Last month we fought our way to Games Workshop's headquarters in Nottingham for an in-depth look at Relic's hotly-anticipated PC strategy Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II. While we were there we caught up with associate producer Jeff Lydell about RTS design, piracy and the supposed death of PC gaming.
VideoGamer.com: Apologies to start out on a negative note, but what do you think about the current state of PC gaming? There's a lot of chatter online about how it could die quite soon...
Jeff Lydell: My take on that as someone who's been reading internet chatter for a number of years now is that PC gaming has been 'dead' since 1994 and that it continues to 'die' every year. But that's obviously not true, because there are people playing PC games. It's just that we're seeing changes in the types of PC games they're playing. A lot of the things that the PC had that were exclusive to it, like online experiences, are starting to come over to consoles - so it's less a hold-out for that kind of social interaction. There's Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network - even the Wii has online components. So back in the day when Quake was defining how gamers interacted with each other online, PC gaming was 'dying' then! And I'd consider that to be the golden days. The N64 didn't kill it, the PlayStation 2 didn't kill it, and I don't think any of the upcoming consoles will kill it.
VideoGamer.com: Do you think it'll ever die?
JL: No. It'll die the day we stop having PCs! Right now, we all want to have PCs. We're seeing some changes where people are adopting laptops more. Maybe in the future when we're using integrated devices that aren't quite PCs, we'll see games on those instead. But PC gaming isn't dying.
VideoGamer.com: Piracy has been around for decades, but do you think that the issue is potentially more damaging to the PC games industry right now than it's ever been? The competition for sales is very stiff...
JL: It's certainly a threat to triple A gaming. It makes developers and publishers reluctant to invest large amounts of money in a just-PC product, unless there's some form of guarantee. Sometimes they hedge their bets with cross-platform developments, sometimes it's persistent online stuff that you need to subscribe to. But piracy is not going away. As an industry, piracy is something we have to work around, not something to try and eliminate - because that's a losing fight.
VideoGamer.com: What kind of copy-protection will Dawn of War II have? Anti-piracy measures can sometimes generate bad vibes with gamers - like when Spore got blasted for its initial install limitations.
JL: We are looking at some form of DRM for Dawn of War II, but we're heavily concerned with the consumer end of that, and the consumer experience. We want people to be able to play their games on multiple PCs. We want them to be able to play it with their friends, and most importantly we want any authentication to not be annoying or a detriment to the experience.
VideoGamer.com: So will there be any form of install limits?
JL: Not that I'm aware of, at this point. Just to speak a little further on that... the thing we are trying to do is to give incentives to be online. One of the things the high profile games have had in the past is that they've been primarily single-player games, with no reason to be online. When you have a multiplayer component or content that can be distributed through online there's an incentive to be a licensed user.
VideoGamer.com: So you reward people for being good instead of punishing them for being bad?
JL: That's right... Attract more flies with honey, that sort of thing!
VideoGamer.com: Confirmed released date?
JL: It's February at this point. I don't know if that's confirmed or not, but yeah we're looking for February 2009.
VideoGamer.com: Is there going to be a beta?
JL: Yeah. The exact date is not clear, but it's going to be some time in the New Year.
VideoGamer.com: You can't say January, or...?
JL: We'd like it to be in January, but we can't make a promise exactly when because of some considerations we have about getting it out.
VideoGamer.com: Back to the game itself. You've spoken about how you want to try and make the game as easy to pick up as possible. Do you think there's a risk that by making the game more simple, you'll alienate the hardcore RTS players? A lot of strategy players like to get their hands dirty with an extreme level of fiddling over details.
JL: Well, we do have a complicated game, it's just where we have that complexity is in how the combat interaction is, and the type of tactical choices you get to make. So I don't see our game as being a dumbed down version of anything, in fact I think we've got the most interesting combat of any RTS out there. What we're trying to do is put all the attention on that, make it so that you don't have to look away! [laughs]. And we've still got the strategic choice of which unit am I going to field, which unit am I going to bring out when? Am I better to invest in an upgrade of a unit and give them sniper rifles, or am I better off bringing out another set of scouts and using them to flank an enemy? There are plenty of choices to be had, and there's a lot of depth in this game for someone who's going to sit down and play it. I think it's going to be a long time before they've explored everything in Dawn of War II, and in the multiplayer experience.
VideoGamer.com: So where has that simplicity gone to? Does it lie in things like the fact that your base doesn't require you to build additional structures?
JL: Looking at the base, it's a lot easier to see what I need to do to get to a particular unit. If I want to build a tank, it's not buried between three different buildings that I have to lay out in sequence. I can see, 'oh, there's the tank, that's the unlock I need for it. Now I know what to do'.
VideoGamer.com: There have been a lot of console-based RTS games lately. Have you had much chance to try any of them out?
JL: I haven't had much hands-on with... well, lately with any games! [laughs]. But no. Most of the console RTSs have come out on PCs and I've elected to play them on that. I have all the consoles, but I tend to play different games to RTSs.
VideoGamer.com: Do RTSs work on a console? There's been a lot of debate about that. Some people don't think you can do one without a mouse and keyboard setup.
JL: We said the same things about first-person shooters, and a lot of people still say the same things about first-person shooters - but it doesn't stop Halo, or Call of Duty, from being huge and really successful on all the consoles. So I don't know if that's why it 'doesn't belong' or why it's struggling to gain a foothold...
VideoGamer.com: That perception is the problem, you mean?
JL: Yeah. I think that it's more a question of focus when it comes to making a game, and if you're going to make an action-based RTS game, something that's fast, the difficulty of solving the controls is another layer of complexity for the player. Whereas a mouse is a very easy interface for a lot of people to get, when looking at a controller I wouldn't know where my hands are going to go to control an RTS game, just yet. I do want to see it done! I like RTS games, I do like strategy games and I do love console games. I would like to see it done, I'm just not sure we're there yet.
VideoGamer.com: Do you have any plans to bring Dawn of War 2 to consoles?
JL: We don't have any plans, currently.
VideoGamer.com: Right. To clarify something else... the main single-player campaign in the game will just focus on the Space Marines, right?
JL: That's right, you play as the Space Marines.
VideoGamer.com: So what are your plans to release campaigns for the other races.
JL: We're talking about that. We obviously know that the community wants to buy those races: it's the biggest question that we get asked whenever we announce our games: which races are in it, which races are in it?! The Games Workshop fanbase all love their own race, whatever it happens to be, and they want to see it done up in that form. So yeah, we're looking at it.
VideoGamer.com: Blizzard took quite a lot of flack for splitting the campaigns in Starcraft. Were you worried about provoking a similar reaction? What was the thinking behind the decision?
JL: Really it comes down to how much focus you want to give to each campaign. If you're only doing one, you can give it more attention. We've seen a real trend where the games that spend fewer hours being... that focus on fewer hours, are doing quite well. We have a fairly long campaign, as it turns out. We didn't expect it, but we ended up with more than 20 hours, as far as we can tell. But by focusing on one story with one race, you're going to be able to deliver it to a higher degree of fidelity - and that's what the audience ultimately wants. Good entertainment.
VideoGamer.com: As opposed to a rushed job...
JL: As opposed to a rush job. Or as opposed to a later job. It's all a function of time and effort.
VideoGamer.com: So how nailed down are the plans for what happens next? Is there a timeline for release?
JL: It might be nailed down, but I'm still head down in my own project! I want to ship the first one before I worry about the next. But we shipped three expansion packs for the first Dawn of War, all of them were successful and we want to continue expanding the content of the Dawn of War series.
VideoGamer.com: You've got four races here... the plans would presumably be to do campaigns for those before bringing anyone new in?
JL: I can't comment on the details, but rest assured that we've spent a lot more effort on our expansions than I think most studios do, and we have no plans to change that.
VideoGamer.com: We might be on thin ice here, but what do you think of the idea that some developers just see expansions as... well, not as a way to make a quick buck, but perhaps that they don't bother to put much effort in.
JL: I wouldn't characterise our expansions that way. We've invested more content, typically, in our expansion products. The biggest thing that we see out of expansions is that you don't have to spend the same amount of time developing technology, and you can focus on adding content and crafting what's there, and really tuning the game you have and making it into something better. Whereas with your first project, it's a monumental effort to get it out of the door at all - no matter what it is! While this one is coming together at the end, there was a lot of time we spent figuring out how systems were going to work. Working on an expansion means you can take that for granted for a project or two.
VideoGamer.com:What was the biggest hurdle you guys overcame in the development of this game?
JL: Technologically we had a few rendering things that we had to solve, and I'm pretty confident in saying we solved them, because the game looks pretty neat! From a gameplay standpoint, it was adding melee to the campaign hero-squad movement. That's a hard problem and I think only a few people in the world can solve it, so we're fortunate to have one! You wouldn't think that someone running up and hitting somebody else with a hammer would be complicated, but when everyone deciding where to go, and they might need to be standing in a certain spot for the hammer to work, it actually does get pretty complicated. It stops being complicated once it works! [laughs]
VideoGamer.com:We wanted to ask you about the co-op campaign. Co-op gaming seems to be becoming increasingly important across the board. Do you agree with that? Why is it such a big deal now?
JL: If you're like me, you're busy - and when it comes time to playing games, you usually have other people that you want to hang out and socialise with. You don't have a lot of a time to plan out for that, and if you can play a game and hang out with your friend, you're doing both those things at once. In my case, if I'm playing co-op games with my wife, I'm playing video games and I'm spending quality time with her! I think that's a really strong incentive, because if you look at the age of gamers, they aren't kids. They're people who are my age, and it's continuing to stay at that level. I don't think co-op is a requirement, but if you have a game that can support it, you're wise to do so.
VideoGamer.com: What part does Windows LIVE play in your plans for this?
JL: LIVE certainly makes the match-making part of that simpler. It also gives us a few extra things, like the fact that you can see when your friends are online, you can see what game they're playing and send them an invite. Getting that persistent community base out there is a good way to get people who weren't in the circle already playing together.
VideoGamer.com: So how has LIVE opened doors for you guys? Do you just feel that there's a level of support that wasn't there before?
JL: It's mostly that Microsoft has invested heavily in it. They have a big console to support, and they've invested many dollars beyond what we'd ever usually see in keeping the online system alive.
VideoGamer.com: What do you think the impact of Windows LIVE will be?
JL: I won't comment directly on how successful it might be. The online matchmaking thing is anyone's game, there are a lot of services out there. But what I do hope is that more people play online in the near future.
VideoGamer.com: Thanks for your time Jeff.
Dawn of War: II will be out next spring on PC.