Ex-Westwood Devs Reminisce About Making Original ‘Command & Conquer’

Released in 1995, “Command & Conquer” helped define the strategy game for an entire generation of gamers. Westwood Studios, the developer behind the game, had dabbled in real-time strategy before with “Dune 2,” but it was “C&C” that really put the genre on the map, and most contemporary real-time stratey titles–like Blizzard’s “Warcraft”–paled in comparison to “C&C’s” critical and commercial success.

At this year’s GDC, several members of “Command & Conquer’s” original creative team assembled to reminisce about the game’s development, its reception, and that legendary installation sequence. The panel, titled “Classic Game Postmortem: Command & Conquer,” brought together Westwood co-founder Louis Castle, composer Frank Klepacki, lead designer Erik Yeo, and technical director Steve Wetherill. The four were also joined by host more via pre-recorded video logs.

Klepacki opened the talk by surprising the crowd with an enthusiastic live guitar performance of one of C&C’s many rock-inspired tracks. “I knew that was gonna be really hard to follow,” Castle said of Klepacki’s performance, “but at 10 o’clock in the morning…we gotta wake everybody up a little.”

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“Like most great games, “Command and Conquer” was really not made by any one person,” he said Once the talk got properly underway. “So many people put their heart and soul into this product. It’s when all that stuff comes together that it really works.”

For executive producer Brett Sperry, “Command & Conquer” is a product of an overactive imagination. “[It] really came about as a result of years and years of me thinking about what kind of game I wanted to do next,” he said via pre-recorded video. But just as important is a bet he made with another game designer. “He said ‘nobody wants to play strategy games,’ and I said ‘well, nobody wants to play your strategy games.’” That sort of friendly rivalry, he said, helped light a fire underneath him.

Next, Klepacki described the origins of the game’s rock- and synth-heavy soundtrack. Klepacki, who was 20 at the time, said that digital audio was undergoing a transition from pure MIDI sound to streaming audio. “Command & Conquer” was one of the first games to utilize full streaming audio, which allowed for more complex music. “I was using synthesizers and live guitar for the first time in a soundtrack,” he said.

As a result, the “C&C” soundtrack is something of a mishmash of instruments and styles. When describing the kickoff meeting for the sound design, Klepacki said it was mostly a group of people listening to a stack of CDs that covered a wide range of genres and styles.

“We shared different music influences that we thought would be fun to include in the game,” he said. “The only problem with that was it was all over the board. It was everything from movie soundtracks to orchestral stuff, heavy metal, techno music, hip hop…The takeaway from the meeting was we figured out we like elements from all these different things. Why not try to put them together?”

For technical director Steve Wetherill, the multiplayer element of “Command & Conquer” is the most special. Even in its most basic form, he said, multiplayer games were highlights around the Westwood headquarters, with members of the dev team communicating via the office’s intercom system.

“In the first multiplayer build,” he said, “the only thing you could build were rocket soldiers. And so, four guys would jump in and you’d all build your hoard of rocket guys, send them over to the other guy’s hoard of rocket guys. It was very primitive, but it was the baseline for the tech.” Over time, new elements were added, such as new units, buildings, a tech tree, and more until a full experience was available on both sides.

One of the things “C&C” is known for is the high production value of the installation client. Popping the disc into your computer for the first time prompted a highly produced and thematic video sequence. Traditionally, installer clients are dull, utilitarian affairs, but not here. For Maria del Mar McCready Legg, who created the sequence, this is the most memorable thing about developing the game. She described a moment when a PC games magazine honored “C&C” with a fake award for “best installation.”

“That just made me feel so good,” she said, “because somebody appreciated all the work that went into that.”

There’s no talking about “Command & Conquer” without discussing the infamous live-action video sequences. Mission briefings were live-acted by members of local community theatre, according to casting director Joe Kucan, who also played the villain Kane in the game.

“In putting together the video sequences, what I recall is that it was relatively piecemeal,” he said in a video. “It feels now like we made a lot of it up as we went along.”

One common thread throughout the entire panel was the idea of collaboration. Many of the speakers, both in-person and pre-recorded, recalled that “Command & Conquer” was a group effort first and foremost.

“For me, it was one most collaborative games I had ever worked on,” Erik Yeo said as the panel was wrapping up. “The tech team was really approachable, so you could walk into [director] Joe [Bostic’s] office and ask for something…and you’d get it real quick and it would be like 90 percent right.”

The panel served as a sort of celebration of the game that popularized the real-time strategy genre, and Klepacki ended things appropriately: with another guitar performance.

Gamers who missed out on “Command & Conquer’s” original release 24 years ago, there’s a remaster on the way from Petroglyph Games, a studio founded by Westwood veterans–including original co-founder Joe Bostic–in 2003. No release date has been given just yet.

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