Command & Conquer designer Lou Castle on RTS games and War Commander: Rogue Assault

Posted by Jessica Famularo on December 23rd, 2016
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Louis Castle's title as industry veteran is well earned, having played a major role in shaping the real time strategy (RTS) genre by creating the unforgettableCommand & Conquerseries. Now Castle is onto something new withWar Commander: Rogue Assault, a massively multiplayer RTS on iOS and Anroid. The free-to-play game offers wait-free base building, direct unit control, and sprawling maps to explore, either solo or with alliances.

We talked to Lou about his path to the mobile scene, his thoughts on the state of RTS games today, and how his latest game,War Commander: Rogue Assaulthopes to innovate and influence the genre on mobile platforms.

What lead you back into game design and mobile games in particular?

Well, I've been on a continuing journey for mass market games since leaving EA in 2009. My last projects with EA were console versions of our RTS games, as well as some games on the Wii with Stephen Spielberg, and I just got really excited by the idea of having these really really large audiences, and importantly, how they might change the way we make games and change the way that games are played.

So that's been a constant evolution for me and when I was looking around for some consulting and contracting jobs, some folks I knew over at Kixeye said, "Hey, we'd love to have you take a look at this game that's under development,” and I went in for a short stint that was only supposed to be a few months, and that's a little over 2 years ago now, so it's been really, really great to build something so truly epic and exciting. I think it's really going to surprise people with its quality and scope.

What do you think of the RTS genre's success over the years and how it's evolved from games like Command & Conquer, which you had a big impact on, into denser titles like StarCraft that might have a higher barrier of entry?

I think RTS games on PC continue to become more and more complex with higher degrees of actions per minute just because the strongest and most vocal audience members that were willing to pay a lot of money up front for a game just wanted more and more features. So it was harder over time for people to jump in and play if they'd never played before. I remember when the MOBAs first came out and I thought, "Oh wow! This is neat! We're going back to something that's a little simpler and a lot more frenetic and exciting." And those quickly became even more complicated than any of the RTSes.

So, you know, I think it's -- you brought up the barrier to entry -- and I think that's exactly right. It's not that they are not great experiences -- they really are -- but unless you've been playing those kinds of games for a while, to just pick up and play League of Legends is really a very challenging thing to do, and that's just a MOBA. It's not even a full scale RTS. The very first time you play a game like StarCraft II is extraordinarily challenging and something I'm not likely to get my 88 year old father to do, whereas he'll definitely play any of my mobile games.

What do you think the mobile platform lends to RTS games that PC and consoles can't?

I love my PC rig, I love my consoles and I've got all of them at the house, and I do play them, but it's always, "OK, this is the period of time where I can be bothered to put on my headset or my headphones and sit for two or three hours," which means, in a busy life, that's just an infrequent thing, even as a game maker and a gamer. It's not something that I do all of the time.

What I love about working on mobile devices is incidental or accidental gameplay. If I happen to have a little longer to commute, or I'm on a long Uber ride, or maybe I'm just standing in line somewhere. I can whip open a game, play a little bit, and close it again. That's just really cool. That gives me a more intimate and long term relationship with the game than I would have on a PC or console. It's just that and its persistence is really amazing. It's just been a lot of fun.

I definitely saw that in Rogue Assault. There's a lot of base building, you can come back and forth to it but there's not a huge time commitment but it's also -- there's a lot going on there, so it's also very rewarding.

We think about it in the design sense of what you could play at any given time because you happen to have a few minutes. A more structured game session might be a predictable commute, like a 20 or 30 minute session, which is kind of your average session for mobile.

Or we wanted to make sure that we make games that if somebody wants to just really dig in for an hour or two, they have plenty to do and plenty to explore in that time, so they don't feel like it's just a five minute experience that they repeat 50 times. It's actually a different experience when you put more time into it. That's actually very deliberate in the game design. All of those modes are different levels of efficiency and each one of them offers different kinds of play, but all of them give you that permanent progression toward power and more interesting choices.

Rogue Assault has a lot of aesthetic similarities to Command & Conquer, but it's shaping up to be this new experience. Have you deliberately tried to balance that classic feel while also innovating?

I came on the project, and when I first saw it it was stylized a little bit more after your classic kind of illustrated style. The actual presentation of the story, which is a post-apocalyptic story with modern military units, felt a little out of alignment with this simplified look. I know that that's very popular on mobile, and I understand why. But I really felt the same that I did with the original Command & Conquer, which is the more that we can make it look like satellite photos and Google Maps and things like that, the better.

And there's definitely a high degree of quality that our art director and our team have brought into the game that really speaks to that kind of PC RTS experience. We didn't try to look like Command & Conquer, per se, but we were going after sort of a Strike Back or Judge Dredd color tone, so that tends to go towards that very gritty, realistic look which people remember as Command & Conquer.

Have any recent mobile games had an influence on Rogue Assault?

I guess it's a lineage of things going all of the way back to the first Backyard Monsters by Kixeye. It's not really a mobile game, but it certainly was the one that inspired the Clash games and then those inspired a whole host of, to use a polite term, you know, fast-follow [games]. And all of those informed [War Commander: Rogue Assault] in some ways, because some of these games are incredibly compelling and they really capture you.

One of the Game of War games, which has virtually none of the visual aesthetics that you see in the ads, is still a compelling game because they've done such a nice job on the balance. So we derive a lot of informed opinions from those products and we're trying to make sure that we succeed on all of those levels as well. Hats off to our competitors. We don't disdain them. We respect them and we hope to learn from them.

Do you have plans to continue developing for mobile?

Without a question! I find it really compelling to be on mobile and I just think it's the place to be able to reach the largest amount of audience possible. It has its challenges with acquisition and discovery and things like that, but once you get that audience and people get a chance to play the game, you can have an awful lot of people playing which is really fun.

How closely do you interact with fans and take in their feedback?

I do the [Reddit] AMAs and things like that just to make sure that we're giving people all of the information we possibly can about the game, and making sure that they're having a good time, and knowing what they like and what they don't like. The data will tell us what they do and what they don't do, but it doesn't give you the emotional flavor that you get from some of your core audience. It's great to hear from them and we love their comments. I know people send in comments all of the time thinking that nobody's going to read these, and I tell you, we read everything.

Is there anything specifically that you're most excited for moving forward in the mobile space?

The things I'm most excited about are anything that can help us get higher quality graphics at higher framerates, so it really comes down to GPUs and CPUs. External to the individual devices, I'm super excited by the ability to do some amount of processing, or some amount of game computation that's not on device. That's really interesting to me. I have a history over the last few years in scalable systems, and elastically scalable computing on the web on the cloud just offers all sorts of really interesting things we might be able to do with future products. But for the time being, just getting faster phones and faster tablets is good for me.

Lastly, circling back to Rogue Assault, do you think you could see this game being an entryway to other RTS games both on mobile and on PC and console?

Sure! I think it's coming anyways. I'd love to think of us as being the gateway as it were, but the reality is even the games that were cute and simple aren't so simple anymore, and hopefully we'll start a trend of not being quite so cute all of the time. Cute's fine for some things, but very inappropriate for others. So I think that hopefully people will play this and they'll say, "Wow! I really like not having to wait before I build stuff! I like being able to control my units. I really like having these strategy elements and I want more of that." And so they'll be looking for that on other devices. Hopefully, they will influence our competitors as well. That's always the goal as a creator - to not just create something great but to have something that actually changes the way people think about the products in the medium.

This interview has been edited for length.

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