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World in Conflict Preview

"Cliff Bleszinski from Epic gave a talk at GDC this year that was called 'Iteration Wins,'" recalled Magnus Jansen, lead game designer on the upcoming World in Conflict from Swedish developer Massive Entertainment. "Basically, you have to try things out, be very dynamic, see which concepts and which things are the ones with the strongest power. Very early on, you notice that the game has a will of its own. It wants to be something. You can tell that it's pulling you in a direction. If you're not very attentive to what the game wants, and you just go your original plan, you will miss out on that. That's one of the things that everybody who's been doing games for a while knows--design documents become obsolete and inaccurate two seconds after the game starts being made."

Though a newly created property, World in Conflict is very much an iteration on Massive's well-regarded Ground Control series of real-time strategy games. It retains successful elements of that series, such as its up-close presentation, a lack of base-building, the low-angled camera, and the focus on tactics-level gameplay. Jensen was sure to state that fans of the series will feel right at home.

Crucially, however, the setting has changed dramatically, which has had an effect on other aspects of the game. While Ground Control was set in a sci-fi universe fairly typical for the RTS genre, World in Conflict travels a path that is not nearly as well-charted for the genre: Cold War alternate history. In an interview conducted last week, Jansen described some of the more fundamental changes made for World in Conflict.

"World in Conflict is entirely a reaction to what we didn't like about Ground Control," he said. "People were tired of sci-fi. They wanted to do real-world hardware. We had military buffs saying, 'I want a God damned Abrams tank in there.' We had like five times of damage--electrical, plasma, normal, whatever--and five types of armor. Now there's damage, armor piercing ability, armor, and that's it. In Ground Control, we had strategic points, and the more you had, the more resources you had. That gave you that very typical RTS see-saw, where you at a certain point see that things are tipping over and it's just a downward spiral for the losing team. So we said, away with that. We still have command points for other things, but now your resources themselves remain constant. It's how you use them that matters. The match is not over until the last second. That's also a day one reaction to Ground Control."

In World in Conflict, players are issued a set amount of currency from the start with which to buy units, rather than building up a base and gathering resources. Units purchased with those points are airlifted in, and when units die the points used to acquire them are returned to the player's resource pool to buy and deploy new units. Jansen described this dynamic as drawing from first person shooters, many of which feature instant player respawn in multiplayer. The system keeps players, either in single-player or multiplayer, focused on the tactics behind achieving the objective at hand, rather than simply falling back on the common RTS strategy of "turtling" and building up a massive force.

Capturing command points is a major part of gaining the upper hand. In addition to turning the "Domination Bar" victory meter in your favor, capturing command points allows you to construct defensive fortifications. These are necessary given the lack of existing military structures on the battlefields; after all, the game takes place largely in civilian territory.

"In the original paper design we'd have key buildings--for example if you took over a hospital you'd have better healing, and if you took over a radar station you'll have better surveillance, that kind of stuff," said Jansen. "What we noticed is that since we have this theme of 'war is coming home,' we're all over the map. We'll be in the middle of a desert, or in a suburban environment. We can't just arbitrarily put radar stations and hospitals and that kind of stuff all over the place. The game is about the war ending up in virgin environments that haven't seen war, where two hours earlier they had no idea there was going to be a war. There are no machine gun bunkers already erected in suburbia."

Jansen noted that World in Conflict's camera, which builds on the successful Ground Control camera system, draws from more action-oriented genres as well. Rather than providing a town-down view, the camera looks out to the horizon, is panned around with the WASD keys, and can be angled using mouselook controls. For a broader view of the battlefield, the camera can be zoomed out or switched down to a tactical top-down map view with indicators pertaining to command points and friendly and enemy units. That top-down view also paints broad unit movement and attack orders with arrows; this becomes useful in multiplayer, allowing tactically unsure players to "piggyback" onto teammates' strategies quickly and in real time, even without vocal or textual communication.

World in Conflict's concept of being set during a hypothetical World War III in which the Cold War erupted into a full scale global conflict between the Soviets and the United States is a hugely important element of World in Conflict, beyond simply presentation--the pervasive theme of the game is "war comes home"--but the premise was chosen more by a process of elimination than anything else. Jansen spoke on Massive's rationale.

"We knew we wanted to do modern hardware. However, there was a strong sentiment that we did not want to do modern war--being in the desert, killing Muslims, insurgency fighting," he explained. "We wanted to have more standard RTS armies fighting each other off--big battles. That meant we had to go back in time to when there was a worthy opponent to the US Army, and that took us back to the Cold War. That's how we ended up there. It didn't start out as 'We want to do a Cold War game;' it was that process. Then, making these towns, we saw the amount of detail we could do and saw how much we could have destructible. We realized that, in comparison to Ground Control, the best way to get people to understand how destructive a bomb or a piece of artillery is, is to have something that they know very well be affected by it. So if you have a station wagon or a house and a shell bombs down and it's blown away by the force of it, people immediately know the power of it. In sci-fi, if you have a plasma field be blown away, that doesn't tell you much, because you don't know how powerful a plasma field is or how sturdy it is. But when you see a brick house be totally demolished like a house of cards, you think, 'Holy shit, this is a powerful event.'"

I pointed out that in this case there is also an emotional connection as well as a physical frame of reference, with the relatively recent 1980s setting of the game being one to which most of its players will have some tangible connection.

"Exactly, that's the next point," he added. "If you have war where tanks roll over white picket fences and BMX bikes, it's not just some desert town that's getting destroyed that you can't relate to. You say, 'That's a swing set on fire, I fully grasp the power of this event.' Putting it in the middle of familiar environments immediately gives people a sense of the power and the horror of the war."

In World in Conflict, the Soviets have launched an assault on the Western world, and following certain battles that have unfolded in Europe, the invading superpower brings the war to American shores. At that point, the game begins. The war at home is introduced through a striking sepia-toned cutscene, set to the memorable strains of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," in which residents of a classically American suburban town look up to see hundreds upon hundreds of Soviet paratroopers descending from skies that were clear just moments ago. Massive has put a great emphasis on the storytelling aspects of World in Conflict, hoping that players will become invested in the supporting characters that advise, oversee, and report to the player's Lieutenant Sawyer.

Single-player missions are strewn with plot and character development in an attempt to make the game's narrative more natural, rather than simply inserted between battles or segmenting gameplay. Non-player characters have their own simultaneous objectives on the same battlefield as the player, giving the impression of being part of a larger war. Those characters then run into various set situations, in accordance with the needs of the story--this is yet another way World in Conflict draws from atmospheric first person shooters, in particular the event-event driven World War II genre.

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"We did a lot of soul-searching for single-player," said Jansen, regarding those design elements. "There's no base-building, your units are very disposable to put it bluntly, so how the hell do you translate this into a single-player experience? Usually, in an RTS, you take your time, you turtle up. We decided that we don't want to try to make a skirmish game where you try to simulate a multiplayer game experience. We wanted to do a more emotional experience where the characters are very strong and there's story at each and every step. We saw a lot of RTS games where it's like, 'Okay, here's the story, blah blah blah,' then the story stops and they say, 'Here's your objective, kill all Mordor forces.' We didn't want that. We have these strong characters, and they're very involved. Inside the level, they'll call for help, but the commander refuses to give it, and then they do something horrible, and you need to help them, and they get their ass chewed out by the commander, then several levels later you'll hear them complain about it. To play the devil's advocate, you could say that it's heavily scripted and it's on a rail. Well, we have taken a page out of Call of Duty or those games that are very directed experiences, but the emotional and storytelling things we can do are great. The tactics and gameplay are there, but we're doing a very directed and emotional experience."

"We didn't think enough people were trying to take this level of immersion and emotion in strategy up to the level of where some first person shooters are," Jansen continued. "I mean, the level they've reached of that in Call of Duty or Halo, we're miles behind it. It works really well in this game. Maybe if I were making a first person shooter, I would say it's been done to death, but in the strategy genre there's a lot of gold to be mined."

Gameplay is littered with other less narrative-related atmospheric elements. All of the hundreds of buildings in the game are destructible, meaning that, as battles progress, the battlefield becomes more and more visibly war-torn and desolate. There is even an internally tracked "health meter" for the environment itself that controls weather and various aftereffects, creating ambient conditions that are more and more threatening and visually intense as the destruction progresses.

In a particularly effective touch, zooming in up close to the battlefield results in radio transmissions from nearby units, both friend and foe, being picked up. These transmissions are context-dependent, so idle units will be chatting about casual topics, whereas units in combat will be sending and receiving battle commands. The feature is extremely successful, particularly because it emerges when zoomed in close, which showcases the game's level of detail, unusually high for an RTS.

Massive has its own internal writers who craft the game's story, characters, and dialogue, but to achieve a sense of realism in the hypothetical event of World War III, the company is working with external writers experienced in the military genre, such as Larry Bond, a game designer and novelist whose work focuses on modern military conflicts including Cold War revisionist fiction, and Ed Zuckerman, who has written for the television series Law & Order and JAG.

"Larry Bond was a perfect fit, because he's worked with games, and he's written these novels about the third World War and about the Soviets invading the Western world," said Jansen. "We met with him, had a big pow-wow, and he said, 'That's not a possible scenario,' or 'This is how they'd do it,' and so on. Things like that there would have to be a conflict in Europe first to get the U.S. troops over there to weaken the defenses and drain the West Coast. We had this situation where the Soviets would capture a US nuke and use it against us, and he explained why with the launch codes you can't just hijack a nuke and set it off--all these things that as nerdy game developers we didn't know."

World in Conflict consists of three main setions, the first of which takes place on US soil and depicts the Soviet incursion onto the West Coast. The middle third flashes back to the conflict in Europe that led to the US battle, with NATO forces defending against the invading Soviet army. Massive has not yet disclosed the specifics of the third section of the game.

In multiplayer games, players can take control of these various global forces, including the Soviets, which are not controllable in single-player. Multiplayer is very team-focused, natively supporting games of up to eight versus eight but tuned ideally for five versus five or six versus six. Jansen of course expects players to tweak those limits with mods as soon as the game is released, as well as to create scenarios pitting allies such as the US and other NATO forces against one another.

World in Conflict is currently finishing up its alpha stage, meaning that it has essentially hit feature lock, and most of what is left for the developers is testing and polish. Jansen mentioned that there were a few features that would have been nice to include, but that a crucial part of game development is recognizing what features are going to delay or bloat the game rather than adding to the whole. I asked if there are plans to implement some of those features in expansions or sequels.

"Everybody knows that if the game is successful, there will be more of it," he answered frankly. "That's the biggest no brainer in the history of the game industry. In terms of World of Conflict, there are a lot more stories to tell, and as I mentioned there are always more features we want to do."

By the time it reaches release this fall, World in Conflict will have been in development for approximately two and a half years. Jansen noted several times that Massive has been given ample funding and uncommon freedom in development by parent company Vivendi Games, which is publishing World in Conflict under its Sierra Entertainment label.

"Our relationship with the publisher is not one of those things where they're evil men in black who come over and tell us what to do and are always fucking things up with bad decisions," he laughed. "I have been in productions where the publishers are just all the things people hear and more in terms of badness. I have had publishers that go in and say, 'No, your music is no good, let's do this' then a week later they bring in a new guy and it's somebody's nephew. I've had publishers with producers who have never made a game and don't grasp core concepts. They haven't even read up on the game. They'll say, 'I think this is a shooter but this sounds like an adventure convention.' You know, that kind of stupidity. I've had that. [This is] the other way around. They sit quietly when we're doing good things."

Jansen went on to explain that, with the staggering success of World of Warcraft from subsidiary Blizzard Entertainment, Vivendi has had far more resources with which to elevate its projects, and internal studios such as Massive benefit from that.

"The game was fairly low on their radar in the beginning. It had a much lower budget; they wanted to just do something quick with the Ground Control engine," he said. "Now, all that money flowing in from Blizzard has enabled them to do the right thing, and they really are doing the right thing. They're saying, 'This game is a good game, let's let it bake until it's done.' You can't do that if you're strapped for cash and you have to get something out for Christmas and the shareholders are cracking the whip for fiscal year results." The scenario he described of the publisher's reversal was strikingly similar to the story of Saber Interactive's TimeShift, which was essentially given a second life by Vivendi brass last year.

"We're fully owned, and they know that we're launching a new game, a new setting, a new name, new characters, so it's worth it to let it bake until it's really done. That's not altruism," he added, "it's just good business. But for me, who doesn't care about business and just wants to make a good game, what it has given me is the time and the resources to polish things to a really fine shine."

Vivendi Games subsidiary Sierra Entertainment plans to ship Massive Entertainment's World in Conflict for PC in fall 2007.