August twenty-first marks the dawn of a new day for World of Tanks console players as Wargaming embarks on a new single-player/co-op venture called War Stories. Last week at Wargaming's Chicago offices, we spoke to Lead Game Designer Jeff Greg and Lead Environment Artist Andrew Hura about the challenges the team faced in creating this new mode.
MMORPG: When creating maps for War Stories, did you think differently about the design?
JG: Absolutely. Up to now, World of Tanks has been a 15 v 15 game where you have to either have mirrored balance between where the bases are and where you spawn and making sure there's nothing fair or unfair. Single player? Whole different ball game. You're trying to tell a story, you're trying to be the hero, but you don't want to rob World of Tanks of what makes it special. Classic example is in Brothers in Armor two, there are five tanks you can liberate or you can go directly to the enemy base. The map's designed so you can do it in any order you think is best, or you can say, “eff yourself, objectives, I'm going right for the base.' The map allows for that kind of freedom. Is that similar to what you'd do for art? (he asks Andrew Hura)
AH: Yeah. With art, once design has their points of interest, the environment artist takes a look at it and the challenge is using the surroundings in a creative, not in-your-face way to help nudge a player to go one way other another. If you want the player to go up the hill and to the right, you can have a little bit of a tree line here, an opening there – something natural. You use different buildings and different props to guide them. We can use things like terrain decal tracks on the ground to entice a player to go somewhere or use destruction and rubble to send them the opposite way.
MMORPG: The missions seem to have a good variety of different terrain types. Were you consciously thinking of giving players a wide variety with these launch stories?
JG: It was variety, and the progression of the story. What's really the best example is where it's goes from cold and gray to a blizzard. We're trying to say 'the storm's a'comin'' (with the terrain) and hopefully the gameplay matches that. The last chapter is just nuts balls.
MMORPG: Where are your cutscenes made? Presumably Kennedy Monk LTD from the UK is working on those?
JG: Yes. It's a different artist per War Story, as well as a different writer. Which kind of fits the theme that we're going for, where each of these stories isn't a continuation of the previous one.
AH: If you've seen on the Game of Thrones blu-ray, they have some (cinematics) done in the same style and narrated by one of the actors for each storyline. It's a huge success, and people absolutely love it. When I saw that we had the ability to do that here, I was like, 'Oh, this is awesome.'
JG: That and the facts of life of development—we looked at the time frame we had (for development) and when we realized we wanted to stream the cinematics over the loading screen and wanted to tell a story within a fun, easily digestible style, (it was the only way that) wasn't going to collapse the bank.
MMORPG: So Kennedy Monk wrote the stories?
JG: That was collaborative. If I'm writing this, it'll have a princess and a dragon. (laughs) I'm not a writer. We gave them the tone, the events, the time of day, the characters and then they'd give us something where they'd narrowed the focus. (After that) they kept iterating on the copy because they're also comic writers.
MMORPG: So you gave them an outline and they filled it in?
MMORPG: As far as War Stories go, what's the motivation for multiplayer fans to embrace it?
JG: Any multiplayer player that comes in—welcome, I love having you in War Stories. Honestly, some of the players are going to look at this mode and go 'pfft' and go right back into random battles. Won't touch it with a ten foot pole. War Stories' first focus is on the console players that don't want to play the multiplayer experience, that are intimidated by those fifteen bad guys shooting at them or the fourteen people yelling at them because they don't know how to play.
They're the primary audience. I fully expect some of our multiplayer players to shift and be like, 'wow, this (War Stories) is really cool.' I also expect some of them to look at it and say, 'why are you wasting your time?'
AH: Free to play is somewhat new for consoles, and if you think about it, adding War Stories to the multiplayer game is a no-brainer. Originally, with any boxed title, you'd buy a single player game, and then they'd add a multiplayer mode on top of it. Free to play games are usually multiplayer (on console.) It makes sense to have single player too, doesn't it? Shouldn't they always be paired up in that sense? I think free-to-play is just maturing to the point where hopefully, this is just a logical next step.
MMORPG: Well War Stories could be the entry level drug that creates more World of Tanks multiplayer fans.
AH: Yeah, players can transition. Hopefully they'll do that.
MMORPG: So what kinds of special rewards does War Stories have?
JG: That's still being determined. Whenever we start talking about rewards, it engages publishing and the money peeps because then you're talking about things with monetary value. We have the ability to give away anything including things that will only be accessible through War Stories. For now, you 'earn' the story tanks just by playing through the missions. The M4 Sherman Emcha, for instance. Rewards are all server-malleable. We can play with that to the last minute.
MMORPG: As far as Challenge Modes go, how much replayability to you think players will get out of it?
AH: I don't think I've played the same way twice. Having the multiple objectives gives players the ability (to play in varying orders) in some cases.
MMORPG: What happens in co-op, if you have players with two different tier tanks?
JG: Enemies always adjust and spawn to be a challenge for the highest tier tank. We did that for a couple of reasons. One, we wanted to not make a farm. Two, the Challenge Mode I anticipate—but don't know—is one of the things we'll expand upon as War Stories continues to grow. I'd love to see a system where the Challenges keep coming.
MMORPG: Focusing on AI is new to your team. What kinds of challenges have you faced?
JG: Oh, there've been scars and blood. (laughs) Making an AI aware of 500-ish tanks all of which have different armor deflection, penetration, knowing which guns it has, the enemy has...making sure that they play like intelligent tankers is something we'll be doing for the rest of time. I'm actually pretty proud of how they're acting now. One of my favorite development stories in terms of pain is how the friendly AI were dicks for quite some time, and what I mean by that is that you'd be trying to aim and your bodyguard AI would (makes swerving noise) in front of you and go, 'I'm gonna shoot!' We first laughed and said, “It's simulating a human perfectly!'
Then we said, 'people will stop playing the game if we leave that in.' That's a problem we had to solve and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
MMORPG: So did you have to hire a new AI team just for that?
JG: We're collaborating with the rest of Wargaming. Everyone wants to benefit from this and that's not me announcing there'll be AI in other modes, but everybody's helping because as a company it just makes sense to have a vested interest in AI mechanics in a server-based architecture.
AH: There's an engineer (here) from before the acquisition by Wargaming when we were Day 1 Studios. Back then we had to deal with AI a lot. But, times have changed and this is a different beast.
JG: You know what's funny, is things you don't really think about. When you're fighting a human, if you're wasting some guy and he's not returning fire, you figure he's AFK or a dumbass and ha-ha, you win! The second an AI does the same thing, you go, 'this game is broken.' So we'd have bugs from QA saying, 'AI's are stopping shooting.' And we'd realize the AI was running out of ammo. So we make them have unlimited ammo. Or if you'd break their gun, they couldn't shoot because they're gun was being repaired. So then we have to figure out, do we have to communicate to players this guy's gun's broken?
MMORPG: PR's making the “time's up” face, so I guess that's it for now, but I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today.
JG: Thank you.