How I helped remake my favourite game with Battlezone: Combat Commander

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How I helped remake my favourite game with Battlezone: Combat Commander
Battlezone: Combat Commander – a fan dream come true

GameCentral speaks to one of the modders that helped make the remaster of Battlezone II, and how he made the jump from fan to developer.

There have been a lot of video game remasters released already this year, but none was more unexpected than Battlezone: Combat Commander. The game is a complete revamp and expansion of 1999’s Battlezone II, which managed to combine a first person shooter with a real-time strategy game.

That’s a heady combination, and unfortunately the game was never a success the first time round, but it managed to pick up a loyal following that has not only been playing it ever since but modding it too.

When publisher Rebellion picked up the Battlezone licence a few years ago they immediately created the remaster Battlezone 98 Redux, based on the first game. But knowing that the sequel already had a large modding community they invited fans to help with the process of updating it, and one of those was university student Anthony ‘Ded10c’ Hadley.

Hadley was already the manager of the Battlezone Wiki, and we were given a chance to conduct a quick email interview with him, which shows that even the most seemingly obscure game can have a passionate and productive community of fans around it. So here’s hoping his dreams of a Battlezone III come true…

GC: Did you play the original Pandemic Battlezone when it was first released, and what were your initial impressions of it? What attracted you to the game and what kept you playing?

AH: I was first introduced to Battlezone II when I started secondary school in 2004. My new friend Tom invited me over to his place, we played video games for a few hours, and he showed me a bundle of sci-fi games he’d bought called the Future War Collection. I played the game only very briefly – more roamed around the multiplayer maps, really – but he gave me a copy of the CD so we could play it online together. I never got it to work and forgot about it until I grabbed a box copy from a record shop about six months later. After that I was hooked.

I played through the campaign so much that at one point I’m pretty sure I’d have been able to recite the opening monologue word for word if I’d been asked. Unfortunately, by the time I had the game working Tom had lost his copy, so we never did get to play together.

I was barely a gamer at all when I first got into Battlezone; Flash games on the web aside, the only games I’d played were the ones bundled with my parents’ PC. The only real serious game among them was a tank shooter called Recoil, which I loved, and Red Alert 2, which 12-year-old me thought was way too hard. Battlezone II was like a perfect combination of the two and I loved it.

GC: What would you have changed about the original release and why do you not think it was successful? Was the game too complicated for casual gamers and do you think there was any way this could have been avoided?

AH: Activision’s first Battlezone game mostly got where it was thanks to reviews praising its originality and a massive number of bundle deals with hardware. Battlezone II got the magazine spots but not the bundle deals, and despite the involvement of a nearly 50-strong focus group of Battlezone fans it was just too different from the original. Activision had a fairly limited license from Atari; they wanted to make more sequels but couldn’t do that with the Battlezone name, so they wanted Battlezone III to create a bold new identity and a new name for them to carry forwards (which would have been Combat Commander 2, not Battlezone III). That new identity was unfortunately too bold.

Battlezone’s fans were passionate and while some wanted a sequel that was new and exciting, even more wanted more of exactly the same game they’d been playing for the last 22 months. This led to a bit of a split amongst the community that wasn’t really conducive to new players. It was only with the release of Battlezone 98 Redux that it stopped being a major problem, because it brought in new blood and presented an opportunity for people to move on.

Even then, Battlezone wasn’t as successful as it could (and perhaps should) have been. The action and strategy genres are very different, and as a result they’re very difficult to combine in a way that both works and is fun (I spent my placement year working with a team that had exactly that problem). There’s also the problem of audience; if you try to please everybody, you’ll never please anybody. As Battlezone and Battlezone II programmer Ken Miller put it: ‘FPS players don’t want to think; RTS players don’t want to die.’

Battlezone: Combat Commander (PC) - resource gathering is vital
Battlezone: Combat Commander – evolving since 1999

GC: Were you involved in the early mod scene for the game and can you describe the sort of changes that were introduced by the unofficial 1.3 patch?

I got into modding Battlezone II around 2008, so while I missed all the early stuff I did get to be involved in some of the more fun stuff. Modding is more like a puzzle than game development because we have more constraints – where game development starts from scratch and developers have reams and reams of documentation to tell them how the systems work, modders have to work within the confines of what’s already there and figure the how out on their own. That’s easier with some games than others – the Quake III engine has powered dozens of games and is easy to mod for precisely that reason, but Battlezone II’s engine is only partly shared with Dark Reign 2 and is mostly a patchwork from other, older games (Pandemic later used it as a base for developing the engine that powered the Battlefront series).

The seven-year-old Battlezone II was a really interesting place because we were starting to push the engine to places it had never been intended to go, and the 1.3 patch meant we had a developer on hand to ask – and if he was feeling nice, now and again he’d throw us a bone and add entirely new features that allowed us to do what we were aiming for. For all the controversy 1.3 gained for removing the flying bug (whereby players in hovertanks could nose down, reverse up into the air unhindered, and fire on enemy forces with impunity), which caused another feud that only recently died down, it’s worth remembering all the good it did.

[Ex-Pandemic developers] Nathan Mates (and occasionally Miller) had been working on it for over 13 years by the time the 1.3 patch ended to make way for the remaster so there are too many new features to list, but amongst others they added a wealth of new units, added several new maps and game modes, replaced the rendering engine when support for DirectX 9 became widespread, replaced the multiplayer systems when GameSpy closed, and most importantly kept the game updated so it would run easily on modern operating systems.

I was fortunate enough to be a member of their private testing team the last seven years or so of development, and while we had some ridiculous moments (like an attempt to introduce a new collision system ending up with tanks turtling upside-down and getting stuck on their turrets with their tracks spinning in the air) it was a wonderful thing to have been involved in.

GC: What is your day job and how have you got involved in modding the latest version of the game? Why have you chosen to focus on the mods you have and which changes are you most proud of?

AH: I’m a postgraduate MSc student at Staffordshire University, where I study Gameplay Philosophy (which in my case is specifically to do with how and why rules get broken, ignored and changed and what happens as a result, in both games and society). Back in 2014 I helped found a team called the Heracles Brigade, who were working on porting the Nintendo 64 Battlezone game to the PC, and when the opportunity arose we all volunteered to help Rebellion with testing their new versions.

I think someone at Rebellion must have liked the idea of letting a horde of unruly modders loose on their game before it was finished, because we all got in and by the time it released there was plenty of mod content already available – in hindsight possibly too much, because subsequent patches broke a lot of it and we still haven’t been able to fix it all!

I’ve always been fascinated with story, so that’s where most of my focus goes – I’m usually credited as designer and writer, which involves designing levels, writing briefings and missions and handling voice acting. All of the dozens of mods the Heracles Brigade work on are part of a single coherent story, and it’s that that I’m most proud of – we’ve got hundreds of pages of documentation detailing narrative content that are just for our benefit, to prevent us from contradicting ourselves. There’s such a wealth of unused story potential in the Battlezone universe and we can’t bear seeing it go to waste.

GC: Do you intend to get involved in gaming at a professional level? What would be your ideal job?

AH: Absolutely. My portfolio and background as a modder is what secured my place at university, and what got me involved in the series’ remasters – and it also forms the bulk of my experience as a designer and writer for games.

GC: What are you hopes for the launch of the remaster and do you think it will help inspire new interest in the franchise and the idea of similar genre crossovers? What would your dream Battlezone III game be like?

AH: Obviously I’d love the remaster to sell well enough to finally prompt a sequel. I’ve heard from a lot of the original players who are planning to return with the release of the remaster, and a lot of them have kids old enough to be playing themselves, so I’d like to think we can expect more new players than we might if this was a brand-new game. The action/strategy crossover has been experiencing a bit of a resurgence lately, what with titles like Nuclear Dawn and WARSHIFT, and it seems to be doing a lot better now than it did in the late-90s attempt that spawned games like Battlezone and Uprising.

My dream Battlezone III would have a slightly more varied mix of mechanics. Battlezone II lost a lot of the tension Battlezone could carry from being low on resources, and I’d like to see that brought back to compliment Battlezone II’s resource system rather than replace it. I’d want a campaign that’s more narrative and character driven. I also love the very subtle cosmic horror element that’s present just beneath the surface of both games (Battlezone’s big plot twist of ‘biometal is alive and it wants to kill you’ is one of the many narrative points that’s criminally underused). I would like to see that given a little more focus – carefully, because cosmic horror is so, so easy to overdo.

Over the last decade I’ve started to look at the series more as the grand epic it could be than what it is – something much more akin to the universes of transmedia franchises like Halo or Mass Effect than what we see in the Battlezone games – and I suppose I just can’t shake wanting to see that potential realised.

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