A History In The Making



Massively World War II

By Thomas L. McDonald
Posted on: Oct. 31, 2000

Warbirds veterans ready to launch global warfare

The virtual battlefield is the Holy Grail of Internet military simulations. Imagine thousands of people taking on the roles of individual infantry, pilots, navy gunners, radar operators, supply gurus, and other combatants in realistic simulations—all tied together into one whacking huge online war. All who have tried it have failed. Oh, long-running hits like Air Warrior and Warbirds had strong followings, but they were flight sims, not battlefield sims. The idea of the Virtual Battlefield (VBF) goes back as far as net gaming, with Gilman Louie's plans to link up Falcon with other air and land sims to create a giant, multiplayer military theater. The late Jane's World War was another shot that strayed off target. Now, finally, someone might be doing a real VBF, and doing it in high style.

As with other recent innovations in massively-multiplayer gaming, this one is coming not from the majors but from a small startup company willing to pick up the ball and run. World War II Online (www.wwiionline.com) is a game in which members can join the Army, Air Force, or Marines and go to war. For many, it is a fantasy product that they'd given up on ever seeing. For Cornered Rat Software, it's an open-beta.

My War

The specs for this game are enough to make action fans, sim fans, and wargamers all drool. When you sign up for an account at a standard monthly fee (probably about $10), you create a character, choose a side to fight for, and select one of the three branches of service. All sides of the conflict are represented: U.S.A., U.K., Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, France, China, and Commonwealth.

You can join each branch of each country for a total of 27 different career paths on a single account. Career paths are each separate, so as you rise through the ranks in the Japanese air force, you may still be a Private in the Russian army. It all depends on which path you choose to spend the time playing. All of these choices mean a staggering array of gameplay options. You can fly, man the guns of battleship, fight in the trenches, drive a tank, or even handle supply. The logistics of all of it have crushed the will of larger companies, so what makes a start-up think they can lick 'em?

For starters, Cornered Rat isn't just any start-up. They were formed by several key members of the Warbirds team after Interactive Magic shut down their Texas office. Beginning with a dozen seasoned programmers from one of gaming's landmark multiplayer titles, the Cornered Rat staff has ballooned to 40 people in the year they've spent working on this project.

"We began by cataloging all the VBF games and why they failed," says Producer Chris Sherland. "How did those teams approach these problems? What mistakes did they make? Since we knew we were breaking new ground, we had to understand these issues before we began, so we lined them up and looked at them. One of the main problems is modularity. You can't approach it by building a flight sim and then adding tanks. So we designed it from the bottom as a vehicle simulator that could model anything that moved, from a bike to a battleship. The other problem is time-to-battle. A ship sim and an aircraft sim travel at different speeds. It may take aeons to get into battle with a ship, but only 14 minutes in a plane. We addressed that by creating dynamic spawn points to equalize time to combat for all the branches. So, players will be able to get into action regardless of branch."

Choose Your Weapon

The practicalities of all this are daunting, but the solutions are logical. For instance, what will keep the infantry element of the game from becoming a first-person shooter like Quake or Unreal? When you log in for a session, you may want to take part in a specific large battle, or you may just want 30 minutes of shooting action. The game embraces both approaches, but is always geared toward realism. Weapon types are very limited: bolt-action rifles, hand grenades, and a limited number of submachine guns.

The advanced physics model prevents the running and jumping techniques common to shooters. If you run and jump, you'll just tire out and faint. There are enough leashes on the players to prevent rampaging gunfights and to keep to the tone of a realistic large-scale infantry battle, but enough action to keep things interesting. By using dynamic spawn points, new gamers are always close to the action.

Each time you start a session, you're presented with specific options. If you're in the Air Force, maybe you'll see a roster of current or pending battles and of the planes available to fly. In the Navy, you may find that a capitol ship has just entered the area and choose to man big guns, AA, or even a radar station. At any time you'll find specific, goal-oriented missions. Successfully participating in these missions from start to finish will yield a point award, which can be applied towards raising a particular character's rank. Higher ranks get more options and different weapons. Reach a high- enough rank and you can take over the role of theater commander, directing resources on a large map.

Death doesn't really exist. You never lose rank or what you have acquired. If you die in a specific mission, you will lose the points you've accumulated for that mission, but it affects your progress—not your overall character. The hardware will also be scalable in terms of realism workload. While the realism level is always high, for complex objects like tanks and planes the user can choose between hardcore mode and a mode which automates some of the more difficult functions.

The naval aspect of the game is also intriguing. Since you can't just let players spawn a battleship in an enemy port, all capitol ships larger than destroyer class will be treated as slow-moving, persistent objects in the game. You can spawn into these objects, but not move them. This means that in the scope of the campaign, the big ships may only arrive at the battle at certain points, and are "at sea" the rest of the time. Small boats like coastal-patrol boats, corvettes, and PT boats, however, can spawn any time they like for quick action.

You Are There

A central menu tracks it all, displaying the current options available to a character. In this way, you can evaluate the unfolding battle at any time and pick the hottest zone to fight in. The game runs a persistent timeline through multiple theaters, beginning with Blitzkrieg 1940. After 1940 is done, new vehicles and weapon sets will be added and the game will move on to the next year. This repeats until the war is finished, or may possibly continue with hypothetical post-1945 scenarios featuring jets and Pershing tanks. Large historical battles such as Bulge and Sicily are mixed with smaller ahistorical encounters to keep the whole system constantly moving. If the system does well, they may rewind and start all over again, or move into fantasy and science-fiction realms with all-new vehicle and object sets. The scratch-built graphics engine and network code look sharp enough to carry the system through several years' worth of iterations.

And that's what Cornered Rat wants: a strong, long-term MM solution that offers users something they're not getting. As Sherland points out: "The massively-multiplayer online market is poised for something new. The technology is ready for this. Massively multiplayer has to be bigger, show you more, and allow you to interact with more people. It's not about how many people you can get on at once. Games have to be more compelling. In order to keep a large market share, these games have to get better in two aspects: How many people can I see, and how many people can I interact with?"

Or, in the case of World War II Online, how many people can I see and then kill with a 54-pound explosive projectile fired at a rate of 15 shells per minute from a Fletcher-class Destroyer off the coast of Normandy? Kinda makes a BFG look like a peashooter, no?


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