Ubisoft's Michael De Plater tells us what went right and what went wrong.
VideoGamer.com: Was there any thought with EndWar that you might add variety and depth with post-release DLC that might address the complaints that the game was too simple?
MDP: There was something we thought about a lot. The thing was, technically, it was quite challenging to get 800 characters on screen and get the camera close enough to have the level of detail we do on the characters, and having the range of unit types. Everything was pretty precisely optimised to achieve that. So something that sounds simple, like add another unit in, when you’re using every single bit of memory you possibly can to squeeze the textures in and stuff for what you’ve got, it’s harder. Basically what happened was when we focus test the game, and focus tests might run two, three or four hours, and by the end of that period you’re asking gamers, do you understand the relationship between all these units? Do you understand what this tank does? Do you understand that this anti-air beats aircraft? It took us a long time to get to the point where we made a strategy game on console that was understandable and intuitive in that time period, even to people who had never played one before. That took a huge amount of effort of cutting things out. But what we could have done is more of a World of Warcraft – is then enable more depth to come in the subsequent hours of play. Having said that, the depth in the game now comes in the multiplayer of playing against other players. We kind of missed the end bit and we kind of missed the middle bit. Once players get to the multiplayer there’s enormous depth in the game. For hardcore players there are reams of strategies and different tactics, different ways to play every map, every game mode. Even though the differences between our factions are quite subtle, for the hardcore players there are enormous differences – that one’s a bit quicker or one’s a bit tougher and so on. It’s partly a failure to communicate, and partly just really being very obsessive about making a game that people even if they’d never picked up a strategy game could play within two hours. But we shouldn’t have treated that so much as an either or. That’s something Blizzard does extremely well – hold your hand at the beginning but then later…
VideoGamer.com: I’ve interviewed guys at Blizzard, and one of their mantras is that their games are easy to play, hard to master. I guess that’s the goal for every game really.
MDP: Yeah. I think the mistake we made is we assumed the hard to master comes from the multiplayer because you’re challenging yourself against other players, which is true, but the single-player I’d say needs to go on further.
VideoGamer.com: Lessons learned then. Can there be a sequel where you take those lessons on?
MDP: Both of those two are incredibly straight forward to address. We don’t have a single cutscene in the game. You compare it to World in Conflict, or Company of Heroes, where they invest a lot in the storytelling, there’s no mysteries about how we could do that and apply it in the game, it’s just something we didn’t give attention to. Giving more attention to the single-player is really straightforward to address and I think will make the game a lot of fun. Changing the way the combat chain works, the paper, scissors, rock, and adding the differentiation between the three factions, again it’s not something that’s even necessarily hard to do; it’s something that we chose not to do with the accessibility. So, yeah I think it’s really easy and fun to address. It’s a really good position to be in, in a way. After the first one, now we have a really good understanding of what to do, and we’ve solved lots of the hardest problems, which are accessibility, camera, controls, rendering that many characters, having that game work in 3D, our online as well, having persistent campaigns, having persistent player armies, so we’ve kind of done the hard stuff. There’s a really clear path forward there.
VideoGamer.com: Is the idea to do another EndWar game then, improving upon it in the way you’ve talked about?
MDP: Yeah. Even given we’re obviously saying what we did wrong and so on, it’s still one and a half million units. We still sold more than Red Alert 3, sold more than Company of Heroes, sold more than World in Conflict. It’s still, along with Halo Wars, the biggest new RTS in the last four or five years. Even with those faults it’s still up there.
VideoGamer.com: There was a perception that because it got lost in the din of the last three months of 2008, that it might not have done well enough to justify a sequel.
MDP: Compared to strategy games it’s really successful. We beat C&C on our first go out. We were up there and not far off Halo Wars, which is obviously a big license. We beat just about everything – everything except Halo – for the last three years that’s come out. For a strategy game that’s a huge success. For a console game that’s not such a big success. We’re in exactly the same position and the same sort of figures and numbers that was in Dave Jones’ presentation on Crackdown [during which it was revealed the game had sold 1.5 million units]. It’s just at break even, which isn’t that exciting. Us, Crackdown, Mirror’s Edge, we’re all in that same situation, which is in that same thing of where it is very hard to launch a new IP.
VideoGamer.com: So when might we see something from the sequel then?
MDP: I couldn’t put a time on it. Basically the thing is stepping back and looking at, in particular those two issues that we can address, and wait and see.
VideoGamer.com: It’s being worked on then?
MDP: Yeah. It’s a smaller team, and still Shanghai.