A History In The Making
This online game will let you pilot a tank, fly a
plane, or command a warship against thousands
of other players during World War II.
While fantasy and sci-fi settings seem to be the most popular among recent massively multiplayer online role-playing games, early online games looked toward historical combat for their inspiration. Games like Kesmai's Air Warrior and iMagic's WarBirds pit numerous players against each other in classic air battles in the skies over Europe and the Pacific during World War II. Cornered Rat Software and Playnet are hoping to recreate the sensation of doing battle with and against hundreds of other players with their upcoming online RPG/simulation hybrid, World War II Online. When it releases later this year, the game will let you choose to play as any military branch from any country of the Axis and Allied powers. Whether you want to drive a tank, fly a plane, or rush a machine-gun nest, World War II Online will have something for you. We sat down with producer Chris "Mo" Sherland to discuss this promising online game in detail.
GameSpot: What kind of previous experience designing wargames does the team at Cornered Rat have?
Chris Sherland: Some of the team here worked on WarBirds and Dawn of Aces at iMagicOnline. In fact there are a couple here that date back to the ICI days and the original Confirmed Kill. World War II Online is a different animal though, and as a design it's our first. Granted we bring tons of gaming experience to the table, and we spent months in daily design meetings, but from the ground up it's our first attempt at a complex and cohesive design.
GS: What's the biggest challenge you're facing in developing World War II Online as opposed to WarBirds and Dawn of Aces?
CS: I would have to say that the time/distance factor was the biggest nut to crack. You have movement rates that vary from walking speed to driving speed to flying speed. Those relate to distances to combat and time to combat that have to be balanced to keep the game enjoyable and playable. You have to ensure that none of players moving at the aforementioned rates has to travel too long to get into a fight.
GS: Is World War II Online completely persistent, or is the length of each game limited?
CS: Totally persistent. The game does not have any predetermined flow aside from vehicle and terrain releases. The players will control all the rest. Some battles or campaigns may take days or weeks and some maybe months. All these battles are part of the larger war for Europe.
GS: How many of these releases do you plan to make over the game's lifetime? Do you know what kinds of vehicles and new terrain those releases will comprise?
CS: That's not certain yet. There will be many updates that are downloaded for new vehicles and probably new terrain addition, though larger terrain updates such as Pacific Theatre will likely be new retail versions.
The technology here is based on global digital elevation mapping, and the whole planet is represented at one half scale. The releases of theatres over time will represent filling out the planet with cities and towns, etc. The goal is that in a couple of years we will have the planet represented in one virtual environment with all relevant theatres of World War II represented.
GS: How many players will the game support simultaneously?
CS: Right now we are shooting for 10,000 players in the Blitzkrieg theater of operations. And we currently have 10 or more theaters of operations planned to make up a seamless World War II Online "world." That's where we want to start, and take it higher from there. With the retail distribution plan we have with Strategy First we should be able to attract a lot of players. We're setting up our server technology to be flexible and growth oriented. 10,000 players per theater is a number we fully plan to exceed. We still may end up with shards but not if we can help it.
GS: What happens when 1945 rolls around in the game? Will you start over?
CS: Yes. More than likely we'll turn the clocks back to 1940 or maybe even 1939 and start over again. On the second pass through, we'll introduce some of the more rare vehicles and theaters as well.
GS: So what happens if someone makes a brilliant move as the Allies and captures Berlin in 1941? What if the Axis powers successfully invade England? In other words, how much control of the game's outcome will players have? Will there be an overall script?
CS: Then the war starts again and the Germans get another chance to defend. There is no script; scripts are for single-player games. We want the players to write the script, it's their world.
GS: What are some of the historical theaters that World War II Online will have? Ardennes? Normandy?
CS: Both of those places are actually included in the first theater of operations, Blitzkrieg. You have to understand that one theater of operations can be over 722,500 square kilometers in size. This means that in most cases, you aren't choosing the Normandy "theater," you are choosing the Northern Europe Theater of Operations because both Normandy and the Ardennes are located in Europe. We're creating by far the largest massively multiplayer world ever created. Instead of taking a few hours to walk across, were talking days or weeks, and, when were through, years.
GS: Describe the process involved with character creation. Will the characters have any predefined attributes like those in more traditional RPGs?
CS: Yes and no. First off, a standard World War II Online account will allow for the creation and tracking of 27 separate and individual "personas" after all of the countries have been implemented. In a military paradigm these personas will start with attributes that tie them and limit them to the branch and country they are formed in. As they complete missions, they gain access to more advanced game functions and strategic layers. New vehicles, the ability to post custom missions, forming squads, all the way to running the campaigns and allocating resources for ship building and research: All these will be unlocked as a player grows his personas through the ranks. There are no persistent objects like a sword in an RPG that your character keeps.
GS: What happens when your character gets killed? Do you respawn back at your base, or do you have to trek back to your dead body to retrieve your items? And will you even have any items on your person?
CS: You come back from a base. The character grows socially and grows in how much he can affect the world. He doesn't have an "inventory" that he has to maintain from session to session. There's no reason to make people trek back out to the front to pick up their rifle. Death isn't that costly and is meant to be a regular occurrence.
GS: And how does character advancement work? Is there a standard experience point system in place?
CS: Missions are the key to success in World War II Online. Higher-ranking players design and post them, and lower-ranking players attempt and complete them. Their success pays both the poster and the taker "rank points." These can be traded in for a new rank level when enough are compiled.
GS: OK, so what happens when many players have all compiled high rank? At some point, what the individual guy in his Spitfire does is kind of irrelevant, since battles are won thanks to the larger disposition of forces and not because some guy took a machine-gun nest. How far will World War II Online scale up its ranking, and how will you coordinate who's really in charge? Military command infrastructure is a complex beast.
CS: Rank and command are different. There are a limited number of command positions available to people of qualified rank. The scaling will go to the top with players eventually deciding pretty much all aspects of governing their countries war efforts. We will be keeping an eye on things, but unless the highest-ranking command players do something way outside sensibilities it's theirs to run.
GS: The game has a feature called the Strategic System that gives high-ranking players control over units via an overhead map. Do these units represent other human players? If so, does this mean that high-ranking players will be able to move lower-ranking players at will?
CS: Nope. There are no "orders" or commands given to any players in World War II Online. It's all player choice. Higher-ranking players will help to form the goals of the missions that get posted. There is a trickle-down method for getting this info to the troops. The high commanders decide what the big goals are for the campaigns, like "Deny the Axis army any crossing into France." The next command levelers decide how to split that into operations, like "Secure all the bridges along the Meuse and Somme, and set up defensive choke points in Belgium." Then the mission posting officers take those goals and set them to missions, like "Blow the bridge at Dinant" and "Patrol the Belgian boarder," etc. Players taking those individual missions may not have any idea that they are fulfilling much larger goals.
GS: What's to stop an Axis player from reading a command posted at his or her headquarters, switching to an Allied character, and then set up a counterattack?
CS: Well not all Axis players will have access to command level info. The lower-ranking players will simply see goal-oriented missions posted--not "why" they are posted or the big picture. As players gain ranks high enough to start getting into the mix on that level, they'll be limited to playing only on the side where they hold a command posting.
GS: What are some of the conditions necessary for victory on any given mission?
CS: Normal wartime type activities like holding ground, defending a specific target from damage,
destroying certain facilities, capturing bases or other facilities, etc. We have plans to add more mission types in the future as well.
GS: Can players join a mission after it has already started?
CS: That will depend on the mission type and how late they are.
GS: How many different positions will players be able to choose from in World War II Online?
CS: Well, that's a tough one to answer right off the bat. Drive tanks, man the guns, fly planes, storm enemy positions as a trooper, run the radar at a base, man AAA guns, drive supply trucks to the front, escort bombers in single-seat fighters, plan and post missions, allocate resources for ship building or R&D, decide where new and advanced weapon systems are deployed, and a lot more. We'll be allowing players to command bases and ships, subs; it's a huge plan.
GS: What about the game's physics engine? How accurate is the flight model, say, as compared to that of a typical flight simulator?
CS: Well any high-fidelity flight sim experience will help. Stuff like torque and P-factor make those planes a bit tricky to fly, so they might not be for everyone. On the same hand, tanks need practice too but are much more forgiving. World War II Online brings a few paradigms together that all draw on tested and proven gameplay. Our planes fly like you'd expect, our tanks perform like the real ones did, and the troopers use the same first-person-shooter key controls that are standard these days. We're not throwing any curveballs at that level; we're just putting it all together in a huge environment. That's where World War II Online will take some getting used to.
GS: Does resource management play any part in the game? Can you crash as many planes or wreck as many tanks as you want?
CS: Sure, why not. One thing we wanted to avoid was a scenario like this: New player logs into World War II Online and tries to fly a plane, only to find that they are all gone or not available. With no clear way of telling that player why that is (we are sure they will not have read the manual), they will be frustrated. There's no way to cure an experience like this: "Log in=can't play." So, what we've done is move all resource management to the infrastructure level. You'll be able to beat down a team's ability to keep their bases open for example, but if they have even one left, players will be able to spawn from there.
GS: When will World War II Online go into open beta?
CS: As soon as possible, we have 5,000-plus registered beta testers signed up now, who are being folded into the test now. If we need more to test with, we will post availability of slots on the Web site. We may not open the game to all comers in beta, but we do need a significant number of players to test.
GS: Thanks, Chris.
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