Dawn of War 2 Interview: Relic on Expanding the RTS Genre, Killing the Fear Factor and Homeworld 3

Dawn of War 2 was a risky sequel for Relic. It radically changes the gameplay of a series that was already successful for the company. And, as lead designer Jonny Ebbert had feared, I wasn't sure I liked it much at first.

But after giving it a few more hours, and taking a look at the co-op campaign during a long playthrough today, Relic has very predictably proven me wrong. The team has done something I didn't think possible--they simplified their hardcore RTS, and somehow made it more fun in the process.

After wasting a few hundred Orks, I got a chance to talk with Dawn of War II principal designer Jonny Ebbert. A sharp, easy-going guy, Ebbert had plenty to say on Relic's past, present and future as a company, in addition to specific details on the development and future of Dawn of War II.

What sorts of free updates and DLC are in store for Dawn of War II owners? How stable is Relic in this economy? What would a Homeworld sequel look like--and is it even realistic to hope for one? Read on for the full interview.

Shack: Have you been satisfied with the response to the beta? Do you guys have download numbers?

Jonny Ebbert: Yeah, I think by the end of week two we had 100,000 people in the beta. It might be even more, but I remember we cracked 100,000 pretty quick. So we were really excited by the reception we had gotten.

Shack: Dawn of War II has plenty of elements from past Relic titles--most notably Company of Heroes, but also a little bit of Homeworld, with the single-structure base. Was the plan from the beginning to sort of take the best from each of your RTS franchises and combine them into a single, approachable game?

Jonny Ebbert: That's exactly right, we wanted to take the best of Dawn of War and the best of Company of Heroes and kind of bring them together. And yeah, I guess you can also say that Homeworld kind of trickled in subconsciously. [laughs] It had never occurred to me that it had influenced us.

We're an RTS studio, and if RTS isn't doing well, we're not doing well.
But yeah, on top of that there were some other things that we wanted to try to push into the genre. In our campaign--we didn't like starting over every mission, so we tried to build a campaign structure that didn't force you to do that. We also play other types of games, and we love how other types of games reward you constantly with cool unlocks, cool new abilities, so we tried to build that into the game and add more persistence across singleplayer and multiplayer.

So in multiplayer, when you play a lot of rounds, you'll start getting cool visual unlocks for your troops. And in singleplayer, you have that persistence force that you take from one mission to the next, and they kind of get bigger and better as you go through. We're hoping that adds some real spice to RTS, and kind of mixes up the experience and provides something kind of cool and new to the player.

Shack: Did you find that the complexity of the modern RTS was limiting your playerbase?

Jonny Ebbert: Oh from day one, what we decided was: we need to start expanding RTS to new people. Because our core constituency is shrinking. They're either moving out of gaming, or moving to other types of games. But we're not creating new gamers, was kind of our [problem].

Our goal from the beginning was to maintain the depth, but simplify it. So, make something simple to learn, but difficult to master, to get people into it more quickly. We moved away from the traditional model of controlling a vast army, building a vast base, managing a vast resource structure. We kind of contracted it, and made it so that you focus on less things, but with more depth.

So our thinking was, you do a little bit with tons of things and it looks way scarier, because there's a lot more dials to turn. Having a few things to work with, four or five squads, but they have a lot of depth, and you can do a lot of things with them, and you can slowly grow into it--we thought that was a better model that could appeal to more people. So we'll see. We'll see how players respond to it.

Shack: Do you guys ever worry about the RTS genre going out of vogue entirely, as in the case of flight simulators?

Jonny Ebbert: Most definitely. Like you said, we're an RTS studio, and if RTS isn't doing well, we're not doing well.

Shack: So from your perspective, something had to change.

Jonny Ebbert: Yeah. Dawn of War II, we broke the mold for a sequel. A friend of mine who is another lead designer told me, "Wow, you really changed a lot of things. I wouldn't have done that."

Shack: It's risky.

Jonny Ebbert: We knew it was risky, and it could backfire, but we felt like a big change was needed if we want to start growing a franchise and attracting new types of players. And like I said, we really focused on trying to keep the depth there so that our current players would be just as excited. Initially some of them were a little... skeptical when they first found out what we were doing.

Shack: I was skeptical.

Jonny Ebbert: Were you?

Shack: Yeah. Because on the surface, you don't see the complexity.

Jonny Ebbert: The complexity, right. I've met a lot of players whose first reaction was like, "Well, this game has no depth. They basically pulled all the teeth out of this game." And I don't know if it's wishful thinking on my part, but as I've read the boards, people who started out saying that are starting to complain about the balance of the game. Which to me was a sign that... well, there is some depth. [laughs]

Shack: [laughs] Right.

Jonny Ebbert: It's funny. One of our top players of the original DoW said, "This game [Dawn of War II] has no skill. Day one, I was number seven on the boards." And like, I'm sure the guy who was number seven on the first day of the original StarCraft had it pretty much figured out. [laughs] No new strategies were figured out or anything--everything was determined at that point. [laughs] But no, we know we took a big risk, and we hope it pays off.

Turn the page for more. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: Here's a question that came up when I was talking with a reader of our site: do you guys even think of Dawn of War II as an RTS?

Jonny Ebbert: I do. We had a big argument. Some people have been saying, "This isn't an RTS, this is an RTT, a real-time tactical game." And then Clint Tasker, one of our QA testers, we were kind of debating, "What is the difference between tactics and strategy?"

And he's like, "Well... tactics is just a manipulation of units, and strategy is this grand army." But then he started kind of breaking down the definitions, "One is like a smaller scale of the other, but it's all relative. There is strategy within tactics, and there is tactics within that strategy." [laughs]

Shack: It gets kind of ridiculous at a certain point, doesn't it?

Jonny Ebbert: It's funny. It's like... the way I've always seen it, and I could be wrong... people are controlling about as much as they were controlling in the original DoW, it's just some of the smoke and mirrors have been removed--some of the hoops.

So people thought that base-building played a huge role in the original DoW. It didn't. You built your barracks once, and you never built another. There was never that decision like you have in other RTS games where it's like, "Do I need to build a second barracks, or an armory?" You can only build one. You build your first three squads, maybe another one in tier 2, and then it goes unused the rest of the game. And if the enemy comes in and blows it up somehow, it's like, "Eh."

And the only thing--the base always felt out of place to me in CoH and DoW in that they were only there to keep you from getting stuff out too soon. It was purely a pacing mechanic. So I said, why don't we just remove that, and see if we miss it. And we didn't.

I remember at one point, we had a bunch of global upgrades next to your thing that you had to use to start unlocking units within a tier. And it was really hard to work out the UI for, and it was getting really irritating. Finally, one day I said, "You know what, let's pull it out, just for a day. Let's see if we miss it. And the minute someone says, 'I miss it,' we're gonna put it back in." And everyone was like, "Well you know it's gonna be back in tomorrow." And I was like, "Let's just see how it goes." [laughs]

And so we pulled it out, and nobody missed it. No one ever said, "What's wrong with this game?! We don't have these global upgrades." They didn't matter. And what I found was that, there's so much that you can be doing with your units, and managing them, we just kind of wanted to remove all the things that pull you away from that. Because nothing sucks more than going back to your base, and having your army die because you weren't watching it.

So we try to do all these things that allow you to stay focused on your units, control them very carefully. And I'm hoping it's more approachable. I'm thinking it might be a little less intimidating. But I'm not sure. We'll see.

Shack: The way you've segmented each race for the multiplayer component makes for some interesting cooperation. Each Space Marine player will have a number of different abilities based on his commander choice. How did you determine and balance the extent of these differences?

Jonny Ebbert: From day one, we put a lot of energy in that [three vs. three] mode, because... it just feels different.

When I'm playing 1 versus 1, suddenly it's like, my pride and reputation are on the line. You know how it is when you're completely dominated by a person. Whereas, when you play on a team, it's more about just having fun and trying to contribute.

I used to be a pretty hardcore 1v1 player, but I just realized it was like a machismo thing for me. It wasn't... so much fun, except when I won, and when I lost I felt like shit.

Shack: Right. When I play StarCraft online, sometimes I just lock up with fear. I completely panic. It's exciting, but sometimes not much fun.

Jonny Ebbert: That was our goal: remove the fear factor. We want to draw more people online, because online is what gives a game longevity. And the three on three, we really wanted to focus a lot on making that a cool mode. Because we ask people when they lose a three-on-three, "Why'd you guys lose?" And we'd always hear, "I don't know. I was doing great. My teammates just must have sucked." You know what I mean?

Shack: Oh, definitely. I've said that once or twice, I'm sure.

Jonny Ebbert: But they have a lot of fun. And they're like, "I built like three turrets up here, and some guy tried to come up and take the point and got owned. I don't know why my teammates can't handle their shit. I was on top of my shit, and I got that cool unlock."

And so that's the feeling--it's like Call of Duty 4 and Counter-Strike. You're always doing awesome. And losing is more kind of, "It would have been better had we won, but whatever, I was kicking back." And so we built these rules so that--we kind of tried to identify the major archetypes.

Some people like building stuff, so we built the engineer for that. They like being turtlers, so you can turtle, but instead of turtling in your base, turtle out where your teammates can benefit from it. There's the fighter, when you just like knocking shit around.

And there's what we call the troubleshooter--they're kind of the loners, who kind of like to break off and solve problems on their own. We gave them the teleporter, the infiltrators, so they can kind of break off from the pack and cause trouble. How those interact, we're watching that very closely, because we want to enhance that and make it a very rich ecosystem of cooperation.

Shack: Down the line, are you looking to expand the game with campaigns for the other races?

Jonny Ebbert: Yeah, I mean we're definitely considering it right now...

Shack: Sort of like the StarCraft II approach, splitting up the campaigns into separate games?

Jonny Ebbert: Yeah, we thought about that. This is a new type of campaign. First thing we're going to do is watch players play it, and figure out what people really liked about it. There are probably some things they don't like about it. It's a new type of model.

Our goal has always been: we want to provide a good story, but we also want the player to feel like he's in charge. And until we strike that balance successfully, we're going to keep playing with the model and maybe even go to the drawing board again, until we feel like we've nailed it.

So the first thing we're going to do is let this campaign cool off, at least for the first few months after launch, and figure out what worked and what didn't. What do we want to do better. And if we feel like this is something that worked really well, we can start pouring other races into it. If it's something we felt like had some rough edges on it, we might sand it down some more.

I don't know, it just depends. What we like though, is that we have a system of player metrics that we can look at now. So for the first time, we're trying to do a wait-and-see approach and say, "Okay, what did people like to play the most?"

Turn the page for more. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: So you have a way to see how far people played into the campaign, or how long they play multiplayer?

Jonny Ebbert: Yeah, totally. This is the question we've always wondered. We made a campaign that was fairly length, and the first thing we're going to find out is how many people finished it. If only 10% of the people finished it, we made it way too long, and we'll need to concentrate it. And if everyone finished it, we'll find ways to cater more to that length.

What percentage of the people even play the campaign? I don't know. [laughs] What's the first thing people do when they open the box? Everyone's always like, "First thing they do is play skirmish," or campaign, or whatever.

Shack: Yeah, it depends on the person. I instantly jump to skirmish, but I have a friend who will go straight to the campaign.

Jonny Ebbert: Yeah, and that's what we want to find out. Does it break down evenly? We really want to just figure out what the parts of the game we should be expanding. Could we be more effective? Maybe the campaigns do nothing, or maybe they're everything.

Shack: Are you getting this data through Steam?

Jonny Ebbert: It's a combination. There's Steam, there's Games for Windows, and there's the one we built in ourselves.

So we'll be able to say, okay, 80% of the players play skirmish, we can make sure the AI is really good. It used to be like, "If we get to that we'll make it better," but now we'll say, "Oh, that's going to the top." We'll finally be able to [prioritize] and make way more intelligent decisions to give players the experience they want.

Shack: Is that reflective of your overall strategy at this point? Staying true to your RTS roots, but finding out the most efficient ways of satisfying your audience?

Jonny Ebbert: Yeah. As a studio, we've always wanted to diversify, and we have tried to in the past. And we'll keep trying today.

Shack: Will you be providing free multiplayer maps?

Jonny Ebbert: Yeah, we're providing two more, if not on the day of launch, within the week. And we're also going to keep providing maps.

One of the reasons we started off with a smaller number of maps is, you can make a lot of maps thinking a game is going to be played a certain way, and the game never plays like you design it. Once it gets out in the wild, it becomes its own thing. The players take it where they want to take it.

So like now when we watch the beta, we go, okay... we weren't making our maps right. Players are saying there are too many choke points on our maps, people are pissed about this, they don't feel like they can play it. So we said, "Okay, we need to open up our maps." So these two maps we made right after we finished the game are, in our opinion... everyone just says, "These play way better."

And once those are out, we're probably going to see some new things, the next generation of maps will be [better]. Because we are planning to keep building on this perpetually, with free downloadable content, paid downloadable content, and possibly expansion packs.

Shack: So things like weapons or multiplayer maps will be free, but new missions might be paid expansions?

Jonny Ebbert: Yeah. That's what we're looking at right now. We've already planned out our free DLC, and we'll be going into more detail on that after launch, but some cool things to expect there. And we're also looking at paid DLC--how we can extend the experience for players who want more.

We're trying to figure out what the best way to do that is, what's going to get players the most excited. So that's what I said about player metrics, instead of guessing, we'll be able to say they definitely want this.

Shack: You mentioned earlier that the game will get a patch on day one?

Jonny Ebbert: Um, yeah, well basically, we passed certification and went gold back in early January. You always plan to have three certification attempts just to prepare for the worst. Passing our first cert attempt was huge because we could stand back and say, alright, everything we learned about at the end, that we felt like we didn't have time to fix, let's fix it now.

And the other thing is we have our beta going, and we were able to see once the game got out into the wild that there were certain imbalances. Certain bugs that we didn't anticipate, or things that weren't working how we anticipated. So we've kind of packaged all that together and we put that into our zero-day patch that we're planning to release as soon as players activate their game.

Shack: Have you heard about the GameStop controversy? That Dawn of War II has been de-listed from the site? Some fans are speculating that it's retribution due to the game requiring Steam.

Jonny Ebbert: I mean, you'd have to ask GameStop, I'm not sure what their motivation is there. I think at some point they said it was because they met their sales quota, or preorder quota, but like I said--that'd be pure speculation on my part. [laughs]

Turn the page for more. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: Ensemble Studios just shut its doors, and it seems like we're seeing new developer layoff reports every hour. The economy is still trending down. The PC gaming market has seen better days. How is Relic doing as a company? I heard that you were hosting a job fair soon.

Jonny Ebbert: Either happening today or tomorrow. I think today.

Shack: So fans shouldn't worry about your stability?

Jonny Ebbert: We're not laying people off. We're still hiring. So we're doing better than a lot of studios right now.

You know, is anybody safe in this economy, except for maybe a couple of just rock-solid developers? I don't think anybody's guaranteed safety. So I think our feeling at Relic is, we gotta start to just kicking even more ass. We gotta start just being even sharper on everything and taking it as a challenge. People are going to be more selective about the games they buy when times are tight, so we've got to make our games even better to make people want to spend their hard-earned money on them.

Shack: Dawn of War II almost seems like a direct iteration of Company of Heroes gameplay. In that light, should we expect to see a full CoH sequel anytime soon?

Jonny Ebbert: Company of Heroes was a game... there were three major milestones for this company. There was Homeworld, which was our first, and your first is always dearest to your heart. Company of Heroes, it was a project of blood, sweat and tears. That was a tough, tough project. But the critical reception was just off the charts good. In a lot of ways, that was when Relic arrived as a top-tier developer.

We released Homeworld, and we had a couple of duds as a studio. We had some projects that had been started and cancelled... it was a tough time for Relic. Impossible Creatures had a really disappointing critical reception, and really disappointing sales, and that was something that we worked really hard on, it was like a four-year project. And to have that kind of reception was a pretty crushing blow to the studio.

So to follow that up with Dawn of War, which was developed in a really tight time-frame, with a really tight budget, to create something that resonated so much with the fan base was just a huge, huge boost of confidence for the studio. I think that energy really helped us get through the tough times on Company of Heroes. And Company of Heroes was another huge thing--that was a big victory.

Shack: I've heard some conflicting reports on the sales of Company of Heroes.

Jonny Ebbert: Company of Heroes sold respectably, but it wasn't a bank-breaker by any means.

Shack: But obviously the critical reception was off the charts.

Jonny Ebbert: Yeah, all the ancillary benefits... suddenly people were applying to work at Relic like they would apply to work at Blizzard or Infinity Ward.

People saying, "You guys just make the best games!" And we're like, "What?" And they're like, "Yes!" And it's like, "Yeah, I guess we do." [laughs]

Shack: I'm a huge fan of the Homeworld series. I know you can't say a single thing about it--

Jonny Ebbert: [laughs]

Shack: --but maybe I could phrase it this way. In this economy, and considering all the risks of hardcore PC game development, can we ever really expect to see a true Homeworld sequel? Is that even a reality now?

Jonny Ebbert: Anything's possible. If I went back in a time machine and I told you there's going to be a Fallout 3, and it's going to sell three or four million copies on Xbox and PS3, what would you reaction be? I mean, up until that point Fallout was a very, very niche cult game.

And it came back, and now it's going head to head with Gears of War. And if I went back and told you it was going to go head to head with Gears of War 2, and sell about as many copies, you'd be like, "Whaaat?" [laughs] That's a good one!

So anything is possible. It didn't come back in the exact same form, but it came back in a very cool form. The original Homeworld was our first franchise, it put us on the map as a studio. It's ours now--we own the IP now, so it's always going to have a very special place, and we're always looking for opportunities to do something with it. But it has to be an opportunity that makes sense, and that's going to compete in today's market.

Shack: So it wouldn't have the true 3D, shift-click movement controls, but...

Jonny Ebbert: I think that might be too complex for most people. I mean, maybe not. Maybe we could have a breakthrough in the control scheme where it's easier to play and more accessible. But at the same time, it might be like the equivalent of Fallout 3, where it feels like Homeworld, but it's kind of a different style of game. Where it's way more accessible to people, a little more exciting. We would probably want to take it in that direction. If we were working on something. [laughs]

Shack: Thanks Johnny.

  • Filed Under
  • PC