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Architecting Armageddon: An Interview With The Man Behind War, The Game

One of the many reasons that Blizzard’s Starcraft 2 was so well-received in 2010 was that it came after a prolonged lull in the RTS genre. Many fans saw it as the herald of a new era in strategy games and while it did open the doors for a handful of other RTS developers to emerge – but it was hardly the transcendent moment and revolution that some might’ve been hoping for.

GabberGames low-profile but high-quality release War, The Game hasn’t lit the world on fire but it has received acclaim from critics and attracted a following of its own.

We caught up with the developer behind the game to talk about the game, politics and the future of the RTS genre.

Fergus: So if you don’t mind, could you start by introducing yourself and describing your role in the development of War, The Game?

Obbe: My name is Obbe Vermeij. I grew up in the Netherlands. In 1995 I moved to Scotland to write video games for then DMA-design (Lemmings). That company became Rockstar North and I worked as Technical Director on Grand Theft Auto 3, Vice City, San Andreas and GTA IV. After IV I moved with my Canadian wife and our kids to Ottawa, Canada.Obbe

Here I began on the game I always wanted to write ‘War, the Game‘. I am passionate about game design and coding so it was natural for me to do everything myself. The huge advantage working by yourself is that there is no inertia when experimenting. I can try out some ideas and if it doesn’t work out just get rid of it. This is much harder in a big team as several people may already have done a bunch of work to implement these ideas.

Fergus: You mention Dune 2, Warcraft and Populous as old-school inspirations for War, The Game. What drew you to those games over more contemporary strategy titles? Do you feel that something has been lost with modern strategy games?

Obbe: I feel modern strategy games are essentially still Dune 2. It’s just that a lot of extra stuff has been bolted on top. Cut scenes, story, many slightly different unit types, silly numbers of units on the map, upgrade paths for units and buildings etc. In my opinion all of these elements get in the way of making interesting strategic decisions. The interesting decisions are still in there, it’s just that they get diluted by other stuff.

It also means you have to play a game for a long time before you get a feel for the strength of each of the unit types.

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Fergus: What inspired the games’ unique look and global perspective?

Obbe: It started out as a technical challenge. I enjoy writing pathfinding code (I realize that sounds geeky). For instance I did the path finding for the vehicles in the GTA games. I was wondering if it would be hard to do proper path finding on a sphere on the scale of the world. As it turns out it is very hard and took me about 5 months to get right. (I have never seen any other game that does it). From that point it grew into a main feature of the game.

The neon computer display look grew during development. I started out rendering the units to look more realistic but it did not look good. The neon look works with the idea of a commander sitting behind a console sending his armies across the globe. Then came the idea of the wire frame face talking to you. It all seemed to blend.

Fergus: War, The Game is also very minimalist in it’s design. From what I’ve played, it absolutely nails that ‘easy-to-learn-hard-to-master’ difficulty curve that other games strive towards. How did you go about designing the games combat in this way? Did you build start small and build up or did you start with modern strategy game design and distill it down to its essentials?

Obbe: Right from the start I wanted to try and get to the essentials of a strategy game. So I started small and added only the elements needed to make it interesting.

It works with the idea is that each unit represents a brigade / squadron or fleet. A supreme commander moves these larger groups around the various theaters without worrying about flanking or rock paper scissors. That is left up to lower level officers.

Fergus: Regarding the game’s modern grounding – it deals with real world countries and conflicts – were there any political ideas you wanted to explore here?

Obbe: I am not too interested in political realism but it is nice to have a background for the things that you do in a game. For many of the scenarios the player can choose what nation to play. What better than taking over the world with your own RL country?

Fergus: How’s the response to the game been? Are you happy to see people discover the game?

Obbe:  It is great seeing people discovering and enjoying the game. The Steam version of the game has been available for 10 days now.

The tutorial was clunky and way too verbose. That put a lot of people off. That is now fixed in the latest version. The campaign is carefully balanced with the right difficulty progression but a lot of people just want to jump straight into a sandbox type scenario. This took me by surprise but I now added 2 scenarios covering the globe that can be played right after the tutorial.

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Fergus: Is the game more or less feature complete? Or do you have any plans to expand on it with DLC or the like?

Obbe: Most of it is finished. Great single player scenario. 5 completely different network scenarios and now a couple of sandbox scenarios. I am planning to add a scenario editor. Any additions will be free as an automatic download. As long as the game does well I will continue to add more features.

Fergus: What’s next for GabberGames? Any other genres you want to explore?

Obbe: For the foreseeable future I am still focused on extending War, the Game. I have not really thought about what comes after War, the Game. When you are in the middle of a project it tends to take over your life. Other genres? Probably not. Strategy is my thing.

You can check out our review of War, The Game here.

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