When EA announced a new Command & Conquer game exclusive to mobile devices, the reaction wasn't great.
1v1 competitive multiplayer title Command & Conquer Rivals was revealed via a live match between two real-time strategy experts, who played on-stage to commentary from a shoutcaster. It's safe to say this reveal - indeed the very existence of the game - hasn't gone down well.
Social media has already had its say - accusing EA of using the Command & Conquer name as part of a cynical cash grab as it seeks a piece of the mobile money pie so far dominated by Clash of Clans and Clash Royale. Command & Conquer fans are also slamming the game on YouTube, where official trailers have been hit by tens of thousands of downvotes.
The message is loud and clear: we don't want a new Command & Conquer game on mobile, home to exploitative mechanics and depressing in-app purchases. We want a new Command & Conquer game on PC, a traditional RTS that drags the series kicking and screaming back into its former glory.
The developers of the game are, of course, not immune to this feedback. In fact, the developers are well aware of it.
Command & Conquer Rivals is developed by Redwood Studios, a relatively new outfit that began life a couple of years ago in EA's headquarters in Redwood City.
"For us, at its core an RTS is all about building an army, controlling an army and then dominating an enemy with that army," Redwood Studios general manager Michael Martinez told Eurogamer at EA Play 2018.
"That's the essence of what we were trying to deliver. And we wanted to tackle it on mobile, because there's really no great real-time strategy game on mobile. That was our goal, to try and deliver that experience, that fantasy of commanding an army to victory and put it in your hands on a mobile device. It was a pretty big challenge, but that's what we were excited to do."
Martinez may be excited to take on the challenge of building an RTS on mobile, but he and EA face an uphill struggle winning an already sceptical audience around. Speaking to Eurogamer just a handful of hours after Rivals' reveal during EA's media briefing, Martinez acknowledged the reaction had had an impact.
"Some of what we're seeing today, obviously you don't want to read those things," he said. "That's not nice. But that's why we're so excited about the pre-alpha. The game's out there. We want people to play it. Please give the game a try and seriously, let us know what you think."
Command & Conquer Rivals is already playable in pre-alpha form on Android devices in North America (it's not out in Europe yet). Martinez's message to sceptical fans is to try the game out before casting judgement, to consider its gameplay before casting it aside.
"Please please just give the game a try," he told Eurogamer. "Anything we say, it really doesn't matter. If we could be judged by gameplay, that would be very lucky and fortunate. Just give it a fair shake."
Part of the frustration expressed by Command & Conquer fans has to do with the lack of a new, modern traditional PC RTS C&C game. The last mainline Command & Conquer game was 2012's Command & Conquer: Tiberium Alliances, a free-to-play online-only browser game. Command & Conquer (previously known as Command & Conquer: Generals 2) was a traditional RTS game that was cancelled in 2013 after negative feedback suffered during a closed alpha stage. EA went on to shut down the developer, Victory Games.
So, Command & Conquer fans haven't had a new game to get behind in recent years, which made the announcement of Rivals - a free-to-play mobile title - all the more frustrating.
"That's the challenge and I appreciate the fans think that," Martinez told Eurogamer. "But for our team, it was not a binary thing. We're here to talk about Rivals and that's the game we made."
To help meet that challenge, Redwood Studios hired Greg Black as Rivals' combat designer in November 2017. Black has a long history with the Command & Conquer series, working on everything from Red Alert 2 expansion Yuri's Revenge to Red Alert 3 before leaving EA to work on StarCraft 2 at Blizzard
"When I heard these guys were making a mobile Command & Conquer game I was like, that's not going to be very good," Black told Eurogamer.
"But I wanted to go look at it to see what they were up to, and it was amazing. Literally in my first interview we sat down to play the game and within a couple of seconds I was like, they figured this out. This is amazing. It was just super fun to play and really felt like a genuine RTS experience. And I've been in love with it ever since."
Here's how Rivals works: it's an RTS in the sense that the action happens in real-time, but it plays out on a static map (you can't move the camera). There are three control points, two bases (one for each player) and Tiberium to harvest. By tapping on the screen you can spend resources to produce units, which you can then move about a hex grid by tapping again. The idea is to power up a missile silo by controlling territory, then firing off a missile to destroy the enemy base.
"We're giving you that depth without complexity," Martinez said, "in a really nice way, so that it has all that stuff in RTS. But RTS games are pretty daunting to play. This is a nice middle ground."
"In my opinion, this game, the ratio of accessibility with depth is off the charts," Black added. "I have a hard time thinking of another strategy game I've played where I was able to get into it so immediately, but now months later, having played hundreds of thousands of games, I'm still optimising and finding new ways to play it, still learning things about it.
"That's always been the bane of RTS games - they're just a super hard thing to get into. And this really isn't. It's really intuitive."
Both Martinez and Black stressed that Command & Conquer Rivals has many of the elements that make up a traditional RTS. In our interview, Black talked about efficient unit trades and manipulating the Rock-Paper-Scissors system built into the game. High level play, he said, can involve coordinated pushes onto two control points in order to "snipe" the missile from an opponent at the last second. There are "micro tricks" for preventing units from moving onto missile platforms and bumping them out of their locations.
There's even build strategies. Black said you might want to go for a straight air rush at the beginning of the game by building a helipad early, or go for a safer barracks / infantry play. You can make tech transitions, saving up resources for higher tier buildings such as the tech lab in order to get access to bigger, more powerful units.
There's harvester strategy, too. You can build none if you fancy a really aggressive strategy, but you'll need to hunt your opponent's harvesters in order to win the game quickly. Or, you could go for a greedy build and make two harvesters early on. You'll be down on units relative to your opponent, but if you can hold them off long enough you can pump out mammoth tanks to win the late game.
Rivals, then, sounds like it has all of the strategy you'd expect from a traditional Command & Conquer game, but it's mirrored, presented in an accessible format and designed to be digested in bite-sized chunks.
Perception, of course, is key, and right now the perception of Rivals' isn't great. Part of that is a distrust of mobile game monetisation (just look at what Warner Bros. recently did with the Harry Potter mobile game). As a free-to-download title, Rivals makes its money from in-app purchases (monetisation is not in the pre-alpha build available to play on Android now), but Martinez said players won't have to pay to play.
"There's nothing in the game that is locked behind a paywall," Martinez promised. "All of the content you will be able to get. Every player, without paying, will be able to get and earn all of that content. You progress and earn it over time. If we were to give you all of the content right away, that would actually be overwhelming. When you play the game right now there's a tutorial that ramps you onto it."
What you can pay for, however, is to accelerate your progression. Specifically, you can pay to unlock units faster and then level them up faster than you would otherwise.
"Our commitment and what we want to do for this game, it's all about fun, fair and competitive matchmaking and fun, fair and competitive matches," Martinez says.
"That's when we know the game is at its best, when the competition is all about skill and strategy. That's how we have fun playing this game as a dev team, and that's what we want our players to experience.
"That's why we're doing this early access, to get that right. We won't have monetisation on during this early access period. We just want to see players playing the game and be able to focus on the matchmaking and combat balance as well.
"There's nothing that gates your ability to play the game. We do have convoys that send off and bring you back rewards, but you can still battle. That's just the amount of rewards you get, so they're not uncapped. There's a certain progression to it.
"But you could play this game forever, right now. There's nothing that says, stop playing! You can play as many battles as you want."
Rivals' pre-alpha will be key for the developers - and EA - in that it'll determine the game's future. To the developers' credit, they've made the game playable, even in this pre-alpha state, at the same time as it was revealed to the world. Better to show and tell than to tell.
Can EA win round the sceptics?
"It's a challenge!" Martinez said.
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