The Flare Path: This and That

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The mighty Tirpitz spent most of her short life skulking in Norwegian fjords. Fuel shortages and Kriegsmarine caution meant she never braved the Denmark Strait or traded shells with a truly worthy opponent. To get a feel for what the Bismarck’s sister ship might have achieved had she been employed more aggressively, you need a game like Command of the Sea.

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A work-in-progress WW2 warship sim of startling scale and ambition, CotS aims to combine first-person ship control with vast venues, dynamic weather, and realistic gunnery. Two years into the project, the devs are now in a position to announce, with confidence, that their dreams are technically realisable:

“We’ve built a small (~100 000 km²) digital copy of the world, covering Spitsbergen, Norway, Germany, Italy, parts of Africa and Antarctica. We’ve created a reproduction of Sun, Moon & Star movements between 1939 and 1945, we’ve created a playable & walkable Ship (Tirpitz), we’ve created primitive, self-navigating AI Ships and a visual sensor for AI Players and we have a primitive weather & ocean system.  So we’re confident now that this project is doable if we get enough support from you and our community.”

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The next step is gathering, via Patreon, the funds necessary to build a Bismarck-focussed tech demo with complete North Sea coastlines and bathymetry, and the odd RN vessel to vie with. Later, a pre-alpha will further extend the map, increase the variety of AI ships, and introduce aircraft and basic NPC crewmen. One day, if all goes well, CotS should allow us to prowl the Pacific, and swap naval behemoths for smaller, nippier, or stealthier craft…

“In short, we’d like to cover the whole earth as a stage for naval warfare, we’d like to have playable Battleships, Carriers, Cruisers, Destroyers, Submarines, Torpedo Boats and as opponents a smart AI that commands fleets, convoys & reconnaissance.”

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Although words are cheap and anyone can dream Bismarck-big, the fact that the sim already boasts a recognisable Tirpitz able to move and molest…

..means Command of the Sea should be safe from the saddle charges and Tallboys of doubters for the time being.

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Last Friday night I found myself on the two-tone air horns of a devilish dilemma.

Option A) Spend the weekend riding and watching trains at a real heritage railway diesel gala.

Option B) Spend the weekend driving and watching trains at a simulated heritage railway diesel gala.

Although Option A was almost twice as costly as Option B, the lure of summer sunshine and the chance to see and ‘bash’ exotica like a far-from-home Class 26 proved irresistible in the end. The latest Train Sim World DLC lost out to the Watercress Line’s annual celebration of mellifluous diesel-electrics.

After a weekend of sublime Sulzer-skylark duets, West Somerset Railway is, I suspect, going to sound pretty disappointing when I finally get round to trying it. While Dovetail’s loco and landscape shapers look to have done a reasonably good job with the add-on’s 20-mile route and two driveables (Class 47 and 09) nothing I’ve read in community forums thus far, suggests the Chathamites have upped their game significantly in the audio, physics or quality control departments. For every contented customer on the forums, there’s one grumbling about feeble sound effects and obvious bugs.

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Their patience worn thin by a year of painfully slow progress in crucial areas like modability and throttle behaviour, it’s hardly surprising some long-suffering Train Sim World users reacted grumpily when, last Friday, the TSW ‘Big Reveal’ Dovetail had been teasing via Twitter turned out to be a massively underwhelming announcement about console plans rather than exciting news of editors, steam locos, physics improvement, or multiplayer.

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Three expansions plumper that it was at launch, Byzantine Games’ deliciously febrile Field of Glory II still relies on slightly limp linear battle sequences for its long game. Released yesterday, the game’s third add-on, Age of Belisarius, has a feature list that promises more novelty than it delivers.

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One extremely close-run victory into a Frankish campaign (Clovis, my biggest wig, ended the scrap ringed by enemy units) I’m already hankering for a cellular strat map… a less monotone AI… the odd orc… something to ruffle FoGII’s entertaining but now rather familiar rhythms.

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Like today’s Flare Path, the recently Steam-catapulted DCS: F/A-18C Hornet is “the culmination of more than 40 man years of intense research [and] technology development”. Unlike today’s FP, it costs £60, should provide months of entertainment, and comes with a pdf manual that makes The Gulag Archipelago look like The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

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In development for longer than its McDonnell Douglas-made maquette, the DCS World 2.5 Hornet still has a way to go before it’s complete. Yet-to-be-coded sensors and weapons leave the current ‘Open Beta’ aircraft seriously compromised in the BVR department – something that doesn’t seem to be a huge concern for users currently getting to grips with carrier ops…

cold start procedures…

and co-op combat over the simultaneously released and similarly well-received Persian Gulf map

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If you liked the idea of Overlordy but found its pace too hectic, its premise somewhat implausible, and its opposition criminally short of guile, keep an eye on the GrogHeads forums in the coming weeks. Jim Owczarski, the site’s resident Napoleonics expert, is contemplating commencing another PBEM ‘Kriegsspiel’ marathon. Reliant on a labour-intensive board game for its rules, and thirteen human players for its shape and momentum, the last game spent over eighteen 21st Century months simulating nine days of 19th Century action.

Jim’s dalek-dotted AAR vids tell the story of those nine days with real panache.

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Next year’s Communal Combat Mission turn reports may well include moving images, and there’s a good chance those moving images will feature either Bradleys or Brazilians. As Battlefront.com’s Steve Grammont explains in the following short Q&A, the studio is about to release a revamped version of CM: Shock Force and a Fortress Italy module boasting, amongst other things, representatives of the other BEF.

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RPS: What are Battlefront’s priorities at present?

Steve: Our immediate priority is to get CMSF2 out the door to waiting customers. We’re very close and, in fact, should be opening up preorders very soon with our heavily discounted CMSF1 Upgrades available upon release. The process of bringing CMSF1 up to current Game Engine 4 standards reminded us why we didn’t do it before now. But we’re very, very happy with how it’s turned out.

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After that, we need to get back to finishing CMFI Rome to Victory (R2V), which was put on hold while we concentrated on CMSF2. It’s very far along so I expect it will be out late summer.

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Next up is the first Module for CM Red Thunder, which has been under active development for quite a while already.

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RPS: I wasn’t expecting to see Brazilian forces in Rome to Victory. What persuaded you to model the BEF?

Steve: The various Allied nations that operated in Italy were largely based on standard formations which we already have. This lowered the barrier for entry, so to speak. However, once we got into it we found that each nation had more quirks than we expected and they were significant enough to upset our concept of duplicate existing stuff and tweak it into shape. In hindsight it would have been quicker and less painful to have created each nation from scratch right from the start. Though if we had foreseen that we probably wouldn’t have included all the forces we did.  So Brazilians are in mostly because we goofed!

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RPS: I understand the NZ Army had been assessing CM: Black Sea as a potential PME tool. Did those trials lead anywhere and have any other militaries shown an interest in CM recently?

Steve: Yes and yes! We have a small contract with them for a customized version of Black Sea. It’s already in their hands, though we have to do the training scenarios for them as soon as CMSF2 is out the door. At present there are no plans to make this commercially available.

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RPS: Are commission charges the primary reason the post-CMBO Combat Missions still aren’t available through Steam, GOG.com, etc?

Steve: Ah, the Steam thing. I’ve had dozens of debates with hardcore Steam fans over the years and I can lay out all rational and evidence based arguments against us being on Steam and in the end, despite no counter factual arguments, we get called “stupid” or “backwards”. At best some Steam fans admit that we might have a point but we should risk everything and give it a try anyway, despite me just having argued that we could go out of business doing that. If the people arguing so strongly in favor of Steam had any experience in the game industry other than buying games they’d probably see things differently.

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The primary Steam fan argument is based on the premise that being exposed to Steam’s huge customer base assures us we’d sell at least 50% more games (that’s what is required to break even on Steam’s cut of the action). However, this is not a sure thing. First of all because the vast bulk of the Steam customer base hates games like ours, which means the bulk of what Steam has to offer us (tons of customers) has zero practical value to us. Of those who might like to buy Combat Mission, in order to do so they have to first find out about it, which is extremely difficult given how Steam is structured. Steam had 7,600 new game added last year alone, many of which are listed in the same categories we fall under even though they are vastly different games. Therefore, to get noticed we’d have to hire someone to manage and market our games within Steam, which means we have to sell even more games just to break even. I know of one wargame company that has 6 people dedicated to managing their Steam presence and they still struggle with it. Anybody who says moving to Steam is a “no brainer” clearly isn’t well informed.

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Now, having said that we do want to be on Steam. Aside from the real risk of it killing us, what’s there not to like about it? As soon as we figure out how to stack the risk/reward equation more in favor of reward than risk, you’ll see Combat Mission on Steam. Not before.

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RPS: Putting together the Overlordy scenario required a little lateral thinking as CMBO doesn’t include beach terrain. Were there philosophical reasons for that absence of sand or was it purely a practical decision?

Steve: Both practical and philosophical. Practical because putting in beaches would create expectations for D-Day landing scenarios. A very reasonable expectation, I should say!  From the practical side it would have required a lot of effort to make beach landings realistic and fulfilling.  With all the things we had competing for our development time, beach landings weren’t at the top of our list. The primary reason for that is philosophical. In our view a limited range of units fighting over an extremely small strip of monotonous terrain over and over again is something we feel most players would grow bored of fairly quickly. And that’s even if we did everything “right”! Or philosophy has always been, and will always be, to not divert our limited resources into things which offer a low return on investment in the eyes of our customers. Similar to why we don’t have airborne drops.

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RPS: One Overlordy reader took exception to me calling the Jagdpanzer 38 a ‘Hetzer’. Where do you stand on the issue and has unit nomenclature ever caused you headaches?

Steve: Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody question the use of “Hetzer” in our games. There’s plenty of other nomenclature that people take issue with, especially the names associated with US tank destroyers. King Tiger, of course, is another big bone of contention with some people. In the end it really doesn’t matter what we call this or that because customers will think of it the way they are used to. Distancing ourselves from well established, long accepted terms doesn’t do anybody any favors even if we can claim some sort of Grog moral high ground. That said, I’m happy “Schmeisser” has seemingly gone out of fashion! That one truly bugged me!

RPS: Thank you for your time.

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This way to the foxer

23 Comments

  1. Damn You Socrates says:

    We just want steam keys. That’s it. Not marketing, not more games – hell, we don’t even expect discounts. Just give us steam keys Battlefront so we don’t have to go through 3 days of emailing your helpdesk to re-activate your bloody licence that screws up everytime we update our PC.

    • kommissar says:

      Couldn’t agree more. Re-installing everything on my new computer took way too much time and energy.

    • rochrist says:

      In order to have Steam keys, the game has to exist on Steam. And if the license is screwing up everytime you change your pc, you’re doing it wrong.

    • heretic says:

      After looking at the website it put me off purchasing the game tbh…

      I think I would like more of their games on GOG (first CM is there) or Steam is just because it’s a known storefront and I have some guarantees of having the game available. I found their website… confusing. A bit like the City Car driving website before they went on Steam, dodgy looking.

    • Fred2 says:

      LOL – what he said If the people arguing so strongly in favor of Steam had any experience in the game industry other than buying games they’d probably see things differently.

  2. Lord Byte says:

    Graviteam seems to be doing well. I think it’s purely because they think they have their market outside of steam so they don’t want to give steam 40% or 60% or whatever it is, having to run it in front a much wider audience who may not be as accommodating as the CM grognards.

    Their choice but I don’t feel the effort is worth learning it again and keeping up with their byzantine rights and account management and confusing patching to do it without steam. I had CM Fortress Italy due to RPS, but I haven’t played it in ages because of the above. So I won’t buy any either.

    • TheOx129 says:

      Graviteam, a small team based in Kharkiv, also manages to produce more content than Battlefront more regularly at a fraction of the price. Their games also don’t have a cumbersome DRM scheme, go on sale regularly, and don’t have separate “engine updates” (which tend to include things that many people, including myself, feel are more rightly provided for free in patches) that users need to purchase. On the other hand, they’re very different games, with Graviteam focusing more on macromanagement and command and control, while Combat Mission is very much micro-focused.

      Battlefront makes good games: I own all of the CMx1 games, the Battle for Normandy mega-pack, and I’ll probably end up picking up the Fortress Italy mega-pack at some point (God help me). But, from my perspective, their business model is very much based on milking grogs – the more sycophantic the better – at this point.

      Honestly, they also just don’t have the PR capacity for Steam or similar platforms. Unless it’s changed recently, their Facebook page (which is barely used, anyway) had a nice little slapfight between Steve and a few customers regarding what I recall were rather polite critiques of the sold “engine updates.” I can totally see a scenario where negative Steam reviews get angry developer responses, spiraling into a PR disaster.

      • kommissar says:

        I think that Battlefront would probably agree with you and say that they don’t want to risk diluting profits from their existing customer base (the sycophantic grogs) in an effort to expand into the Steam market. The games as they are now would be very unlikely to appeal to most casual players, and, as said in the article, they would need at least a 50% increase in customers to break even.

    • g948ng says:

      I almost understand why wargame developers might avoid steam. What I do not understand is why their alternatives so often fail to meet modern expectations. While other niche markets do. Investing in the thing that actually generates revenue is usually prudent.

      It might be related to the culture of exclusion and hostility that is sometimes to be found in the genre. You probably know what I mean. Elitism about “being niche”. People defending evidently bad systems (distribution, UIs, or graphics), because it was always like this and “real fans just make do”. As if a certain crappyness would be a prerequisite for an authentic wargame.
      I distinctly remember a Graviteam dev raging at a customer, who calmly pointed out that their, obviously complex, game had a buggy and completely unhelpful tutorial. I found it weird to see a majority of his “fans” egging him on in his completely unprofessional conduct. Supporting the insane idea that “We don´t want your money. You shouldn´t play if you are too stupid to figure out everything yourself.”

  3. Razgovory says:

    The Battlefront guys have always had some really weird ideas. They are dead-set against modding (beyond scenario creation and visual changes), and are often dismissive and even hostile toward their fan base. They still seem to be mired in the 1990’s. Honestly I get the feeling they would rather be building models and running table-top games.

    • Fred2 says:

      OK, frankly this customer is against mods that change behavior too. Why would I want an environment where people can tweak the performance away from reality and confuse the heck out of the ability to play head to head against human opponents.

      No thank you.

  4. Kolbex says:

    The thing that’s always held me back from buying Battlefront games is the cost. I’m interested in Final Blitzkrieg, but maybe I’ll wait for Shock Force 2. It would be nice if they’d update their demos to use the latest engine, too.

    • Kolbex says:

      Actually, having tried the Final Blitzkrieg demo, I’m reminded of another big barrier to entry for me: I generally have no idea what the hell is going on in a turn. This could be just me not knowing how to access the information, but it is never at all made clear to me what my guys are shooting at, or even more crucially, what is happening to them over the course of a given turn. Ok, I moved my recon unit and…what? Two of them are dead? What the hell happened and when? There’s no turn log I can see to go back and say, ok this unit spotted these guys, then they got shot at this time, etc. Too obtuse.

      • kommissar says:

        The game is definitely unforgiving. You learn the most playing “we-go” where you have the ability to rewind and get some sense of what happened to your scouts. If they died in an explosion, chances are it was a tank, AT gun or possibly mortar that took them out. If you hear gunfire, well, there’s probably an enemy squad nearby. A lot of the game is recon – finding the enemy strongpoints – and doing your best to eliminate them or bypass them. Unfortunately it can be very frustrating, because, in order to find the strongpoints, you often need to draw their fire. This means there will probably be casualties.

      • Fred2 says:

        Yeah there is no turn log it is a design feature. As kommissar says playing in We Go is a good way to figure out what is going on. The fog of war is strong with this game but it does lead to a lot of confusion. Embrace the confusion – real combat is way more confusing that the game :-)

  5. sandman2575 says:

    “King Tiger” does really bug me as mistranslations go. I know it will never change. But it’s flatly wrong.

    I can understand Steve’s arguments about Combat Mission not migrating to Steam. But I do believe half the reason folks would like to see it there is as a way of having easy access and *easy installation* of the CM titles. Battlefront has done nothing to fix the frankly absurd rituals involved in installing and updating their games. At least when Graviteam migrated to Steam, they solved the issue of their similarly overly complex installation and updating scheme.

    • Kolbex says:

      Well they sort of did. Their patcher program still exists and goes through its rigamarole, although I have no pre-steam experience of it and can imagine it was much more groan-inducing before.

    • Syt says:

      Indeed. Last time I downloaded/patched their games I was utterly confused and had to start over a few times. Not to mention that I will have to email support to get access to their last Normandy game again …

    • Fred2 says:

      Well I have personally never had a problem figuring out patches they *have* made changes to help with installing. The new all in one installs means you never have to go through umpteen steps in the correct order you have one stop shopping. Then when a patch comes out it’s just one patch to install. If you should get behind on updates and patches and come back to the game just get the latest all in one installer and you are done.

  6. LewdPenguin says:

    Command of the Sea looks interesting for sure, not least because I’m currently playing Naval Ops:Warship Gunner 2 (ancient and overall very arcadey warship game that still manages to be pretty fun despite it’s many flaws) and thinking how few games visit the WW2 naval theater.
    Then again whilst it looks interesting, holy hell are they setting their sights pretty high, and in a few cases maybe needlessly so. If they can make the actual gamey bit of their game fun they could easily do it without the South Atlantic which offers relatively little scope for action if staying largely historically accurate compared to the possibilities present in the North Sea/Atlantic, and whilst a fully walkable ship is most definitely in the ‘very cool’ category it’s also in the ‘absolutely insane amount of work’ one too. Maybe they have some dedicated artists/modellers that will be plowing away on those aspects while they get started on the actually techically hard work of making a fun/competent AI, and well the whole rest of the actual game.

    I too hoped to see some good news as I started on your paragraph regarding TSW, sad to see it continuing to stumble around clumsily at every turn, although not hugely surprising anymore. Mostly it’s disappointing to see such a meh choice of locomotives to include when the WSR (like most heritage lines) is mostly known for it’s steam traction, of which there’s a fair amount to choose from and indeed some of which are fairly or indeed entirely unique. Even if it HAD to be a pure diesel lineup, with options including Warhip, Western or Hymek being valid for a large locomotive and perhaps a Class 14 for a smaller loco, any of which would have felt a bit more WSR flavoured than a 47 and 09, both of which would indeed be equally if not more at home bundled with virtually any bit of modern/somewhat modern UK route DLC, whereas the hydraulics don’t really fit with anythng other than a handful of present day heritage routes, an early-BR image route or as standalone releases. I guess choice of locos to accompany routes is the least of the problems for TSW at present, it’s just another little opportunity missed.

    • Pharaoh Nanjulian says:

      There’s a second one?!

      I’ve got the first one on PS2…making ships with three tiers of guns all over? Hold R2 to machinegun all the torpedoes?

      An excellent game.

  7. g948ng says:

    >>>bathymetry<<<

    The long forgotten, arcane art of determining the impossible, non-euclidean geometry of bathtubs.

    Yes, of course. I´ll see myself out.

  8. RockPaperSoftball says:

    Nice lobs of Softball questions. Patches? Upgrades being charged and not fixed? Yeah, phone it in…

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