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Why the Command & Conquer Remastered developers left in a 25-year-old exploit

Sandbags at dawn.

One of the brilliant things about Command & Conquered Remastered is how it remains faithful to the original real-time strategy classic while updating it in all the right areas.

But one area the developers left alone was a 25-year-old exploit. You'd think they'd want to fix it - but not this one, because it gave players a fighting chance against the rock hard AI.

I'm talking about Command & Conquer's infamous sandbag exploit - aka the best strategy against the AI on the hardest missions.

For the uninitiated, Command & Conquer has an odd bug that causes the enemy AI to consider sandbags an impassable obstacle. And they don't seem interested in blowing them up, either. Weird.

Back in 1995, players discovered this bug and used it to their advantage. They'd build long lines of sandbags, creeping out from their home base and stretching across the map to wrap around the AI base, effectively trapping the enemy in place.

This provided players with a crucial advantage: with the AI safely sandbagged in, the enemy couldn't send waves of soldiers and tanks onto your position. Enemy units would simply sit still, like gormless ducks, behind your lines of sandbags, clueless as to how to proceed, paralysed by an inability to chart a path to your position, the thought of blowing one of the little sandbags up never popping in their little virtual heads.

This sandbag exploit is a broken, overpowered tactic that makes use of a bug - but given how hard Command & Conquer was and remains, it was for a generation of players their only chance of completing the campaign.

Fast forward to 2020, and I was surprised to find the sandbag exploit present and correct in Command & Conquer Remastered. Had EA missed the bug? Or, was it left alone on purpose?

And then I thought, if the developers left this bug in the game, what else did they leave untouched? What was their thinking?

I decided to find out, setting up an interview with producer Jim Vessella to get stuck into the nitty gritty of Command & Conquer's bugs - 25 years after they were discovered.

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Jim Vessella: When we kicked off the project and we were speaking with Petroglyph - and specifically Joe Bostic, who co-created the franchise and was one of the design leads on the original game - we were trying to come up with pillars for what creative decisions we we're gonna make and how we were going to make them. The way he was phrasing it as a guiding vision was, if it was an obvious bug that, had they realised it back in 1995 they would have fixed it, then that's something we should consider fixing.

There's a few things like some crashes and some other items, typos that occurred in the original game that we ended up fixing along the way. But if it was something that was more of a feel item, and had become part of the DNA of the game, and had a long-ranging impact on balance and on the feel, that was something where we had to really be careful about whether we wanted to change it or not.

And the sandbag exploit, which, frankly, it is because the AI doesn't know how to react to sandbags - you can literally put them all the way across the map and the AI will consider it an impassable wall and they just won't do anything, and that gives you full protection from the AI - that was something that was so core to the feel of the game, the game was almost balanced around that back in the day.

Even I remember as a kid, I had to use that exploit to beat the final mission of the GDI campaign. It took me over seven hours, I remember, to build an entire wall all the way from my base in the top left, all the way over to the right, then all the way down the right side of the map so I could run engineers behind that wall all the way down to where their tiberium silos were, and capture their money for like an hour and a half, until the AI ran out of money and it would just start selling its structures until they would finally sell enough that I could break through the base. That's what I had to do when I was 12 years old. It's stories like that, those are the ones that stick with us for 25 years. To take that away... we were really nervous about what kind of impact that would have.

This became even more evident, because there are a couple things we did try and fix. A good example of this is, there's a bug in the game where when the AI uses an airstrike against you, especially in the Nod campaign, the code stated it would always target the top-left enemy in the map. And so, people discovered this and what they would often do is they would just leave a single minigunner up at the top-left of the map and the AI would always waste their airstrike on that minigunner.

Well, we we heard that bug from the community, and we're like, oh, we should fix that because obviously that wasn't intended. That was a bug, a miss-programmed thing. And so we fixed it. But we didn't really understand what the ripple effects of that were going to be. And once we released the game, we started getting reports of the Nod missions becoming incredibly difficult because the AI was now optimally using their airstrike and taking out key base structures, taking out your commandos so you would lose the mission entirely.

All these things happened because we unleashed the AI to now be a lot wiser. And we're still tackling that issue. It's taken us two months to undo the impacts of that change. So, you just think about, okay, what if we had fixed the sandbag exploit? And now, in all these missions, wherever there's sandbag walls the AI knows how to deal with them. It would have dramatically changed the feel and the balance of all those missions.

That was the main reason we didn't change the sandbag one - it was so core to those stories of how people experienced the game the first time. And then once we discovered what was starting to happen when we changed just very basic things in the AI code, it became evident how fragile the entire campaign was. So I think that's one we will continue to forever keep in the game. It'll be one of those iconic things of the original game.

So what you're saying is, Command & Conquer is too hard to beat without a cheat?

Jim Vessella: Haha! Well, for me when I was a kid it was! It was always a hard game. I think people will always tell you Tiberian Dawn was a hard game.

I remember it being hard, but going back to it now I think it's really hard!

Jim Vessella: It is really hard! It is. And, you know, even with all the exploits, I remember I couldn't beat most of the expansion missions, the covert ops missions, and I still can't. They're still really tough for me. But something additional we did is we added difficulty modes into the campaign for the remastered collection. A lot of core players and RTS veterans have been trying to play the campaign on hard, and the game was never balanced for that. It was never balanced to have a differential in terms of damage and health for the different units.

Some of those missions are just insanely difficult on hard. We were watching streamers play when the game launched, and people would have to restart a mission 40 or 50 times to try and get through a battle. That was another issue where it was just like, wow, we just kind of made it worse by making the AI that much more powerful.

Sometimes you do need those exploits to get through the campaign because that's just how it was balanced around those back in the day. We nerfed the hard difficulty a bit in our patch at the end of June, and I think that's made it a little bit better for people to get through that. But it's just so fragile, that campaign. We would be a little bit nervous about changing anything major at this point.

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It's pretty crazy to think a video game has this fascinating balance debate 25 years later, right? What other game has that after that length of time? The airstrike thing is a 25-year-old question!

Jim Vessella: It is. We've been tackling another one over the past week in our subreddit with the community, which is in multiplayer, one of the top tactics right now is to do the classic engineer, APC rush, and it's become so abused... again, that's just part of the feel of the original game, but it's become so abused, we decided it would be worth taking some action on it. So we've put a poll out to the community about how they'd like to see us adjust this. We've been talking to a bunch of our community council members, a bunch of the community in Discord, and we came up with these three or four different proposals. And we put that out to the subreddit and had the community vote on it on how to tackle this.

For multiplayer, what we've decided to do, what the majority of the community voted to do, was to move the prerequisite for building the APC onto the repair facility, so it pushes it back in the game by a couple minutes. That's something where it's a balance issue we weren't really planning on tackling but has become so prevalent that we wanted to fix that up. But it's still debated. It wasn't unanimous. There was still a chunk of the community that wanted it to stay the way it was, because that's just what C&C has been the past 25 years.

So we're trying to take all these changes very seriously and make sure we're getting the community's feedback on it before we do it. But hopefully it'll be for the better. That change will be for skirmish and multiplayer only, so that we don't uproot the campaign and cause any any major issues there.

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Is it difficult to want to rebalance Command & Conquer knowing there will be some people who think changing it at all will ruin their childhoods?

Jim Vessella: Yeah, absolutely. There's a community project called C&C net - it's been around for over a decade - they have been a lot of the stewards of the legacy feel of the game. They try and keep it as authentic as possible, and that was an inspiration for us as well. And so, we've included several of their developers onto our community council. So we've been bouncing ideas about the game with them for the past 18 months as we were developing the game, and then going through launch and even now, for adjusting some of these issues post launch.

There are definitely people out there who want it to remain exactly the same as it was. I would even say that us as the developers, we kind of lean in that way a little bit. That was one of our creative visions: to keep it as authentic as possible to maintain that feel. Each one of these is an individual case. We bring it before the community and sometimes they surprise us and everyone's unanimously, 'please change this because it's just gonna make the game better.' A good example of that, which is also in this balance discussion we're doing, is to remove naval structures from the new victory condition, because people are putting a Naval Yard way off the coast, and that's stalemating games because people can't destroy it, and people are griefing it and it's making a bad online experience. That's one where even the purists are like, 'yes, please change this because it's just causing grief in multiplayer.'

Another one we're changing in this balance patch is we're normalising the landing time for the Nod cargo plane from the airstrip. That's another one that's been hotly debated for 25 years. Even the C&C net community has tried to solve this by speeding up the plane so it goes at lightspeed across the map and drops off the thing. There's such a difference between where you spawn on the map to when you get your unit - between like, one second and 19 seconds - so it's a huge impact. And obviously you would never design an RTS game these days with that sort of variance. So that's something we had pretty unanimous support for from the community, and is something we've improved in the patch.

It's not just balance in terms of what's more powerful, or what's better. In June last month, I wrote an article about a weird UFO-looking tile in the original Command & Conquer. I didn't remember this from back in the day when I played the game, but I'm sure you'll know all about it. For the remaster it's been... is the word fixed? I'm not sure what the right word is to describe what's happened to it! But it's clearly not a UFO in the remaster. I'd love to get some insight into the internal discussion around that.

Jim Vessella: That was another one where there's a lot of backstory and history to it, a lot of which I wasn't even aware of when we kicked it off, but I learned about it myself as we went through the process. I kind of agree! It looked like a UFO to me when I was growing up. And when you look at the legacy game now it does, too. But there were apparently some statements from Westwood back in the day that, oh, it's actually more of a crashed cockpit and the community has interpreted it differently.

We had all the tiles assigned out to Lemon Sky, our art developer. They took a pass at it, and they came back with this crashed Orca-looking helicopter cockpit. We thought it looked good and we felt it would match up with what some of the Westwood developers had stated back in the day. So we decided to go forward with that.

But at same time, I've really appreciated watching the community mod scene, and some of the community content that's coming out. We're actually starting to incorporate some of the community content into the official game - some of the maps. I remember one of the first mods that went up was a replacement of that tile to look more like an HD version of the UFO tile. I think that's great! I think that is absolutely what this ecosystem should be about. It is for the community to have a voice, to create their own content and to define it that way. I think that's just awesome.

I think it will still continue to be a hotly-debated subject about whether the original Westwood vision apparently of it being a cockpit, versus a hint of maybe something else to come. It's just fun! It's fun to have those things where the community can really get in there and put their own stamp on it.

When I was reporting that piece I was looking at what people thought about it back in the day, and there were some hilarious things people thought it was. Someone said they thought it was a toilet for years.

Jim Vessella: Haha! That's the interesting thing about these old games. The pixellation was so smudgy, you could interpret a lot of these things as anything. When we were doing the war factory in Red Alert, there are these little blue barrel things or something. We were like, what are those? We don't even know what those are. We interpreted them as drums with water in them and it was like, okay, sure. You have to take your best guess and try to find what some of these things are. But everyone's got their own vision, and that's what we love about the mods. People are welcome to do their own interpretation of it.

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