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gamescom 2013: Exclusive Command & Conquer interview discusses moving to free-to-play model

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During gamescom I had the great pleasure of meeting Victory Games’ General Manager, Jon Van Caneghem, to discuss the studio’s upcoming free-t0-play Command & Conquer title for PC. I didn’t know it at the time but Jon has three decades of experience in the videogame industry, having worked extensively on the Might and Magic series as well as its spin-off strategy franchise – Heroes of Might and Magic.

Command & Conquer marks an exciting new chapter in the franchise’s history as Victory Games intends to revisit all three sub-series (Tiberium, Red Alert, and Generals) as its free-to-play C&C live service evolves over the next few years.

Here’s the full interview I conducted with Jon featuring more information about this real-time strategy title and Victory Games’ future plans for Command & Conquer:

Tom:

What is your role on the team?

Jon:

I’m the General Manager for Victory Games.

Tom:

Okay, and you used to be part of BioWare – BioWare Victory?

Jon:

Yeah, we were working together for awhile. There was a time when the labels were restructured that way but now we’re just Victory Games.

Tom:

Do you fall under EA?

Jon:

Absolutely. We used to be called EA LA – the Los Angeles version of EA, but my group has an office in Austin, Texas and we also have an office in Shanghai in China. So we wanted to make an identity for the team and we came up with Victory Games. We’re focused on creating strategy games and at the moment primarily Command & Conquer.

Tom:

Okay, my first question is what are some of the things that you can accomplish with a free-to-play model that you can’t accomplish with a retail release.

Jon:

That’s a great question. So first of all the PC world has been evolving to move much more online and digital, and that comes with free-to-play. But it’s a very exciting step for us building the next generation Command & Conquer. So before we’d plan a game, put it in a box and it would be done, and we’d move onto the next game or maybe an expansion pack. As a free-to-play game it’s much more of a service. So it goes live, we watch all the data, we take all the feedback, and every week, every two weeks we change it, we make it better, we can add to it, we can keep adding more features that we wanted to that we couldn’t do in the usual development cycle, and it becomes a game that just gets better over time. I think it’s a great win for both the consumers and for us developers – it’s very exciting because before we’d have to cut features to make the release date. Now those features just go on a schedule. Yeah, it’s just a release schedule that happens as the game is live. So for us it’s very exciting and for the customers – they get a game that gets better.

Tom:

In terms of the game’s free-to-play model – what is it that people are paying for?

Jon:

So we were very sensitive about that – we didn’t want to have a Facebook-like time restriction. We wanted people to come to the game with the expectation of it’s just like the boxed game – you can play everything. We have two currencies – one is the one you buy with your own money and the other one is you play and you play – you’re grinding basically. It’s similar to League of Legends, World of Tanks – those A games that have gone online and free-to-play. And almost everything in the game you can buy with that second currency, so if you want to take your time and not spend money then that’s perfectly fine, or if you want to speed up your progression or your access or you want to get there faster then you can pay with real money.

Tom:

And those singleplayer missions – the singleplayer campaign that’s coming next year. Is that DLC that you need to buy?

Jon:

At the moment no – it’s part of the service that you can come and play. And we want you to play through them – play them multiple times and unlock all the achievements and everything else. So if you pay you get some faster ways through and it can be easier or it can be quicker, or you can have access to more things faster or you can grind your way all the way through it and not put in money. We’ve really been following the free-to-play world and that seems to work really well, and I think it satisfies both types of customers. And if we can do it and some customers don’t have to pay at all then why not.

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Tom:

In terms of multiplayer – how many players on each side? What kinds of numbers are we talking about?

Jon:

So right now it’s 1 versus 1 or 2 on 2 or 3 on 3. Most of the most popular matches we’ve been supporting. We’ll probably try some larger games to see if people actually like them but for now those are the three that are the most popular.

Tom:

And that’s what the series has always been about – those kinds of numbers?

Jon:

Yeah, those kinds of numbers. We’ve had some experiments with a lot bigger numbers but we wanted to get the core – you know those three versions – working really well before we went too crazy with larger numbers.

Tom:

The game used to be called Generals 2 – am I correct? Now was there any particular Command & Conquer game that you looked to for inspiration for this game?

Jon:

Absolutely. So Command & Conquer had three universes – we had the Tiberium universe which is the science fiction world, and there were four plus games on that, and then we had the Red Alert universe and there have been three of those. And then there’s the Generals universe where there’s only been one game. And of the fan feedback from the last five, ten years they’ve asked the most for our new version to be set in the Generals universe. So for this new Command & Conquer we’ve decided to do Generals as the first one. But we’re going to be adding the other universes to it as well so it becomes just one big website you go to – with one login you can have access to Generals, Tiberium, Red Alert etc. One big product as opposed to distinct, separate products and separate communities. We wanted to make it one place.

Tom:

In terms of the beta – is the closed beta already underway?

Jon:

Yeah, we’ve had a closed beta running for about four months now. We’ve had thousands of players through and ten of thousands of games, and we’ve been iterating with all the feedback from the beta and it’s been very exciting to build a game that way, and we’re hoping to go full open beta before the end of the year so that includes everybody. We have a lot of players who bought our Ultimate Collection which was a retail package we’ve had available now for a year, and on it was an early access pass so we had to let all those people in first before being completely open.

Tom:

How many years are you planning to support this new Command & Conquer game for?

Jon:

Indefinitely. We’ve really built this platform to be the technology for Command & Conquer for the next ten years. Like I said every week, every month we’ll be adding small upgrades. Every few months – larger ones, and then we’ll get to the new universes – we’ll be adding those every year and we just want it to get bigger and last a really long time.

Tom:

Are there any sorts of plans for a mobile app that you can track your progress with?

Jon:

Yeah, there’s been a lot of talk about it – we haven’t announced any yet but it’s certainly part of the future. Just like we’ve had a lot of people ask for a Macintosh version which is part of our future plans as well. Some people have asked us about next-gen consoles for Command & Conquer – also a possibility in the future but nothing to announce at this point.

Tom:

Something I wanted to ask about was working on Frostbite 2. Is that engine enough for what you want to achieve with Command & Conquer, or do you wish sometimes that you were working on Frostbite 3?

Jon:

Well actually we’re using Frostbite 3. We took the Frostbite engine as the basis of our technology and then we had to add to it and everything to make it a RTS because obviously it’s a FPS engine. So we have a layer on top that’s ours but the bottom layer is the Frostbite engine which is being used in all the EA games, and as they upgrade we get the new technology. So as they make a better shader, or better water, or better special effects we get that benefit that we can just add and update in our live service.

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Tom:

One of the features of Frostbite is destructibility. Does that come into gameplay at all – something that you couldn’t achieve in past Command & Conquer games?

Jon:

Absolutely. So that’s been something we’ve been playing around with. So all the buildings, all the units have dynamic destruction – it’s not canned animation anymore. It’s true physics – all the parts go flying. You can track them – they can do damage. Any number of game rules we’re going to experiment with with the layers of course to see if they like that change. You know how players are with their favourite series – if you change something that’s a basic fundamental then they get all out of shape. That’s part of the fun too – we’ll be able to do weekend changes so change the game just for the weekend. So maybe explosions will cause more damage or falling parts and stuff – “Double Damage Saturday” – whatever. We can do these little test events with the players involved in the feedback and who knows where it goes right?

Tom:

In terms of the community you have now with the closed beta – are you finding that there are a lot of old school Command & Conquer players? Are there a lot of newcomers to the series who are intrigued by what this Command & Conquer is all about?

Jon:

I’d say there’s a good amount of both. I mean we have a really great community that’s been keeping this game and this franchise going for fifteen plus years so they are our biggest noise, you might say. But we do get a lot of new players who may not have played Command & Conquer but they’ve played StarCraft or League of Legends and they’ve heard about it and they’re like, “Wow, this is really cool!” We get all sorts of questions and we’re like, “Okay, come and play and join the community and give us your feedback.”


A big thank you to Jon for being so willing to discuss Command & Conquer with me during gamescom and to EA for setting up the appointment.

You can head over here for El33online’s previous coverage of Command & Conquer, and be sure to sign up for the game’s closed beta if you want to join the passionate C&C community.


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