Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hunting Good Will: How Much of a Good Thing is a Good Thing?

The announcement on August 16 (2010), after many months of near-silence from Matrix Games, regarding the status of the Panzer Command series, has initiated more than a few conversations among the few die-hard tactical gamers still milling about in the squad-based, company-level, 3-D turn-based “strategy” tactical wargame niche (hopefully I haven’t left out any other major descriptors – oh, I suppose we can add in “World War II era” for good measure).

History of the Niche

A quick review of where this niche has been for the last few years: Combat Mission moved to a new game engine after their successful trilogy with the original game engine (the so-called “CMX1” games – Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord (2000), Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin (2002) and Combat Mission: Afrika Korps (2003)) and fans are awaiting the first World War II title in the new “CMX2” game engine, yet to be titled, but taking place in Normandy. Close Combat, which like Combat Mission, had started its development life as a planned electronic version of the Advanced Squad Leader boardgame but instead went independent, has shuffled along with a series of sequels, the most recent being remakes of their earlier titles. Steel Panthers apparently quietly retired with a release of World at War, never transitioning to simultaneous or 3D play.

So here we sit; there have been other games on the market or in development in the interim but few have seemed like serious entries; Lock ‘n Load still uses hexes and counters for pity’s sake. Yet even Panzer Command doesn’t seem to have drawn much attention. Perhaps the question to ask is whether or not the entire genre (I won’t repeat the cumbersome description here – see para 1) has shot its bolt.

Ostfront worth waiting for

For that dying breed that still remember the new-game smell of a Squad Leader box, though, Panzer Command: Ostfront is something worth waiting for on the face of it. I admit to being one of those who are feeling at least a slight twinge of anticipation. I was left cold by Operation Winter Storm, the first installment of Panzer Command (PzC hereafter), mostly because it meant unlearning one interface (Combat Mission’s) and techniques in favour of another. I didn’t much like the “reaction phase” and some other aspects, and especially didn’t like the lack of a map editor. Apparently I wasn’t alone. I bought the Kharkov title in 2008 – PzC’s second installment – out of a desire to support the developer and in hopes the series had improved. It had, but not in the ways that really grabbed me. Maps were larger and their public relations front was certainly professional – a GoogleEarth installation that put all the game maps into the current world, with historical front lines and scenario descriptions accessible via one click. It was pretty slick.

What Ostfront offers is pretty impressive. If you have never played either Winter Storm or Kharkov, you get all that content for free when you buy Ostfront. If you already own the first two, you can download Ostfront as a free patch. More on this later. The feature list for the Ostfront expansion brings the game into line with what user feedback, as expressed on websites such as Matrix’s own forum, or third party sites like, have been asking for. The “reaction phase” of the turn sequence, while still the default, can now be turned off as part of several optional turn length settings. It’s just one example of how the developer was willing to listen to the fanbase and make what promise to be constructive changes. But, of course, the entire patch appears to have been largely fan-driven as much of the content has apparently come from third party modders, scenario designers and even coders. How well will it work? The beta testers seem to think it has come together nicely, but Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA) pretty much assure that they always will.

But the announcement has been low-key rather than boasting; I won’t speculate on the meaning of that. I know that I prefer it and always like to see products speak for themselves. I’ve been rooting for this team for a long time mostly because I liked the direction that Combat Mission (CM) had taken and was disappointed to see some of the later design decisions with the new game engine. I think PzC could do very well to pick up where CM had left off, particularly if the new map maker/scenario design function helps produce some entertaining match-ups. Not sure I like the pre-set map sizes, but I won’t be one to kvetch about “only” having 4 square kilometers to set up on.

Commitment to Good Will

As stated earlier, the new Ostfront product will combine three different PzC games into one, for one price, and you only need to purchase one to get all three. I am sure there will be skeptics or pessimists out there who view this in a negative light, but I’m inclined to accept it favourably as a desire to establish the game on a firm new footing. Tactical wargamers have had to deal with a lot of different models of “regeneration” over the years as developers stumbled around trying to find the best way to model squad-based, company level action during World War II. SPI led the charge in “sequenced obsolescence” with a series of releases in the early 1970s, first releasing games like Red Star/White Star with plotted orders and “Si-Move” (simultaneous movement) which were hopelessly cumbersome to play but supposedly pushed the envelope of realism, and then replacing them a couple of years later with games like MechWar '77. Avalon Hill notoriously replaced almost all of the counters in its Squad Leader game during the three-game run of sequels, and then replaced all those new replacement counters and rules just three years after that, with a sequel to the sequel, or rather, a reboot of the entire mess, called Advanced Squad Leader. There are still two competing camps, with die-hard fans of the original series that refuse to subsidize the usurper. The developers of Combat Mission stated very earnestly that they needed to embrace new markets to grow their company, and that new methods of gameplay, including real time, would be found in the second-generation game engine. Their up-front admission that they expected to lose some customers but gain new ones did not prevent bitter backlash from a vocal online minority. It is also not known what benefit the changes have brought; the new game engine has not performed as well critically, and sales figures are not made public.

Which brings us to Matrix and their interesting model of providing previous releases for free every time a new game is released. This was the case when Kharkov was released (content from Operation Winter Storm was provided at no charge on the Kharkov release disc). The Ostfront release deal has been described above.

It isn’t my practice to look a gift horse in the mouth but one presumes this practice will cease at some point. The developers have promised to move on to other theatres – the western front 1944-45 being a natural, especially as the vehicles for one of the major combatants are already finished. One supposes North Africa, the early war campaigns, or even the Pacific couldn’t be too far off if Ostfront manages to strike a chord and/or turn some kind of a profit. The inevitable debate that follows on in public forums for popular tactical games is how quickly to move on to the Arab/Israeli wars, fictional Cold War scenarios, and even science fiction themes (and with some exceptions like ASL or Steel Panthers, they rarely seem to actually get there).

The questions – largely unanswerable by us – will be whether Matrix sees a reason to continue. Did Panzer Command already reach its maximum audience – and the free patch will just be salve to an already sated core group? Or will it be the springboard for a revival of squad-based, company level 3D World War II strategy (did I get them all in?) gaming that has been largely neglected for several years now?

It should be no secret what I am hoping for. I would have gladly paid full price for Ostfront, but reading some comments on various message forums, I realize my views are not predominant. The “free patch” idea seems to be a good one. Perhaps a better one would be a demo for those who need convincing, but screenshots, videos, and at least one After Action Report (AAR) are finding their way onto the official website even though release is not scheduled until the fourth quarter of this year. I’m going to buy a copy of Ostfront just because I like the idea of subsidizing companies who make games that I enjoy, even though I qualify to download it for free. As a collector, I prize having a physical box or jewel case in my collection in any event; to me they’re part of that “rich historical tapestry” I spoke of in my very first blog entry. They're also like trophies for the unathletically inclined.

There is no reason to presume Matrix can’t “afford” to give away this content. Those pessimists referred to earlier might suggest that free content can’t be good content, and that this distribution method will mask shortcomings in the Artificial Intelligence (AI), game play, or expanded content, perhaps indicating bugs or software issues making this an unofficial “beta” version. The actual beta testers insist this is not the case; having interacted with several of them in the CM community, for going on years now, I’m inclined to believe them or at least give benefit of the doubt. Personally, I hope Matrix starts to make money hand over fist with Panzer Command – including my money – and that the series becomes a strong contender in this little niche of ours. I also hope other games in the same genre do well also; there is a mistaken belief that games like Combat Mission and Panzer Command “compete” against one another, but I suspect that if two games in a very small niche are both well done, those that are passionate about the niche will usually invest in both games. At any rate, Combat Mission’s new game engine has successfully diverged from the original vision of CM that the similarities between the two game series are much less apparent than they were with the original game engine.

My Final Word

As work progresses on the second issue, just a reminder that the premiere issue of Tactical Wargamer’s Journal is still available. Reviews by Panzer Digest and at Consimworld have been favourable, and a number of articles will be of direct interest to anyone thinking about Panzer Command: Ostfront. There is a direct comparison between Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin and Panzer Command: Kharkov, as well as a historical piece on the actual battle of Kharkov that inspired the game. As well, there is a detailed article on characteristics of Soviet armour in the Second World War and a discussion of how different wargames have chosen to deal with some of the peculiarities of Red Army equipment. I’d love to include articles on the “new” Panzer Command in upcoming issues; if you’re interested in writing them, please contact me.

My Question to You

Is Matrix doing the right thing giving away so much milk for free?


Matrix Announcement of Panzer Command: