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.


  1. This was originally posted at gamesquad.com. The comments there read:

    Egbert - 01 Oct 08 06:35
    I am actually surprised it hasn't been done, to some extent, already. I think the difference between a WWII MMO and WOW is the historical record exists for WWII and not for WOW. WOW can modify it's world to fit the game and not vice versa.

    Michael Dorosh - 01 Oct 08 07:18
    Lord of the Rings Online occupies sort of a middle ground, though, in being based first on an encyclopedia-sized reference (perhaps sparse on detail in places) as well as a popular 12 (?) hour movie series. With that much canonical reference material, Middle Earth arguably calls for a high standard of fidelity, though obviously not anywhere near what the entire Second World War would require.

    However, just as most of Middle Earth has to be fictionalized since Tolkien never really discusses how farmers operated in the northern Bree fields, or how local sheriffs plied their trades outside of Hobbiton-Bywater, I don't think there would be any great backlash if swaths of Europe were fictionalized for a World War II setting. And it wouldn't be far off, either, if one simply used modern satellite imagery to at least get the contours correct and general placement of the towns, villages and cities. Major rivers, hills, forests and coast lines have all remained pretty much the same, with some dramatic exceptions along the Dutch coast or in Berlin, where all the rubble was piled up to become hills. On the whole, however, the Ardennes or Normandy are largely unchanged topographically speaking (though the bocage is today largely gone from what I understand).

    If you're referring to historical events, well, the whole point of the game would be to change them, naturally...

    Rindis - 01 Oct 08 11:36
    “provide an operational level layer to a tactical 3D game”

    This is also what the Total War series does, and what Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds did. They're more on the RTS side of things for the combat (JWWotW especially).

    There's also been a few things that come close to what you're talking about. The official on-line scene for Total Annihilation had a big meta-map with a bunch of worlds linked together by jump gates. Certain worlds were the 'front line', and you'd sign up as either Core or Arm, and play a game on a world(/map). At the end of the day the relative number of wins for each world would be tallied, that side would get the world, and the front line would move. As I recall, you could also practice fighting against other players (as opposed to the AI) on worlds behind the lines.

    Michael Dorosh - 21 Oct 08 07:29
    I forgot to ask, Rindis, those other projects - were they successful? Commercially? Critically? Did you like them?

  2. Gamesquad comments continued:

    Rindis - 21 Oct 08 10:13
    Total War is a commercial and critical success. I have yet to get around to trying the series, even though I've been especially wanting to get Rome.

    JWWotW was pretty much ignored. I eventually got it despite not being able to find any reviews, because I thought the theme was fun. It has the dubious distinction of teaching me just what my roommate (a character animator) does for a living, by the extreme need for someone like her doing the campaign cinematic. The game itself was fairly good (I still bring it out once every couple of years), but features really bad loading times today (never mind a decade ago). Also, while both sides had a playable campaign, there was no multiplayer option. Commercial success: problematic. My grade: C+. Historical note: First RTS with a strategic province system I know of.

    TA is the biggest love-hate relationship I've had with a game. It is the last RTS that got me involved at all, and I still play against the (poor) AI on occasion today (last time was probably a month ago). But, we're looking at the Boneyards service. I don't know what the critics thought, and they weren't charging for the service. The game itself was still very popular at the time, and plenty of players flocked to the service (I only did a couple of times since we were still on dial-up). But the service eventually fell under the twin burden of Cavedog not generating enough new revenue (their second game took years, and wasn't nearly as well received), and Core always losing in the meta-campaign (presumably victim to the flash-rush syndrome that was still developing in the RTS crowd).

    Dr Zaius - 21 Oct 08 15:35
    The problem is that MMOGs are some of the most difficult and expensive games to produce and service. Obviously, running an MMO requires a long term commitment of time and resources that other types of games don't. And since people are being charged a monthly fee to play, the servers have to be fast, reliable, and secure or the community will very quickly be at odds with the devs.

    Hardcore MMOs of any type are rare, but one based on tactical war gaming would probably be a money pit.

    Michael Dorosh - 21 Oct 08 18:00
    True enough. If you could find a supply/demand curve with a number of players on one scale and a low-demand game on the other, and find the maximum number of players willing to battle it out in a low-demand game like the first generation Combat Mission series. Come to think of it, if things get any worse for battlefront, maybe they can dispense with their Combat Mission: Campaigns idea and just try the MMO as a money making venture using CM:BB instead. I'd go online a couple of times a week or one day a month to help move the entire Eastern Front...

    Dr Zaius - 21 Oct 08 19:29
    I understand where you are coming from, but I think you may be vastly underestimating the level of investment required to keep even a semi-popular MMO going. I just don't see how a tiny company like Battlefront could afford a 24-hour staff of IP techs to run a MMOG. The server expenses, software licenses and employee costs would vastly overshadow anything they have ever attempted before -- and that's assuming they even have access to that kind of cash in the first place.

    But all of this is probably a moot point. Hardcore war games have never been incredibly popular, as so it's a challenge in today's market to even craft a single player war game that sells more than 10,000 units. And it goes without saying that 10,000 subscribers would be a woefully inadequate base with which to launch a MMOG. The fact is, Battlefront would probably lose their entire investment in such a venture.

    Could something like Battlefield 2 or Operation Flashpoint be made into an MMOG? Yes, I think there are opportunities there. But judging by the games they have produced in the past and with all due respect to Battlefront, I'm not sure they're the company to pull that off.

  3. gamesquad comments continued:

    Michael Dorosh - 21 Oct 08 20:28
    Agreed - poor example. Maybe Matrix would have the resources to give it a try with Panzer Command, but I take your point. It would be an enormous gamble with a niche market. Something like Star Trek or Lord of the Rings is far less risky because they have established universes and fan bases - not to mention games that have done well and sold thousands of copies in the past in different genres - both straight tactical as well as role playing, both in board format and now PC format - and going back decades now. They're lobbing softballs, really.

    Michael Dorosh - 22 Oct 08 23:39

    Well, speak of the devil...

    Hello All,

    My name is Greg Breault and I am making a game called "Bunker" (temp name). Its really just for fun but if anything works out from it thats great. Its primarily an MMO (massively multiplayer online) based game, Axis vs Allies. Also, please excuse me if get any terminology, facts, etc etc wrong, thats why I need you.

    Currently the game is at its basic stages, just me working on it, doing concepts, base models of characters and environments. You can see a shot of the base US soldier model here. He was a test case called "Sarge" that I made.


    US One Man Tent

    US Ammo crates and ammo box

    I really just need help on camp layouts etc, what goes where, etc. I will try to be historically accurate, but, it doesn't have to be dead-on. If anyone is interested in consulting on either the Axis or Allied side please give me a hollar. Or I could just post to these forums my questions if no one minds.

    Please delete/move this thread if i've posted it in the wrong area, or it just doesn't belong.

    Thank you,
    Greg Breault
    Original post from 2007, but latest post from just today asking questions about LATWs and indicating a rough Alpha in the works...?

    Dr Zaius - 23 Oct 08 15:28
    All of those are dead links.

    Michael Dorosh - 23 Oct 08 16:25
    I noticed - the discussion link at Axis History forum works though so you can see the whole thread. Some of the newer images in the thread work.

    Gotta read the whole thing.

    Doesn't seem like a lot to report though, and honestly, not really what we've been discussing here - at least, it doesn't seem like a hybrid of tac/op layers. But a tactical MMO set in the Second World War that isn't WWIIOL or whatever it is called now is of interest, even if only pre-Alpha.

    Of course, if I had a dime for every, say, Operation Flashpoint mod that was announced with great fanfare and then never came to fruition...