Following up on my interview with Colossal Order about their excellent game Cities: Skylines, which you can read HERE, comes a session with Jos Hoebe of Blackmill Games, one half of the development team responsible for Verdun, a rather brilliant World War 1 multiplayer FPS. I was rather impressed with the game, you can read my review HERE, and so I’ve been looking forward to getting to chat a little about the game.
Jos was kind enough to patiently read through my questions and answer them one by one, so I hope you enjoy this little Q&A session. It’s not a lengthy interview, but does offer some fascinating insights into the game.
Verdun is a unique game in that it’s a multiplayer FPS set in WW1. How did Verdun come about?
One of the developers visited the Verdun region when he was little leaving a great impression, also friends (who happen to do some archaeology there) own a house near Verdun which we all sometimes visit.
Especially at Verdun the remnants of the battles (rifles, grenades and even bones!) are still sticking out of the ground in the many forests that surround the town so it is not hard being impressed by interacting with a history which may be 100 years ago but still very much part of the environment there.
Needless to say we did a lot of additional research on it. When the members of the team met in (tech)university, the idea was formed soon after to create a game with Verdun as its central theme. Being big fps players ourselves we choose this platform because it gives us the biggest opportunity to fully immerse the players into the action.
Verdun was chosen as a symbolic name for the game as the battle is regarded as the epitome of futility and struggle of the war especially in Germany and France and the European memory.
One of the big selling points is authenticity. How far did you go to ensure it was authentic?
The research was done on several levels. The first one is a very global one where we visited the battlefields and France/Belgium ourselves to get a sense of the scale. We did a lot of hiking in the areas and this gives you a pretty good impression of the environmental details and landscape elements, foliage, layout etc. at least of the present day state. We took these impression and the battlefield visits and based level designs on them.
Next to that we have several literature resources (Jos owns a large chunk the Osprey series on uniforms) which were extensively used to create the uniforms and find gameplay elements of the different squad types also the “world war I infantry in colour” served as a great inspiration of the impressive amount of character art and detail. For the gameplay elements our swiss-french hobbyist ‘historian’ was very keen to explore JMO’s (french officer war journals) for mentions of the use and deployment of weapons or units at certain sectors etc.
Then finally we also used tons of reenactor websites online which go into extensive details on the specific wartime uniforms. In terms of weaponry the Americans tend to collect quite a lot of them and also the rare ones we use, auction them and put the detailed pictures online, this is how were accurately able to recreate the weapons to the last details. Their use and performance is generally seen on Youtube of people using these weapons on target ranges or field stripping the weapons, which again was of great use to us. Also some fans have things such as authentic gasmasks and weapons to share with us.
Was it difficult to balance the authenticity with the inherent needs of a videogame?
The greatest historical challenge, and something we are continuously improving is to how to make players accurately reenact the war in a multiplayer environment. Players in multiplayer generally tend to find ways to circumvent traditional gameplay mechanics and this something we found out in the earlier stages. It led to people being able to venture anywhere and made sure there were not enough players concentrated to form an effective attack. The way that the levels have been realistically designed (very open, not a burned tank for cover every 10 meters) means that it is extremely challenging to reach other trench line.
Over the years we’ve had a lot of games set during World War 2, Vietnam and many other conflicts, but for the most part developers seem to have avoided The Great War. Why do you think that is?
There are several reasons; First there is the narrative, which is nuanced with no real nazi-like villains which makes it harder to create a compelling story which does not have fantasy elements in it (such as time travel or zombies).
Secondly there is the collective knowledge which dictates that all battles were fought in the same horrible fashion as those in 1916 , whereas the actual conflict, types of battles was as diverse as it was during the second world war. For instance the 1918 scenario being as mobile and varied as it was in 1939.
With Verdun we tried to bring this variation back in the level design which are trench-based but have mobile elements as well.
Lastly there is a distinct lack of variation in weaponry, with most of them being bolt-action rifles which in the age of “1001-unlocks” can be considered somewhat limiting. We actually took this element in Verdun and turned them into an asset, such as the hard-core “Rifle Deathmatch” mode which is a no-nonsense game mode with just these weapons which is kind of a change from the “kill streak”-craze we have seen in recent years.
Added must be that we tried to give an accurate portrayal of the battles and this is embedded deep into the gameplay on all levels. Such as the attack and counterattack mechanism. Modern day shooters gameplay (as we found out during the alpha) are not very well suited to accurately represent the way that battles took place.
Speaking of other developers we are currently living through a period where developers and publisher are pushing out insanely priced season passes, expensive DLC, and map packs that split the multiplayer community, you guys are planning on launching at least four FREE thematic expansions for Verdun. Why did you decide to do that? And do you think more companies should be going down that route?
With creating Verdun we set out to recreate the events of the first world war and do right by that. We realized there was some responsibility that game with this, as we were the first to do so. With these thematic expansion packs we want to paint the complete picture of the events that happened (on the western front) and we considered that part of the experience in Verdun. We took into account the fact that we did not want to split the community and to give back something to the community that supported us from the very first alpha stages. The sheer excitement when for instance we added the Canadians and other specific content and the response of the community to this is one of the driving factors behind the whole development. It is a great way of appealing to another audience as well as keeping the community excited about the game.
We are more a supporter of the ‘traditional’ way, where you keep improving the base game and keep the community involved because that’s common sense and only asking a price if you were to add content which would warrant an ‘expansion pack’. This is something we are also honest about on the roadmap as for instance an entire new theater which would require significant resources and time to produce as well as overhaul and augment the gameplay could be an expansion pack.
On the topic of expansions, what have you guys got coming?
For now we shared a roadmap and as you can expect we don’t want to give out too many details yet. We can say a new map is on its way as well as some more troops..
And what are your future plans? These days games are rarely truly ever finished, so do you see yourselves working on Verdun for a long time yet? When do you call it quits and move on to a new project?
So far we are still focused on Verdun as we are also looking for some opportunities to the console. Apart from that we will just have to see how things go with the popularity of the game. We are going to finish the roadmap and address the biggest issues and that will definitely take a year. After that we will step back and have another look if working on Verdun is still worth it for ourselves and the community.
Perhaps one of the most common criticisms I’ve seen on the forums and in reviews, my own included, is that the game can be jarring for newcomers, and that even things like squads and getting new weapons is a tad confusing. Any plans to address this? I know you were planning an A.I. bot mode, for example.
Verdun is very unforgiving and is indeed really hard for newcomers especially if they get in a match with seasoned veterans. A way to address this is by indeed adding the AI bot mode in which the players can get a feel for the shooting, maps and setting. However this will not fully solve the problem and if problems persist we might want to consider adding a dedicated tutorial. Still no matter what you do, if you run around mindless in Verdun you will get shot in no time, it is just the nature of the game.
Have you got any tips for new players, or even for those seriously considering getting the game but are apprehensive of the realism etc?
One of the tips I always give is to just take cover more and try staying back in the beginning to get a feel for it. Then when you get confident make sure you join in the attacks. As for new players who might be apprehensive of realism I would like to say they do not have to worry about that much. Sure the game is aiming towards realism but it is a fine balance between realism and gameplay enjoyability.
Having played numerous matches now, and fully intending on playing many more, I’ve discovered the community to be a friendly bunch, perhaps because this style of game attracts a more considerate stye of player, especially with the emphasis on teamwork. How instrumental has your community been during Verdun’s Early Access phase, and now into the full launch?
Verdun is quite a unique game when it comes to community whereas the focus lies very much on the individual relations people form within the squads they create. In similar games people generally focus on clan communities who shape and in some ways even dictate the rules. The presence of the community from our perspective has been subtle one but very instrumental in shaping the game. There are many people who went through our entire development cycle and supported us even at moments where the game was not stable. I read many reports of groups of people who feel ‘invested’ into the game because they were there, they oversaw the entire construction and their input and feedback has found its way into the final product. At this very moment we see this community maturing and even starting their own tournaments.
So, in closing Verdun is a brilliant game, and this point I’ll shamelessly plug my own review again which you can read HERE. Have you got any final words you’d like to share?
You can check out Verdun on Steam here: http://store.steampowered.com/app/242860/ and it is available for 22,99$.