Michael Westgarth goes back in time to talk to Muzzy Lane's Dave McCool and Chris Parsons about their upcoming strategy title, Making History: The Great War
24 March 2014 | By Import
Developer Muzzy Lane are spinning back the hands of time with their upcoming grand strategy title Making History: The Great War. This new game focuses on World War I – a global clash that saw the rise of world-changing technologies, political shake-ups and a chilling death toll – but will also allow players to alter the course of time. With alternate timelines and a thirst for historical knowledge in mind, we caught up with Muzzy Lane's Dave McCool and Chris Parsons to find out what we can learn from Making History: The Great War.
Strategy Informer: Can you introduce yourself to Strategy Informer Readers?
Dave McCool: This is Dave McCool, I'm president of Muzzy Lane and producer on The Great War,
Chris Parsons: Chris Parsons, product manager.
Strategy Informer: Can you give us a brief overview of what Making History: The Great War is exactly?
Dave McCool:Making History: The Great War is a turned based grand strategy game set during the period of World War I. It's the latest in the series of Making History which is, for us, a series about having players take control of nations at interesting time periods usually centred around wars and other big events – giving them not just a war game, but a full grand strategy experience and generally giving them the ability to start before the big event. So, we started in 1933 and 1936 for World War II [Making History II: The War of the World]. We'll be starting in 1910-1922 for The Great War, getting a chance to sort of replay the run-up as well as the war itself.
Strategy Informer: What can you tell us about Muzzy Lane as a team? How big are you, what are the dynamics in your team?
Dave McCool: We're about a 20-25 person company, generally focused in the kind of – how to say it – the kind of games for learning in both formal and informal environments: Making History has been used in a lot of schools to help teach history. It's primarily sold in the commercial space on portals like Steam and GamersGate and others. So, The Great War will be primarily a commercial product for gamers, but we expect that people will learn quite a bit by playing it.
Strategy Informer: Okay, so The Great War is aimed at recreational gamers, but you do also distribute the game to educational institutions, is that right?
Dave McCool: Yes, we provide class guides and standards mappings and all the support materials a teacher would need to use it, to help teach in a high school or a college class room.
Strategy Informer: and what can The Great War offer recreational gamers that they might not be able to find in other historical strategy games?
Dave McCool: I think what Making History does really well is the whole counter-factual [aspect]. I look back at World War I and I say, you know, I think “this could have gone differently”. I think Germany should have pursued a different strategy, I think the United States should have come in early, I think the UK never should have come in at all. So that's what Making History has always been about, is exploring alternative pathways – what might have happened, what had you have done if you were in charge at the time. And I think we do that in a very short, focused time period, but with full grand strategy. So you've got economics, you've got diplomacy, The Great War is going to have a whole big dose of domestic issues you have to deal with, because of multi-ethnic empires and rising nationalism.
Chris Parsons: You wont just be painting the entire world your colour. The more you take over, the more problems you're gonna have. You have a lot of options for what to do when you have a conquest – you can directly annex people, you can make them puppet nations, you can make them colonies – and that will have varying levels of control for the locals and varying levels of trouble for you.
Strategy Informer: Do you start the game by picking a particular nation, or is there a selection of nations that you can choose to control? How does that work?
Dave McCool: With the full release of the game you'll be able to play any nation you want. We certainly have lots of players who love playing small, minor nations or mid-majors. But certainly the great powers are the biggest focus for the content of the game.
Strategy Informer: But if you wanted to you could take a completely neutral country and aim to keep them neutral?
Dave McCool: Correct, yep.
Strategy Informer: So you can sort of make your own rules as to what it is you want to do, is that right?
Dave McCool: Yes, we get a lot of people who like to play – again its counter-factual, it's what you want to do – so a lot of people play a regional power like Argentina and see if they can become masters of South America.
Strategy Informer: By how much can you bend the course of history in The Great War? Can you basically do whatever you want, or will the AI try and keep things going on course?
Dave McCool: The content of the game does build in a fair amount of the motivations of the time. The general idea is that if you play it straight – if you play Germany in The Great War – and you kinda follow the historical path you'll get roughly historical reactions from the people around you, although obviously you may have more or less success. But what we've always tried to is, you know, if you “Go Rogue” as we used to say – if you play France and you attack England – the game won't stop you doing that but the world will reorientate around you as the trouble maker, not Germany.
Chris Parsons: It'll be trouble for France if you do that!
Strategy Informer: So is The Great War a sequel to Making History II? are there similarities between the two games?
Dave McCool: There are similarities. Making History II was set in the World War II period and I think what we've done is, we took a lot of what we learned from that experience and refined it – especially the economic and diplomatic gameply for The Great War. And we as a company see The Great War as the “next-gen” of Making History, and I think what we'll do is we'll roll that forward. I see a twentieth century trilogy coming where we'll roll back into World War II with the improved gameplay and then the Cold War, which we're very excited to get to.
Strategy Informer: We remember from Making History II there was the expansive world map and the non-intrusive UI – is that coming back in The Great War?
Dave McCool: Yeah, I think the map definitely got a... We did a lot of work on the visual look of the map, which we've actually rolled back into a patch for Making History II. so The Great War will have an improved map, and then just doing a lot of work on the UI, really trying to work on focusing and making it easy for players – to get the information to you quickly because there's obviously a lot of information in a game like this – and make it easier to do the things you want to do.
Chris Parsons: Once we got all of our UI into Making HistoryII, we really didn't have those couple of years of testing to see “well where can we eliminate some clicks for the player?”, “where can we make things so that they can do the same actions, more quickly, more easily?” And so that's what all of those lessons learned are going into. I think what Dave said about this being “next-gen” is spot-on, we've really got a good sense of the things that we wanted to do, and they're going into this game.
Strategy Informer: But the game itself isn't going to be so visually intensive that you'd need a high end computer to run it? I assume that people can play it on more standard hardware?
Chris Parsons: It should be very similar to the specs of Making History II.
Strategy Informer: In making The Great War as historically accurate as possible, have you come into any particular challenges?
Dave McCool: That's a good question. I think that there's always systems, you know, how do you extract the systems of the day? The big things in the World War I time frame are rail road schedules and mobilisation, and so modelling logistical things like that in a way that enhances the players' experience rather than detracting from it. That's always challenging.
We've got some new things we've put into the game around how transportation infrastructure works and how you move your guys around and how you can really develop your heavy industries – which I think is kinda cool – I think those are the kind of challenges – you know the content side's pretty straight forward...
Chris Parsons: I think there's one other big challenge with the World War I era especially: Whenever you're building computer games, AI wants to behave logically, and most of the leaders in the World War I era were not behaving logically. Either you hear people say when they're playing games “oh that's ridiculous, that would never happen!” but it's pretty hard to say that about World War I. I mean, you would never believe that that stuff would actually happen, except that it actually did happen.
Strategy Informer: Well that kinda works into our next question which is, just how different was the world, aside from the technological aspects, a century ago compared to now?
Dave McCool: I think the big thing, even compared to the World War II era, is a very non-ideological world. You had a Europe where, other than France, everybody still had a monarch. Domestically there was a fair amount of democracy, but in foreign policy there was not much input from the people or parliaments at the time. So you had a very self-interested group of leaders negotiating with each other and a lot was driven by self-interest, not by ideology. So you didn't necessarily have natural allies.
You had some people who were pushed together by convenience, like Germany and Austria-Hungary, and France and Russia. But Italy – which had alliance with the Central Powers – when the war started said “eh, I don't really see much in that for me” and they basically hung back and waited and fielded offers and finally joined The Allies, mostly because what they really wanted was land from Austria-Hungary and the allies said “you can have that”.
Chris Parsons: See, you can imagine how players will have fun doing that!
Dave McCool: Romania is another one, Romania sat on the side lines for a while and then jumped in and got completely squashed. And you know the Ottomans jumped in. So it's just really interesting to see it open up the diplomacy, the diplomatic aspects of the game, much more.
Chris Parsons: In a global sense, there's actually a lot of similarities between a hundred years go and now in terms of the dramatic increase in technology and communications and transportation that was taking place. At that time it was, in their time, it was as radical as the internet was for us.
When we looked back everything looks like, really old, but if you imagine that, even in the mid to late 19th century, how primitive transportation was and now suddenly you have rail where you can move very quickly, ships where you can travel all over the word – this is if you're wealthy. If you're someone who's like, an English gentlemen for example, you can get communications via telegraph from literally anywhere in the world. That had never, ever happened before. So, that's another reason why this is such a great and interesting time period to do a strategy war game about because so many of the old school thinking methods were still present with this dramatic leap forward in technology, with of course the military being the most obvious one, where they were still fighting with obsolete doctrines.
Dave McCool: Yeah, and that's kinda cool. I think the focus we've always had with Making History, was capturing the pre-war and post-war era as part of the gameplay experience. World War I was the first introduction of tanks, bombers, submarines, fighter planes –
Chris Parsons: Aero war of any kind really –
Dave McCool: ...amazing new things happening towards the end. And again, we love to spill into the post war – the Russians fought the Poles, the Greeks fought the Turks – so there's all sorts of interesting side shows.
Chris Parsons: That's right. That's the other cool thing about this, that everyone focuses on Europe, but there was stuff going on everywhere – even China. There's a lot of places where people can go and play a completely different game if they wanted to.
Strategy Informer: Going back to how this game has an education basis to it, do you make developmental decisions with education institutions in mind? Is there a major difference between making a game for education institutions than there is for homes users?
Dave McCool: When we make the game we have learning in mind, but we don't have education institutions in mind. They have different requirements and we actually do build different products for them, but for this game we're really focused on the player having a great experience. They're gonna learn a lot of geography, they're gonna learn a lot about international relations and how nations deal with situations, but it's really kinda orientated at that home consumer user.
Strategy Informer: But more generally speaking, do you feel that institutions are becoming more aware of the role videogames can play in education?
Dave McCool: There's been a massive increase in that, yes. Here in the US we work with most of the major publishers like McGraw-Hill and Pearson and that business is growing extremely rapidly.
Chris Parsons: And especially for older students. I remember years ago there was computer software for schools but it was really aimed at little kids, teaching them to read and write and things like that. But the games we're working on a lot with McGraw, for example, are aimed at colleges and they're very specific for marketing majors or for people studying government and things like that. And so you're designing a game to specifications for a curriculum, and that's very different than Making History.
We see this fit as being on the informal learning side, so if someone is taking a class or a majoring in history, and they play a game like this, they're gonna be not only more well informed about the era, but they're gonna have an inside out view. When you're playing a leader of nation things stop being abstract and you're confronting a lot of the issues that they faced at that time. That's always been the strength of Making History in the education space specifically
Strategy Informer: You've always been self publishing the Making History games, is that correct?Dave McCool: We had a publisher. We actually went with Strategy First for the very first version. But we've self published since then.
Strategy Informer:Why have you decided to keep self publishing with The Great War?
Dave McCool: I think that the way the world has evolved through digital distribution with things like Steam and Gamers Gate – it just makes a lot more sense to self publish especially with this kind of a game. To use a publisher –
Chris Parsons: ...we wouldn't gain anything and we would loose something. If we thought it would be beneficial to the game, and ultimately the success of the game, then we would consider using them. I think its just a general trend, unless you're doing a big “AAA” multi-million dollar game that's aimed to sell 20 million copies. The indie scene is taking off because of digital distribution.
Dave McCool: Right. I think unless you're looking for up-front development funding from somebody else, its not really a good move for companies in our part of the market.
Strategy Informer:Making History II launched in 2010 is that right?
Dave McCool: Correct, yeah.
Strategy Informer: We noticed you're still releasing updates now – there's one released not that long ago. How important is post-launch support to you?
Dave McCool: It's huge. And I think for games like Making History, which are in the historical turned based strategy space, these are long tailed games. These are games that, you know, they don't go away in six months. People love to play them, they love to give you feedback on them, we love to improve them.
Making History: The Great War is gonna be on early access on Steam, which is a great programme for products like this where you can explicitly get your community involved in the last few months of development. And I think for them [the community] that's part of the experience – it's not just playing the game, it's giving feedback and shaping it.
Strategy Informer: Many publishers offer additional post launch content via paid for DLC, is that something we'll see from Muzzy Lane?
Dave McCool: I think you will. We've not done it in the past, but I think we are looking at it as we go forward, as we do want to continue to provide that value.
Strategy Informer: But obviously that'd be different to bug fix updates – that'll be larger paid for releases?
Dave McCool: Yeah. I think for us we'll never charge for bug fixes and polish and improvements like that. Where we'll likely charge additional is for extending the content either forward and back in time.
Strategy Informer: How important has fan feedback been in the design of The Great War?
Dave McCool: It's been huge. And I think Making History II, over the last two-to-three plus years, we've got a tonne of feedback. Making History II was a big leap up complexity-wise from Making History I, and I think we learned a lot from that and we're rolling that into The Great War to make sure we have the right balance between a deep, engaging experience and something accessible enough to play.
Strategy Informer: So far, what's your favourite feature of The Great War that we haven't seen in previous Making History games?
Dave McCool: I love the whole rebellion thing. I mean, the idea that these multi-ethnic empires are hard to keep together – that it takes cash, that if you don't manage that well things start to go wrong and rebels pop up and you have to sort of figure out how to manage that – how to deal with that. You know, sort of the whole empire management –
Chris Parsons: On the warfare side I love how you'll be able to bombard adjacent regions with artillery, because that was such a huge part of World War I – these gigantic, monstrous artillery pieces –
Dave McCool: It's wild that people think about World War I and trench warfare and they think about the guys charging across No Man's Land. But most soldiers in World War I were killed by artillery – just people sitting around and bashing the crap out of each other. And so, The Great War's gonna let you do that.
Strategy Informer: The game is coming out on Early Access on Steam, when is that due?
Chris Parsons: April 4th!
Dave McCool: April 4th!
Strategy Informer: And when are you looking to have a full release?
Dave McCool: July 28th.
Chris Parsons: The centenary of the war. The game's coming out a hundred years to the day after the war started – that's our goal.
Strategy Informer: And through which vendors? Is it just Steam, or GamersGate as well?
Dave McCool: Steam, GamersGate, Amazon, Apple's Mac App Store...
Chris Parsons: They'll be a few others that'll pop up. They've actually consolidated a lot. We had more options for Making History, but they've been gobbled up by some of the bigger companies.
And of course our own website making-history.com.
Strategy Informer: Is there anything you want to talk about in particular that maybe we haven't already covered?
Chris Parsons: Just that one of the things we find is really valuable in these games is the service we put up for multiplayer.
We spent a long time working on this for Making History II, and in fact Dave and I are actually in a huge, Making History II game with a bunch of community members – like, 20 people – he's Germany and I'm USSR. I think they just want to beat the crap out of us because we're the developers [laughter]. But its incredibility fun, and its asymmetrical, so we do a turn a day and people log in – its all on the cloud – people can go in and we get the notification that the thing rolled over and you go and take your turn and leave whenever you feel like it. Then you see what happened the next day and so – I tell you, the day right be we talked to you I'm like “so, what do you think about the same go far?”, “can't wait to see what gonna come at 5PM tonight when the turn rolls over!”.
Dave McCool: Yes, so I think multiplayer is a big deal for us and also there'll be an editor that will come out with the first release of the game, so people will be able to create scenarios and share them on making-history.com.
Strategy Informer: You mentioned that some time in the future you're going to be exploring the Cold War, which is is a lot less combat based, so how is that going to work?
Dave McCool: So a lot of the systems that are going into The Great War, which are empire management, building diplomatic influences in minor nations, and influencing they're behaviour – we'll have one eye on the Cold War the whole time we're doing that. Really, the Cold War is about proxy wars, it's about indirect influence, its about getting somebody else to fight for you and avoiding that fatal confrontation.
Chris Parsons: And there's a lot of war going on – it's just a lot of brush wars. So that does kind of fit in with grand strategy more so than with a straight up, massive war game.
Strategy Informer: Where can Strategy Informer readers find out more about Making History: The Great War?
Chris Parsons: If they come to our website, which is making-history.com, we have forum community members, we do blogs where we update what's going on. There's a community at Strategy Informer too so I'll keep and eye on that and if people are asking questions I'll probably poke my head in and answer them here and there too.
Strategy Informer: Well, it was really good talking with you, thanks for taking time out to chat.
Making History: The Great War will be available to buy on July 18th, with a Steam Early Access version appearing on April 4th. Until then, be sure to check out Strategy Informer's The Great War HQ and January's major update for Making History II: The War of the World.