I’m free! Using a straightened coathanger, a blob of chewing gum, and an old Broken Sword walkthrough, I’ve managed to escape the fetid dungeon that is The Flare Path. God, the air out here sure is sweet. And the views – wow! – that must be Mount Manshoot over there, and that can only be the Temple of Fairly Tiresome MMOs. A man could totally reinvent himself in a land like this… he could ditch decades’ worth of baggage and inhibitions.
*On this occasion: studio co-founder and CM co-designer Steve Grammont, CM: Fortress Italy project manager Chris Nelson, and marketing guru and press wrangler Martin van Balkom.
RPS. Blimey! CM: Fortress Italy, ‘CM Shock Force 2′, ‘CM Eastern Front 1′ and ‘CM Battle for Normandy Module 2’… all with ETAs in the next 12 months. What’s happened within Battlefront to allow for this dramatic change of pace?
Battlefront: Years of planning and many years of careful execution. When we originally conceived of the CMx2 engine (2003/2004) this was always a major component of it, even though we realized it would be several years after the first release before we could really kick it into gear. Gamers have an under appreciation for how long it takes to do things right. Especially when the scope of work is compared with the size of the team carrying it out. Still, these announcements didn’t come about overnight. Since the first release (CMSF) each successive release was a bit shorter than the one before it. The major acceleration seen now is simply an extension of earlier progress and an increase in the number of people working full time on it.
RPS: Organisationally, how are you handling the plethora of projects? New external teams? Shorter holidays? Industrious pixies?
Battlefront: We tried pixies, but they drink on the job too much and they don’t clean up after themselves. A bad combo, trust us.
We’ve had an outside partner working with us since CM:SF British Forces. This is the single biggest reason we can handle more things at one time. Since then Battlefront has added new people to its roster to move things along even faster. Holidays were never much our style, though we are starting to remember what they are like. Kinda nice.
RPS: Has the success of CM Touch played a part in your new plans?
Battlefront: Not directly, no. That was done mostly out of house by a developer we’ve worked with in the past and probably will work with more in the future. Our part in the development was more spiritual advisor and provider of data.
RPS: Italian weaponry of WW2 doesn’t have a fantastic reputation. Going by CMFI playtests is this reputation fair?
Battlefront: Definitely. Basically the Italian Army is more of a WW1 army in terms of both weaponry and organization. When Mussolini planned on a big empire building future for Italy he apparently forgot that sort of strategy usually works best with a strong military. Or at least one that is stronger than the ones it does battle with. Bolt action rifles, sparse allocation of full automatic weapons, no infantry based AT weapons, antiquated AFV designs, etc. all doomed the Italian Army to defeat in the face of the Allies.
That being said, at Combat Mission’s level of warfare it’s still possible to see the Italians put up a good fight. Especially considering we’re talking about abstracted pixel warriors who aren’t as afraid to give it a go as perhaps the real flesh and blood versions might have been. If you’re on the Allied side, rewards come best to a commander who knows how to handle his own forces. As CMSF proved, the quality of the force is less important than the quality of the player.
RPS: Have Italian organisational and equipment idiosyncrasies provoked any interesting/unexpected tactics from your playtesters?
Battlefront: Yes and no. The testers who are familiar with Shock Force found playing the Italians a lot like playing as the Red forces. Specifically in CMSF they often fond themselves tactically outclassed by the Blue forces, though still able to do some damage. Especially if the other guy isn’t doing the right things at the right times. I’m sure the Normandy only testers see it that way too, however my guess is they took a few more lumps along the road to enlightenment.
Battlefront: Yes. The intention is to simulate the rest of the Italian Campaign all the way up until the surrender of German forces in May 1945.
RPS: The Flare Path Reading Room has a special shelf (currently empty) for books suggested by developers. Would you like to christen it by recommending one or two CMFI-related ‘must-reads’?
Battlefront: A must-read for Operation Husky is Bitter Victory by Carlo D’Este. D’Este does an excellent job of framing the strategic and operational challenges faced by both sides in Sicily with a very fair analysis. The book is also very well sourced which can provide an interested reader with more resources to follow through.
And let’s not forget Battlefront’s own “The Battery Commander, his Batman, and a Cook”. Originally released as companion for Combat Mission Afrika Korps, it is as current and good a read as back then, and covers Italy.
RPS: The ‘CMx2 2.0′ engine upgrades that are part of CMFI are going to make a lot of old CMx1 diehards very happy. Which changes do you think are going to have the biggest impact?
Battlefront: Long term the improvements to the editor are the big ones. The v1.x editor is a capable tool, but definitely a hair pulling experience in a few critical spots. Even the best scenario makers had productivity hampered by time consuming aspects which we’ve now largely got rid of. Collectively these improvements will likely lead to more people making more things for CM over time.
From a short-term gameplay standpoint, the new commands and improvements to how they are issued are the things people will most likely identify with right away.
RPS: I can see the commercial rationale in charging for engine upgrades to Combat Mission: Battle For Normandy, but isn’t there a danger of creating a very complicated situation multiplayer-wise? Say Tom has an original un-upgraded version of CMBN, Dick has CMBN plus Commonwealth Forces plus the upgrade, Harry has CMBN + Commonwealth Forces but no upgrade, and Barry has CMBN + module 2…
Battlefront: The perceived multiplayer problems with modules and version numbers are already proven to be just theoretical, not actual. Remember, this part of our CM strategy has been in place since CMSF Marines was released 3+ years ago. When two people attempt to link up the game figures out what they have in common and that is what they get to play with. No fuss, no muss. Of course the versions have to be identical, but that has been true for all CM games going back to the beginning 12 years ago.
RPS: Isn’t making purchase of the upgrade mandatory for the next CMBN module likely to cause resentment in some quarters? When people bought CMBN there was no mention that future modules would require a paid engine update.
Battlefront: When someone purchases CMBN they are buying a stand alone game at a stand alone game’s price. If we were instead charging $100 with a promise of more content to come for free or cheap, then a year later were told they had to pay money on top of that… THAT would be an understandable reason to be upset. Which is one reason we didn’t do something like that. The future is uncertain so it’s best to have people pay today for what they get today, not pay forward for something we haven’t even started making yet.
Now, let’s turn this question around. When people bought CMBN they bought with the assumption (based on past history) that their game would get a few smallish improvements for free, then would be left behind when the next CM game came out. All the big improvements in the latest and greatest CM would not be accessible for their game at any price. Then all of a sudden, out of the blue, it’s announced that they now have the opportunity to continually improve their game experience. The opportunity itself came with no extra cost and that means if they never take advantage of it they are no worse off than they were before.
After seeing a few days of feedback from customers it is clear they are overwhelmingly excited by this new, and unexpected, opportunity to keep their games current with the latest features.
RPS: Do you have any plans to experiment with different campaign approaches during the next 12 months?
Battlefront: Campaign improvements for Upgrade 3.0 are planned. We have enough ideas already in hand to keep several teams busy for years, it’s safe to say we don’t need any more ideas to choose from. Which ones we pick will be determined at a later date. One thing we can say is there will be no “strategic overlay” (game within a game) in CM ever. There’s just no way this is good for CM, Battlefront, or ultimately the customers who think they really want it.
RPS: Combat Mission: Fortress Italy passes the Flare Path wargame titling test with flying colours. Who came up with the moniker, and how do you go about naming a new project?
Battlefront: We have brainstorming sessions which involve a lot of serious attempts at coming up with a name, followed by the sobering reality that so many cool names are already taken, then a period of inaction where the surviving names sit around waiting for us to try and top them. After crossing off dozens of names there’s always at least one that manages to stick around to the next round. Often times that is the name that eventually gets picked, simply because nobody can think of anything better and also can’t find a reason to cross that one off. Sometimes we get lucky and we take a shine to one that isn’t already taken, which is actually what happened with Fortress Italy.
RPS: If I arrived at Battlefront HQ reception clutching a plan for a sci-fi or post-apocalyptic CM game, would I be a) Politely shown the door b) Impolitely shown the door c) Invited into the Inner Sanctum for tea and a chat?
Battlefront: A good hypothetical question, especially because we don’t have an HQ! But let’s say, hypothetically, you found it and got past the sharks with the frick’n laser beams on their heads. Upon getting to the front lobby your idea would be greeted with mocking jeers and gestures. Why? Because at any given time we have just such a design being kept alive by nothing more than sheer hope that someday we will find ourselves with enough time to do it and do it right. In short, we have talked about this since (IIRC) before CMSF was even released. Our hearts want it to happen, but our brains keep directing the eyes to the calendar and reminding the gray goo that our dance card is quite full for quite a while yet. Still… we do dream!
RPS: Thanks for your time.