Interview

Michael de Plater on EndWar

Ubisoft's creative director sits down with us

EndWar is a console real-time strategy game with a twist: voice control. More over, this feature is no mere gimmick, it actually works - as we found out across a series of multiplayer tussles during a play-test in London. It is fair to say this new Tom Clancy franchise from Ubisoft is fairly intriguing then - so we sat down with creative director Michael de Plater to delve deeper into this new series in the offing.

At UK RTS specialists Creative Assembly you cut your teeth making seminal strategy games for the PC. EndWar, however, is all about consoles. Is it a challenge shifting focus from the PC to the 360 and PS3?

The answer to this question, unfortunately, is actually really boring! It wasn't actually that big a transition, and the reason is that the PC RTS games that we worked on, they were basically 3D war games. Rome: Total War and stuff, games about having groups of soliders and you being the general, maneuvering them, etc. We already had the groups of soldiers, we already had the 3D; tactical games not focussed on resources or construction. They weren't your typical RTS games. So, the PC RTS - building, resource games - I think would be really hard to move to consoles. The tactical war game type-games, are actually really easy. They have so much in common with the tactical and strategic elements of shooters. We didn't have to do one thing in the control scheme that games like Battlefield, SOCOM, Ghost Recon or Rainbow Box hadn't done before. So it was much easier.

I think Halo Wars however must be really hard; building factories, managing resources, handling units, etc.

Do you consider Halo Wars to be your main competitor?

Well, we did before they decided not to ship this Christmas! We thought we had World in Conflict, we thought we had Halo Wars... C&C was coming to the 360 and PS3, but they've all kind of moved aside!

The voice control aspect is very interesting. Is this a nice extra, or is it at the heart of the EndWar experience?

Yes, that's a good question. I think the game is a really good game, with or without the voice command, but I think the voice command adds to it massively. It isn't as important as the guitar is to Guitar Hero, but its kind of... maybe half that. The main thing it does, I mean, there are three main features. The camera - being close to your units, being on the battlefield. Two is the persistence. Your units survive mission-to-mission and gain experience. You care about them more, etc. Third is the voice command... you speak like a General, your units react, and talk back. So all three things add up to a more immersive game - they give you more connection to your troops than a usual strategy game.

Playing the game, I notice that while the voice commands do you require a certain structure, it can be quite forgiving too...

Yeah. Actually, its meant to be stuff like "attack hostile one", but when playing it you can get away with things like "attack unit one". Its all about the context. The system looks at the whole tree, and picks out what you're trying to tell it.

Where do you see voice control going in the future?

Anywhere, where in the real world the activity you do uses your voice. That's a lot of places, not just what we're doing now. The next ones - the two ones that seem really obvious - are coach shouting stuff in sports games, tactics, players, etc. And of course spells, that seems like an obvious ones. You know, anything where you imagine that a real world character would use their voice. Systems should be able to match that really well.

Because this is a console release, is it fair to say that there's a fast-paced, arcade-feel to the gameplay?

We really put a lot of emphasis on making it accessible. We spent a lot of time, play-testing everything. How intuitive the combat chain is, what numbers we have. We play-tested the hell out of every assumption. We wanted to create a game that anyone who has played an FPS could play, and then find the depth later. Accessibility was critical. Most of the people playing the game probably haven't played a game like this before. So, that was really cool. We made sure it looked visually nice. Peoples expectations of graphics are really high from FPS games, so we had to really try.

What kind of a look are you going for on the aesthetic front? The world seems quite detailed...

Well, basically, pulling the camera down puts a lot of pressure on realism... and visually, we wanted to make the units the heroes - with infantry, the animation, the detail, really stands out in the environment and looks cool. Nice destruction, effects, familiar locations. Basically its like a disaster movie in look and feel. The thing we really looked at is the opening scene from The Day After Tomorrow, where you see Los Angeles being ripped up. We wanted that sense of destruction... that's also beautiful.

Where did the inspiration for the premise; the story, come from?

So, well basically, we wanted to have massive land battles. And we wanted it to be between equal super-powers. So, we didn't want it to be America stomping all over epic numbers of poorly trained, badly armed poor people. Everyone in this game is the elite, the best. So, the two things we had to do was to get rid of nuclear weapons, so, we've got rid of the threat of nuclear destruction enabling huge battles, and secondly we wanted to choose the super-powers that had the most elite forces. So, we had to come up with a scenario whereby Europe and the US could go to war; a non-nuclear war. So, its a contest around the weapon shield, the end of oil, so it throws the world back into a scenario where major powers are competing for dwindling resources.

Given the focus on voice control, the game has to do a lot of simple stuff for the player, but in an intelligent fashion. What were your aims here?

Essentially, the hardest thing about making voice command work is making the soldiers smart enough so that you can give high-level orders in the game and not feel like you have to manage everything.

Trust?

Exactly. Trust is the goal. Basically, there's two things that are simple to say but hard to do. Firstly, try to stop units doing anything stupid, and the player needs to trust they can issue a voice command and then forget about it and move on. So the player can think about their strategy, what they have to achieve, not having to hold the hand of units to make it happen.

The game is set in the Atlantic theatre of conflict at present, any plans for a Pacific theatre? In EndWar 2, perhaps?

Yes, all that's planned. We want a full World War III. I'm sure the 21st century people end up fighting everywhere they can! On the moon, at the bottom of the ocean...

So... EndWar 2 to be set somewhere else?

Yes, yes, I think so. I think there's enough scope in the story for us to do an EndWar 2, 3, 4 and 5 without having to touch on the same stuff too much. This EndWar is the beginning of a new franchise, for sure.

What plans do you have for the multiplayer community?

Well, after release... there's a few things we're planning, that are quite good for a strategy game. One thing is that all the unit balancing is done on the server side, like Blizzard does, so we can continue to update and balance the game after release, which is nice. The other thing is that we have multiplayer control - so we can constantly tweak the start positions, the rules, the victory conditions. So we can update the online campaign. And then there's DLC... all the standard stuff, unit abilities, stats, etc. Because we really are the only strategy game of this type we're sort of in our own genre, so we can expect that players will be enjoying this for a long time... so we want to keep supporting them.

The multiplayer side seems very important...

Totally, yeah. Its really the focus of the whole game. The singleplayer is really fun, but its there to lead you towards the multiplayer primarily.

Am I right in thinking that EndWar will link in with HAWX in some way?

Just in general, we've shared a lot of stuff, like on the story, the unit management side, they've got the mission shield, the satellites, etc. We're beginning to bring the whole Clancy universe together.

Is this going to happen more and more in the future?

Yeah, I hope so. Obviously, Yves (Ubisoft CEO), was talking about Clancy MMOs, it seems natural that if there is a Tom Clancy all-encompassing game then it'll envelope all the brands.

So, is it plausible that at some point in the future we'll be running around in a Ghost Recon-style game, being directed from above by an EndWar General?

Absolutely, it's a really interesting idea. Did you see that MMO action game from Sony - MAG? I think the hard part of all this is that you have 200 players... but I think it would be interesting to see how this would integrate. Would it work?

How do you use audio to create an atmosphere in EndWar?

We've done a lot. There's thousands of lines of battle chatter. The soldiers really react to what's happening; their morale, the situation, the combat. The audio is quite dynamic, too, there are levels of detail. Distances, etc. And the music is also dynamic, so there's a situation where the audio mixes on the fly to reflect the on-screen action.

Do you have different ambiences depending upon the factions involved?

Factions, maps, stuff like this is all taken into account.

What's your favourite feature of the new game?

My favourite feature is the 'EndWar' thing, actually, the fact that when the victory condition triggers, the game sort of flips and the match conditions change. It gives the other player a chance to turn the game around. That's pretty cool for a strategy game, because in the past we've never really had that. You reach the point where you're winning or losing and you know what the outcome will be. Having something that gives you a chance, makes it more fun! So many matches change, too, people feel like they have a shot until the and.

Thanks for your time, Michael.

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