Interview with the creator of «Z»: «We had to tone it down for the US market»
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
Senior Editor, Zurich