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Norman Wisdom: A Combat Mission Q&A

In June 2000 a metaphorical Tiger Tank burst from a metaphorical Norman wood and proceeded to blow the turrets off 14 metaphorical Shermans. I was those 14 metaphorical ShermansCombat Mission: Beyond Overlord was the Tiger. Nobody is quite sure about the Norman wood.

Blending the tension of a TBS with the freedom and spectacle of an RTS, CMBO’s novel ‘wego’ structure (the action pauses every 60 seconds for both sides to issue orders) and fresh 3D perspective proved both practical and inspired. Gobsmacked grogs had never seen WW2 skirmishes synthesized so realistically or dramatically. Eastern Front and North African sequels followed, then there was a lull while Battlefront built a new engine. Last seen in near-future Syria, second-gen CM (CMx2) is about to head off to the fields and thickets of Forties France. We spoke to BF co-founder Steve Grammont and new recruit Phil Culliton about the coming hostilities.

RPS – Welcome back to WW2! Working with Shermans and Screamin’ Eagles again must bring back a few memories of CMBO’s gestation. Emotionally and practically, how similar are the two development experiences?

Steve – The two experiences have been, so far, quite different. Everything we thought of back in 1997-2000 was untested in the market place. Not only the game itself but also how we were planning on selling it (online only). While we thought we had a solid product and method for distributing it, we weren’t sure there would be enough sales to keep us in business post CMBO release. Happily, we were surprised to find that we could stay in business :-)

This time around we aren’t unsure about the basics. We had a very stable, well received game engine to start from which, in turn, was the result of 6 years of CMx1 development. From a sales mechanics standpoint, we’ve got one of the best sales vehicles on the Internet and have more than 10 years of experience behind us. Therefore, before we even started on Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy we knew we’d have a product people wanted to buy and a method for making the sale.

From an emotional standpoint, it’s been less stressful than CMBO in many ways except one. The new CMx2 engine, which Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy  is based on, is so detailed and realistic that it’s a lot harder to ‘hide’ flaws, shortcuts, and technical limitations than it was with CMx1. Partly because of the 1:1 graphics and more precise terrain, partly because people have grown used to us striving for super-detailed realism. With CMBO people were completely caught off guard and were therefore easier to please. Not that wargamers are ever really “easy to please” :-) If people wonder why it’s taken so long to make CM:BN, it’s our need and desire to meet people’s extremely (impossibly) high expectations at least half way.

RPS – Is modelling WW2-era warfare simpler than modelling modern warfare?

Steve – Yes and no. From a subject standpoint adding WW2 stuff was much easier than Modern because we’ve handled WW2 in detail before. Compare this to CM:SF where we were learning a lot about modern warfare as we went, some of which was in a state of flux in the real world at the time. However, since this is our first round of WW2 we had to write a lot of new code and experiment with “dumbing down” the behavior of modern day warfare. On top of that we’ve also had to create CMx2’s first temperate environment, complete with brand new features like water and bridges. This was a lot of hard, gruelling work to slog through.

RPS – Exposure to numerous WW2 shooters has taught me that the primary form of infantry cover in Normandy was the Dead Cow. What will grunts be hiding behind in CMBN that they weren’t hiding behind in CMSF?

Steve – Not dead cows :-) There are three basic forms of cover for infantry; terrain, Flavor Objects, and defensive works. Terrain can take the form of walls, trees, low bocage, farmhouses, barns, hills, etc. Because of the move from the desert to Normandy there are a lot of new terrain types to interact with. Flavor Objects are things like haystacks, farm carts, city fountains, and other man made/placed objects that are scattered around any patch of Earth that humans inhabit. These are things large enough to offer some form of cover, but not large enough to really afford much in the way of concealment. The last type are things like bunkers, foxholes, and trenches. CM:BN offers players an extensive capability of combining these various items into cohesive, integrated lines of defense. Unlike CMx1, you can put regular units into bunkers and move them out if you like.

RPS – Does the inclusion of water mean beach landing scenarios are theoretically possible?

Steve – We have no amphibious vehicles, but yeah… beach landings can be fudged just as they could be in CMBO. If you give creative scenario makers a bunch of tools they’ll do all kinds of crazy things with them that the game was never intended to handle. How well such experiments work or not isn’t for us to judge.

RPS – The Quick Battle revisions sound excellent. If you had 2000 points to spend contesting a small bocage-heavy map with a historically plausible US force, what would you buy?

Steve – We’ve learned some interesting things with both CMx1 and CM:SF’s QB systems. In many ways CMx1 was too loose, CM:SF was too tight. While it is true that many people want to spend more time “cherry picking” their units for a QB battle than the battle itself takes, there are many others who want the “quick” part of a QuickBattle to extend to the unit purchasing component. CM:BN uses a new system which is a combination of both systems in some ways, but in the end is a unique system unto itself.

Let’s say you’re going for an infantry heavy reinforced Company for fighting through bocage. You might do something like purchase an infantry battalion and whittle it down to an infantry company and a variety of heavy weapons from the weapons company. But this might not be exactly what you want, so you go to the specialists section and purchase a couple of engineer squads (armed with demo charges), an independent forward observer, and maybe a couple of scouts (3 heavily armed men). These specialists are assigned to specific formations you have already purchased, such as putting the forward observer directly under the Company CO, then adding the Engineers and Scouts to a Rifle Platoon you intend to use as a spearhead.

With the infantry taken care of you then go for some armor. There’s a couple of ways you can go about this, but one interesting new way is to purchase individual vehicles and assign them to specific Rifle Platoons. For example, if you have decided to build up 1st Platoon into your main strike force you might opt to give them 2x Shermans with Rhino hedgerow cutters and a 105mm Assault Tank. For the follow up 2nd Platoon you might give it a couple of Shermans without Rhinos (cheaper) and call it good. For 3rd Platoon… maybe you’re out of points so you just keep it infantry only.

Of course you can also buy armor in formations from battalion down to platoon if you so choose.

RPS – I lost a lot of good men in Syria – a few in slightly frustrating circumstances . Will infantry last longer and look after themselves a little better in Normandy?

Steve – All things being equal, yes. WW2 lethality is far less than Modern, Normandy has more cover than Syria, and player expectations about what WW2 troops can do vs. modern armor clad soldiers should mean they get put into less dire circumstances to begin with. But just like a good CM:SF player could win a battle with just a casualty or two, I’m sure there are plenty of CM:BN players that will wind up with massive casualties. Quality of command isn’t something we control!

Phil – In my opinion, absolutely. My major concern with Shock Force when I started playing it was its infantry tactical AI. Between the initial release of CMSF and the engine we’re using in Normandy there have been quite a lot of changes that have made a real difference. There is still room for improvement – with AI there almost always is – but I am pretty consistently impressed with the way infantry handle themselves now. I’m sure there will be upgrades in the future but between the engine improvements and the battle space differences that Steve mentions I think players will be very happy with the way infantry works in Normandy.

RPS – How “story-driven and semi-dynamic” is the campaign going to be? Will a string of early defeats mean a US player never gets the chance to break-out of the bocage?

Steve – We don’t want our campaigns to be too far flung from a story standpoint, so both the US and German campaigns are focused on a specific slice of the larger battle for Normandy instead of a “take your tanks from the beaches and liberate Paris” type campaign. Undoubtedly players will create such larger, more encompassing campaigns post release.

RPS – Part of the magic of CM has always been watching the accidents and flukes – the lethal ricochets, the AP rounds that puncture multiple vehicles, the arty-triggered brush fires… What’s the most unexpected thing you’ve seen during beta testing?

Steve – At one point we found buttoned up Tigers weren’t able to spot distant Sherman target tanks. There was lots of head scratching about the cause until we discovered that there was a model error in the placement of the Tiger’s tank commander. He was seated, graphically, facing 90 degrees to the tank’s left. A couple of those polygons were marked as eyes, a couple of polygons on the inside of the turret were marked “Commander’s Periscope”. Since the “eyes” weren’t any where near the “Periscope” the system treated the Tiger as effectively blind from the front because the TC didn’t have access to his magnified optics. Since nobody looked into the tanks in any sort of detail, nobody was even aware that the TCs were in the wrong position in some vehicles. Now we know better ;-)

Phil – I had a battle anecdote of my own in mind for this but this morning a tester reported something great. He was defending as Germans and his lines were penetrated by a small American element including a Priest. He drove back the penetrating element, but the Priest managed to back itself into his positions in its confusion as it fled. When it went up it took most of one of his squads with it. To add insult to injury secondary explosions from its demise suppressed the better part of a platoon and a half of his men and opening a gaping hole in his lines. Truly great stuff.

RPS – When are we Brits likely to get our hands on Churchills and Cromwells?

Steve – The 1st Module for CM:BN will cover Commonwealth forces.

RPS – There must be moments in the wargame design process when ‘simulation’ and ‘fun’ come to blows. What was the last Fun vs. Realism decision you made and what was the outcome?

Steve – Fortunately we don’t really have to make those sorts of decisions very often. Fun, for our customers, usually comes from realism. However, sometimes fun and realism aren’t inherently compatible and we have to consciously favor one or the other. The biggest compromise we made with CM:BN is having defensive works, like trenches, portrayed on top of the map’s surface. This allows people to place their trenches wherever they like and still have Fog Of War apply. This is a lot of fun in many ways. In CM:SF the trenches looked far more realistic because they deformed the terrain as you would see in real life, but it was impossible to hide the deformations for Fog Of War purposes. Both systems have their shortcomings, but we decided to embrace the system that is overall more fun vs. the one that is technically more realistic overall.

RPS – Battlefront’s approach to creating wargames is pretty unusual. Why the hostility towards ‘design for effect’?

Steve – Because it often creates more work, more problems, and less desirable outcomes than “engineered” effects. Designed for effect systems work better the less realistic and detailed the expected outcomes are. Combat Mission is at nearly the lowest level of combat you can go and players expect an extremely high level of realism and lots of details. This lends itself much better to engineered vs. designed for effect solutions. From our own experiences we know this to be true.

CMx1 was a combination of mostly engineered vehicles and mostly designed for effect infantry modeling. Any objective player would likely say that vehicles were the stronger portion of CMx1 despite the fact that we probably put far more time and energy into the infantry component. Worse, part way through CMBB development we realized that we’d basically hit the end of our abilities to improve the underlying modelling of the game engine because complex “designed for effect” systems tend to be quite inflexible and brittle. It’s the reason why, in 2002, we decided to scrap CMx1 after CMBB was released. We gave the game engine one more go with CMAK in 2003, but we did not improve the game engine hardly at all since we knew it would be the last CMx1 game made. It had to be, largely because of the guts of the game were designed for effect. Which is why CMx2 is far more engineered than designed for effect.

RPS – Is there a slight danger with attempting to simulate everything from the ground up, that technological factors, because they can be more easily quantified, end up more significant in-game than soft, hard-to-measure psychological factors?

Steve – This is where a good design philosophy comes into play. Like so many things in life, melding of two complimentary systems often produces a better end result than either one could ever do on its own. Soft factors, such as morale and motivation, are not at all easily quantifiable and therefore not the best candidates for strictly engineered solutions. Instead, you implement various values and assess their correctness by the behavior that comes out during various situations. That’s designed for effect for sure. But what is the context of these soft factors? Highly engineered sub systems that interact the purely technical (like ballistics) with the highly subjective (various soft factors). In this sense some of the systems in CMx1 are better described as engineered designed for effect systems. But the emphasis is always on the engineered side of things because a well engineered system can be more easily altered to accept a wider range of possibilities. This is important within any one CM game, but it’s also critical to having a game engine we don’t have to chuck because it’s too difficult to work with over time.

RPS – Could the Battlefront ‘engineered’ approach be applied be to higher level wargames – the operational, the grand-strategic?

Steve – The higher up one goes the less need there is for engineered systems. The reason being that when you start talking about masses of soldiers, vehicles, guns, etc. the individual results no longer have much, if any, significance. This is very different from a player firing his one and only AT Gun in a 1:1 graphical environment. Because try as one might, the best designed for effect gunnery system will not produce as wide a range of predictably realistic results as a well engineered system can. Therefore, the more important an individual element is to the game/player, the more likely an engineered solution will provide better end results. The less important the individual simulated element is to the game/player, the more likely a designed for effect system is the right way to go.

RPS – Are you surprised that more of your wargame-creating peers haven’t followed you into the wonderful world of 3D?

Steve – A little. It’s an obvious path to go, but it’s a very difficult one from a technical standpoint. Even for us, with more than 14 years of development experience in this area, it’s tough to do. Still, it’s rather amazing to us that 11 years after CMBO’s release there aren’t any games that have equalled CM, not to mention moved beyond. That’s not just our assessment, but rather what our customers have been telling us over and over again. It seems the only ones out there capable of besting CMBO is us. It’s a strange experience to have to set your own bar even after so many years of opportunities for others to set the bar for us.

RPS – The fact that no-one has ever given air warfare the CM treatment, is a source of constant disappointment to me. Has the notion of a revamped Achtung Spifire ever been discussed within BF?

Steve – No. It’s too small of a niche to pursue for the amount of effort it would take to make a viable product.

RPS – Phil, Battlefront have always had a very small core staff. How did you end up as part of it?

Phil – I started off as a beta tester back at the end of 2007, while I was working in another industry as a software developer. I was pretty disillusioned by Combat Mission: Shock Force’s v1.0 release, but when I saw how hard Battlefront was working to make it right I stuck around and kept playing. There were still a lot of rough edges in those first few patches and I complained like the dickens – I think I complained just coherently enough that Steve decided to put me on the beta team. When I left my job in late 2008 and started doing consulting work, Steve and I began to discuss things I could do to help them out. I have a background in AI and a few other areas that we thought I could be some use in, so we traded ideas and kept in touch. I handled a couple of tasks for them as a contractor over the next year or so, and when they decided to expand their programming staff they chose me. Steve may have a twist or two to add to that story, of course.

Steve – When we look to take expand our volunteer or paid staff we go with people we have had extended contact with. Phil showed he could be critical in a way that was constructive. Anybody who has visited our discussion Forum over the last 12 years knows we don’t have any interest in people who are angry, chronic complainers, or otherwise incapable of working with others towards a common goal. Since his attitude was spot on, it only remained to see if he was up to the programming challenges we wanted help with. A few real world tests of his abilities established that he had those skills as well. Good attitude, good aptitude for programming… that’s all we need :-)

RPS – How have the first 8 months been?

Phil – It’s been fantastic. Steve, Charles, and the rest of the team are funny, hard-working, understanding people who have made a lot of very good games and know how to keep on making them. They were the real draw for me – the people at BFC are the reason I took the job. And of course, making games is a pleasure all its own. It can be brutally hard work but it’s very rewarding.

RPS – What’s on your ‘to do’ list this week?

Phil – I’ve got a to-do list as long as my arm – and my arms are long! I’ll be working on the Mac version, working on water effects, will probably help with any truly weird bugs that pop up, probably do some performance testing… it never ends. But it’s a blast.

Steve – One disadvantage of working on a long term game engine is, as Phil says, there’s never an end. The good thing, though, is that there’s never an end :-) We can be as creative and innovative as we want and yet never run out of cool things to work on. Good for job security!

RPS – Thanks chaps.

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