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Interview with the creator of «Z»: «We had to tone it down for the US market»

«Command & Conquer» is a cult classic. That wasn’t always the case. At the start, the series was faced with fierce British competition from the Bitmap Brothers. The small studio launched «Z» – a cheeky, original and refreshing real-time strategy game that had what it took to become a mega hit. So why did it never outgrow its successor status? Studio founder Mike Montgomery explains.

Over 20 years ago, there was a war going on between real-time strategy games. 1995 marked the release of the first «Command & Conquer». A game that would pave the way for countless successors. Just one year later, «C&C» was followed by a game that had what it took to steal its crown. It consisted of just one letter: «Z». The game was developed by the British studio Bitmap Brothers, who had already released classics including «Speedball 2» and «GODS». In many ways, «Z» outshined Westwood’s series debut. So why did the top-rated game featuring those iconic red robots vanish from the scene so soon? Mike Montgomery, founder of Bitmap Brother Studios, gave me an explanation in a Skype interview.

What made «Z» so special?
Mike Montgomery, CEO Bitmap Brothers: There were two things. Actually, there were a number of things. But the two things that particularly stick to my mind are: the cut scenes and the humour. They added a funny story, plus the game was quite humorous in itself. The other thing is, it was so well-balanced. We spent months and months on balancing it. Particularly for multiplayer, so it was fair for both sides.

What came first, the story or the robots?
One of the reasons «Z» took so long to write was that it started on the Amiga. Amiga died at some point and we went to the PC. By the time we actually semi-finished the game, the CD Rom came out. So everyone had to fill a CD Rom because that’s what people wanted. Before that, the game was running on two floppy disks. To be honest, the game would probably still be running on two floppy disks. It was about two years before it was released that we realised we had to do something with FMVs (Full Motion Video). So the actual story with the robots was built around the game, not the other way round.

The art style of «Z» was pretty unique. Where did you get your inspiration from?
I’ve got no idea on that one (laughs). No-one’s ever asked me that question. It’s something we just came up with, I suppose. I can’t think of anything that inspired it. We are going back quite a few years for me to remember all this. It’s quite good that I can remember most of it (laughs).

The style was unique.

Another essential part of the game was the AI. It was ahead of its time.
To be fair, it was quite a tough game. We actually had to tone it down for the American market. In fact, probably for every market except for England. English people wanted hard games at the time. The rest of the world wanted it a bit easier. Nowadays, games have become even easier than easy.

It’s relatively simple to do AI: The hard bit is to do the balancing. I thought we did really well. At the time we felt that there’s no point making a game if there’s no challenge. You’re paying a lot of money so you should get some entertainment out of it and not just be able to walk through it and complete it in a couple of hours.

You had to be really fast to win «Z». Seconds could be decisive in reaching a tank or being blown up by it.
That was on purpose. We were famous for arcade games so it had to have this feeling in it. If you’re playing an arcade game and hesitate for a second, you’re dead.

Did you play test the game yourselves or did you have external testers?
We had an office for the play testers. They used to call it the dungeon. It was a very dark and dingy office. We had 20 to 30 testers in the office at a time. It was quite unusual for them to be in our office rather than somewhere else.

Die Bitmap Brothers, circa 1990. Fromo left to right: Eric Matthews, Mike Montgomery, Tom Watson, Sean Griffiths, Rob Trevillion, Dan Malone (sitting), Richard Joseph and Steve Kelly
Image: Game Nostalgia

In the demo of «Z», the robots used a much more explicit language. That was different in the version I played. Were there two versions or what was the reason for changing this?
The version with the explicit language was actually only for the press and not for public release. It was a bit of a marketing thing to prick peoples’ ears in the press. And it wasn’t done to be crude, it was done to be fun. It was probably British humour as well.

The sound design was another key part of the game. The music changed depending on the intensity of what was happening, you called it conditional music.
Yeah, that was a nightmare (laughs). It was actually one of my ideas. I told our musician to write music using two beats to a bar, I think. I can’t quite remember. Any two bars had to match with any other two bars. At the time, we were doing eight but we ended up with four because it was impossible. Because it was streaming from the CD, you could run four tracks at once and just switch.

What factors in the game made the music change?
Most of the triggers were related to how much fighting was going on. There were other triggers, but that’s the only one I can really remember.

«Command & Conquer» was released a year before «Z». Were you inspired by it?
«Z» was our original idea and we started developing it four years before release. Towards the end, our lead programmer left and worked on «Command & Conquer». So «C&C» probably had more influence from «Z» than the other way around. That was one of the reasons why it was delayed. Strangely enough, both games were published through Virgin. It’s quite possible that they also helped delay «Z» to get the maximum sales out of «C&C».

Did you feel the competition between those two games? After all, «Z» and «C&C» were the two biggest RTS games at the time.
There was also «Starcraft» and, yes, they were the three leaders in that genre. The reason why «C&C» went on to other versions was to do with money. Bitmap Brothers was a privately owned company only financed by «Z». It just wasn’t enough to compete with the «C&C» franchise that was run by publishers with a lot more money. There’s a big difference between a well-funded publisher and an individual who’s not funded.

The Bitmap Brothers posing like the first rock stars of the gaming world. Mike is pictured in the middle
Bild: Bitmap Brothers

Do you think today’s distribution options have changed anything?
Once again, it comes down to money. EA, Square Enix and these other big publishers have budgets of millions if not billions. Small independent companies using their own money can probably afford a few thousand for marketing. So it’s hard for an independent developer to make vast amounts of money. But you can make some money. It’s a hard market. If you can’t afford television, you’re not going to be mass market, are you?

The remaster of «GODS», another Bitmap Brothers classic, came out recently. Where you involved much?
I’ve been helping out with a bit of play testing and stuff. But I’ve mainly left it up to the guys to do it and just kept an eye on it to make sure it’s true to the original.

Any chance there will be another «Z»?
No, I haven’t got any money (laughs).

Nothing phased tough Commander Z.

There were the mobile versions, though.
Yes, but they were almost exactly the same as the original. Maybe when I retire I’ll do one myself.

You could start a Kickstarter campaign.
That also takes time and money and I don’t want to deal with all that when I’m retired.

But would you like to make another one?
After «Z» we did do «Z: Steel Soldiers» and «World War II: Frontline Command», which were RTS games. That’s one of my favourite genres. These days, we only do contract work. So sadly, I haven’t had the chance to do another RTS game. I would really enjoy doing that.

The full interview is available as an audio file here.

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Philipp Rüegg, Zurich

  • Senior Editor
Being the game and gadget geek that I am, working at digitec and Galaxus makes me feel like a kid in a candy shop – but it does take its toll on my wallet. I enjoy tinkering with my PC in Tim Taylor fashion and talking about games on my podcast . To satisfy my need for speed, I get on my full suspension mountain bike and set out to find some nice trails. My thirst for culture is quenched by deep conversations over a couple of cold ones at the mostly frustrating games of FC Winterthur.

20 comments

3000 / 3000 characters

User KINGP7N

... Und es stimmt mich einfach immer noch sauer, dass es EA tatsächlich (einmal mehr...) geschafft hat, eine vermeintlich so sichere Gameserie in den Sand zu setzen. :-(
C&C 3 Tiberium Wars war ein richtiger RTS hit und hatte kaum konkurrenz auf diesem Niveau!
Dann kam C&C 4 und machte so ziemlich alles falsch, was man hätte falsch machen können...

Ich hoffe, dass mal wieder so eine richtige RTS Perle auftaucht! ^^

08.03.2019
User JiSiN

Mich macht es wahnsinnig, dass C&C Generals kein Nachfolger bekommt.
Kurz vor der Generals 2 Veröffentlichung, haben sie das ganze Projekt einfach abgeblasen.
Ein absolutes No-Go!

08.03.2019
User darx

Ich hatte noch die Closed Beta Generals 2 gezockt.. ach hatte ich Vorfreude. Bin mehr als enttäuscht. Generals war mein absolut Lieblingsspiel. War in der ESL lange top 5 im 1on1. Sage und schreibe 15 Jahre ist dies her.

08.03.2019
User KINGP7N

Ja eben... Gibt nicht mehr viele Spieleserien, die noch am Leben sind...
Traurig zum Nachlesen: screenrant.com/video-game-f...

08.03.2019
User david-cslu

Hinweis an die "Oldschool RTS Freak": Age of Empires II lebt wie nie zuvor!
Es finden regelmässig grössere Turniere statt die auf Twitch gecastet werden und die "HD"-Version auf Steam erlebte über Weihnachten/Neujahr (2018->2019) die höchste Zahl gleichzeitiger Spieler (seit HD-Release 2013).

Und was EA angeht, ist es ja seit bald 20 Jahren das selbe: Studio XY lanciert erfolgreiche Spieleserie. EA kauft Studio XY. Spieleserie fährt gegen die Wand.
(Für Studio XY lässt sich einsetzen: Westwood, Bullfrog, Maxis, Origin, Mythic, Phenomic, ...)

09.03.2019
Answer
User reaper2k

ahh the feels :')

08.03.2019
User s.lutz1988

Jetzt, wo EA C&C hinterrücks Eis kalt ermordet hat, könnte man doch Z wiederbeleben. EA hat schon so viele Game Serien und Entwickler auf dem gewissen, warum sind denn immer noch alle so dumm und verkaufen an diesen Parasiten und warum sind wir alle so dumm und kaufen diesem Saftladen immer alles ab. Die Games sind ja eh nicht der Bringer und Pay2Win noch obendrauf. EA sollte einfach von allen solange Boykotiert werden, bis ernsthaft eingelenkt wird oder dieser Laden (endlich) den Bach ab geht.

08.03.2019
User RealMajor

boykott funktioniert hier leider nicht.. gilt das selbe wie bei pre-orders... solange keine kritische masse erreicht wird und dies bei video games real nie erreicht wird da das kundensegement jedes jahr von einen jahrgang neuer unkritischer kundschaft die geld für in-app purchases pre-orders und early-access und 1day-dlc ausgeben ;-) ergänzt wird... spricht für jeden der es boykottiert kommen 5 neue kiddies die für jeden sch... kohle rauswerfen '^ ^

09.03.2019
User s.lutz1988

Ja Leider... Man müsste halt die Altersbeschränkungen durchsetzten, dann hätten wir Fünf Sechs Jahre Zeit um EA zu boykotieren. Das Problem ist, solange Papa/Mama zahlt, interessierts den 12 Jährigen Kevin nicht, ob er (seine Eltern) abgezockt wird (werden), sondern nur darum allen zu zeigen was für ein Krasser (Krass peinlicher) Hengst (Wallach) er doch ist, hätte aber ohne Pay2Win Null Chance2Win... Es liegt halt wiedereinmal an den Eltern. Ich denke manch Erziehungsbereichtigter würd den PC des Juniors direkt auf Ebay stellen, wenn sie wüssten, wie Asozial sich ihr Engelchen aufführt. Das nächste Problem ist dann aber wieder, dass die Games als Sündenbock für die Versäumnise der Eltern, der Gesellschaft und der Politik hinhalten müssen. Selbst macht man ja alles richtig, es sind immer die anderen Schuld...

09.03.2019
User RealMajor

das tragischlustige daran ist dann, bei den disskussionen zu solchen themen dann sehr oft von diesen kiddies gesagt wird wo denn das problem sei... die kennen es ja halt auch nicht mehr anders =D die meinen es sei normal für skins oder ähnliches geld auszugeben müssen und das in einem AAA pay2play game ;-) die wissen gar nicht das es auch ohne lootboxen ging und dabei aller aller meisten oft das ganze game dadurch völlig verhunzt wird... bestes neuestes beispiel "anthem" '^ ^

09.03.2019
User RealMajor

anderes beispiel destiny(2) zB braucht auch im extra hard mode praktisch null skill und sogar zu sterben ist fast nicht möglich...gegner K.I. ist unterirdisch ...ammo ohne ende. Die player werden so gematched dass es mann nicht merken soll und meint ist ein weaponupgrade oder sonst n perk für den dmg unterschied verantworlich ist... damit sich auch die allerschlechtesten wie die aller aller grössten fühlen können =D und wehe man lästert über die offensichtlichen mängel von destiny dann bekommt man eins von der destiny communtity auf n deckel =D

09.03.2019
Answer
User marcovara2

Z war/ist grossartig! merci für den artikel und die erinnerungen :) es erinnerte mich damals an das alte „herzog 2“ auf dem sega mega drive, einem der ersten echzeitstrategiespiele, die ich gespielt habe. kennt das noch jemand?
das heutige airmech entspricht dem prinzip von herzog 2.

08.03.2019
User Lizarazu3

wow! sehr cool, fips. bitte mehr davon!

08.03.2019
User Anonymous

C&C Red Alert 2. Das einzig Wahre. "zbeschtä wos je hets gits".

09.03.2019
User JayeTech

Absolutely loved this game, along with Magic Pockets! Two retro games worth revisiting....

09.03.2019
User david-cslu

Ich denke die Gründe wieso sich C&C gegenüber Z durchgesetzt hat sind wesentlich einfacher: Z hatte ein repetitiveres Gameplay mit sehr viel weniger Möglichkeiten. Es zwar schlicht und einfach auf lange Sicht nicht so attraktiv wie C&C. (Habe beide gespielt, back in the days.)
Die Zwischensequenzen waren hingegen ein echtes Highlight damals ;-)

09.03.2019
User Calib4n

I bought and played both, back in the day. Z didn't succeed because it was a 10 times inferior game. End of story.

08.03.2019
User RealMajor

speedball 2 habe ich sogar noch irgendwo in original auf 5 1/4"... dem kopierschutz sei dank =D war einer der härteren zum knacken

09.03.2019
User JTR.ch

Ja Z habe ich leider nie gespielt, aber CnC Red Alerts war meine erste RTS Liebe. Was haben der Kollege und ich eins über Direktverbindung uns endlose Schlachten (meist Remis) geboten. Die eine Hälfte der Map blau die andere rot, in der Mitte Teslaspulen und Geschütze und die Panzer kamen wie eine Ameisenkolonne aus den Bauhöfen. Dann noch der geniale ini Editor wo man die Einheiten beliebig anpassen konnte (Inf mit Raketen MG? Kein Problem, sogar der Tesla Panzer Idee entstand da und wurde ja später offiziell für die Nachfolger übernommen). Der einzige Konkurrent der da noch weiter war: MAX 1 und 2, allen voran der stufenlose Zoom damals war revolutionär.

09.03.2019