As we mentioned last week, WWII Online: Battleground Europe is still going strong. In fact, Playnet and Cornered Rat Software are on the verge of a massive update for the game. Update 1.31, currently in open beta, has been in the works for many months and is set to overhaul the graphics of this old-school MMOFPS. It might even give newer games a run for their money! We were lucky enough to sit down with several members of the Battleground Europe development team -- Amy-Lynn Engelbrecht, Dana Baldwin, and Geof Evans -- and fire off some questions about the visual overhaul, as well as a few questions about the weather -- that is, the game's new weather system, which will actually affect land and air conditions in PvP!

Click past the break for our exclusive interview with the team!
Massively: Many of our readers last checked out WWII Online when it was rebranded Battleground Europe in 2006. Bring us up to speed: What would the team say are some of the biggest changes and improvements between then and now?

Amy-Lynn "MOTORMOUTH" Engelbrecht: Looking at it from the outside, it may seem like the development cycle for WWII Online has slowed down since 2006, but the truth is we've been working non-stop on a variety of projects. The 1.31 update has been our focus for the better part of a year. It's a huge one that required a partial re-write to our game engine and is also adding a large list of new features and upgrades. We entered into a partnership to release a Chinese version of the game, and preparing for the foreign market was a monumental task. One of the great benefits of that partnership was that many of the requirements they had allowed us to make improvements to our game that we'd been wanting to do for some time. Before China, we added a bunch of new features and goodies like Squad tab (makes it easier to recruit and manage squad members), new weapons and vehicles (mortars, resupply trucks, Webley pistol), dozens and dozens of new towns expanding our Western Europe arena to provide more locations to play in. I started going through the production readme list and had to stop after about 40 pages of updates and tweaks because I was getting a headache. And that was only going as far back as 2007!

Massively: What sorts of things have the team done to make the game's learning curve a bit more accessible to new players?

Amy-Lynn: The learning curve in BE used to be pretty intimidating to new players. We've really worked hard over the past few years to make it easier for new guys to figure out how jump into the game and be effective from the start. We've implemented a tutorial system, starting with the basics of movement and chat, and working up to combat training for infantry, armor and air. We plan on continuing to add new sections as often as possible. We've also created some Squad recruitment tools that help new guys find a team of veterans to mentor them through their initial few sorties. Add to that our dynamic mission orders, contact reporting, the ability to easily group infantry through the use of Mobile spawning, a dedicated group of volunteer trainers and easier ways to find a fight, pwning in BE combat has become much simpler.

Massively: The upcoming mega-patch 1.31 was announced way back in October 2009, and stress testing is going on weekly on the beta servers. The big question that players want answered: When will we see the patch on the live server? Will we see it in time for the game's anniversary in early June?

Amy-Lynn: We anticipate the live release of version 1.31 during our 9th Anniversary weekend. We plan on continuing our special "Invasion - BeachHead Breakout" campaign and plan the first 1.31 campaign to begin shortly thereafter.

Massively: Any MMO that lasts more than a few years is likely to upgrade graphics to keep up with new system capabilities (as well as aesthetic standards). The upcoming patch includes major visual upgrades, such as new terrain and buildings, the removal of the last of the 2D sprites, and the introduction of permanent ground clutter usable as cover. The new screenshots really look fantastic! But how harsh are the new system requirements? Do you worry that long-time players with lower-end systems will be left out in the cold? How has the new engine influenced the team's design philosophy?

Dana "GOPHUR" Baldwin: The new sys specs are really just modernized. We require Shader Model 3.0 now and every modern video card has that. On the CPU side we're looking for Dual Cores and recommend close to 3 GHz. Battleground Europe is at heart a military grade simulation and the CPU is more of a bottle neck for the game loop than the graphics are. We're not too worried about losing players with older machines as our data shows that 95% of our players have CPU and GPU to be able to play. Still at some point, we have to upgrade the look and feel, the immersion, to increase the number of new players that we keep. In that process we'll probably lose a few of the old ones, that's progress.

As to design, the biggest influence has been in removing some of the restrictions we've had before. When you make a game with a 6km visual range you have to really minimize, well, everything! New engine performance allows us to concentrate less on poly counts and more on what cool new stuff we can add be it more detailed buildings and play spaces or new shadow and explosion effects.

Massively: Many games consider weather and lighting effects to be merely mood-setting (assuming they have such effects at all), but Battleground Europe has specifically promised that weather will affect air combat, and that shadows and cover will be usable by infantry. A new physics system will help reinforce weapon feedback in PvP as well. How have these systems performed in beta so far? How will these new changes affect players' overall strategy in front-line combat?

Amy-Lynn: Feedback for weather and new cover have been positive from the players who have spent time in Beta. The most common type of comment we've seen is "Holy crap! The immersion factor just went through the roof!". On the ground and in the air, adding these new features has boosted the feel of really being in the world. Every time it rains in Beta, the reaction is pretty much the same: like a bunch of turkeys, we all stop and look up shouting "OMG! Raaaiinn!". It's hysterical. Pilots are finding a whole new level of tactics using the cloud layer and dimmer lighting to deke out the enemy. The new ragdoll physics are getting great feedback as well. There's nothing quite as satisfying as tossing a grenade into a pack of infantry and watching the force of the explosion throw them through the air.

Massively: The changes to building capture, safe spawn locations, and addition of more detailed building types might attract new players who would have been put off by earlier quirks in PvP balance. Are you hoping to recruit new players by bringing PvP more in line with other FPS and MMO games? What else will Cornered Rat implement to modernize and bring balance to land, sea, and air combat?

Dana: On one hand, yes, we do take some design clues from where the genre is, but I can't say we look too much to shoe box shooters for guidance. Those games are fundamentally different even in the PvP space. To be honest, in the past ten years we've been doing this, I'd say other games are gravitating more to what we do in the realism, simulation, expansive terrain and even gameplay. A lot of what we've done in this patch with content (terrain mostly) is because we can now technically afford to do so.

Now that this is done we'll be turning our focus to game mechanics. This is where some more modern concepts of grouping, play spaces, achievements and victory will come into play. Balance too will continue to be a focus primarily in victory and side balance numbers. Balance for a war simulation, especially a completely PvP one is quite different than most shooters. All of our weapons and vehicles are real right down to the millimeters of rolled homogenous armour a round penetrates at what distance and obliquity. The speed of our vehicles is based on their real world data, as is the thickness of their hull or the speed and angle at which planes lose control of their flight surfaces. These things cannot be tweaked to be balanced the way you can turn a ray gun up from 2d4 to 2d4+2. For us, balance comes in the morale of the players as much as it comes in the caliber of the round. When we started this grand experiment we did so with the intent to have players doing every job in the game from driving the trucks to shooting the rifles to being the Generals on the field deciding where and when the next battle will come. These factors are what make BE such a great game and also what makes it so compelling to play.

Massively: Many players have expressed concerns about the Air Warning System and whether it is working as intended. Are there any plans to change or update the system to address these player concerns? What other sorts of feedback have players submitted about the patch, and can we expect to see any related changes made before 1.31 goes live, or are most features locked-in at this point?

Geof "DOC" Evans: We are already planning some small tweaks to the available "tweakable" aspects of AWS, to make it a little more vague and not to report as accurately or as quickly. We still plan to keep it however, since the biggest complaint we had from air players before we added it was that they wasted too much time trying to find other pilots to shoot at. Making a wider range of elements part of AWS and then creating strategy gameplay around those elements will take a lot longer to develop but we have plans in that area as well.

Massively: What other changes and new features will be coming down the pipeline after this massive patch?

Amy-Lynn: We're getting ready to launch a brand new subscription offer that we hope will attract a whole new group of players. We also plan to continue to improve grouping and mission tools so that it's easier to find action and then direct it. A third person infantry re-do is being evaluated to see how it would impact our development schedule, it's pretty high on the list of things we really want to accomplish. The team has also been secretly working on preparing the game for player built and placed objects, a development that will allow for more dynamic game play. We're talking about tools allowing players to "build" things like sandbag walls, tank traps, road blocks, gun emplacements, ammo dumps and forward spotter positions. It's going to have a huge impact on gameplay.

Thanks so very much to Amy-Lynn Engelbrecht, Dana Baldwin, and Geof Evans for taking the time to answer our questions. See you on the battlefield!

This article was originally published on Massively.
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