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Posted on Mar 11, 2011 in Electronic Games

Naval War Arctic Circle – Interview

Jim Zabek

Naval War: Arctic Circle.  PC Game Interview.  Publisher: Paradox Interactive.  Developer: Turbo Tape Games. 

Armchair General, Jim Zabek (JZ): Can you tell us a bit about who is involved in Turbo Tape and how you got started?

Turbo Tape Games, Jan Haugland (JH): Turbo Tape Games was founded in the beginning of 2008, located in Bergen on the west coast of Norway. The company was started by Dave Spilde, our chairman of the board, Fredrik Sundt Breien, our CEO, and Jan Haugland, our CTO. The company had two employees in the beginning, Fredrik and Jan. Now we are six, in addition to freelancers.

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When we started Turbo Tape Games, we all had solid jobs in regular IT consultancy and a background in academia, education and the IT business, and we weren’t willing to work in a garage for three years while we created our dream game. We had a lot of contacts in education and the exhibit market, and we used our knowledge about game technology and education to create game-like exhibitions to educate young people about science and technology. That was our meal ticket. Then we have used every available hour to create the game, growing the company as we could.

A major milestone was reached when we signed with Paradox Interactive late last year, and also secured the final funding for completing the game.

JZ: I always believe that the world could use another naval wargame. What inspired you to create Naval War?

JH: So true! We are making the game we always wished existed.

I (Jan Haugland, lead game designer on NWAC) was an avid player of Harpoon back in the olde days. Being from Bergen in western Norway, I have a natural affection for the sea and everything naval. Later I also became a fan of more conventional RTS games like StarCraft, Command & Conquer and Age of Empires. That is the vision of the game: a modern, realistic naval strategy game that plays a lot like a modern RTS.

JZ: Naval War is described as an RTS, but I get the sense it won’t be a click-fest. Can you give us an idea as to what the gameplay will entail?

JH: Very true. Your skill in Naval War will not depend on your actions per minute, but how well you plan and then execute your plan.

Whether you play against the AI or a human opponent, you can’t successfully play Naval War without a good plan. You need to immediately start scouting (a similarity with other RTSs, but even more important in NWAC), and then set the loadouts of your aircraft depending on your plan. Then you have to position your forces wisely for defense and offense, be prepared for deceit and do everything you can to hide your plan of attack from your opponent while discovering his.

Choices with tradeoffs are the key to good strategy games. Modern naval combat is really so perfect for a strategy game, since it offers all these choices you really have to think hard about. If you use active sensors, you may risk giving away more information than you get. If you equip all your aircraft for land attack to take out that pesky enemy airfield, you may be powerless to defend if the opponent attacks first. Do you use that helicopter to hunt for submarines, or do you send it out to scout for enemy surface ships? Do you attack surface targets early, or do you go for air supremacy first?

No strategy will win all the time; all is vulnerable to a successful counter-strategy. The key to choosing the right strategy is getting information about your opponent, and even there you have difficult choices.

JZ: Naval warfare, perhaps more than any conflict, encompasses a truly three-dimensional battlespace. What are some of the challenges to modeling this kind of conflict in a game?

JH: True, our units span not only a huge horizontal playfield, some 35 million square kilometers, but it also stretches from the ocean depths to the stratosphere. Moreover, the surface is the real, curved earth, which means that all the normal 3-D formulas game developers know and love need to be modified with a lot of pretty heavy math.

We also model the weather, a full day-night cycle which obviously takes into account the actual location of the sun. If you are far north in July, it is daylight all 24 hours. In the same area in January, it is darkness all the time. The sensors themselves are sensitive to all this: earth curvature, weather, sea state, the sun, the thermal layers in the ocean. Just to model sonars accurately, we would need a complete fluid dynamics and acoustics simulation for the Atlantic Ocean. We obviously don’t. But we believe the compromises we have reached create a very realistic outcome.

JZ: Most navies try to keep the full extent of their capabilities under wraps. What kinds of sources did you use to obtain technical information and can you share an example or two of when you had to take a “best guess”?

JH: We obviously rely on open sources. There are lots of informative web sites out there, even Wikipedia, and most of it goes back to Jane’s (Fighting Ships), which is the primary source of most of the data.

Where reliable data doesn’t exist, we do essentially guess, yes. It must be noted, however, that based on past experiences with pre-war evaluations of platform capabilities, the navies of the world make a lot of guesses, too, not to mention wishful thinking.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to know is the effective ranges of radars, especially when you include modern stealth technology. How effective is stealth actually? How far away can, say, a SPY-1D radar detect a Tupolev Tu-22M3 ‘Backfire’ flying at high altitude? If anybody actually knows, and can tell us, please do. :) But we have made some quite plausible guesses, and we think we’re pretty much on target.

Another fact we don’t really know is for how long modern supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles can actually run at afterburner. We just have to look at the actual ranges, our knowledge of fuel consumption for the different technologies, and make an educated guess.

That we place the game in 2030 gives us some freedom to tweak stats to make the game as fun as possible, and to make the units and strategies balanced. When we find a conflict between realism and fun, we want fun to win. But we also want these conflicts to be as few as possible.

JZ: There are other naval wargames that have been released over the years. What are you working on to separate Naval War from games like Jane’s Fleet Command and the Harpoon series?

JH: These games are quite a few years into the past now, and games technology has obviously moved forward. We also want the user experience to be more like a conventional RTS game, and less like the hardcore strategy titles. We dedicate a lot of time and energy to the user interface, including how to present all the information to the player without overwhelming them with data.

JZ: Operating in and around the Arctic Circle can be brutal. Can you tell us what kinds of weather effects players can expect in the game and how you went about modeling them?

JH: We have a totally dynamic weather simulation engine running inside the game, and the weather really affects your gameplay. If the sea is too rough, you can’t use your sea skimming missiles, and you may also be unable to launch aircraft from sea-based platforms. That totally changes the game. Also, weather very much affects sensors. A high sea state degrades sonar. Rain and snow affects radar and totally ruins the day for sensors like infrared. When you read the spec for an ir-based missile seeker, and the ads say it is “all-weather”, take that with a grain of salt.

On the other hand, the most extreme weather in the arctic region is hardly hospitable to humans at all. In hurricane strength winds, the ships will simply hope to survive, and no aircraft can be launched. Obviously that could be a fun game, but not a war game!

JZ: I noticed a comment in your Twitter feed about the main map being huge. What kinds of technical challenges have you faced in developing the game, and do you have any sense as to what the technical requirements might be when the game is finally released?

JH: Luckily for the gamers, the vast size of the original map (3.5 gigapixels) is only a problem for us when we create the underlying data and model our terrain. Our objective is that a quite modest PC will be able to achieve a totally satisfying experience with Naval War, even if some of the most fancy effect shaders will be unavailable for them. To keep it real, we have a three-year-old laptop around, and it still runs everything in the game.

JZ: All games face trade-offs between realism, balance, and fun. Can you tell us about how you approached these decisions and how they impact the game?

JH: It is a great selling point for Naval War that you are playing with real, existing ships and aircraft, and that they have capabilities like in the real world. That said, people play games because it is fun. If some unit should realistically be enormously overpowered, we somehow have to nerf it to keep the gameplay competitive and fun.

There are also many real-life things that aren’t fun. Aircraft carriers actually have to maneuver up against the wind to launch their aircraft. We think that would not be fun at all in a game, so we leave it out. In Naval War, you can launch your aircraft at any angle relative to the wind. If that is unrealistic, so be it.

JZ: It sounds like there will be a strong single-player game as well as solid multiplayer gaming. What kind of multiplayer gaming can we expect? Are there plans for cooperative gaming, either against the AI or other players?

JH: We will include two single player campaigns, where you go up against the AI, and also separate single-player skirmishes.

The game engine is written from the ground up for multiplayer. We will provide 1vs1 competitive multiplayer on the internet and LAN.

The game could in theory support any constellation of players, including teams, but we only support the real world as a map, not the perfectly balanced and mirrored maps of other RTSs. It will be quite difficult to create balanced 1vs1 experiences, and we don’t believe the real map of the North Atlantic region lends itself to well-balanced many-vs-many games.

We can’t promise cooperative play now, though it is a good idea and on our wish list.

JZ: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JH: Our team members are all quite experienced and avid gamers, and many of us have done extensive modding of other games in the past. We love modding. The underlying data on units, weapons, sensors and of course the missions and campaigns will all be easily moddable for the gaming community, and we’ll do as much as we can to document the game and provide tools for modders. We can hardly wait to see what cool ideas others come up with for fun scenarios and gameplay.

Thank you very much for the great support and encouragement from the community.

Gamers can join the conversation and follow Jan and the team at Turbo Tape Games a number of ways: ,


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