We’ve a real treat for you this week. How’s about another Westwood Studios legend (in addition to Frank Klepacki)? Joe Bostic created (along with Brett Sperry) the masterpiece that is Command & Conquer along with working on some of the company’s best other games such as Dune 2 and Dragon Strike (D&D). Adrian picked Joe’s brain for a truly fascinating insight…
How did you first get the opportunity to enter the video game industry?
I heard of Westwood Studios from a friend and applied. Unfortunately, my application letter fell behind a desk at Westwood. I was about to enter the aerospace industry (which has a significant presence in Las Vegas due to proximity to Area 51 and the Nevada Nuclear Test Site), when I finally heard back from Westwood. They discovered my application after moving a desk and immediately offered me a job. Of course I accepted. The only thing cooler than rocket science is game development.
Can you remember the first ever game you worked on and how do you reflect back on that particular title?
The first game I worked on was before Westwood and was an artillery game using the scripting language of a data entry terminal. I wrote it just for fun and I was the only customer. This was while I was working as a payroll data processing technician and wrote games on the terminal to pass the long night hours while waiting for printouts to complete. This was back in the days of tape reels and wall-sized computers. The first game I worked on at Westwood was to create the gambling sub-game (games with a game, so to speak) for the title Circuit’s Edge. After that, I worked on Dragon Strike for the Amiga computer and then on to Dune 2.
You mentioned it there, Dune 2 was one of my favourite games growing up and my first taste of the RTS genre. What was your exact role on this game and how do it now feel that you helped shape the direction of a whole new genre?
I was lead programmer and gameplay designer for Dune 2. Others created the story elements. The gameplay of Dune 2 was a collaboration between Brett Sperry and myself. There wasn’t an exact vision of the final product when we first started. We came up with ideas as the development progressed. For example, we knew from the start that the game had to play in real-time, unlike other military games of the day which were turn-based, but the idea of harvesting to gain credits to purchase more units was thought of in the middle of development.
The first Dune game was very different from yours and made by a whole different development team. Is it true that there was quite a lot of rivalry between the two game developers and did this friction cause any issues with the development and marketing of the game?
There was no rivalry at all (at least from Westwood’s end) with the Dune game by Cryo. In fact, up until the very end of development we were only told that a game of some type was already under construction using the Dune license – hence the need to add “2” to our Dune title. When we finally got to look at Dune (by Cryo) when it was near completion, we were quite impressed. The focus between the two games is entirely different and it wasn’t percieved as a competitor for the same audience.
Are you a fan of the Dune film and novel and can you describe the atmosphere while working on this classic title?
I’m a fan of the novels and enjoyed the movie, but Dune 2 is a military combat game which was decidedly not the focus of the novels or movie. In order to fit the game into the Dune universe, we broke from the existing narrative and set the game in the “past”. This allowed us to keep the Dune universe such as the planet Arrakis (Dune) and the Houses vying for control while bypassing the confines of the story. Because of this, we had to dig into more of the auxiliary Dune literature such as the Dune Encyclopedia.
After Dune 2 were you ever tempted to carry on with series of games and what inspired you and your team to choose a different pathway?
We wanted to build upon the RTS roots of Dune 2, but the Dune license posed a problem. We only had limited access to the license – it was derived from the movie license and had time limit for exploitation in addition to the usual financial burdens with using a license. These reasons led us to pursue a different path and thus we created the Command & Conquer series.
Did you personally come up with the idea of Command & Conquer and can you briefly describe how this idea and concept was turned into one of the most important and successful games of all time?
After Dune 2, I came up with the idea of using this new RTS gameplay but set in a fantasy world. It would have three factions – the humans (medieval style fantasy knights), the wizards (magic users), and beasts (fantastical monsters). At the time, the first gulf war was taking place and Brett Sperry thought that using a modern military theme would make the game more relatable to the public. Thus the fantasy idea was dropped and the result was the modern military theme of Command & Conquer.
I really enjoyed the whole look and feel of the universe you and your team created for Command & Conquer. What was your main inspirations and objectives when you first started work on this masterpiece?
The core idea behind the RTS genre was to recreate the imaginary combat I had in my head while playing with toy soldiers in a sandbox as a child. I imagined what it would be like if the soldiers and tanks were not just inert pieces of plastic, but actually were fighting. This is the root of the RTS genre that guided me.
Kane is easily one of video games’ best ever villains and is played brilliantly by Joseph Kucan! How did this role come about and was it clear from day one the role would go to Joseph?
We wanted to do videos between missions, but we had no experience with movies or television. We had to teach ourselves or look around for local expertise. However, we did hire a Las Vegas local, Joe Kucan, as he had community theater experience and would serve as the director for the talent during video shoots. It turned out that he was a good fit as the villain and the rest is history. The other cast members were local talent and even other Westwood employees. It was all very wild west back in those days.
You had a major role on the subsequent sequels (including the amazing Red Alert). How did you aim to strike a balance between introducing new ideas and gameplay elements and not steering away from the game’s original roots?
Red Alert was originally planned as just an expansion pack to Command & Conquer. We were free to came up with new crazy new ideas for units and added them in if they felt like fun. Pretty soon, there were so many new things added to the game that it was decided to package it as a new stand-alone game – Red Alert.
Out of all the Command & Conquer games you worked on do you have personal favourite title in the series and can you explain why?
My favorite is the original Command & Conquer, but they all have appeal in their own way. With the original Command & Conquer however, I had a great deal of control as lead programmer and designer and the genre was still new enough that it felt like we were pioneers. Later projects became larger and roles became more narrow. Essentially, the bigger projects got the smaller the role any person played.
Command & Conquer: Renegade moved away from your original RTS roots and took on the likes of Quake and Unreal as a FPS. Why was this decision taken and do you how do you personally reflect on this title?
I loved the multiplayer aspect of Renegade. It was definitely an experiment for Westwood. You might remember the game C&C: Sole Survivor. That too was an experiment of limited success. I think Renegade was quite a bit more entertaining and felt like a precursor to many team FPS games of today.
Westwood quickly gained a reputation of producing some of the best games in the world. How do you reflect back on your time on this iconic company and how did you ensure your games were always so consistent?
The magic to creating those games was probably due to small teams with great passion. In those days, the lead programmer had a big, and often primary, influence on the game’s design which led to a measure of consistency.
You worked at Westwood when EA took over the company. Did this takeover impact the company while you were working there and can you describe the atmosphere when the company sadly closed down in 2003?
When EA acquired Westwood, there was very little disruption. I credit Brett Sperry (co-owner of Westwood) for being a champion of keeping the corporate culture of EA separate from Westwood’s culture. This was key as it allowed us to continue to work as we always had. The Westwood of 2003 however, was very different. At that time, Westwood had eventually succumbed to the corporate “every game must be a big hit” mentality and that affected the size of the projects as well as the internal culture. This shift from passion to profit took its toll.
Can you explain how Petroglyph Games came about?
EA wanted to combine Westwood (Las Vegas), Westwood Pacific (Irvine), and DreamWorks (LA) into a mega studio at Playa Vista in Los Angeles. Many of the people at Westwood were not keen on moving to LA, so many of us decided to resign from EA to remain in Las Vegas and start a new company. Petroglyph was born.
What was the first game you worked on there?
The first game out of Petroglyph was Star Wars: Empire at War. It is still popular, has countless mods available, and is still selling on Steam.
Would you ever consider or even be able to launch a new Command & Conquer title and do you have any ideas on which direction the games could go in?
I think it would be a great opportunity to revisit the C&C franchise. It is not up to me however, as EA has that IP tightly controlled. It will be up to them to decide when and how the C&C IP reappears (uh-oh! Ed).
How would you reflect back on your amazing career and do you have words of advice to anyone looking to get into video game programming?
I’m not sure how relevant any advice I would give would be. When I entered the industry, it was a very different world than today. In one respect, the energy of those days persists. That is with indie studios that make games out of passion without much regard for P&L calculations. It can be risky and certainly hard work, but I see indie studios as the true innovators in the game industry.
What are you top three video games of all time and why?
In no particular order and excluding any game I helped develop, my top 3 games would be: Kerbal Space Program, Dungeon Keeper (and the derivative games) and Skyrim.