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Ed Del Castillo, Liquid Entertainment

As president and co-founder of Liquid Entertainment, Ed Del Castillo juggles his management responsibilities with active participation in all aspects of product development: especially design and art direction. Liquid's first release was the eagerly anticipated Battle Realms. Before co-founding Liquid, Ed Del Castillo was probably best known as producer in charge of Westwood Studios' Command & Conquer franchise, including Red Alert and its expansion packs, various ports to other platforms, and foreign language versions.

Del Castillo was asked to provide three pieces of advice to a new strategy game designer looking to be successful in this industry. He responds as follows:

  • Go to film school to learn how to tell a story, develop characters, light a scene, set a mood, and evoke an emotion.

  • Never stop reading, watching, and playing everything.

  • Consider another line of work if having a family is one of your goals!

According to Del Castillo, the most challenging obstacle when creating a real-time strategy (RTS) game is getting people to innovate:

The RTS genre has been in stagnation for so long with only micro-improvements that it's hard for people to create stuff that's truly better and not just different. Overcoming it is a matter of vision. You have to have a clear picture of what you're trying to achieve.

If Del Castillo could create Command & Conquer (C&C) all over again, would he do anything differently?

That's tough because C&C taught me so much. I think that I would change two things:
  • A less-limiting universe. C&C is very limited, which is why you see things like Red Alert and Emperor. They're both attempts to use the C&C model in other worlds.

  • More controlled presentations prior to ship. A few people, who shall be nameless, went on to great success due to their good memories and timely use of video cameras during our presentations prior to our release.

It had its place and time, and I'm having a hard time messing with that. The original C&C is my third favorite RTS after [Blizzard's] StarCraft and [Bungie Studios'] Myth.

Any pet peeves with today's strategy games?

Yes, too much iteration, not enough innovation. We need fewer people just trying to squeeze all they can out of an engine and more people crafting emotional experiences.

As a programmer, Del Castillo offers these words for others:

Think before you act. The days of the hacker are over. Think modular, flexible, expandable, well-organized, and well-documented code. Truly grasping these tenets will make you incredibly wanted by everyone.

On artificial intelligence (AI):

I think the biggest mistake you can make, and not just in AI, is to believe your own marketing. There's no such thing as a "learning" AI yet. Everything is still incrementing and decrementing weighting variables on algorithms based on specific and predefined data. AI is hard because most games aren't in the oven long enough to bake up a proper one. I think the best AIs are written for people who understand how little time they have and work to distill the decision-making tree of a human down to the essentials for that given game. I'm afraid that the only tip I have is to study the player. Most of his decisions can be simple to understand and emulate.

Del Castillo gives some examples of his past or present work that reinforce what he's suggesting here on innovation and on adding an emotional layer to a game:

  • Innovation. When we conceived this game, it came from our ideas. We all came together and designed an RTS with no restrictions, no legacy, no need to be in the same universe as a predecessor. We were unbound by the past, and that allowed us to more fully reach for an ideal. It's the way it should be done. Too many people are held back by what they've already created and the desire to get more money out of it in the form of an incrementally improved sequel.

  • Battle Realms (BR) endeavored to innovate in two major ways. The first is combat. First-generation RTSs did a great job of showing the potential of this genre, but inadvertently they were very production-oriented. Building was more important than fighting. In BR, terrain matters. Height makes a difference to combat effectiveness. Real line of sight makes reconnaissance, sneaking, and ambushing a real element in the game. The unit dynamics focus on the combat dynamic and "incentivize" spending more of your attention commanding the battles rather than landlording the village.

  • The second major thing is to create more of a living world. There are a number of prongs to this, but it basically revolves around distilling more elements of reality and turning them into fun elements for the game. We incorporated a Living Resource System, which allows the player much more freedom. Horses are gathered and harnessed as pack animals or war steeds; water is used to put out fires, grow rice, and quench the thirst of peasants. We've tried to connect everything in some way, like the real world.

  • Inspiration. It's about what I love, not what makes money this week. The inspiration comes from my childhood. Way too much D&D and the like mixed with way too many Kung Fu movies. I've been a game master for paper RPGs since I was 14, so the world-creation part is definitely something I love.

  • Living world and the Living Resource System. This affects things in three ways:

  • It makes things easier to understand. It feels right when the men run at each other, when the fire burns down a building or catchs another building on fire or is put out by your peasants. Players of RTSs have learned a "vocabulary" of what they can and can't do and what things mean. We're allowing them to do more, and that means changing how things work a bit.

  • It connects everything. Water, as an example, can be used for many things—put out fires, domesticate horses, quench the thirst of peasants toiling to build a building or soldiers training, even make the rice grow faster. Connecting things in this way not only feels more "natural" or "right," but also allows the player to easily shift his strategy and adapt to the enemy.

  • It brings the world to life. We have units with more animations than ever before. Combats look alive as the units do different types of attacks. Birds fly from the trees when men move through the forest. Vultures gather on the battlefield. Soldiers juggle or clean their weapons when left alone too long, and it affects their abilities!

  • Removal of artificial genre boundaries with the introduction of what other people would call "RPG elements," but what I call "character-investment elements." Genres are a thing of the past. Bringing in some of the growth and motivations from RPGs is very natural and allows for new cool possibilities in the game, to feel natural, and leave you asking, "Why couldn't I do this before?" It's all part of bringing the battlefield more to life. Allowing you to customize the characters is the first step to giving them individual characters and allowing you to fall in love with them. If you fall in love with them, you won't want them to die—thus creating the battlefield drama.

Ed Del Castillo offers some helpful advice on breaking into the industry in Chapter 21.

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