Monday, April 2, 2012

Eight Thoughts About Combat Mission: Touch

Some people confessed to be stunned by the announcement of the release of Combat Mission: Touch, but there were signs that something like this was going to happen. (“BFC” hereafter) has hinted about some unspecified “big news” for a long time – one presumes this has to be it. Anyone following the rise in popularity of devices and games, and the conversations among wargamers who are now clamouring for wargame-themed apps, may have even predicted this.

I would not have guessed nor am I in the camp of those desiring such things, but the news is nonetheless a thought-provoking one. Here are eight such thoughts of mine after having had a day to process the news:

The Timing – BFC has had a consistently inconsistent relationship with its own consumer base. When the first major change to the PC-based game engine was initially discussed (the passing from so-called "CMX1" that powered their first three releases circa 2000-2003 to "CMX2" in 2007), the developers announced, in advance and with candidness, that they were prepared to exchange some of their older customers/fans for new ones as a result of the new direction they wanted to take with their vision. In business, it’s a practical approach to adopt (not necessarily to admit), though the forum signature tag line of one of their customer service reps from the period still stands out in memory - “ – your best friend, your worst enemy” – if only as an indicator of what can be interpreted as an ambivalence towards those that support them.

Things have changed in many ways since then. Their most aggressive customer rep has moved on, and their public relations efforts have been improving. A case can be made that the rollout of the latest CM module was skilfully handled, with informative public videos, after-action reports (i.e. public replays) in advance of release, and generally much slicker pre-release material than that which preceded earlier CM titles – such as one memorable preview posted to their YouTube feed in which unedited footage of an outclassed enemy being shot to pieces (narrated in a matter-of-fact monotone) was used to sell the game. It’s one thing to note that playing Shermans against Tigers is a tactical challenge that nonetheless happened with historical regularity in the Normandy bocage; quite another to post a movie of the massacre of a third world opponent by American Strykers and then think it is going to act as an incentive to rush out and buy your game. However, they’ve come a long way since then, albeit not without the occasional glitch. The Commonwealth Module logo depicting a P17 rifle was quickly replaced on their website when the inappropriateness of same was pointed out by multiple parties.

The announcement of CM: Touch should have been an easy hit out of the park; tablet/iOS games are all the rage now, and wargame treatments for same are in high demand, as for example a recent and relatively popular thread at boardgamegeek demonstrated. How do you mess up the announcement of something highly anticipated, and completely unexpected?

Answer: make it look like an April Fool’s joke. Just about every bit of positive feedback on release day was tempered with caveats starting with words to the effect of “Highly suspect this isn't real, but…”

The lack of belief was understandable, given that BFC has not made a tangible peep about this specific product, and the screenshots and videos were just “alien” enough to BFC’s existing project line to lack conviction. But BFC didn’t help matters by replying on their official forums with characteristic “hey, if you don’t want it, don’t buy it” aloofness.

The Business Model – I’ve thrown in these thoughts in a couple of other places but will collate them here. Micro-transactions seem to be the way of the future, though as far as wargaming goes, aren’t really anything new, either. Multi-Man Publishing has made a killing in recent years selling scenario packs to die-hard fans of their Advanced Squad Leader board game empire, often selling out their pre-order lists in a single weekend. If it works for hex and cardboard gear, it’s far easier to institute in the digital domain, and companies like Turbine, who are using it to make MMORPGs such as Lord of the Rings Online lucrative even in a free-to-play model, are doing quite well at it. BFC had mentioned a similar scheme for micro-transactions once before, when their Repository went online in support of their PC-based games, as an online file-sharing site for scenarios and mods. There was an immediate backlash against the notion that some sort of fee schedule be instituted for the site, probably because there were already fan/community sites providing a similar service that were well-established. However, this brings us to:

The Content Providers – Combat Mission on the PC has always had the advantage of shipping with a powerful map and scenario editor; additional content for the games was instantly provided via the fan and community base. Outstanding effort was rewarded within the community by name recognition (compare to the ASL community, for example, where it took decades before scenario designers were ever recognized by having their names attached to their designs) and word of mouth. Often, community-produced designs exceeded the quality of those that came with the original games, since those that produced them had the advantage of spending far more time with the products than the beta testers who had deadlines and the disadvantage of working in a closed environment, rather than the open feedback of the entire community to draw on.

The financial success of the new micro-transaction model would appear to rely on a proprietary scenario format and the necessity for BFC (or their agents) to be the sole creators of same. But this is debatable, too; despite the lawsuit between Critical Hit and the publishers of ASL, the latter have survived the growing number of third party scenario designs published for sale, mostly because most aficionados will buy “official” scenarios before those of the so-called Third Party Publishers (TPP) that are held in lower regard.

At any rate, it is confirmed that CM: Touch will not have an editor, so the question is raised as to who will provide the new content. Given the surprise raised by some of BFC’s own regular Combat Mission beta testers on the official forums regarding the very existence of the new game, another question that comes up is – who has provided the content that is already there?

Duration of Interest – The last point begs another question though, which is ultimately how many scenarios does a 5 or 6 dollar “time-waster” really require. The game itself apparently has a time cap of 15 minutes (30 turns of 30 seconds each). The game is obviously limited by the hardware, and the interface (just your “war fingers”). None of which is a criticism, but an observation without even having seen the actual product personally. Will it be the kind of game one plays over and over? Will new scenarios really feel all that different? Will the intent be to sell new games every six months with different theatres of war to make up for that?

I would not be surprised by the latter, particularly given the interest expressed on the forums for the PC game in theatres such as the Pacific, the Eastern Front, or even France 1940 or NATO vs. Warsaw Pact circa the 1970s. (Though how alienated would the PC crowd feel if Touch went to France and the PC game never got there? Probably a bit, but BFC would survive it just as they survived when the Australian Army got a custom edition of CM:AK and the “paying customers” had to wait. I think by now the remaining BFC fans have something akin to battered wife syndrome; there wasn’t as much as a cross word on the official forums at the lack of prior discussion about CM: Touch. Surprise announcements are now just the order of the day in the tight-knit community there.)

Much would depend on how the revenue streams go, and of course – BFC doesn’t discuss that. Ever. In the meantime:

Development Stream – …the question raised by at least a couple of nervous fans in a couple of venues, is what impact this new game has had on the development of the current BFC flagship, the PC version of Combat Mission. What we do know is that the new game engine – CMX2 – premiered in 2007 to a rocky start but has maintained a loyal fan base. CMX2 has seemingly split into two development streams – Shock Force, a game about near-future combat in Syria (or perhaps “near-past” circa 2008, I’m not sure anymore), and Battle for Normandy (CM:BN), which apparently has one more module on the slate, to include, if I am reading things correctly, terrain and forces circa Operation MARKET-GARDEN in the autumn of 1944. The plan was then to create more games – which may or may not have been compatible with CM:BN (i.e. they may have been standalones), to cover the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, and eventually the Eastern Front of World War II (in an ambitious scheme that would split the war into three or four games (1 per year) and each game into modules, or something like 9 or 12 products in total).

What hasn’t been discussed publicly is just how much manpower BFC has devoted to CM:Touch. They have partnered with a company whose specialty is producing apps for Apple. Any number of scenarios are possible, including the notion that BFC has simply licensed their trademark CM name and some of their in-game artwork (notably the disc-shaped icons) and let a fresh set of programmers do the heavy lifting in exchange for a share of the rewards. Perhaps they’ve hired more programmers to work behind the scene. Or, perhaps their already busy, and small, programming and development staff is hard at work shaping the future of CM: Touch. The latter would not be happy news for fans of CM for the PC, I think, given the want/feature lists for CMX2 that keep appearing on the official forums, alongside a sprinkling of nagging bug reports and/or requests for explanation of current features that just don’t seem to sit right with the existing community (things like World War II tanks firing on the move with Abrams-like accuracy, which have been officially explained as “abstractions”.)

The Splintered Community – There may be a debate in some circles as to whether CM: Touch is a wargame, presuming enough people are interested enough to engage in public discussion about it. Those discussions tend to take place when “popular” games hit the mainstream, so perhaps such a debate is premature. Twilight Struggle is the classic example from the boardgame world. These debates probably shouldn’t concern fans of BFC or even fans of the game; they’re just so much noise in discussion circles. What may be of more concern is how the developers themselves relate to their own creations, and where the CM series as a whole goes a year from now should one form of CM prove vastly more popular than the other. For those with an investment in the “serious” side of wargaming, there is more at stake.

Reaction among the fans at the official forums seems to indicate there does not need to be a schism; those fans of the PC game that also happen to own an iPad seem happy to pick up CM: Touch as an augment to their gaming library. A reasonable proposition that has been noted in the past is that games of a given genre usually appeal collectively. When it was suggested that Panzer Command was a “competitor” of Combat Mission, I added my voice to the chorus of those who said it was nonsense – anyone interested in Second World War tactical combat games was likely to pick up both games for their library. (Again, from the boardgaming world, when the Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kits hit the market as a “gateway” to the venerable tactical gaming system, some of the most ardent consumers of the new kits – were the oldest veterans of the system, some who introduced new players with the kits, others who just wanted to collect them, still others who genuinely just enjoyed the new feel of the ASLSKs and wanted something different to play.)

With this game, however, one wonders if BFC isn’t more interested in appealing to casual or non-wargamers than in engaging their existing hardcore wargaming fanbase. I seem to recall the same being said about much more hardcore products such as CM:SF. The best case scenario – perhaps optimistically, from BFC’s perspective – is that Touch serves as a gateway, so instead of just selling $1 scenario packs, you eventually hook people on $40 CMX2 games.

Any real “threat” to the PC Combat Mission community would come from a splintering of resources among the developers, but if the plan is to use Touch as a gateway, BFC would be foolish to let that happen. Despite their occasional marketing glitch, the fact remains they are still in business and doing what they need to do to produce what their fans apparently want.

The Right Decision – wargamers tend to think that the companies who make these games are charities who make these games for the love of the hobby. BFC wrote a manifesto in 1999 and appeared to their fans to be a little company that was different from the big bad corporations, but they’ve (perhaps sensibly) moved away from that. Their decisions, too, will be made by the bottom line. There would be no way for an outside commentator to observe accurately whether or not CM: Touch was a bold decision, or even a good decision, without access to BFC’s balance sheets. Time will tell. For now, the consumer simply wins by having a new product in their hands. It will all, ultimately, come down to how much money BFC can make off of it. That’s the reality of the wargaming industry (I don’t call it a hobby), no different than any other.

Staying Focused – But per the last point, one does note BFC’s track record of being side-tracked into unprofitable territory. They have burned through a number of ventures with other developers, and games have come and gone from their website with some regularity over the years as they’ve struggled to find relevant ventures to augment their flagship titles. CM:SF got off to its aforementioned rocky start by an unfortunate partnership with a retailer that forced a premature product release. Panther Games came and went with Airborne Assault, Histwar: Les Grognards was a non-starter, and some less-mainstream projects such as T-72 (a Balkans Wars tank simulator) passed through to little fanfare. Some stories were heart-breaking, such as Combat Mission: Campaigns, which apparently nearly bankrupted independent designer Bruce Poon of Hunting Tank Software as they struggled with BFC to design an operational-level interface for the flagship. Others were too strange to be believed, such as the notion that Drop Ship, the science fiction game, was being developed into a World War II tactics game (would there really have been a need for this alongside BFCs other two World War II tactics titles, Theatre of War and Combat Mission?)

Not as crazy as it sounds; Dropship had a realistic physics engine and 3-D modelling. At least one fellow saw the logic in a World War II version.
 A lot of these projects fall under the “sounded great at the time” category, though naturally it is very easy to criticize in hindsight. I’d still love to see a product like Combat Mission: Campaigns. As a member of the beta team, while not directly involved with the coding of CM:C, I was certainly witness to the enthusiastic support it received from the scenario/campaign designers. I am certain its failure was not due to a lack of effort.

No one will know whether or not CM: Touch will represent a drain on BFC’s resources or not; to speculate on a company stretching their resources against their better interests is probably foolish, especially with no inside information to back up any such assertion. The only lesson to be drawn here, however, is a general lack of success among a number of “side-projects” (which probably cost them little or nothing in terms of resources such as capital or manpower), which one can attribute as easily in the absence of any detailed information to bad luck. I know I wouldn’t want to try and gauge in advance what sells or what does not in something as volatile as the videogame market, in a niche as small as wargaming.

If I was in that position, I would never have guessed that Theatre of War would have been a success, and probably would have jettisoned it for being too much like Combat Mission. Yet there it remains, with its sequels, apparently none the worse for wear for its similarity in scope and theme to CM. So perhaps the smart money is to just figure BFC knows what its doing based on the successes it does continue to enjoy.


Most have said all along that if BFC does well – I suppose to mean remains solvent while producing games – it is good for the wargaming industry. I’m not sure I’ve ever fully agreed with that. Good games are what are best for the wargaming industry. Anyone that proves to be capable of doing that is by extension good for the industry.

This gets more than a little complicated. If CM: Touch fills Battlefront’s coffers, but takes away development time from the PC flagship, those who are fans of the latter but not the former will no doubt fail to see any benefit from BFC’s success, for themselves or the industry. But as noted, if managed well, the Touch has the ability to be a lucrative venture. It’s all in the hands of the consumer.

And, apparently, a small “chosen few” of scenario designers.

Or, thinking larger, other game producers, who may see a BFC success as a gateway of their own. Perhaps, for example, the most detailed, fully realized Sherman tank simulator to hit the market in the 21st Century will not be a PC game at all – but an app?

My Question to You

Should wargamers embrace this as the future of wargaming? The potential is for widespread, mainstream acceptance of this game, with its cute sprites and easy to use interface coupled with deeper gameplay. At best, it would augment CM for the PC for those that own it, and act as a gateway for those that have not yet experienced it.

Or should wargamers shun this as “not a wargame” and reject it as a threat to the hobby, for fear it will simply eat up production time better spent on “real wargames”, promote a further dumbing down of games and interfaces to the lowest common denominator, and add more fuel to the exodus away from games like CM, Close Combat and Steel Panthers and back towards Panzer Claws?


  1. The question one can ask is why hardly anyone plays wargames.

    One possibility: nobody is interested in World War II as a subject matter. (Saying this out loud shows the ridiculousness of it). The other possibility: "real wargames", and yes, those are derision quotes, have unacceptably complex and baroque user interfaces that makes them completely unapproachable to any but the most unreasonably obsessed. In which category I put myself.

    My higher level point is this: the "is it a real wargame?" discussion is, in itself, toxic. I've often wondered why the question keeps coming up, and I've tentatively settled on it being an overreaction from people who are trying to preemptively defend their hobby as requiring some sort of justification ("No, no, no, this isn't a childish game - it's a _serious combat simulation_! Just look at how hard it is to play!")

    Games - including wargames - are all about choosing a level of abstraction. A game is not "less" of a wargame just because it uses a higher level of abstraction than some other game.

    How easy or hard a game is to play is, in some sense, orthogonal to the question of the level of abstraction. In my mind the most exciting prospect of CM:Touch is that some of its user interface enhancements may, eventually, trickle back to the desktop and thus increase the playability of the other platform. Far from being a distraction, I view it as potentially a source of new ideas for the franchise.

  2. Thanks for your comments on this Peter; I'll remind anyone reading of your own site and discussion on this at

    The over-reaction/justification question is unavoidable; you see a lot of insecurity among wargamers particularly those that "came up through the ranks" and had to defend such things as the playing of miniatures ("they're not TOYS") so I think your comments are completely correct.

    But as for "what is a wargame", as I note, the question is probably easiest, and best, avoided. The internet breeds such discussions, and no one seems to profit by them since in the end they're individual lines to be drawn. I agree with your point about abstraction, but I suppose that's up to individuals to decide. If someone played World of Tanks exclusively and could only talk about resource gathering and how many jerry cans they were able to accumulate, I'd be less likely to call what they were doing "wargaming", though in the end, what I think of what they're doing, or call it, probably shouldn't matter to them. It would matter to me, though, if game publishers decided that World of Tanks was the model for the future, but luckily independent companies like BFC pursue their own non-mainstream projects and prevent such things from happening, to the benefit of all of us.

    Which brings us to your conclusion. The thought of the iPad version providing innovation to the PC version, particularly the interface, is encouraging. It will be interesting to watch as time goes on.