World War II Online
Interview by Leonard "Viking1" Hjalmarson
Your heart is still pounding from the discovery that Confirmed Kill was cancelled. Never fear, Playnet is here! Who says that good things are not happening in the simulation world?
Last month trouble at iMagic led to speculation that the end of the world was at hand. A large group of employees were leaving. A few weeks later news leaked out that CEO "Wild Bill" Stealey was resigning. What was the world coming to?
At the time we tried to obtain information as to what was up with the group that left. Even our most efficient operatives couldn't get squat. Was torture an option? Nah .
The good news is that a new company has been born, like the proverbial warbird rising from the ashes.. er, what was that mythical bird again?
Playnet Inc., was founded in May of 1999 by some of the former creators and developers of WarBirds. Their plans? World domination, of course! Why settle for less?
Seriously, Playnet is now developing an online gaming service providing cross platform services to gamers. Translation? You own a Mac or PC, you're in. The service will include three levels of games: free, subscription and premium games at a single online destination.
Who cares, you say? You care, because PLAYNET is the first online rival for JANE'S World War.
Playnet is developing a new WWII simulation, "World War II Online." WWII Online is a vehicle simulation allowing players to participate in air, land and sea combat using a single front end which will be available for download. In addition to taking control of vehicles, the design will allow players to access a first-person shooter model putting them in the role of infantry. Air, land AND sea in a historical theatre? Count me in!
To find out more about this ambitious project, we fired off an interview to the Playnet crew. The trajectory must have been accurate. A few days later we received this transmission back. The two Producers of WW2 Online are are Chris "Mo" Sherland and Mark "Snail" Pribe.
Q. I first heard of WWII Online only this week. How have you managed to keep the secret for so long?
Mo: Well we started out just "talking" about the idea after we left IMOL. We met every day for over a month just discussing design and technology issues with the concept. We didn't even have computers or an office, so it wasn't too hard to hide out. After we did get into an office and set up the boxes, it took a while for us to get phones in, then when we did we were working too hard to use them! We also wanted to keep the idea secret until we knew we could do it, it's the holy grail to all of us here and we didn't want to drop it.
Q. Legend has it that breaking the Grail leads to immediate and complete, irresolvable bad vibes . Now give us a little history. When was the project first conceived and who were the principals involved?
Mo: This is a great question. I think the concept of what we are doing has existed in the online gaming community for years. We're not claiming that this idea is original, we're only claiming that we have the nads big enough to actually do it.
As far as design goes, our original dev cycle included ALL of the original "jumpers" from IMOL. This game was designed by all of us. The 12 principals are: Roger "FT" Long, Russell "Hoss" Mirrabelli, Troy "Rampage" Lowe, Jonathan "Hoof" Hoof, John "Kango" Lundy, John "Killer" MacQueen, Rodney "Hatch" Hodge, Kevin "Squirm" Rivas, Mark "Snail" Pribe, Neil "Corn" Huntly, Steven "Caligula" Evans, and myself.
Q. Give us a quick overview. What the heck is WW2 Online anyway?
Mo: It's a vitamin alternative .no wait it's a starch supplement. Crud! What the heck IS it? Snail? Oh yeah WW2 Online is a persistent world, multiple vehicle simulation of WW2 air/land/sea combat.
It will "unfold" as the actual war did to the extent that theatres and vehicles will become available as the timeline moves through the 40s. Players will be able to take on new and more advanced game features as they gain experience, such as supply flow, and vehicle distribution. There is SO much more that I'm afraid we'd need a lot more space and time than this interview will allow. Not to mention the fact that we want to keep some things in the background a bit longer.
Take me to Part II: Dynamic and Interactive
Q. WWII Online sounds extremely ambitious in scope. Are there any major challenges to be overcome in order for the vision to become reality?
Mo: Not any more (grin).
Dynamic and Interactive
Q. The simulation is described as built on a "dynamic interactive strategic model." Can you interpret that for us, the Klingon dictionary hasn't arrived yet.
Mo: "tlhIngan Hol jIjatlhlaH!! " oops. As a country's assets get damaged or destroyed, the sim's supply model will automatically route supplies to replace and repair. If, that is, the routes have not been interdicted. Also high ranking players from the three different branches of service (Air, Land, Sea) will be able to respond to situations by altering the flow of supplies themselves.
Snail: The commanders will be able to determine how some of their resources are used, "customizing", in a sense, their country's war footing, and perhaps providing assistance to their allies.
Q. The only thing we can think of that parallels this product is JANE'S World War (or Heisenberg's equations) is that a fair comparison? Why or why not?
Mo: Nothing parallels this project. In Jane's system players scores are added to a total held separately and combined to determine overall battle flow. In WW2 Online every action done online will have its effect felt in real time, in the same world. It's a true battlefield.
Q. Another product that comes to mind is Total Air War. In some ways this was the first simulation product that really blended strategic control with a real time air/ground war. Is TAW a paternal cousin?
Mo: I never saw TAW actually.
Crazed, Oxygen Starved Visionaries
Q. I'll pretend I didn't hear that!
So, why attempt to do it all? Is Playnet made up of a bunch of crazy visionaries? Why not just do a good boxed simulation like everyone else, and then maybe release add on modules that expand the universe?
Mo: Because that has never worked. In fact I believe that the paradigm you refer to is exactly why real time battlefields have failed in the past. We specifically chose alternate routes from what has come before. The reason to do it all is simply because it's logically the next step in online combat sims it has been for years and yet no one has attempted it. And yes, Playnet is made up of crazed visionaries.
Q. We love crazed visionaries. Tell us about "Blitzkreig," the first module that will release. What is the scenario?
Mo: It's the Battle of France. We chose this as the starting point because it's really the doorstep of World War 2. It was the boiling point. It will start with the stage set as it was in May of '40, from there, it's totally up to the players as to what's next.
Physics, Pneumatics etc.
Q. One challenge in a product of this scope must be modeling so many vehicles with accuracy. How high are the goals for accuracy and realism in the main components: flight model, avionics, weapon systems, ballistics, physics, cork screws etc.
Mo: Very high. Games like WarBirds, Panzer Commander, and Hidden and Dangerous have set the standard for physics and realism in combat simulations. We're trying to get to the next level. The hardest part is finding that last percentage of physics left to model. Most of this stuff has been done before but never together. That's where we want to excel.
Our flight model was demo'ed at the recent WarBirds conventions and we got a lot of feedback. Robert Shaw (Author of "Fighter Combat: Tactics and Maneuvering") said some very flattering things now we have to get a vice on Hoof's head . The fidelity that we have achieved in the flight model will be in the ground vehicles, sea vessels, and ballistics as well. Our cork screws are overmodeled right now though hard to get accurate data on the old ones!
Go to Part III: Physics and FM
Physics and Flight Model
Q. I was afraid of that. This could mean the vintage wines will go unopened until the release date!
Let's get specific. What physical factors must the tank commander consider? Fuel, engine temperature, softness of terrain? Will my engine ever break down? Can I roll the tank on a steep slope?
Mo: Yes to all, and more. Treads, crew station condition, weather I could go on. It's going to be totally immersive, and you'll have to take a lot into account before engaging the enemy. It's not just your butt on the line, it's the overall well-being of your entire side.
Q. Compare the flight model in WW2 Online to the current modeling in Warbirds. Are we going to see improved models? Are there selectable levels of realism for the players? And if so, who decides what model is used?
Mo: The WarBirds flight model was the best in the industry for a long time. With the research I've been doing it still stands as the best of the best even now. However there were concessions made for technological reasons that developers are free of now. The min sys on WB was a 486 at first ;) If the WB flight model was say, 80% spot on, we're going for another 19%.
A lot of the depth of this sim will be choice of the player. Engine management on aircraft for example, will be there to the degree that a player wants to get his fingernails dirty. If you don't want to manage your manifold pressure in detail for instance, you'll simply get less fidelity in the performance outline of your aircraft. We haven't talked about levels of difficulty yet as they apply to vehicle performance, so I can't really get you an answer on that.
Realism and Challenge
But the overall feeling here is to give the players the weapons and terrain and supply flow of WW2 and let the chips fall where they may. If you can't get the knack of fighter duty, maybe you're really just an awesome Tiger Tank driver in hiding. We are not too worried about making this game easy, there are SO many facets to play at so many different levels that many player styles and levels will be able to co-exist without causing imbalance.
In other words, it'll be easy to play the game, but a challenge to master any of the vehicles and certainly the advanced features like vehicle distribution and supply flow. Skill in combat will shift from say, how fast you can bring guns to bear, to your ability to make good decisions quickly under fire.
Snail: Or, how well you and a few others can work together tactically as a team right up to how well your side can plan and prepare for battles in a strategic sense. There will be different levels of play, and a lot of incentive for your teammates to "train" you if you're finding something hard to master.
Immersion and Player Control
Q. What level of control can we expect in the various vehicles? Say I am commanding a battleship in Blitzkrieg. Now say it is a very large and complex weapons platform like the Graf Spee. Can I choose to man the main and watch a target from the Gun Operator's position? Can I check the radar contacts? Can I gaze out across the ocean from the bridge?
Mo: Yes to all, and more steer the jalopy yourself, launch a spotter plane from the stern and call in the boat's fire from high above a target it's gonna be a lot of fun.
Q. And you have how many battalions at work in programming...? Same question with regard to a Sherman tank. Ok, I'd rather be in a Panzer division.
Mo: I think the standard for tank sims has been set recently. You won't see any less control than is the norm now: commander, gunner, driver, or just hop on as a troop and rest your dogs while getting a lift to the front. Also, you'll be able to crew all the positions with your friends. These positions will all be accurately modeled and historically true. The sights will be the same ones that the tankers used back then etc.
The Strategic Game
Q. Now tell us about the strategic game. How do I move from a lowly tank gunner to command of a tank division? How do I get from there to command the entire German force, or can I?
Mo: First off, you'll never be a lowly anything in WW2 Online. From the entry level on up to the highest rank, you'll be able to fight in vehicles of all types in combat. The higher game functions will be more along the lines of creating mission outlines, setting deployment orders, and articulating supply flow. It will all revolve around rank. And rank will come from your mission record. You do good? You get more responsibility.
Snail: Specifically, you do good for your side, not just racking up personal score. Having a lot of kills might look nice, but if you're getting them all in a place where your side is winning heavily anyway, it might not matter as much.
Q. The old, "right place at wrong time, eh?" Tell us about the command interface. What orders will a division commander issue and how is the tactical information presented to him? What about for the Theatre Commander?
Mo: Here I'm going to pull rank and just say, it will be very important to be a good commander.
Go to Part IV: AI and Decision Making
Q. No problem, we'll send our crack operatives to your URL tonight... Some of these guys worked on Enigma back in '41. But please tell me that you are going to support multiple monitors. If you are not, don't even answer this question. Just do the right thing.
Mo: Well, the Monitor was a civil war ship, and there was only one of them, and it was sunk. We won't be supporting the Monitor at all. :P
AI and Decision Making
Q. I'm not finished on the strategic tack yet. When an online theatre first comes alive someone must be making the strategic decisions. I assume it is either Bill Gates or the CPU. Let's say it's the CPU, we all know Bill is busy. What factors does the AI take into account?
Mo: The role of AI in WW2 Online is totally non-traditional. When you see a vehicle it'll be very clear that a real player is in control. Stuff like supply ships and the like will be AI driven. As far as strat decisions, in the beta, strat features will be run by dev folks here, and some select players. Once we hash out the system under stress we will "employ" trusted players to be in command positions initially until regular users attain higher ranks. Of course we'll reserve the right to be "congress" on any disputes in the theatres ;)
Q. When an online theatre first becomes active there might be only fifty players. How does the AI interact with the human players? There must be more than twenty five vehicles per side. Tell us about the engagement and defensive AI for each side. For example, what are the rules for sighting? Can the AI panic?
Mo: Again, AI will not be rolling in tanks and aircraft. Besides base/facility defense, (otto) it's all player driven in that regard. If there are only 50 players on (I'll be fired), evenly spread between the sides, you WILL only have 25 vehicles on a side. And the battle will scale to that size.
There's nothing wrong with a 50 tank skirmish that I can think of BTW! One thing that seems to be a common misunderstanding is that those 50 guys will be "lost" and lonely in a huge terrain. Well, if you're online, and 10 Panzer tanks attack one of your bases, you're going to want to defend!
The host will control defensive positions only. If it's a pillbox or a static gun position, it'll be AI, if it's mobile in ANY way, a player will have to drive it and shoot it.
The only AI aircrew will be gunners, and yes, they will be under the same restraints of physics as the player.
Dynamics and Graphics
Q. How dynamic is the environment? Define "dynamic" for us in terms of persistence in destruction, resource management, etc.
Mo: Gotta button the lip here too. Let's just say that everything you damage will put more strain on your enemy's ability to wage war, and every mistake made in deployment or supply flow could cost your side time and ground.
Q. Sooner or later we have to talk about graphics. Let's talk. You've developed an entirely new engine for WWII Online. Tell us about its main features.
Mo: I was a skeptic at first. I was kind of attached to the old Graphsim engine that was the final enhancement to what Eric "Hellcats" Parker wrote 10 years ago. The one we have now was written in house by John "Kango" Lundy. The whole home-grown feel had me worried, but after the last 90 days I am completely impressed. It's a full featured engine that supports z-buffering, transparency, poly sorting, bilinear and trilinear filtering, antialiasing, static and dynamic colored lighting, there's a list of more features that I shouldn't bore you with, but, it's VERY fast.
Q. Is weather a factor?
Mo: Oh yeah
Q. Good weather, you guys are all on the beach and we don't see this game til 2001...
The Panzer Elite beta released a few weeks ago, with the most detailed environment yet seen. How detailed is the environment in WW2 Online? Will trees be a tactical factor?
Mo: That game looks really good in some respects. And yes, we're looking to get as detailed as we can. The obvious challenge is to give the ground pounders lots of clutter to hide behind without rendering air support useless due to frame rate drop for the flyboys. Trees, hedges, houses, roads, bridges, as well as military and industrial facilities, they'll all be in there and be a factor.
Go to Part V: Damage Resolution
Q. Since you are developing simultaneously for the Mac, your engine must be D3d and OpenGL. Will we also see Glide support? What will the max resolution be on the PC?
Mo: Max resolution on the PC right now is 1600X1200. As far as Glide goes we haven't made that choice yet. Open GL and D3D are already running.
Q. Let's get specific about physics. Are we going to see landing gear compress on a Spitfire? Do tracers fire in a nice straight line or will we see them spiral out a bit?
Mo: All gear, wheels, etc will compress with weight. Ballistics will be as accurate as we can get em. Dispersion, drag, downrange ballistic effects will all be in there.
Snail: The landing gear in that Spit you see in the screenshots already compresses, we just aint landed it yet J.
Q. Tell us about damage modeling on two different platforms: an aircraft and a tank. Can I overheat my engine? Can I break my landing gear? Can I blow a tire or throw a tread?
Mo: I hate to be dry here, but yes to all and more once again. Our damage model will take kinetic, penetration, splinter, and explosive damage into account. The variety of damage on vehicles will be the highest detail modeled yet. Components on planes and tanks will be modeled accurately and available to be damaged or destroyed.
For example, you get a coolant hit in the left radiator on a Bf109, if you're quick, you can switch the coolant system to the remaining good radiator and try to exit and get home. In a Spit you only have one radiator. If your Matilda takes a turret hit, you'll still be able to drive it, but if your track throws you'll be stranded. If you take on water in a big Cruiser you might have to counter-flood to avoid listing.
Q. Tell us about damage modeling in the environment. Can I destroy a single wall of a building? Can I break a window? Can I knock down a tree?
Mo: That's the idea, we are still early on in all this. We want to do as much of that as we can without a huge cost to performance. It's one thing to replace a tree with a burnt-out one in a game where your all by yourself, but for 75 guys to see that same tree is gonna cost just that much more bandwidth online. We will see what we can afford without kicking comm performance in the butt.
Q. You are also modeling infantry and intend to use a first person shooter type model in combination with the simulation. Tell us more.
Mo: Well, the ground troop will just be another mode of fighting. Not much to tell that hasn't been told already in other troop sims. We are really only bringing the best of all these genres together more than we are blazing new trails in any one. That is to say, the industry standard will be met or beat on all levels of this project. That's our vision.
As far as the troops go, you'll be the guy with the gun J. Any and all ground facility capture will be the troop's job. Whether your dropped from a plane, or spring out of a APC, or a landing craft, or grab a ride in a troop truck, you'll be the guy who gets the call to "storm the building" for the final stage of grabbing ground. WW2 era weapons will be available in relation to what country and side you've selected, and you'll have the right uniform on too. Fully articulated soldiers, accurate wepons, and NO CIRCLE STRAFING EVER! J.
Q. What weapons will I as a grunt have at my command?
Mo: Whatever you want to carry, and it'll depend on your country Stens and Brens for the Brits. Colts and BARs for the Amis. Schmeisers, M1s, tommy and grease guns, grenades Swiss army knife etc.
Go to Part VI: Infantry
Infantry and Interaction
Q. How do the soldiers interact with other assets? Say I find a tank with an open turret and get a good shot at the commander. Can I then lob a grenade inside? Or if I shoot the driver of a truck, can I climb in and drive it away?
Mo: Hmmm, I'm not sure of your grenade skills, but it'll be possible. And yes, you'll be able to drive "found" vehicles in some instances.
Q. What happens if the player's tank is shot from under him or his engine is dead and he bails out?
Mo: If he morphs back to base he can reenter another mission but he loses his score for the mission he was on. If he has a grenade or can somehow commandeer another vehicle he can continue the war from where he is at.
Q. What is the order of battle? What aircraft can I fly? What vehicles/artillery can I command? What ships?
Mo: Top secret still.
Q. Heh.. we'll see... We have friends in low places. What weapons are modeled for aircraft?
Mo: All of em will be.
Q. Tell us about communications among infantry and between units. Are radios modeled?
Mo: Sorry to be a stick in the mud here. Yes we'll have radios, that's all I can say.
Q. What happens when I run out of shells or bullets or if my side is losing too many aircraft? Tell us about resource management.
Mo: If you're losing too much stuff you'll lose the war. Or at least have to fall back a bit. With the supply lines the way they are modeled, as you fall back your supply lines will get shorter, making your ability to defend more resilient, and conversely, as you get deeper into enemy territory your supply lines will be longer, more strained and more vulnerable to interdiction.
Q. How is intel presented to the player? Say I am a squadron commander in the air, or commanding a squadron on the ground.
Mo: Can't really say just yet. But intel will be supplied almost exclusively by players to their sides with sightings and recon missions.
Snail: Things like radar and sonar will be modeled as accurately as possible as well.
Q. Thanks, meant to ask that one. What hardware support will be present? Force feedback? Union reality headgear? What else?
Mo: Not sure just yet.
Go to Part VII: Sound and System
Q. What sound APIs will be supported? Will digitized sound be used for various weapon systems and effects?
Mo: We are doing some sound experimentation, trying new techniques and technologies. The sound system is not finished yet though, so we haven't made hard-copy decisions. We're working with cross fading regular wav technology, and also trying a physical sound modeling engine from a company called Staccato Systems. Our sound engineer is Neil "corn" Huntly from WarBirds fame. He's doing some great work so far. The demo we showed at the con featured a great sound set. We've got sounds mapped to many more parameters of the engine and flight model to give much more detailed audio feedback. It's very cool.
Talk to Me!
Q. Will voice interaction be built in so that a squadron leader can command his squad or coordinate an attack?
Mo: Yes, voice technology will be supported. There will be no reason not to include that in online sims from now on. We're looking into a few different things, but it will be in there for sure.
Q. How many players will be able to participate in one active world?
Mo: We're looking to get 1000+ in each Theatre,
Snail: We'll be starting with a single theatre and adding more theatres as we go, all operating together.
Q. When do you expect to hit beta? Will there be an open beta?
Mo: Beta should hit by the end of the year, 1st Q of 2000 at the latest, and yes there will be an open beta stage.
Q. What is the recommended system spec? Will a 3d card be necessary?
Mo: Right now we're looking at a PII 266, 32megs, and a second generation 3D card minimum.
Q. Hardware nuts after my own heart. Tell us a bit about your team and their credits.
Mo: Well, most of us cut our teeth on WarBirds development and support with ICI and IMOL. As gamers and community leaders we have experience that is very extensive, and a lot more varied. One thing that keeps hitting me here is that there are no conflicts keeping our productivity down. Everyone is organized and productive, and there's a lot of mutual respect within the team.
I'm amazed we were able to pull off the con demo as well as we did. From a producer's POV I was expecting a lot less than what the team delivered. Everyone here is totally motivated to make this happen and that is infectious. We'll have bios on the web soon, so let me save that for the team to share.
Q. What is the most exciting thing about this game for you personally?
Mo: That it's going to work. When we first started looking at doing it I had my doubts. It's a huge project, with a huge scope. But we spent SO much time in developing the design that our confidence in getting it completed is very high. I guess the most exciting thing to me is that I get to be a part of it. My job is to make sure it happens, and that is a very inviting prospect. I just let the team get their job done and keep the machine free from interference. This team needs room to run, and I'm letting them do just that.
The Morning After..
Q. After Blitzkrieg there will be more modules. What are they and when might we see them?
Mo: Eventually we will model all the major theatres of World War2. We haven't decided on a timeline yet, but the war will go on until it's done and progress through the theatres in a relative timeline. ETO, PTO, MED, CBI, and Russian fronts will all have multiple theatres open eventually with interconnected supply flows and resource systems.
Q. What will be the payment structure for Blitzkrieg? What will it cost me per hour or week?
Mo: We're gonna hold that card close to our chest for a bit still. The online combat sim market is changing right now and we don't know where it'll be when we go pay. We have some ideas, but we're gonna grab a beer and watch the parade for a while before we commit.
Q. Reasonable. Did I miss anything? ;-D
Mo: Well, yes. There's a fly in your coffee!
Q: That ain't no fly.. it's our direct line to the Pentagon. See the microwave relay on the head? Ain't technology wonderful...
Fade to black...
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