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Posted on May 30, 2006 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

TOAW 3: James Matthews – Interview

By Brian King

Armchair General continues our coverage of the upcoming release of The Operational Art of War 3 by Matrix Games. This game spent many years in legal limbo, and recently has had a re-awakening of activity after Matrix Games bought the rights to it, and proceeded to fix bugs, add new features, and make this version something worth having. The Project Manager for TOAW 3 is James Mathews, long-time TOAW player and all around good guy. He spends some time with us explaining many of the details behind the new game, and specifically why version 3 is going to be worth the investment.

1. James, I’ll ask this question first because I know there were many different feelings within the community. What were your first thoughts when you learned Matrix Games had bought the rights to the Talonsoft back catalogue, and specifically the right to update and improve The Operational Art of War?

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There’s a scene in “Young Frankenstein” where Gene Wilder, in the title role, finally succeeds in animating the monster, and in his best, wild-eyed, half-mad manner, shouts out in a voice full of joy, astonishment, and a bit of dread, “It’s alive!” That same twisted mix of emotions was exactly how I felt.

2. You are well known for having a solid grasp of the back-end mechanics of this complicated game, yet you are not a programmer or a mathematician, at least not that I know of! Can you share some of your background and what made you such a good fit to lead the TOAD Coding Team (The Operational Art Development Coding Team).

It could be dangerous asking this question, so early in the interview. We don’t want to put the readers to sleep before the fourth paragraph…;^)

Actually, I do have a background in Mathematics. Except for three GE classes, I completed all of my course work for a BA in Mathematics, with concentration in Statistics, and had a 3.73 GPA. The original goal was to teach Math at the High School level, with a fallback plan being a continuation of my previous career in manufacturing. Then I got busy with raising a family, running a successful self-storage business, and spending way too many hours playing computer games. I took a couple of semesters off to regain some balance, and when I was ready to go back, found out that the university was no longer offering the major.

Since I’ve been involved in various aspects of manufacturing, and management, I have a good sense of what is needed to maintain focus on shipping a quality product, and the experience in directing a team toward meeting that goal. However, none of those skills are, by themselves, unique. Rather, it is the synthesis of them, along with an extraordinary amount of time actually playing TOAW, which has allowed such a “good fit.” By playing, experimenting with, and testing various aspects of TOAW, over the years I’ve developed the ability to visualize, and have a good intuitive sense for, the underlying complex series of probabilistic algorithms that translate into the game that you see playing out on your screen. Perhaps the only truly unique thing about me though, is feeling a profound sense of “beauty” in how well TOAW integrates these sundry equations to recreate, and conform to, a realistic simulation of Operational Warfare.

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3. TOAW has a long and storied past, with several previous releases, a well known programmer attached to it (Norm Koger), and a loud community clamoring for changes from every direction. How did you balance all these expectations and the game’s baggage when you finally sat down with a clean sheet of paper to begin addressing what needed to be done to create a TOAW 3?

Ha! Ha! Ha! Only in my wildest fever dreams do I ever find myself starting this project with a tabula rasa. This, in fact, is actually the toughest part of the job of managing a project like this. You don’t really have a clean sheet to start with. In the nearly six years since Talonsoft/TakeTwo stopped developing this title, the community had plenty of time to develop some pretty divergent ideas on what TOAW should be, and the direction that its future evolution should take. The fact that this rampant speculation, or dreaming, of where TOAW would go (if and when a game company would ever “rescue” it), took on such an undying life of its own, is testament to the incredibly solid basic mechanics of the game. However, over the course of those six years, and the two years before when the product was actively supported, many very astute and brilliant people had ample opportunity to pick over the game with their fine-toothed combs. Thus, in this long period of stagnated development, a rather substantial collection of “bugs” (real, or imagined) and “wish-lists” had accumulated.

There were issues relating to Matrix’s licensing agreement with Talonsoft/TakeTwo, which had to be balanced, as well. Keep in mind the simple economic fact that after David Heath’s bold, and generous, investment in acquiring the release rights to TOAW, as well as several other games in the Talonsoft line, his company could not sit on those rights indefinitely, without eventually releasing a product. Every dollar spent acquiring a non-productive title, is a dollar wasted. The original plan was to re-release the title during the 2005 Holiday season, with virtually no change, other than a patch that Norm had sitting on the shelf, unused, and undocumented, during the 5 years that the title was in legal limbo. However, upon testing, we discovered some problems with the patch, and had to reevaluate the plan. To David’s lasting credit, we decided to make a much more substantial investment in development resources, and to really make it into a “Matrix Games Product” as opposed to a simple re-release of the previous version.

It was at this time that I was asked to take the reins for the development of TOAW 3. The first thing that I had to do was to formulate a new plan. David and I went back and forth over the last days of 2005, as to what we wanted to do with the title, how soon we needed to get it back on the market, and what resources we had available. Then we hashed out a plan to try to ship a moderately upgraded product, by the end of Q1 2006. As we got closer to that date, the simple question of “What do we call this new release?” prompted a change in plan. When we started throwing around ideas, and settled on “TOAW 3” we asked ourselves a very pointed question, “After all the previous, and piecemeal, releases that this title has gone through, and much of the community’s response to being sold the “same game” over and over, can we really justify calling this ‘TOAW 3′?” We decided to invest more time and resources at this point, and delayed the release. At this writing, we’re trying to make sure that David has some physical product available to sell at the Matrix Games’ booth at Origins, and the downloadable version, a couple of weeks beforehand.

I digress though. To answer how I managed to balance these competing interests, I simply assumed the role of being the proverbial “stick in the mud” – to shift as necessary, but always trying to provide a firm anchor. I had to keep in mind that whatever changes we would incorporate could not break the pool of existing scenarios that would form the means by which to actually play the game. It wouldn’t do any good to reinvent the wheel, only to find out that we left the rest of the car, scattered about the garage in ten thousand pieces. In short, releasing TOAW 3, and then having no scenarios to play it with, would have been a sure-fire recipe for disaster, even more so than releasing it with little to no change and then charging people again, for the “same old game.”

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4. A casual perusal of the community may turn up sentiments such as; I’ve seen too many versions of TOAW over the years! I’m sick of paying over and over for this game! Matrix should have released a free patch for my ACOW game! What can you say to convince people that TOAW 3 is worth their hard earned cash?

Good question. To be honest, I came into the TOAW series evolution with its last Talonsoft version, A Century of Warfare, in 2000. I “got lucky” buying that, rather than any of the other two versions that still shared shelf space with it at my local Fry’s Electronics. Therefore, from an admittedly selfish and personal point of view, I don’t have to contend with this particular instance of “baggage.” However, that said, you have to realize that what one person considers a good investment in entertainment, varies greatly from what another might. For an example, I used to have a series subscription the The Gamers’ line of OCS and SCS games. Though I really love both series, and don’t regret a single purchase, I hate to think of how much more money I’ve spent over the years, buying those “same game” systems, than I would have spent, if I had bought every single TOAW release – twice! To further illustrate this point, I would safely estimate that I have received from my TOAW purchase, at least 10 times the amount of actual playing time than I did from the combined total of every game in both of the aforementioned systems.

Essentially, it comes down to what is your $40-50 worth to you? For me, I generally go by the “Pizza Principle.” In other words, I ask myself, “Is this game, and the enjoyment that I will derive from it, worth the pizzas I could otherwise buy?” Would I really rather have two gourmet pizzas, and a fleeting moment of companionship spent with my family or friends in consuming them, with nothing to show for it, but a full belly, gas, and fading memories? Or, would I rather have a game that will give me hours, upon hours, years, upon years, of gaming pleasure, and the ability to share those experiences with my friends, and others, in the greater gaming community? Now, I do happen to buy a lot of pizzas, and I do own a fair number of games, but in this case, I’ll go on the record and heartily recommend buying the game.

That said, I think that the best reason for people to spend their hard earned cash, is that there are several significant enhancements, already incorporated in TOAW 3, and that all future development of the series will be derived from it. We have some very substantial revisions that will be coming in the future. While we are looking at also developing some reasonably priced “expansion packs” in the future, we’re planning for the basic upgrades to the core engine to be provided for free. Finally, I think it is very important to understand that Matrix Games should not be prejudged by the marketing strategies of the former publishers of this title. If anybody should be given a “clean sheet” with regard to this issue, it should be Matrix.

5. Can you outline some of the most important changes to TOAW 3 compared to ACOW and how you think they will be received in the community.

Wow…where to start? I’m afraid to get started on this, for fear of being even more long-winded than I’ve been so far!

I suppose I should start with bug hunting. As I said before, there were some rather lengthy bug lists compiled over the years, and we sifted through them to whack the biggest, and most verifiable, ones that we could. Some three-dozen bugs were hunted down, and squashed. Poorly defined engine behavior was explained better, and included in the revised manual. Yes, sometimes it is indeed a “feature” and not a bug.

Speaking of features, we included several new ones, from editor settings that can virtually eliminate the annoying issue of “turn-burning” that haunted previous editions of TOAW, to options with which to assist in creating AAR’s, to Norm’s enhanced anti-armor combat, to supply tweaks, to allowing zero and one MP units to fire without blowing the turn, to improved SAM and AAA combat, to…well, you get the picture.

Ralph Trickey, our programmer, has spent a lot of time giving “Elmer” a massage, with the purpose of finally making him a contender. Oh. Sorry. “Elmer” is the pet name that Norm had given his PO, or “Programmed Opponent” instruction set, in the code. As before, it is up to scenario designers to spend some time on their creations, in programming Elmer to play well, but we’ve given them a good head start, by enhancing some of his thinking. He plays a much better offensive game than he used to, and given a well-designed scenario, he can give you a pretty spirited fight.

With regard to scenarios, we had a great scenario evaluation team, led by Daniel McBride, and which included members from several of the TOAW community web sites and ladders. They spent a lot of time sifting through the scenarios that had been created over the course of the past several years, securing the original authors permissions, and then updating them for inclusion in TOAW 3. It should be noted though, that while the updating process standardized the scenario briefings, documentation and graphics, migrated certain event strings, and noted whether the scenario was PO-enabled or play by email (PBEM) only, it was beyond the scope of the team to spend the several hundred man-years necessary to rework the scenarios beyond the design intent of the original authors. In addition to all of the scenarios that originally shipped with TOAW: CoW, we are including over 130 scenarios, hand-picked by the dedicated volunteers of Daniel’s team.

Finally, I’d like to mention the extensive face-lift of the game, in terms of graphics and sounds. We have added some new audio material and enabled the use of era specific graphics and sounds. We’ve added several new hotkeys and GUI enhancements, and revised the artwork for both the GUI and terrain. Of course, if somebody prefers to keep the old-style graphics that they have grown to know and love, during the course of the years, we’ve made it easy to switch those back in, too.

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6. With all the new features, scenarios, manual revisions, tutorials, programming, coordination, and many other things necessary to produce a high quality game – can you explain how you were able pull together all the right teammates to get this game out the door? I believe you call it TOAD?

Thanks for finally asking me about that! It should be emphasized that TOAD (The Operational Art Development) Coding Team is a lot more than just Ralph and I. It is a group of volunteers who have given thousands of man-hours of their time in the process of bringing TOAW 3 to life. I simply cannot praise these guys enough.

As far as how I came to inherit such a sterling bunch of testers, I have to lay that credit firmly in your lap though, Brian. For those reading this, Brian was my immediate predecessor as the Project Manager, and it was his stature in the TOAW Community that allowed him the cachet to pull together the people he did. Pity then, that after signing on to work for him, they found out that they would be working for me! Poor guys never knew what they were in for!

The truly incredible thing about this group though, is how well they stuck through the long process of testing the product. Trust me, running laboriously repetitive tests to ensure that the engine was doing what it was supposed to, is not fun, and calling this “play” testing is mildly demeaning considering the tasks that these guys were asked to do, and then did without complaint!

I have to consider myself fortunate in having such extremely low turnover during the testing process. Though I’ve managed plenty of groups in business, I’d never before managed an all-volunteer group. About midway through, after we decided to bring on a few more testers, due to a couple of people dropping out to attend to their more pressing real-life issues, I asked both David Heath, and Erik Rutins, about whether this turnover rate was “normal.” They both told me that this project was exceptional, in that it had the lowest turnover of any similar project that they had ever seen, at their company or at others. If I can ask just one thing of TOAW 3 buyers, it’s to take a look at the credits, when you get the game. Remember those names. Then, the next time you see one of these guys posting on the forums, send him an email, or a pm, or even post a public message on the forum, thanking them for all the hard work that they put into the game that you are about to enjoy.

7. You’ve clearly invested a lot of time and effort to this game, both as a long time player and now as the leader of the TOAD Coding Team. What is it about TOAW which elicits such dedication from you over all these years?

 

If I had to give a one-word answer, I’d have to say “flexibility.” Of course, it should be pretty obvious by now that such brevity in not in my nature!

I’m an old board gamer. You know…cardboard counters, maps, charts, tables, and 100 page manuals, all strewn across your buddy’s ping-pong table in the spare room for months on end. I love sitting down at a table, bantering with my opponent, and watching him squirm as I execute a brilliant set of attacks, or fine-tune a defense with which to crush his last, dying hopes of victory. TOAW, when played against another wily human opponent is like having an entire closet full of board games, in a single program. The TOAW online community is like having a whole room full of willing opponents, ready, willing and able to satisfy that craving for victory, or to hand you your head in a bucket.

8. Obviously TOAW 3 is going to be a work in progress, as the first release comes along there are certainly going to be future tweaks and modifications to the game via patches; can you share some of your thoughts on what you would like to see in the game over the course of the next few months and years? Will it ever be “done?”

There are obviously some limitations when working within the constraints of a previously coded program. However, there is still a lot of room for improvements. The two major design elements that we will be addressing in the near future are eliminating the player one vs. player two asymmetries that are in the game, and reworking the combat/supply model. This will take substantial testing, in order to not break the system, but Ralph and I have some pretty good thoughts on how to implement these changes and yet keep all the existing scenarios playable. Beyond that, we will try to sift through some of the ideas that have made it into the many “wish lists” over the course of the years, and to incorporate those we can, that still fit within the design scope of the original game. Whenever possible, we will try to make these features available as “switch-able” options, so that people (players and designers) have the ability to more fully customize the game to their liking.

We may eventually hit a wall, in terms of what we can integrate into the existing framework that Norm spent years in creating, and when we do, maybe the community will be ready for a TOAW 4. However, until that time, I don’t see a need to steal anybody’s pizza money, since I see plenty of work ahead in continuing the job of fine-tuning this enduring classic of a game.

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9. You seemed to take a personal interest in updating the manual for the release of TOAW 3. Can you explain what types of changes were needed in the documentation to make them easier to digest than the previous manual? Similarly, your interest in tutorials is something that had been lacking in TOAW; Is it safe to say you are aiming not only at the Grognards out there, but also some new players as well?

Though I’ve spent the last few years patiently answering online TOAW questions to the best of my ability, you should probably know that kind of patient, gentle behavior is not always my first instinct. Often, my first instinct is to ask “Have you RTFM?” I’m a very RTFM (Read The Freakin’ Manual) kind of guy. Fortunately, I’m pretty good at suppressing that in public! Especially so, since in this case, reading the freaking manual has been a source of some problems the community faces regarding rules questions, false bug reports, and just general confusion. Admittedly, much of the manual that shipped with Century of Warfare was, in my opinion, quite well written. Unfortunately, there were many sections that weren’t. Several sections were poorly laid out. Others contained misleading or wrong information, left uncorrected from previous versions of TOAW. Finally, the manual suffered from information overload. That, by itself, wasn’t too much of a problem, but since the printed manual did not lend itself to easy searching by terms, this was a final determining factor toward doing a substantial revision of the manual, and putting it into electronic form. Those old-timer’s who have thumbed through their manuals until the pages have turned brown, will see a lot of the same familiar passages that they saw before. However, if they read carefully, they should also spot quite a few changes and clarifications. Those coming into the game for the first time will hopefully find a better organized and indexed manual that will help, and not hinder, their understanding of this complex, and rewarding game.

The tutorials that we included in the game should go a long way toward helping new, and returning, players to overcome the dreaded learning curve that has long been associated with the TOAW series. The main problem of TOAW is that since it is such a rich, challenging, and complex game, it is sometimes intimidating for new players. Particularly, to those who are new to the genre. We have included four tutorials with the game. These will each consist of a scenario file, and an accompanying document, so that you can either print a hard copy of the document to read it side by side with the game, or you can open the file on your computer, and alt-tab between the document and the game.

One of the documents is the original TOAW I tutorial, which was painstakingly recreated by Bob Cross. Though the look of the GUI and terrain tiles have changed a bit, the basic game design concepts that this tutorial illustrates, have not changed, and it remains, though aged, still an excellent primer for understanding what the TOAW series has always been about. It uses Norm’s Korea 50-51 scenario. Two other tutorials were originally written for TOAW – Century of Warfare, and demonstrate movement and attacks. These were both composed by “General Staff”, and are wonderful examples of his typically astute analysis, and his engaging writing style. They use the Kasserine 43 and Tannenberg 1914 scenarios. The fourth tutorial is one that I wrote specifically for TOAW 3. It will probably put everyone to sleep. It’s a walkthrough of the first couple of turns of my tournament scenario, Anonymous Heroics. The time that it would take me to actually play what is described in the walkthrough would probably not exceed ten minutes. However, the document is just over 15 pages long, and it is all text! In it, I lead the new player through the interface, from loading a game, playing it and saving it. I also demonstrate how to set up a defensive line, manage reserves, and then, through a set of actual saved game files, how to launch counterattacks to restore and preserve your lines against a strong enemy attack. Much of the verbiage is explanations of the “why” behind the “how” so that new players will have some basic idea of what concepts are important enough to learn well enough that they eventually become second nature.

10. Given the lack of agreement within the community on such issues as “soak off attacks”, using small units to encircle and trap bigger units, the abstraction of the air and sea models, etc. what would you say to players who will see these unchanged in the new version of the game?

You’re just not letting me off easy, are you? What players need to realize about TOAW 3, as per all of the TOAW series, it was written with a particular design intent in mind, and that is to be a playable simulation of operational warfare. Though it utilizes a sophisticated system of probabilistic functions to approximate the direct and ranged fire of a vast range of specific weapons systems at each other, it is not, and will never be a tactical level game. Though it has a robust event engine, a wide range of playable scales, and a versatile scenario editor, it will exceed the original design intent to recreate warfare at the grand strategic level. Likewise, players expecting a very detailed air, or naval combat model will likely be somewhat disappointed. Those arms were intended to be supplemental to the action on the ground, in this game, as indeed they generally have been, in the last century and a half of operational warfare.

With respect to what some consider the more “gamey” aspects of play, players often fail to understand the level of abstraction inherent in the game regarding elements of time, space, and recreating the effects of continuous movement and combat, through a turn based system, comprised of alternating, sets of discrete time-periods, as represented by tactical rounds.

Encirclements of forces, while represented by the hexes, and time frame of the system, do not necessarily correspond to a precise time-space positioning of forces at the moment of combat. The abstraction should be understood to include the breakthrough of recon elements, or other attacking units, through the lines, and into the rear, causing a general condition of engagement where retreat is temporarily made difficult or impossible during the abstracted period of time that the attacking player is moving. If he fails to destroy the encircled units during his turn, and they are weakly cordoned, then the local initiative shifts to the opposing player who, again abstractly, is able to organize the attempt to break free, or destroy the infiltrating units.

As far as “soak-off” attacks, there will be some thought given to this aspect when we begin our major revision work, later this year. The combat and supply model of the game will be changed quite a bit when we do this. We believe that these changes will lead to an even more realistic simulation, where players can focus more on sound operational principles, rather than try to eek every last tactical advantage out of the game engine.

When it comes right down to it, operational warfare is ultimately represented by where the lines are drawn on a map, at the beginning, during, and at the end of the campaign, as well as by the forces used, and the respective casualties that the antagonists have suffered. We want players to keep that focus in mind while playing TOAW 3, and to enjoy playing it. Not to be frightened away by a feeling of inadequacy for not learning “the secrets of the priesthood.”

11. We all have our reasons for being anxious to see the new car roll out of the garage…but when you finally get your release copy in hand and you settle down with your first cup of coffee and open the game for the “first” time, what scenario are you most anxious to play in TOAW 3 with all the new bells and whistles? Why?

Without a doubt, Daniel McBride’s Tobruk 1941, using an MRPB of 3, “High Supply,” and the “No Borders” options. You care for a game? You’ve been sitting still for so long on the ladder, that you’re starting to get rung marks on your butt. Back into the trenches, comrade!

12. Will TOAW 3 wash my windows and scrub my toilets?

Over the course of the years, I’ve seen some pretty ingenious extensions of the TOAW engine, so I wouldn’t rule that out. However, I still think you’d find it a better use of your money to use a squeegee, and a rolled up pizza box…

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