If you watch that opening video, what’s supposed to be happening is, you see the camera on the chair. The assistant bumps it, so you’re not supposed to realise that it’s Einstein. But there was some communication not going back and forth between the two guys writing it and the guys filming it, and it just became what it became.

DG: it was a great sequence anyway. Of all the sequences that established the Command and Conquer brand as moving more towards something kitsch, that was probably it. Not that it’s ever jumped the shark, but if there was a point when it went into something that was a bit more camp, that was Einstein killing Hitler. That’s pretty camp.
JH: We don’t know if he killed him or if he just locked him up somewhere.

DG: Anyway, sticking to the main Command and Conquer. So you had this design for the Wizards and Warlocks thing and then you went more Gulf War-ry. You went more Modern Warfare-y. What did you bring in that you really wanted to change from Dune 2 that made this such a distinctive game?
JH: I don’t know if I can answer that off the top of my head. “What it wanted to be” was a big phrase that was thrown around a lot of the time.
RS: The pacing definitely came out faster, that was one of the things I remember.
JH: Yeah, and there were some restrictions that we had… well, not necessarily restrictions, just stuff that was built into the Dune lore, the universe, about the sand and building things on rocks. There were some elements there that we wanted to keep which became the power grid and having to power your stuff and it just kind of got tweaked a little.

DG: Thank you for getting rid of building degeneration and having to build concrete, because they were the most… it was a great game but I remember spending so much time fixing bits of concrete…
JH: Right, so it just became that you had to build next to each other which kind of… you know, because there were some [09:59 exploits] in multiplayer where you just tried to build concrete all the way up next to your enemy’s base… you could still kind of do that with silos and stuff if your opponent wasn’t paying attention but…
RS: Well there was the whole thing in Command and Conquer where you could do the power out and get the tower right by the enemy’s and just destroy all the harvesters.
JH: You notice how that all the buildings have a little dirt bib underneath them? That was to prevent you from blocking yourself in, because if you could just put a building down then put another building down, you could actually block off areas of the base where your harvester couldn’t get out or people couldn’t get in to attack you. So that was kind of a way to force you to have a little space in front of your buildings.

DG: I remember harvesters having to go completely circuitous routes to get round to places in Dune 2.
JH: After the product shipped I wrote a little joke email that I was told actually upset some of their programmers. It was an ad for “Big Willie’s School of Harvester Driving”. Eventually it appeared on the website, but the jokes had gotten toned down a little bit. It was like, the big selling point, “Do you feel like you can drive through a missile barrage unscathed? Learn how to turn your dash radar into a beer cosy…” all sorts of stuff making fun of the fact that the harvesters would just, you know, go through the enemy base.

DG: Yeah, they were pretty dumb. With the Nod, obviously you have the guerrilla side of them but you also had Joe Coogan doing the video sequences. They’re something I want to talk about. You had this ethos for them which was very strange and very cultish, which wasn’t necessarily the case with what you’d expect from insurgency / army at the time. Do you know why they went down that?
RS: I talked to Brett about this a lot when we were trying to write the fiction out for the rest of the games. One of the things he wanted to play with is the idea of First World vs. Third World countries and really not coming out and exploiting the fact that the majority of these people are living in poverty and if they had somebody that had some resources that could get behind them and really build up a fighting force to voice their concerns, that they could be a power to be reckoned with. Of course it just winds up that Kane is just manipulating all these people, but it’s sort of like an interesting concept about how out of nowhere a great power could arise pretty quickly.
JH: …and if you look at the parallel between that and the Dune universe which they delved into quite a bit when we were developing that game, it’s the [12: 52 Fremin] thing yet again. It’s the poverty people rising up and suddenly coming out of nowhere with power and challenging what was the established leader in that area.

DG: So Kane is basically [13:08 Mohadibe]?
RS: More or less. Obviously he’s not doing everything for the greater good, but yeah. He’s essentially channelling a lot of that anger and energy and providing a solid direction.

DG: With the video sequences, were they brought in because you had the technology and you could do something like that, where you just thought, “This is going to be really brilliant and cool”?
JH: Actually they weren’t even sure they could do it, and that’s how Coogan became Kane. He used to work for a Las Vegas children’s theatre, like a local theatre group for children’s stuff, and I was in a play directed by him. He directed me in Big River, I had a bunch of bit parts. One of the other producers at Westwood had met him when she was doing voice over stuff in earlier games. When CDs were first hitting the scene, everybody would redo their game with actual voice acting. So he was hired to head up that area and that original Kane video was just a test video and had him just yelling at the camera and that’s how he became Kane. It was never meant to be… I remember at the time, he was mentioning the fact that Brett had made him Kane without ever really asking if he wanted to be Kane. He was like, “I’m a professional actor, I’m in the guild. We need to sit down and negotiate on this because it’s not part of what I was hired to do.”
Then there was even talk that his voice wasn’t menacing enough and they were going to dub over him. I’m really glad they decided not to do that.

DG: What sort of person were they envisaging getting instead of him?
JH: I don’t know.
RS: I don’t think they were. I think what happened was, he just did the test for technology purposes and it just clicked and everyone said, “That’s it!” and they didn’t really go down the path of casting anyone else.
JH: It was all very amorphous at the time and it wasn’t necessarily one thing being put in front of the other. It just sort of moved along and became what it was.

DG: So you’ve got this movie sequence stuff going on, and you’ve got your main game developing more along these military lines. How are you bringing these two together? [15:55 You’ve got the plot going through, how did you structure that?]
JH: Again, it was very freeform. I know that a lot of the guys were learning 3D Studio at the time, and just doing some movies. I was actually working on Lion King and so was Eric Yeo who became the lead designer on that first one. We did the Lion King on the Sega and Super Nintendo. [16:35 DG snip]
So when we finished up, Brett offered him the lead position and he just had a bunch of stuff that wasn’t really connected. He had a bunch of 3D movies that really didn’t have anything to do with anything. It was just the 3D guys going “I’m going to render a jet!” The Wind Loss movie stuff. [16:58 Something that was in the briefing stuff] and he just kind of took it and worked with it. At the same time, I was supposed to then go off and learn 3D and I remember I was sitting in my office looking through the art work and they had rendered everything out, all the buildings and units, in red or gold.

I called down to Joe’s office and I said, “I thought you were supposed to have like, 6 or 8 player multiplayer. How are you going to remap these if they’re all red?” He said, “I don’t know. I keep mentioning this in the meeting, nobody’s paying attention.” So I’m like, “OK, don’t worry about this, I’ll do it.” and so as the guys were coming off Lion King I had more own little secret art team and we just started doing stuff. I was sharing an office with Eric Yeo at the time so we were just picking up whatever we could and making stuff up, Edie was writing the story and she was going very biblical with Kane [17:57 in/and] the land of Nod. You notice that your first commander on the Nod side is Seth, which is one of Adam and Eve’s first children. Just throwing all that stuff in there because it was cool.

DG: It was all cool, it was all lots of different strands of content that all made something quite nice together.
JH: Yeah, just pulling all this stuff together and it worked.

DG: I was talking to one of the guys that worked on The Sims the other day. He was talking about the fact that when Will Wright started doing that, he did the same thing as you. He couldn’t persuade Maxis that the Sims was going to sell, because why would anyone buy a dolls house game?
JH: Funny you should say that because when we were at E3, I think it was Red Alert, and we had the corner of the EA booth, and right off to our left was a table area and The Sims was the last one on the left, so they were wedged in behind us because we were spreading out. It was off in a corner and no one was demoing it. We all thought it was the greatest thing in the world. We were like, “This is just so cool!” so while everybody else is looking at Red Alert, we’re behind the little cockpit share playing The Sims.

DG: The Sims guy was talking about that. He was saying, the first day they were on the back of the booth and they had to make their own sign, no one noticed they were there. Then people came along and went, “You’ve got to see this game” same as you guys. It was that same thing for them. There wasn’t any confidence that the game was going to do well so Will Wright was pulling programmers in for skunk works work in his own time to keep it going. Were there any low points during the development of the game? Were there any points at which you thought we might not end up making this or this might not work?
JH: No. When you’re developing a game sometimes and five, six, seven o clock rolls around, you see the parking lot is still full. What the hell is everybody doing? We were all playing. I remember there was a joke in a meeting that was actually kind of a bad thing. Somebody had said something like, “Have you looked into something” – he was supposed to be doing some research on some plug in or something and he kind of smart aleck-ly replied “No, but I can tell you the rocket towers are overpowered” because he’d spent all his time playing the game instead of looking up what he was supposed to be doing for work.

DG: So you’re saying that you made a game so good that it slowed down your own development?
JH: It did at some time and there had to be a stern talking to about when it was appropriate to play.
RS: That was good though, because to this day that was the primary way that we were balancing all the factions was just to stand up multiplayer as quickly as possible, get the units in there and then everyone just have at it. You could do it two ways. You could do it the spreadsheet way which makes a lot of sense if the sides are symmetric, or you could do it by feel which [21:29 …] you to some asymmetric stuff. It worked out pretty well on all the subsequent stuff.

DG: Was yours the first standard RTS asymmetric multiplayer?
RS: The first RTS? Yeah, I can’t think of a single other one.
JH: Right, ’cause there was Dune 2 and then Command and Conquer was the next one out. Warcraft came out in between but if you look at Warcraft compared to Dune 2, it’s the same game. I have a story here; take this with a grain of salt. We had one of the sound guys who I think works at Naughty Dog now, we called him Dwight “Face of a Thousand Lies” Okahara. [He’s at Insomniac] He knows I tell this story. They would pull a lot of practical jokes at Westwood and he was part of the crew that was involved with a lot of them and he was the guy you went to to back up your story, where on the spur of the moment he would just fill in all the back story to whatever crap you were trying to convince somebody. So he told this story, I wasn’t there.

[22:49 It] was at the Virgin booth, and it was the last CES or Comdex before E3 started rolling, and it’s our first showing of Command and Conquer. He says he was demoing it for this couple and he’s showing it to them, and while he’s demoing it several people came up in suits behind him. This is the first show after Warcraft was a success so Blizzard took everybody. There was literally 60 people running around in those black Blizzard t-shirts and they were just having a blast. These three or four guys come up in suits and they’re watching him demo it and they’re kind of like whispering to each other. When the couple leave, one of the guys steps forward, he goes “you know, your Command and Conquer looks a lot like our Warcraft” and Dwight says “Really? That’s funny because your Warcraft looks a lot like our Dune 2” and the guy’s like “Oh. Your guys are the guys that did Dune 2?” and they all just scrambled off.

As a lead off to that, if you ever get a chance to find the press release demo of Warcraft 2, you’ll see that it had the old control scheme where you clicked on a unit, you clicked on the move button and then you clicked where you wanted him to go. You clicked on a unit, you click on the attack button and then you click on the unit you want to attack. So while I was drawing the mouse cursors, I was thinking “Wait a minute. If I have a unit selected and I click on the ground, obviously I want to move there. If I click on an enemy, obviously I want to attack, why do we need these buttons?”

I told Joe and Joe’s like, “That makes sense” and we think “What if we want to deploy something?”, well we have two mouse buttons so you right click and your harvester or your MCV would deploy or whatever. That’s the scheme they built into it. So Warcraft 2’s press demo comes out, Command and Conquer was released, and then Warcraft 2 comes out. They had switched to our control scheme.
RS: [24:56 That just makes sense]
JH: Right, and I had talked to several people who were there at the time and they said there was a big argument between people who wanted to keep it the old way and some people going “Well, no, this is obviously what it should be”.
RS: Mike [25:08 Morhaim] said the exact same thing at Dice last year. This happens anywhere in game development. You’re doing something that’s kind of similar to someone else and it’s just like, “That is obviously the best way to solve this problem, let’s just do that”
It’s like first person shooters that did the W-A-S D-keys versus the arrow keys, once you did that and moved your hand around you were like, “Well, duh”. It just works.
JH: Well that’s just what the game industry does, period. You take what someone else has done because you really like it. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. You polish it, you add something new and therefore things progress.

DG: External iteration as well as internal iteration.
What sort of time line are you working on here? When did you start development and when did you finish?
JH: I always thought the game came out in ’94 but I guess it did come out in ’95. I remember, then we released a Windows ’95 version that increased the resolution to 640×480 because the original was in 320×200. People made fun of that when it came out and they said “Oh, mnnduhduhduhduh” but we made so much money in the UK and Germany and countries who didn’t have what we were up to in the US for computer minimum spec.

DG: I think I had a 486 SX at that point. I was running at 25MHz so I wouldn’t even have been able to run the game at that point. It’s nice that now, any smart phone is about ten times as fast as that.
RS: Yeah, it is.

DG: So you’re getting towards the end of getting game made, did anything change substantially towards release? Were there any problems you hit?
RS: The whole German thing was a big deal.
JH: In Germany, you’re not allowed to show blood or humans killing humans.
RS: At least, at the time.
JH: So, at the last minute we had to go back in and recolour all the blood black and say they’re all androids and they’re bleeding oil.

DG: Did you have to change the plot, the actual text then?
JH: The ending on, I think the second to last mission on the Nod side, I think it was Ed who was associate producer on the project, he was standing at a table and Kane comes up behind him and shoots him in the head. He falls over and bleeds on the thing. That got cut. That was, I think, the only change.
RS: This was a big deal because there was some feedback from the guys over at Virgin who were dong publishing about the market size and everything, and the call was made to do it. It was a last minute thing that was a fairly big deal and it turned out that Germany was the second biggest global market for C&C behind the US. It was close. I think it went a long way to establish the game, you know, put some roots down in that country.

DG: Well it is the strategy game country of the world now, isn’t it? They still play these games.
JH: Did you ever see the Virgin Games UK billboard, “Previous High Scores?”

DG: I don’t think I would’ve done, no. ’95 or something?
JH: I have a picture here, I can send it to you. It was basically a giant billboard they put up next to the freeway somewhere. It says “Previous High Scores”. It has Idi Amin, Hitler, Mussolini, Napoleon… all these dictators. It got a LOT of flak at the time.
RS: …and then there’s the cut out. It’s supposed to be you as the player. So you end up compared to these people.

DG: Well that’s why you hire advertising people, they don’t have the same morality restrictions.
JH: The Virgin UK marketing guys were very cutting edge. When it sold a million units, they put an ad out in [29:59 DG – MCV, maybe?] It basically was Hitler at Muellenberg, or something like that, a big speech he’s giving. So they took out all of the swastikas so all you see is this guy ranting up on the thing, and it says “A million units sold. Oh, what a feeling”
RS: That was kind of tasteless.
JH: They got a stern talking to for that. They printed it, it went out to press.

DG: I think I know some of the guys who used to do the marketing, I might go and talk to them.
JH: These are the same guys that, when they were advertising their [30:42 …] before the buyout. Virgin were young and growing and they had all their male producers lined up completely naked but turned and covering themselves so you couldn’t really see anything. That was the trade ad they put out.

DG: It’s chutzpah. Whatever happened to Virgin?
JH: Westwood took them over.
RS: Well, that’s sort of what happened, and then they got shifted around a little bit. At one point they were owned by Spelling Media, and then the core assets went over to EA in the buyout in ’98 and there was a little group left and that kind of fizzled out. They didn’t have any development.
JH: The problem was, in the UK, EA and Virgin were the number one and number two publishers, so when EA was buying Westwood they said they didn’t want Virgin because they wouldn’t be allowed to buy them because it would be a monopoly. But Viacom who owned everything at the time was saying, “Well, we’re not going to split them” and I’m not exactly sure how it worked out but they wound up getting rid of a lot of the Virgin stuff so they could buy Westwood.

DG: Were there any big leap forwards in terms of the tech you were using on C&C as opposed to Dune?
JH: All that full motion video stuff, that was the very birth of that.
RS: [32:19 Mike] wrote a proprietary codec for that.
JH: If you saw the Dune game, not Dune 2, but the Dune game that came out at the same time, “Kryo” or something, it had like a video opening sequence but it was like, every fourth pixel was an actual thing so they had a pixel and then a space and then a pixel and then a space and a pixel, and that’s how the managed to get the video to that size. We were all really impressed with that ‘cause it just looked kind of cool. That’s what was the impetus to put all that video stuff in there. The question was, could we overlay computer graphics in there and do that and would it look stupid or silly? Which led to all the test footage that was done and Joe Coogan being cast and Kane.
RS: The other thing that happened was that tech let them put way more units on the screen in C&C. Both machines got faster and that core rendering tech got optimised so you could have a large number of units. That’s one of the reasons why C&C never had a unit cap.
JH: I remember there was a patch for Warcraft 2 that said something like, “now you can select 128 units” I think it was, and Joe [33:45 Bostik] goes, “What, there’s a limit in that game?” ‘cause basically, anything you could get onscreen, you could select in Command and Conquer.
RS: It did have some game play ramifications. Without that you couldn’t have had the tank rush [33:59 in Red Alert?] which, depending on your point of view is either good or bad, but it did have implications.
JH: There was some stuff that kind of got left out. After the product shipped we kept working on it and the engine that eventually evolved and became the Red Alert engine, we got bigger map sizes and at the time we were calling it C&C Zero. We never really got the AI smart enough in the shipped product to build its own base but in between the two products Joe coded it so the AI could build its base. So we were playing Command and Conquer on Red Alert sized maps with an AI that could build its own base. The base building in the original was all scripted. If you play through once, you know where the enemy’s going to build its base, you know what structures [34:54 she’s] going to build in what order. Afterwards, the AI was smart enough to know it needed a silo, it knew how to put down rocket towers and defend its base, and it could kick your butt very easily.

DG: it was much more organic. Did it react, did it have choice trees going on?
JH: I’m not quite sure exactly what extent it was, I just remember that’s when Adam [34:24 Isgreen] first started, and we were playing a game where it was me, him and two AI opponents and we got our butt kicked so bad that we decided to try and play again with us teaming up against one AI and we barely beat it.

DG: There was multiplayer in Dune 2, but you’ve much improved it for C&C. LANs are more common, modems are more common by the time that came out. Still it wasn’t that quick but how did that define the RTS multiplayer genre, because you guys got the chance to kind of set it up there, really.
RS: Well it did spawn Westwood Chat which later became Westwood Online.
JH: Actually, Westwood Chat was spawned by Monopoly which was multiplayer too.
RS: Yeah, but this really took it off.
JH: We [36:24 ….] around in there too. I remember, I think it was Bill Roper from Blizzard had talked to Brett once and said something like “We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into when we built BattleNet. We saw Westwood Chat and thought ‘Oh, that’s easy’ and Westwood Chat sucks and we could do so much better, and yeah, I realise that we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into”
RS: It opened up some things game play-wise, it was really one of the first places, at least that I ever saw, where you could actually get some metrics. The guys would look at the outcomes of the battles and say “All right, well GDI’s winning 50.1% of the time, Nod is winning 49.9%, that’s pretty well balanced” and if some change was made in one of the expansions and it skewed the percentages one way or the other they could watch how that would progress. At the beginning of the game a lot of people were playing GDI, the percentage wins were much higher then, everyone was bitching that it was unbalanced. No one really made any changes, but it started self correcting as people started learning the strategies and tactics of the other sides. I would say looking back on it now, that was one of the births of gaming as a service. That sort of mentality of “All right, well there’s multiplay, it’s going to lead to community and a lot longer longevity of these games” and it changes the way you wind up.
JH: That took us by surprise, the community. You figure you’ve got this service, Westwood Chat, it’s really just for people to match up and play multiplayer games of Command and Conquer, Monopoly and then Red Alert. But people started hanging out in the chat and chatting in the chat, and we didn’t really expect that and we had to hire moderators and it became and thriving community. No one was really expecting anything like that to happen. It was like, well, there are other places to chat. Why are you chatting here?

DG: It’s shared interest I guess.
RS: it also opened up things like what’s the right game size for multiplayer. Just because the technology now would allow you to do a 64 player RTS map, that’s not necessarily fun. The numbers that people were doing back then, two on two up to eight players, still stick today because they just feel right. There’s also issues about jumping from peer to peer [39:07 …on a] client server, but that’s kind of irrelevant.
JH: Just learning silly lessons that seem obvious now, like, somebody drops out, do you count it as a loss or a win? There was a lot of controversy about people when they would start to lose and they would just, “Whoops! I guess I lost connection” because that happened a lot. Eventually having to start to be a little hard-ass about it and say, “Well, you know, you drop all the time. It’s a loss, sorry”
RS: That goes all the way to what [39:34] are and I think StarCraft is probably the ultimate example of that.

DG: It’s interesting how the Petroglyph guys in their new The End of Nations game have made it so it’s continuous all the time, the drop in-drop out thing is completely normal now because there are so many people playing either side. It’s normalised, which sounds like a solution to the problem, but it has taken them 15 years.
RS: The tech wasn’t there. I don’t think until recently you could even contemplate building a game like that.

DG: MMO RTS things didn’t really work until very recently. It was nice to see one that seemed to be working.
JH: I was thinking about some other things that kind of got dropped. If you play the first GDI mission, you land on that beach head and when you finish it, it expands into the second map so your first map is still there but the area expands. They really wanted to do that all throughout the game, and it just didn’t happen. It only remained in the final GDI mission going against Nod depending on which [41:00 way?] you took on the overhead map. The centre of the map was always the same, but you could either attack from the left, right or from above. It just [41:09 made it seem?] that half the map was static and then you had your three choices of the other half of the map.

DG: Again it’s interesting that Supreme Commander has the same thing where it would start you with a small area and then, just to show off how big their maps were ‘cause they can do that.
JH: What we also really wanted to do on the maps screen, where you were picking where you wanted to attack next and it was really your choice of one or two, and it was pretty much predetermined, we really wanted to do something where you would attack and while you were doing that battle you would come back and the computer had done stuff. It was reacting to where you went and you kind of had to play like a meta-game on the map mode. They just decided to drop that for time reasons and we’d do it in the next one. We never really did, it was one of those things that kept getting dropped because it’s very complicated and they decided there was other places they’d rather spend those resources.

DG: Again, the Total War guys I spoke to described their initial efforts as just trying to rip off Command and Conquer. What they were initially hoping to do was exactly what you were saying. They’d have a dual level so they’d have your over-world map which is what they did for Shogun Total War, and then you’d have the Command and Conquer game beneath it. Then someone released a proper 3D card and they went “Oh! We can make a proper 3D game!” and it diverged. If 3D cards hadn’t advanced as quickly as they can, all the Total War series would’ve been just like you described there.
RS: it’s interesting watching how everything’s evolved in that strategy space. The whole impetus to Dune 2 was, these turn-based strategy games are getting too damned complex. Let’s just simplify the hell out of it and I think we could even make it work in real time. A lot of people were saying “That’s ridiculous, there’s no way”
Obviously it worked. We’ve come full circle now where some of the strategy games are so ridiculously complex, they’re worse than what turn-based ever was, and now turn-based is the simple stuff.
JH: To remember Westwood, some of their early games were working for SSI on those really complicated turn-based strategy games. So, there was a lot of experience messing with that and that’s why we decided, real time.

DG: When I talk to a lot of studios, their big success was their first game. For you guys, you were working on Eye of the Beholder and all these other things at the same time, and also working on Command and Conquer. You’d done Dune 2 and that had been a big success, so this to you was just like a continuation of the success and it doesn’t sound like it was that big a deal. It was great that it was so successful, you were astounded, but you already had a bit of success behind you and if this had failed, it doesn’t sound like it would’ve hurt so much.
RS: The studio certainly would never have grown at the pace that it did. I think to look at it in retrospect, it was the next logical step. The goal was always to say, “We want to expose more people to this sort of stuff, how do we do that?” and I think that real time solution was the way to do it.

DG: it did seem to work. Can I quickly go through the timeline? You displayed at E3 first, was that ’94?
RS: I think that was CES.
JH: I looked it up on the Wiki, it said it came out in August of ’95. I started on the product seriously when Lion King hit theatres. I guess I’ll look that up on the Wiki real quick.
RS: I first saw it at a CES.
JH: It was shown almost a year before it came out, I think.

DG: How was the reception, was it well received?
RS: There was a line. I’ve seen this a couple times, where there’s games that just do this. You go in there and you’ve just got to fight people off to go see it. You don’t really know ahead of time whether your game is going to be one of those. That was certainly one of those, where people thought “There’s something cool here” but there’s no way any of those guys anticipated that sort of reaction.
JH: Yeah Lion King was ’94, it doesn’t have a month. Did you see the Diversion booth where it had the bar and the big open space and then there was like, that tunnel? It was very poorly designed. I don’t know if they just didn’t expect anybody to crowd in there but it was this little tunnel of games and it was packed around the little Command and Conquer thing. They were showing a good eight, twelve games in there and Command and Conquer was only running on one, and it only played the first two missions on the GDI side.
RS: You just didn’t see anything like that before, really.

DG: So, it’s well received. Did anything change when you come back from CES, does anybody say, “We shouldn’t work on this, have more resources, have more people working on this” or does it go according to plan from start to finish?
RS: There was no surge of staffing, if that’s what you’re referring to.

DG: There was no surge of interest from the publishers?
JH: It was a race to get it out. I remember we were crunching and the dinosaur thing came out. As we finished up, it was actually Bostik’s idea but I’m kind of responsible for it even though he took all of the heat for me, talking about, “Oh, it’d be cool if in those little scenes you had little dinosaurs” [47:26………………] It was sort of like skunk [47:31…work?…] “Let’s do some dinosaur units”. We even got one of the 3D guys to do a 3D intro of one of the GDI Landers going through a prehistoric thing with dinosaurs in the background. It kind of snuck out throughout the team. Brett and one of the producers from Virgin, you know, big muckety mucks, are in one of the programmers office. It was a big office with like, 3 people in it. They’re over at one guy’s desk and they’re trying to work something out and nuhnuhnuhnuh…. and Brett was kind of bored and he starts looking around, he looks at one of the other programmers who was building a dinosaur mission on his screen. He’s like, “What the hell is that?” and “We’re trying to crunch! What are you people doing?” so that was actually in the initial release, it was just a flag that turned it off. [48:24 (Then)] it was put in the Covert Ops add-on, but it was in there the whole time.

DG: The fun park stuff, is that the same thing?
JH: Yeah. In Red Alert we did giant ants, just because we were trying to keep that up. We didn’t do anything in Tiberium Sun.
RS: We didn’t have time to do anything.
JH: We couldn’t think of anything cool, either.
RS: No, that wasn’t the problem. It was a time thing.
JH: I remember trying to think of something. I was like, “Well, we could do alien invasion – Oh, we can’t do alien invasions ‘cause that is the whole secret to Command and Conquer”

DG: Was that always a long term plan?
JH: I was always a long term plan, that aliens were terraforming Earth because those minerals were poisonous to them, so the Tiberium leaches all those minerals out into an easily collected pod and they were changing the atmosphere so then they could invade us.

DG: So Command and Conquer 3 was always planned, I didn’t realise that.
RS: It’s one of the first times I’ve ever seen anything like that. Obviously the full detail wasn’t there but there was an outline of what the fiction would be.

DG: It’s so rare for a game to follow what was in the fiction or what was in the original design document anyway whatsoever. That’s really impressive.
JH: I know it morphed a bit but yeah, it was always the plan.

DG: So, you’ve done your CES, you’re going up to release, you’re doing crunch time. You’re being told off because during crunch time you’re making dinosaurs. It comes out. Are you worried? What are you expecting? Does it do as you expect?
JH: You know, I don’t think I was really paying that close attention. Like you said, everything Westwood had done all throughout the ‘90s, it was, it came out – yeah, it’s a number one hit. Well, of course it’s a number one hit.
RS: I think there was an expectation that it would earn, but not do what it did.
JH: Yeah. I remember when Tiberium Sun was coming out, that’s when it really dawned on me that these are big games. My email at the time was So I was getting Joe Kugan’s fan mail, because he puts his name in the credits as Joseph D. Coogan or whatever his middle initial is. Then word came down from above about what you were allowed to say to the press, don’t post in forums, and that [51:09 slurred/mumbled] “people are posting in forums?” so I went looking on the web and searching and I was like, “Oh my GOD, this is like, a big deal”
RS: I think what happened at that point is that it went from being a hit within a gamer community to really going broad. Then, “Oh shit. Time to grow up, actually [51:27] be careful here”
JH: When we got our limited editions of Tiberium Sun, somebody at the office, because we got them like, a week before they hit the shelves, turned around and sold it on eBay. That was put down as “Hey, look, we’re giving you these games, you can do what you want with them but don’t do that”
RS: “Do that again and you’re fired” – it was one of those things.

DG: That’s impressive that he wasn’t fired straight away.
RS: He was a good artist. I remember that one vividly because there were 20 different boxes in there and we were trying to get issue number one for Brett, and we’re opening them up and [52:10] “Oh this is 300” and he’s like “I don’t want a damned 300, I want number ONE!”
I think I’ve got like 5 or 6 on my shelf.

DG: Not the number 5 or 6?
RS: Yeah, they were numbered issues.

DG: Wow.
JH: Yeah, well 13 was my favourite number so I got 13.

DG: Good work, lucky for some. How did it do numbers-wise? It was a big success, wasn’t it? It sold a lot.
RS: I think it was the first Westwood IP that broke a million for sure.
JH: I know we didn’t break a million ‘til after we switched offices but I don’t remember… ‘cause I remember that magazine “a million units, what a feeling”. That was after we moved to the new building.
RS: I think that year it wound up being 70 or 80% of Virgin’s total revenue, that one title.

DG: Bloody hell. That’s crazy. So, looking back at it, is there anything you would’ve done differently? It doesn’t sound like it.
RS: It’s hard to look back at stuff that old and say what you would change.
JH: I like the fact that we were isometric in Tiberium Sun. That was my impetus, to push towards that. It solved a lot of problems. It made the grid easier, allowed us to do height. I really liked when we added height to the terrain though I think I would’ve done that a little differently.
RS: There was about a year off until the multiplayer got good on that. When they did the expansion and then the Windows ’95 edition. There was that whole thing because when it launched it was a DOS only title and no one was really sure what was going to happen with Windows ’95, if it was going to be viable for games. There just wasn’t a lot of optimisation for that, and that thing took off faster than anyone expected.
JH: I think it would’ve been really cool if we had waited until Joe had put that AI stuff in and got the really big maps. That would’ve made multiplayer a lot more fun. The multiplayer that we were playing on those big maps was very fun. Trying to play 2 player on what we called the America Map, which was kind of layed out like America with the Rocky Mountains and everything, if you didn’t play with a lot of players, the Tiberium would take over the world. You can only use vehicles because the little guys got killed by the Tiberium. It was very easy to hide from each other, so we would play these games and the code knew if you lost your construction yard, and you would have a 75% chance if you picked up a crate to get a new MCV. So as we were taking out each other’s construction yards, we’re finding new MCVs and building secret bases somewhere off of the other end of the map and the other player wouldn’t realise it until it was too late because the maps were simply that big.

DG: That’s really nicely structured. Wiki says that before Command and Conquer Generals, the series sold 21 million copies worldwide, so that’s before 2003. In ten years, 21 million copies.
RS: Sounds about right. I thought it was a bit higher than that, but it’s in the ballpark.

DG: That’s before Generals, which was relatively large, and before the more recent ones. Probably now it’s in the 30s, to be honest.
RS: Yeah.

DG: Especially as it’s on all the consoles now. You made it for the N64 and Playstation as well, didn’t you?
RS: That Playstation one cracked a million in no time. Nobody expected that one.
JH: I remember redoing the interface for that and working on that project. It was the, “Yeah, you know, who knows who’s going to buy this” and Sony wanted special Sony-only missions so we designed a couple new missions for it, and they were doing the N64 version at the same time. Yeah, that was a big surprise hit.
RS: Also, not in terms of total revenue but profit percentage, that was probably the most profitable one. I think there were only 4 or 5 people that worked on that entire game.

DG: Do you think C&C’s success led to you being bought out? Are you sad that Westwood got absorbed and shut down and is now dissolved inside EA?
RS: Oh, it was absolutely the determining factor of why Westwood got bought out. So, are you talking about the original buyout or the EA buyout?

DG: Sorry, I hadn’t separated them in my head. Yes, the original buyout.
JH: The original buyout was, they said, “Ok the company’s growing to this giant size. We either need to self publish or merge with a publisher”
They flirted with Sierra Online for quite some time, twice, and couldn’t come to an agreement and then just went with Virgin because we had such a good working relationship with them with Lion King and…[57:34]
RS: [57:34 we were still at?] that decision point in the business of, “Ok, now we need to go a little bit bigger”, the business model was, “We’re going to have something tried and true that brings in some revenue for the company and then we’re going to try and few new things and some of them are going to pan out and some of them won’t” and the costs just get so expensive when the studios step up to that point that if you have a miss and you’re not capitalised enough, you’re screwed.
JH: You know what else, now that I think about it, that C&C really hit on at the time, and I remember Brett telling me all this and showing me some numbers, the expansion packs were nothing. Nobody bought them, they didn’t make any money, it was just sort of like a “Yeah, let’s just do this to keep this alive” type thing. When Covert Ops came out and sold like wildfire, that was a big wake up for us. Hey, this is viable.
RS: That set up the game expansion pack model.

DG: When they were working on the Sims, they spent an extra year working on it so it was completely expandable in every way possible because of things like that.
JH: Right, but like I said, before that had happened, expansions packs were just sort of “meh”.
RS: I can’t think of a single one of those expansions that didn’t crack a million units.

DG: Wow, bloody hell.
RS: [59:00 they were nuts.]

DG: [59:04 There’s rumours that there’s a new Bioware studio being formed in LA to work on (Command and Conquer?)].
RS: I just wrote a Facebook post on this. It’s partly, at first initially a little bit odd, like, why would you label it Bioware, right? Bioware’s an RPG studio. To me, if it means they’re getting back to putting meaningful story and characters into those games, I think that’s huge. That’s something that sort of fell apart in the past several releases, they just didn’t have the magic that they used to.

DG: I think you’re right. The Bioware reasoning is [60:11……..]
RS: I hope it’s just not that, that labelling. I hope there’s actually some of that, there are some of those meetings going on where there’s some of the Bioware creatives, the writers and designers getting in there and saying “Hey, here’s some ways that we like to do story and let’s put that in there” ‘cause that’ll help the game a lot.

DG: It would be nice. I remember visiting Bioware maybe 6 years ago, and the way that they were working in one studio in an office block, they’d get snowed into the office block and there was a hotel on the block so they didn’t have to leave if they got snowed in, they were this very tight-knit community and I do worry that they’re going to be dissipated by managing all of these different areas and being dissipated into all these different companies. Like, into Mythic and into this new studio. That’s just me as a Bioware fan boy.
RS: The exec that they’ve got overseeing the new C&C is John van [61:14]. He’s a good guy, I’ve met him a couple times. He’s got a good pedigree with the late Magic games. The fact that they’re using the Frostbite engine which we know can do gorgeous stuff, yeah; I think they’ve got every chance. I hope they make an RTS and not try to do some crazy hybrid thing, ‘cause C&C is an RTS.

DG: If they do what they’ve done with Syndicate, which is a first person shooter, or…. yes.
JH: [61:52] I have a special place in my heart for Renegade, which was Command and Conquer as a multiplayer, oh my God, the single player was so embarrassing, I would never……. uh, um….

DG: I just saw a trailer for Renegade on one CD, possibly Red Alert maybe?
RS: it might have been Tiberium Sun, because it was going on when we were wrapping that thing up.

DG: Yes, I played that a lot at University, but I didn’t get any new games. I never played Renegade. Was it good?
RS: No.
JH: It had a lot of new stuff in the multiplayer where you were producing a unit, you could produce a tank and then jump in the tank.
RS: That’s exactly what happened. There was technology being developed for that game from scratch, so the game really didn’t hit its stride until probably the last 6 months of development. Joseph’s right, the multiplayer with the C&C mode that was going on there where you could capture a building to get some extra stuff to help you out, THAT wound up being absolutely fun but by then the mould was cast.
JH: I remember the hit detection stuff was [63:15 client-side], there was a lot of technical problems with it but it was also one of the few Westwood games that I didn’t work on, so I wasn’t sick of it when it came out. I [63:29 had/have] this habit of working on a game for 3 or 4 years, or even the smaller 2 years, and after it ships I’m like “OK, I’m done with it, I don’t want to play it again”.
RS: Yes, but to put a finer point on it, if we had gotten to that core of that multiplayer a year, year and a half sooner, I think it would have been a great shooter that people would be talking about with reverence. It happened too late.
JH: There were some other failed experiments, the Sole Survivor had a lot of potential but then it went off in a weird direction.
RS: That’s bound to happen when you’re trying new stuff.
JH: They wouldn’t let us sell it as cheaply as we wanted to. Brett wanted it to be a 3 or 4.99 product at the most and they made him sell for 20 bucks. So I think if people had bought that game for 3 or 4 bucks…
RS: If that game, obviously with modern graphics, came out now as a downloadable game, it would’ve done well.
JH: [64:32…] it started off to be like, you would be the infantry guy and if you picked up a grenade crate, you became the grenadier. If you jumped in a Mammoth tank you became the Mammoth. But then [64:43] it went off in a different direction.

DG: Battlezone came out around the same time, it was a very odd looking game but it did all that stuff as well…
JH: I remember, I didn’t like that game when it got to that point where I was trying to drive around in 3D and put down buildings and defend my base. I remember having a blast with it up until that became too much to manage.

DG: It was very tough, the multiplayer was the same thing, it was almost impossible. Well, that was great. Thank you!


Interview: UFO creator Julian Gollop on UFO and XCOM.

I did this interview with Julian Gollop at GDC 2012 and it got put up on the PC Gamer website in several parts. The copyright reverted to me after six months, so here it is, in full.

Julian Gollop

Dan Griliopoulos: In the original XCOM, an awful lot of the AI, the way they moved towards (you), they would make use of cover and they weren’t completely suicidal.

Julian: No, they weren’t. I can’t remember exactly how we did the AI in the original XCOM, but a lot of the time I tried to avoid moving into the direct line of fire of your guys. They tried to find cover  if they could, most of the time.

Dan Griliopoulos: It’s interesting, they have that for the Sectoids and the Floaters and the Thin Men, which were the Men in Black which you couldn’t put in because they were making another Men in Black game. They had quite a complicated AI system for them, but anything which was melee orientated just ran straight towards the nearest target. They didn’t take (into account) being shot at, or using cover or anything like that, which was very different. You’re talking about AI here (GDC) as well.

Julian: I went out of interest because back in 1995 when I was coming to GDC, guys like Neil Kirby, I was involved in their round tables. Every year we used to go to it. There wasn’t that many AI programs around at that time. A lot of them were actually involved in RTS games because that was the big thing that killed off turn-based games.

Dan Griliopoulos: I remember it well. After Dune II…

Julian: After Dune II… I mean, XCOM was really just at the end of the period where you had this turn-based strategy game as being a mainstream game.

Dan Griliopoulos: They’re coming back now, but they’re not coming back as mainstream games.

Julian: Not as mainstream games, no, because in those days, you had almost XCOM… Master of Magic and Master of Orion were, for me, phenomenal games. Colonisation, of course, came a bit later.

Dan Griliopoulos: I guess there were The Heroes of Might and Magic kind of games.

Julian: Yeah, but those… so, Heroes of Might and Magic developed a trend and then… but they weren’t in quite the same tradition of this grand strategy game which had big random elements in the generation of world, lots of AI and stuff. Heroes of Might and Magic is a bit of an exception. In those days, I believed firmly that the future of computer games was all about AI. That in twenty years time we’d be interacting with MPC characters in computer games that actually had real intelligence and could respond to you in really intelligent ways. Boy, I was wrong. So wrong!

Dan Griliopoulos: Do you think it didn’t happen because we never built on anything we built? As in, every time people build AI they build it anew, there aren’t AI libraries as far as I know…

Julian: I think part of the problem is keeping human psychology and interaction in games set to… a lot of computer games development went… a lot of effort was put more into graphics rather than anything else.

Dan Griliopoulos: It raises the review score, sadly.

Julian: Because it’s the thing that immediately impresses people. As soon as you start interacting with a world of pretty graphics then you realise that actually it’s not so interesting. It may be pretty but it’s not really that interactive. It’s always bugged me about the way computer games developed over the years. Even if you take Assassin’s Creed, which has  phenomenally complex game with all these NPCs wandering around, it is nothing but an elaborate paper thin illusion, to be honest.

Dan Griliopoulos: It’s a paper thin illusion which is very clear about saying, “This is an illusion”. Inside the game, the framing device that they use to make it a series rather than a random collection of games by the same name, the framing device is that there’s a person playing a game within a simulation.

Julian: It is, but then again… Yeah, that’s true. (laughs)

Dan Griliopoulos: It feels to me like a huge joke, that they’ve done that. “How can we get away with making a game with paper thin mechanics, which are quite obviously mechanical? Oh, we’ll make it because it’s a simulation inside a game”.

Julian: You could say that, yeah. I mean, computer games didn’t develop really in that direction, and I guess what people enjoy and what they like at the psychological level is more to do with having their own ego massaged in certain ways through these very simple reward cycles.

Dan Griliopoulos: It always struck me as interesting in the Turing test stuff, that it’s not that AI ever passes the Turing test but people fail the Turing test. When you have the awards in England, it’s always somebody pretending to be a robot which causes an AI to pass the Turing test. Not an AI actually being convincing in any way.

Julian: Yeah, OK. That could be right. Um…

Dan Griliopoulos: There’s something about… it’s easier to fake intelligence than it is to even get anywhere near trying to generate…

Julian: Yeah, obviously when I was programming XCOM stuff we were faking intelligent. We had some very simple tricks to fake it. I talked a bit about the randomness element in XCOM and how we put it in the AI. But in actual fact, being unpredictable is a way of intelligently countering someone who’s predictable. If you play poker, for example…

Dan Griliopoulos: I knew you were going to make that reference. My friends hate it when I play (poker) because I’m random. I don’t really understand what I’m doing…

Julian: The good poker players say, depending on your opponent of course, they’ll say sometimes you need to mix up your game. Not necessarily that you’re completely random but you’re doing something which they’re not predicting. You’re maybe just changing the way you’revalue something and it throws them because (they) can no longer predict what you’re doing. In the original XCOM, as I said in the talk, we always tried to make sure that the aliens did not do things on a purely binary yes/no thing based on… always make a little bit of randomness in there. 10% of the time they’ll do something really stupid perhaps but most of the time, within some kind of reasonable constraints, that what they do is reasonable even though it may have some random element to it.

Dan Griliopoulos: That randomness actually sometimes gave them a good chance of survivability as it meant you might have seen something disappear round a corner but you can never walk round the corner because you can never quite predict… there is a thing it should do rationally, but it might not be doing it.

It’s interesting, the other person who was talking about the unpredictability thing was Gary Kasparov, when he writes about playing chess against a computer. Obviously, that whole peak of computing intelligence with rule sets, of chess, where the chess computers memorise the rule sets that every single Grand Master had learnt, Kasparov writes about it and says that the way he found of getting around it was having to always try and work out a way outside what somebody had done before. Going outside that rule set.

There was a period during the time you were developing and possibly during the ten years before, where an awful lot of UK brothers produced games. The Oliver twins, Football Manager… I guess there’s also Myst as well but that’s not the UK. There was this big period of brothers who were obviously in a bedroom somewhere with coding kit and… Why was it in the UK? Why were these brothers? Do you have any theories on this?

Julian: (laughs) Well, no. I can only say that in my case, how it came about… I’d already set up my company by the time my brother finished his university. I needed help and he needed a job. That just meshed.

Dan Griliopoulos: Big brother looking after little brother…

Julian: Well, sort of. Kind of… he’d done computing at university which was kind of helpful, I guess. It just kind of happened like that. I don’t think there’s any real grand conspiracy theory behind this.

Dan Griliopoulos: I’m a journalist, I have to try and get something!

The other thing that struck me about the talk (was) the humility of how you describe how the game was designed. You describe it as you’d done the battle bit and then all of these other bits were suggested by Microprose. There were an awful lot of people who would come along and say, “We did this, we did that,  we made this, we made that” and you’re looking at them going, “I didn’t think of any of that stuff. That wasn’t me. What I’d done was, I was just refining the game I’d been making several times in previous years”. It’s just unusual in this industry, especially with the superstar developers that are around at the moment…

Julian: Yes, it is unusual, but then again if you work with a lot of creative people over the years like I have, you realise actually that you depend a lot on them. I’ve worked as a producer where I’ve had to try and build teams of people, get them to work together and you really have to make sure people are leaving their egos in their pockets or parking them at the door because you can get into big problems. What I did for my post mortem, actually, was I tried to contact all these people over the last few weeks to try and figure out what their recollections were of particularly the origins of the game. It was very interesting. There were some conflicts in what people remembered, for sure, and there were some things that I learned because I had no idea about the Spectrum Holobyte cancellation story.

Dan Griliopoulos: You didn’t realise it had been cancelled?

I did have some inkling from the QA team many, many years ago, someone some years ago saying that there was a threat to cancel it but I never realised that Spectrum Holobyte actually did make that decision, to cancel it and that the Microprose UK guy said, “Hmmm, nonono”.

So I got this information when I spoke to people a couple of weeks ago, I guess. So I wanted to try and do an honest record of the development. Particularly guys who made a contribution which was never really recognised. Steve Hand, for example. because he wasn’t in the credits or anything. Also, for the guys that did work on the project all those years ago: John Broomhall, the composer; John Reitze, the graphic designer… these guys really contributed something fairly unique and memorable to the project, without a doubt. Really, without my input to a certain extent. They were just doing this based on their own creativity.

Dan Griliopoulos: It’s interesting that you had such a …lacksadaisical approach to the development. It was like, we knew we were going to get music. We have these people making music. We trust them, because Microprose UK have told us that they’re going to be good at it, and you didn’t select these people yourselves?

Julian: No, not at all.

Dan Griliopoulos: It was almost like it was, “We’re doing our bit and they’re going to do their bit and it’s all going to work together in the end, so… that’s OK!”

I guess nowadays you get people like David Cage or Ken Levine, the auteur theory, who have to go over every single detail in the game…

Julian: I think stuff today is so overdesigned, it’s unbelievable. There are people obsessing about tiny details about stuff. Especially when you have marketing people involved about how your main character in a game’s presented suddenly becomes a huge PR and marketing issue…

Dan Griliopoulos: The whole thing with Booker in Bioshock Infinite… they wanted to put a girl with a gun on the cover of it, or something like that? There was something coming up recently where they were talking about what they wanted on the cover was someone looking gritty holding a gun and I think they went for a girl first, then somebody put Booker holding a gun on there and No, Actually. On the actual cover he’s just looking over his shoulder, posed, but it’s a marketing decision that the developers tried to push back on but many developers don’t have the power to do that so you end up with the standard cover of whatever the game is, somebody looking vaguely attractive. It’s like crossword magazines in the UK, always having a very attractive blonde girl biting a pen. It sells more copies, amazingly.

Julian: What a shame.

Dan Griliopoulos: What are you doing at the moment? I know you’re working in Bulgaria.

Julian: Yeah, I’m working in Bulgaria. I am establishing my own independent games development studio. I’m working on a turn based strategy game. It’s actually a remake… well, not so much a remake. A sequel/remake of a game I made back in 1995 on the ZX Spectrum called Chaos which was originally published by Games Workshop. This was this just fantastic multiplayer turn based game where you’re a wizard, you summon creatures, You’re just looking at a black screen as an arena with your wizard but it gets filled up with creatures and magic fire and gooey blobs and stuff. It worked brilliantly as a multiplayer game so I want to update it with proper internet multiplayer connectivity.

Dan Griliopoulos: I recall looking at your blog with the concepts on there.

Julian: We’ve got concept art going on now. Although the concept art is obviously a lot more sophisticated than on a 48k Spectrum, we wanted to have some kind of feel or some kind of reminiscence of how the original game looked with it’s completely monochromatic but brightly coloured, primary colour sprites and this black background. We’re not going to have a black background but we’re certainly going to have a dark background, for sure, and a bit more of an abstract, stylish graphics which is more illustrative than purely real rendering stuff.

We’re just working on that aspect at the moment, but the actual core gameplay, I made a decision that I’m going to retain the actual core gameplay from the original game. We will elaborate a bit on the spells, for sure, there’ll be more spells. I think the core gameplay was actually very simple and going back to this whole poker mechanic thing, it had this great bluffing mechanic in there where you could summon a creature as an illusion.

There’s a lot of probability in the game, every spell has a certain probability to be cast, so the more powerful spells tend to be the most difficult ones to cast. You roll to make a creature like a gold dragon and it was something like 20% I think it was, for casting it. If you cast it as an illusion you would automatically get it. There was no possibility that you’d fail, which was cool because every player has a disbelief spell. If somebody summons a gold dragon, probably most players would think, “Well no. Now, that’s probably an illusion. I’ll try and disbelieve it”. But if you disbelieve it and you fail, you’ve wasted your opportunity to cast a spell and you could be in trouble.

So, this little simple mechanic creates little bluffing strategies between players. Because of the high element of randomness and probability in the game it kind of makes the gameplay less predictable and controllable for each player which in some ways is more fun because there’s always a possibility to win the game, however small. The gold dragon could come out to your wizard and attack you, you might survive. Not very likely. You might then attack the gold dragon and you might kill it. Not very likely… but you could, for example. The odds are in there. Trying to analyse why it works is quite interesting but I know for sure it does work well as a game and I want to bring it back.

Dan Griliopoulos: There’s the iOS and iPad version of the Settlers of Catan. Obviously Settlers is a dice based system so it’s random. They have a system in it where you can also choose a stacking system where the 36 possible results are treated as cards so you have to get through all the results before you move on. It kind of balances against pure randomness, with that.

Julian: So you know there is going to be at least one of each result there… It makes it a bit less… yeah, you could be screwed in Settlers of Catan, I’ve played it many times. I guess they’re trying to make it a little more controlled, but still retain some of the randomness. I’m just not worried about it.  Basically, if you lose, you lose. If you win, you win. If you’re a good player, you will tend to win and if you’re a bad player you will tend to lose but it’s not automatic…

But I’m adding a whole meta-game to the game as well, this is another aspect. A single player meta-game. But you might have some multiplayer effects as well.

Dan Griliopoulos: Is this the second level type thing the same as you had in XCOM?

Julian: It’s going to be a little bit simpler than XCOM, actually. The idea is that you’re asked as a player to name the world that you wish to explore. This is used as a random number seed generator for the environment. So you have a world which is full of different regions, different types of terrain, and you’re exploring. Your objective is basically to kill the Chaos King in the region but your secondary objective is to find stuff because there’s lots of artefacts in the game which are going to be useful to you in multiplayer battles or single player battles, so there’s a slight RPG element to it as well. So you’ve created this world and you’re exploring it. You go from region to region, you’ll fight any enemies in each region who have their own sets of spells or own personality. There’s different terrain types in each region. There’s special places within realms, places where you can learn your spells, places where you can teleport, places where you can move things around the world…

Dan Griliopoulos: Sounds a bit Super Mario Brothers.

Julian: Well, um… maybe. It’s a place that people can explore, still bearing in mind they have this requirement, this strategy, to find and locate the boss and kill him. Very simple.

Dan Griliopoulos: But it’s all procedural?

Julian: Well, it’s procedurally generated in the sense that yeah, you’re still within an environment (that) consists of distinct regions, but they’re randomly put together. Procedurally generated adventure, if you want to call it that way.

Dan Griliopoulos: It’s nice to see you’re still genre busting, anyway.

Julian: Well, yeah. I really like games that generate stuff for you rather than have everything… I complained about stuff being over designed. My obsession was always with scenario generators, if you want to call them that, where things are generated for the player to explore and it may be something nobody else has ever played because it’s pseudo-randomly generated.

Dan Griliopoulos: Which saves you programming time to some degree.

Julian: It saves level design, that’s for sure. Yeah. It does allow you to create something vast and complex to explore with less effort, sure. Because you’re not designing every single possible experience the player could have in the game at all. Yeah, it’s one of my little obsessions I guess, and I’ve still to see it done well in games. Rogue-like games have randomly generated environments and that’s part of their attraction, because apart from that they’re very simple games.

Dan Griliopoulos: Well, that and permadeath.

Julian: It’s true. So I still think this style of game has an attraction for a lot of people. We’re going to keep it nice and accessible and simple like back in the Spectrum days, but obviously there’s much nicer updated presentation of course.

Dan Griliopoulos: And the ability to patch.

Julian: Yes, and add extra content as you’re going, of course, and proper multiplayer online …

Dan Griliopoulos: Going on the net and having that extra level of… separate little worlds and endless little worlds.

Julian: The thing about this generating from a name you type is that you can say to a mate of yours, “Look, try this particular word because in this particular region you will find a tower of mist where you can get the Cloak of Fortitude”. You’ll be able to exchange stuff with other players and discuss what you can get where in a particular realm. Of course, there’s millions of possibilities of things that can be generated this way.

Dan Griliopoulos: Have you worked out how many possibilities?

Julian: More than that. It depends entirely on the limits of the random number seed, I guess, but it would be a lot.

Dan Griliopoulos: Sounds wonderful. Have you got an idea yet when you want to release?

Julian: Next year. I can’t be more specific than that, really.

Dan Griliopoulos: You have to finish it first.

Julian: Well, yes. Plus, I’m trying to build the team and get resources for the game as well, so this is all part of the process. When you’re an indie developer you don’t necessarily have to start with a fixed budget and a fixed schedule and fixed resources.

Dan Griliopoulos: Why Bulgaria? Is that because there are established programmers out there?

Julian: No, it’s where I live. I’ve lived there since 2005.

Dan Griliopoulos: I didn’t realise that. Why do you live in Bulgaria?

Julian: Because my wife is Bulgarian and I’ve got two children as well, two years old. I worked for Ubisoft from November 2006 to March last year, just over 5 years.

Dan Griliopoulos: What were you working on?

Julian: Ok, so when I first started at Ubisoft Bulgaria – it’s a small studio, 13 people – I was employed as a game designer. The first project they wanted me to work on was Chess Master which I was a bit surprised at. So that’s… 2006, 2007 they were working on Chess Master 11, I think, for PC. I’m not sure why they wanted me to work on this because I thought the game of Chess had already been designed. Actually, what they wanted was a DS version of Chess Master. We added some mini games based on Chess which I designed.

Dan Griliopoulos: So you redesigned Chess?

Julian: I actually designed some original games using some Chess-like rules. There was one, my particular favourite, called Fork My Fruit where the Chess board had bits of fruit on it and you had to, using the forking principle in Chess, you could fork fruit. You got the fruit from the board.

Dan Griliopoulos: What is forking?

Julian: Forking is attacking two things simultaneously. So you can move with a rook up there on a row and you might attack one on this side and one on that side.

Dan Griliopoulos: So you’re pinning two…

Julian: Not pinning. Pinning is where you’re attacking a piece which if the other player moves it, there will be another piece behind it that you could also attack.

Dan Griliopoulos: Even the language is different! (I couldn’t find a Chess game on Steam…)

Julian: I did Chess Master, then I worked on some projects  that were cancelled. Then I worked on Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, which was a launch title for 3DS. This was a project that I actually pitched,  funnily?

Dan Griliopoulos: It fits in with the Ghost Recon thing, and it fits with what you like doing…

Julian: I just wanted to do a decent turn based strategy game again. I wanted to do something similar to XCOM still and I thought, well, you know, what’s Ubisoft got that could be used here? Looking at the franchise, OK – Ghost Recon, possibly. So I pitched it initially as XCOM meets Ghost Recon. That was the pitch, basically. One of the guys at Ubisoft central office in Paris said yeah, ok. He OKed the project and we did a working demo and design. I think we spent maybe 3 months on this. It did have aspects of XCOM. There was supposed to be a world view you know, generated battles and maps, different bosses in different parts of the world that you had to tackle. The tactical game system was, actually interestingly, the tactical game that we had for this design was very much like the new XCOM where you’d have two actions per turn for each character.

Dan Griliopoulos: What do you think of the new XCOM?

Julian: It’s great. It’s very very good. It’s different from …

Dan Griliopoulos: Was it Jake? Solomon. The lead designer on it. Seems to have been very respectful to elements of it and has obviously just gone “…but we need to make this work on consoles”.

Julian: He was worried what I would think of it. He’s changed so much. I think he was probably worried that I’d come up to him and say “Jake, you’ve been a naughty boy. What have you done to my XCOM?” but no. It wasn’t like that at all.

Dan Griliopoulos: You’ve played it then, I take it?

Julian: I have played it. I’ve actually restarted it twice. Maybe I should try it on an easier difficulty level because I haven’t managed to get to the end yet! If there’s anything that’s a problem with the game, it’s that you can be playing it for quite a while without knowing that you are actually completely screwed and you should have stopped and started again.

I think my second playthrough I did a lot better but it got to a point where I could see I was in a bit of a downward spiral, and I just couldn’t see a way out of it. I thought, well ok. I’ve got to restart again. I was losing too much funding. It’s quite unforgiving, actually, in that sense.

Dan Griliopoulos: I was lucky that I never had a satellite shot down but I forgot to put any more up. I was just running with that minimal level…

Julian: That’s the mistake I made on my first run through. I wasn’t paying enough attention to the satellites. I wasn’t getting the funding.

Dan Griliopoulos: Yeah, you need to sort of circle the world… it’s something that you learn as you play. Which is an interesting game design element.

Julian: It is, and pretty much every decision you make has to be fairly carefully considered, because there’s always a very distinctive trade-off in decisions. I think Firaxis did a really, really good job. If you ask me, would I have designed the game in the same way? I would have to say no.

Dan Griliopoulos: How would you have designed it?

Julian: (laughs) I certainly would have gone back to my idea of generators again. I would not have accepted anything less than pseudo-randomly generated maps. I probably would have had more… less contrived elements to it. I felt that the… was it the Terror missions? Where you had to pick one out of three spots where you had to… Aliens are terrorizing three places. You’ve got to pick one of them and you have to –

Dan Griliopoulos: Ugh, God, yes. You know that the other two continents are going to be on minimal support and if something goes wrong, they’re already on minimal support, you’re going to lose that funding on those two countries…

Julian: You’re going to definitely lose out somewhere. You have to choose which one you’re going to lose. I would have designed it differently, for sure. Would it have been as successful as the new XCOM? Probably not. No, I’m afraid.

Dan Griliopoulos: They probably wouldn’t have given it the marketing money, to be honest. An awful lot of it was (that) they actually backed it, which was amazing. They backed a turn based strategy game on console.

Julian: That is absolutely incredible. I mean, it’s unheard of really, unless it’s Civilisation. Civilisation was the only game that was really surviving as a turn based franchise.

Dan Griliopoulos: And thriving, with Civilisation Revolution as well which was wonderful.

Julian: Exactly. It’s actually made Take 2 Interactive the new Microprose because they’re the only company that’s got these really popular well known, established turn based franchises. Civilisation and now XCOM.

Dan Griliopoulos: Was there anything you would have added to the XCOM as it stands? Is there anything you felt, that little bit was missing from my…

Julian: Well, yeah, the Geoscape is kind of missing. In the original game, the position of your bases – what you put in those bases – was important because aliens were active in particular areas, but the position of stuff in the new geoscape from the new game is actually, irrelevant, really. It doesn’t really play any part in the game, so you don’t have that. The Interceptors are based in each region. I guess my original game was a bit more simulation-ny and the new game is a bit more board game-y.

Dan Griliopoulos: Which is a way the industry’s going. There’s a whole video games made by board game designers section in the West Hall at GDC, so everyone plays board games now. I went to Jagex and Jagex have a whole room dedicated to their employees playing board games.

Julian: Yeah. This is very good and the new XCOM shows a lot of board game-y influences, without a doubt.

Dan Griliopoulos: You are a board gamer yourself, aren’t you?

Julian: Yeah, I play board games. Absolutely. Far more than computer games.

Dan Griliopoulos: Would you design board games? Is that something you wanted to do or have done?

Julian: I do. Well, I have done, yes. Interestingly, Chaos, the game that I’m now remaking, was originally a board game.

Dan Griliopoulos: Was it board game or card based?

Julian: Card based. Basically you had  grid of squares, your board or arena. You had a wizard character, you put it on your wizard card and you had a hand of cards which was your spells. So to cast a spell you put your card down, roll the dice to cast it. If it’s a creature it goes on the board, you can start moving it around and attacking enemies. If it’s a spell, you have to resolve the effect of the spell. So yeah, it was originally a board game. On my blog I’ve got some pictures of the cards. I put them up a couple of months ago. So, I still have the original cards from this board game that I made. I often had lots of ideas for board games. I made one – a couple, actually – while I was at Ubisoft which we played with the level designers there. I’ve never tried getting any of them published.

Dan Griliopoulos: You’re still a relatively well known name in games to some degree. Possibly amongst people who like XCOM…

Julian: Well, I’m well known in games for people of a certain age. Who have a certain disposition towards strategy games, that’s about it!

Dan Griliopoulos: It is odd how your generation, there weren’t many superstars. I’m not saying there weren’t people who deserved to be superstars but there wasn’t the eulogisation of the designer as one person. “He’s made this game and he’s brilliant, look at this!”

Julian: Apart from Peter Molyneux, yeah.

Dan Griliopoulos: He’s still going, isn’t he?

Julian: Yes, he is.

Dan Griliopoulos: (There’s no culture like Film Buffs). I knew about Citizen Kane, WC Fields and the Marx brothers and all of this kind of stuff, but that’s from way before I was born. I don’t think the same thing happens quite so much amongst young gamers, that they go, “oh, the Gollops” or…

Julian: No, they don’t. Shame really, isn’t it? (Laughs)

Dan Griliopoulos: Well, you’re one of my heroes so I’m quite happy to be interviewing you. What do you think of the Gollop Chamber?

Julian: I haven’t reached that, so I don’t actually know what it does yet.

Dan Griliopoulos: I won’t spoil it for you.

Julian: I’m on my third play through at the moment. I’m fairly confident that I will get to the end stage!

Dan Griliopoulos: The Gollop Chamber is the ultimate thing on your base.

Julian: Jake sent me an email last year some time, saying “We’ve got this thing in here we want to call the Gollop Chamber, is that OK?”. I said “…yyyeees…” but of course, he wouldn’t tell me what it did.

Dan Griliopoulos: You hope when you finally get to see what it does, it’s something nice. It’s nice, don’t worry. it’s fine.

I’ve got a question about Terror from the Deep, were you involved with that?

Julian: I had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Dan Griliopoulos: When I was a kid, I knew that it came out (and) I was extremely excited and then I played it and it and went, “This feels like an asset swap, except I can’t use some of my guns on land”.

Julian: I think pretty much the entire code base was identical to the first game. I don’t think they really changed very much.

Dan Griliopoulos: Last year at GDC I spoke to Frederick Raynal who made Alone in the Dark. He had this thing where he made Alone in the Dark, he worked on it like a bastard for a year and didn’t sleep more than about 3 hours a night for a year. It got to the end of the year and they said, “It’s doing really well! We’re going to put another one out. We’re just going to do exactly the same thing. We’re just going to make a clone and change a few bits” and he quit, obviously, immediately. Terror from the Deep had that air about it. It was just one of those games that… it’s been put out because they wanted some more money and the theme had done surprisingly well. Had you left the company?

Julian: No, no, yeah. What happened was, we started working on XCOM: Apocalypse pretty much the same time as they started work on Terror from the Deep. What really happened was that myself and Nick wanted to do a different game to XCOM, or at least do something a little bit different than just remake the original, so that’s how XCOM: Apocalypse came about. There were some significant differences in the way that the game worked.

Dan Griliopoulos: It had a bit of Sim City about it, I remember.

Julian: You were in this city and it had different organisations in this city with diplomatic relationships with each other and stuff. But they wanted a sequel within 6 months basically, this is what they wanted and we had to say “Well, it’s not possible to do anything except re-skin the game with some (new) graphics”.

Actually, they changed the story of course, I guess the clever bit, it was all about under the sea rather than Mars. Actually, it took a year to do the game. I had a huge team on it. Well, when I say huge I mean like, 15 people. Compared to just me and Nick and Helen, John and Martin on the graphics side of the original, was… much bigger.

Dan Griliopoulos: It must be strange to see studios with 400 staff, like Destiny, which is the Bungie game that’s been announced.

Julian: Well I know from working at Ubisoft they have hundreds upon hundreds working on Assassin’s Creed – more than 400. Assassin’s Creed 3 is absolute bare minimum 600 people, probably, were working on it for most of the time worldwide across many studios.

Dan Griliopoulos: Their studio in Montreal, is it 2100 people?

Julian: It’s huge. Ubisoft and probably other big publishers actually, they’re making games by pure brute force.

Dan Griliopoulos: Having the Shanghai studio which is cheap to do lots of asset generation…

Julian: Yes. Obviously, these games require a huge amount of asset generation. It’s like a factory. They’re an immensely difficult undertaking, to be sure.

Dan Griliopoulos: You had your huge team of 15 people on Terror from the Deep, is that right? Or XCOM: Apocalypse?

Julian: On XCOM: Apocalypse the team size for that actually was 5 of us at Mythos Games working on it and there was a team of artists at Microprose working on it as well. Again, it’s a similar arrangement to the first game where we were doing the programming and Microprose were doing the artwork. But it was a disastrous project, even from the beginning, because one thing that happened is that the Microprose art team were trying to change the design of the game. Then they were failing to actually deliver anything that they promised. They just couldn’t get the isometric graphic system sorted out in their heads. They did things which just didn’t work, like they hired a guy whose name I forget to design the aliens, and this is a well known Science Fiction artist and he built these big models of the aliens and the idea was that they were going to scan them and put them into a 3D modelling software. It just didn’t work. He had all this fine detail in these models and this scanning system just wasn’t good enough.

Dan Griliopoulos: I do remember the aliens in it looking a bit blobby.

Julian: Then they had to recreate them basically in a 3D software they were using at the time. They looked… yeah, they were awful, blobby things. They were nasty.

Dan Griliopoulos: You couldn’t tell what they were.

Julian: Terrible graphics. It was very difficult.

Dan Griliopoulos: I still enjoyed playing it in the end, mainly because of jet bikes, plasma cannons and missiles.

Julian: We had a real time system as well which was interesting, actually. It had some interesting aspects to it, but I don’t think you can beat turn based games for simple straightforward playability.

Dan Griliopoulos: And planning tactically, as well. Responding on the fly was just tough, especially when you could just pause. Let’s just quickly deal with Interceptor. What was the other first person shooter style one?

Julian: XCOM: Interceptor, yeah. That was the X Wing thing…

Dan Griliopoulos: That was a spaceship thing. Was there an FPS one that was planned, or…?

Julian: XCOM: Alliance was an FPS one, yes. It wasn’t a straightforward first person shooter, it was like a team based shooter, allegedly something similar to Rainbow 6.

Dan Griliopoulos: But with aliens.

Julian: But with aliens, yeah.

Dan Griliopoulos: At what point did you stop being involved with making these games?

Julian: After Apocalypse. So, I had absolutely nothing to do with XCOM: Alliance or XCOM: Interceptor or any XCOM anything else.

XCOM: Enforcer? Well, what happened there was that Microprose or Hasbro as it was by then, they had three Unreal licenses, I think, that that had to somehow use. XCOM: Alliance was using Unreal but because that project was going nowhere, they decided to “Well, let’s just put out a straightforward Unreal-style shooter using the assets from XCOM: Alliance. We’ll at least have something there to show for all the effort”.

XCOM: Alliance was in development for a long time. How the development got screwed up, I don’t know. As you’re probably well aware, quite often games companies start and you’re going for a long time and it just doesn’t happen.

Dan Griliopoulos: This Milo and Kate seems to have broken Peter Molyneux’s heart. They just gradually realised they couldn’t make something believable. Yeah, it happens a lot.

Julian: It does. It’s quite frequent.

Dan Griliopoulos: What about the clones? After Microprose and Hasbro stopped making them, suddenly in the late 90s / early 2000s people started making XCOM clones with names like UFO: Afterlight, Aftermath. Some of them were really good, some of them were dreadful.

Julian: UFO: Aftermath arose out of my Dreamland Chronicles project. We did one game for Virgin Interactive called Magic and Mayhem, then I proposed to Virgin, “Why don’t we try and do a remaining or remake of the original XCOM with, obviously, a different story? Make it PC and Playstation II”. It was still a turn based game, still had all the elements of XCOM there. The tactical part was a little bit different because you controlled characters using a traditional third person controls for a console game.

If you’ve played Valkyria Chronicles on the PS3 then you’ve got an idea of how Dreamland Chronicles worked, because it’s very similar. We had a little action point bar that would go down as you moved your character just like in Valkyria Chronicles, and when you wanted to shoot somebody you’d get the over the shoulder view, just like in Valkyria Chronicles. When you select characters it was on an overhead map, just like in Valkyria Chronicles.

So, it was looking promising, but Virgin Interactive had problems. They were sold to Interplay and then to Titus Interactive. Titus Interactive took one look at our game and said “This is rubbish. This is so bad. Sorry, we’re not interested in this”. Well, Titus were more interested in the IP that they got from buying Interplay. Whether they managed to do anything productive with it is another question.

So, we had to close the studio. We had a 4 game contract with Virgin and now Titus but they were not going to fund this or any other games and we couldn’t go to another publisher, so we had to shut the studio. What they did was they took all of the assets that we’d done and they ultimately ended up in the hands of ALTAR Interactive who made UFO: Aftermath. Unfortunately they stripped out our fantastic Valkyria Chronicles -style turn based stuff and they put what I thought was a rather weak real-time thing in there.

Dan Griliopoulos:The last game they made, Afterlight, was actually good; good characters, a fun plot, interesting Geoscape mechanics…

Julian: I played it very briefly, I seem to remember. Certainly not very much, no. Unfortunately I very rarely finish games these days. Well, from my point of view I don’t have the time. A lot of my game playing is more about research than entertainment because with limited time to play games, my interest is finding out what people are doing rather than…

So at the moment, my main obsession is trying to find turn based games for iPad, for example, to figure out what is there out there that’s interesting.

Dan Griliopoulos: I get an awful lot from BoardGameGeek.

Julian: There’s a lot of board games coming out which is really cool. Very nice. But I’m talking about original turn based, to be tactical turn based games. There’s one I like called Battlefield Academy which is also on PC, of course. That’s quite nice.

Dan Griliopoulos: What are you playing at the moment?

Julian: What am I playing? Uh… well… I know what I’m about to play because I just downloaded it before I came to GDC, which is FTL. I purposefully did not start doing it ’cause I had to finish my presentation so I guess as soon as I get back that’s … at the top of my list. Before that, I was playing XCOM, of course.  I do play games on the iPad as well. The latest one is Battlefield Academy. Outwitters, I quite like. Outwitters is nice. Online turn based game, cutesy graphics, brutal gameplay. Chess-like.

Dan Griliopoulos: I haven’t heard Chess mentioned once, apart from you, during all the time at GDC. It’s not something people learn from any more. They don’t reference it any more. That’s really odd, considering it was, for 6000 years or however long it’s been around…

Julian: I don’t know. Maybe people think it’s boring and that’s all there is to it. If you like Chess, you’ll like Outwitters. Outwitters has got a brilliant mechanic in it which is very simple. Each piece has a certain move, a certain strength – attack strength and defence strength – but you can only see the board as far as your pieces can move. So, there’s a hidden area of the board, you have to be careful. You’re not entirely sure what your opponent’s doing. Very simply done. That gives the game a little bit of uncertainly and a bit of edge. It’s quite nice.

Dan Griliopoulos: Can you see what your opponent can see?

Julian: Not exactly. You’re not entirely sure what he can see. Most of the time, actually, you’re not sure. Some of the time you’re sure because the long range scout units, if you’ve got those up front on your front lines you know that you can see as much as he can see, because his scout units can’t see further than yours sees. It’s an intriguing game.

Dan Griliopoulos: Oh, that reminds me. The other XCOM game that was in development which has gone very quiet. Did you ever see that?

Julian: Oh yeah, the 2K Marin game. The only thing that I read is that they sort of rebooted it. Obviously, gone back to the drawing board a little bit trying to figure out what the identity of this game should really be. I think they got some bad reactions on several levels. One was the fact it was an FPS. Secondly, the presentation was a bit… this 1950s style alternate reality thing probably didn’t go down too well with a lot of people, either, so it may be they’re rethinking that. I’m not sure. Graphically, it was amazing.

Dan Griliopoulos: Thank you!


Interview: Bossa Studios' Founder Henrique Olifiers on Surgeon Simulator 2013


This interview was for an Edge Online piece, which was forgotten about many moons ago, in November 2013. It’s an interview with Bossa Studio’s founder Henrique Olifiers.

Can you quickly run me through the history of the game?
Surgeon Simulator came out of the Global Game Jam in early January 2013, where the given theme was ‘heartbeat’. The team decided to take it literally and, by embracing the blunt approach to the motif, humour became the focus of the game.

You went from a 48 hour game jam to one of the fastest ever greenlight campaigns to huge commercial success. Why did an incapability simulator take off so well?
It’s difficult to pin down a single factor to justify its success, we’ve spent quite some time looking back at Surgeon’s story trying to learn from it as much as we can. In the end, like everything that goes incredibly well (or horribly wrong), is usually a ‘perfect storm’ scenario where several factors work together amplifying each other.

One of the strongest aspects of the game is that it’s as fun to watch as it’s to play, failing in Surgeon (and you fail a lot in it) is as funny as it gets. This was crucial for the success it achieved on YouTube and Twitch, making the Let’s Play videos cool to watch no matter if you were into the game to begin with.

Surgeon Simulator also never took itself seriously. We have this saying ‘where one cannot make a fun game if he’s not having fun while making it’, and it turns out that Surgeon is the perfect example of this motto: the team had a blast making it, both during the jam and full production, this filtered down to the players, no questions asked!

And yours was amongst the first games we can say was mainly successful down to Youtube and Twitch, which is one posited future of all media. What do you think?
Absolutely spot on, Surgeon wouldn’t be anywhere without the YouTube community. First and foremost, it’s incredibly humbling and amazing to see how much love is out there for the game through YouTube, and to witness it becoming the theme for so many different videos, parodies, cartoons, songs and jokes. As a developer, one cannot ask for a bigger reward, it’s simply mind-blowing and the reason why we keep on doing what we do every day.

Then it went full circle with the team watching what was going on and feeding it back into the game. When we saw a video of someone doing a slam dunk with the brain in the transplant surgery, we updated the game with that as an achievement. When some fan-art of Surgeon and the ‘Meet the Medic’ video was made (an original inspiration for the game), we spoke to Valve to get the rights to TF2 and add that as a free DLC. We created an ARG with a whole new section of the game hidden behind a ludicrously difficult puzzle because people were looking for that sort of conspiracy theory to guess all sorts of things, from the launch of Half-Life 3 to Steam’s Summer Sale date. We learned how to be inspired by the players.

We became connected to the community like never before, and found out how brilliant it is to work this way. I really think this is the only way forward for the games industry, developers who don’t know how to engage with their players will find it increasingly difficult to make games that resonate, that become relevant. It’s no longer about playing alone in a dark room; games are now part of our culture, so it’s integral to have aspects build over the impetus of sharing your experiences with the wider world.

Doctors' Handwriting.
Doctors’ Handwriting.

We’re already seeing copycats – Viscera Cleanup Detail being the notable one. Given the success of the game, is it something you hope to return to more?
Tricky question… We never bothered too much with copycats, as it’s not an easy task to copy a joke. I’m not even sure it’s possible. But while this somewhat insulates Surgeon from copies, it’s also its Achilles’s Heel: We’re wary of telling the same joke again or ruining it by going too far. You know, like the guy who repeats the end of the joke a couple of times thinking it makes it funnier? That.

We’ve set ourselves the challenge to try to make Surgeon work on tablets some time ago, and failed miserably a few times. Thirteen, to be exact, until we finally got the controls right. Now that we have the game running well on an iPad, we want to add new content and change the surgeries so they make the best use of the new control scheme we created and the portable nature of the platform. It’s also a matter of respect for the players, as we hope many of them will already own the game on Win, Mac or Linux – so the touch version of Surgeon Simulator should be something unique, worth on its own, to neatly sit side by side with the PC rather than a simple straight port.

Will there ever be a Surgeon Simulator 2014? Probably not… But I guess this is not the last time we’ll see Nigel Burke and his clumsy arm in action, as long as we can come up with something new, original and fun for him to star in.

How many platforms is the game on now?
The game is available for Windows, Mac and Linux, through Steam, GOG, Get Games, Mac AppStore and a few other platforms. It’s even being launched in Japan, with the help of ZOO, a local partner. Next stop is the iPad, early next year.

Are you still actively working on it?
Very much so, the touch version for the iPad has been keeping us busy!

Do you see SS2013 as a promotional tool for the other games you’re working on? Your games are all on different platforms, which must make it difficult.
I hope we’ll carry on the reputation from Surgeon Simulator along with every new game we make, and that on its own has a huge value. Trying to shoehorn some sort of cross-promotion on Surgeon would likely do it more harm than the good we would get on the other end.

We did a tiny cross-promotion by having a floppy disk on Surgeon that you could boot into the reception’s computer and see a scene from Deep Dungeons of Doom. But that’s as far as we could get without harming the game by having something out of context.

That said, we do indeed have a huge challenge ahead of us with our multiplatform approach. Surgeon Simulator was our last game born as a desktop-bound title; every other title we got in the works is cross-platform, meaning you can carry on playing it independently of which hardware you’ve got.

This is different from having GameA on PC and GameB on mobile, which was the case with Surgeon and Deep Dungeons of Doom. Instead, by having the same game on multiple platforms, playable across them all, should help boost awareness around it since players from all creeds will have a common talking point.

Time to Live is the perfect example: we want players to be able to multiplayer across all platforms out there, from Linux to iOS (notice the Linux here, we’re betting SteamOS will be the thing, and that it will be fast). This decision has a large impact on development, and a huge impact on how we communicate. But in the end, it may pay off big time: once you go multiplatform, you don’t go single!

Deep Dungeons of Doom
Deep Dungeons of Doom

I’ve seen Time To Live, Monstermind, Merlin – what can you tell us about these games? Is there anything else you’re working on?
While we’re extremely proud of Monstermind and Merlin, both being nominated for BAFTAs and the former winning best online game, they’re firmly in our past. We’ve moved away from social networks as platforms after having invested so much into them to the point of almost becoming our undoing. We saw a potential in these platforms that just wasn’t realised for many reasons, in the end they didn’t go in the direction we’ve wished they would.

Time to Live is our next game, again something that was born out of a game jam just like Surgeon, but an internal one. It’s a very unique concept in which it’s an arena game, but without weapons. You’re in a dystopian futuristic TV show bloodsport with 120 seconds to live before your head is blown off your shoulders, and have to steal time from the other contestants by luring them into traps. Only one player walks away alive from each arena, and go on to see another round in its career towards stardom.

Time to Live is the one game jam result we kept coming back to and playing over and over. It’s a fast-paced game that builds a character reputation on the long run, and it’s just great to play on both the desktop and the tablet.

Then there are a couple of other games we’re brewing, but it’s way too early to be sure they’ll become something real. The one thing we’ve been working on a lot is AI, we want to take artificial intelligence in games to a whole new level. If we succeed in doing that, the kinds of games we think would suddenly become possible to create is just mind-blowing.

Do you have a planned future for the studio or are you just trying to stay adaptable?
Adaptable is the keyword. If anyone tells you what’s going to happen with the games industry in six months time, you can be sure such person is either deluded or lying. As an industry, we’re going through a transformation period like nothing before, and it’s an incredibly exciting time for those willing to change overnight in order to make the best out of it.

As long as we can create games that are original, that do something special to the players, we’ll keep on doing it. We’ve found the hard way that planning to far along the line just set us up to failure in slow-motion.

What have you learned from the SS13 rollercoaster?
Probably a lot more than one single answer can contain, I’m afraid. But if there’s one thing to take away from Surgeon Simulator is that good ideas do come from anywhere, and how to embrace this inescapable truth as a studio ethos.

We no longer have formal brainstorming meetings to create game concepts that go on to pre-production, then production, and failed launch. No more. We game jam every single month, do snap brainstorms with the entire studio, and build a warchest of playable designs we visit when the time is right to start a new game project.

Our lawn is littered with cool ideas that played like a brick once jammed into prototypes, it’s gaming natural selection at its best. We’ve learned to let go of precious concepts and move on until we find something special, worth turning into a full game, rather than sticking to what plays great in our heads and underwhelm when made into something real.

We’ve learned to jam the hell out of it all. In a good way.

A Basic Marketing and PR plan for Indies.


Okay, so I spent three years in video games PR. After a few months I wanted out, but I stuck around for three years because… Nowadays, I rarely do active PR any more for projects I’m not personally creating (though I’m happy to advise / consult / draw up marketing plans / etc.) In my short career, I worked for Warner Bros, Disney, NCsoft, Paramount, Ubisoft, IGN, Philips, Rising Star, Game City, The Toy Fair, 1C Games, Irrational Games, 505 Games and a ton more.

So (sotto voce: appeal to authority) please believe me when I say that kind of PR and marketing is mostly inappropriate for indie game development.

PRs are expensive and best placed when dealing with large numbers of large visible media targets who don’t move around much. Their careful mixture of quartermaster and pimp is appropriate given the industry’s origins in wartime propaganda departments. They’re best when using their extensive contacts or cold-calling relevant media to place stories. Using them for an indie campaign is like building battleships when you’re fighting insurgents.

PRs have two aims; to make sure their client’s product is well-known and liked, and to maintain their relationships with as many people as possible who are relevant to their continued career. To do this, they charge a lot of money – £200-600 a day weren’t unusual amounts when I worked in a PR agency, though self-employed individuals will charge less.

Indies don’t need that. If you can afford to pay a PR, you can probably afford to pay a community manager who can do the role part-time. And if you have that money, I’m hesitant to call you an Indie (which is, just, like my opinon, dude.)

(Joe Martin mailed me to disagrees with this bit. He says: “Indie can mean the one guy who’s putting out his first game. It can also mean Mike Bithell. It can mean people like Phil Fish, who arguably would have been better off with an agency to shield them a little.”

“Importantly, ‘Indie’ can also apply to people in the middle ground. There are people who do well but could do an order of magnitude better if there was a more robust PR plan in place or that freed them up to work on the game. Earlier I asked indies on Twitter what the biggest problem of doing their own PR was and nearly everyone said that it was that it took up so much time – time they could spend on the game instead. PR support of some sort is genuinely useful to these people – and it doesn’t have to be in the form of a big agency because…”

“The same is true for PR. You’re absolutely right that a big agency like Bastion would be inappropriate for an indie; but there are other options that could really help a one-man team get some extra reach at a reasonable rate. Simon Callaghan is someone I’d recommend for mid-sized indies or small studios. There are a bunch of freelance community managers I know who could fill the middle-ground.”)

For me, what indies need from PR, it’s best that they do themselves, because much of their appeal is in their individuality, which a journalist wants to make a personal connection with. When I get an email through from an Indie PR, it tends to not even get starred, because I know they aren’t expecting a reply most of the time – but when I get an email from the Indies themselves, I feel obliged to reply (except for super-Indies like Mike who have enough coverage already). That might just be me, but I’m betting lots of the press (subconsciously) feel the same. (I’m happy to hear I’m wrong)

Anyway, I promised a basic media campaign for an Indie. Infodump follows…


    • This is just a matter of talking to journos and other devs.
      • If you need a foot-up, I maintain a Twitter list of journos here and developers here
    • Don’t talk about your game until you’re ready for stories to appear.
    • Engage on Twitter.
      • Cynically, questions are a good way of eliciting replies.
      • But you should genuinely ask them what they’re looking for from devs to get coverage. Personalised communications are much more time-consuming but are worth it.
    • Engage on developer forums. Show your stuff off. Your fellow developers are a great source of buzz about your game.
    • Think about when you’re realistically going to be done on your project.
    • Then check that you’re not going to clash with any other major announcements at that stage – you don’t want to come out at the same time as Minecraft 2. Move it back if you have to.
    • When you’ve got a date you’re confident you’ll be done by, subtract two months from it. That’s when you should start chasing for previews.
      • Previews are much more important than reviews because journalists (mostly) will only do previews if they’re interested in a product. So they’re mostly positive.
    • News pieces should appear in the two months before that.
      • This is to build buzz rapidly – Indie games typically only get one or two bites at the coverage cherry before review, so we’re not aiming for the long campaign of a AAA game. You need to get news piece, preview and maybe review as fast as possible.
      • As Joe reminded me, you also need to get this stuff up on Reddit. Find the right community, post the direct link from your press site / website (if you’ve built one – which you should. I know, I know, it’s all more work and you’d rather be coding.)
    • Reviews should appear in the week of release. You really want people to be able to click ‘buy’ right then and there.
    • Add an extra month lead time for any print publications you want to hit.
    • For important media, think about exclusive content you could produce – screenshots, skins, movies, beta codes, whatever…
    • If you have to do any contract stuff (like NDAs!) contract() can do that for you.
  • NEWS.
    • When your game is a good enough state to show off, you want an announcement news email / tweet. In that you’ll need:
      • Some assets.
      • Preferably an embeddable Youtube video of your prototype running.
      • A short, taut description of your game. Lots of active phrases, hyperbole.
      • A bit of blurb about your background.
      • Say you’re available for a chat about the game.
      • Keep it as casual as possible – Indie charm still works.
      • Personalise that email to each person you’re mailing. Hopefully, you’ve already been talking to/at them on Twitter. Try to talk about what you’d like from their site, and show that you’ve at least read it.
      • Feel free to chase on Twitter then email when a little time has gone by.
        • You want to remove friction at every stage. Every click to get something will lose some journos – every form or sign-in page will lose 90%. So minimize clicks.
  • PREVIEW is your second email.
    • It’ll have all the same bits as the above, all refreshed.
    • It’ll have a release date.
    • It’ll also have a preview code, if you can manage that. Steam or iOS codes are best. Use distribute() to get builds out.
  • REVIEWS should be tried for, but are hard to get these days.
    • You should also consider honestly whether your game is going to review well. If not, you probably shouldn’t chase reviews. Coast on that positive feeling from the previews and make a better game next time.
    • If you’re not sure, send it out anyway – the coverage from a positive review gets people to buy it. Negative reviews stop people buying it who weren’t going to buy it anyway.
      • I know certain PRs try to guess the intent of individual press and restrict access from potential negative impressions. That’s an option, but too stressful at this stage given your time.
    • Generate as many codes as you can. Many press won’t be happy to pay for your product, so make it easy for them to get it. Steam codes are best, iOS next (yes, I know they’re annoying), or even a version to download.
    • I’m torn between asking if they want codes or just sending them. The former means you’ve started interacting, which lets you communicate again, to chase coverage – but requiring them to email for a code is friction and friction stops coverage. It’s your call here.

Of course, having contacts beyond those you’ve made through Twitter is important. If you ask me nicely / donate to Games AID, I’ll point you in the right direction for any publications you’re missing. And, of course, if you invite me to write for your project instead, I’d be *obliged* to share my contacts for the purposes of PR. Hint, hint.

Interview with Björn Jeffrey, CEO of Toca Boca


This interview with Toca Boca’s CEO Björn Jeffrey was conducted for a feature for

What’s your ethos regarding responsible game development, for adults and for children?
At Toca Boca, we believe that gaining customer trust is a vital part of ensuring responsible app development. We try to exceed our customers’ expectations by paying attention to their needs and concerns. Toca Boca takes a two-pronged approach, aiming to please both parents and children. We understand that parents have concerns regarding the safety of their children therefore we strongly believe that children should not be exposed to third-party advertisements or in-app purchases. At the same time, we aim to keep children at the centre of product development by involving them in the design process and it is a very intentional design decision not to create toys for girls, or toys for boys – we make toys for kids, and let them choose how they would like to play.

Given the variety of approaches to parenting, are there any hard and fast rules for game development for children?
Like parenting, there are a variety of approaches to game development for children and not all companies share the same values as Toca Boca. We create well-designed apps based on universal themes that most people can recognise irrespective of their parenting style.

Accurate communication should be a rule of thumb when it comes to app development for children. Toca Boca clearly communicates what we stand for and what our apps are about, making it easier for parents to determine if our apps are appropriate for their kids.

Without an age-rating system for apps and given the size of the app market, how can parents know which apps are safe to play and which aren’t? Do you think the market-keepers like Apple and Google should institute a ratings system, even a voluntary one?
We would definitely welcome a serious and acknowledged rating system that can help parents and kids find suitable apps. It is important, however, that a rating system is custom made for children’s apps. The system should not necessarily be rated according to age but according to a number of factors, for example, the extent to which the app is safe or aids children’s development.

In the meantime, there are some really helpful websites and blogs that are dedicated to finding safe and enjoyable apps for children, such as Pappas Appar, Apps Playground, iMums, and Common Sense Media. Until a rating system is in place, I would advise parents to check out the reviews on these websites.

If playing games and devices was shown to be addictive, or at least as psychologically-compelling as other dopamine-promoters, do you think children should be allowed near games at all?
Toca Boca’s apps share the same attributes as traditional, non-digital, toys hence why we call them ‘digital toys’ rather than ‘digital games.’ The apps are non competitive, open ended, inspire creativity and allow parents and children to interact with each other. These are all qualities parents look for in traditional children’s toys, many of which we would never label ‘addictive.’ Toca Boca apps are designed to compliment, not replace, regular play; parents should decide what mix is best for their kids.’’

Given that rewards are extremely hard to come by in everyday life, what do you think the effect of the easy-reward structures we see in games are on children’s experience of everyday life, outside of games?
At Toca Boca we made a conscious decision to make fun and creativity our main focus rather than a competitive reward structure. We are concerned with building a safe digital space where children can explore and create with no limits. When it comes to our digital toys, exploring the world within an app is just one of the many ways children can learn and develop. One way isn’t better or worse than the other, they are not mutually exclusive.’’

Do you see any difference in the effect of the sort of games you make and Lego? Is this portrayal of Lego as worthy rather than, say, Toca Lab fair?
Although the physical differences are vast, Toca Boca shares the similar fundamental values and goals as Lego – we both design toys that encourage free play, exploration and foster creativity in young children. One is not better than the other, rather, via different platforms, we both provide kids with fun and safe toys that engender curiosity and development. Lego are a great company and it is an honour to be compared to them however we do differ slightly in our approach to gender marketing.