Command & Conquer 3 mod support - part 2

Mod 'support' in C&C3: Don't shoot the messenger

March 18th, 2007 updated on March 19th, 2007 with link to newspost

Friday evening I visited the German Launch event of C&C3 at CNC-Con. I won my VIP Ticket in a contest by EA Netherlands. In this article I will discuss my visit, reveal important information on the state of mod support for C&C3 and talk about what the body language of a producer can say about an expansion pack.

Update 19-03-2007: please read this newspost as well. I think it outdates the parts of this article on mod support (within a single day of release of this article!). There sure is commitment to modding (now).

Presentations

The event started with Raj Joshi showing of the user interface of the XBox 360 version of the game. He handed the gamepad to an expert PC player who defeated a skirmish opponent. I'm sure it is very nice if you own an XBox 360, but I am too fond of my mouse controls. Next up was Amer Ajami who showed us the opening video of the Nod campaign. Then, someone from the audience got to play Scrin in a skirmish match against a brutal opponent. He did not last very long, because brutal AI is quite challenging and when you combine that with playing a new side for the first time... you lose ;)

Press room: Raj Joshi

Raj Joshi (associate producer XBox 360 version of C&C3)

After the presentation all Dutch prize winners and several people from game sites and the press made their way to the press room. Both Raj Roshi and Amer Ajami were there. One thing I noticed while Raj was talking to us was that the XBox 360 version does not have Tiberium silos. This is unlike the PC version, where you cannot pile up your money.

Press room: Amer Ajami

Amer Ajami (producer C&C3)

First Amer and me talked for a bit how modding is important to games. Especially mods like Counterstrike really increase the longetivity of a game. Then, I brought up the subject of the new XML files in C&C3. These XML files are the replacement of the INI files in Generals. However, they are compiled using a build tool into the data files that ship with the game. These compiled files, from the analysis of C&C3 by the modding community, no longer look like easy-to-edit XML files anymore. Amer mentioned that Apoc has been bugging them every day about the mod SDK. This mod SDK has to include the original XML files that are used to build the game and the build tool itself. I do not know if the original 3D models are also needed, because the modding community really does not know yet what exactly is in the compiled files.

And then, I was startled by what Amer said 'it really is a matter of if and when the mod SDK is released'. Apparently, they are really struggling with the build tool. I asked for a clarification on the if, because it came as such a shock to me. It really depends on the resources whether they are able to release it. Personally I understand that the team has limited resources, I myself have limited time as well, but reading about the BattleCast gimmick upon my return home, I have to wonder. I guess mod support will not attract the same amount of positive press. So justifying resource allocation to that is a lot harder...

On the subject of an in-game mod manager, Amer could be clear that this is not going to happen for C&C3 ('use the command-line'). Maybe for a future game, but there are so many things they still want to do. Again, it comes down to resources. I guess that is why the command-line parameter for using mods in The First Decade edition of Generals is still broken after 13 months: resources.

Scenarios for the future of C&C3 modding

I see four possible scenarios for the future of C&C3 modding.

Scenario 1: no mods for C&C3

There are not enough resources to build a mod SDK. The build tool and XML sources are not released. There are no mods for C&C3, unless scenario 2 arises.

Scenario 2: community reverse-engineers

The modding community reverse-engineers how the build tool works and builds their own. However, this still requires the release of the original XML files used to build the game. This is because in my professional opinion the build tool will be a lossy transformation from XML to game data files, i.e. information is lost in the process which cannot be reconstructed. In this scenario it might take anywhere from several months to several years before the community build tool is ready.

Scenario 3: there is a mod SDK

A mod SDK is released 'X' months after the game. All is relatively well, although the interest of casual gamers in modding the game diminishes every month they have to wait. For enthusiastic modders, the opposite is true: the longer they have to wait, the more anxious they get to actually start modding.

Scenario 4: mod community to the rescue?

This scenario is an idea I got in the bus on the way home. What would happen if you fly several mod community members to LA and brief them on the inner workings of the build tool? They get to look at the source code of this tool and receive enough information to build their own. Crucial here is that there are no legal problems and that the original XML files of the game are still released to the public. My estimation is that it will still take between 3 to 6 months after such a summit before the community has their own build tool, but I think it is a serious option.

My take on C&C3 modding

The only scenario in which I see myself playing any role is the community rescue scenario, due to my experience with engineering software. I am beyond reverse-engineering files from scratch. I have done this with the Dune 2000 files and I know what a huge effort it is. When starting from scratch, I think it will take years to reverse-engineer the C&C3 file formats. If someone wants to prove me wrong: go ahead, surprise me. It will be like building a decompiler for C++ compiled code. Those things don't exist for a reason.

Given all this, I can announce that TibEd will not support C&C3 for now. An user-friendly editor for a game without modding ability makes no sense. If even expert modders cannot make mods, then neither can beginners. The saga of the editor which can edit all RTS C&C games ends here. It will no longer edit all C&C real-time strategy games, because no-one can edit C&C3.

Expansion pack?

I recorded this part of my conversation with Amer, so I will give you a transcript:

Koen: Is the story in any way open-ended?
Amer: Yes, absolutely. It answers a lot of questions, but it leaves more questions to be answered.

Koen: So we might some day see an expansion?
Amer: (Amer shrugs) Who knows?

Koen: There has never been a C&C without an expansion...?
Amer: Yeah, that's a good question to ask yourself.

And this is without you seeing the big grin on Amer's face. Oh wait, I was actually using the movie mode of my digital camera to record this bit. The picture below was taken during the word 'yeah', and he did not know that I was taping this (basically because I was waving the camera around all the time together with my hands). But in this part his face is actually visible :)

Amer Ajami while he's saying yeah

Conclusion

We have an interesting storyline and possibly an expansion pack to look forward to. However, the future of C&C modding depends on developments within the next few months. It is all about resources and priorities. I really hope things turn out for the best, but if no-one can make mods then I think the longetivity of C&C3 as a game will be severely hampered. The only logical conclusion to be drawn from the current situation is that there will be no TibEd for C&C3. I do not have time to reverse-engineer C&C3 from scratch. Perhaps my idea of a community build tool with help from EA will work out. Or maybe we can get EA to really commit to a mod SDK... but right now everything is hanging in the balance.

'Time will tell. Sooner or later, time will tell.' -- Albert Einstein in C&C: Red Alert.

Use this link if you want to share your thoughts with me

Koen van de Sande
http://www.tibed.net

This is part 2, where is part 1?

Before visiting the launch event and talking to Amer Ajami, I already wrote an article comparing C&C3 mod support to Supreme Commander. This comparison can be found in 'part 1' of this article.

Things that went wrong at the launch event

 
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