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Give Petroglyph President and Co-Founder Mike Legg a topic and then stand back — he's off, and he's worth listening to. Legg helped forge the modern real-time strategy genre while at Westwood Studios, and if you haven't heard of him, you probably have literally heard him if you've played the Command & Conquer series — he voiced the death screams when units met an unfortunate end.
In this interview, Legg outlines the origins of his company's upcoming massively-multiplayer, real-time-strategy genre bender, End of Nations, and weighs in on Command & Conquer 3 (loved it) and 4 (didn't).
Bitmob: Is it annoying to share a name with a famous hockey player?
Mike Legg: Hah, I find on Facebook, there are so many Mike Leggs out there…I think it's kind of cool.
Bitmob: So you Petroglyph guys have a lot of history with real-time strategy games, and End of Nations seems like it could be a pretty ambitious evolutionary step for the genre. Can you outline the genesis of the project?
ML: Back in our Westwood days, we worked on a lot of RTS games, all the way back to Dune 2 and all the way forward with our seven years at Petroglyph. So when we started Petroglyph, MMOs were taking over the RPG market. Actually, even before then. RTS used to be a lot bigger than RPG. The pie chart got bigger and bigger for RPG and then they became MMOs, and RTS started to shrink.
When we started Petroglyph, Joe Bostic — who's co-founder of Petroglyph with myself and Steve Tall, and he's also our director of game design — Joe, he had a lot of creative influence and put a lot of work into Dune 2 and the Command & Conquer series. It was his vision when we started the company to make [an] MMORTS.
And at that time, it wasn't really possible. We ran the numbers and we thought about how would we do this kind of thing, because you know, traditionally, it's about peer-to-peer networking. We knew if we did an MMORTS, we'd have to go with a client-server model. Over the years we had these great breakthroughs in technology, you know, with multi-core processors, all the multi-threading of the operating systems, people getting faster and faster Internet connections and bigger pipes. We were finally realizing [that] it was going to become technically feasible to do this.
When we started doing this, Trion [the publisher/developer], those guys were just starting up. We know a lot of the guys from their past lives, from working together in the past…we shared the vision with them, and they completely got it. They totally understood it, and they wanted to break into new genres.
That, for us, was a great validation, because they technically scrutinized the feasibility of it as well, and when they said, yeah, this looks cool, and this is now possible, we were like, all right, cool! We got sanity checked and it sounds like it's doable.
The next question was, OK, just because we can do it, is it going to be fun? So what we did with Trion was, we kind of took a two-pronged approach. They were working on the Trion platform, doing the backend and all the persistence, the billing, the infrastructure, and all this great stuff. We decided that we're going to do a playable prototype that kind of simulates cooperative PVE in an RTS, you know, a team, using our current technology. We knew this was going to be a dead-end road, but that we'd learn a lot from it.
Part of our team, the designers, and the artists, and the audio team, they started running down a road where they took the last state of our engine and then pushed it forward and just tried out to see if that style of gameplay was going to be fun. A lot of it was faked, a lot of it was smoke and mirrors, and we knew that — we just wanted to try and see if it would be fun.
At the [same] time, our technical team started converting our peer-to-peer multiplayer technology into client-server technology. And that took quite a while — it was a ton of work to get to that point. So they ran down another path while we were developing the playable prototype. We got to the end of the playable prototype, checked it out, and it actually looked really fun.
As soon as we saw that the play was fun, we then cut that thing — we said, OK, it's done, this is dead, we're ending this path, but we're going to take a lot of the assets; the sound, the music, and the art, UI elements, things that we've learned, and now we're going to flip a lot of that over to where the programmers were working on their track. That allowed us to continue up through pre-production, where we finally got to what we call a vertical slice, which is kind of a playable prove-out of everything. What was really cool about that was, the technologists at Trion on the platform side really, really scrutinized, stress-tested, and put it through the ringer to make sure it was actually a sustainable game.
Now the fact is, OK, it's fun, can we make this, it's technologically possible — can we actually afford to do it? We've got X number of players playing on these servers…we don't just want to go out of business. Running some tests and looking at things, we were like, hey, this looks like a pretty cool venture. That kind of carried us up through pre-production and the vertical slice, then we went into production and now we're on our way.
Bitmob: I was talking with one of your producers about how, in addition to the RTS-meets-MMO aspect, you've also got collectible-card-game mechanics — units of the same type get a sort of "deck bonus." Can you expand on that?
ML: Yeah — I work a lot on the technology side, but I know exactly what you're talking about. What we're doing is, based on the collectible units — it's all about building up this big, cool army of units.
You can look at your army and you can see which units and which sets are missing. You might be like, oh man, I need to get that Tiger Tank, and the only way I'm gonna get that is I have to go run this instance or this mission — there's a rare drop from this one boss unit that's going to drop that thing. Or maybe I can only get it off the auction house, or whatever.
But what we're doing is, we're giving — and, you know, this is still in development so we've got to see how it plays out — what we want to do is give set bonuses. If you can get multiple sets of units on the battlefield together, they're going to enhance and kind of power up, they're going to give you a cool bonus if you have all those units working together in harmony.
The same thing will work, also, with your friends. If I bring two of these units and he brings two of these units, if we get them together in proximity, they're going to be able to do something kind of cool when they're attacking, because they're all working together. They'll be able to create some new super-weapon effect or some new super attack.
And based on your commander class, you might not have all of those units. Some of these situations might require a tank commander and an artillery commander to group up, and he has to bring two units and she has to bring two units — you bring 'em together and try it out, and then they need to work together in conjunction. We're still experimenting a lot with it, but I think it's a really cool concept.
Bitmob: You just touched on this already, but can you talk more about how these MMO class archetypes work together — how a tank commander is also a metaphorical tank?
ML: Yeah, in general terms, a tank commander is definitely like a tank in an MMORPG. Those units are going to go in — they're heavily armored…they're not going to issue as much damage, but they're going to hold a lot of aggro and create a lot of threat, and then they're going to be able to take a big amount of damage.
The strike units are kind of a blend, where they are very fast moving, they're going to be able to tear in and be able to do all kinds of demolitions and very destructive actions. They're not heavily armored, but they come in quick, they're hard-hitting, and then they zip out.
But then on the artillery commander's side of things, this is where you have the hardest-hitting units, this is kind of like a Hunter in World of Warcraft. You stand back, launch your artillery; you pick [ammo types], like — I want to use electromagnetic pulse ammo, or I want to use incendiary ammo, smoke ammo, or fire and smoke rounds for visibility. That is a glass cannon; they stay back and do a lot of damage, but you better keep them protected because if they pull aggro, everything's going to go after them, and you'll lose those units.
In general, that's how it works, and we definitely want to still continue to support more classes. The other thing is, we're going to have a customizable skill tree, or talent tree. So you'll still be able to enhance your stats and micromanage and do all that kind of fun number wizardry that the really expert MMO players do.
Bitmob: Did you play the last Command & Conquer? What were your impressions?
ML: Well, OK. I played C&C3, and I loved it. They kept a lot of my death screams in there — I was the original death screamer in Dune 2 and Command & Conquer. And at one point I was lead programmer on Command & Conquer 3. While we were at Westwood we were working on Command & Conquer 3 pre-production, and so I really wanted to see it turn out great.
With Command & Conquer 3, I thought the EALA team did an awesome job. To me it was like putting on a very comfortable pair of shoes, you know, I felt very back in the world, I loved the FMV. It felt very C&C to me. Plus Joe Kucan, Kane, he's a buddy of ours, he lives in town in Vegas, and a lot of the guys play poker with him. I even got some flack from our community — how can he like C&C? But it's fun!
Red Alert 3, I also really enjoyed. I thought it was campy, it was fun, it was over the top and silly, you know, that's what I loved about Red Alert. Maybe some people weren't as crazy about that.
I did not actually get into C&C4 — just because of a lot of the issues I was seeing and what people were saying. It was kind of heart wrenching; being a big Command & Conquer fan, it's tough to see it take a big hard hit like that. It's always been very near and dear to my heart, especially from our Westwood days and stuff. Seeing the community upset…you know, in some ways it's good for End of Nations, but I'm just going to leave my Command & Conquer memories with C&C3 and Red Alert 3.