It feels like an age since Dawn of War III was announced – actually it’s just been 10 months – and like absolutely forever since the last of the expansions for the first game and the fully fledged in the hit Warhammer 40K RTS series.
TSA: It must be pretty exciting to finally be able to announce a date, both for you at Relic and the fans?
Matt Kernachan: Right? It’s been killing us for so long! To be frank, a ship date is never concrete until, it feels like, hours before, for any game.
TSA: And also at this time, you’re opening up about the multiplayer. It’s interesting that people are trying to really innovate in this space now, going beyond the usual head to head. In Power Core, you seem to have taken a few inspirations from MOBAs?
Matt: When we started this process, we thought we know what our bread and butter, we know how to make RTS, we know the RTS that we’ve made in the past and we love it, but is there anything else we should be doing? Is there anything else we should be looking at?
As a studio, we’re all gamers and everybody’s got their favourite genres and what they lean to, and MOBAs are relatively new on the scene, so we’re obviously looking at MOBAs a lot. There’s elements to those games that we found really interesting, and there’s lots of elements to RPGs, to MOBAs, even first person shooters that we found really interesting. So we started experimenting with things and the Power Core mode that evolved out of some of those elements really stuck.
It brings something new to the table, something new for the player to be focused on. First things first, I want to beat you on the map, and this gives the user multiple targets on the map, so not only are we trying to defeat one another in micro-engagements, but there’s something larger that’s more than just, “I’m going to go and destroy all your base buildings,” which is still a tactic in the game, and more than, “I’m just going to hunt around the map to take your last point and earn victory.” I love victory point modes, but doing this gave even more of a focus for your army. There’s things I need to do to get to victory and there’s things that you need to do to stop me.
It just introduces a bit more back and forth, and it gives you the opportunity to have a victory, even if you lose a match. One thing we find a lot is that I might lose the match, but there was that moment where I destroyed your turret, and that was a huge victory for me. That felt good, it was great and really intense. You were on the back foot for a while and it felt like I was going to win, but you managed to come back. It introduced so many of those moments that we couldn’t walk away from that.
TSA: i think just blanket comparisons to MOBAs is a bit harsh, to be fair, because the thing that you’ve taken is that MOBAs give you that step by step progress towards the final objective, but it’s just that one thing. It’s grossly simplifying what you’re actually doing.
You’ve also found a balance between having that kind of intimacy of having hero characters, as in Dawn of War 2, but you’ve also got that scale of the first. In fact, it’s a bigger game than Dawn of War with huge units that I don’t actually recognise anymore. They’re bigger than anything I could buy when I was doing the tabletop game…
Matt: We wanted to go bigger! So, at the very highest level, we looked at the first game, we looked at the second game and we’re like, “What are the best parts of both of these? What are the things that we really like about it? And what are the things out fans enjoyed?” We worked really hard to distill down those things. From the first game, it was the size and the scale, and from the second it was the hero units and introducing the element of intimacy – I think that’s a good word to describe it.
Looking at the scale of the first game, we definitely wanted to go back there. We wanted the base building, we wanted to sprawl across the map, we wanted galactic war! How we get that on the battlefield is with more and more units, definitely, but Warhammer 40K is great for silhouettes of units of difference sizes and scale. There’s the comparisons between a super small unit and a large walker, even though they can probably go toe to toe in a lot of places.
So how big can we go?
TSA: I guess it depends how far you want to let people zoom out? [laughs]
Matt: Right! So there’s hardware considerations, and just usability considerations that come into it as well. Putting a Titan on the battlefield? Yeah, that’s probably outside the scope…
TSA: Just the foot, maybe?
Matt: Yeah, and if that thing’s on the field, I’m not going to be able to see anything else. This isn’t Supreme Commander!
TSA: OK, so now I just want a Warhammer 40K Supreme Commander game.
Matt: No kidding! [laughs]
But the walkers that we chose – the Wraithknight, the Imperial Knight and the Morkanaut – those fit perfectly with the scale. I mean, Solaria is this 14 metre tall robot, and while I’m trying to control Gabrial Angelos, I’m trying to control her as well. It feels to me that we’ve really managed to get them in a place where the usability on both and the readability on both is clear to the player. It was a challenge at first, but it feels like we’ve got it down and we’re really happy with where they’re sitting now.
TSA: One of the interesting things with picking your army is that you don’t have what a lot of games do, including Company of Heroes 2, where you choose a general and that dictates what’s special about the army. Here you’ve got a more granular approach with picking elite units and combat doctrines. What does that really offer to the player?
Matt: That’s a good question, and in Company of Heroes you choose a general and you commit, very much. 40K is a different animal, in that you can commit very heavily to one battlefield doctrine, but there’s lots of places, as in Company of Heroes 2, where you can choose wrong and live with the consequences. You’re still trying to fight, even though you don’t have the right tools to do it.
With Dawn of War III, we’re trying to find the best of both worlds. I want you to have everything at your disposal to play the game that you want to play, but also be able to react in the moment on the battlefield to what your opponent is trying to do. Finding that balance is really tricky.
The other thing about Dawn of War III is that it’s a very big game. We’ve got so many units, but all the line units have specialised abilities, the elites have multiple abilities on them, the doctrines you take in, both on the elites and with global doctrines, change the behaviours of your units. The variability of what could happen on the battlefield is huge, and we do leave it to the player how they want to play it, but it also allows a game like this to self balance, to a certain degree.
Balance in an RTS game is really, really tough, but if everyone has a huge suite of tools at their disposal, a dominant strategy will not stay dominant for very long. You can always find a way to counter it.
TSA: See, I was going to ask if it was the opposite and a total nightmare to balance so many possibilities?
Matt: Oh, it’s still terrifying, I’m not going to lie! It’s a challenge to balance any game, so this is one of the ways we’re trying to mitigate that as much as possible.
We define balance as each participant having an equal opportunity for victory, and those opportunities run a gamut. There’s a lot of opportunities for you to win!
TSA: Finally, it’s the age old question, which is how are you looking to draw people from the single player into the multiplayer? I’m not particularly good at the multiplayer, though I might dabble with it, but I’m scared of just being trounced constantly!
Matt: It was hugely on our minds, because the multiplayer is the long tail of the game, and that’s how we want to get people to continue to play. We still have huge audiences still playing the first Dawn of War right now, let alone Dawn of War II, and we want that for Dawn of War III. We want to be playing this ten years from now.
So to have people transition between those two very different game modes, we did a few things. One is your universal army, where all of the doctrines, all of the elites and essentially everything you can take into a multiplayer game, you’ll for the most part be able to utilise in the single player campaign as well.
The other thing is that in the past there was one story that was told and you could choose the perspective on how you wanted to experience it. If you wanted to only play Space Marines, you could do that, and then you could turn around and play the whole thing again from a different perspective, but for the most part the encounters were very similar, just played from a different perspective.
In Dawn of War III, we have a story that we wanted to tell that we knew we needed to tell from all the different perspectives. So we crafted a campaign that made you do that. You’ll start with one race and then the next mission you play with the next race, and we’ll alternate through like that. One of the reasons is that when the players come to the end of the campaign, they know how to use all the races now.
TSA: It’s always silly when a game has you play as just one race, and you get to the multiplayer and you’ve no idea about the other race, where the units are balanced differently, they’ve all got different names…
Matt: Yeah, you’ve only experienced 50% of the content, and then you’re afraid to have to invest the time to learn another race. We wanted to mitigate that as much as possible and so we did that with a story that lets you play through from all the perspectives.
Thanks to Matt for taking the time to speak with us. Dawn of War III is out on 27th April, and you can read about our time with the multiplayer here, or find the video preview embedded within this interview.