Eric Gooch, known to Command & Conquer fans as Seth, spent many years working with Westwood to help them realise the potential of one of the greatest and most respected franchises on the planet. From humble beginnings, the studio created a string of games that have become nothing but legendary.
TGL recently got a chance to sit down with Eric and ask him everything from the demise of Westwood to that infamous execution by Kane. Here’s how we got on…
The Gaming Liberty: Eric – a HUGE TGL welcome. For those not familiar with your name, or your work, can you tell us a little about how you got into the industry and some of the early games you worked on?
Eric Gooch: Thanks TGL! I got into the industry by answering an online ad. I say “online” even though that was before the internet as we now know it. Back in the day, there were BBS’s, and one of them was Genie. I saw an ad placed by Westwood Studios that said they were looking for an artist. I’d always been an avid gamer, and thought “how cool would it be to work on video games?” I knew the Westwood name from their game “Eye of the Beholder”, and I applied even though I didn’t think I would really get very far. Although I had very little computer graphic experience, they liked my airbrush illustration and decided to give me a chance. The earliest games I worked on before C&C were Lands of Lore and Legend of Kyrandia. I also recall doing some work on the Amiga version of Dune.
TGL: Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos came along quite early – not only your professional career, but as part of the ever expanding range of titles created by Westwood. Can you run us through a typical Westwood development day from back in 1993?
EG: In those early days, there was no 3D to speak of, at least not for us. All artwork was done with DPaint or DPAnim. We were known as “pixel pushers” and drew everything by hand in those paint programs. A typical development day usually included finding out what you were supposed to be working on, and creating some initial versions to show at a weekly art meeting. There was very little specialization back then, and at any point you might be working on in-game art, cinematics, logos, icons, you name it. At the art meetings, everybody would show their work for the last week and we’d discuss changes needed. You pretty much hoped that nobody would be snickering when you showed your artwork. Snickering meant changes were probably needed. We worked with DOS, which I pretty much despised after having come from the Amiga. I’m thinking it was some time in ’93 or ’94 that we started working with Windows (3.1 I believe.)
TGL: Command & Conquer was a storming success for Westwood. Not only did it help define the RTS genre, but it featured live-action cut scenes which featured talents like yourself and Joe Kucan. Beloved by C&C fans, the sequences go down in gaming history as containing a positive, yet cheesy forumla. Can you tell us a little about the creation of them, how they were received behind the scenes and your opinion on them?
EG: Our first efforts at shooting live video were pretty rough around the edges. We had a rented storeroom near our building, and I set up a greenscreen background by stapling a big piece of linoleum flooring to the wall and painting it green. Three of us were involved in the video process: Joe Kucan directed the live action, I did the lighting and post effects, and Felix Kupis did video capture and editing. I remember an old Amiga in Felix’s office that had the cover taken off, and had a pencil jammed between a couple of the cards. If you got too close to the system, Felix would yell “DON’T TOUCH THE PENCIL!”, because if you moved it, the system would crash. Heh. One thing we did that was pretty advanced for the time was shooting our footage directly to hard drive. We had removable drive bays at the stage area where we shot, and our main studio building. After a shoot, we would pull the drives and carry them in a padded case to the main building, where we could start editing right away. I thought the videos were fun, and added to the feel of the games, but I also recognize that some people just aren’t into live video in games. I think it just comes down to personal preference.
TGL: Playing Seth meant you had the chance to take Command of Nod briefly, only to killed in cold blood by Kane. Considering the brutality of the scene, did Westwood anticipate any negative press when this scene was finally aired with the release of the game? And what are you thoughts of it in retrospect?
EG: The whole Seth thing was pretty funny. One day Joe Kucan was in my office, and we were going over some of the shots. The conversation went something like this:
- Joe: “…and then Kane will walk in, and sees Seth….oh crap.”
- Me: “What?”
- Joe: “We forgot to cast the role for Seth.”
- Me: “Haha.”
- Joe: Looks at me and says, “Hey, you could be Seth.”
- Me: “Huh?”
- Joe: “Do you wanna be Seth?”
- Me: “Ok!”
After we did the shot of me getting shot, I remember doing the post effect frame by frame in Photoshop of the bullet leaving my head along with some debris. I don’t think we anticipated a lot of negative press (people get shot in the movies all the time) and I don’t recall there being much uproar over it. I did have a very religious person call me once to complain about the whole “From God, to Kane, to Seth” line. I tried explaining it was part of a fictional work about bad people, but he didn’t seem convinced. Ah well. I liked the scene because I don’t think it was expected. People probably just thought that Seth was sending them on another mission, and then in comes the gun. lol.
TGL: Arguably, NOD had more iconic buildings than GDI in the original C&C – thanks to designs like the now infamous, and much beloved, “Hand of NOD” structure. Can you tell us a little about the creation of these structures/buildings in the original C&C and what kind of thought process went into them?
EG: I remember there always being a lot of discussion and a lot of concept variations in keeping the two sides visually distinct. Not only through color (the gold/tan/gray of the GDI vs. the black/red of Nod) but also the styles themselves. GDI was more “boxy” and practical for the most part, while Nod was more “exotic” for lack of a better term, and involved imagery of the hand, or the scorpion. These almost always started with concept sketches so that everyone involved knew the direction we were going. Then there would be a first pass, and these would be discussed at art meetings. I remember as C&C continued, working with Evil Gary (Gary Freeman…we had a good Gary and an Evil Gary) and I built a ton of stuff based on his concept work over the years. Once a decision was made on a concept drawing, the 3D model would be built from that.
TGL: During your days with Westwood you not only worked on titles like C&C, but you also worked on cult hits like Blade Runner, Dune and NOX. Can you tell us a little about your roles for each?
EG: I spent most of my time doing 3D modeling and animation for the in-game cinematics and cutscenes. (I don’t know how movies in games came to be called “cutscenes”…in film, a cut scene is something that gets removed and ends up on the editing floor..) As I mentioned earlier, there wasn’t much specialization back then. Someone would hand me a storyboard, and say “Make this movie.” I would then build the models, texture them, do all the animation, lighting, special effects and post-work. For C&C, it was mainly pre-rendered cinematics, although I also did a number of in-game “build-up” animations (when a vehicle turns into a structure, etc.) Sometimes the high resolution models I built would be converted to low-res and used in-game. (I think they were “voxelized” for TibSun.) I wasn’t involved much in Blade Runner other than initial concept model renderings and animations. We had Syd Mead come by the studio at one point, and it was encouraging that he liked the work we’d done. I was kind of bummed that I couldn’t work on it more, but I was called away to other projects…that happens sometimes! For Dune 2000 I mainly was creating rendered background plates that were used behind the live actors, so creating digital sets more or less. For NOX I did more modeling and animation for cinematics.
TGL: Do you think there was a sense of nervousness in the studio during the development of titles that weren’t C&C related?
EG: I think there was. I can’t speak for others, but I had the feeling we were spreading ourselves too thin. It sometimes felt like we had too many titles all being worked on at the same time, it could get a little crazy. C&C was our bread and butter as far as I was concerned, so it was strange to me that we spread out is so many different directions.
TGL: The aquisiton of Westwood by EA, in many respects, was the death knell to one of the most revered companies in the industry. Can you tell us a little about your view on what happened and the feelings behind the scene?
EG: I think initially everyone was just hoping that there wouldn’t be any big changes after the acquisition, and it appeared that way at first. There was a big meeting where EA announced how they didn’t make changes to companies that were doing well. I don’t know how much I believed that. After a while though, it became obvious that changes were being made, and I think that made people nervous. For example, salaries had been pretty “freeform” as well as the description of what an artist might do. EA had very specific categories, like Animator I, Animator III, etc., and how much you made was directly tied to that new category. So that threw a big wrench into the works. People would get pissed about the new category they had been assigned, and of course there was bickering about who was what level. That got messy. And of course there were murmurings about which projects EA liked or didn’t like. There’s definitely a different flavor to things between creating your own games and creating games for a parent company. It seemed a lot of the time like we were spending too much time on “playable milestone demos” to show to the higher-ups, instead of just concentrating on the games themselves. Towards the end, it seemed like EA was convinced that “Earth and Beyond” was going to be the Next Big Thing, and so other teams shrunk and got pushed to the back burner, as more people were added to the E&B team. I was one of only about 8 or 9 people working on what would have been C&C 3, when the end arrived.
TGL: From what we understand, EA applied pressure to Westwood during development of Command & Conquer: Renegade. What was the development for the debut of a C&C FPS like? And was there high hopes for it?
EG: I think there are always high hopes for a title that you’re working on, (unless you’re working on a title you really hate) and the people working on Renegade wanted to do everything they could, to make it the best game possible. Having said that, I think we were behind the technology curve by the time it came out. Missing the ship dates didn’t help. I didn’t work on Renegade, but I did like the gameplay in multiplayer. I wasn’t much into the Doom/Quake games, so Renegade was one of the first titles where I played multiplayer. (I’m usually a single player person.) I remember usually buying a vehicle and finding a good spot and bombarding the hell out of the enemy installations. Good times. The thing that chaps my hide is that I *was* involved in the production of Renegade II, and I wish you could have seen how it was shaping up. There was a playtest area across from my office, and I would watch them play as development continued. I remember watching these battles where players in Kirov airships were dropping bombs on Apocalypse tanks on newly created environment art. It looked very cool. When EA pulled the plug on Renegade II, I think that was the first nail in the coffin. I believe that was the first time a project had been cancelled at Westwood, and it was pretty devastating to the team that had put so much work into it.
TGL: You detail on your official website that your preliminary tasks at Insomniac Games involved visual FX and aiding programmers to develop tools – this then led to a transition into lighting. What kind of techniques do you think you learned from the past that were applicable to contemporary gaming?
EG: I think for the most part, that contemporary gaming is doing the same thing we’ve always tried to do…bring a sense of realism to a gaming world that people enjoy and feel challenged by. The difference is that the tools and engines are so much more advanced than they were in the early days. It’s been amazing watching the technology progress. In 1992, who could have foreseen ZBrush, xNormal, or the state of game engines today like RAGE, Unreal3 or CryEngine? But the FX work and the lighting I did in pre-rendered work helped quite a bit in moving to next-gen systems. Again, it’s really just a matter of coming to terms with the latest tools and technology, and pushing them as far as possible. Also, it’s important to press the MAKE AWESOME button as much as possible, while also trying to avoid pressing the THIS SUCKS button whenever you can.
TGL: Do you think there’s innate pressure when stepping into a new iteration of a title? Take for example the Ratchet & Clank titles; time and time again they prove to be popular – but really how far can developers go to meet the sky-high expectations of some gamers? Do you feel that pressure during development?
EG: I think there’s a bit of pressure about continuing a title, but I don’t personally lose a lot of sleep over it. I figured out a long time ago with both my personal artwork and the game titles I work on, that there will always be a long line of people that don’t like what you’re doing. You can either cry in your cheerios about that, or simply do the best you can and hope there’s a group of people out there that like it. If I’m working crazy hours during crunch mode, I’m not worried about the haters, I’m instead thinking about the fans, (or future potential fans) and doing everything I can to make it great. Sky-high expectations come with the territory (and you can sometimes blame the advertising hype machine for that,) but for me anyway, it’s not a huge concern. I think I’m more likely to feel pressure from deadlines than worrying about how well a sequel is received. We got a lot of fan mail from Ratchet and Clank fans, so I know there were a lot of people out there that liked the series.
TGL: Resistance is another blockbuster title that you’ve worked on. Can you tell us a little about your work on them and which, in your opinion, is the most memorable of the three and why?
EG: I was hired originally as an FX artist, and worked with programmers to develop a pipeline and interface for FX creation and placement. This was for the new engine that was being created for Resistance. But we reached a point where the engine was in such a stage of infancy, that I couldn’t proceed with any more FX creation. Right about that time, there was a company meeting where Ted Price announced that they were looking for a Lighting artist. I had always liked lighting, and volunteered for the position. They had me take a test, and they liked the results, so I started doing the same thing with programmers, and working on the lighting pipeline and interface. I continued as a Lighting artist from that point forward. As far as the games go, I think I like Resistance 3 the most. When I look at the first Resistance, I only see mistakes, and the second bugged me because they got rid of the weapon wheel and you could only switch between 2 weapons. The 3rd game went back to the wheel and looks the best to me, and I liked the story line. The lighting engine had come a long way by then, so I think it looked much better from a lighting standpoint as well.
TGL: You have quite an extensive array of your own art on your own personal website. Items like the MW-77 laser tank and your piece entitled “platform 47″ in the sci-fi section really stand out to us, but can you tell us a little about your personal inspirations for some of the pieces and which of the various artistic outlets like photography, design and fantasy you enjoy most?
EG: Inspiration comes from just about everything…movies, other artwork I’ve seen, music…I’ve got tons of ideas jotted down, but it’s tough to find the time to work on them. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by Science Fiction and Fantasy. I loved that people told stories that allowed you to go to other places in your imagination, and I think part of why I like creating my own art is the idea that other kids might be inspired by it, and maybe go on to create worlds of their own, whether it’s art, or writing, or whatever they want to do. As for the military vehicles, I think that’s sort of “in my blood” after having created them for so many years in C&C. There are still a lot of other vehicles I’d like to create. I think I actually have the most fun when I’m combining photography, design and fantasy (or Science Fiction) in the same piece. A lot of my images have photo backgrounds that I’ve shot from various places I’ve visited, and I like incorporating them into my artwork.
In the case of “Platform 47″ it was a case of mistaken identity. I as looking at images online, and saw a very small thumbnail image, tha tlooked like a futuristic refinery up on vertical supports. When I viewed the full size image, it wasn’t that at all…it was just the image of a cave or something. But the idea had “taken” so I jotted it down and later created that image. So I’m basically always looking for the seeds of ideas that I’ll expand on later.
TGL: Do you have any advice to anyone that aims to get into the industry? What, do you think for example, would be the most promising avenues of work to pursue?
I’ll add though that as an artist, your portfolio is vital, and it’s important that you’re honest with yourself about the quality of your work. There are always companies looking to hire, but to be considered, you’ll need to show nothing but your best. The most promising avenues would probably be Concept Art, Environment Art, Special FX, and UI Art. Those are the jobs I see advertised the most often.
TGL: Do you have a message for all your fans?
EG: I just wanted to say thanks for being there!! I’ve been really impressed by all the modders, the die-hard C&C fans, so many people out there that loved those games, and I find it amazing after all these years that I still get emails from people that just want to say Hi” and “Thanks”. Whether it’s the games I’ve worked on or my own artwork, it never gets old to get an email from a fan that appreciates work I’ve done. It inspires me to want to improve my own work and push myself even more in the future.
TGL: Finally Eric, what’s next for you? Is there anything you can talk about at this time?
EG: I’d like to continue doing lighting and environment work for the next few years, but see myself eventually returning to freelance, bugging out of society, and concentrating on my own artwork more. (Translation: I will be very poor, but am looking forward to getting those hundreds of ideas out of my head and committed to the digital realm!)
TGL: Thanks Eric!
EG: Hey thanks TGL!