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As someone who hasn’t really spent time on a Real Time Strategy game since the genre’s zeitgeist heyday over a decade ago, Petroglyph’s forthcoming Grey Goo certainly stood out as a rather interesting proposition at this year’s Gamescom where the majority of titles served more conventional tastes. Formed of RTS veterans that cut their teeth on heavyweight titles such as Command and Conquer and Warhammer: Dawn of War, Petroglyph are a new company whose upcoming offering certainly defied market expectations. And it was on the basis of this that I got to speak to Frank Klepacki (Audio Director, Composer and Sound Designer for Petroglyph) and ask him about the game as well as the genre’s fall from grace and what that meant to him. Enjoy the interview.

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Petroglyph is comprised of various veterans within the industry who have had considerable experience in real time strategy games.  For example, you’re comprised of ex-staff members from Westwood Studios, Relic, and Ensemble.  Every single one of those studios have had their own distinct, unique corporate cultures. How do you think all of those team members have been able to work together at Petroglyph?
Petroglyph has a great company culture in itself.  Everybody we work with, it’s very apparent right away that we all gel really well together and we work well as a team.  Everyone, even from their respected backgrounds and different studios, when they come to Petroglyph and we all start working together, it’s very much a great chemistry that happens right away.  We all are really supportive of each other and we’re all very great at communicating and making things happen in a way that’s cohesive.  With this game especially, Grey Goo, it’s been a process where everyone’s pretty much been on the same page and from the get go we’ve been able to get really far ahead with the development in a way that’s been conducive to the design and executing that design and the whole vision from the get go.  Especially working with our publisher, Greybox, on this one.  They’ve also been very supportive and very much involved in the creative process too, so all of us working together have really come up with a product that we can be proud of and rally behind.

Relic was at THQ and Westwood was at EA?
Yes.

Greybox, to the best of my knowledge, isn’t anywhere near the same sort of league as those publishers.  Why did you decide to seek Greybox’s publishing support as opposed to wanting to maybe seek out one of the bigger guys?
Well actually, Greybox is a new publisher that’s emerged and they actually looked out for us.  They came and spoke with us about the idea of doing this game with them.  They appreciated our pedigree with real time strategy.  They were big fans of the genre and wanted to do something new and different and we were right there with them, so they chose to work with us and it’s been a great relationship from the start.  It’s been a refreshing perspective too because of that fact that they were a new publisher.  They were very much open to the collaborative process and the creative vision and that’s what makes things exciting.  That’s what makes game-making so much fun and that’s why we love it. When you’ve got everybody thinking along those lines, then it’s just a great match.

Westwood studios was obviously closed by Electronic Arts because, I guess…
They wanted to consolidate at the time, so they had a few studios that they wanted to move to the L.A. area and Westwood was one of them.  At the time we had just started working on Command and Conquer 3 and we had done the first prototyping of that and that’s when they decided they were going to move and close Westwood.  So you know, from that point on the founders of Petroglyph decided “We’d rather stay in Las Vegas and continue to work there and do something different”, so they formed Petroglyph and we continued on from there.  It’s been great because we’ve been able to keep a good number of the ex-Westwood staff.  We’re familiar with working together for so many years before that, so having that pedigree and history together just helped us to propel forward and make new games.

You’re from Westwood studios yourself, aren’t you?
Indeed, yes. I was there for 12 years.

One of that games that Westwood studios made, the “new games”, was a game called Blade Runner?
Blade Runner, yes.

Which was, in terms of Westwood’s pedigree, divergent from the norm…
Right.

It was something that Westwood didn’t really have much experience in, but which was still really, really good…
The great thing about Westwood was that, yeah we did different types of games.  It wasn’t just real time strategy event though we had a good hold on that.  We did adventure games, we did first person shooter, we did all kinds of different things and it was all in the name of doing different fun experiences.  We loved all of the different genres.  We wanted to contribute to those genres and we had many different talented people that were passionate about executing that, so we loved working on those products.  I remember working on Blade Runner myself.  I remember having to deconstruct the Vangelis main themes from the movie and recreate them because we had the rights to the music, but not the recordings.  It was like a weird mechanical licenses thing we had to deal with, so that was a challenge in itself, but really, really fun.  Seeing that project come together was fantastic. It just so happens that Petroglyph has a really strong engine for the real time strategy genre and we’ve been able to use that and build on it and improve it constantly and have that tech continue forward with new features and improvements that we make. The goo (from Grey Goo) is a prime example of that.  The way that it operates in the game, it’s a new thing that we’ve been able to achieve that we’re really proud of.

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Apart from the success of

[Blizzard’s] Starcraft 2, which has done phenomenally well mainly in Eastern markets, why did you decide to focus on making Grey Goo a strategy game in a market that doesn’t necessarily cater to strategy games anymore?  Like, the genre itself isn’t necessarily en vogue.  It’s not, you know, in fashion.  So, what difficulties did you have in wanting to make a strategy game that caters to a market that ultimately, apart from Starcraft 2, [doesn’t] necessarily care about strategy games?
Well, I think it just depends on how you look at that because ultimately a lot of people try to  reinvent the wheel a little bit too much and what we discovered was that the fan base of the genre wanted to have that good old fashioned RTS that they remember.  [The one] that got them interested in it and excited about it to begin with.  So once we got word of that feedback, that was part of the whole reason we wanted to do this game because we wanted to cater to that fan base and bring that again.  We felt that we had something strong enough to do that with and we could give them the best of all of the worlds that they love, you know, having the different faction uniqueness that represents the style of game play that the RTS players love.  You know, the turtling faction and the map spread out factions and the uniqueness of the goo.  All of that together presented to old fashioned core RTS elements that people expect and love and also we were able to give them something new on top of that.  Because of that, I think that’s why we have a really strong chance to make that something that will be standing out to people and reinvigorating the genre rather than worrying about whether or not it’s in fashion.  To be honest, there’s a lot of repetition in genres in particular. Like first person shooters for example, there are so many of those out there. So many clones of different types of games that ultimately the mechanics are going to be the same.  There’s not that much that you can really add to it or change about it other than to create your own stamp or your own interpretation, so what we’ve tried to do with this game is create yet a new interpretation of it that still covers the bases of what people love and give them something new to be excited about.

The Command and Conquer series [by Westwood] only had two factions.  The Dawn of War series [by Relic] as well…
Yes.

That also, to the best of my knowledge, only had two factions – the orcs and humans.  I can’t remember the other ones.  What made you think that you were equipped to deal with making three factions for Grey Goo?
We have actually done that in the past before.  We worked on Emperor: Battle for Dune for example and that had three factions. Even the very first real time strategy game ever made, which we made, which was Dune 2 and that also had three factions. You know, we had House of Atreides, House Harkonnen, and House Ordos, so you could say that from the very beginning we already had experience with balancing three factions.  Even though we’ve done other games that have focused primarily on 2 (factions) like Command and Conquer with GDI versus not. It’s something that we knew that we could always do, so like I said, we did it again for Emperor, and we’ve done it now with Grey Goo. We even did it with Star Wars: Empire at War.  When we did the expansion for Forces of Corruption, we added a third faction and it played it completely different from the Rebels of the Empire. It was a criminal faction and you could take over planets using criminal influence in a way that was different from just doing a traditional battle for control. We were using the corruption mechanic.  We’ve got plenty of experience dealing with three factions, so the big question for us was “How do we do it now in a way with a new original IP that will be worth doing it? In a way that’s going to entice people?” and that was the challenge and we rose to that challenge.

In a sequel driven market though, where ultimately the only way you get noticed is by working on an established IP, what were the challenges in releasing a an original IP like Grey Goo? As opposed to maybe using the same mechanics in the context of an established IP or even licensing the game play dynamics such as what you did with Dune 2 or to use a different type of game entirely – Blade Runner?
Well…can you narrow down that question a little bit?  Seemed like at the end I was trying to figure out what the exact question is.

Why not just remodel the game play mechanics by deciding what’s commercially viable by seeking out an established brand name based on the pedigree of Westwood Studios?
I got you.  So, you know, we’ve tried things a few different ways like the traditional sense of RTS is you have different types of units, the rock, paper, scissors sort of thing and then you try to make something about the faction that is unique to that faction.  We really wanted it to be an old school RTS and have that feeling and bring people back to that feeling again because obviously the genre took off because of that in the first place. We wanted to come back to that rather than try to draw mechanics of other games or other things that we’ve done even in the recent times.  If you take Star Wars: Empire at War for example, we had a lot of abilities within the units that were focused, so there’s a lot of management that comes with that.  We wanted to get away from the micromanagement aspect of these games and focus more on the macro end and make it about “which unit does what and what’s good against what and what structures I need to build to make these things happen and then let’s take it from there.  Let me enact my strategy, let me build my base the way I want and have a really great head-to-head RTS battle”.  That’s what we wanted to recapture.  So, we did that and then we added the goo which plays completely differently from all of that as a means of having something to rally behind that is ours and is unique to this game.

So, in other words, by just even having a faction like the goo it would have made it quite impossible almost for you to seek out an appropriate license and somehow maybe even re-skin those units into something that had similar attributes.
Exactly because you know, the challenge of doing the goo was nothings been done like it before, so we couldn’t rely on any other sort of influence on that necessarily other than some things that we experimented with in the past.  Getting back to the 3 faction thing again, we did Universe at War for Sega, which was an original science fiction IP and again had three unique factions that played differently, tech trees that you could upgrade and backtrack differently, so we did have some complexity to that and we wanted to simplify that aspect as well.

We have tech upgrades in this game where you can make choices that cater to specific units and structural upgrades that you can make and that are noticeable in the game and not just statistical and then also be able to back track those.  But it’s a simpler layout.  We have five different tech upgrade sets and you choose one from each.  You can choose later on in your battle if you want to readjust that choice and change it to something.  We had that and that was a little bit more complex in Universe at War. We simplified that for this game because that was something that people did respond to that was positive in Universal War.  They liked the idea that you weren’t screwed from the get go if your build order wasn’t great.  You could actually back track and adjust your strategy to what the enemy was bringing to you, so we simplified that for this game so that you could have some of those options, but it’s not going to be overwhelming.  It’s very easy to understand.  All of the hot keys are there for you to see in front of you.  All of the units have descriptions that are very easy to read and understand.  Even a new RTS player can get into this game and get it pretty quickly.

When is Grey Goo out?
It’s going to be released early 2015.  That’s the current target right now.  It’s going to be released on Steam and it also has LAN play, so you don’t necessarily have to be on the internet.  You can have a LAN party and connect up and play against your friends and have a good time.  That’s another kind of old school element that we’ve brought into it again and yeah…  We’re looking forward to it.

After Grey Goo is released though, do you think Petroglyph might consider wanting to take on licenses?  You obviously do have experience in taking…
Licensed IP’s?

Yeah.  You obviously have experience in dealing with three factions, but what about something like say Aliens vs. Predator?
]Laughs] Hey, you know, we’re very open to those ideas.  If it can be done in a fun way, in a convincing way that we feel we can bring our strengths to then it’s something we’d be open to in the future.  If the right opportunity presents itself.

The three factions, now obviously you have different skill trees which bring into light different strategic modes of playing. How are you able to ensure that, at all times, that those tech choices – even though they affect the combat and affect the battle – that they remain balanced?
So balance is something we put a lot of time into in this game because that was very important to us.  When you have three factions, you don’t have a choice.  You have to make sure it’s balanced.  You have to give everybody a fair shot in terms of what they’re going to do for their strategy, so the designers work relentlessly on that.  We do have a really well balanced game, I mean in the end, even though all of the factions have their own strengths, they all do have the same amount of choices in the tech upgrades that are all catered to what those units do and how that faction plays.  So we made sure that each thing has a counter and that the strategy is definitely very well represented there.  Like I said, it’s gone over with a fine tooth comb and we’re very proud of the result.  We feel that every battle that we’ve tested and had and our production assistants and QA people have had, everybody has been contributing to that feedback.  We’ve been having some closed testing to also help ensure that we have feedback from players that are doing things that we haven’t thought of.  It’s really, really getting fine-tuned.

John Romero from ID is regarded somewhat as the Godfather of the first person shooter.  He recently announced that he’s working on a new shooter and that announcement made headlines.  Bearing in mind that Westwood Studios was the archetypical forefather of the strategic real time strategy genre, and I know that stratgey games aren’t that much in fashion anymore as the first person shooter genre, but given Petroglyph’s illustrious pedigree, why do you think Grey Goo hasn’t made as many sweeping headlines as say what John Romero has been able to do?
Well, again I would answer that in a way that is catered to those genres.

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Does that not make you feel sad that…
Well not at all.  We’ve only started showing Grey Goo off this year.  It was announced around GDC and then it’s been show at E3, it’s been shown at Pax and then we’ve shown it here at Gamescom.  This is the first time we’ve come to Europe with it, so we’re introducing it to these audiences so that they can see what it’s about for themselves in person and get that up close and personal connection and understand what we’re trying to do.  So it’s not so much about making the headlines as much as just making people aware of it.  You know, we’re on an awareness campaign with it.  Some of the magazines have been writing about it.  They have been understanding what we’re doing and we’ve seen some really positive feedback as a result.  So, you know, it’s a thing where people who are into first person shooters for example in general are not necessarily trying to pay attention to the RTS genre unless they’re looking for something new.

But how does that make you feel knowing fully well that at one point or another, Command and Conquer was pretty much one of the biggest franchises out there. That everybody and their grandma wanted to make a real time strategy game, almost like how the MMORPG genre was a couple of years ago.  How does it make you feel knowing that real time strategy games were the rock stars of the gaming genres about 10-15 years ago and now they’ve fallen out of favor, enough to the extent where most people don’t care about them anymore?  How does that make you feel?
I would disagree that most people don’t care about them.  I think there is still an audience for it.  It’s very clear that there is an audience for it because we still get emails and responses all the time asking “Why don’t you guys do another game like this, or a game like that?” you know…  It comes back to my point that I made earlier that people have been wanting an experience that reminds them of what made it great in the beginning and I think that kind of partly answers your question.  That’s why it kind of got lost for a while.  I think that’s why it hasn’t been as much in the forefront because, you know, the genre kind of took some turns and got lost for a bit.  People were trying to reinvent it and the people that wanted the old fashioned experiences weren’t getting that so they were looking elsewhere.  That’s part of what we’re trying to accomplish, you know.  I think that in the end, that’s really where this is going with Grey Goo.  We’re trying to do a few different things at once.  We’re doing a new IP, we’re doing something that gives the old school fans what they want, gives them something new, and reinvigorates the genre hopefully to get people interested in it again.

Apart from Starcraft 2, which is probably one of the only real time strategy games that I can think of that’s on the market… Starcraft 2 takes more of a multi-player focus [and] a lot of people argue that the campaign has just been tacked on, whereas games like Command and Conquer and Dawn of War primarily concentrated on the single player campaign element. In my personal experience anyway…
It was an important part of it, for sure.

What sort of player do you think Grey Goo would be catering to?  Do you think it would be catering more towards multi-player, or do you think it would be [for] somebody who would be more concerned with the campaign single player experience?
Well we wanted to cater to both, so we do have a full campaign in the game for single player.  I think if anything, I think more comparisons will be drawn to Command and Conquer in that way because we have full motion cut scenes.  We have a story that bridges everything together and you know, it’s a compelling story.  I think that because of these factions being alien and sci-fi and so bizarre, we had to find a compelling way to bridge that together.  Why did we make these choices?  Why did we make these choices?  Why do we have these factions?  So we have a story that explains that.  We have great full motion cut scenes that show off the story as you go through the campaign. With the multi-player again, with so much focus that’s been put into the balance and the design, the multi-player is going to be equally important, so I think we’ve contributed our resources to ensuring that both are going to be a good experience for people.  Me personally, I can speak to that fact that I love single player campaigns. Like, I’m not the type of guy that wants to necessarily be playing multi-player all the time.  I’m not as good as some of those people out there, so I’ll get my butt kicked half the time [laughs], so for that reason I like to get pulled into a story and appreciate the art of it and the experience of it.  In the end, we’ve paid attention to both and we want people to enjoy both.

The Command and Conquer series… the series itself in terms of cut scenes was renowned for using real life actors and as the games got more and more “bloated” or had higher production values associated with them, you got bigger and bigger stars associated with the cut scene movies.  [For] Grey Goo, are you working with any big name actors to deliver the cut scenes and the storyline?
Not necessarily in particular.  We just spend a lot of time because everything is CG, but we did a lot of motion capture, we did a lot of facial capture, so the actors that we did choose, all of that went into the creation of the movie part of it and so it feels really good.  I mean to watch it, it’s got high production values in that scene.  We focused more on the characterization rather than the name factor of it.

You’ve obviously stated as to how you prefer the campaign in a lot of games which basically puts more of a focus on AI.  I know that you stated that the A.I. is dynamic and responsive, but is it a learning computer?  I mean, can you just basically turn it into Skynet [from the ‘Terminator’ franchise) where basically it learns and learns and learns, and eventually it just gets to the point where you end up having like a… I mean is that like a mode in the game?
No, no. So it doesn’t necessarily learn as much as it just pays attention to what it sees, so it has to act like a player would and it has to scout out what you’re doing.  It has to send a scout to see your base in order to respond it.  It has to see what units you’ve made to come attack it with in order to respond to it.  So it takes that into consideration and then reacts, rather than learning and trying to come up with its own strategy based on what it’s seen you do in the past.  It does it on a per game basis, so it literally starts from scratch every time and says “What is this player doing? How am I going to react to it?”  It doesn’t cheat and see what you’re doing on the fly.  It actually has to physically send its units to look at your base in a fog of war scenario and figure that out for itself on the fly.

But can you not like somehow program the “ultimate general” and even though [it has] to scour areas, you know like, turn that commanding A.I. into the equivalent of Genghis Khan? [Laughs] Well I mean, you know, if you let the A.I. get out of hand, it will overwhelm you.  You can’t take too long to make your choices, but it is a really responsive A.I.  We’re proud of it and it’s a different aspect because in the previous games, a lot of times you have scripted build orders and you have ways to exploit that, you know, the players can adapt to that.  With the A.I. doing what we have it doing in Grey Goo, it makes it more like playing another physical player rather than just an A.I. because it’s reacting to that game specifically on a per game basis.

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Some of the best Starcraft players out there… I mean some of them are really, really fine. Do you think you’ll ever try to maybe get some of the best Grey Goo players in the future and then maybe model your A.I. based on their behavior and maybe see if you can get some sort of, I don’t know, like a “Ghost A.I.” going up against the player? 
Well, I mean I can’t speak to that specifically for the future reference of that, but I can speak to the fact that we are aware of the kind of E-sport type of thing that is popular, so once we get this game out there we’re going to be looking to try to address some of that and see where it can go for future support.  That’s about probably all I can really speak to for right now.  Right now we’re just trying to focus on finishing this game, making sure it’s polished, and getting it out there.

Thank you. 

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