Company of Heroes 2 goes back to basics, throwing two asymmetrical armies against each other in the Eastern Front of World War II. At this year’s Eurogamer Expo, we caught up with Principle Designer Quinn Duffy to see how things were going.
Strategy Informer: You’ve showcased the use of snow and the environment in the game – do you not think though that by using the weather so specifically, you’re dictating strategy to a degree? The cold conditions only make a few places worth fighting over.
Quinn Duffy: It makes you think a little more about the map, and where you need to defend. There’s a level of often needed sacrifice. When you play against a human opponent, they’re willing to sacrifice their troops to take a point that you’re defending, it adds to the ‘drama’ of map control.
The thing is we’re giving the player lots of potential options to mitigate the cold weather. It lets people know the player is interested in it, which adds a whole new level of awareness. You can get your guys into cover, or you know stuff them all into a halftrack… all those things help them mitigate.
But there’s a conscious decision in terms of map design that basically means that not every point can be capture without investment. Either you potentially lose guys – the point is far away and its going to take a while to get them there, or you could put a fire down and keep your guys alive, but telegraph where you are. It’s interesting that you take that approach; I think to a degree it IS true – we are going to dictate certain strategies in terms of effectiveness? But the choices are up to the player.
Strategy Informer: What else could you apply that system too? If you wanted?
Quinn Duffy: Our SnowCheck system would probably, with some tweaking, accommodate desert and sand. The development of these systems, we tried to keep them relatively generic as possible for the underlying layer to keep things as flexible as possible… so yeah, you could do sand/desert, you could do mud…
Strategy Informer: So that’s the North Africa Campaign Expansion confirmed then?
Quinn Duffy: Hah! Not quite... just saying hypothetically...
Strategy Informer: What did you guys think of the expansions you did for the original game? I personally really like how different the British and the Panzer Elite factions were in Opposing Fronts, but you’ve gone back to basics again with COH2. Would you ever revisit those armies?
Quinn Duffy: We look at the spectrum of players, and we try to build armies that meet the specific needs of certain types of players, or players who play a certain way. The British were really intended to be less mobile and more defensive, so players who were interested in base-building and locking-down would have something there. The Panzer Elite were very mobile and aggressive. The two new armies in CoH2, they are our reset base armies. I mean we’d love to do more, but we’ll have to wait and see.
Asymmetric armies are a hallmark of the franchise, and we want to make these armies as different as possible… you look at the stuff from WWII… so many armies had character in them. So many armies had a national character embedded in them and we really like building around.
Strategy Informer: How have you balanced the two armies? Will they each have their specialisations like the original game had?
Quinn Duffy: We tried to build things that are fun. Obviously we’re drawing from history, I can’t get into too many specifics about that, but the soviets are a bit of a blunt instrument, they relied on mass weapons, mass armies etc… that’s not to say that if you play as the Soviets you’ll have this huge army with more units than the Germans, but it’s their ability to get numbers into the battlefield, big squads… simplification.
They were not very versatile though, not much organic firepower. A German rifle squad, they can have machine guns, mortars… a lot of organic firepower. The Soviets don’t really have that integration. Their armies are much simpler – if they needed a new role, then they built a new unit, they couldn’t just give their guys Panzershreks. The Germans are more tech-focused, more upgrades per squad etc… very versatile.
Strategy Informer: The online PC gaming landscape has changed so much since the original Company of Heroes – what do you guys make of it? Especially in terms of Steam and the wealth of tools it offers now.
Quinn Duffy: You see it written large when you go to one of the Steam community hubs, and like the TF2 page has something like 7.5 million page views or something – I don’t really remember what the stat was but it was huge, and our whole franchise has about a 35yh of that number! *chuckles*
Steams a really interesting partner to work with – they’re really dedicated to their platform and concepts. I don’t think we even know yet how to use all of the things they are building for it. But yeah, community support is important, and you have to manage a lot of different communities as well – hard-core guys want observer and replay modes, the other guys want skins or customizations… there are a lot of niche communities that you have to try and service.
Strategy Informer: When we spoke last you mentioned there were a number of lessons you guys had learned from the cancelled Company of Heroes Online game – care to elaborate on that?
Quinn Duffy: There were a number of lessons learned at a number of levels. We saw a business model, we saw how you can support a live product… the challenges that brought to a team – you basically had to do a mini-game every month. THQ had their lessons from a business model standpoint, traditional publishers aren’t really set up to do that kind of game. They don’t need a sales force, there’s no bonuses to paid… there’s entrenched infrastructure in the industry. Those kinds of games are running into that infrastructure. We did live betas in three very different markets – China, Korea and North America, and we realised that you actually need three separate games. One won’t serve all.
We saw the challenges inherent in this for the team, the size of the team you needed, the amount of tech you needed, the very unique and different markets. Ultimately we asked “What do we want to do for the franchise?” we decided we wanted to make Company of Heroes 2.
Strategy Informer: Do you think other publishers are too eager to jump on the Free-to-play bandwagon at the moment? Even EA have made C&C Generals 2 F2P from the off.
Quinn Duffy: Knowing what we know, would we do it differently? EA might have hired expertise? They might feel that’s the direction the market is going. I’m not speaking for THQ here, but just from a developer standpoint, I don’t know! I don’t know what’s going to be successful.
Strategy Informer: Let’s talk a little bit about the singleplayer – you’ve stated that it’s about the Russians fighting in the Eastern Front from their end, coming to the brink of oblivion… but then after that, they push the Germans back and end up beating them. Are they still the “good guys” by the end?
Quinn Duffy: That’s an interesting question, and it’s an interesting challenge. To describe that arch in gameplay is hard… you need the player to lose. They have to have the shit kicked out of them for the first year and half of the war. I think they came as close as they ever got to losing in 1942 than they did in 1941… you need to give them a feeling of victory without winning. It’s all about holding them off etc… so the mission design is interesting when trying to deliver that.
But you look at the research, and the Germans were always dangerous, even though Soviets made their inexorable push pack, it took them almost four years to push them back to where they started, and there were counter-attacks etc… the Germans were ALWAYS dangerous. We didn’t want to deliver that ‘steamroll’ feel, where you were just sacking German cities, rolling over Prussia etc…
Strategy Informer: But will they still have the moral high-ground by the end of it? Sure, at first they were fighting for their survival. But then they survived. What are they fighting for now?
Quinn Duffy: The Soviets themselves had a challenge there; they had to change their propaganda a bit. When the army reached the borders of the old Reich, they had to say stuff like “Hey, you know all that stuff we were saying about the Germans before? Yeah, ignore that, our quarrel isn’t with the German people. They will always be there, it’s their leaders we have issues with. The German government.”
There were these orgies of looting and raping that nobody ever wants to talk about, and the Soviet leaders had to rein that in and say “you’re just stiffening their resolve. They will never surrender this way”. There’s a lot of horror in that war, and I think there are ways to make sure that the players understand the moral implications of what they’re doing. There’s a little ambiguity as well… I mean the allies had the same thing – did they have to bomb Dresdan so late in the war? It’s challenging.
Many thanks to Quinn Duffy for taking time out of his schedule to speak to us. Don’t forget to check out our hands-on preview from GamesCom – this is definitely something to look forward too!