Alongside our preview of Company of Heroes 2 today, and chatting to Jason Lee about the game a few weeks back, we had the opportunity to talk once more to Quinn Duffy, Game Director on Company of Heroes 2.
Read on to get an insight into how Relic have tackled their latest game:
TSA: First off, I’d like to start by saying that everybody’s really glad that you’re still alive and going at Sega. How has the transition been?
Quinn Duffy: It’s been really smooth. The Relic management did a great job of keeping us focused and isolated from any upheaval. So, there were a few days during the bankruptcy proceedings when people were going online and checking live blogs and things like that. A lot of spontaneous discussion groups occurring around coffee machines and things, but overall we were deep in the game, and you’ve just got to poke your head up a little bit and then go back in.
TSA: I guess a nice little positive is that you managed to get a few extra months to polish, too?
QD: Yup, and we’re really pleased about that. I think the game could have shipped in March, but we have an opportunity to get that extra layer of polish, run another beta test, get some new features in, get our server just the way we wanted to…
TSA: Previously you had Dawn of War 2, which was in some ways quite a departure from Company of Heroes. What has it been like heading back to CoH and that style of gameplay?
QD: It’s been a lot of fun. When we started I think we had a naive sense that it would be really easy, but it wasn’t! We thought that we’d dealt with this game, so we know what the gameplay is like and what it takes to build content, and that kind of stuff, but after so many years we’d kind of forgotten. So it turned out to be a little more challenging than we thought, but it’s been very gratifying to see it all come together, especially with all the challenges we’ve had over the last couple of years, with publishers and all that. I think we’ve done a pretty good job.
TSA: Part of the challenge you might have had would be down to the fighting now taking place on the Eastern Front with the Russians. How has it been trying to depict this side of the war?
QD: Well you know, we started with an overhaul with the creative directive of the game, trying to work on a darker tone. We look at the armies independently, and there’s a creative vision for each of the armies and how we want them to play. So it’s really a lot of iteration to get the concepts that we’d established on paper.
We wanted the Soviets to be versatile and resilient, where there’s a need for sacrifice and holding territory. I think that stuff has come across really well in our army design. It’s a constant case of rechecking what we’re doing.
TSA: One thing I noticed was that with a setting during Operation Barbarossa and fighting as the Russians, there was a lot of defensive line holding. How do you balance that, which some people won’t like as much, with the fun of pushing forwards which is the mainstay of RTS’s and FPS’s?
QD: Well, I mean the Soviets were losing the war, and to tell the whole arc of the battles on the Eastern Front, you have to start with them in a dark place. Kind of show how close they came to defeat, and put more onus on the later victories, which I think makes that victory more rewarding. So the initial campaign really kicked off in Stalingrad, where you are winning the whole time, but it felt like we were missing a part of that story, so we actually went back another year, to the beginning.
So now you start in Stalingrad, where you get that moment of victory, where you push up the hill and win, and after that there are some missions where you do need to fall back. You’re looking for those little victories, and it’s a challenge to make the player feel like they’re contributing and not being defeated, but we pretty rapidly get you back into fighting aggressively and taking the fight to the Germans.
TSA: I like the end of a particularly defensive mission, where you just give us all those tanks!
QD: That was part of it! I found that that’s one of the moments in the campaign where we’ve had the most feedback where people felt they were closest to defeat. Just barely holding on, and then the tanks show up!
It just seems to work out so well, where you’ve done your job, and then there’s a quick counter attack. Mrtensk was where the Germans did lose a battle, with Guderian the commander who was surprised by the aggressiveness of the Russian defence, and that they went on the offence briefly. So that’s part of the story of the battle which we’re trying to portray.
TSA: Coming from the view where the Russians just threw everything they had at the Germans and the grand scale with the number of people involved, how have you tried to keep a more personal feel to the game?
QD: I think there are a few techniques which we use, and one of them is that, fundamentally, the game lives with those front line soldiers. Not thousands of them, just the one company and tip of the spear. That’s why there’s so much focus on tactical play, because that’s the way that company would engage in the greater war.
Narratively speaking, we’re really following a single character, and a couple of people that he meets during the war. So it’s kind of his story of the war and the impact of all this combat, sacrifice and ruthlessness on him. So you can kind of use him as a proxy for the epic scale of the story.
A lot of it is presentation, too, you can zoom the camera right down. Not everybody does, but you can. Take a look at what’s happening with the animations, speech, effects and the kinetic feel of violence to the human body, which engages you with the characters in a way that more abstracted RTS’s don’t.
TSA: You’re introducing ColdTech and playing about with weather effects, how has that come into the gameplay?
QD: CoH has always had a strong element of environmental gameplay, but mostly using the environment for cover and destruction. This time the environment is fighting back, in a way. The winter is a neutral third party which affects everybody, and changes the pacing of the multiplayer games. Your troops can freeze, they get slowed down in deep snow, there’s ice that you can break…
TSA: I had fun breaking the ice!
QD: Strangely enough, we found that’s fun when it happens to people. They feel like they totally understand what happened there and that they shouldn’t have sent their tank over the ice. They should have led with infantry and secured the shore and then gone across. So there’s a fun choice and consequence there of using your tank on the ice.
TSA: For post-release support, Company of Heroes and Dawn of War have generally had stand-alone expansions. With the market changing this past five years, is it going to be more DLC, rather than stand-alone?
QD: I think we’re going to see a mix. What we’ve done is build into the game a lot of flexibility in our systems, and that makes it a bit easier for us to create content.
We’ve had people playing Company of Heroes for six and a half years with very little opportunity to leverage that. So a big part of it is a business decision to get people invested in the game, enjoying the game and give them new content.
Sometimes it’ll be free multiplayer maps, we’re always going to put those out for free, so there’s always going to be free content. Then if they want, they can buy other parts for the game and help us continue to produce Company of Heroes for a long time. So we look at this as not a finished game, but the start of a five year franchise of development.
TSA: A five year plan?
QD: Exactly, a five year plan!
TSA: And on that suitably Russian note, thanks a lot!
Thanks to Quinn Duffy for taking the time to talk to us about Company of Heroes 2. You can find our hands on preview from the campaign here.