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.