I exaggerate only slightly.
Since Soulstorm is out and it looks like Dawn of War 2’s announcement may be imminent, I thought it time to transcribe a passably memorable event that I had on tape. It occurred when Alec and I toddled over to visit Relic when they first debuted Soulstorm. To be precise, when Executive Producer Jonathan Dowdeswell stopped the video, and asked if there were any questions. And a Polish Journalist showed that, yes, he had.
This lead to fifteen minutes of intense wincing and turning “Your game is nothing compared to Starcraft 2! Nothing!” into a games journalist running joke.
The origin of which I now share.
To be fair, in a Play-it-again-Sam-esque fashion, that immortal line wasn’t actually uttered. But much else was. I’ve only transcribed the exchanges which our nameless journalist friend was actually involved with, and tidied up his somewhat curt syntax a little (Though I wish I could have found a way of writing his contemptuous tone of voice, which added a lot). Of course, some of what he asks is perfectly reasonable. Some of it is even completely true. And Dowdeswell is playing the PR role demanded of him – in fact, that he openly avoids telling the journalist to fuck right off is actually testament to his diplomacy. But as the fanboyism rises, you can hear the recording punctuated by the sound of me clicking my pen tip in and out with a frequency in direct relation to how much I hope he shuts up.
[The scene. A relic board room. Present are about thirty Relic, Iron Lore and THQ staff, PRs and assorted journalists. The first public footage of the game stops, revealing that the first of Soulstorm’s two races are Dark Eldar. And…]
Dowdeswell: So… Any questions?
Polish Journalist: Second Race?
Dowdeswell:[laughs] We’re not talking about that.
PJ: We are all waiting for Genestealers!
[Some boring questions]
PJ: How do you balance the units since you have nine races right now? How do you balance new races? Do you just take a basic race which you balance the others? Or…
Dowdeswell: Um… I’m not exactly sure what you’re asking.
PJ: Do you have more people who do it? How do you, you as a company do it? You have seven races and it’s kind of hard to balance them if there’s seven different races.
Dowdeswell: First thing is we have a balance team – which I don’t know if were mentioned but…
Dowdeswell: They’re all pro players, or have been pro players, and they have an intuitive awareness of a game being exploitable. They get in a room and work with each other and they isolate the problems. They spend all their time doing that. They have different ways to fix it. They can buff a unit. They can remove exploits by changing the time it takes to build or the strength on the battlefield, the money it takes from your economy. They isolate a problem , and go “Let’s try this, this and this” and see if it fixes it. They tend to start balancing against each other, by focusing against the first five minutes of play, then working on tier one. If they can get all nine races balanced against each other on tier one, they’ll move onto the second tier, knowing the first is okay. In terms of the intent behind the balance, they focus no the original gameplay intent of the race, and make sure they’re being true to its spirit. It wouldn’t make sense to take the Orks and turn them into a fast, jumping race. Really, it’s about building up bunches of guys and rolling in. They work a lot with the designers – both current ones and ones in the past – to make sure they understand the spirit of the race… and by that, they understand the spirit of the units. They also aim to create interesting ways for pockets of units that are really good for taking out heavy infantry or vehicles or jumping or whatever it is. Isolating and heightening the strengths and weaknesses of those races. One of the comparisons you get into when you get into games with more than four races… most of them aren’t very unique races. There’s RTS which have thirty units, and there’s a colour change on 15 of the units and one of them has ten percent faster resourcing and this one has ten percent better armour. They’re variations. The reason they can have so many races is because they don’t make them that distinct. Dawn of War and 40K is so distinct we always try to keep pushing that uniqueness right down through all of the units.
[Which is a reasonable answer and question, and things wander until we head back. Dowdeswell is talking about how much they listen to the vocal core fans versus the millions of ones who aren’t the forum…]
Dowdeswell: We try and listen and take as much of the feedback. Most of them when we were doing a closed beta with this game were the most outspoken advocates or anti-advocates in the community… but we had to take it all with a grain of salt. What we try to do, and why we try to have a balance team is to create gameplay that we think is excellent and cross our fingers and hope people agree.
PJ: How many people are playing Dawn of War now? Generally.
Dowdeswell: I don’t know. We tend to have… well, in Company of Heroes we have better statistics. We know how many players are logged and active. In Dawn of War, as soon as a game starts, the players aren’t online anymore. They’re in a game. We’ve never had fully accurate numbers. I’ve ne…
PJ: I think that you can monitor how many people download the patch. How many people downloaded last patch for Dark Crusade.
Dowdeswell: [laughs] I don’t know those things anymore.
PJ: I think it’s useful to know how many people are playing the game if you’re releasing another part.
PJ: Yet you don’t.
Dowdeswell: As I said, I don’t tend to check that stuff myself anymore. The balance teams and lead designers do…
PJ: In terms of story, would it be like Dark Crusade? The storyline, would be developed like that?
Dowdeswell: Yes, it’ll play out like…
PJ: [Interrupting] I think – I’m sorry – but the thing I really loved about the first Dawn of War was the storyline and how it was developed throughout the game. In Dark Crusade, it’s really about playing the game and shooting monsters and getting new terrain. The storyline was kind of… Secondary.
Dowdeswell: Well, what we were trying to do was make a distributed narrative. Try to create gameplay which distributes choices in the campaign which are more interesting to the player, so they feel more involved and it’s not just being dragged along by the nose. In Dawn of War and Winter Assault – I like the stories as well – but they were sort of bookends at the end of the chapter. You start, get this sort of interesting talk of head, then you destroy a bunch of shit – did I say that?
[General Laughter. Polish Journalist interrupts]
PJ: The thing about Warhammer is the story. From my point of view, it really lacked. Dark Crusade lacked a storyline. A solid storyline. As you say, it was a distributed narrative. And Warhammer generally, the world, is created around the story. Don’t you think it would be cool if there was another installment with a storyline? Like a movie? A movielike storyline, like the first?
Dowdeswell: Erm… again, it’s a different kind of gameplay we’re going for with the Metagame. You wait, you wait for the future… but this time we’re advancing [Dark Crusade’s metagame]. There are more details. It has… well, it has a similar starting point. Somehow you have to get nine races and have them all fighting each other – which is where the title comes from – the souls refer to the Dark Eldar ability. And the storm is a warpstorm which has hidden this one system off from the rest of the universe, and all nine races are behind the gates and now fight for survival. It’s really important for us to achieve a strong narrative, but the gameplay addition on the metagame has been a really compelling thing – probably the thing we received the best feedback on from Dark Crusade.
Alec Meer: Any changes in the tech? The engine?
Dowdeswell: No, we haven’t. Going back to the beginning, as we kept going, and the gameplay has matured, we’d like more and more people be able to play it. The nice thing about releasing this game now is a lot of the hardware has caught up with us – the hardware which can play Dawn of War now is just a lot more ubiquitous. Hopefully lots more people can enjoy it.
Alec Meer: It certainly worked for Starcraft, I guess.
Dowdeswell: I was stunned when SC got back in the top 10. Amazing.
PJ: But Starcraft is a different thing. Starcraft is Starcraft! Don’t you think that in 2008 you are going to make a game that’s 3 years old. Its engine is 3 years old. Compared to Company of Heroes, for example. When playing Dark Crusade, for example, I had this feeling there’s something lacking. Company of Heroes with all these ideas like hiding and deformation of terrain and destructible terrain… Dark Crusade lacked. I missed it. I wanted it. Don’t you think…
Dowdeswell: It’s interesting… when SC2 released their videos… Blizzard make these choices. They’ve always made choices. They’ve released every single game on a very low target spec. Including Starcraft 2. Starcraft 2 has a unique set of challenges as a product, because it’s a sport that entrenched in Korea. For them to change the gameplay significantly causes problems. Also, they choose to not include lots of technological advances, so they can hit low hardware. Which goes back to the Value proposition – it’s a gameplay orientated advancement. It’s not a technology advancement. The reason why people are attracted to Starcraft is because the gameplay is pure and the gameplay is fine. That’s exactly what we are trying to discover.
PJ: I understand that, but Starcraft 2 looks way better than Dawn of War! From what we could have seen on what you’ve shown us. Still, it’s the same gameplay – and I understand that the core gameplay is the idea. I get it. But they’ve upped the graphics, and you are not doing it. You have the same engine, which is three years old. I like how the units move, but the terrain looks awful.
Dowdeswell: Yeah… but that’s a test map though. The first thing I said when I saw it, is that everyone always chooses….
PJ: And I think as you said it’s the same engine, the Dark Crusade Engine, I don’t think it would look way better than terrain in Dark Crusade…
THQ PR: I’d take it with a grain of salt. This really is very early code you’re showing, the whole point of a first look…
PJ: Still! I’m not talking about this particular footage. I know it’s just a preview, and a preview preview, but you told us it’ll be the same engine. It’s still the same problem. It’s not a new game. It’s the same game.
Another Polish Journalist: How can you attract new players that didn’t know Dawn of War? They just want bigger, faster game of Dawn of War. What’s for them?
Dowdeswell: I think it’s a significant attraction actually. One of the bad bits of not advancing the technology and not spending millions of dollars increasing the cost of development means we can put the game out for thirty bucks. It doesn’t require any of the original games, and you get a complete game experience. You don’t have to go and spend full PC premier titles prices. That’s thirty day one. It’s twenty after six months. It keeps dropping.
PJ: It’s a low budget game.
Dowdeswell: It’s not low budget. It’s high value.
[A big laugh]
PJ: Yes, but the…
THQ PR: [Cutting in] We’re going to cut it off there, so the guys can do one on ones…
[Ten minutes later, I almost coughed up half my digestion system and had to leave the room with tears in my eyes when I saw a fellow journalist had named the Company of Heroes game he’d just set up “YOU ARE NOTHING COMPARED TO STARCRAFT 2!”. And then the Polish gent joined it. Of course, one thing I hadn’t remembered at the time, which I transcribed – Soulstorm was originally planned to be a thirty dollar game. Upon release, it was actually forty.