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TVG lands at the D-Day beaches in Normandy and chats to THQ Producer, Sean Dunn about the forthcoming World War II RTS...
Company of Heroes follows the story of the fictitious Able Company from their experiences of the D-Day Landings at Omaha Beach through to the liberation of Carentan and St Lo between June and August 1944, and will include amongst other features, advanced Squad AI and an emphasis on battle-tactics.
Almost a year ago, TVG spoke to Relic Entertainment's Senior Designer Quinn Duffy about the World War II RTS title. Twelve months on and with the game just a matter of weeks away from release, we chatted to THQ Producer Sean Dunn about his thoughts on Company of Heroes and the RTS genre in general.
There seems to be a renewed interest in recent years in the RTS genre with a number of newcomers such as Namco and their Warhammer: Mark of Chaos game on the horizon. How difficult is it to find a niche in such an environment?
It's very difficult actually and I think that's why you see a lot of new entries into the RTS genre fail. A lot of people go in with the idea of "Let's go make an RTS game" and it's not that simple, there are a huge number of areas that you can fail in. For instance, Massive was one of those people with "Ground Control" - fantastic game, lots of new ideas - but with "Ground Control II" they missed some things and stumbled in certain areas. Whilst others genres might be able to recover from that and still be viable, the RTS player is not a forgiving beast. You need to hit on so many different fronts; there are so many different types of strategy game players that to appeal to a very wide base of them, you need to do a number of things right - so it is difficult.
Relic has had it's own stuff like "Impossible Creatures" was one of those; absolutely amazing core technology pieces, but certain tenets were not hit and it kinda killed it.
A lot of RTS titles seem to be coming in now where they're trying to find new ways of implementing Resource Management, such as Company of Heroes. Between that and working out strategies aside from 'Tank Rushing', are we seeing a 'new dawn' for the genre?
Well certainly rushing can be something that can be detrimental to play, but one thing that we want to absolutely avoid is taking away things that give joy for the player. Tanks are a lot of fun; they blow shit up. A tank shell hits a soldier and he flies 20 foot up into the air or he's dismembered. Sick as it is, we don't want to take tanks away from the player.
We've seen people try to solve the 'resource problem' by removing them altogether, but that really takes a core tenet of RTS play. Resourcing is very important to the pacing of gameplay, what we call "The Three Stages of Gameplay". There's the 'early play' where you're scouting and capturing territory; there's the 'second stage' where you're setting up defences and ambushes and deciding which command tree to go down, and there's the 'end game' where you want to use all of this to finish your opponent so it doesn't end up being a twenty-seven hour game.
" Tanks are a lot of fun; they blow shit up!"
So resources are very important to what we think an RTS game should be, but the thing that we hated was that it was always about killing the other person's resources. That's fine, that's important because you know that you've denied resources for your enemy, but it's not fun killing peons, so let's not make peons or villagers - lets make resources controlled by your military. The context of World War Two is perfect for that because capturing territory, holding towns, holding a bridge - if you were to hold a bridge then High Command was much more likely to give you tanks or more infantry. So that's the context that we bring to the resource system here.
So far as a 'new dawn', one of the things that I love about RTS is that the different studios that are successful are able to take their own path; for instance, Ensemble has their historical path and Home Cities, and that's not something for Relic to do. It really lets the studios hold an identity between themselves and the various elements of the RTS genre.
So it's almost like a trademark, how the different studios are going to define themselves through gameplay elements in their IPs?
That's definitely one way. There are a lot of different things, genre, visuals, styling of voices, humour versus serious, there are a lot of ways but certainly resourcing systems and the other tenets of the RTS genre I think are where a lot of the studios draw their identities. That's certainly the case with Relic.
We always focus on territory now; in Dawn of War it was the same way. You capture strategic points then you hold those points. To hold those points you need military points. Company of Heroes takes that idea further with line of supply so that not only do you have to capture that territory, but also you have to capture the territory in between so the resources can get back to your headquarters. That's one of the Relic trademarks including the visuals.
In your presentation of Company of Heroes, you outlined three key pillars for the game: realistic squad AI, realistic battlegrounds, and an emphasis on battle tactics. At this stage of development, how successful do you think you've been in adhering to those tenets?
I don't think we'd be releasing the game unless we thought that we'd get near to everything that we'd set out for every one of those tenets. It's those three elements that we've banked on what's going to make this game different, what's going to make this game appeal to a wider audience, and what's still going to appeal to the hardcore RTS gamer as well. We think that we've hit those pretty well.
How difficult is it to create an original IP that appeals to RTS veterans and at the same time bring in newcomers to the genre?
It's very difficult and we've spent a huge amount of time and money, ensuring that we're not just guessing but bringing in different types of gamers. We've brought those people in and we watch how they play, we study their emotional reactions, where they have frustrations, and we strike that balance.
When we first told hardcore RTS gamers that the squad AI will take cover for you, they said "We don't want them to do anything that they haven't been told to do". So striking a balance of what they do, how far they travel to take cover, has been definitely difficult. Some of the hardest of the hardcore players still don't want anything to move until they're told to do so, but since we have some of the best RTS players in the world actually working on the product at Relic, there's a balanced team made up of players who have to have been one of the top ten players in one of the core RTS titles in the last six years. We think we've hit a good balancing act between new players who need that visual return, they need their soldier to not be stupid, and they need their tanks to go through walls and not drive a mile down the road to come back. When we started solving those problems that we felt were keeping the general public out, those hardcore RTS players who didn't want that thought "That's cool...actually that makes it better". We feel pretty good about that.
I'm sure that there will be people that we just don't get. A lot of the Korean community has already told us that squad control isn't something that they're interested in, but we might get those people in a different franchise.
Company of Heroes follows the fictitious Able Company from the D-Day landing on June 6th 1944 through to August 17th 1944. Why was the decision taken to stop at that point and will future instalments in the franchise continue the story of Able Company or follow a different perspective like the British?
We haven't made any announcements about expansion packs, but I think we're moving more towards the latter. One of the things that we wanted to do was to follow a wider baser than just the Americans, but one of the things that comes with really, really high detail is time. Whereas in Dawn of War it took one-man month to make a Space Marine, it takes ten-man months to make one soldier in "Company of Heroes". You've got ambient inclusion maps, normal maps, bump maps, it's a much more difficult process, and we either had to sacrifice that detail or quality to broaden the base of nationalities, or focus - and we decided that focus was much more important.
"...we're going to be putting DirectX10 for Vista launch."
That plays a part into how deep in time we went, and also the Euoprean portion of the war is much more compelling than the Pacific Rim, stuff like that. We want to make sure that we focus on attention to detail in those areas, and then it gives us the option to moving over and doing the British or Russian perspectives instead of doing it all at the same time.
Company of Heroes utilises Relic's next-gen Essence engine; has the engine been nailed down since its creation over three years ago, or has it evolved with the development of the game?
No, in fact "Company of Heroes" and "Dawn of War" started at the exact same time and began life on the "Impossible Creatures" engine because we didn't want to stop the development of gameplay to wait for the engine to come around. So probably for about a year and a half the game was in the old "Impossible Creatures" engine and there was a lot of "The game is going to look like this...", but we needed to make sure that the gameplay progressed, that the prototypes of the different strategies and tactics played out, the way that the AI played out, and once the engine was ready to start kicking in that's when we moved over.
A lot of the rendering and processing work is still on going; we're going to be putting DirectX10 for Vista launch. We're going to be expanding on this engine for a while; it's a very scalable engine.
Could you explain more about the Command Trees and upgradable buildings, and how that increases the level of depth for players?
Each of the sides has three Command Trees to go down in multiplayer; as the Axis you have the option to go down the Defensive Tree, the Terror Doctrine Tree, or the Blitzkrieg Tree. The Blitzkrieg plays towards the person who wants to get the tanks a little faster, or you prefer the Infantry Tree in the Allies. You get Rangers, you get bazookas; you might like to play the Infantry rather than tanks. Or you go down the Paratrooper Tree, which is more of a hit 'n' run tree using reconnaissance planes to para-drop behind enemy lines, cutting through the fog of war and cutting enemy supplies. It just gives you a lot more options to approach the game.
"...there are some very important pieces in the Relic history that we might want to revisit..."
If you're a turtle player and hunker up the defences, and build up crossing fields of fire to defend your anti-tank guns, with snipers covering your machine gun nests, you can do that. It works really well in team play so we put an emphasis on team play in multiplayer, and when you start mixing those Commander doctrines, as a team, you can really start putting together some really powerful combinations.
So in the multiplayer will you be playing in the single-player maps?
The multiplayer maps are completely different to the single-player maps; where we would have gained some re-usability out of those, the single-player maps are really built to not be a little skirmish game with a storyline attached - so they're not appropriate for multiplayer. It was so important that we not turn the single-player into a "let's have twenty skirmishes, but we have eighty-seven missions, but they're all the same." We've gone for fifteen missions [in the single-player mode] each one different in terms of visuals and objectives.
So you're planning on having both team and solo multiplayer?
Relic has done both the futuristic fantasy in Dawn of War and now the recent past in Company of Heroes; what's next and how far ahead do you plan ahead?
Erm, very far ahead, but obviously we don't talk about them until we're ready to release them. We don't want to get too widespread, there are some very important pieces in the Relic history that we might want to revisit; right now Dawn of War is very successful for us and you'll be hearing about things that we're going to be doing about that. I don't think we want to be doing racing games, but we want to be keeping it very focused and tight on these areas currently, but yeah - we have a very long term plan.
That's great, thank you very much.
TVG would like to thank Sean Dunn for taking the time to answer our questions. Company of Heroes is due for release in the UK on September 29th 2006 for PC.
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