Company of Heroes 2 [Interview] – Making Russia the good guys

1 Jun 2012  by   Paul Younger
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Following on from our preview of Company of Heroes 2 last week, we sat down with game director Quinn Duffy.

From the attempts to try and make the game as historically accurate as possible, to potential Western players having difficulty connecting to a Russian story and the approach Relic have taken to gameplay changes, we try to nail down what it is that will make Company of Heroes 2 worth the long wait.

IncGamers: During the presentation, you spent a lot of time talking about the reality of the Eastern front; how difficult a place it was to be a soldier, and how fierce the fighting is because of the opposing political ideologies. How important is the presentation of that reality in Company of Heroes 2, and would you ever think of creating a WWII game without that level of authenticity?

Quinn Duffy: I think what’s really important for us is to be able to provide context to the gameplay. At Relic we feel that the gameplay is missing something if the presentation and narrative elements aren’t there. So, yes, we put an enormous amount of effort into those areas and particularly the authenticity.

I think our audience has learned to want those things. Our early game development is about the mechanics, but we do base a lot of our work on how the game looks and feels. That goes all the way back to Homeworld­ – which was light on game mechanics and gameplay, and in many ways the game design took a back seat because it just looked so gorgeous. We wanted to support that kind of thing with the game design here [with Company of Heroes 2].

It’s very important that we understand the context for everything. Even when we build gameplay we ask ourselves how it fits into the world and how we justify everything.

IG: In a sense, and this may be a bit of a leap, do you see yourselves as documentary videogame makers as far as Company of Heroes is concerned?

QD: Yeah, it is very important that we capture the history. That’s for sure. When we talk about authenticity, it’s not about getting the numbers of bolts accurate on the wheel of a tank, it’s about the overall tone and what we imagine the tone of the war would have felt like.

We can never give the player the true experience of what it was like to be there, but if we get close we can provide a bit of emotional involvement. I think that’s what we’re really striving for.

IG: Do you make it difficult for yourselves by trying to be as authentic as possible, while also properly balancing the game? RTS games crumble and die if they’re not balanced, but real-world armies are often out of balance…

QD: Oh yeah, it’s incredibly challenging. We built a number of game systems – such as the animation system – to make things seem more plausible and lifelike, but that does have serious repercussions when it comes to balance.

We can’t get into micro-second type reaction and animation in an attempt to balance things, because it’s not believable. For example, a guy can’t get a grenade out, pull the pin and throw it in a split second. That means our pace is different from other games of this sort, and I think that’s one of the things people are drawn to about it.

The snow, for example, that now impacts the gameplay which was a challenge both technically and from a gameplay standpoint. Balancing that with authenticity is hard.

IG: Apart from the snow, do other weather effects impact the gameplay to the same extent?

QD: They do, and we’re going to be talking a lot more about the weather and environmental effects at a later date. The snow is particularly pivotal when it comes to the tactical side of things, though. But, yeah, this is Russia, it’s the Eastern front and we want to capture the entire range and scope of weather effects.

IG: In terms of capturing that scope… the gameplay is still based on controlling a relatively small number of squads. How do you capture the epic nature of the conflict you’re depicting with that intimate style of gameplay?
QD: Well, you’re right to bring that up because it is a challenge and the gameplay itself is intimate. We still have army sizes of about a hundred units, which is roughly within the typical RTS scale I suppose.

Part of achieving the correct feeling comes with introducing elements to players in the campaign that make the battles seem much bigger and make your role feel more important. Most battles, however, even those with millions of men, come down to moments where it’s small squads facing off against each other at important moments and locations.

For us, that’s where the real narrative of the battle emerges.

IG: The narrative you’ve chosen is very focused on the Eastern Front, but are you attempting to provide a picture of the overall war to broaden the picture? i.e. Will there be info regarding the state of the Western Front when defending Soviet borders against the invaders?

QD: There are things we’re doing to create a bit of a western presence, and we will be touching on the support that the Soviet Union was receiving economically from the west. But, really, we’d covered a very well known portion of the war in Company of Heroes and in Company of Heroes 2 we wanted something unique that western players may not have a lot of knowledge about.

There’s almost a mysterious element to the Soviet involvement in the war, they don’t really know much about it. The sheer scale of the conflict and the fight between two dominant ideologies is extremely interesting and we want to portray that. Still, we are a western developer and we do want to show the influence of western nations on the war.

The creative vision that encompasses the breadth of the franchise means that we always want to take things forward and there’s still a lot to be explored. And we want to look at that in the future.

IG: Many in the west today still have an image of Russia as the ‘bad guys’, do you think it’s going to be a tough sale presenting them as the protagonists and the group under your control?

QD: I think some people may find it a little difficult. But, the fact that we’re telling the story of the frontline soldier and their struggle and hardships… that’s something that’s very human and relatable to everyone, east or west.
Not everyone understands just how difficult the conditions of this front were. The Russians are fighting the Germans, but they’re struggling to do that under the rigid communist structure they found themselves under. They were fighting for a freedom that never really appeared, even after the war, and there’s something very tragic and compelling about that. That will always be the thing that stays with me, just how brave and tough these guys were and I think the western audience can relate to that.

IG: Are you attempting to tell the story of the entire Eastern Front campaign?

QD: Yes, the campaign runs from the initial German invasion in 1941 to the battle in Berlin at the very end.

IG: The gameplay demo showed bombing runs from an unseen aircraft, how are you implementing those kinds of features?

QD: Like the first Company of Heroes we have command abilities that players could use, combat support stuff ground soldiers could call in such as aircraft and artillery strikes. This time round we’ve done something different with the aircraft so it’s not a one-time un-defendable strike. This time the plane loiters around the battlefield so players can react to its presence that bit better.

IG: The new ‘true sight’ that you’ve included which prevents you from magically seeing around buildings and through thick trees, has that been designed specifically to make things more difficult and force a tactical/cautious approach?

QD: It’s not intended to make things more difficult. I think it’s primarily there to make things more believable. It does certainly encourage tactical gameplay as players understand that they need to be careful because they can’t always see as much, and I think that slows the pace down a little bit as players are a little more careful about putting their units in potential harm.

It’s a completely natural addition to the game. When you play with true sight it feels fluid and natural and greatly increases the immersion.

IG: Company of Heroes received numerous and regular updates. How much have you learned from that constant improvement process, and have the community provided ideas that you’ve taken onboard?
QD: We listen to the community for sure, and we have a strong presence on various forums. The community is extremely active and we listen to them for inspiration and to provide us with a focus. They’re particularly good at providing balance feedback, in fact.

We try to meet their needs as much as possible and I think they really do appreciate the long-term support Company of Heroes has been given. Company of Heroes 2 already has plans in place for long-term support, we’ve got a very robust plan for post-launch updates and listening to the community.

Also, we’ve learnt that continuous patches over time can provide a slightly different feel and direction for a game. Compared to when it was first released, Company of Heroes is now that bit faster and has many more ‘game’ elements to it. With Company of Heroes 2 we wanted to take things back to those routes and re-focus on the tactical play.

IG: Company of Heroes 2 has taken a long time to appear, is that a result of the resources you’ve had to commit to update the first game?

QD: Yeah, I would say so. We’ve had people, often on their own time, supporting the game and maintaining servers and being a part of the community. That does take a lot of effort.

Also, we haven’t before had the technology available that we thought would provide the kind of leap forward that we were looking for.

IG: How far along is the game as we speak?

QD: We’re still pre-alpha, what you saw was still relatively early and has been running for about a month. It’s looks great now, but there’s still a lot of work to be done yet.

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