Company of Heroes 2 Developer Discusses New Armies and Dangers of Historical Accuracy

No plan survives first contact with the enemy.

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Company of Heroes 2: The Western Front Armies
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The battlefield is growing in Company of Heroes 2: The Western Armies. This standalone expansion brings with it two new armies--the US Forces and German OberKommando West--along with a whole host of new units, upgrades, and maps. I recently had the chance to catch up with developer Relic's Quinn Duffy to discuss how these two new armies were designed, how the team is using community feedback, and where the danger lies in adhering too strictly to historical accuracy. For those new to Company of Heroes 2, know that The Western Armies expansion can be played in multiplayer against either the AI or the rest of the COH2 audience even if you don't own the base game. The Western Armies is coming to PC on June 24.

GameSpot: So tell me about the two new factions coming in The Western Front Armies.

Quinn Duffy: We have two new armies that have designed from the ground up, the US Forces and German OberKommando West, so a new American army and a new German army. The American army is very flexible, versatile, and focuses on mobility. They don’t have anything too hard-hitting, but they do have a lot of gameplay elements built around their versatility and mobility. The OKW, on the other hand, are extremely hard-hitting with a lot of veteran infantry units, super heavy tanks, and technological advances--but they're also a hard army to sustain because their economy was under a lot of pressure at this point in the war.

That was our starting point for these armies in terms of making them feel unique compared to the other armies in the game.

GS: How do you start designing one of these armies, and did your design goals change at all during development?

QD: We try not to change our overall goals for the armies too much, however the way in which we meet those goals can vary. The US Forces, for example, have weapon racks in their base that you can retreat back to and equip a new weapon from before heading back into the fight. That was an idea that arose out of delivering an army that was versatile, as was having vehicle crews that could disembark and tank abilities that could be used while moving. Those are technical solutions, the sorts of things we developed to meet the goals of the army--and while those solutions may change, the goals stay consistent.

GS: How early do you open up your projects to community feedback?

QD: A lot of people claim they can just look at a game and judge it on its gameplay merits, but I have never seen that actually be successful or true. It varies a bit from game to game, but I think you need a critical mass of feedback, especially player-driven feedback, before you soliciting [community feedback].

For example, our vehicles start as crudely textured boxes. You don’t have guns that turn or are just missing whole parts of the vehicle itself, so the player is missing vital feedback and we find very little relevance in showing the game that early to the community because the feedback we get is biased by the experience. You need a critical mass of stuff that looks good enough to get the right level of feedback, stuff that’s good enough so that the player can focus on the gameplay as opposed to asking 'why doesn't this unit animate?'

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GS: How does the team manage to strike a balance between historical accuracy and making a fun video game?

QD: It’s a continual challenge because in some respects World War II is my IP licencor. We do have some rules and restrictions, as well as a few strategies for addressing this. Focusing on historical accuracy is a dangerous road to go down. We prefer authenticity, which has a broader definition, and focus on the tone and the intensity of combat rather than counting the number of bolts on a tank or determining whether a badge is absolutely correct. We need to be able to build content that spans a couple of years of use or is easier for users to play with, so we do air on the side of gameplay more often than not.

GS: Has that always been the case?

QD: It’s been a long-standing tradition in Company of Heroes to deliver that kind of feeling and a more emotional experience. We look to the presentation layer of the game--the audio, speech, animation, and the battlefield itself--to hook player in an emotional way, and maybe even get them to relate to their units and hopefully feel a little bit of compassion for what they’re playing with. The depth of gameplay comes through after that. It’s a strategy that goes back to Homeworld: entice the player through visuals and an emotional connection first, and then deliver the gameplay and keep them hooked.

GS: How do you solicit user feedback?

Focusing on historical accuracy is a dangerous road to go down. We prefer authenticity, which has a broader definition, and focus on the tone and the intensity of combat rather than counting the number of bolts on a tank or determining if a badge is absolutely correct.

QD: We put in simple surveys to gauge snap reactions about the game, such as 'how are you feeling?' or 'was that fun?' They’re the sorts of questions that just give a very broad overview of player opinion, and then one thing we added over the last year that I think is really interesting is a whole new analytics unit. They’re able to look at our game as a whole using something like 23 million hours of Company of Heroes 2 gameplay data. Using that data, they’re able to look at player patterns and behaviors and unit balance and usage and just tons of other parameters. It really helps inform our decisions as a design team. It’s been a great addition.

Sometimes perception and reality can differ, and sometimes the community’s sentiment can give us pause and make us consider an issue and the telemetry data can then let us a dig a little deeper. It gives us tremendous insight into how the community perceives the game.

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GS: How are the existing armies in Company of Heroes 2 being changed for this expansion?

QD: A lot of what we did with the old armies was actually play them against the Western Front armies while they were in development and release balance changes live in anticipation of the new armies. We have been working through these changes gradually through the 20 or so updates we did to the live game while in development, and then there will likely be a big balance patch shortly after launch.

There’s also a bunch of stuff outside of the core armies that original Company of Heroes 2 players will get, such as custom games lists, user-generated content, and mod support. Those are some of the big changes that are coming, but we’ve been working on little things as well. For instance we’ve completely reanimated the rifle animations so all the armies will be getting those and they look a lot better and feel a lot better than the originals. It’s a constant iteration process of grooming the game every time we deploy a new update or patch or piece of content, and we want everyone to benefit.

GS: Wait, what was that you said about modding?

QD: We’ve talked about it, the community wants it, and we’re working on it. We had some great exposure to the demand when we released our world builder map editor tools and there are now, I think, over 1,200 community maps in Steam workshop. So yeah, there’s no arguing the demand is there; that’s absolutely evident.

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