WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank, and occupation!
I'm Jonny Ebbert, and I'm the lead designer on Dawn of War II.
WP: You guys recently released the Dawn of War II multiplayer beta over Steam free for everyone. What was it like seeing the beta go loose like that? Obviously you've tested it internally, but what's happened since you've released it? What's cropped up? Has it been helpful?
JE: Very helpful. It's probably the most exciting time for a developer. You have a game that you've been working on for years, and you finally get it in the players' hands and see what they do with it. You always design a game to be played a certain way, but as soon as the players get a hold of it, it's no longer yours, it's theirs. They take hold of it and they it in directions you never expect. We're in a new age of game development. Launch used to be the end five years ago. You might do one patch, you get one crack at a patch, maybe two cracks, but now launch is just the beginning. Now you launch, and Valve and other companies have proven that perpetual support, perpetual content updates, free DLC, paid DLC, those are what players want and expect. So we're excited to see it, and now we're just getting started and trying to address everything we see, address everything positive and everything that we didn't think of. It's been exciting!
WP: How do you manage expectations for a beta? The term "beta" has been so overused by some companies that it's almost started to equate itself with "demo." As a producer, obviously you want to get that feedback and get it running on different systems to see what crops up, but as a developer, how do you balance the expectations of consumers who see a free downloadable game to play that crashes? How do you that communication aspect so gamers don't get a negative impression from a beta if something does go wrong?
JE: I think you pretty much nailed it on the head. We wanted to release the beta much earlier, but internally, we just kept telling ourselves, "Look guys, there's no such thing as a beta anymore. You release a beta, and it's judged like a final product. It has to have that much polish; it has to have that much detail in it." So basically, we held off until we felt like we had a gold candidate, and then we released the beta. We passed our first certification and now we have time to actually address the things that we are seeing in the beta, like balance issues, which we knew we'd see, but also unexpected things like weird, obscure hardware bugs that just always pass through a QA team, no matter how rigorous. You test it on a farm with 50 QA testers or 100,000 players, 100,000 players are going to reveal things you can't reveal in a test lab. It's exciting because we get to address it before launch.
WP: You mentioned that when players get a hold of the game, they do things that aren't expected. Do you have examples of that? Have you been playing online with the beta, playing against the players? What unexpected things have you seen crop up?
JE: Yeah, I have been playing online. It's been a blast, and it's been frustrating because it's really hard to switch between PartnerNet and normal Games for Windows Live —
WP: For our readers, PartnerNet is a testing version of Games for Windows/Xbox Live.
JE: When we're developing the game, it's how we test the game and keep it secure, but I have to jump back and forth because I'm still working on the game, and I want to spend way more time playing the beta.
We watch replays every day, and I've watched a couple of games recently where some dude has found this really cool strategy with Rippers that we're going to have to make a couple of adjustments for. It's really funny that he just figured something out, and up till this point, Rippers were a moderately useful unit. Suddenly, these things kick ass. This guy's using them in a very interesting and creative way. There are always the units that we think are going to be crazy overpowerful. We thought that with Venerable Dreadnought, we'd have to nerf it some more. Nobody makes it. Other units that we thought sucked, we actually see them being used quite a bit. Well, not "sucked," but as a team, we just thought that no one would find these units exciting, and it gets played a lot, and we go, "Oh, OK."
So like I said, the most exciting thing as a developer is to see what players do with your game once they finally get a hold of it.
WP: Do you know offhand which of the four races has been the most played? Is everyone jumping into the Tyranids? Are they going for the Space Marines, the Eldars, or the Orks? Who's getting the most play time in the beta?
JE: The Space Marines, and we kind of expected that. I think the Space Marines are the race that everyone identifies with the most. They're human, and they're heroic humans. After that, it's kind of a tossup between Eldar and Orks. The Eldar are slightly more popular. Tyranids, which I kind of expected, are the least-played race. I know they're the most wanted race, but people want them there because they add so much richness and vibe to the universe, but I think people don't relate to them as well as they do the other races because they don't talk, they're not human, they're so alien. You want to play against them. I think most people want to play against them. Even Tyranids, I think they're chosen in 18 to 20 percent of the games played, so they get represented almost as much but not quite as much as the others.
WP: Switching gears a little bit, the previous Dawn of War games have been released on Steam, but this is the first time you've done a beta release on Steam. I know a lot of prior betas that we've seen have always been directly released by the developer. Why go through a standard distribution channel with the beta, rather than asking players to register and download it on your site? What advantages does using Steam give you as a developer?
JE: We're not just using Steam as a store; we're actually using it as a service. What we love about Steam is that it just offers so much to the player and doesn't make them jump through hoops. With Steam, you don't have to have the disc in the drive, which is always a pain in the ass for a lot of people. You don't want to dig it up, or you don't want it to get scratched. If you lose your disc, you can redownload it at any time. You can install it on as many machines as you want. You can play online or offline, whatever you choose. The second you are logged in, you're automatically updated to the latest version. If there's a big patch, you can download it in the background while you're doing other stuff. Honestly, it was just a no-brainer to use because it just provides an amazing customer experience.
It also allows us to patch the game very easily, which is always something that we've wanted to do. Our patch pipeline in the original Dawn of War made it very difficult for us to patch the game as much as we wanted to, and that really frustrated us as a developer, and I think it frustrated our fans because we weren't able to address urgent balance issues as quickly as we wanted to. With Steam, it's very easy for us to get patches out quickly, data patches especially, so I think what Steam is going to allow us to do is provide the online experience that we've always wanted to provide to our customers.
WP: OK, back to the game. I've been playing around with co-op multiplayer today. What kind of balancing issues and development issues go into merging co-op into a single-player campaign? Obviously with two players, instead of controlling four squads, each player controls two squads, but aside from that, from the development side, was it just a matter of saying that there's a second player here, or did you have to do some behind-the-scenes work to really make it happen when two players are in the mix, versus just one?
JE: When we were first doing co-op, we actually were going for this really deluxe model of like, "I can bring my guys from my campaign and you can bring yours, and it'll be a grand army, and if you were further along, I'd plug in, and if we made some progress together, I could pull it back to my campaign," and we thought that's what players were going to want. When we started mapping out all the UI screens that were going to be necessary and all the sorting, and how the guys were going to have to pull your campaigns apart and figure out who had what and who got what loot, and who was where in what campaign, and do you want to keep that progress because it'll overwrite your old progress? It started feeling like a tax return or something. (laughs) We realized that it's way too complicated, and we would never do this. Some of the other guys in the room said, "I just want to co-op with my buddy! Let me co-op with my buddy in two clicks!"
So we just really simplified it. The host has his campaign, and he can invite a buddy to come ride shotgun at any given point. They'll jump in, they can take over two squads, and you have two squads, and you guys can trade back and forth between missions. If your buddy leaves, you're not tied in any way; it doesn't affect your campaign progress, it doesn't affect his. When we simplified that model, again, we also had this grand scaling model of how we'd scale the difficulty, but when it turned out to just be the same number of squads, just two guys controlling them, co-op makes it slightly easier, but we didn't feel the need to amp up the difficulty because that's part off the fun. You didn't bring your buddy in to make the game harder, you know? So we overcompensated in that regard, so the fact that it's easier isn't bad because the reason it's easier isn't because you have more force but because you're more effective. You have less to concentrate on, you can use your squads with more precision and maximize your abilities more. Obviously, it's maybe like 10 percent easier with a co-op buddy, but we felt that was a good thing so we decided to leave well enough alone.
WP: There's already been talk about a day-zero patch coming forth, meaning that the day gamers buy the game, there's going to be an update. Looking at the beta, the AI difficulty is definitely easier than playing against human players. Is that something that's going to be address in the day-zero patch, or are there other items that have popped up in the beta that you guys needed to patch? What can you tell us about the day-zero patch?
JE: Well, we had some hardware fixes that we wanted to get in. We had some really obscure hardware crash bugs that we were finally able to run down. We submitted our final candidate and we were able to bring those over and go through another certification process in time for ship. On top of that, we added some cool new UI screens. There's a UI screen that we desperately wanted at the end of each mission that summarizes your progress — these guys leveled up, their stats went up this much, you got this loot. We got that in. We improved our kick UI based on the beta, we've also improved our leaderboards based on feedback that we got in the beta.
We also fixed a logical flaw in the campaign that could kind of get the player stuck in this cul-de-sac of optional missions. It was really hard to figure out how to advance the plot. (laughs) We kind of dodged a bullet there because a couple of the earlier reviewers got stuck at that. "What do you mean the campaign took you 38 hours?!" Then we started looking at their profile data and we had to recheck our math on a couple of things. We fixed that, so the campaign will be a much better experience.
There are also a bunch of other things that I'm not thinking of at the moment, just a bunch of little things that are going to make the game better than it would have been, which is what makes it exciting.
The AI, I don't think we're ever going to be happy with the AI, but we want to keep working on the AI. It's funny, you said that it was too easy, but Jason came in and said, "There were three of us! We just played the expert AI and got destroyed in five minutes, and we were so ashamed because we didn't have a chance." I felt terrible, but I told him that you thought it was way too easy, and he said, "Oh." He was crestfallen. (laughs) But anyway, now that we have more data on how players actually play the game and some of the interesting and exciting strats that are emerging online, we can use that to improve our AI. It's not going to make it in for the zero-day patch, but we are going to patch that in later. Like I said, think of launch as the beginning, and this is a platform that we're going to keep building on.
WP: So overall, Relic's been very happy with the beta and the results you got from it? Is it safe to say that it's something you'd look at doing for future games?
JE: I would say that it's something we HAVE to do for future games. It's one of those things. Once you do a beta, you wonder how you ever shipped a game without a beta. What were we smoking? It's possible, but your game is always going to be better with a beta, so yeah, I'd imagine it would be part of all of our games in the future.
WP: Playing online, it's always amazing how good other players can get at the game and how quickly they can do so. When you hopped online, were you able to rule the roost when you played the beta, or did you find that some of the new players were quickly able to hold their own against the dev team?
JE: I can tell a couple of stories. The first day I hopped on the beta, day one, I win pretty much every match I play, but toward the end of the day, I realize that I was having pretty tough matches, and I thought I was playing someone in the company, but I wasn't. The odds were just too low, and then I started losing a few matches at the end of the day. The thing is I'm no slouch. I'm pretty rusty, I'm pretty washed-up, but I used to be a pretty top-notch RTS player back in the day of the original Age of Empires and the first StarCraft.
Just to show you how quick these guys learn this, when I was showing the German community the game back in December, we brought a build over and we brought over a bunch of the German Dawn of War players to play it. They had a little four-round tournament. They played a couple of games on their own just to mess around, and they played a four-tiered tournament, you know, four rungs up the ladder, and the final elimination tournament. The winner, they won some prizes we had there, but they also won the opportunity to play myself, Byron, who's the main designer on multiplayer, and one of our PR guys, Simon Watson, who is respectable at it, and they crushed us pretty bad just on four or five games. Some players just have a gift at these kinds of games. It's pretty funny and pretty cool to watch the kind of maneuvers they can pull right away.
WP: Is there anything about the game that we haven't talked about that you wanted to add?
JE: Just a shout-out to the fans. It's so exciting to see them, and we love the feedback that they've been giving. I love seeing what they do with the game. It's really what makes it worthwhile for me as a developer, so thanks to them.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, developed by Relic Entertainment, is scheduled to bring the 41st Millennium's savage warfare to life like never before on Feb. 23, 2009.
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