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Interview with Louis Castle

Interview with Louis Castle, Vice President of Creative Development, Electronic Arts, by Kester*

These first questions are a transcription of a recorded interview conducted June 8th, 2006 at Microsoft Xbox Campus.

Kester: What does the Xbox 360 version of Battle for Middle Earth II offer to people who already have the PC version of the game?

Castle: There's a couple really good reasons why somebody who might already have the PC version of the product would go play it for the 360. First of all, the experience is different because you have a lot more intimate control of the camera and so and I'm not saying that if you've played the actual campaigns - they're the same campaigns - so it's the same stories the same missions and so you'll be very familiar with that, but if you want to go play like skirmish mode or something, it's different, being able to zoom right in and be inside the action like that, so that is an aspect of it, and people go yeah, yeah, yeah, but is that really worth the 50 bucks? Eh, maybe, maybe not.

BUT, what's really cool about the competitive side of the multiplayer is everybody has the same kind of kit. And so if you're at the top of the ladder, you're at the top of the ladder. So, just for bragging rights alone, to be able to go out there, play your multiplayer version and know that everybody is playing on an even footing is really, really cool. And we added four new multiplayer modes specifically because of that. So you can play capture and hold, which is my favorite - I'll come back to it - hero vs hero, which is really just a focused version of the versus mode where you're literally using just your heroes to battle it out. King of the Hill, which is obviously a central point of contention that you're trying to hold for the most amount of time and resource race.

What's neat about these modes is unlike a versus mode where your job is to obliterate the enemy, these are all more like things you'd find in the story campaign, where the objective is really more about personal style. Some people might rush and try to hold it first, other people might build a big army, take it and hold it for the majority of the time and still others might have different ways of going about doing it. Obviously resource race you could try to build the resources faster, or you could try to kill the other guy's resources, either one works. And that gets back to my whole point of Capture and Hold. Capture and Hold is loads of fun because I like playing capture and hold, but you got to get 10 or 15 people together to have a really good experience in first person shooters. Here you can have a great capture and hold experience with just two people. And it's loads of fun.

And voice over IP - I don't want to leave that one out. Because you have the native VOIP, although people can do that on the PC with other software, it requires everybody using the same software and a lot of coordination. Here you have everybody can just plug in a headset with their microphone and go at it. And that's just a real kick.

Kester: That sounds like it has quite a bit to offer for the PC player.

Castle: It does! Yeah, I mean, there's a lot. We really cared, we really took the time to try to say what are we going to do that makes it interesting and fun for an enthusiast to buy a second version of the same game.

Kester: Is there any sort of World Building aspect to the 360 version, or the opportunity to make new maps?

Castle: No, we don't have the actual WB software available for the 360 consumer, and there's a lot of reasons for that. But most of which are just the amount of effort it would take to redesign all those interfaces and everything to make all that work. And we don't want to confuse the offering. We really want this to feel like, if somebody's a LOTR fan, who may have never played a strategy game, can pick it up and play it and not feel a little overwhelmed. It's also why we adapted some of the game play modes. We changed the way the create a hero works, to unlock a hero, and some other things. But that's not to say that we won't be offering content. Because one of the nice things about Xbox Marketplace and Xbox Live is we that can do updates for balance and we can also send more content out there, either through pre-orders or promotions or things like that, or if we have enough information or enough stuff maybe even charge a small amount for download packs. It's envisioned by us that we have the capacity if there's a demand for it to make more content available. And then there's all sorts of ideas about how we might be able to let consumers build stuff and submit but that's all way down the road, probably not for this product.

Kester: How about the clan aspect? A lot of players play in clans with the PC version. Are you going to work with a 3rd party site like Clan Wars that has automatic reporting?

Castle: I'm familiar with that stuff, but it's not my core competency, honestly, so I don't want to misspeak. Clearly on the 360 right now we don't have that type of reporting support you would need to do that automatic reporting. But that's not to say we might not add that if we had a really big community desire for that. That's one of the nice things about being able to update it. But right now as it goes out the door it's going to be a traditional ladder based system. And in fact, we eliminated some of the things that confound the reporting on that, so when you play online you're always playing with human beings - you can't put bots in there. And that way people can't artificially increase or decrease the performance of their character so that they fall into different categories, so when you're playing online you're playing against real people on Live out there somewhere. That was a very intentional creative decision because we wanted that ladder to be as pure a representation of skill as possible.

The remaining questions are a written interview, after the Summit.

Kester: It's quite an accomplishment to transfer an RTS game from PC over to a game console. Has the depth of the PC game experience carried over into the 360 version?

Castle: Of course! That was one of our primary goals for adapting The Battle for Middle earth II for the Xbox 360. We wanted to be sure and offer Xbox 360 players the same depth and breadth of entertainment experience the PC gamer shave been enjoying for over a decade.

Kester: What is the strongest point of the 360 game?

Castle: For all modes I feel the ease of use for the controller based interface is the strongest point. For single player campaign modes the quality of the audio visual presentation figures in strongly. Having a single hardware base to create the game for makes a huge difference in the ability to offer the best audio and visual experience without having to concern ourselves with so many potential hardware configurations. For multiplayer it has to be Voice Over IP as a standard. Talking or hearing smack makes a huge difference in the multiplayer experience and makes games from across the world feel like a LAN party.

Kester: The interface for the 360 version must be radically different from the PC version. Can you give us some more information about the behind-the-scenes thought process of adapting the interface/controls for the controller?

Castle: Sure! First and foremost we approached the interface as inspired by first person shooters and the way most console players are used to manipulating a controller. That lead to the idea that a fixed reticule should be used to decide what the player is focusing on while the camera should be used to determine the scope of what a player is considering. These two concepts completely replace the cursor and drag box seen on the PC. To make that simple observation work we had to iterate many times on the interface and came to the conclusion that a single, context sensitive action button with a visual preview to ensure that the interface was both very easy to play and very powerful. It was always an imperative that we keep the depth of the experience as rich as the best of PC real time strategy games. A single action button allowed us to have many other buttons and controls to implement the advanced features.

Kester: Was any thought given to using a mouse/keyboard instead of the controller?

Castle: Of course! However, once we really starting thinking about the entertainment experience of sitting on your couch with a big screen and surround sound we quickly determined that an interface native to a wireless controller would have to be created. Making the decision to favor a custom interface over a hybrid was easy given the history of disappointing hybrid or remapped interfaces of the past.

Kester: Will PC gamers be able to play against 360 gamers?

Castle: Not for this product. We specifically wanted to keep the Xbox Live ladders "pure" in that every player was playing on the same hardware against other human players. In addition, the changes required to use the best possible interface for this adaptation required massive changes to the code that make play against PC players impossible.

Kester: If an xpac is released for the PC version, will a similar product become available for the 360 version?

Castle: We certainly have the option of doing so, but again, it is a considerable amount of effort given the differences "under the hood" in each game.

Kester: Is BFME2 just the beginning of RTS games for the 360 from EA? Can we look forward to more?

Castle: I certainly can't comment about unreleased games but I'm excited by the prospect of doing future RTS products for the Xbox 360.

Thank you to Louis Castle for the interviews!