Cold Front: Company Of Heroes Interview, Pt 2

By Adam Smith on June 5th, 2012 at 12:00 pm.


Continuing a mammoth discussion about Company of Heroes 2 with Quinn Duffy (game director), Greg Wilson (producer) and Matthew Berger (senior gameplay designer), this time around we consider the future of the series, despite the sequel not being out until next year. Once that’s out of the way, it’s time to discuss more of the research that went into COH2 and to reflect on Homeworld.

RPS: Is Company of Heroes always going to be a WWII series? Was there ever talk of going elsewhere with it, or elsewhen even?

Duffy: Oh yeah, we talked about that a lot. One of the reasons we went back and established our creative and franchise visions was because – well, with COH the vision was very much tied to WWII. But now it’s much broader. We can apply this to any conflict. As long as we capture the tone of the location, the setting and the time period are, not irrelevant, but flexible. As long as we understand what it is about COH that we love we can maintain that vision. We can set the game in the Persian Gulf, in the Civil War…

Berger: World War I.

RPS: No one does World War I.

Duffy: There was a weird alternate history shooter one time, that was like twenty years after and it was still going on. Not very many RTS games.

RPS: Maybe a speed thing. You don’t want things to be too quick though, because people need time to think. You do that with suppression, making natural pauses. A lot of RTS games feel more like a machine that you set up beforehand and it helps to run through the mission for you. How important is the pause and continuation in your games?

Duffy: It was an important part of how we paced the original game. I don’t know if I mentioned it earlier but COH isn’t about actions per minute. I see our balance guys and testers clicking like crazy but it’s not about that. Part of the pacing and part of the reason we are we are were we’re at in development is that we looked at COH and were it had evolved to over time, over the patching process. It became a little faster paced and tactics like kiting were emerging that our systems weren’t designed and built around. We’re going back to what the point were the player has time to react to what’s happening.

Berger: As an example, units ended up doing more and more damage. We’ve dialled back the damage they do because what’s important isn’t the damage, It’s the suppression. You’re held in place and if you don’t do anything about it then you’ll be destroyed.

Duffy: This way we give both players chances to react and adapt. They can bring in new units, use a mortar, throw a grenade. Tactical options come out of systems like that.

RPS: The first time I played COH I remember some of my guys came under fire and I thought I’d screwed up, that I’d lost. But then they were pinned and I realised this was when I was needed. I had to react. It creates iconic moments. You can fill a game with plenty of moments like that by scripting them but then they are more like backdrops. How do you allow people to make their own moments? Even in multiplayer?

Berger: The game does it for us in many ways.

Duffy: We touched on the idea of COH being more than the sum of its parts. People can invest as much time as they want, digging into the depths, or play it more conventionally. Our tools are designed to create interesting outcomes. Let players experiment with what they find compelling. I don’t even care if I lose most of the time. I’ve won small victories, small engagements, helped flank somebody, done something smart. That’s enough to motivate me even if I lose. There are things that I like that aren’t even balanced but they look cool, they sound cool, they feel cool.

RPS: Balance can be the death of story. Applying skill rather than imagination can be limiting in some ways and RTS games are tending toward confrontation of skills. Do you think that’s what helps COH to feel fresh after a few years? Are you going in a different direction to everyone else?

Duffy: Well, we’re not an esport. The demands on the game and the presentation are different if that’s what you’re aiming for. Our game is very presentation heavy. Everything that’s visual in the game is underpinned by gameplay and supports gameplay. We build the tech systems to support the experience. That has created something really unique.

Berger: It has its own pace. It speaks to an audience that likes the time to make decisions on the battlefield but it’s fast paced enough that you’re not staring at a turn-based game. It’s not as unforgiving as either a fast paced esport RTS or a turn-based strategy game. It has its own area where it’s very approachable with a lot of depth that lots of people can find their own level in. When we build a game we constantly keep in mind that it’s not going to be played, mostly, by extremely hardcore players. A lot of the things in the game aren’t going to be used by hardcore players. If you look at the pure numbers it doesn’t make sense. But other players will love to use it. It’s there for them. Those people are our core.

RPS: So there was never a temptation to make an FPS sequel?

Duffy: (laughs) I wonder if the engine could handle it!

RPS: I think you have a pretty strong idea of what people expect from you. Fans can be vocal.

Duffy: There’s a huge market for a beautifully realised RTS experience. We’re going to bring that. I don’t want to say we’re old school particularly, but it’s a beautifully crafted experience with a lot of depth. The temptation to do something like an FPS just isn’t in our roots but if we did one we’d try and apply the same approach.

RPS: Speaking of roots. Homeworld! It must still be close to your hearts.

Duffy: It’s my second favourite game!

RPS: People still talk about that one too.

Wilson: Every interview almost!

RPS: If I don’t ask people will email me saying “WHY DIDN’T YOU ASK!

Duffy: You’re duty bound.

RPS: People don’t just ask about Homeworld because they love it, I don’t think, they also don’t see very much similar to take its place.

Duffy: It was groundbreaking, it was achingly beautiful, it told an amazing story. Objectively, looking back at it, we had two almost identical races. On a level of gameplay sophistication it’s relatively low. It set the tone for Relic though. The gameplay was actually kind of secondary though. We were enthralled by what we had created from a perspective more just of beauty. We were wary of messing with that.

RPS: With COH the visuals drive the systems and vice versa. It doesn’t feel like eye candy too much because it matters. Homeworld felt that the beauty was important because it communicated something as well.

Duffy: It did set the tone for the presentation of our games. People say ‘graphics don’t matter’. I’d never say that. They need to be supportive. It’s a holistic approach.

RPS: Thinking of Hearts of Iron, the Paradox game, those visuals support the system. They communicate what they need to do. You’re closer in so you need to take a different approach, although you maybe don’t HAVE to make it quite so pretty.

Wilson: We’re not done yet. It’s not currently on DX11 even, what you saw.

Duffy: Some of the features you saw are still being worked on.

RPS: What about lower spec machines.

Wilson: We haven’t locked our mid spec down yet but we want as many people as possible to play it. It’s all scalable. A lot of the time a company says min spec and those settings really damage the experience. We want the min spec to play like most companies’ recommended spec.

Duffy: You get to the point where you’re turning everything off sometimes, or you can only play at 6 frames per second, or only against one opponent.

Wilson: Yeah, to us, that’s not min spec. You might be technically playing the game but it’s not an experience we’d want you to have.

RPS: It’s kind of like watching a beautifully made film on an iPhone. It shouldn’t happen. Speaking of movies, have you seen Come and See.

Duffy: That’s from the eighties, right?

RPS: Yeah, that’s what the demo reminded me of. You talk about Band of Brothers for COH 1. COH 2 looks a lot more like that film, which is one of the bleakest films I’ve ever seen.

Wilson: I haven’t seen that.

Duffy: I have it downstairs! We watched a bunch of Eastern European and Russian movies, the quality has improved hugely. There was a series called Shtrafbat about the penal battallions. Started off really well, kind of ended a bit odd. But you get a really neat perspective of the Soviet army. Four or five hundred thousand troops went through those battallions. If they survived three months they were redeemed.

RPS: Were they court martialled guys, ex-military?

Duffy: Soemtimes they just had criminals from scouring the Gulags. A lot of them were soldiers – dereliction of duty, not saluting.

Berger: Underperforming or retreating from a battle could get a whole group put into one.

Duffy: Sometimes just suspicion. If you were behind the lines, how did you survive behind the lines?

RPS: When people say they’re bored of WWII games they often mean they’re bored of France, I think. Is there a sense of responding to those people with COH2?

Duffy: That was a motivation for us to choose the Eastern Front. We can’t ignore it. It’s the elephant in the room in many ways that we don’t talk about much in the West. There are millions of untold stories. Whether it’s WWII or some other conflict, these stories are incredible. It’s amazing to be able to tell them.

Berger: People don’t get tired of good games. If it’s a good game it’s a good game.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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33 Comments »

  1. Stevostin says:

    “There was a weird alternate history shooter one time, that was like twenty years after and it was still going on. ”

    Ironfront !

    • Galcius says:

      Ironfront was great. In some ways it was years ahead of its time, for example when you picked up a weapon it got holstered in one of several locations on your body – so you could have I think it was 2 small weapons (one on each leg) and two large weapons (over the shoulder) plus a knife. If you went into 3rd person they were actually there, strapped to your character. I don’t think I’ve seen a game do that since.

      The storyline was cheesier than a French cheese shop, but it wasn’t meant to be that serious (I don’t think). I still regret trading in my copy after I finished it :(

    • Chris D says:

      There’s more than one then, World War Zero used the same premise.

  2. Gesadt says:

    ive seen Shtrafbat, it pretty good mini-series. i recommend to download it

  3. subedii says:

    Duffy: Well, we’re not an esport. The demands on the game and the presentation are different if that’s what you’re aiming for.

    The fact that they understand that already puts them well ahead of most other attempts at RTS’s. And is at least part of the reason I pretty much bounced right off of Starcraft 2 online play, but not Relic’s games. It wasn’t about skill level (SC2 still has a really good matchmaking system), it was about the fundamentals of the way the gameplay was designed.

    I will note for those that may not fully get his objectives here, that he is not saying that CoH can’t be played competitively online, or that it’s bad to play online, or anything of the sort. But they haven’t got a focus on e-sports (which carries with it a whole host of expectations and design requirements) above the focus they have on the other aspects of what makes CoH.

    Basically Starcraft 2 online was designed first and foremost as an e-sports title. That was the primary deciding factor in everything, from basic mechanics right the way through to visual design. CoH is focussing on a different set of criteria.

    It won’t be as good an e-sports title, it won’t have things like that same high skill ceiling for APM, but for those that are into CoH, it’ll make it a better game, one that’s more about the stories and events that unfold.

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      Vandelay says:

      I do agree with some your points, but much of what they say makes it sound as if the game will be much harder to start getting into the multiplayer, something that initially seems to be at odds with the statement they are steering away from E-Sports. With a game focused on E-Sports (let’s be honest, we are only talking about SC2 here when it comes to RTS,) everything is predictable. I know (or can look up) exactly how much damage a marauder is going to do to a stalker and how many shots it will take me to kill that stalker. From that I can work out whether my army marauders is big enough to defeat his army of stalkers. The same doesn’t quite apply in a game of CoH, where the numbers are all a bit more wooly. Suddenly I have to start thinking about unit placement, firing angles, types of weaponry being used, the possibility of my cover being destroyed, etc.

      That isn’t to say that these are bad things (I love that stuff), but peopel should be aware that “this isn’t E-Sports” doesn’t mean that it will be a easy to get into MP game. Quite the contrary, I could see this being far more frustrating in the early days than SC2, where simply attack moving can get you by in the early leagues.

      • subedii says:

        I’m afraid I have to disagree. Although before I begin, I have to say that, of course, this is all just my own personal impressions.

        Starcraft 2′s raw numbers are on display, but mechanically it’s a much harder game to play. There’s a lot more base micromanagement (which SC2 players call “macro”, but I’m not going to re-ignite that particular argument all over again) when it comes to things like managing your constant worker production, managing your constant production of units, managing your supply, managing your chrono-boost / mules / larval inject.

        This is the kind of stuff I was referring to when I talked about the fundamentals of the way the gameplay is designed. At 30 seconds, every 30 seconds, you click your command centre to create a new worker. The queuing system is stupid and thus actually queuing up 5 units is pretty much verboten in any decent play, and you can’t have a simply auto-queue button because that removes the skill from the e-sports title.

        Take that concept. Apply it to every production facility. Apply it to things like chrono-boost or lraval inject (again, can’t be autocast, because clicking that chronoboost every time it wears off is considered the ‘skill’ of the game). Heck you can download timers that will ding every time you’re supposed to do a larval inject. Then you’ve got other ancillary things like the concept of supply, which rarely have anything explicitly strategic in them, but tend to act more to regulate and slow down the pacing of the game, and do so by creating more ‘skill’ factors to look after. Basically a large part of SC2 is a game of managing time-sinks known as Macro, and splitting your focus between them and the actual combat Micro aspects.

        The “pro” players all manage it to the point where they never miss a beat, never get supply blocked, clicking away at 300 APM +, but CoH isn’t about that in the way it’s designed and paced. It has base building and research and resources, but it hasn’t been designed to make those skill checks, it tries to facilitate them so they’re more tactical decisions. That’s where the differentiation with an e-sports title comes in.

        No online RTS will be easy to get into. But frankly, I had a FAR more annoying time trying to get into SC2 online than CoH. A concept like suppression is easy for me to get my head around. It’s readily visible, and I can tell what’s happening. On the flipside, if I’m playing SC2 and the other guy turns up at my base with 2x the army size, I honestly can’t say it’s any more explicitly obvious what I did wrong other than a general understanding that “I macro’d poorly”. And that can also be learned with time, but again, is something where you will run up against the whole gameplay design that SC2 is envisioned around.

        CoH isn’t a mathematically precise thing, but its tactics are slightly more broad-stroke affairs over longer engagement periods with slower paced encounters where things average out. You still know how you lost and why in each of your encounters and over a larger game, that doesn’t really change.

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          Arathain says:

          I agree with this. CoH does obfuscate its mechanics somewhat, and has some chance-based elements, but because of the setting and the verisimilitude provided by the visuals and the mechanics it’s not that difficult to grasp what’s happening and why.

          When a machine gun opens up on your infantry and they hit the deck and become suppressed you understand immediately what has happened. A thrown grenade is a familiar thing, and it comes with a little on-screen timer so you know what you have to do. When shells bounce of the frontal armour of a tank you get that you should try to flank it. Artillery looks and sounds hugely impressive, so when you see the flares drop you get the hell out of there.

          If you want to know whether your Stalkers will beat her Marauders you have to have looked it up, or learned it over time. The confrontations in CoH can often be grasped by a new player.

          • subedii says:

            In fairness, there’s plenty of that in CoH as well. I mean how do I know which one of these grenadier squads is more effective, especially compared to allied infantry squads?

            A lot of things in RTS’s aren’t readily apparent until you get some experience in them. I think it’s always something that can be worked on. But I do think that CoH has some more approachable mechanics which help ease the learning curve a little.

            In DoW2 things were more apparent once you sussed out the unit icons. This one’s melee, that one’s heavy melee which does vehicle damage, things like that. And in general the visual design helped a bit more in that respect as well. I think a lot of this information can be transmitted visually with the right art design, the problem is you’re also trying to keep true to the setting and not break that.

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            Arathain says:

            There are always going to be those knowledge barriers in any RTS complex enough to be worth lengthy play. I don’t really see it as a bad thing, as long as there’s a way to learn that stuff. I see that as a place Relic actually does quite poorly, actually. You don’t find out that a Volksgrenadier squad will be more likely to defeat a Rifleman squad at maximum range without extensive play experience, testing, or pulling apart the mechanics. For DoW2 I needed Kolaris’ advanced tooltip mod before I really understood what my units were capable of.

            So I think Relic does very well at conveying interesting mechanics, and using mechanics and visuals to guide the player into good tactics, but quite poorly at giving a player who’s getting some experience and looking to improve play the information they need to do that.

            Of course, no discussion of Relic teaching you to play their games is complete without a shoutout to the voice work. A lot of the time you know what’s going on in a battle because your troops will tell you, in some detail, what they’re facing, how it’s likely to go, and how it is going, all without breaking character for a moment, and in a way that is convincing and entertaining.

          • subedii says:

            Yeah I basically agree with all of that.

            Particularly the voicework. Relic’s games always have some truly exceptional voicework, well above and beyond what other games offer, and not only is there tonnes of it but it’s often ridiculously contextual.

  4. Iskariot says:

    I was hoping for a release date for Homeworld 3 ;)

  5. HexagonalBolts says:

    Come and See is one of the best movies ever, an absolute masterpiece, but so totally harrowing. Did you know they used live ammunition in the scene with the cow?

    • MistyMike says:

      But that movie is about the fate of civilians in conflict, and that’s a topic all war game devs really want to stay away from. All they want is a nice clean WWII-themed amusement park, where you can fire realistic weapon models!

      Imagine a game in which you are a girl in a war-torn countryside who has to sustain herself on found potato peels and avoid getting gang-raped. Now that’s SURVIVAL HORROR.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Vandelay says:

    Still no answer on whether this will contain base building or not. In fact, I’m not really sure how the game will play at all and can only assume it will use the same mechanics as the original.

    I really hope it doesn’t go the route of DoW2. As enjoyable as that game was, it was its own thing that would not work in CoH2.

    • subedii says:

      Why is this always such a point of contention? Yes base building is in, they’ve been pretty explicit about that every time they’ve been asked.

      http://www.strategyinformer.com/pc/companyofheroes2/interviews.html

      Strategy Informer: In the years since CoH you guys have done Dawn of War, and then Dawn of War 2 which changed the style of gameplay dramatically, will Company of Heroes 2 be following suit? Is this goodbye to base-building and zones of control?

      Quinn Duffy: No, when we said during the presentation that we weren’t going in a new direction we were very serious. It’s about maintaining all the things we love about Company of Heroes, and tweaking and elaborating and presenting them in a better way. There are some changes to parts of the game, and we’re going to talk about them later, but the overall affect is that the pace, the authenticity, everything you love about Company of Heroes is the same. I mean, we have this great metacritic, and that wasn’t about doing something drastically different.

      Strategy Informer: Do you not think the strategy genre has moved on from static bases then? It doesn’t seem to fit with the fluidity that the Eastern Front implies.

      Quinn Duffy: No I think players in strategy games still enjoy that element. I mean Dawn of War 2 was a great game but in the multiplayer we think that element (base-building) was missed by the players. Bases are an expression of their strategy, and their will to a degree… and they become an important part of the game because they’re scoutable, for example, you can see what your enemy is doing… especially with the introduction of TrueSight. Also, players just like a place where they can feel comfortable, like a Den and so not having base building was never an issue, and we will talk more about that in months to come, but the thing about Company of Heroes is that we tried to make everything very contextual, so base-building will be the same – as contextual as possible within the environment.

      • Premium User Badge

        Vandelay says:

        Ah, Google should be my friend. Teaches me for not looking beyond RPS for gaming news.

        Cheers for the link.

  7. epmode says:

    I believe I shall partake in a wistful sigh in Homeworld’s memory.

    *sigh*

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      Hanban says:

      I too shall let out a wistful sigh.

      *sigh*

      Kharak is burning…

    • nimzy says:

      I still get a little twinge every time Adagio for Strings comes on the radio via my classical music station.

  8. Rattlepiece says:

    I must now play Homeworld again. *sobs*

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    Gap Gen says:

    I love this interview simply for how many awesome things were namedropped in it. Kudos, RPS.

  10. Bhazor says:

    People don’t just ask about Homeworld because they love it, I don’t think, they also don’t see very much similar to take its place.

    Wow, that sentence gave me a head ache.

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      Gap Gen says:

      The basic point is good, though; very few space games, hell very few games, evoke the same feeling of beauty and motivation that Homeworld did. The intro with Adagio for Strings is still a classic.

  11. subedii says:

    If we are going to keep bringing up the Homeworld question, rather than constantly asking where HW3 is, I’d prefer if someone could ask why in the world Homeworld 1 and 2 aren’t on GOG.com?

    • Rich says:

      …and/or when will there be an HD remake?

    • kraken says:

      Because those games are not that old and work well on the latest OS.

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        Hanban says:

        “well” is a bit of an overstatement. I had to do some tweaking to get them to run on Vista. And you basically have to get a hold of a CD which is a cause for concern these days.

        So onto GoG with ya Homeworld!

  12. internisus says:

    “Part of the pacing and part of the reason we are we are were we’re at in development is that we looked at COH and were it had evolved to over time”

    Hi, RPS! Would you like to hire a proofreader? I could really use the work. I’ll even learn ye olde version of English—the one where “color” is spelled funny; although I refuse to abandon the serial comma.

    • Prokroustis says:

      You do realise you are the one who misspelt it, you damned yankee.

      :P

  13. Ateius says:

    “When we build a game we constantly keep in mind that it’s not going to be played, mostly, by extremely hardcore players. A lot of the things in the game aren’t going to be used by hardcore players. If you look at the pure numbers it doesn’t make sense. But other players will love to use it. It’s there for them. Those people are our core.”

    Relic, I love you. Please never abandon this design philosophy.

  14. zagor says:

    world war zero
    i rmbr you