Chris Kramer, the Managing Director at Digitalmindsoft, just recently sat down with Jeff to talk about “Men of War: Assault Squad.” It’s a fascinating look into the development of a top-notch strategy title.
(Jeff): I’d like a background of both the game, the “Men of War” series in general, and the company.
(Chris): The series started with Soldiers:Heroes of World War II in 2004 and since then has steadily increased in popularity and quality. Digitalmindsoft, co-developer of Men of War continued the development with Men of War: Assault Squad.
(J): There are a lot of World War II based sims on the market. Why do you think that particular era is so popular amongst gamers and developers? Is there ever a fear that the time period may have been “played out?”
(C): Well this fear is a general issue rather than just a WWII one, if you make a mediocre Sci-Fi game, or Fantasy game it won’t stand out from the crowd either. If you make a great game, it doesn’t matter what scenario it has. There are certain trends that need to be looked at, but overall the game’s quality and having the right feeling for creating content people will enjoy decides whether you have success or not.The extreme variation and the huge amount of countries which took part in WWII are what make it so interesting.
(J): Why have you chosen to focus more on the Infantry side of conflict in this expansion?
(C): It’s the nature of the game; infantry combat was always a key point but got neglected over time. We changed this by making infantry a lot more interesting and putting in a lot more love in its abilities than before.
(J): Will gamers who may not have played the previous titles be able to jump right in?
(C): They should start with the Introduction level and after they understand the basic controls they can go play coop. Jumping right into a multiplayer “player versus player” match can be a bit frustrating if you aren’t a very good RTS player.However there are plenty of other players willing to introduce you to the game and share their experience with you.
(J): How difficult is it to pace a strategy game? What I mean is, how do you keep new players from feeling overwhelmed by the amount of management needed for any given scenario while giving die-hard grognards the realism and control they crave?
(C): You do it by having several layers of complexity, and especially complexity that is logical and not unnecessary. Which means things that are possible in reality should be possible in the game to some extent, this way you have natural game play. On the other side you shouldn’t fill new players with information or features that have little purpose in-game and you should introduce one feature after another to them so they aren’t overwhelmed by the complexity of a game at the beginning. Another key point is to use standardized control schemes, nothing worse than new players reading the manual because nothing works like they are used to from other games.
(J): How do you go about researching weapons, tactics, and scenarios for these games? Do you read histories, talk to people who were there?
(C): We don’t specifically talk to people who were there, as we aren’t trying to recreate a real life storyline, also most Veterans have only experience with a very limited amount of equipment, thus we have to rely on people studying WW2 for many years who have a profound knowledge. Creating a game like that without being interested in history yourself,or having decent knowledge about it, won’t work out.
(J): Tell me about the art and music design for the game.
(C): The in-game art was pretty much determined by its predecessors, however Men of War: Assault Squad was changed to have a more Westernstyle in order to give the series a fresh start. Since we are a Western studio, we wanted to display this in the way the game presents itself as well. Music was created by Dynamedion, one of the best providers of Music we have in Europe.
(J): Japan has been included for the first time in the series. Tell me about how the decision was made to include this nation. What was different with this game that gave you this opportunity?
(C): The Japanese were available as a multiplayer faction for Men of War, however we weren’t satisfied with the way they were presented and designed, so we changed that. As we were developing a skirmish mode for all factions, it was a logical step to include the Japanese in Singleplayer as well.
(J): How has the artillery game been updated? What are the innovations you’ve made in terms of offensive and defensive artillery?
(C): Artillery is now using a barrage system which is more realistic in the aspects of its usage in WW2. Artillery wasn’t used for shooting on moving targets or able to change targets rapidly; they bombarded a certain area for several minutes, than relocated or readied up for firing again. The barrage system allows a nice counter artillery option as once your artillery fires, it will give you a chance to react and counter battery your enemies’ artillery. Additionally the barrages prevent you from shooting at a handful of guys as this would be a pure ammo waste. This element makes the artillery a lot more of a strategic choice than before.
(J): Specifically, what battles influenced the choices you made for this game?
(C): I wouldn’t say that specific battles influence our choices, it’s more the stories being told about the war, the overall feeling each side of the conflict had. A Tiger tank for instance was a very frightening monster for the Allies, something that needs to be represented in the game. People need something they can feel connected to.Faceless units and tanks just for the sake of having lots of equipment available won’t bring you closer to that goal.
(J): How difficult is it to tweak AI (enemy or ally) to make for a more realistic sense of combat? How does that process work?
(C): Well the problem is that the players want full control over their units, yet they want a super smart AI that reacts perfectly in every situation when they can’t manage it for a moment. Now it’s very hard for the game to determine whether a player wants the AI to react right now or not. Does a player want his AI to dodge away from a grenade first, or shoot at the enemy taking the risk of getting blown up by a grenade? The AI is probably doing a lot less stupid things than real people might do in a real war. If you would create an AI that reacts and acts like real human beings under such heavy stress conditions players would shout at us for creating a stupid and unresponsive AI. So you need to find a middle groundbetween an AI that does what players tell them, yet reacts in certain situations in a way most players would like without interrupting the player commands too much.
It’s very hard to make the enemy AI challenging considering the huge amount of possibilities the game offers. So you need to find a way to make it react smart and challenging but dumb enough to give players the chance to beat it up in an enjoyable way, without giving the players the feeling the AI fights in an unfair way.
(J): What are you the most proud of when you play the game? Is there anything that current technology prevents you from adding that you would really want to add to future games?
(C): I don’t think I’m specifically proud about something in-game, I’m proud about people enjoying the game a lot. Even though we faced some resistance towards more radical changes in the series, they paid off in the end and made it a better and more successful game. There is always room for technological improvements and a lot of ideas that would fit them, but my mind is focusing on what we can achieve with what we have, rather than worrying about stuff we can’t make use of yet.
(J): Now that the game is due for release, what’s next for the team?
(C): Continuing the development of the game and making it an even better game, as well as creating DLC for it to expand the longevity of the title.
(J): What games are you playing currently?
(C): Unfortunately I do lack the time to play many other games, mostly I look at them from a design point of view, rather than playing them as pure entertainment. I try to play our game as much as possible so I don’t lose grip on the problems the game has. There is nothing worse than designers not playing and enjoying their own game.
(J): Tell me something about the title no one knows? Perhaps a special tip or tactic?
(C): Take a deep breath after losing a small skirmish against another player or the AI and rethink your strategy, throwing in more and more units into the meat grinder isn’t going to win you the day. Outsmart your enemy!
(J): Thanks VERY much for your time!
(C): You’re welcome!