A History In The Making
World War II Online Interview
Richard Aihoshi - "Jonric"
(August 14, 2000)
*Cover Picture Used *
While fantasy-based worlds provide the settings for the majority of massively multiplayer games, some companies are looking in other directions. Cornered Rat Software has a different vision altogether, having selected modern history as the basis for its project. The upcoming World War II Online is an Internet-based simulation of combat during that global conflict. Combining player-controlled aircraft, tanks, naval vessels and individual soldiers, it will not only relive major battles of World War II, but also let players rewrite their outcomes. We've been interested and keeping an eye on World War II Online for some time now. With development currently in closed beta, it seemed an appropriate time to find out more about the game and its RPG layer. To this end, Producer Chris "Mo" Sherland generously gave us his time for this extensive World War II Online Interview. -jonric
World War II Online Interview
August 14, 2000
While various fantasy-based worlds provide the settings for the majority of massively multiplayer games currently in development, some companies are looking in other directions. Science fiction and space are the most common choices, but not the only ones. Texas-based Cornered Rat Software is one studio that has a different vision altogether, having selected modern history as the basis for its project. The upcoming World War II Online is an Internet-based simulation of combat during that global conflict. Combining player-controlled aircraft, tanks, naval vessels and individual soldiers, it promises a dynamic and persistent environment in which players will be able not only to relive major battles of World War II, but also to rewrite their outcomes.
Players can create personae from individual countries on either the Axis or Allied side, and then advance through a ranking system, all the way up to commanding an entire theater, by completing missions and gaining experience in one or more services. Since the concept is an unusual one, we've been interested and keeping an eye on World War II Online for some time now. With development currently at the closed beta stage, it seemed like an appropriate time to find out more about the game and particularly about its RPG layer. To this end, we contacted its Producer at Cornered Rat, Chris "Mo" Sherland, who was kind enough to give us time for this extensive World War II Online Interview.
Jonric: The obvious first topic is how, in your own words, you would summarize WWII Online.
Chris Sherland: This is never easy :) It's the first real virtual battlefield. A massively multiplayer online game based on a World War II timeline and weapon technology, with a fully integrated strategic system that allows for complete persistence within the game world, played on land air and sea simultaneously. Players will control ships, planes, armor, and troops, all in first person, engaging in fully immersive combat within a detailed physics-based simulation, developing individual personas in an RPG layer that allows rank and responsibility increase with direct effect within the gameworld.
Jonric: Before we begin expanding on this, please tell us a bit about Cornered Rat Software. When and how did the company get started, who are the core members of the team, and what backgrounds do you have making games?
Chris Sherland: The core team here were all from iMagic Online, which was the branch of what is now IEN that created and developed WarBirds, Dawn of Aces, Raider Wars, and Fighter Ops. These were all premium titles and great sims. When IEN called for all it's offices to move to North Carolina, the Texas team decided to stay. Most of us went on to form Cornered Rat, and many went to other companies like HTC and MSI. Playnet's president is one of the original founding members of ICI, which arguably started internet gaming with Confirmed Kill back in 1995. Our Art Director Roger "Frying Tiger" Long, and our President, John "Killer" MacQueen, are both core members from that venture, and many others had been with iMOL for years when we spun off.
Jonric: What about yourselves as gamers? What are the major game-related interests among the team? Are there any that you'd consider particularly noteworthy in terms of having influenced the design of WWIIOL?
Chris Sherland: Oh my god yes. The core team is made up of mostly flight sim nuts, as well as guys - and a few gals - who have been gaming since early MUDs and the like. We are all gamers, and we try to make sure we hire folks who are in it for the project, realism nuts, RPG addicts, and the like. We all spend off time on the LAN flying, shooting, chasing, and whatever we can do. Now that WWIIOL is in closed beta we are playing our game a lot more, but stuff like Counter Strike, Janes's USAF, Fighting Steel, UO, EQ, Hidden and Dangerous, and of course Diablo. All these have influence, we get into game worlds together, have experiences and bring that inspiration to our design and production values. We are big fans of good games, and that's what we're basing our development on .making the next classics.
Jonric: Cool. What do you consider the most important lessons you've learned from other online games?
Chris Sherland: Wow, there are a lot! One of our credos is this: "To create online worlds where players can interact in both conflict and in concert, in massive, persistent environments, and create their own communities," anything else to us, is just a game. From there you can get an idea of where we start off. :) One thing that is my personal pet peeve is that many developers don't show respect for, and faith in, their customers, their customer's abilities and knowledge. Online gamers are a tough breed, and they can be insatiable, but that's no reason to assume they don't know what they are talking about, and more importantly, what they may need. We approach our fans and communities as customers and fellow gamers, keeping them informed and trusting that in general they know what they are talking about.
On the production and design side we work with gameplay in mind and reach for realism. One thing we are going for is the next level of physics and modeling accuracy. Combat sims have been around for a while now, and the guys who played SWOTL and M1A1 have seen a lot of increase in sim fidelity. There's no reason to assume that there is a hard limit to this. Many developers say that players "don't need" a feature, or they don't really "know what they are asking for." We don't believe that's completely true. As the learning curves get steeper, the gamers get more skilled, and it's suicide to not take that into account. Once a player can drive a tank really well, why not give him more advanced features to mess with? We working on a tiered format for advanced vehicle systems that will allow a player to say; have the program set his fuel mixture, or conversely, choose to do it himself.
Jonric: What will make the game more than just a huge shooter? What are the main elements in the game's RPG layer, and how important will they be?
Chris Sherland: This is a great question. We played 'em all, and we took notes. The direction we are going is more along the lines of R6 and H&D for the shooter experience "realism over rocket launchers" is what I like to call it. We are modeling WWII era weapons, with all their advantages and drawbacks. As well, our combat environment won't be making tactical decisions for the players. For example, in the basic 12-player shooter, you're limited to an arena with very specific paths and funnels designed to aggregate players into fire fights. While our game will do just that, it will do it on a geographical scale. There are a lot of ways into Paris, and once you get in there, there are a lot MORE choices than simply "left at the staircase." The point is that the players will have tactical control at all times, it'll be more about picking your routes and team members than it will be about what type of weapon you take.
Jonric: What kinds of options will players have when choosing their player characters? How many will be permitted per account? What branches of service are available?
Chris Sherland: Players will have one persona for each country depicted in WWIIOL. That will eventually be a total of nine - in fact we may increase that later to include more countries. Now with each one of those personas, players can score, and climb rank in three branches of service. An example would be that I've got a French persona who is a private in the Army, a 2nd Lieutenant in the Airforce, and an Admiral in the Navy. Later on we may fragment the branches a bit, and get the infantry and armor separated, as well as the logistic arms.
Jonric: How much choice and what kinds of choices will the player have in how the character develops through the course of the game? And how does the rank system work?
Chris Sherland: The RPG layer of WWIIOL will never give a player something that he(she) did not earn through gameplay skill. The persona development is all based on how well you do in running missions. There is no skill-leveling in our system. In other words, when you see an enemy with a rifle, you'll know that you are up against someone who has the same chance as you in winning that fight. Mission results are calculated and scored with "rank points" which can be hoarded and turned in when enough are owned to gain the next rank level. Each rank level, in each branch, has a new set of game features and responsibilities that comes with it, all the way up to country commander. This is all branch and country specific keep in mind, so if I make Admiral in the Japanese Navy, I won't be able to take that rank with me to any other country's navy. With nine personas, and three branches to serve in, there are 27 different "careers" you can pursue with one account. That leaves a lot of choice for players. Any rank can be "declined" and you can keep a persona at any level you have attained if that gameplay experience is what you're looking for. That's the basics :) Clearly there's a lot more detail in the system than I can cover here.
Jonric: What role will missions play in the game? Can you say anything about the types of missions in the game or about specific ones yet?
Chris Sherland: Missions run the world. Commanders can aggregate them into campaigns and operations, and they will be run in all branches individually. Basic attack and defense missions can be posted for areas, or specific targets, as well as recon missions, re-supply and escort. Missions and their results feed the RPG layer, which involves players into the strategic system more deeply, and the tactical state of the strategic system dictates the feel and goals of the missions etc. It's a game play loop that will get players more connected, and foster teamwork more than ever before.
What kinds of vehicles and armaments will there be?
Jonric: What kinds of tanks, other vehicles, planes, rifles and weapons will be available?
Chris Sherland: We are going to model a lot of vehicles. We have a lot planned, but our initial theater (BlitzKrieg) will support weapons from that conflict: Current tanks include the PzKpfwIII, Pz38(t), R35, CharB1(bis), we'll get some British ones in there as well. Aircraft will include the Spitfire Mk1, Hurricane MkI, Bf109E, Bf110C, Ju87B, Ju52, He111, Dewotine 520, MS406, Curtiss Hawk75. A few trucks for re-supply and logistics, like the Opel Blitz, and a Chevrolet. Troop weapons will include the Lee Enfield and Mauser K98 rifles, as well as the MG34 and Bren Gun. Grenades, mortars and anti-tank weapons as well. Finally ships will include the German IIC U-Boat, a coastal patrol boat for each country, merchant ships, and some DD and Corvette class stuff for each side. All but the merchant ships will be player controllable.
Jonric: Will there be any computer-controlled opponents to fight, or only other players?
Chris Sherland: There will be AI defenders at bases and key facilities. They will need to be defeated to take ground. Other AI tasks include supply convoys and some escort shipping. The big Capital ships will default to AI crews when not controlled by players.
Jonric: What kinds of penalties will players suffer when they die? And how will the game deal with friendly fire?
Chris Sherland: For death, the penalty will be reflected in score and rank points - if a player died on a mission for example. For friendly fire, we have a few systems in mind and we'll be trying a few different things in the beta to see what works the best. The big challenge here is that a system that may work for the FPS side of combat would prove completely inadequate for say, a battleship. With the amazingly broad variety of weapons systems we are modeling, it will be a challenging for us to get a single system tweaked to cover all instances. We will be looking to the players to help us define a system or systems that work well during the beta.
Jonric: Will the game be oriented more towards groups or players who prefer to solo? How will communications with other players work?
Chris Sherland: Players in WWIIOL can do whatever they want. Missions will have solid goals and rewards, as well as pre-defined team structure. But there will be nothing inhibiting players from just logging on for a quick fight or a lone wolf sortie . they just might not have as good a chance of staying alive as folks going together on a mission :) Comms will be two fold: a text-based "radio" system with multiple channels, and a voice codec that will allow players to use mikes and headsets to communicate with multiple players simultaneously. Initially, the text radio will be all we support.
Jonric: Will there be any NPCs, and if so, what roles will they play?
Chris Sherland: The AI defense will include troops that act as guards, and multiple crewed vehicles will have AI "bots" in the various positions until crewed with players. They'll do their job, but we'll make sure that they are a bit less effective than a player could be in the same position.
Jonric: Please describe the major features of your game engine.
Chris Sherland: Yikes! Z and W buffers, tri-linear filtering, multi-source lighting, colored lighting, fog, and probably more than a few that I can't recall off the top. But the engine is fast, and super flexible. We will be adding a weather system, and a full hydrodynamic model as well.
Jonric: Please describe the interface and any important features. What is your recommended input device or combination? How does movement work? How will conversations and other interactions take place? Will there be any form of inventory system?
Chris Sherland: That's not fair, it's clearly four questions! Here's the cryptic answer(s): 1) Mouse and Joystick 2) Mouse and Joystick 3) Text-based radio initially, then a voice comm system 4) Yes. We have a completely flexible keymapper, players will be able to save and load separate keymaps for each vehicle that will be saved in an archive.
Jonric: OK, here's a simpler one. What do you think the system requirements will be for good game performance?
Chris Sherland: That's still getting ground out. Right now we are looking at making it playable on a 266-300Mz CPU and requiring a second generation 3D card; eg. Voodoo II).
Jonric: Will you be doing anything different to deal with lag?
Chris Sherland: Our host/client code is designed to support 1000 players per theater. I can't give you too much detail, but we are using dynamic server load, and server swapping technologies. This will allow loads to be distributed among multiple servers. As well, we have a detailed plan for routing and backbone access for server traffic.
Jonric: How do you plan to deal with the major online issues of cheating and hacking?
Chris Sherland: Right now we are using a military-level encryption layer on all game files, and there are a few more "things" we have planned. The problem with answering this one with too much detail is hopefully obvious :)
Jonric: What are your plans for addressing other disruptive behaviors such as harassment.
Chris Sherland: We will have a GM staff, and an online "policy". Violations of that will be noted and players that are too disruptive will be warned and possibly suspended, or locked out entirely.
Jonric: What will make WWII Online stand out from other perpetual online worlds including the others currently in development? And to what kind of gamer will it appeal most strongly?
Chris Sherland: Well, most combat simmers have never had a place like WWIIOL to game in. This will set it apart simply by being the first and only place that someone can fly planes, drive tanks, command ships, fight as a troop, call in artillery, manipulate strategic game functions, and do it all within the same game session. The other big deal is the sheer size of our theaters. We are making half-scale maps for these that cover hundreds of thousands of square kilometers. We are going to be hosting the biggest online virtual worlds ever attempted. Throw in "64 players visible at a time" and you've got the most compelling combat sim ever developed. Again, that's my non-humble opinion, but if you look at the big picture there's little else out there that compares, at all.
Jonric: With community being a critical factor in online games, what are your plans in this area? Will there be any in-game support for guilds or other types of groups, and what about out-of-game community support?
Chris Sherland: We have a community services package planned that will include web-mail, web-site hosting, and community-run affiliate fan and info sites. Inside WWIIOL squads and units will have tools to help them communicate such as private channels on the radios and briefing areas either in-game or on their web sites, or both. As well, players will be able to "look up" squads and units from within the game or from the web. Not to mention the network we have running now includes fan and sim news sites from all over the world. Without community you have nothing.
Jonric: When did the idea for the game arise, and when did you actually start working on it? Where does development stand at the moment, and what are the next major steps that lie ahead?
Chris Sherland: This game idea has been around in the ether for a long time. Ever since the Internet began, folks have been hoping for this kind of thing to come around, especially WWII buffs. The timing was right, and we got enough support to tackle the project last year, in May of 1999. WWIIOL is in closed beta right now, and we are getting the host system up and running. We'll be doing a lot of combat on the host with the testers this month. The next big hoops to jump through are integrating the last few "big" systems, and tweaking gameplay during the beta. At that point it's getting all of Western Europe detailed and ready for guns!
Jonric: Can you reveal anything yet about your publication or pricing plans? Do you plan to have your own servers or to use a service?
Chris Sherland: Unfortunately I can't answer any of those directly just now :( Pricing will definitely be flat rate.
Jonric: When do you expect public beta testing to begin? And what would you consider a safe release date?
Chris Sherland: Yes, public beta is planned after all the major systems are in and functioning. Hate to be terse, but that'll start right after the closed beta. :) Safe date? We need to get this rolling as soon as we can so we can get a revenue flow, "ASAP" is what the President says to me everyday. :)
Jonric: Considering the number of persistent online worlds released and in development, why will gamers want to play it instead of or in addition to other online games?
Chris Sherland: Good question. No one has done a sim like this before, the virtual battlefield has been the holy grail of online sims for years, we think we have it licked and we know we have the technology to make it happen, and that will be a big deal in the marketplace. Beyond that, WWIIOL will have a very vertical market appeal. It's not a fantasy game, and it's not a jumpy shooter, it's a full realism, dynamic, land air and sea combat sim in the largest game world ever attempted. That oughta get us a few folks. *grin*
Jonric: Is there anything else that you'd like to say to or ask our readers?
Chris Sherland: Well, come check out the site and see where the sim is at. You can get a real feel for what game play is like by watching the movies here http://www.wwiionline.com/shots.html#movsound and the community is great. All are welcome, come take a look and see what you think. It's a huge undertaking and we are totally pumped about getting it out there. The community that is growing at our site is great supportive and fairly civil ;) No matter what type of combat sim you are into, WWIIOL will have something to offer, that's what makes it so cool. Now that we are close to getting a lot of people into a theater and shooting at each other things are going to heat up. Swing by the site and check it out, and thanks for having me here at IGN Vault.
Jonric: It's our pleasure entirely, and thanks very much for allowing us to offer our readers this thorough introduction to World War II Online. We'll certainly be watching as development progresses, and we look forward to seeing and hearing more.
Pre-Order, ships on 6/1/2001
By: STRATEGY FIRST
World War II Online is a massively multi-player simulation of land, air, and sea combat during WWII. Players will be able to fight out the battles of WWII and rewrite their outcome in a completely dynamic and persistent online environment. It is the first virtual battlefield dedicated to WWII combat that succefully combines aircraft, tanks, ships, and individual soldiers all player controlled, and all in the same combat theater.
Basically WWIIOL gives you a huge historical terrain, tools, and alliances to re-fight the most influential conflict of the 20th century... but the outcome is not pre-determined...you will have complete control over the movement of the front and the persistent outcome of battles fought.
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