WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank, and occupation!
I'm Tim Holman, and I'm the senior producer of the Company of Heroes franchise.
WP: Tell us a little bit about Tales of Valor. How did it spring forth? Is it going to be a standalone expansion? Is it going to require the original game? How does it fit into the Company of Heroes world?
TH: It is a standalone game. How it came about, really, is that we wanted to continue the Company of Heroes franchise, but we wanted to make a standalone sequel, like we did with Opposing Fronts. The original concept of it, we were looking at whether we'd do another long campaign, like we did with the original and with Opposing Fronts, and here, we came about the idea of essentially, let's do short stories because in World War II, there are so many pivotal battles and critical moments where the battle only took place over one or two days, but so much bravery and courage and drama was in that battle, which is something that we really wanted to catch, whereas the original followed the story of several characters throughout the entire war. That was our goal. We really wanted to create small, little slices of content, as well as bolster the existing multiplayer content with new maps, some new units, and some new modes, and really do more of a balance between single-player and multiplayer.
WP: Having worked on the franchise, obviously releasing a new game, new expansion in the same world, you want to keep upping it — like you said, new units, new features for multiplayer — but what about visually, how do you upgrade the look of the game without completely revamping it? How do you keep it in the Company of Heroes world but not go all the way and say, "You need this ubermachine to run it." How do you balance that out? Where is that fine line?
TH: Well, the good thing about Company of Heroes and Opposing Fronts is that instead of having a box of Lego blocks, I've got a warehouse of Lego blocks. We actually did an investigation on the number of art assets and how many are in the game and how many of them are used, and the number of assets that are created, final and on the disc and the number of times they appear in the game was pretty low. The engineer who did it would basically did it so that every time an asset was used, it would return a number, but if it was used zero times, it wouldn't return at all. So we only used maybe about 40 percent of some of the art assets that were in the game — a lot of the environment objects and buildings and stuff like that.
So our goal was really to continue the franchise, and Company of Heroes is already the most beautiful RTS out there. Upping the graphical quality of it is really just going to hurt our existing user base, so we definitely don't want the next version of Company of Heroes or the next sequel to Company of Heroes to really just be a $50 coupon for a new video card. We want, "Here's a bunch of content, go have fun. Don't worry about your system specs, don't worry about your machine." This is the same franchise you know and love, but the content and what we're delivering is taking a slightly different spin on the traditional RTS.
WP: Going back and looking at things from more of a series level, when you're producing Company of Heroes, you're obviously looking at competition from the likes of companies like Blizzard, who's working on Starcraft II, and the other internal competition, the other teams here at Relic working on Dawn of War II. Where do you see Company of Heroes as a franchise really having its differentiating point? Where do you put your efforts to say, this is the reason why you're going to play Company of Heroes versus playing RTS X, Y or Z?
TH: You know, from the original Company of Heroes, the goal was to make it be an actual strategy game, not really a game of economy and fast clicking, which many RTSes kind of fall into. With Company of Heroes, it's still about controlling the front lines, using the right types of units and right types of tactics against your opponent, and really creating the thinking man's real-time strategy. So in the difference between a game like the StarCraft series and Company of Heroes, StarCraft is much more reaction-based, whereas Company of Heroes — well, it also depends on how fast you click because if you're not clicking at all, yes, you're going lose — is about doing the right thing rather than just StarCraft/Zapp Brannigan methodology of, "Well, we'll just choke their cannons with the wreckage of our ships!" No, no, we want people to think, so Company of Heroes definitely stands out that way.
Really, where Relic has always succeeded is making fantastic single-player content. In terms of an RTS and how we weave in that single-player experience, I don't think anybody holds a candle to us. Where we need to improve is really on the multiplayer side. On the types of games that one can experience in multiplayer but also the competitive nature. In terms of where we're taking the franchise, it's really the further directions of Tales of Valor, where we see a focus on shorter but multiple versions of the single-player content as well as a lot of multiplayer content, and then with Company of Heroes Online being a strict, competitive multiplayer RTS game.
WP: Briefly, what can you tell us, if anything, about the Tales of Valor multiplayer, or is that still under wraps?
TH: It's still under wraps. I won't curse, but it's pretty frickin' cool. Like I said, we don't play much regular multiplayer anymore; we're playing a lot of the new game modes and a lot of Company of Heroes Online.
WP: You mentioned Company of Heroes Online, which has been announced for China. What has been announced? What can you tell us about that? How does it differ from Company of Heroes?
TH: Well, the difference from Company of Heroes is really in the persistency of the army that the player grows over time. The army gains new abilities and new items that they can use. It still is very much an RTS and still retains the core gameplay. If you've played Company of Heroes before and you pick this up, at level one, you're not going to notice much of a difference. It's going to be the same game that you know and love. As you're leveling up your commander and your army, you will start to unlock new units with new abilities, and it's really about growing and caring about those units over time until you do get that ultimate badass army that you've want at the end. Of course, everyone else has leveled up and has an ultimate badass army for you to play with.
WP: One of the other big things about Company of Heroes Online is that it's a free-to-play game in China. A lot of Western developers have been shying away from the free-to-play model. Why has Relic embraced it?
TH: Well, I love the free-to-play model. Before I came to Relic, I worked in Korea on several MMOs over there, so for me, it's so exciting to understand both the Eastern and Western mentalities, what each player is looking for and create a nice fusion between the two. I could go on for hours and hours on the subtleties of design, but it's really encouraging when we went to ChinaJoy (China Digital Entertainment Expo & Conference) in July of this year, and people who were working other booths were ditching their jobs to play more Company of Heroes Online. I had publishers and press from all over Southeast Asia, and the one consistent comment was, "I can't believe a Western company made this. Relic did this?" Yeah, Relic did it.
So they're pretty impressed with how we've been able to think about that and address their needs and really focus on the competitive multiplayer aspects that they look for. The reception of it in closed beta has been phenomenal. Just the initial closed beta 1 stages, so there's only — how many invites did we send out originally? — I think just over 1,000. I can't go into the exact numbers of how well, but I will say that it broke all the other records for a closed beta that our partner Shanda had previously. The amount of interest in the game, and really until the game goes commercial, it's hard for me to judge, but with the showing at ChinaJoy, I get calls maybe two, three times a week from other publishers and other partners in Asia and throughout the world that want the game.
WP: The only other major Western developer out there, actually the only European doing it, is EA with DICE's Battlefield Heroes, another free-to-play competitive game. Obviously there's interest in both. Why do you think that the American market hasn't seen a really big, free-to-play game? There are games out there, like MapleStory, that have players in the U.S., but nothing's really taken it by storm. Is it the marketing on the sales side? Do you think U.S. consumers just hear, "Oh, it's a free game, it's not worth my time"? What's your perception?
TH: Yeah, there's a bunch of different reasons. I mean, MapleStory is doing phenomenally well, and you don't see much about it in the magazines or online. Really what they did is they took their time and seeded the younger market, and really, the playground became their marketing venue, right? The eight- and nine-year-olds, they sold the game for them, so hats off to them, they did a fantastic job. I think other introductions into the free-to-play or downloadable content, what got people was, part was perception. There is the misconception that you can just buy your way to the top so it's really not a competitive game so why would I bother playing it? I don't want to play poker against somebody with six aces in their hand, right? Who does?
But really, it's probably some of the fault of developers and marketing. A free-to-play game is not about buying your way to the top, it's about convenience. Do you have a lot of time on your hands and you have the ability to grind and push your way through to this content? Sure, go ahead. If you don't and you want to buy — another misconception was you don't just buy the equipment for the convenience, you'll buy a token which will increase your experience rate four to five times, so you'll just be able to get it faster. You'll still have to earn it, but just like if you have a Ferrari and I have a Pinto and we both decide to drive 100 miles, we're both going to get there; you're just get there a little faster. Fair enough. You spent $100k on a Ferrari, you deserve to get there faster. That's also part of it.
Some of it, I know with some of the downloadable content, like Oblivion's horse armor, right? The public outcry for that —"Oh my god, it was on the disc, and you shipped it to us, and now we've got to buy it to unlock it. That's awful, awful, awful, awful." — as much outcry as there was, ask them how much money they made off of that. I agree with some of that outcry. If you ship it on the disc, why are you making me pay for it? I bought the disc. So I think the perception there, which I think they could have avoided, was if players just had to download it. "Oh, I don't have it. Now I have to go out and grab it. Here's my $5. Thank you very much."
WP: No one has a problem spending $2 per song for Rock Band.
TH: Exactly, exactly. But they would if they bought the $50 game with the 20 tracks, and hey, if you want to unlock the other 30 tracks that are on the disc … again, it's all about perception. Part of it also, I think a free-to-play game, the U.S. and North American markets are still very much hand-in-hand with the retailers, and a free-to-play game scares retailers. No retailer is going to put a free-to-play game on his shelf.
WP: Do you think that players still have that mental connection to a physical disc, even with the PlayStation Network, I can download PSP games, but if I do that, I don't have a disc. If I go to the store, I have a disc.
TH: You know, I think part of that is just old fogies like us. (laughs) When I got my box as a kid and — we were talking earlier about Ultima — I got my cool cloth map and I got all my little cool stuff, I was buying an experience. When you buy a box nowadays, your manual is two pages, and it just shows you the key mappings and the EULA. OK, great. So yeah, I still have a physical disc, but new services like Steam and like the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live, yeah you've bought it, and your computer can catch on fire tomorrow. Well, just log in again and download it again.
So I think the sense of ownership between older games and younger gamers is very different. With younger gamers, there are plenty of kids coming up today who are soon going to be the 24-year-olds with incomes and they've never walked into a CD store, right? Never. So they have no problem with digital distribution or microtransactions. I think it's something that's generally harder to grasp for older gamers because we're used to going to the store.
Part of the store in our day was also part of that socialization. Where can I go to meet other gamers? Well, when we were in college or you were in high school, it was at the game store. Now it's like, why would I want to go hang out with three guys at the game store when I can meet a million gamers online and have fun with them?
WP: Is there anything about the game, either Tales of Valor or Company of Heroes online, that we haven't talked about that you wanted to add?
TH: I can't add anything else. Tales of Valor, what we're seeing here is single-player. The multiplayer stuff, I really hope you guys can either come back or we send you a build because it's a lot of fun. One of the myths that I want to debunk about Company of Heroes Online, or not really myths, but we see occasionally, "There are rumors that there's an English version!" Of course there is because there are only two guys on my team who speak Chinese. (laughs) There is an English version of Company of Heroes Online. I will verify that rumor right now.
Internally developed by Relic Entertainment, the game is currently scheduled for release in spring 2009.
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