When last Kotaku reported about the future of Command and Conquer, there was an editorial eyebrow raised skeptically. But the boss at EA believes that real-time-strategy needs "fundamental innovation." His pitch might change your expression.
During Kotaku's interview this week with EA CEO John Riccitiello we turned to recent news that hallowed PC real-time-strategy series Command & Conquer would be moving toward a digital model rather than a disc-based one after its next release. The series would be overseen by Might and Magic creator John Van Caneghem, who recently joined EA.
News of the transition was sending fears of a Facebook-ized, watered-down C&C among some series fans. But while not detailing exactly what the digital edition of the franchise would be like, Riccitiello was happy to explain to Kotaku the reason for the seemingly dramatic shift.
"[Van Ceneghem] and I have a shared vision that the RTS category is due for fundamental innovation and not just cooler graphics," Riccitiello said. "We've gotten to the point where you can see the particles around individual grenade explosions inside rooms where windows fall apart. That was never what made RTS good. That was just sort of eye candy on top of a very traditional game mechanic. From when Red Alert and Starcraft sort of defined the genre, it hasn't moved."
Riccitiello said he didn't want to be seen as designing the game in front of Kotaku — he's not a game designer he acknowledged — but he did offer some hints, saying. "I'm a believer that the RTS sector is more open to fundamental innovation at a metagame level than almost any genre."
Referencing EA's newly-acquired Facebook games developer Playfish, he added: "I actually think that some of what Playfish does, in terms of iterating games on a weekly basis, Some of what Facebook does, in terms of letting you collectively experience things, have not been stitched together by the game industry in terms of lessons learned there. You start applying that thinking to a C&C franchise you get something pretty special."
Riccitiello is not the first — and won't be the last — Kotaku interviewee who brings up the old saw that graphics aren't everything. But you can sometimes judge the depth of such a comment by the context in which it's provided. In the midst of talking about C&C, here's what Riccitiello said about graphical improvements and their relevance to game development and the notion of what constitutes "fundamental innovation":
"I grew up in the industry at a time when eye candy was the fundamental innovation. 1999 saw the first mass-sale of 3D games. Suddenly, you can do 3D when everything else was splines and isometric and all that stuff. We had three or four years where, ok, it was about eye candy. If all you had [before then] was 2d and scrollers, it lit us all up. And then we learned how to make 3D environments that were fun and interesting and different.
"I think now we're all at a place where we have high-definition TVs. We have PCs with staggering monitors. Everyone's mastered 3D. By and large we're choosing between 30 and 60 frames a second depending on how good we want the environment to be vs. how fluid we want. Clearly in the next set of processors we're going to get to both.
"But I could ask the question, who cares? To be honest with you, yes I do like watching sports in high def but it's not really more fun. I just like it because I spent six grand on my TV and I want a return on my investment. But it doesn't make the experience any better. And so you have to innovate in different ways."
So graphics as "fundamental innovation" in the RTS genre? In Command & Conquer? Not anymore, according to Riccitiello.
Time for something different. Something, he admitted, build on a path blazed by massively-multiplayer online games, connecting more players and doing it outside a fantasy universe.
Sounds like Command & Conquer has its marching orders.