As Relic turns its attention to the Eastern Front, VideoGamer.com talks to Company of Heroes 2's game director Quinn Duffy about a struggle much closer to home: the impact of THQ's financial strife, the war against piracy, and what Company of Heroes 3 may have to do to secure future success...
Q: Company of Heroes is the highest-rated strategy game of all time, so when it comes to creating a sequel to a game with such high critical acclaim, where do you start? Obviously, if you've been heavily criticised for a certain element you'd work on that, but...
QD: You know what to fix! Yeah. It was a long route. We looked at doing an Eastern Front expansion pack way back and just couldn't achieve the stuff we wanted to with the technology that we had. And so there's a need to develop some new technology and a need to go back and look at the game very objectively just to see what it was that we did and why, and what we achieved.
The original was very World War II-focussed and also very Western Front-focussed. We essentially wanted to capture Saving Private Ryan. So we went back and looked at the levels of game vision - what we wanted to achieve and also making it kind of agnostic. So as we go forward, if we wanted to do Company of Heroes 3 in 2190 we could, because we know what we want to do to make it feel like a Company of Heroes game. You start from the ground-up in that respect.
We did a lot of really crazy prototyping. We actually used the Dawn of War engine for prototyping some elements and the Company of Heroes engine for prototyping [other] elements, and we were really pushing some boundaries in areas. But it would get to the point where it just didn't feel like Company of Heroes.
Q: What does a Company of Heroes game feel like, because Relic introduced new factions via the expansion packs that played entirely differently to those in the original game. Was that Relic's way of experimenting with different gameplay ideas because it wasn't quite sure what the best feel for Company of Heroes was?
QD: There was some experimentation, but mostly to capture a breadth of players. It's not just the game experience; it's what players enjoy doing. Some players like to play aggressively and some like to build structures. So the two armies we introduced in Opposing Fronts filled the spectrum. The US, the allies and the Wehrmacht were relatively close together - kind of centrists - and then the British were a much more static force, and the Panzer Elite were much more mobile. It was really to fill the spectrum.
Q: One of the things that I liked most about the original was that victory wasn't just reliant on being the first to build a huge army. You also had to keep tabs on the environment and cover points, which you seem to have pushed quite a bit further with CoH2 via the new weather effects. Why did you choose to focus more on the environment this time around?
QD: It was necessary to the experience. Fighting in cold weather conditions was a part of combat on the Eastern Front. Troops died of exposure, and ice-cracking and all the things we've introduced were part of that experience. Our goal was to not focus on stuff that was purely visual; we wanted to create ambience that players could experience and then gameplay tied to that that they would adapt to, to give them something new and interesting to experience.
Q: Do you want weather to become a theme associated with Company of Heroes? Looking forward, for example, would you want to continue experimenting with that side of the game?
QD: [Weather] has a deep impact on combat regardless of when combat occurs - dark of night, depth of winter, rain and snow; it has an impact on the battlefield on shaping the tactics players use. I think to ignore the above ground elements - there's the terrain and buildings and fences and line-of-sight blockers and all the things that happen on the ground - atmospherically it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.
Q: I suppose where I was going with that was regarding the possibilities of where it could go in the future. Obviously you've gone for the extreme cold here. In the future could you think about extreme heat?
QD: Mm-hmm. Yep.
Q: I'm thinking maybe the Vietnam War, or is Company of Heroes a series that will be contained within the WWII era?
QD: No, no. Like what I was talking about with the vision. We wanted to take the element of WWII out of the creative vision and focus for the game moving forward. It is setting-agnostic. Company of Heroes doesn't have to be a World War II game. You can set it in modern times in Fallujah, you could set it in the past.
Q: Is that something you'd like to do?
QD: I love history - I love military history in particular, and there is an unlimited number of stories to tell. The human race is really good at killing each other, and as terrible as that is, it gives us an opportunity to deliver on history and a really compelling narrative.
Q: Tales of Valor released in early 2009. How long has CoH2 actually been in development?
QD: We started in late 2009. We had looked at expansion packs going way back. One of the things the fans really wanted to see was an Eastern Front expansion, so there were designs and concepts that probably pre-date Opposing Fronts when we were deciding what to do next. So there are elements of the game and of its focus that we can trace back quite a long way. But in earnest, I think that research trip we took to Russia in February 2010, that was a key turning point.
Q: So it's been a relatively long cycle...
QD: It doesn't compare to the early games, but yeah.
Q: But a lot has happened since then, particularly more recently with THQ. Has it been a difficult couple of years?
QD: Yeah, sure. I can say it has been a challenge. I think it's potentially a distraction. But I like what's happened there recently. I like the new leadership and they're bringing some new focus and perspective, and down at the development level we're behind the company 100 per cent.
Q: Is that as a result of Jason Rubin [President, THQ] coming in?
QD: That's a big part of it, yeah. He's had a long history and people can respect what he's done. I think the management team at THQ had some great creative vision and really introduced and green-lit some great new games, and we're seeing the results of those things now. I don't want to speak ill of them. But there is a burgeoning new excitement for, you know, to help THQ get through this by producing some great games.
Q: So you think THQ can bounce back?
QD: Yeah, they're taking some unfair lumps, I think. They've been kicked when they're down and it is a challenge to climb back out from under that kind of stuff. But there is a focus on developing good quality and a focus on finding out what the future means and getting there first. That's at a very high strategic level and I don't know what they're doing but I think there's a great chance that we'll be talking about a very positive THQ story in a couple of years.
Q: Where do you think Relic fits into that strategy going forward? Last year you had Space Marine which was a different type of game to what Relic would normally focus on. Would you like to experiment with different types of games or do you think Relic has settled into the strategy genre?
QD: I think we've had our greatest success in our strategy genre. I think that's probably what we're most known for. We have high quality titles and Relic wants and needs to get back to producing high quality titles. That's a strong niche for us at THQ.
Q: There are a lot of emerging business models at the moment with crowd-funding and free-to-play. Relic itself experimented with free-to-play a couple of years ago with Company of Heroes Online which, I guess, didn't work out as well you'd hoped.
QD: Yeah, we had some great successes with Company of Heroes Online. We did three separate launches for that game in three territories and supported live development for a number of months, so we learned a lot about how to deliver on the expectations in that market.
I think things have even changed a little bit from there. We're probably going to see even different business models emerge that we can't predict, but it gives us a functional experience to build on.
Q: The different models appear to be cannibalising each other at the moment. For example, the full Company of Heroes game was about £1.74 on Steam recently, so why would I pay for premium features in CoH: Online? Do you think you were ahead of the curve?
QD: Yeah. It's so cheap just to play the original. I think a company that can commit to something like that at every level and every department from development to sales, and driving that process is going to be successful. I think right now everybody is trying a few little things and you might not be able to judge how successful they are because you're judging them against conventional metrics.
Things are going to change. The companies that can affect that change from top to bottom are going to succeed.
Q: Would you ever consider going freemium again?
QD: Yeah, absolutely. We're going to go where the consumers are. We're going to go where it makes sense and where we can deliver them a great title. The thing is, we want to figure out where that curve is and be a little bit ahead of that. It still helps to be a little bit ahead of the curve - not too far, but just at the right place.
Q: Where does Relic stand on DRM?
QD: I don't know what our official policy is, to be honest. I know DRM is... From a consumer standpoint it isn't a pain in the ass until it is. Maybe take iTunes is an example. I use it and I've got my music in different places. I really don't know what I have half the time.
It's a bit obfuscated - when I want to play a song on my iPod that I've not synched to on my home computer, and I'm like, 'What the...?'. So when it intrudes, at that point it's just annoying. But I don't know how you deal with things like piracy and rampant distribution.
Q: It's interesting to see what Crytek is doing. They were obviously hit very hard by piracy, and they're transitioning into a purely free-to-play company.
QD: Yeah, and that's one way to do it because you can authenticate access and purchase of items and all that kind of stuff. I don't know the full numbers but I know we had a massive number of patch downloads in places like China. We didn't sell very many games in places like China.
Q: So the original Company of Heroes was hit quite hard by piracy? Was that just in China or on a global scale?
QD: Worldwide. Not to call out a specific market but yeah, way more patches than we sold. You can see those numbers and you're like, 'Oh boy'. So it does, it affects even us. I know a lot of consumers, they're sort of, 'Oh woe is me, developer'. But it affects what we can do in the future.