Anyone who has ever enjoyed a real-time strategy game can offer some thanks to Louis Castle.
He didn't invent the genre, but through games like Dune 2 and Command & Conquer, he helped popularize RTSes during PC gaming's 1990s boom. The Command & Conquer franchise has sold more than 30 million units worldwide.
Between 1992 and 2009, Castle helped create or worked on more than 20 RTS games and expansions, first through his and Brett Sperry's company Westwood Studios, and then via Electronic Arts (EA acquired Westwood in 1998).
But toward the end of his time at EA, Castle was increasingly involved in management, rather than creative work. Since leaving EA six years ago, he's worked at Zynga, helped run a company in the gambling business (he lives in Las Vegas), taken a long holiday and dabbled in game design consultancy.
Now he's back, developing a mobile RTS for Kixeye called War Commander: Rogue Assault. It's due to be unveiled at the Unity conference Unite 2015 in Boston next week. Kixeye is best known for web, social and mobile games like Backyard Monsters. The company's founder Paul Preece created Desktop Tower Defense.
A New Base of Operations
In an interview with Polygon, Castle said that he has been with Kixeye for the last year, first as a contractor and now as creative director, but has been trying to stay under the radar. "If it wasn't for Unite and them asking us to show our product there I'd probably be still a little underground," he says. "But it's going to be hard to be underground when I am standing on stage talking about our game."
Since the glory days of Command & Conquer and rivals like Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, Total Annihilation and Age of Empires, the RTS has evolved into the megalith that is StarCraft 2, with no major challengers on the genre heartland PC. But the RTS has also spawned many offshoots and heavily influenced other genres, most especially MOBAs as well as tower defense games and a multitude of social and mobile games like Clash of Clans.
At their core, they demand that the player gather resources efficiently, spend them wisely on constructing production, military and defensive buildings which create fighting units and destroy enemies.
Castle's new game is an offshoot of its War Commander online game, which owes much of its aesthetic to the C&C series. But Rogue Assault is being built specifically for mobile.
"Kixeye were looking for some help to take a fledgling game that had some pretty interesting pieces to it and turn it into a really long and robust experience," says Castle. "I'd been following Kixeye and I really loved Backyard Monsters and of course Desktop Tower Defense.
"War Commander: Rogue Assault was on my phone the first time I played it and I thought this was actually a very playable and entertaining experience. I wanted to play some more. That surprised me ... it was the first time I'd really felt that for a mobile strategy game. Most of them are pastimes but not really compelling or engaging. They're often just about plop and pray."
Plan of Attack
The design plan has been to create a long single player campaign, which can be played in short bursts.
"With mobile, your sessions are short and you have your device with you a lot, so you have this very long interaction with the game instead of a sit down date where you are playing for a few hours to try to play through missions. Now you can go in and manage your base, build up some troops, do a couple of quick missions, and you can build that up over time.
"Of course the social aspect is completely different too because you have these really long term social endeavors that you can get into with friends, establishing goals and setting up alliances."
War Commander: Rogue Assault is a free-to-play game. Progress will be made through RPG-like tech-trees in which players bolt on new skills and abilities. Although no details have been released, it's likely that the game will make its money through time-saving insta-build mechanics. As well as the long single-player campaign, there will be PvP battles.
"The core game is about slowly building your base over time and then as you build up and gather resources you decide how much you want to dedicate to defense and how much you want to dedicate to offense," says Castle. "Then you take your troops into battle and they get damaged so you have to repair them.
"It's not a classic real-time strategy game in the sense of trying to port a PC game to a mobile device. People have tried that and it doesn't really work. Instead it's a well designed interface built around the mobile device."
The Long Game
So how is Castle enjoying being back in the thick of game design?
"What keeps drawing me back is the fact that new technologies and new devices reach out to audiences in different ways," he says. "We keep relearning things that we knew in the past, but in new and modified ways. It's fun to come back and yet feel like I'm starting in the industry again. But instead of the first time around when I had no experience and had to learn a lot of stuff through rough knocks, this time around I can look back at those lessons and apply it to this new situation."
He says he may return to consoles and PC games, but for now he's satisfied with working on smaller screens. "I like the mobile space right now, I personally think that tablets are the ideal device for casual games and I'm excited to see mobile platforms deliver an experience that it just as rich as console or PC and I think that there is less distinction between them all."
As for the core RTS market, he has no plans to tilt against StarCraft 2 right now. "I love playing the classic RTS games but it's tough to compete with the StarCrafts of the world if you don't have a lot of money. But I think the whole genre has sort of fallen away because it's become over complicated and aimed at a very small, specific set of players, so I'd love to see more people making them."
EA was on the verge of launching its own rebooted Command & Conquer free-to-play PC RTS back in 2013, but closed its Victory Studio and cancelled the game.
"Part of the success of the original C&C was how accessible it was to players," says Castle. "That is part of why I'm in the mobile space now. Those casual players who enjoy a strategic challenge but really don't want long play sessions or something too tough or difficult to understand, all ended up playing Clash of Clans and Backyard Monsters. They scratch that itch of offering an intellectual challenge in a quick way, a bit of fun fast."