How Company of Heroes 2 is Building the "Ultimate WWII RTS Experience"

We talk with Relic executive producer Greg Wilson about the the upcoming additions for CoH 2 as well as the long-term future of the franchise.

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Company of Heroes 2 developer Relic wants to make the most comprehensive World War II real-time strategy game on the planet. It's a lofty goal, but what does it take to create an experience compelling enough to keep bringing players back, especially in the crowded RTS genre? We talked with CoH2's executive producer Greg Wilson about the game's upcoming update introduces and about future plans for the franchise.

A few key highlights you'll find in our complete interview below:

  • The October update hits tomorrow (October 29) at 2PM PST
  • Observer mode will let you watch and save complete matches for reveiwing, learning, and just showing off.
  • New mod tools will let you modify and tune existing content, and change the win conditions for matches.
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GameSpot: You've said the October update is going to be big, but what exactly do you have in store for the game?

Greg Wilson: The October update is in line with previous updates in that and we're seeing a number of bug fixes and a bunch of tuning to improve the core multiplayer experience. But we've also got a couple of features that we're excited to talk about--Observer mode and our mod tools.

Observer mode is a feature that's been asked for from our team and from our community for some time, and we're really excited to be able to deliver it with this update. Essentially, it allows players to jump in and observe any live match in progress. The way it works is, imagine going into the front end, clicking the "Watch" button, and then seeing a list of games that are actually in play already. Then you're able to filter those in different ways like leaderboard ranking, number of observers, or friends playing. Those types of things. Then you jump in and watch that game as though you were there from the first beat.

You have full camera controls, and you're able to see and reveal the fog of war. You're able to switch sides and view the action from any player's perspective. You can pause the game; you can fast-forward it. It's really just a fantastic tool, not only for those players that want to become better at the game by watching different playstyles and tactics being used, but it also empowers our growing [broad]casting community.

What was the main impetus for integrating a feature like this? Has it been the growth of services like Twitch?

It definitely is in response to the excitement around personal broadcasting, but it's also just a way for us to expose the volume of games that are being played to every single player. So often, when you hop into the lobby, you don't necessarily know that there are potentially thousands of games going on, and this is a way for you to get exposed to that.

The game is very intense in terms of the learning curve; there's a lot of stuff going on in this RTS: camera controls, multiple units, build tiers, different strategies, completely destructible environments. The list goes on in terms of the things you need to learn to be effective at CoH2. And so what we're trying to do is get players another avenue to learn the game through watching other people. If they choose to do that through Twitch, that's fantastic. Twitch is great because it gives you a personality to connect with, and you have somebody choosing what camera direction to display, they're chatting with you, they're giving their play-by-play on what's happening in the match from their perspective.

But if you just want to observe the game, if you're already a player who's experienced enough to understand what's going on or wants to learn on your own, this feature gives you that option. You can jump in, and without anyone else talking to you, without anyone moving the camera around, you can slow the game down, speed it up, put the camera where you want. Those are all controls that are at your fingertips so you can learn the game at your pace and break down and analyze the different tactics and strategies that can make you successful.

Is there any interaction with the players built directly into Observer mode or a way for the player to record commentary over their playthrough?

That's where the casting comes into it. A popular caster would sign up to watch a game, and then would stream that feed to his users with live chat and by interacting with the people. But in Observer mode, you're just watching the game packet for packet as it unfolds. Your computer is doing the simulation right along with those other players, which is why you have complete control over the camera. It's not a linear experience, it's very open and dynamic--you're watching the game from the perspective of all the players.

Will you be able to save games and go back to watch specific matches?

Any game that you watch is saved to your local hard drive. So you can go back and watch that as many times as you want from as many different perspectives as you want. Users can also share those save files online, and what we're hoping to do is support different levels of ranking and voting so we can keep some of the most popular watched games of all time online so you can always come back in and watch those. That's something that we're looking to do in the future.

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The October update is also going to introduce some significant modding tools to the game, right?

Company of Heroes 2 launched back in June last year, and about six to nine months later we introduced our World Builder tool, which was the first content creation tool we released to the community. We saw an amazing response to that, and today in the Workshop on Steam we've got over 2,500 maps that have been generated by the community and uploaded and shared. We've been working hard to continue down that path, and with the October update we're introducing two new tools--one is the tuning pack tool, and the other is a win condition tool.

This is one step further down the path for us creating the ultimate RTS platform for our users, where they're able to build, share, and play the content that they want to. Not only the content that Relic provides, but they'll be able to combine it in new and interesting ways from their own perspective and share that with the Steam Workshop.

The tuning packs allow players to change the dynamic variables that make up a specific ability or specific squad, and make them do different things. It's a way for somebody to create a realistic damage mod or change the number of units in a specific squad. Everything is possible with the tuning pack in terms of manipulating the specific data that makes units unique in CoH 2.

The win condition is another tool that we're really excited to introduce, and it basically gives you the ability to manipulate, at a base level, the conditions in which the game is won. A simple thing like that is you can change the victory point counter to be something different. Rather than a 500-point game, you can make it a 5,000-point game.

One step below that, and this is what it's doing under the hood, is it's getting you access to our scripting tools. This allows you to run a custom script on any map in the game while you're playing. This allows you to change up the way the game is played, and what we've seen working closely with our alpha community in testing out these features and tools with us, is that they've created new custom game modes with the win conditions. It's a lot more powerful than it sounds in terms of changing the basis of how you win or lose the game. You're actually running a custom script; you have access to a tremendous amount of functionality and power through the scripting language that we have at Relic. And it gives you the ability to change things like the way units spawn; the up-rates that they have; the starting resources and the way that they acquire resources. The list goes on and on, but it essentially gives you the ability to customize and create new game modes.

This is just step one in our goal to become the ultimate WWII RTS platform, and these tools allow you to redefine and introduce the existing content in different ways.

Anything the community has created so far that's really surprised you?

The game modes that we've seen so far have been really impressive with the win condition tool, and we hope that that's just the start. This is just step one in our goal to become the ultimate WWII RTS platform, and these tools allow you to redefine and introduce the existing content in different ways. What we're planning to do down the road is support the ability for people to have their own content down the road--potentially adding their own models or doing their own UI, doing their own audio, and things like that.

The most surprising thing that we've seen to date with the limited exposure that the alpha community has had is just some amazing game modes that have come out of nowhere. We're going to be coinciding the release of those on the Steam Workshop with the actual update. But we're hoping this is just one step toward allowing people to make full conversions and really taking what we consider to be one of the most advanced RTS engines on the planet and using that to create whatever type of content that they think is exciting.

One of the game modes we've seen is centered around being a little shorter in duration for users, so it's about a 15- to 20-minute experience, and it's designed to give people access to more, and I'm using air quotes here, "toys" immediately without having to go out and capture resources or do any sort of map control. It's very synced up to the time of the clock as opposed to your ownership of resource points and control points. Essentially you start out with an infantry tier and you have full access to a bunch of infantry depending on what faction you're playing. And then when the next tier unlocks, you immediately get access to medium tanks and artillery. And when the next tier unlocks, you immediately get access to heavy tanks and artillery. What that creates is a fun and frenetic game pace where there's lots of action going on, lots of destruction. And you get to see all the candy that is the end-game of CoH2, but you get to see it early.

What do you feel has lead to the success of CoH2, that allows you to continue to release this kind of free content?

We've had more updates with CoH2 in the last sixteen months than Company of Heroes 1 saw in its entire lifetime.

The passion and commitment that our fans have to this genre and this franchise is amazing. There's just so much passion in RTS, and strategy games themselves are hard to master. So as you get exposed to great quality content, you see the depth in all the systems that are being used. It really shows you that there are legs within that experience. It shows the value in investing your time and your money to getting into a franchise like Company of Heroes or other RTS games.

From a business perspective, we're committed to long-term support of our userbase. So we've had more updates with CoH2 in the last sixteen months than Company of Heroes 1 saw in its entire lifetime. There have been a number of features added, there have been a number of maps added, there have been a number of commanders and skins added. These are all free things. We're not trying to monetize those; we're trying to build that initial investment for players beyond the date of purchase. We just want to create a great place for people to come and play.

What is the tipping point for when you decide to stop creating content and move over to a sequel?

You sequel when you need to. But we have a tremendous road map ahead of us, and we've got a really engaged community that we see long-term potential to continue growing with.

What kind of things do you have lined up for that future roadmap?

We're going to continue supporting the franchise. If you look at the pattern that we've exhibited over the last sixteen months since launch, you can see that continuing. You're going to see more multiplayer content, more single-player content. We've got our next big installment of our single-player campaign launching in November called Ardennes Assault, so there's some amazing stuff there.

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But it shows that there's a long-term road map that we're following. We're using not only our gut instinct as developers and our community input, we're also using telemetry data to help us shape and inform the decisions that we're making. We're really trying to make sure that we're making content that appeals to the customers that are playing the game. That's critical for us, and the "games as a service" mantle is about providing great-quality content that is relevant to our consumers on an ongoing basis. We're just going to keep that cycle going.

The update is hitting October 29 2PM PST, but do you have any other announcements for the near future?

One thing I also wanted to mention is that we have a big tournament deal with the ESL that's going to be coming up towards the end of this year. And that's just another example of how we're building out the franchise and the Observer mode and features to support that initiative.

No specific start date, but it'll be a six-month tournament across Europe and North America.

Has esports affected the game's direction at all, or have you tailored the game in any way to support esports competitors?

It's been a discussion of ours, for sure, and one thing that's really exciting is that these tools tie back into creating that platform for our userbase. For example, with the tuning packs, if you wanted to create a specific rule set and a specific set of tuning for your tournament, you could do that. And the power of Steam Workshop and our integration with it would enable you to share that content with anybody that you want to with just a couple clicks. The days of zipping things up and sharing them over email or the Internet or being concerned about downloading unsafe content are behind us. What we're trying to do is, rather than make those decisions for those groups, we're going to give them the tools and the capability to do that themselves.

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Observer mode is obviously a big part of the plan for expanding further into esports, but has CoH's seen a lot of growth recently in that arena?

I would say yeah. There's two things really; obviously, we think we have a great game. There's a bunch of tactical and strategic depth there. But it's also in large part due to the efforts of the guys who do Sunday Night Fights and CoH2.org and other fansites that have really put a lot of their own personal time and effort into promoting the game and helping us to broadcast how great this game is. The effort and time that we put into every asset really shines when you have someone that's passionate about talking about it.

We do live weapon records. We do live vehicle records. We have insanely detailed models, physics, and textures. And our environments are realistic and fully destructible. Not only that, but when you layer that in with the innate understanding that we have around how certain types of weapons interact with certain types of vehicles, and you get a really intuitive experience. When you have guys with rifles going up against a tank--you know in your core that that's not a good matchup and those guys are going to be in trouble. As soon as they pull out a bazooka, you again, know that that's a good matchup and these guys can hang in that fight.

We think CoH translates incredibly well to a spectator sport, and our fansites have really helped to expose that through their own passion and effort.

How do you feel about the additions to Company of Heroes 2? Is there anything missing that you hope gets added in soon? Let us know in the comments below.

Justin Haywald on Google+

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