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Posted on Jul 17, 2006 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Battlefront – Interview

Armchair General

Today, Armchair General sits down with Martin van Balkom of Battlefront to talk about a wide range of titles, including Shockforce, the next incarnation of the very popular Combat Mission series. They also sent along a pair of exclusive screenshots from Shockforce showing a variety of weapons and a Stryker vehicle. He also mentions HistWar, For Liberty!, Combat Mission Campaigns, DropTeam, and a new project soon to be announced…

ACG: Thanks for taking time out of your day to speak with Armchair General.

Martin van Balkom: Thanks for having me! By the way, let me use this opportunity to congratulate you in public on a great publication, both online and in print! It’s great to finally see an independent center for the wargaming and military community again!

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Stryker_s.jpg
Sneak peek at Shockforce.

ACG: We’ll start off with your most recent title, Strategic Command 2: Blitzkrieg. There are some people who would say this game is not realistic enough to re-create the entire war in Europe in World War II, while others feel the game is too complicated to be an entry level game that doesn’t care about all the minutia. Where do you see SC2 in the grand scheme of wargaming?

I think that the people who say that it’s too complicated to be an entry level game are plain wrong. While the complexity increased a little over SC1, SC2 still is very easy to learn and play in its basics. You don’t need to know all the nuances about the gameplay in order to enjoy or even win (at the easier settings). SC2 is so great because it comes in layers… you can jump right in, but after you do, there is a lot to discover before you can claim that you have truly mastered it.

On the surface, the game is deceptively simple, simpler than a lot of other hardcore WW2 strategy games – but just because it does not feature every general and his aunt by name or every nut and bolt that you first need to invent before you can build your first tank, it does not necessarily mean that it’s less realistic. Hubert achieved with SC2 what he already did so well with the first game: he delivered a clear and clean game design without unnecessary details which only slow down gameplay to a crawl, but with all the required elements to simulate warfare, diplomacy, and technology. Some players would even claim that the results are just as realistic, and certainly more historical, than from other games which try to include the kitchen-sink in their game designs – and get bogged down in the process.

As for recreating the entire world war – that is definitely easily possible, even if the base game focuses on the European Theater again, and I know of at least two attempts going on at the moment to create custom world maps and rules. Hubert will also add enhanced support to create maps in the upcoming patches.

ACG: Do you have any plans to carry the Strategic Command engine to a global campaign in World War II? Any plans you can share for the future of the game itself?

Yes, I believe that such plans exist in Hubert’s secret drawers :-) but besides any official expansions, players can already do it themselves on various scales, and like I just mentioned, at least two such efforts are already underway. As for the future of the game itself, I don’t want to get ahead of what Hubert would probably like to reveal himself, but I guess it’s safe to say that we will definitely use the flexibility inherent in the game engine to create different time periods and wars in the coming months.

ACG: How did you come across the Hungarian developer Hussar Games? What made you feel they would be a good fit among your other products at Battlefront?

In the usual way: Hussar Games contacted us some time ago and asked if we would be interested in publishing their 1848 and For Liberty! games.

1848 has been a really big hit in Hungary, and it took only a brief look at both games to realize that they had all the elements to be great wargamers – clean design, replayability, historical authenticity and an exciting and fun combat system. Being very traditional wargames on the one hand, there are a lot of unique ideas and concepts worked in (for example the ability to make the strategic decisions on the large map and fight individual battles on the tactical battlefield at the same time in For Liberty!), and both games come from a pretty experienced team and are nicely polished, as well. Anybody who likes this style of game should check out 1848, which will be completely free, and will no doubt develop appetite to then buy For Liberty! about the American Revolutionary War.

ACG: Clearly the subject matter is a departure for a company renown for its games covering armored combat in various eras (Combat Mission, TacOps, etc.). What features are found in 1848 and For Liberty! which you think will appeal to wargame enthusiasts and perhaps gamers in general?

It’s hard to put the finger on it, but For Liberty! offers a really unique and fun mix between traditional wargaming (isometric perspective, hand-painted maps with hexes, turn-based) and some really great ideas – like the ability to switch from the strategic perspective to the tactical battlefield. Or also the mix of supply and resource management and military tactics. You’re reminded of the good games of the past and at the same time intrigued by some of the new concepts. This game is really just a lot of fun to play.

And that, ultimately, is our main demand from a game. We’re by no means limited to armored warfare or WW2 only, even though these were the areas that Battlefront started with. Good, innovative and fun war and strategy games is what we want to offer.

ACG: Another departure is the move into real-time multiplayer games, with the immanent arrival of DropTeam. Aside from the obvious testing and development that comes with any game, has the multiplayer online nature of DropTeam provided any unique challenges which you can share? I would imagine the feedback loop is much tighter since your playtesters are right there to tell developers what works and what doesn’t work?

You’re absolutely right, and one of the main challenges was actually to carefully filter the TONS of suggestions that kept coming out of the testers. Eventually the release had been delayed by several months even after rigorously filtering out anything that wasn’t either super-important, super-urgent and super-cool. One of the improvements which we originally removed in order to release the game a couple of months earlier – infantry – is going in now very shortly.

Another big challenge during development was to not lose focus of the main goal of the game. It would have been easy to simply copy existing online multiplayer games. But the whole point and vision of DropTeam by the guys at TBG Software was to create a believable futuristic combat environment. Just because things are happening on an alien planet or just because it’s the future doesn’t make plain bullets or kinetic projectiles any less lethal. Gravity still works on other planets as it does on earth. And combat units still have more vulnerable and less vulnerable areas and no hitpoints. DropTeam takes all of that into account, which is perhaps why we got a lot of military personnel playing the game and coming up with a lot of great suggestions to increase the realism even more. Of course it might also have to do with the fact that the engine that DropTeam is based on “Demeter” (also developed by TBG Software) which is also in use by US Army Research Labs. ;-)

ACG: As a longtime fan of the genre, I know that games like DropTeam can easily lose their intended purpose once the great wash of unrestrained masses start populating the servers. Often tactical warfare is reduced to mindless melees despite all attempts at designers to prevent this (witness Battlefield 2, Red Orchestra, etc.). Has Battlefront seen any of this in playtesting, and how confident are you that this game can retain its core tactical element once people arrive who thrive on killing team members, sabotaging their own base, and doing the dozens of other things that drive serious players nuts.

Actually we’ve seen surprisingly little of it. We’ve had a number of ideas and plans to prevent it, but oddly enough such incidents as known from other multiplayer games have been very few.

It might have to do with the fact that you cannot really win the game alone. You have to cooperate as a team, there really is no other way to play and achieve anything. At the same time, the tools players have to coordinate a team effort are very powerful, and a team that does manage some coordinated action will outplay their opponents every time.

On the other hand, it might also simply have to do with the fact that DropTeam is not published for consoles by a mainstream label, and hence does not have the same exposure to the unwashed masses. :-) This means that the amount of online players is generally smaller, but it also means that those that do play all share the same views of what a fun multiplayer game is.

Plus, with the upcoming addition of infantry (will be available for free via the in-game updater for the full version to bring the game up to 1.1.0), DropTeam is on its way to become a complete battlefield simulator of ultra-modern warfare, and perhaps this is why we also have an unusually high percentage of current and ex-military players which simply play the game differently than the mainstream kids.

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