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Posted on Jul 28, 2006 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Theatre of War by 1C and Battlefront – Interview

Armchair General

Armchair General was lucky enough to get the crew at Battlefront.com together for their reactions and thoughts to publishing 1C’s Theatre of War. The game gets high praise for being a "worthy successor" to Battlefront’s Combat Mission series, and we wanted to know exactly how all this came about, what it means for 1C and Battlefront, and most importantly what it means for gamers.

The responses below are from Steve Grammont, Matt Faller, and Martin van Balkom of Battlefront.com. Nikolay Baryshnikov of 1C was out of town and could not be reached for immediate comment.

ACG: First the basics; can you explain a little about 1C and what Battlefront will be doing as part of this agreement.

[Matt] At the topmost level of understanding, 1C is the game developer and Battlefront is the publisher. Traditionally, that means they make the game, and we help them sell and distribute it, but neither 1C or Battlefront are traditional companies. What we have entered into is, pardon my corporate-speak, a synergistic cooperation designed to help mold and shape Theatre of War to be the game we all want it to be. With 1c’s experience in the past with the IL-2 series, we knew they had the same passion for the era and same deep desire to “do it right” that we (Battlefront) have always had with our titles, and that’s been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt in every step we have taken with them. Battlefront, is more than a publisher with Theatre of War, we are taking an active role in its final development stages (a development that has been long and arduous). There are many that never thought this game would see the light of day. Other publishers seemed to lack the understanding and knowledge and yes, even faith, that 1C could delivery on the promises they made years ago with the original announcement of this project but all I can when saw the developmental build a few months ago was that I was simply BLOWN AWAY!

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It’s no surprise that Battlefront is now the publisher of this amazing game, to be honest, I feel that we are the only company that COULD publish it. With our extensive background in not only wargames, but this specific era, we bring to the table over 7 years of experience in publishing and since this game offers so much, in such an incredible way, we will be drawing on all of that experience and passion to make it the success it undoubtedly deserves to be.

ACG: Knowing your distaste for clickfest RTS games in general, this decision may come somewhat as a surprise to readers. Can you explain what makes this RTS title more than your average clickfest?

[Steve] We are still very much against clickfest RTS games. The fact that we are so excited about ToW should indicate that it is sooooo much more than the run of the mill RTS games out there. The other games follow a tired old formula that was developed about 10+ years go. The only thing that they do differently today, for the most part, is the graphics. Otherwise, it is the same old same old. ToW, on the other hand, is a true wargame in every sense of the word. It just so happens that it is Real Time. :-)

[Matt] There are few games of the Real Time Simulation genre that really ever did their medium justice. Its not so much their presentation or style of play that we never liked, it was all the other ancillary game facets that fell short. Details were abstracted, historical info was overlooked and most of the time, the AI was always substandard. Theatre of War is a blending of spectacular presentation in its graphics, effects and sounds, coupled with a scholarly knowledge of not just the era, but in the how’s and why’s of WWII combat and the units that fought. There are not hitpoints or super weapons here, the units look, sound (and as the sound engineer on all three CM games, I can’t rave enough about the sound effects in ToW!) and behave realistically, and according to their correct battle drills. I was a big fan of Relic’s Dawn of War Warhammer 40k RTS game, and why? Because it showed a true appreciation and understanding for the world and wars depicted in the original Warhammer 40k game and books. ToW had that same sort of impact on me, although intensified, as WWII is obviously so much more accessible than a hypothetical science fiction setting.

I recently demoed this game at an event known as CMVention, a mini-game convention which is held each year by fans of Combat Mission in Myrtle Beach. I let about a dozen hardcore CM vets check out the game and while the visuals simply blew them away, they all became incredible comfortable with the interface within moments. The only problem I had was pulling them away from the monitor long enough to allow other guys to play. Every few moments someone would yell out as they witnessed yet another incredibly cool feature or game element. Since these were not RTS guys at all, I think the fact that they acclimated to it so fast, and were so overwhelming blown away by it, proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that this game goes way beyond your typical RTS title.

ACG: Certainly this game seems to be geared towards the hardcore wargamer, but naturally we have to wonder if it will be accessible to the mainstream gamers as well. Is this a game that can be played by those playing other "typical" RTS games out there today?

[Matt] One interesting thing about both RTS and more traditional wargames have in common is that a deep understanding and appreciation for the abilities and limitations of your units is the key to success and an ultimate victory. As the gamer plays through the various campaigns and single missions they will learn what the various units are capable of doing and tasks they are best suited to. In this case, instead of learning how to use battalions of Orc Archers or Space Marines, they are playing with KV-1’s and Jagdpanzer IV L/70’s.

The game will also include a full Encyclopedia of units which will go a long way in helping to familiarize gamers who might not know the armor thickness of a M4A3 ‘W’ Sherman variant, for instance. ;-)

[MVB] Players familiar with other RTS games of course will be able to basically “jump right in”. They might find themselves a little confused at first though, because ToW is more realistic than any other RTS I have seen so far. This is especially evident by the generally longer engagement ranges and, a different “flow” of battle than the mindless clickfests of other RTS games. So people familiar with other RTS games might have to get used to ToW just like people had to get used to CM at first – adjust tactics to be less game and more real-world military. This isn’t to say that the game is 100% realistic. There are a number of necessary abstractions of course. But you won’t see engagement ranges limited by the size of your map screen for example, and if you try to mass-rush an MG position you’ll be in a world of hurt. :)

ACG: Along those lines, if it is real time, can you explain why you described this as "truly the only worthy successor to the Combat Mission series we’ve ever seen." Isn’t real time going to be quite different than managing the discrete chunks of time found in the CM series?

[Steve] Sure, there are differences in the details, which is a very good thing. Otherwise it would just be a lot of time and energy spent developing something that has already been developed. Not much sense in that :-) What is the same is the feelings that come about during gameplay and the satisfaction after a battle is complete. Both games get the adrenalin pumping, the brain thinking 10 steps ahead, and the concern for what happens to your guys if you screw up. More importantly, both games give the player the sense that the simulated environment resembles the real world and not some artificial "hit point" and "die roll" game. So few games even attempt this, only a couple have succeeded. CM and ToW are two such games, and that is exactly why people who love CM are going to love ToW. Incidentally, it is also why ToW gamers will love CM:SF when it comes out, since CM:SF is also Real Time (playable as WeGo if desired).

[Matt] That’s a great question and one in which we had to ask ourselves with the development of the new CMx2 based engine that will be featured in the upcoming Combat Mission Shock Force game.

Let me address the first part of your question. How is ToW the only worthy successor to CM? Simple, many games have tried to capture the overall “feel” of CM since it was released in the summer of 2000. All of them, without question, failed. Whether it was the fact that their AI was atrocious, the interface was unworkable, their historical and technical information was skewed, or any number of other glaring issues, the fact always persisted that corners were always cut, quality was always sacrificed, and gameplay was never up to the par that CM established.

With each new game we saw developers make promises that we knew they could never keep. We watched other game programmers tell the public that doing a 3D based war game would not be hard, that coding competent battle ready AI wasn’t difficult and that their game would knock CM off its throne. And then, months or years later, we watched (and yes with a morbid fascination to be sure) each title fail to deliver on their promises and not because their development teams lacked the resources or knowledge to make a good game, but because they overlooked the one simple premise that always set CM above the rest. Get the basics down first, and everything else will follow. The basics are simple, the game has to be playable. It has to behave as people expect it to behave and it must do so in a consistent way.

Theatre of War, fundamentally, is superior to every other tactical WWII game that has come out since the Combat Mission series. To be sure, it has a different style of presentation and pace then the CM series and is more tightly focused in how its battles are depicted, but its attention to detail, and crisp play have that same feel that CM captured all those years ago.

For this reason, its not just the only worthy successor to Combat Mission, but in effect the two games actually compliment each other in ways we had never imagined until we got some time with it ourselves.

Now, on to the second part. How to deal with a RTS environment. Much like CM forced gamers to rethink how to play a wargame, ToW asks gamers to play a combat simulation in a new way. The ability in single player mode to pause and issue orders, as well as move around the map helps a great deal though.

What’s interesting is that when I recently demoed the game, I noticed that everyone initially paused very frequently and gave units orders at a nearly constant pace. As they played though, and grew most accustomed to the interface, they noticed, as I did, that the AI is so good, that it would usually have the new orders, that I was thinking about issuing, already assigned. In CM we had to create various new commands to account for the AI. For example cover arcs weren’t so much there to help focus a unit to a specific area of attention, but to keep it from looking where it shouldn’t. In ToW the AI is very intelligent, and will react to the situations in smart, and logical ways (well until their moral breaks of course). Troops will run to cover, tanks drivers will stop short to allow the gunner to get a shot off as well as face their strongest armor side to the enemy when appropriate, gunner know to use different types of ammo depending on the situation, infantry kneels and goes prone for better accuracy. All of this frees up the player to handle not only the overall strategy of the battle, but also what I like to call “key moments”. In ToW, a key moment can occur when due to the wealth of detail and freedom the game gives the player, you find yourself being able to do something that you simply couldn’t do in CM, or in other wargames.

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