Theatre of War Interview (PC)
Strategy Informer: Firstly, could you introduce yourself to our readers?
Martin van Balkom: Sure, my name is Martin van Balkom from Battlefront.com. I am mainly running the business side behind the scenes. In other words, all the boring stuff while the others get to do the fun stuff like making games, playing them and all that. I just sit over charts and paperwork and write emails all day long The guy next to me who will also field a couple of questions is Nikolay Barishnikov, international sales director at 1C and one of the driving forces and masterminds behind TOW.
Strategy Informer: Where did the idea of making Theatre of War come about?
Nikolay Barishnikov: As you probably know - 1C is the creator of the award winning IL-2 Sturmovik series. And ToW idea is a bit similar to IL-2. When we were developing IL-2 we set a goal for us - make the best game of its kind in some specific genre, that can be unpopular or empty. We chose flight sims and everybody was thinking that 1C was crazy. Genre was dead, international publishers all laughed when I offered them the game for distribution. Yet, we had great success as making the best game of its kind we "reopened" the genre. After IL-2 was finished, we had great WWII experience, nice engine, tons of blueprints and literature. I was thinking - well, why don't we try to do smth similar, but in a different genre. By a coinsidence I was always a fan of CC series. So I was thinking - why dont' we try to make a nice wargame that would appeal both to hardcore gamers that love all the tiny details and gamers new to this genre by introducing top notch graphics into wargaming? So ToW was designed.
Strategy Informer: Is there any features of Theatre of War we don't currently know about that you'd like to share with the world?
Martin van Balkom: Since the game has been in development for so long, it’s hard to dig out something that isn’t probably already widely known. But one of the things that many might have missed because it’s deep within our discussion forum is that one of the first and biggest changes we have made after signing up the game for publishing is to revert the reduction of engagement ranges. The original game design has basically halved effective engagement ranges in the interest of a more balanced gameplay, but our fans (and us) made a plea to set this back to “normal”. So all ballistics calculations have been redone, and you will see more historically correct stats in the game than before. This has some impact on gameplay of course, as the player will be able to experience longer range tank duels, but it also means that at closer ranges some of the differences between tanks won’t be as apparent. Since NO OTHER RTS game before has used realistic ranges (well, most still are using hitpoints, hehe) we feel that this has been a good decision by the developers, and both hardcore wargame fans as well as the casual player will enjoy the more realistic tactics, we’re sure of that. Obviously it also helps us to differentiate the game from other purely arcade-ish RTS games out there (depsite what they claim on the box)!
Strategy Informer: What can you tell us about the graphical and physics features?
Martin van Balkom: The game is using a heavily modified and expanded IL-2 engine at the base, and features some incredible visual effects, from lightning to water effects, to clouds and other atmospheric effects (like fog) and so forth. During the initial playtesting one of the remarks one of us dropped was along the lines of “you know, in hindsight it makes a lot of sense to use a flight sim engine at the core of this” because it does so many things right in terms of environment (both visual and physical) that the immersion factor and the authenticity of the simulation are striking. One example which will not be immediately apparent (only after you played a bit) is the subtle use of light coloring. On the 1944 Ardennes map you will get cold grey-ish blue-ish light, and see the occasional bright white snow cloud hanging deep over a hilltop. In the summer in Normandy the light is going to be bright yellow as you would expect from a sunny mid-summer day, with only a few little clouds and an almost blinding sun. In some of the Russian maps, the light is much darker, grey-ish light as you fight in a rainstorm. All of this combines to a unique game experience and the level of detail here is stunning and absolutely carries over the tradition of 1C that they set with the incredible level of detail shown in IL-2 and other previous games.
Strategy Informer: What are the current system requirements for Theatre of War?
Martin van Balkom: We’ve been reluctant to give away the final minimum specs just yet. Since it’s clear that you will need a good computer system to smoothly play we want to make sure that we test this thoroughly before commiting to a set of specs. However, the recommended specs at the moment are something like this: PIV 3 Ghz or AMD RAM 1Gb Video Nvidia GF6600 or more Sound Audigy 2 (best sound) HDD 3 Gb free
Strategy Informer: What kind of support do you plan to give once the game is released?
Martin van Balkom: Being primarily an online publisher (i.e. we focus on releasing the game from our website www.battlefront.com as digital delivery or mail delivery rather than selling through stores primarily), for us support is crucial. When you shop in a retail store you pick up a box and make your purchase there and then. For us, we as developers and publishers are confronted with our customers on a daily basis, before and after they make a purchase, and you don’t get away with releasing crappy unsupported games in this kind of environment. Additionally, since we cannot afford to put millions into marketing, our games usually have to sell for longer periods of time to make the profit needed to make the next game, so in order to ensure that a game sells well for months, support is essential. And lastly, we simply love what we do and do it with passion. If we were just after making money then you’d find us working on games for consoles featuring barely dressed wrestling ladies. Instead we’re determined to deliver a great gaming experience that people will play and enjoy for a long time. Our track record, both of Battlefront with games such as Combat Mission, Strategic Command, TacOps and others and of 1C with the IL-2 and following series speaks for us I think. Therefore, besides the standard technical support, for TOW specifically we plan to add more editor features and support modding (map and scenario creation etc.) to the fullest extent after the release.
Strategy Informer: Are you planning to release a demo for Theatre of War?
Martin van Balkom: Absolutely! We want our fans and customers to know what they purchase before they do it. We also have nothing to hide – ALL of our games are real gems in their particular genre and we’re not afraid to show a demo to anybody interested so that they can make an informed decision. This is absolutely different from putting a neat looking box on a store shelf and it’s part of our mission of what we do, to be recognized by the contents of the package and not the box. At the moment we’re even planning to release a beta demo (i.e. before the actual game release) to give fans a better idea of what to expect which sometimes cannot be explained well in words or screenshots.
Strategy Informer: Can you tell us about the single player aspect of the game?
Martin van Balkom: The player can choose from 5 campaigns (UK/US combined, Germany, France, Poland, Russia) including missions from the entire WW2. You can defend Poland from the invading German armies in September 1939, invade France in the early war years (an area often neglected by other wargames even though it coined the original term “Blitzkrieg”), fight in Normandy all the way up to storming Berlin in 1945. Tutorials and independent single player battles complete the package. Most missions can be edited with a few simple tools (XML format) and we’re hoping to add more sophisticated modding and editing support after the initial release. You get a total of around 50 maps/missions if I counted correctly.
Strategy Informer: We've had some information on the multiplayer side of the game, could you tell us a bit more about it?
Martin van Balkom: At the moment the game supports one multiplayer mode, which is a simple “deathmatch” type game (i.e. you’re supposed to eliminate the enemy forces) with up to 4 players. More types (like cooperative play) are on the list for the future.
Strategy Informer: Could you tell us about the units that we'll see in the game?
Martin van Balkom: There are, uh, around a couple hundred different units from the early war years all the way to the late war monster tanks. The selection of course is not complete, but a pretty good representation of the advancement in technology throughout the year. Most of the most common units used during the war are in, plus some that have been pretty rare but have a very high “coolness” factor. The same goes for infantry units – you will see various types of infantry, regular infantry, paratroopers and so forth, and they all feature historical composition (number of men in a squad), weapons and equipment, uniforms etc. Due to the relatively low scale of the game which focusses more on individual soldiers and troops there is no real TO&E (table of organization & equipment) as in some other wargames, so the player has more freedom to mix and match units for a given mission, but all of the campaign missions are being designed with pretty historical setups.
Strategy Informer: Could you tell us about some of the campaigns we'll get to play?
Martin van Balkom: Like I already mentioned there are 5. One combined US/UK campaign, one (the longest) for Germany, and one each for Russia, Poland and France. The German campaign runs through a sample of typical missions encountered by the German army from the very start of the war until the very end. The players gets to take a core force of units from mission to mission and can even collect captured equipment. There is a very strong roleplaying element in the game, too, because the player is able to spend experience points to improve his soldiers’ abilities (shooting, scouting, driving etc.), can promote his soldiers and award medals. So your attachment to the little virtual soldiers will grow over time, to the point where you really start taking protective measures to not risk your elite machinegunner or your best tanker crew for certain tasks. The Allied campaigns start with Normandy, the Germany campaign as mentioned features the entire war, the Russian campaign starts with Operation Barbarossa and ends with you storming Berlin, while the Polish and French missions focus on the early war years only and are the shortest campaigns.
Strategy Informer: As a gamer, what's your favorite part of Theatre of War, what makes you proud to have helped create it and why is it a game fans will want?
Martin van Balkom: There is a slightly different answer to each of these sub-questions. There is a lot of cool stuff in the game, so it’s difficult to choose my favorite part, but – and this is a purely personal preference - it’s probably the ability to padlock the camera view nearly at eye level of my virtual soldiers and enjoy the action from that perspective. The detail in this game is made with so much love that you can literally sit back and get immersed in the action, then pause the game, give a few tactical commands to your forces, and jump right back in. We at Battlefront are proud first of all to have been considered as publisher for the game at all. 1C is one of the most respected developers out there with a determination for quality and detail matched by no one else in our view. 1C’s decision to partner with us shows their dedication and we have been specifically tasked with finetuning the realism and underlying simulation for release to make this game something special and not just another RTS clickfest. So once the game is released and we get a compliment from a casual player that the game is fun, and from a wargamer that the game is probably the most reailstic RTS out there, then we’re going to be very proud of having been selected for this, and having achieved our goal. TOW will be the game that fans want because it has the same kind of hard to explain “magic” that the original Combat Mission games had. TOW doesn’t do everything 100% realistic, leaves out a few features here and there, has a few gamey elements and so forth, but the final mix as selected and implemented by the designers really comes together to provide one smooth package. It’s hard to explain until you see it, but it simply feels right. From seeing your little virtual soldier pick up a Panzerschreck and launch a rocket at an enemy tank while hiding behind a barn stuffed with hay, to the tool boxes and other equipment being blown off a tank by a nearby high-explosive shell, to long-range engagements between a hidden AT gun with fully animated crew loading and firing and shouting commands and an enemy self-propelled gun breaking through a light forest on top of a distant hill, or – and this of course simply cannot be missing from a game made by the same folks who made IL-2 - a Stuka doing a dive attack on an unsuspecting tank while a bunch of Flak guns try to shoot it down, only to be then jumped by an enemy fighter and shot down, landing inmidst your own troops. In short: this game ROCKS, that’s why fans will want it.
Strategy Informer: What's the currently release date and is it possible we may see some changes in the future?
Martin van Balkom: We’re shooting for a relase towards the end of the year at the moment. End of October, early November, something like that. The game has been in development for a long time (5 years or so) and is largely complete, we (the Battlefront team) are mainly working on doublechecking and improving some realism issues, tweaking and finetuning scenarios, correcting historical data, and localization including voice recording and the like. So unless something goes wrong terribly we don’t expect to hit any major delays.
Strategy Informer: What has been the hardest part of development so far?
Nikolay Barishnikov: The hardest part was to make this unique combination of a hardcore wargame and a "WOW" game that can be played by casual gamers. One of the most important features of the game is its AI that can take on most of the actions and create a point and click experience for casual gamers. However hardcore guys can go very deep into micromanagement - adjusting gameplay to their level of experience
Strategy Informer: Well we've come to our last question, is there anything you'd like to say to the fans of Theatre of War which are eagerly awaiting the release of this great looking RTS title?
Martin van Balkom: Yes, a few things if I may. First of all, the game has been in development for a long time (5 years) and has evolved a lot during the process and under the various “publishers”. Not everything said and done by the previous publishers should be applied to the version of the game that Battlefront is going to release. TOW is an incredible game which will interest the casual player as much as the hardcore grognard due to a unique (and hard to achieve) mix of realism and fun. It is not going to be the most realistic wargamer ever (because it does not intend to be) but perhaps the most realistic RTS game ever. In fact, on our forum the term “real-time tactical” has been coined, and I think it describes the game very well, because this is not going to be a typical RTS clickfest. There are other games out there with nicer graphics and more explosions for that. TOW attempts to bridge the gap between the “clicker” and the “thinker”, and while we at Battlefront have been extremely skeptical at first a few minutes of play convinced us that the guys at 1C really pulled it off again! So my message to the fans out there would be to go in with an open mind when we release the beta demo, and not with pre-made expectations. Enjoy the immersion, use the camera features a lot to enjoy the action from the ground up, and slow down your game pace from what you’re perhaps used to in other RTS games. For the hardcore grognards, the message is slightly different. It goes like this: shut up and enjoy the game.
And let me close with an important message – TOW is being published by Battlefront.com, and while we do have firm plans for bringing the game to the store shelves worldwide, the game will initially be released only via download or mail-delivery (your choice) directly from www.battlefront.com ONLY. So no need to go and pre-order it from XXX or YYY, as chances are that they won’t have it for a few months at least.
Thanks for the chance to do his interview and come and if you’d like to talk to us or the game devs, visit us on our discussion forum at www.battlefront.com or stay in touch with our newsletter or blogs at www.battlefront-newsletter.com.