EndWar, last year's voice command-controlled real-time strategy game from Ubisoft Shanghai, was good, but not great, both in terms of quality and sales (releasing at the same time as Gears of War 2 probably wasn't the best idea). This is something creative director Michael De Plater admits. Last week at the Develop conference in Brighton, he told fellow developers, in a session called Tom Clancy's EndWar: An After Action Report, what went right and what went wrong. We caught up with him for our own personal after action report, just for you, and discovered that the game was more of a success than we first thought, and, hush hush, has justified a follow-up.
VideoGamer.com: What are you up to at the moment?
Michael De Plater: After the end of EndWar in Shanghai, I moved back and I'm still with Ubisoft, but I'm with Ubisoft France and I've just moved down to Montpellier.
VideoGamer.com: What's happening down there?
MDP: It's... can't say yet! But it's a really, really good team. It's a bunch of the guys who worked on Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter. A really cool team.
VideoGamer.com: You're talking about EndWar here at Develop. Now that you've had time to reflect on it, what do you feel the game achieved and what did you fail to nail?
MDP: I think the big achievements were the accessibility and the immersion of the game. Making an RTS that not only works on console and is easy to play, but immerses you and puts the players down on the battlefield as well. Those two things were big breakthroughs. The biggest two that came back as learnings were... actually it's interesting because they weren't failures of implementation, they weren't things that we didn't manage to pull off, they were mistakes in judgement. We didn't give attention to the single-player and the story enough, because we perceived the game as being very multiplayer focused, like a Battlefield or a Warhawk or whatever. We failed to realise how important capturing people in the single-player is for bringing them into multiplayer. The other one, we did the same thing Halo Wars did, we overestimated how much to simplify the core game for the console audience. Through the course of our play test we stripped a lot of stuff out in terms of streamlining things. We made something very accessible but we went a little bit too far on the accessibility. But that's a good place to be because it's really easy to peddle that back. Now we've got a very good idea of where that point is. The third big learning is don't ship on the same day as Gears of War 2 if you're launching a new IP! That's probably number three.
VideoGamer.com: Why did that happen? It seemed like a curious decision.
MDP: That's not something I can answer. The scheduling decisions and the launching decisions are dealt with higher up. Basically publishers have their schedules, so they're not just trying to fit around each other, they're trying to fit around the products in their own portfolio as well. They're trying to set up the best release date for Far Cry 2 and for Prince of Persia and for us, and for HAWX. They've got all these games and they all have to slip into slots and we got a bad one.
VideoGamer.com: That touches upon a more broad issue that the Christmas period is overrun with games, and some really good games are getting lost in the mix. Are publishers learning the lesson or is it just always going to be like that?
MDP: Again it's kind of a marketing question more than my area of expertise, but one thing I have noticed since our release is a lot of exactly the same things. In particular EA have talked about in regards to Mirror's Edge, of launching an innovative new IP. Christmas is always going to be massive, but it's, I would guess, going to be a place to be populated by big blockbuster sequels. You've only got to look at this year - it's Assassin's Creed 2, Modern Warfare 2, Halo 3: ODST, Left 4 Dead 2, although Left 4 Dead is the one that actually did really well, but again it was coming from that big pedigree of Valve. Christmas is always going to be big but there's going to be more stuff moving through the rest of the year. The problem that feeds into it is as games get bigger, the production budgets get bigger, so everybody's trying to be in that top ten, and if you're trying to be in the top ten, you're trying to be at Christmas, so it's almost as if by definition, if you're trying to be a triple-A you're trying to be a Christmas triple-A. So those two forces feed into each other.
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.
VideoGamer.com: The first game felt, to me, like a proof of concept, like it laid the groundwork for the voice command technology, and that it could then lead onto something else.
MDP: For that team it was their first project of that type as well. It was interesting going to E3 this year and seeing Kaos Studios, who had done Frontlines, which is obviously okay, I think it might have been the same review as us, high 70s, nearly 80s, get lots of 8/10s, good but not quite there. But then Homefront, they obviously look like they've learned from that and pushed everything up a gear. And the same with Splash Damage. Enemy Territory - it was good, but maybe not fabulous, and now Brink looks... And I think we're in a really similar situation to those two guys. Exactly what you've said - we've built the groundwork and got the experience, and then you can take that to push it to the next level.
VideoGamer.com: Is voice command something you're 100 per cent convinced is the right way to go with RTS on console?
MDP: It's good for EndWar because EndWar is a tactical game where you're giving orders to troops. So it works really well for that. I don't know how much it would work for a more traditional RTS with base building and that more precision. Something like Natal is obviously interesting as well. You can imagine the Minority Report thing of pointing at here, and combined with voice command. The thing with Natal, obviously everyone talks about the camera, but it's got the microphone as well. So, you really could do some fun stuff.
VideoGamer.com: Maybe we could see some kind of Natal integration with the next EndWar?
MDP: The other game's Ubisoft got on the way is RUSE, which was at E3. They're playing that on the touch table, so of course the interface that they're using on the touch table, it's in principle the same sort of gestures that work on a surface, would work on a camera. To take the principles, okay I select here, I say where I'm going - you just mount it vertically and it's I select here and that's where I'm going. I think that's potentially interesting as well.
VideoGamer.com: Finally, if you've got one stand out memory from your time working on EndWar, even if it's just a moment, what is it?
MDP: It's definitely the team and the guys in China. When we arrived and we were getting to know everyone, we sat down to play Dawn of War. I'd been playing the game for 19 seconds and one of the engineers turned round and looked at my screen and just started pissing himself laughing, because I was obviously incredibly slow. These guys, they hadn't made an RTS before, but they were so hardcore and knew so much about it and were so smart. So it was really the experience of meeting with them and working with the team in China.
EndWar is out now for Xbox 360, PS3, PC, DS and PSP.