WW2: Frontline Command

We had an interview with Jamie Barber from The Bitmap Brothers.

A. Personal info
1) Tell us a little about yourself

My name is Jamie Barber, I live in London and work for The Bitmap Brothers, I live with my cat, Grey. He has recently worked out that to get attention all he has to do is pull the controller out of whatever console i’m playing on at the time, he learnt that sitting on the keyboard works years ago 😀

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2) What is your background ?

I have worked for The Bitmap Brothers for 6 years, initially working on the computer systems and as an assistant to the designers. I had previously worked for GT Interactive, Warner, Renegade and Blacklegend in various roles including support, production and design. I was the Lead Designer for Z: Steel Soldiers and have been supervising the design of FC, I am the Creative Director at the Bitmaps.

B. The company
1) For our readers not knowing about The Bitmap Brothers: Who are The Bitmap Brothers, the people, the company, and the games… ?

The Bitmap Brothers are a team of 16 dedicated developers, most of whom have worked here for more than 5 years, and some have been here since the company was formed in 1987! Mike Montgomery is the sole remaining founder, and is Managing Director, with Ed Bartlett heading up the commercial direction of the company as Business Development Director, and Technical Director John Phillips overseeing the programming and technical aspects of the company and our games. We became famous for our early classic 16-Bit titles such as the Speedball, Chaos Engine and Xenon series of games, and then in 1996 we developed our first RTS title, the hugely successful ‘Z’. There were a number of areas we wanted to refine, so we developed a sequel to Z known as Z: Steel Soldiers, which recieved unilaterally high critical acclaim. Then in late 2001 we decided to try applying some of what we had learnt about RTS development to a real-world scenario, and so Frontline Command was born.

C. The Game
1) What will WWII:FC offer to distinguish it from other RTS-games, what makes it unique ?

The style sets it apart from the other titles in the genre. It’s certainly a little more touchy feely than you’d usually find, it was important for us to create an interface for a relatively complex title that was intuitive and didn’t swamp the player with stats. We try to avoid a too formulaic approach to our games, after all what works for one title probably won’t for another and if developers do this too often you end up with a plethora of titles that are all basically the same, as can be seen in the genre now.

So, rather than take our technology and throw it at a WWII title we sat around and worked out what we wanted for it and what it could offer to gamers. We felt it was important to make it flow and play in an accessible way to attract a wider audience but we also felt that it was very important to attract the hardcore strategy gamers as well.

We feel that we have accomplished this in various ways. The interface is simple, yet comprehensive, the game is a full on 3D battle fest that allows complex strategies to be employed, there are two gaming modes on offer, Recruit and Veteran that allow either an arcadey or a deeper strat experience to be enjoyed. Unit stats vary between the two modes and different features and play styles come into play in each. For example ammunition counts are used in Veteran and various support vehicles come into play as part of this, in recruit mode you can pop away to your hearts content. The AI will also take the current play mode into account, in that it’ll prioritize weapons differently to conserve ammo if required. The levels designers have used the 3D nature of the game to great effect, we don’t need to use tricks such as using lots of trees to block movement within the play area, each level is viewed as a full scenario that can be explored and allows you to deploy your forces as you see fit, creating a more natural environment where combat is more open.

The in game units are all modelled accurately and balanced accordingly. Armour thicknesses are correct for the tanks and if you use your infantry properly you can sneak through cover and take them out carefully, all done before yes, but done in with pace in 3D? No. Weaponry is modelled in a similar way; each weapon reflects the correct ammo count for a magazine or hull load and reload times are taken into account. AI wise, tanks will predominantly only take on infantry with secondary machine guns or attempt to run them over whereby the turret will be trying to engage any enemy armour in the vicinity. Infantry units are classed and grouped to ease strategies and combat. The infantry we have comprises of Sub Machine Guys, Rifle Guys (Who both have grenades), Flame Thrower Units, Heavy Machine Gunners, Mortar Crews, Snipers (Who can see into the FOW and pick off enemy units using his sniper scope), Recon guys (Can call in Air strikes & Off map artillery), Engineers (Bazookas / Panzershrek & TNT Charges) and Commanders (Have binoculars which can see far into the fog of war and reveal enemy positions to artillery units that can fire upon targets revealed by shared line of site). You can also tow artillery pieces around the battlefield with many of the vehicles in the game to maximize your firepower.

The game can be viewed from a top down “Battle map” screen that will show iconic representations of your forces and revealed enemy positions, this is really useful for planning major attacks and keeping tabs on current objectives.

We are using a fully animated fog of war system that doesn’t ever fully occlude the landscape. You can identify areas that you have yet to explore FOW), areas where you’ve been but can no longer see (Shroud) and fully revealed, where you currently have line of sight (LOS). We have created a hearing system whereby you can detect enemy units that are within range of your units but out of line of sight. This is displayed to the player as an enemy icon on screen at the enemy’s approximate position allowing you to plan an attack or bring trajectory weaponry to bear.

There is a non-linear campaign within the Veteran mode, whereby the players’ performance and choice of levels will influence the final mission in each sub campaign. There are 5 blocks of 5 levels each. An example of this is within the second block of levels, the final objective has the player taking out all of the region’s enemy command staff escaping from a Chateau, and this task is made easier if the player has managed to assassinate some of these commanders as a bonus objective in a previous level whilst they were on route to the meeting. The recruit mode has a linear campaign of 12 levels.

Each block of levels plays differently as the terrain influences the way that the units perform. We’ve tried as much as possible to vary the blocks in style to reflect the terrain for the period of conflict where you are currently fighting. The units under your command are affected by terrain, which will slow them down or speed them up where appropriate. We have introduced “Cover” that both your forces and the AI can take advantage of.

Certain terrain features allow “Cover” and your forces become harder to hit and take less damage when they are concealed. You can place your infantry units in many of the buildings within the game; this not only protects them but also allows them a height advantage and accuracy boost. In a similar vein your troops can walk, run or crawl, each of which will modify the troops accuracy. If you choose to make the infantry crawl then you can navigate maps by hiding behind hedges and low walls, sneaking around enemy positions. Units can be put into Ambush or Defend modes that will also modify their performance. When an ambush is set the units will not fire until the enemy are within the killing zone whereas if they are set to Defend mode they will engage at the outer limits of their weapon range.

We have implemented a morale system into FC. If your units are fairly close together they “Support” each other and gain morale, if they engage in battle against even or inferior forces then morale is again increased. When objectives are completed and enemy units destroyed then significant morale gains occur. When a tank has high morale its chances of causing a critical hit and disabling an opponent. The converse is also true, when your units are spread to thinly, are out on their own or being decimated in combat then their morale will seriously deplete. When morale is high the infantry can reach a hero state whereby special actions will be performed giving you massive bonuses. When morale is really low the infantry can freeze in combat and their combat effectiveness is reduced. We feel that it’s unfair to completely make the units route and leave the play area though so even when morale is at rock bottom the units can still be controlled. The in game unit speech is also linked to morale so when morale is high the units respond in a hyped state whereas when morale is low they are more despondent and surly.

2) Will gameplay focus more on Command & Conquer style where anyone can play or will it be more hardcore a la Cossacks ? Or will it be something completely different which we haven’t seen before ?

It’s actually quite hard to answer this question as I’m obviously very close to the game at the moment; I haven’t played any other strategy titles for quite a while. I think it’s fair to say that it’s as easy, in fact easier to play than the C&C; series but has the depth of a game like Cossacks. You can play it by clicking on units and subsequently targets or locations and get by, to really excel, especially in Veteran mode then you really need to learn the units and the techniques required to take on a heavily entrenched opponent, focusing upon micromanagement of your units.

3) Where there any particular problems that you encountered during development ?

Not really, obviously we’ve had some problems that you may have read about along the way but the core team has just got on with the game and to be honest it’s gone quite well!

Although not really a problem, the research for the title was very intensive and we had a lot to learn in a very short space of time. Finding accurate information on some things was a nightmare and obviously some stuff is still censored in Germany and other countries that has caused a few minor difficulties.

4) How much ‘historically correct content’ will there be in the game/storyline ?

Rather than adhering to EXACT situations we’ve followed our chosen timeline to the day and taken a “What if?” approach. So basically you’ll fight in the right region, with the correct forces, against the proper opposition but we didn’t want to be restricted by specific, real world locations. We took the approach of where would you be if you weren’t in one of the famous towns in Normandy but 10 miles up the road, like many, many people were. There are obviously reconstructed situations including the Beech landings, Market Garden, Bastogne, The Siegfried Line and Berchtesgarden.

The missions are very varied and offer many different objectives and if we’d stayed 100% accurate then we felt the game would have been too repetitive.

5) Which parts of WW2 will gamers be able to play ?

Initially the game commences as a prelude to D-Day and culminates with to the allied assault at Berchtesgarden. We sincerely hope that we’ll be able to add to the game as time goes on, tackling other theatres within the war and personally I would like to do the planned German invasion of Britain next (Operation Sealion) but obviously we need to make people like and buy the game to accomplish this! We also want to do the Africa Campaigns, the Eastern Front and the Pacific battles.

6) What are your expectations as far as the sales are concerned?

Well for all the critical acclaim, Z: Steel Soldiers didn’t sell as well as expected, which we partly attributed to the fact that many people found it hard to relate to the robots. The WWII theme for FC came about because it not only offers an amazing wealth of hardware and locations to consider, but also offers a scenario that allows players to become emotionally attached, and we have played on this fact with features like the morale system. We have kept the minimum machine specs as low as possible without losing the rich detail of the environments, and we have kept the interface as simple as possible to allow an uncluttered and direct approach to the gameplay, which is echoed by the squad-based nature of the infantry units. We have spent a lot of time playing other similar RTS titles out there and are confident that players who currently play the current best-selling titles will feel compelled to cross over to our game, and we also offer several new unique features to the genre.

7) What exactly do you mean with “Intuitive context-sensitive interface” ? Please elaborate.

The interface is based around a few core elements rather than sticking huge panels all over the place. The Minimap is dimmed and doesn’t highlight until you move the mouse over it (You can set it to be permanently on though) and then when you group select units their information is displayed iconically at the bottom of the screen allowing for secondary weapon selection and it
makes it really easy to quickly identify which unit you want. When you right click on a unit or a selection an order ring is displayed which will display the current options that are available for your selection. If the units you’ve clicked on contains other units (like a truck) then it will in turn show you whose inside it, you can then select to eject a specific squad or all of the units contained inside it by what is displayed on the order ring…
We just wanted to ensure that the game was easy to play and didn’t throw people out by being overly complicated and cumbersome. At some point we’d like to do a version of the game for online consoles and for this to be possible the interface would have to be handled on a controller and we’re not far away from achieving that now.

You can pretty much play the entire game through with just the mouse. Obviously we’ve included all the standard RTS key combos and commands for those that like to use them though.