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Posted on Aug 13, 2010 in Electronic Games

Making History II – A Visit with Muzzy Lane

By Gerald D. Swick

President and CEO of Muzzy Lane, Dave McCool (left) and Product Manager Chris Parsons discuss the flow chart used in designing Making History II. It covers an entire wall in the company's offices. 

A few years back, country singer Alan Jackson recorded a song with the hook, "Just be patient, I’m a work in progress." It told the story of a basically good guy who recognized he had some flaws he needed to work on.

That same assessment might be made of the grand-strategic game from Muzzy Lane Making History II: The War of the World, which puts players in charge of any country of their choice amid the smoldering ideological and economic conflicts of the 1930s that would soon set the world aflame.

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The game is massive in its scope: You can play literally any nation that existed in the 1930s, not just the major powers. You aren’t going to create an Argentina uber alles in this game, but if you choose to play Argentina you might just end up controlling all of South America from Buenos Aires. Playing as any one of the major combatants, you have a chance to conquer vast territory and bring to unwashed masses your society’s wisdom, enlightenment and automatic-weapons fire. But while you’re out there making the world safe for (fill in your ideology here), you’d best be keeping an eye on what’s happening back home. If your government becomes unstable due to war spending or other variables, that may lead to such catastrophes as the break up of your empire or the invention of telemarketing. Okay, maybe not that last one, but I’m not entirely sure it couldn’t happen in this mega-game.

And therein lies the fault line that has had gamers rocking back-and-forth on forums, praising and pummeling the features of MHII. Some of those features weren’t quite ready for prime time when the game was released (an unheard-of situation in gaming, he said with tongue in cheek).

"What it came down to was, we were overly ambitious. We bit off more than we could chew. It’s nothing that having a time machine couldn’t fix," Chris Parsons, product manager for Muzzy Lane, told me when I visited the company’s offices last week for this ArmchairGeneral.com interview.

"The biggest issue was redesigning the core engine (used in Making History: The Calm and the Storm, or MH1). That took longer than expected. Basically, there were three projects: platform, the multiplayer service, and the game itself."

The good news is, the game automatically checks for the latest updates every time you turn it on, and it should tell you whether a given update is compatible with the game you currently have saved, so you can decide whether to download it at that time or not. The company is sending out patches weekly to kill bugs and improve performance instead of wrapping them into an uberpatch or an expansion to sell later on.

"Once you spend your money to buy MHII, we will never ask you to spend more money on that game," Muzzy Lane’s president and CEO Dave McCool told me. "The patches will be free. The next time we’ll ask for your money will be when we have a new product, set in a different time period."

What this means, in essence, is that even in the brief time since ArmchairGeneral received Larry Levandowski’s MHII review, several of the issues he identified have reportedly already been fixed, such as system bugs that prevented rockets from launching or that caused diplomatic overtures to be repeatedly ignored by the AI. Other glitches are still being repaired.

So why might MHII be worthy of gamers’ consideration even though parts of it are still "a work in progress?" Well, as Larry says in his ACG review of the game, "MHII is a fun game to play … For this reviewer, the game certainly has that elusive ‘just one more turn’ factor."

MHII is truly GRAND strategic in scope. You manage your country’s economy and trade; establish diplomatic alliances; guard against covert activities and conduct your own, such as funding a rebellion in an opponent’s colonies; build factories, farms, research centers, airstrips, etc., and use them to create your military and keep the home front happy. There’s a lot to juggle, but icons make much of that intuitive, and call-up menus help players keep tabs on how their nefarious plans are progressing. Selecting "fog of war" will limit the information received about other nations.

Very little that happens in the game is all good or all bad. As Germany, you’ve overrun Poland. Good for you—but now you have to figure out what to do with it. If you simply make it an ally, you have no control over what it does. Set up a puppet state, and you can pull some of its strings but not all. Absorb it into your empire and it will have no choice but to do your bidding. But you know, the Polish people and the German people don’t share the same ethnicity or ideology and even their religious views don’t exactly mesh. The AI takes all these factors into account, so trying to absorb that population into your own is going to mess with your national stability. Sigh. Ruling the world sounded like such a good idea at the time.

One key point to keep in mind in playing this game: Sometimes titles are just titles, intended to inspire gamers to whip out their credit cards in the game store. Making History takes its title seriously. This isn’t a game about what did happen in World War II; it’s a game about the possibilities and probabilities inherent in the world situation of the 1930s, when economies were in shambles and several conflicting ideologies competed for hearts and minds. The designers and developers "set up a historical environment in which players can make their own history," said Ralph Gerth, Muzzy Lane’s art director and the principle game designer for Making History II.

"The game plays out in sequences. What happens in one sequence will affect the curve of what happens in future sequences. If you do nothing to change historic events, the AI will pretty much play out the game historically.

"That was one of the biggest challenges: how to keep the AI logical yet allow countries to do the illogical things they did historically, such as Japan invading China or attacking the U.S. The AI presents each country with a list of possible opponents and conditions that would make it feasible to attack. Japan probably won’t attack the U.S. in the game unless Germany is already at war with England and France, tying down their resources."

The original Making History was created for the educational market and secondarily sold to consumers, but Making History II took the opposite path; it was designed for the consumer market, although Gerth said he expects some schools and universities will use it in their classrooms.

Changes from MH1 to MHII include unit dynamics. A unit’s abilities are no longer fixed and can go up with combat experience, but that is modified by casualties taken, which will cause an influx of green troops.

In MH1, resources were based on actual historical production statistics; MHII takes resource potential into account, which can make African nations more effective, for example, providing a player builds infrastructure within them.

When a region changed hands in MH1, it suffered a permanent penalty to production. Now that penalty is temporary, reflecting the chaos of a region being overrun by an invader and slowly regaining stability.

Designing and developing all of this for a game in which players can play any country from America to the Union of South Africa seems more like taking a bite out of a watermelon than out of an apple. Some things didn’t digest well, but others proved quite tasty. Player feedback is "critical to further development," Parsons said.

Gamers interested in grand-strategic games but not yet sold on MHII would do well to keep an eye on the forums of ArmchairGeneral and those of Muzzy Lane to keep posted on the latest developments. Players can also download a free, 50-turn demo to form their own opinions.

A multiplayer version that will allow gamers to play on their own browsers is scheduled for release next month. Players within a given game will be able to set a time limit for submitting each turn, such as 24 hours, if they choose to; hence, a player can submit orders for a turn and receive notification when other players have submitted theirs instead of everyone having to be online at the same time.

An editor that allows players to design their own scenarios will be coming in the near future.

Click here to read Larry Levandowski’s review.

Gerald D. Swick is senior Web editor for ArmchairGeneral.com, HistoryNet.com and GreatHistory.com. He began wargaming with Avalon Hill’s The Civil War when that war was still a recent memory, and his articles on games and gaming have appeared in Fire & Movement, Game News, Space Gamer, The Games Annual and other publications. The photos below were taken during his visit to the Muzzy Lane offices; screenshots of gameplay were provided by Muzzy Lane.

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