Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Massively-Multi Player Online Tactical Wargames?

When is the tactical gaming world going to get a truly inspirational massively multi-player online (MMO) gaming experience?

Didn't someone try that?

World War II Online (WWIIOL) seemed more like a crass attempt to cash in on the RPG craze by allowing grog-geeks to live out their fantasies in first person combat rather than attemping to model the Second World War in anything like realistic terms. Other games have followed on a smaller scale, such as Operation Flashpoint and Red Orchestra - and the concept works when you can mold squads of men willing to put in the effort and the discipline and the training to do what real soldiers do - dedicate themselves to learning standards of conduct and subordinate themselves to the good of the team. But to expect 30,000 "team players" to do the same is ludicrous.

A Better Idea

Battlefront.com and Hunting Tank Software have agreed to join forces and provide something unique - well, not totally unique, as Muzzle Velocity did this about 8 years ago or so: provide an operational level layer to a tactical 3D game, in this case, their venerable old title Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin. They've been at it for at least 8 years, according to their website. A look at the screenshots isn't promising; the interface is reminiscent of Soldiers at War, the old SSI clunker which uses a 3/4 view in 3D instead of a standard map and NATO symbols with which to command regiments, battalions and companies around hundreds of square kilometres of real world terrain, generating battles resolved in Combat Mission. Not a horrible idea, but there will be no front lines, just blocks of kilometre-square tiles held by opposing forces, no view of the actual terrain from the operational map, and apparently a host of other problems that keep delaying this program further and further.

Isn't it time for a truly unique MMO? Why not find a developer out there who will marry up their tactical game to a true operational level online environment that will do this:

  • map an entire theatre with an interface to an existing global data package - some data has changed since the war, but so what - tweak the major changes like Berlin, Stalingrad or the Normandy coastline and accept the others as acceptable
  • allow players to sign on as battalion commanders of anonymous line infantry battalions - no elite panzers, paratroopers, paramarines or SS; 95% of the war was fought by units no more distinguished than the plain old "leg" infantry
  • give them real world missions - no "quests", no start-overs, and if you die, you die. And recognize that players have real lives. Have the front progress at a rate of one day every week; you get 7 days to play out the missions of your infantry companies along the front for those 24 hours - perhaps you'll get a battalion attack; perhaps you'll have a defend in place, maybe one company will send out a fighting patrol. Every attack you make effects the battle line and the games of those around you - all the other players signed in will be fighting on your flanks against the same AI generated enemy. Have different worlds for different nationalities - one for Axis, one for Allied, with enough interest, branch out into theatres - Italy, Russia, Western Front, or even different battles, and run them simultaneously - Normandy, Breakout, Brittany, Market-Garden, Scheldt, Bulge, Rhineland, etc. And if there are guys who can do a battle a day, have a "fast" world that moves a battle a day and a "slow" world. Turn them over, start them again, keep them going. There's money to be made. Offer "private" worlds, with human vs. human play. And if the humans don't make a deadline - auto resolve the battle and let them come back for the next one.
  • Instead of phony rank and medal systems that signify nothing, keep a personnel file with accomplishment listings; Successful Passage of Lines, Successful Water Crossing, Successful Fighting Patrol, Successful Combined Arms Assault. Let the player ticket punch like a career officer rather than collect phony medals. Count kill ratios and track which weapons systems kill which units - arguably, the best commander will actually let his artillery kill the enemy and will lose the least men while gaining the most objectives.
  • Actually, why not permit "quests"? Some of the fun involved in "meta-campaigns" that were crafted for Combat Mission - manual campaign systems run as, essentially, MMOs - involved such special missions as fighting for downed aircraft containing staff officers bearing operations orders, or such things. These types of missions actually happened in real life and could spice up an MMO quite nicely. They were fun in a meta-campaign setting.

If nothing else, the success of manually-run "meta-campaigns" have proven the concept of an MMO works. And they were run for free.

It was simple, as far as Combat Mission went. A group of players went out and researched a real life battle, and found real world geographical data - the above map came from the fighting around Lauban in early 1945, courtesy Stefan Korshak. The group sussed out the orders of battle involved in game terms and banged out the maps, a portion of which, in CM terms, are shown below:

Like all meta-campaigns, the rules had to be agreed on and administered by mutual agreement and the campaign was labour intensive. But the concept was valid and proved it could be done. A couple dozen players rotated in and out of the game as real life intervened - and no money changed hands, nothing was automated.

My final word
With a profit incentive, and given the popularity of such games as World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online and others in the fantasy genre, it would be interesting to see if a true operational level game married up with a tactical level game couldn't prove as lucrative for a developer enterprising enough to try and make it a reality. Certainly, for those stalwart few who have meta-campaigned their way through a few CM games, the interest has been there.