The Making Of Company Of Heroes

In 2001, Band of Brothers was still airing on HBO and Canadian developer Relic Entertainment was finishing up development of Impossible Creatures, its freaky animal RTS. Space and sci-fi had been its muse for years, but it found, in the increased cultural interest in World War 2, another setting and the impetus for Company of Heroes.

Relic celebrated the game’s tenth anniversary this month. It remains one of the most acclaimed RTS games of all time, lavished in 2006 with glowing reviews and heaps of awards. I’ll mostly remember it as the reason I got chewed out by a lecturer for dozing in class, after a long night of liberating Europe.

We’ve talked four of the original developers into taking a trip down a potholed, tank-lined memory lane with us.

“It was originally a continuation from Impossible Creatures,” jokes game director Quinn Duffy, Company of Heroes’ senior designer. “It was set in the ‘30s in an alternate timeline.”

While an alternate World War 2 with bizarre chimera sounds a bit brilliant, the actual origin of Company of Heroes is a little more down to Earth. Relic was looking for a new game to pitch to THQ – also publishing Dawn of War at the time – and it was clear that World War 2 was in the public milieu, with Saving Private Ryan only a few years old, Band of Brothers still new, and a wave of World War 2 first-person shooters imminent.

After Homeworld, Dawn of War and Impossible Creatures, it was a dramatic change to a less fantastical, Earth-bound setting. And though its inspiration was history, Company of Heroes proved to be extremely forward-facing. It was actually World War 2 itself that drove many of the changes that set the game apart from other RTSs.

“It was all subject matter,” Duffy recollects. “It was all the vision and inspiration for the game and trying to contextualise the experience. We were trying to make RTSs experiential as opposed to rote build orders and APM. It didn’t suit the subject matter. You look at World War 2 and look at the references, and you look at… all the stuff we gathered, immersing ourselves in it – it was all about trying to capture the tone, and you can’t do that with explicit counters and 400 APM and exact build orders. That’s not World War 2.”

Relic placed a lot of importance on missions evoking the right tone. In the mission design document for the Falaise Pocket map, for example, significant attention is given to the theme of the battle. “The encirclement is almost complete, but the amount of devastation wrought on the Germans is immense, almost tragic.” And the impact it should have on the player. “The player should feel satisfaction at securing a major military success, but also some empathy for the Germans that are going through hell.” The cinematic emphasises this with a focus on the destruction and the determined but desperate defence the Germans are putting up. The missions were elevated by their context.

“I remember hearing stories about the art director wanting to understand the history behind any piece or any scene or any asset,” adds executive producer Greg Wilson. “It wasn’t enough to just put pit marks in the paint of a tank, you had to describe the scenario the led up to that, if there was blood stained on it, you needed to describe it in detail so the team could understand the motivation and intent behind it.”

That its launch was ten years ago feels strange to acknowledge. Company of Heroes doesn’t seem remotely a decade old. Relic gutted real-time strategy, tearing out rock, paper, scissors combat and base construction, and filled it with new organs like physics, destructible buildings, and ultra-detailed maps. It was almost a fresh start, and to do everything Relic wanted to achieve with Company of Heroes, a new engine was needed.

Before Relic finished what would be called the Essence Engine, development on Company of Heroes had already begun, with prototyping being done on an older engine. This created a few wrinkles when it came time for the switch.

“I remember the engineering team were working away on the new renderer, the simulation layer, and the stuff that was built for Essence,” Duffy says. “They were like, ‘Okay it’s ready,’ and then you get a unit skating around in ref pose with a gun that could shoot once a second, and well that’s not going to work for combat. It took us another three months after we first got hold of it to actually get a rifleman running and shooting, having an aim matrix, and having some of the combat variables that we ended up with, not even the full thing.”

Duffy points out, however, that the real trick was getting the guns to not hit their target. More time was spent on getting them to look right when the bullets were spraying walls or hitting the ground.

“There ended up being this kitchen sink mentality,” explains principal programmer Ian Thomson. “We wanted everything in there. We’d see all the games out there and be like, ‘Half-Life 2 has this lighting and all these other things, and normal mapping is a thing! And physics? RTSs don’t have it, but damn it to Hell, let’s do physics!’ And so we just started opening our eyes to all the things we could do, and how it could create new experiences.”

The fleeting safety of buildings, the tension that comes from ordering vehicles down an empty street and not knowing if they’re driving into a trap, the physical evolution of the battlefield as towns were torn apart – the Essence Engine worked in tandem with the art to set a cohesive visual and mechanical tone. It looked striking, full of flashy explosions and screen-clogging smoke, and was equally thrilling to play, trying to make sense of the chaos and keep calm under pressure. As I commanded my troops back in 2006, it was like looking at the future of the RTS.

Unfortunately, Company of Heroes has ultimately proved to be more of an anomaly, rather than the herald of the future. Indeed, it seems to have defied it.

Modern big budget RTSs, small as they are in number, are mostly concerned with the past, attempting to get back to the days of Supreme Commander or Total Annihilation, or sticking to the tried and tested methods laid out in StarCraft and Command & Conquer. Thus, the surprises contained in Company of Heroes and its Eastern Front sequel remain compelling novelties.

Ambition was not a limiting force in the development of Company of Heroes, but occasionally technology proved to be an obstacle. Thomson wrote a type of TrueSight in 2004, an alternative to fog of war that simulates what’s visible on the map through line of sight. It would eventually be used in Company of Heroes 2, but in 2004, it was too expensive to do using contemporary computers.

“With most games you can probably take about 80 percent of your design docs and throw them in the garbage, right off the bat,” Duffy adds.

Come 2005, Relic was finally able to show Company of Heroes off to the press. In January, a magazine preview was scheduled, to be published before E3, when the public would finally get to see it. The game had only just begun to come together however.

“As we started putting everything together, we were going through doing milestones, and we basically failed a milestone,” Thomson remembers. “We were halfway through putting everything together, and it all looked like crap. That was in December, when we failed. By January we had something that looked entirely different. We saw the units moving between cover, vehicles moving in the environment, vehicles blowing up objects, vehicles running through walls, getting into buildings, destroying parts of buildings – the core mechanics and experience of CoH kind of fell together when we finally had design and technology working together.”

The developers recall E3 going well, but with all the variables, even in the scripted demo, things occasionally went wrong. Soldiers surviving certain death at the hands of a falling chimney. Invincible French pianos providing infinite cover. “It was one strong piano,” Duffy nods. They are fond memories, though.

“I remember the validation and reactions from players seeing it for the first time. I wish everyone on the team could get to see that, to go and present a game to somebody who is going to purchase and play it, the excitement… it really pays off.”

Company of Heroes launched in August 2006 but development continued as the game’s multiplayer community grew, expecting balance changes and patches.

“It was the first time we were trying to get a lot of stats,” Duffy says. “We were really trying to think of data acquisition and metrics as part of what we wanted to do within the multiplayer. But we couldn’t actually store that amount of data, and even capturing the data slowed the game down, it lagged like crazy, we filled up servers within minutes of starting to log data. This is pre-cloud. What’s a terabyte of data cost nowadays? It’s like cereal boxes. So that’s something we failed at, but I think it was forward-thinking.”

Judging things by feel, by jumping into multiplayer matches and duking it out, remained the typical way to test the balance.

“I know the feeling I get is the feeling of getting my ass handed to me,” Duffy admits.

“Back in the Company of Heroes days, a lot of the balancing was done based on feel,” explains Ryan McGechaen, who worked on most of the game’s multiplayer maps. “We had balance testers and they’d play through the matches and they’d tell us this unit feels a little overpowered, this unit feels a lot too overpowered, that sort of thing. Nowadays we have a lot of that data, we can create a hypothesis and look at the data.

“Whenever you make any kind of balance change, and this is true in pretty much any game from video games to tabletop, you’re going to get that initial gut reaction of ‘This is terrible, why did you do it, it’s overpowered, it’s made this unit useless.” It’s important to take that feedback and let it simmer a little bit. I know for me, whenever I would play a game where they would change something, I’d be like, ‘Why did you do that? I can’t beat this unit now.’ Sometimes it’s a few days later before I realise how I can combat it.”

“I think that speaks to the different kinds of players Company of Heroes managed to attract, as well,” adds Wilson. “It wasn’t just for the hardcore, it touched on something that was attracting a larger, more varied playerbase. Sometimes these subtle changes mean different things to different kinds of players. There’s a trickle down effect. If we’re tuning for this elite, highly competitive playerbase, they understand the nuance of the game to such a degree that these changes have a strong impact, and somebody removed from that might not understand that strategy until days or weeks later.”

Expressing those changes was more of a challenge in the days before big sites wrote about balance tweaks, developers tweeted out patch notes, and the ubiquity of Steam. There wasn’t the same level of interaction between the studio and a game’s community, either.

“The internet and forums have changed the relationship to a degree,” says Duffy. “The early games we did, there wasn’t any of this. There wasn’t a community, and forums weren’t the types of sites… some of them can be incredibly harsh. The tenor of what happens on the internet has changed quite a bit in the last decade. And the role of community in the studio. We didn’t have community managers, community liaisons, the developers were the people in the forums ten years ago, but now there’s a whole role, and group within the studios that’s helping us relate to our community and communicating intent back and forth, and that’s been big.”

Company of Heroes spawned two expansions, both standalone. The first, Opposing Fronts expanded the scope of the game by following British and German troops in two separate campaigns. Normally the antagonists, the inclusion of the German faction ruffled some feathers.

“There was a little bit of heat about that,” Duffy remembers.

“From day one it was very important that we kept it at the level where you were with soldiers who were out there doing their job; they believed they were doing it for their homeland, for Germany,” explains McGechaen, the campaign’s designer. “There were a few times we had to take a step back and look at it and see if it’s going to go over well. I think we dealt with it fairly well? It was more about fighting for your country. The whole campaign was set when the Allies were starting to make their push into Germany, so a lot of it was flipping it – your country is being invaded, the soldiers have families to keep safe.”

It wasn’t until preparing for this interview that I realised a third expansion had also been in the works, after Opposing Fronts and Tales of Valor. It would have been set around Italy, shining a spotlight on a less explored side of the war. Unfortunately, it was never finished. It was pitted against Relic’s other project, Company of Heroes Online in a sort of Highlander-style duel, and it lost. Company of Heroes Online was eventually cancelled as well.

“It was in early development, and right about that time the free-to-play buzzword started to gain momentum,” Wilson says. “So we started up Company of Heroes Online internally as well. So we had these two parallel competing priorities within the franchise, and at one point we made a decision that for the sake of quality and sanity we needed to pick a lane and go for it, and we ended up shelving the Italy stuff and pushing ahead with Company of Heroes Online.”

That may have not been the end of an Italy expansion, however. At the very least, Duffy continues to see it as fertile ground.

“I think it’s often viewed as a bit of a sideshow. Churchill said it was the soft underbelly and proved to be nothing but an incredible slog of challenge. Personally it’s really interesting because the Canadian army played such a big role in Italy. You don’t hear as much about it. The Normandy campaign took the attention away. So there’s a whole area in there that’s little covered. There are lots of spots in the war where important things happened but don’t get attention.“

There’s a gloomy edge to reminiscing about Company of Heroes, realising how much the RTS landscape has changed, or rather how it’s not changed enough and and it’s shrunk. While Relic continues to make successful real-time strategy games, I find myself wondering if Company of Heroes was released today, as a new IP, would it see the same success? Would there even be an opportunity?

“We think about that kind of thing quite a bit,” Duffy tells me. “Would it have? Looking at our own experience of launching successive titles, often years apart, you see a change in expectations, in market, in communication, journalism as a discipline looks at games differently – yeah I think it would be harder.”

World War 2 games are no longer a dime a dozen now, however, and Thomson thinks that might have helped Company of Heroes if it was released in 2016.

“When we started working on it, a lot of inspiration was Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, and we watched that stuff and that’s what we believed was good, but there were so much press saying [sarcastically] ‘Another WW2 game.’ That was the current we were having to fight against. There were all the Call of Dutys and Medal of Honors, there seemed to be a World War 2 saturation, and I don’t know if we’d get that now.”

But equally, that World War 2 saturation is what, in part, led Relic to make Company of Heroes. Without the films and TV shows and historical shooters coming out and generating a cloud of excitement, the setting and mechanics could have been entirely different.

“Would we have been influenced by the culture and made a space game?” Duffy wonders. “Would we have done Company of Heroes on Mars? You never know, right. A game is a product of the time and the team that makes it. They’re unique instances.. It’s chaos theory: the tiniest thing could influence how a game develops. I think Company of Heroes is… there’s a little serendipity, a lot of luck, a lot of great personalities, a lot of passionate developers. It ended up being what it was. If we set out now to make it, I think it would be completely different.”

To celebrate the fact that it isn’t different, this might be the right time to dust off those old discs and send out some tanks to smash through buildings. Or, if I might be so bold as to make a suggestion, check out the Company Heroes 2 standalone, Ardennes Assault. It’s got all the best bits of the series, but with dynamic objectives and a tricky persistent campaign. And if you’ve got any memories of Company of Heroes, there’s a big ol’ comments section waiting for them below.

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35 Comments

  1. GernauMorat says:

    One of my all time favourite games. Absolutely brilliant campaign, which I still play to this day. Some really good mods out there as well, my personal favourite being Blitzkrieg – you can even play most of the campaign with it installed.

    • BobbyDylan says:

      Yeah, just finished a re-playthrough myself. After spending a weekend visiting the Normandy landing and battle sites.
      It’s a great game.

    • Silvermarch says:

      Wait, what? You can play the campaigns with Blitzkrieg now?

      • GernauMorat says:

        Last time I played, you could do almost all the missions, but there were a few that didn’t load correctly. You could use Blitzkrieg units and mechanics as well.

  2. Lord_Mordja says:

    Absolutely amazing game and yeah, I also thought it heralded the future of the RTS genre when it came out and looked forward to more like it. While COH2 is my multiplayer RTS of choice these days and, it hardly advanced the concepts laid out by its predecessor and meanwhile DOW3 looks to be going backwards, harking back to the extremely artificial–though easier to build and balance I’m sure–gameplay of Warcraft and DOTA. :(

  3. Monggerel says:

    Company of Heroes gave me shell shock.

    10/10 would scream in frustration as my squad of 16 year old “infantrymen” is torn to ribbons by heavy artillery again

  4. BooleanBob says:

    You’re right that the game doesn’t feel anything like 10 years, old, and I think the fact that it doesn’t must be testament to the genre having failed to either incorporate its many innovations or explore other compelling avenues in the intervening years.

    I only regret that its esport scene never took off, because watching the game being played competitively at a high level was a treat.

    Great interview by the way. Did Quinn Duffy lend his name to that most notorious member of Her Majesty’s infantry?

    • GrinningD says:

      There is still a bit of CoH2 e-sport community active with several competitions and not exactly pocket change prize money.

      Unfortunately the actual commentating side of things could do with some love but the high level play is enthralling.

      Check out CoH2.org you tube channel for the most recent finals.

    • Flatley says:

      If anyone wants to see an example of some good CoH games with (in my opinion) decent commentary, check out the Tales of Heroes series by Bridger — here’s his playlist page, look to the bottom for the “Tales of Heroes” seasons. The newer ones are in HD, which is nice. 2v2 games tend to be my favorite.

      I was never able to get into watching CoH2 replays…probably didn’t help that I never played the game.

  5. klops says:

    Me? I’m a Men of War man.

    • Lord_Mordja says:

      Men of War is also great but it definitely errs way more towards the simulation side of things and is more a tactics than a strategy game. It also has that eastern European…let’s say charm and a very low budget when it comes to infantry animation.

  6. Sizeable Dirk says:

    Company of Heroes and Warhammer: Dawn of War (and a bit of The Battle for Middle-Earth) were The Old Gangs’ (getting quite litteral now) go-to for Team PvE/mixed-CPU LAN games into the tail years of the 00’s, when everyone split for university and careers etc.

    The end of an era, both my RTS gaming and that care-free stage of life so it will always sit on a tall, rose-tinted pedestal. (about now I’d write a 5-star review on GOG if it was sold there).

  7. LennyLeonardo says:

    So much. The snipers were the best. We’re airborne, we’re meant to be surrounded.

  8. Moneymancer Marklew says:

    Ah, the memories!
    Utterly useless MGs on tanks…
    The Panzer Elite faction switching roles with AT infantry and Infantry-support tanks…
    Several species of British Tortoises…
    The tension during those seconds before you knew where the next artillery shell would land (worked for both sides)…

    It’s the RTS that left the best impression on me over the years. Is the multiplayer on 2 any good?

  9. ludde says:

    Used to play this with friends against the AI or each other a lot back in the day. Then we went online and got completely obliterated. Especially in 4v4. So much fun though.

    It’s a shame RTSes have seemingly stagnated.

  10. phelix says:

    For me it is the best possible blend of spectacle, simulation, tactics and strategy. No other RTS that I know of has outdone it in these aspects and how they gel together.

    Also, the sound design. Holy hell, the sound design.

  11. Sound says:

    Yes! Relic sound design has always been excellent, and CoH was utterly immersive and convincing.
    In fact, it was on playing Homeworld that I realized what I wanted to do: Be a sound designer.

  12. Giftmacher says:

    I can never even begin to express how much credit this game deserves for the unit speech, which is such an overlooked and underdeveloped aspect of strategy games. You laughed at their weary quips, you were sad when you heard them screaming and dying over the radio, it just felt so emotionally engaging and set a great tone.

  13. Flatley says:

    “Modern big budget RTSs, small as they are in number, are mostly concerned with the past, attempting to get back to the days of Supreme Commander or Total Annihilation”

    I’m going to take issue with this. First of all, SupCom is newer than CoH — it’ll hit 10 years in February (let’s see an article for that one too!).

    Second, even if it’s the spiritual successor to Total Annihilation, Supreme Commander managed to expand the scope of what could be accomplished in an RTS to a level that has not been replicated since. SupCom’s own sequel is certainly a poor imitation, and Planetary Annihilation was a laudable effort but just couldn’t quite pull everything together. Perhaps Ashes of the Singularity will get there but I’m not holding my breath.

    I see Supreme Commander and Company of Heroes as two sides of the same coin. They are both games with non-standard economic models, heavily simulated combat physics, and gameplay styles that de-emphasize APM. (More always helps, of course, but neither game is meant to be played like StarCraft).

    The key similarity between the two, though, is that neither has really made a mark on the current incarnation of the genre. Instead, we’ve got MOBAs. Awesome.

    • Fraser Brown says:

      I largely agree – I wasn’t criticising SupCom. It’s smashing. I was bemoaning the fact that, instead of experimenting like CoH, modern RTSs are content to emulate the past.

  14. Ddub says:

    Man I put at least 3k+ hours into this game, not counting another 700+ hrs into CoH2 and 100’s of hours watching replays of top ranked players. Used to love watching Krebs cast replays on Youtube, those were the days. Still really hoping for a Vietnam or WW1 CoH.

  15. Hyena Grin says:

    I put a stupid amount of time into Company of Heroes. I had over 500 hours in the game before I started playing Blitzkrieg. It didn’t count that time on Steam so I have no idea how much I played it, but I’d say at least as much again.

    It is easily one of my all-time favorite games.

    Something about the CoH2 beta put me off of it for a long time, and it’s only recently that I picked it up. And now I’m back in the saddle. It feels different from CoH in a way I can’t put my finger on – or maybe my memories of CoH are just tinted by the long stint of playing a modded version of it. But it’s still fun.

    I still sometimes think about trying to get some friends to redownload the original and Blitz for a good ol’ fashioned compstomp.

    Sigh.

  16. EBass says:

    I played a lot of games A LOT when I was young, I was in some very decent FPS clans, but this game was the only game I was ever truly world class at. When I played properly I hovered around the top 50 players in 1v1 occasionally breaking the top 15, and top 10 in ranked 2v2.

    It’s sad sad that as you say, yes this is an anomaly, almost sort of a genre to itself much like the Men of War series (which it shares some DNA but is a very different game).

    While I have a lot of respect for Starcraft players, the “way” in which Starcraft and most RTS games are played leaves me totally cold.

    I don’t know what it is but I just loved the way this game….. played…. it just felt right.

    • P.Funk says:

      I think both the cover mechanics and the randomness of the effect from many weapons and call ins made the game far more organic. The outcomes of engagements could be much more uncertain whereas in Starcraft you get a basic certainty to the face off of one unit vs. another. I don’t think you ever miss attacks in SC, do you?

  17. Unsheep says:

    COH2 has one of the worst storylines I’ve come across in a game, it’s so full of propaganda that research for the story seems to have been based on American History books written by republicans and other neo-liberals in the 50’s. It’s bizarre using the term ‘heroes’ in the title since the characters in the game are actually cowards, there’s nothing heroic about them.

    Technically though, the COH games are very good, and they look really nice.

    However, as history-based games go, the Men of War series is much better, and more accurate.

    • thetruegentleman says:

      It certainly isn’t an interesting story, but if you think it’s propaganda, you might want to read about the Soviet’s Scorched Earth strategy and the wikipedia page on Soviet war crimes: I can assure you, what is in the game is Disneyland-tame compared to what the Soviets actually did.

      Even for the USSR’s own soldiers, the “no retreat” order helped turn Stalingrad into a largely meaningless bloodbath, and the extremely bloody human wave attacks during the final counterattack years were bereft of any kind of strategic or tactical ingenuity that might have lessened the bloodshed, all because Stalin would punish any general who didn’t look like he was moving fast enough.

      If you think the bit at the end at the Gulag seems far-fetched, you should probably read The Gulag Archipelago.

  18. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    Not as fond as some, but I do remember it was the first thing I bought after an upgrade as I loved the look of it and thought all the destructible scenery would give the new rig a good test. It looked and felt fantastic but I never really got hooked on it, still never finished the campaign, but thats partly a lifelong lukewarmness to strategy, of which i am especially crap at.

    Personally, I think the Men of War games did a better job at this kind of strategy game, but that’s still a compliment to COH as it so clearly influenced their design.

  19. P.Funk says:

    Back when expansion packs were awesome!

    British with Commandos focus was the best. A totally different feeling to other factions. So much good variety to the Brits as well.

    CoH2 ruined the Brits by not repeating that style.

  20. byjimini says:

    Still playing it to this day. It runs like a dog on OSX (MacOS) so I’ve installed Windows 10 via Boot Camp just so I can play it. :D

  21. Sedghammer says:

    What a thorough and well written article! COH has been my favorite RTS franchise since its initial release. It’s a pity that the ideas put forth and innovations are being put on the back burner when it comes to development. COH2 had some new mechanics, but hearing that true sight was initially a COH mechanic that only leaves the blizzard mechanic that was new. That was scrapped because players didn’t like it, but there was so much more room for innovation with COH2. A system of morale would have been welcome as well as something that better captured the logistics of WW2 (ammunition, support vehicles). None of that was explored and we ended up with a game that seemed more intent on selling DLC commanders than innovating.

  22. zipdrive says:

    CoH is my favorite RTS ever. More relatable than DoW, prettier than Starcraft, more tactile than Supreme Commander – I love it.
    I played the single-player campaign twice and dabbled with multiplayer. I loved the mortar teams to bits and was elated whenever a bunch of infantrymen found and took over one.
    I had fun with both expansions, but found the sequel too fiddly and Ardennes Assault lacking in story.

    I’ll forever remember Hill 192.

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