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Candid interview with former C&C Developer Greg Black

By JimRaynor - 30th June 2010 - 00:56 AM

Former key EALA employee Greg Black provides a candid snapshot of his time at EALA. We get a look at the C&C development cycle, GameReplays.org's importance to EALA and EA's corporate culture of deceit.

During the interview Greg is very critical of his own work and that of EALA. That said, I think I speak for all of GR.Org in thanking him for helping build some games that fostered great competition, intriguing game play and remarkable drama.

1. You worked for EALA and helped develop some Command&Conquer titles such as Tiberium Wars and Red Alert 3. How do you appraise these titles? What do you think about them? What was good?

This is a somewhat tricky thing for me to answer. In truth I was probably the harshest critic of our games on the EALA RTS team. I got started with C&C back in '95 and was instantly hooked. I loved the story, loved the gameplay, loved the setting, and loved Kane (in a totally platonic way). For me C&C was something of a sacred game and I desperately wanted to do the series justice with all the C&C games I worked on. Unfortunately although we had a very talented team of passionate gamers, EA simply would not give us the time we felt we needed to make a truly great C&C game. In the case of C&C:3 our development cycle was something like 11 months. Compare that to Blizzard or Relic who was spending 3-6 years on their RTS titles. Our longest development cycle was 18 months on RA3, but at that time the team was split in half and added another platform (PS3), so the extra dev time was kind of a wash. EA simply needed us to keep cranking out games to keep the LA studio afloat while many its other teams floundered. So to answer your question I was not happy with how C&C3 or RA3 turned out, our games were always rushed, our engine technology aged and degraded over the years, our path finding was horrible, our online implimentations were embarassing, and ultimately our games did not, in my view, live up to the orginal C&C, or RA2, or Generals (which I also worked on but in a very lowly capacity).

I do however have to give credit to the development team. Given the circumstances under which we were making these games, (crappy tech, super compressed schedules) I think what we were able to ship was quite impressive. Unfortunately the gamer who just spent $50 on our games doesn't have any clue how much time we had to spend on them or what the internal politics of EA were at the time, they can only see what is in the box.

2. You were the balance designer for Tiberium Wars and Red Alert 3. You had opportunities to bring some ideas from the fan community to the game directly. What was important and which propositions were taken seriously?

I worked very directly with the community. As many of you probably know we would fly in "pro" C&C players from all over the world to help play and balance the game. In addition to that I would monitor many of the C&C forums daily, especially GameReplays.org, to get the "pulse" of the hardcoore multiplayer community. I took every idea seriously as long as that idea was presented with a logical arguments and reasoning behind it. Unfortunately by the time the community actually knew enough about the game to make suggestions, it was already too late for us to implement them due to our short development schedules and late betas.

My only real regret with the fan-community is that I don't speak/read German and couldn't monitor the big German community sites. I always felt like I was probably missing out on a bunch of great information.

3. Is it difficult to balance a game properly? Were you able to balance out every glaring balance error you saw in the titles you worked on as Lead Balance Designer?

It is extremely difficult to balance a game right. Its not just a matter of finding the proper math, playing the game and iterating on it, but the game design has to carefully account for the balance. If the game is not designed to be balanced, no amount of tuning or tweaking can fix it. Unfortunatly our schedules usually meant we couldn't do any real iteration on the design. We were essentially shipping out "first pass" work as final across all areas of the project, balance and design included. Additionally the schedules precluded us from having meaningful multiplayer betas. This was always a huge source of frustration and disappointment for me. I can not blame everything on time pressure though, Dustin Browder was under similar time pressure with Generals and that game had great multiplayer.

With every game I've worked on ultimately all I can see are it's flaws. Its hard to not look at something every day and just see the problems. Pathfinding and UI responsiveness were the two things that always drove me nuts with the sage engine.

4. Looking back what would you have changed in your work at EALA or CNC. What were your best moments at EALA?

There are too many things to list in terms of what I would have liked to change in our games. I did, however, love working on C&C and had a great deal of respect and admiration for the RTS group at EALA. I think my favorite game to work on, surprisingly enough, was BFME2. It was a lot of fun to be working on a game no one really cared about and just having a good time with it. Working on C&C meant a lot of self imposed pressure and expectations to be met. BFME 2 was just us having fun making a silly game about elves and dwarfs.

5. How were the ideas and propositions of the fan community submitted to you?

I either found them myself while reading the forums, or another team member would find something and bring it to my attention. The community team (Apoc mostly) also gave us regular updates on the community and the hot forums threads.

6. Your departure from EALA was met with great dissappointment by C&C game players and fans. For what reason did you leave EALA?

It was not an easy decision for me to leave, EA is where my career in game development got started, but ultimately I needed to do something new. By the time I left EA many of my good friends from the RTS team had gone. EA had broken many promises to us and was continuing to make bad decisions at the expense of the C&C franchise and over the protests of the development teams. I just needed a break from the EA insanity.

7. Do you miss EALA? If yes, what do you miss most?

I don't miss working at EALA but I do miss working with the people there, and of course I miss working on C&C. My new office is less than a mile away from the EALA campus so I still see it and think about it every day when I drive to work.

8. What do you think about Command&Conquer 4? Many people are state C&C 4 is not a game true to the C&C franchise.

It's unfair of me to pass judgement on C&C4 as I did not work on it nor have I played the final game. I was however at the studio during much of C&C4's development and have played pre-release builds. The important thing to know is that C&C4 was never meant to be a true Tiberium universe canonical game, but rather an experiment in online play. It originally started as out an Asian market online-only version of C&C 3. At some point the company executives decided it made the most business sense to add a single player campaign, call it C&C4, and put it in a box. The team of course protested this change in direction but the decision stood. The team did what they could to make a good game given the realities inside EA, but ultimately it was the product of a dysfunctional corporate culture.

9. How much does C&C and its community mean to you?

C&C has been an immensely important part of my life and its very significant to me personally. C&C is the first PC game I ever bought. The C&C community is the only video game community I was ever active in. C&C is and will always be one of my favorite games of all time. Working on C&C games was like a dream come true (although once in a while dreams can be nightmares )

10. Now you are working with some other famous people at Zygna. Please tell us something about your new job!

Myself and a few other C&C team members opened up a studio in LA for Zynga. We're currently working on an unannounced project for which I am the Lead Designer. Unfortunately I can't say much more than that.

11. Was it difficult for you start at this new developer-studio (Zygna)? How difficult was it for you to introduce yourself to Zygna's people?

As one of the founding members of the studio, and having founded it with many friends from EA, it was not at all difficult starting at Zynga. Zynga is a very different company from EA but many of the people there I've worked with for years so it felt very comfortable.

I've also had a chance to meet and work with some industry legends. Getting to brainstorm with Brian Reynolds for instance (who just released the awesome new FrontierVille) was an amazing moment for a strategy game geek like me.

12. What is the specialisation of this developer-studio? Were your hopes and expectations fulfilled?

Again I must decline to comment other than to say I'm having a good time at the new studio.

13. What are your future plans?

Right now I'm just focusing on my game at Zynga and trying to find good strategy games to play (at least until SC2 ships). One day I hope to open my own game studio, but that's still a long way off I'm afraid.

14. What are you doing in your free time? What hobbies do you have?

I recently started flying Remote Controlled (RC) Helicopters. Its far more expensive, difficult, frustrating, and dangerous than my video game hobby. I highly recommend it!

15. Do you want to say something to CnCSaga.de and/or the C&C Community?

Thank you for all the good times. I had a great deal for affection for the C&C community, even when you were ripping our games apart. I often felt the very same way you guys did about the games we were making and if not for a few lucky breaks, I would have been on your side of the fence instead of on the development team.

Source: CNCSaga Forums