I'm rubbish at multiplayer RTS games, my fingers are unable to keep up with my brain and eventually I shut down entirely, wondering how it's possible for my opponent to have so many
units. To my surprise, I wasn't entirely rubbish at End of Nations when I sat down to play it recently. During the session, I found time to talk with producer Chris Lena and, among other things, asked how Petroglyph's MMORTS will encourage different styles of play, and how the team are hoping to balance character progression, strategy and teamwork.
RPS: Hello! Before we go into anything more specific, could you just talk a little about why you decided to have the MMO layer on your RTS?
Lena: Well, I think in the RTS genre the same game has been made, almost, a lot for the last ten years. We found ourselves playing more MMORPGs and even now FPS games have become more persistent and online, so it occurred to us as lovers of the RTS genre, why hasn’t that happened? It seemed obvious at first but then we worked through a lot of problems.
RPS: Nothing is as simple as it seems.
Lena: It was a lot harder than we thought! But that’s great, because then it evolves into something that works. We said to ourselves, we make a good RTS game and if we like some element of an MMO but it doesn’t fit in the RTS then we just dump it. That was the key to us finding a good formula.
RPS: What kind of things got dumped along the way?
Lena: One of the things we talked about in the past was this persistent headquarters that was off the map. It was really cool, it looked cool and lots was going on there, but the other day we realised it wasn’t really adding to the RTS aspect of the game. Maybe later on we’ll figure out a good way to add that back but if it’s not having a real effect on what people are doing, let’s not have it in there. We’ve got enough problems to deal with and concentrate on!
RPS: Was the metagame always in place?
Lena: Always always always. That idea of persistence and having an effect on the world, a living world, it’s always been a key element.
RPS: And presumably it’s not just one world. How many servers are you planning to have?
Lena: As many people as we have! Each shard will have their individual metagame.
RPS: Is it possible, with this battle across the globe, for one side to be so badly beaten that they’re just screwed and can’t recover?
Lena: One thing that we’re doing is that we’re approaching it almost as a sport, so there will be a season. Every two or three months, or whatever amount we decide, there’ll be a winner declared and we’ll restart. We’re also talking about the possibility of an early victory if somehow one faction really rolls over the other one. Maybe then you’ll get a super victory.
RPS: When I think of RTS pro-gaming I think of people clicking a mouse 5,000 times a second and End of Nations doesn’t seem to lend itself to that, which I like.
Lena: We still have that aspect of being able to micro-manage units but we don’t have that basebuilding part that really splits your brain.
RPS: As soon as you have the preparation, where you choose to build your army, it takes away from the speed element a little. It lends more strategy and less speed.
Lena: That’s exactly what we’re trying to do and we think that does a couple of things: it’s a more interesting strategic battle rather than a more physical contest, and it’s more accessible to people who have left the RTS genre. Although there’s a lot to it, you can concentrate more directly on what you’re looking at, and being multiplayer you don’t have the stress of being the one on one guy who gets beaten over and over again until you finally learn the game.
RPS: I am that guy.
Lena: As part of a team, you can learn and ease into it.
RPS: Based on what I just played, it’s almost like a raid, you’re looking for people who complement what you can do.
Lena: Right. And everyone can play a role and that role isn’t necessarily hectic. It may be a support role at first.
RPS: And in the 28 vs 28 battles, it’s going to require a lot of community planning to make sure teams work well together. What kind of tools will be in place to help with that? Is there any kind of structure outside the game for that planning?
Lena: Yeah, we have the basic clan system with different levels of people and their own individual chat channel that they can communicate through. We expect people to use some voice solutions. We make the team size four, so when it’s 28 against 28 it’s really seven teams of four on each side. In that way we’re breaking people down into squads.
On the bigger maps though, it’s really about map design, so there’s a lot of different objectives that have to be done in order to win.
RPS: Different squads going their own way to achieve different objectives?
Lena: That’s right. And you have your general perhaps, the guys leading the squads.
RPS: Was there ever an idea of having a person with oversight who isn’t a unit controller? A commander role?
Lena: We never really entertained that idea. At least for this game, we thought that creating a separate game on top of the game was a distraction we didn’t want for now. It’s possible but it’s not something on the horizon.
RPS: If you do take on more of a support role, maybe it’s possible to have that kind of oversight anyway?
Lena: Right. There’s no reason somebody can’t take that role and I think that’s a real challenge for people who are serious about RTS games. Are they up for the challenge of trying to organise other people while also looking after your own units, because that’s a challenge they’ve never really had before.
RPS: And how important is the campaign? I didn’t even realise there was a single player component until today!
Lena: Well, it’s intended to be played multiplayer but it can be played alone.
RPS: But it has a narrative?
Lena: Yeah, a strong narrative. Some people are only interested in a campaign and some people are only interested in PvP. We want to make a fully functional RTS game, a high quality game, and that includes a campaign, PvP matches, and we have the freedom to roll it out in separate pieces because we’re a free-to-play game. The campaign is also a good way to learn.
RPS: That’s often the case, perhaps increasingly, that a campaign is in many ways an extended tutorial. It’s the way that you learn and prepare yourself for PvP.
RPS: But in terms of the fiction, even during the missions we played today there are story elements.
Lena: The fiction is very important. Even if you’re playing a PvP match and you’re not thinking about it at all, we want the strong backbone of story that makes it coherent. Even if you don’t realise it when you’re playing, it’s there. The campaign will obviously put it across more strongly, but we’re trying to feed it in everywhere we can.
Every map has a video intro that explains what to do, but it’s all ficitonalised so you get the story that way as well. I don’t know if you noticed that we have the company commanders? Those hero units are people from the fiction, again plugging in the story. And when you’re doing an online game with persistence, you want people to feel attached. Longevity is the key to success in this case and story provides that.
RPS: There’s a strong aesthetic too. Is there ever a conflict between having that art design that fits the fiction and the world, and then having the sillier cosmetic purchases on top of that?
Lena: I think it works. You can’t take yourself too seriously. The game has to be fun. Being able to paint your tanks with zebra stripes, I don’t think that is going to destroy the fiction for anyone. We’re good with it!
RPS: And all the pay elements are cosmetic and XP boosts, not pay-to-win?
RPS: You said earlier that you want to introduce new content until the end of the world, but new maps and playable content will be available to everyone so nobody is shut out?
Lena: That’s right. That’s the plan.
RPS: So the entire commercial aspect is through the in-game shops?
Lena: Yeah, pretty much. We think we have a system that’s very fair. This game in particular really suits the model, because there’s an inherent balancing model in the units you bring into the battle, and the point cost of a squad.
So even if you have one hundred versions of a tank, for instance, you can only take in ‘x’ many. You always have to unlock a vehicle to get it and then if you want multiple copies you can use in-game wealth or real currency, but if you have 30 tanks that just gives you the flexibility of building more companies, it doesn’t really give you an advantage. Even when you play for the first time you’ll have enough units to join a company.
RPS: And as people progress and they unlock things in terms of units and abilities, can everybody unlock everything or do players choose a path?
Lena: No, absolutely not, they can’t have everything. There’s a limited number of ability points to go down the tech tree, so even among the classes there’s specialisation.
RPS: So as soon as you start playing and choosing a path, you’re creating a certain kind of commander?
Lena: You’re choosing an emphasis. And you can further emphasise that...emphasis...through the modifications on your vehicles.
RPS: Do these specialisations have MMORPG type names attached when you discuss them internally? Do you have the equivalent of a tank and a medic, or does it not break down so neatly?
Lena: In some areas but usually not. We find that in this game, as a commander, you’re much more multi-purpose than you would be in most MMORPGs. It’s more like having tactical structures and those structures do a bunch of different things.
RPS: The question about giving names to specialisations probably relates to this idea of teams of four; how do they balance each other? Are teams made up of people whose abilities complement one another or can an entire squad be specialised for a certain task?
Lena: It’s based on both loadout and player ability. First of all, the two factions play very differently and the classes have a huge impact. For instance, take the Liberation Front, they have a Spartan class and a Patriot class. The Spartan is a little better at tanks and defense, very slow moving, so it’s a good defender. It can take a lot of damage. I guess you could even call it a ‘tank’ if you’re going to do that (laughs)!
The Patriot has a little more utility to it, a little more variety, but both of them still have infantry and tanks and aircraft. And then the emphasis really comes in during loadout. Choosing to bring in infantry, tanks, to play a certain role based on what you’re bringing in with you, although there are emphases in the classes themselves and within the factions.
RPS: In terms of the enemy faction, The Order of Nations, they have their own unique abilities and units, and those can’t be player-controlled ever, can they?
Lena: Not currently! But we’re a living, breathing game so if we want to do that later, we sure can.
RPS: Is there space to move the fiction forward as well?
Lena: Oh, yeah.
RPS: And that could involve developments that create new factions?
Lena: Yeah, we would like to do that.
RPS: Going back to strategy and speed, because as someone who used to love playing RTS games in multiplayer but got left behind it interests me -
Lena: (laughs) You’re exactly the person we hope to get involved!
RPS: Well, my fear is always that if I divide a game into two things, strategy and speed, a lot of games allow speed without a great deal of strategy to be much more useful than strategy without a great deal of speed. The balance has tipped away from me! Do you want End of Nations to tip it back?
Lena: It’s interesting, especially with the multiplayer PvP maps, that with any one map there are different roles to take. If you are really slow physically then you can focus in on a defensive role, sending team mates to a victory point and then moving in and sitting on it, protecting it. Being successful without being physically fast. But if you’re the type of player who likes to have lots of different units, you could have six different types, say, which means you have six different abilities to use.
Micromanaging at that point is very important to be successful. So the two player types can and probably should exist on the same map together. Helping each other.
RPS: My tendency today has been to pick the loadout with the least types of unit so that I can learn how each one works, methodically. Some people jump straight in to the more complex stuff. Whenever I play an RTS online, I panic because I think I’m going to be against one of those multitasking gods, but I quite like the idea of having one of them on my team.
Lena: Yeah, you order him around, tell him to go and take a strategic point for you and then go in and bed down, set up defensive structures and let that guy micromanage his bits and pieces.
RPS: Which kind of allows me to take on the command role.
Lena: Absolutely, yeah.
RPS: In terms of the metagame, with the seasons and resets, you reckon two or three months?
Lena: It’ll come through in testing but we’re thinking that kind of length. Long enough that it’s a full campaign but short enough that people can always see the end. We think that space in between is going to be really key to keeping people interested, looking back over what happened and preparing to start again. The restart is going to be a little boost for them.
RPS: And people will come out the other end having been hammered or having steamrolled somebody, or maybe a close thing –
Lena: I think it’ll be close! (laughs) But that’s the thing with having a persistent game, we’ll see.
RPS: With the unlocks, you’re actual ‘character’ in game never resets, that remains?
Lena: Yeah, your collection of things always stays, that never gets taken away.
RPS: And how many characters can people have per account?
Lena: We’re not sure, but it’s a free to play game so people can always just create a new account! There’s no point in limiting people to a certain faction or build. People can switch out but each commander, each character, has a unique name.
RPS: One thing about persistent worlds and characters, and this is true pretty much across the board I think, in the world it’s possible to be pushed back or to gain ground, but a character is always going forwards, never backwards. In terms of the philosophy of that design, do you have any thoughts on that?
Lena: Yeah, that’s true. Our power differential between first level and max level is not as pronounced, because we want to keep competition a little tighter. But we always want a sense of progression and we will continue to add to the game and add new tools for someone to respect, change or create new character.
We want players to feel like they are always progressing and able to pick up new skills, or rethink and rejig what they’re doing. That’s an important part of feeling connected to the game.
RPS: You never want people to feel like they’ve put themselves in a corner?
Lena: Exactly. Plus we have, compared to some other massively multiplayer games, a lot of replayability on maps, so learning a map can lead to new strategies and play styles.
RPS: And we’re getting the look, which means we’re out of time. Is there anything you’d like to add before I go back to playing the game?
Lena: Just that we’re really excited to finally get to this point.
RPS: How long has it been?
Lena: Three years plus. I’ve been on the project for two years.
RPS: And is this the first time people outside the company have played so much of the game?
Lena: We’ve shown it a few times, but now we’re actually doing alpha testing and moving into beta testing. So we can show the armoury, 1vs1, 12vs12, so we can finally show how it all fits together. It’s a really hard game to talk about because we’re doing so many things that are new, so it’s good to let people get their hands on it.
RPS: The letters MMORTS made me think I’d be fighting everybody straight away, but the first thing I saw today was a battle against AI.
Lena: Yeah, we hope to surprise people!
RPS: Thanks for your time.