Massively Exclusive: Cornered Rat talks longevity, simulations, and the future of Battleground Europe

It's P-Day across Battleground Europe, as today marks the official introduction of World War II Online's 1.33 patch. The update is something of a milestone for Cornered Rat's stalwart MMOFPS simulation, and Massively sat down with the game's high command to chat about the past, the future, and of course the spiffy new infantry models that 1.33 brings to the table.

Join us after the cut for an exclusive interview with producers Steve Daniels, Al Corey, and Dana Baldwin, as well as Cornered Rat president Jim Mesteller and community director Amy-lynn Smith.

Massively: WWIIOL is one of the more ambitious titles in the MMO space due to its map size, realism, etc. Do you find that new players have trouble adapting to a simulation-style game, particularly given the comparatively simplistic nature of other MMOs?

Steve "BLOO" Daniels, Producer/Director of Support: Yes. The game is ambitious, and the learning curve can appear steep at times. But it also rewards effort. It's fairly straightforward to jump in as a rifleman, be directed towards the enemy, and start shooting them, but you can wade in deeper. The gunner of a tank or anti-tank gun who learns where the weak spots are in an opponent will go from wondering why his shells bounce off the front hull of his target to watching that target explode after one round slipped in behind a tread wheel penetrates and starts the ammunition cooking off, causing the fuel tank to explode, what is called "brewing up." But getting line of sight on that spot will requires tactics to get in the right place.

We have introduced training tutorials to help new players learn the basics of our systems, such as how capture works, the user interface, weapon firing, etc. And dedicated volunteer trainers are available to help players with specific issues. Veteran players will frequently take a new player under their wings and show them how to stay alive longer.

But by far the greatest training asset we have is other players. When new players log in and choose a side, they get a list of squads currently active in the game that have a recruiter ready to help a new player get into the game quickly and smoothly. It even lists what language that squad speaks. When a new player joins one of these, he becomes a temporary recruit of that squad but can leave at any time.

Following on from that, do you have any plans to try to attract newer gamers and/or shooter fans who may not be familiar with the title?

Al "RAFTER" Corey, executive Producer/Marketing Manager: Since last year, we've seen a marked increase in trial players and subscribers, and we will be pushing out news about our infantry update. We think meeting first impression expectations is one key for our success. This is partly why we have been updating the visuals over the past two years. We're always looking for the "magic potion" that turns a simulation-style, hardcore game into a noob-friendly, easy-to-understand game experience. There isn't one answer, but we've added features like tutorials, mission way-points, and reduced time to action for players looking for faster action.

WWIIOL: Battleground Europe is a simulation, and that's what our players love and why they stick with the game so long. We don't want to dilute that simulation experience to the point where it's just another FPS arcade shooter. Our game is brutal, realistic combat.

The 1.33 update is bringing about some extensive visual tweaks for infantry models. Do you plan on further updating the game's visuals in the near future? If so, can you talk about what's next?

Al "RAFTER" Corey: Version 1.31 updated a lot of the terrain and terrain objects; v1.33 is a major update to infantry. We have several units that are getting long in the tooth -- anti-tank and anti-tank weapons come to mind along with some older tank models.

If you could point to a couple of key reasons for WWIIOL's longevity, what would they be?

Jim "MAYPOLE" Mesteller, President, Playnet/Cornered Rat Software: Battleground Europe isn't a game; it's a hobby. People invest time in BE as much as an avid golfer does in his game. They rarely just sit down, play a quick session and then leave. They can and do invest hours of their time learning, playing, socializing. They have an interest in WWII history, and they bring that to the battlefield and to the discussion forums. We have a great community that's built up over the years; a lot of people stay for that.

Another thing I feel that keeps players engaged for so long is the freedom from a scripted game. There isn't a list of set quests or storylines; there's no end boss. Players direct the game, create the experiences, and write the stories. And it's different every time they log in. Sessions aren't limited to one type of combat -- or even to combat alone for that matter.

We've got players who are dedicated fighter pilots and some who prefer to do bombing runs. Others enjoy scouting, sometimes spending hours stalking enemies out in the fields and hills. We've got heavy tankers, light tankers, snipers, destroyer captains, anti-aircraft gunners, mortarmen and more. They all require a different skill set, skills you can't learn overnight.

Stories fill our discussion forums ranging from reports of intense dogfights that last only minutes but leave both players shaking and filled with adrenaline, to after-action reports of massive battles that last for hours and hours, the combatants exhausted but thrilled to have been part of it. These are memories that last. You don't find that in every game. Most of them are finish and forget.

The game is quite diverse in terms of land/air/sea battles and team-based combat options. That said, are there any particular aspects of WWII or combat in general that the game hasn't managed to recreate (or recreate as well as the dev team might like)?

Al "RAFTER" Corey: Nobody likes to talk about his shortcomings! I think the development team feels that the naval portion of the game hasn't yet reached anywhere near its potential. Sometimes the market plays a part in driving dev decisions, so we've spent more time in other areas of the game. We'd certainly like to get back to that and give the navy boys some attention. We'd also like to expand the game into new theaters of operations. There's a lot of work ongoing to develop new terrain systems to support that but nothing we can talk about today.

Dana "GOPHUR" Baldwin, Senior Producer: There are lots of things that come to mind when trying to make a game out of a simulation of real war and combat, both tactical and strategic. Getting strategic bombing and naval supply convoys to have an effect on victory for the campaign is certainly very high up there. Because it is a game, it is difficult to have that effect be a true-to-life reduction in the actual supply for the game, because players need equipment to play with, even when your battles are based on attrition of supply.

Other areas that are hard to do but still on our wish list are trying to recreate the feeling of set piece battles and having a more comprehensive system of team objectives in a command structure. These are both often at odds with gaming where players aren't really in a military command structure.

How often does the dev team get involved in running in-game events? Is that mostly left up to players or are there any official things planned?

Amy-lynn "MOTORMOUTH" Smith, Community and Public Relations: We've got an outstanding group of volunteers who spend hours researching, designing and executing scenarios for our Events server (it stands apart from the live game). Past events have included Pearl Harbor, a player favorite; Clash of the Titans, an all-armor scenario; and the Battle of Britain, held to comemorate the 70th anniversary of that encounter. While these events are organised by players, they're all CRS sanctioned and supported. This year, we're kicking the event schedule into overdrive to mark our 10th Anniversary. We'll be hosting loads more mini-events as well as the bigger, more complex scenarios, and staff will be far more involved.

Several times a year we hold "Kill A Rat" events on the live server. The Cornered Rat Software staff logs in and taunts the players mercilessly, hurling insults, mocking them... it's great. The top Rat Killer gets a t-shirt proclaiming his awesomeness.

We've also been trying something new for the breaks between campaigns. After one side or another wins the map, we have a two to three day break before we reset for the next campaign. In the past, those intermissions have usually just opened up the equipment list to everyone, a virtual free-for-all, if you will. This year we decided to design and host mini-scenarios on the live server during those breaks instead. These are designed and managed by our Game Manager Geoff "DOC" Evans. Both the Battle of the Bulge and The Bridges of Nijmegen were incredibly well received by the players. We're looking forward to trying more and more of these.

The free-to-play trend is sweeping the industry and many older (and even newer) games have abandoned the sub model in order to draw more potential customers. Has the dev team considered F2P at this point?

Al "RAFTER" Corey: Our game wasn't designed to support a F2P model, and the simulation-style gameplay means you never want a player to have an advantage over another player because he purchased the "super-uber helmet of power!" Most F2P games have a pretty deep marketplace/microtransaction system for buying weapon upgrades and character skills. Our game depends entirely on actual player skills, not leveling or power-ups. Having said that, we have been experimenting with a F2P option that will benefit from a more mature system for unlocking in-game abilities and/or permissions -- not for weapon or unit modifiers; those are no-nos for a simulation.

The MMO landscape is totally different now than when you launched in 2001. How do you feel about the move away from sandboxes/simulations and toward disposable/accessible games? Do you think that theoretical titles inspired by WWIIOL have a future, and has the team thought about a true sequel at some point?

Dana "GOPHUR" Baldwin: Modern games are much more about a directed experience. Players like to have clear objectives that they can strive to attain. We think the future of WWIIOL will continue to follow that course. We have certainly entertained the idea of what we would do to make a WWIIOL v2.0. That game would share a lot with what we have, build on what we've learned, and strive to create a larger world out of smaller spaces, more concentrated on individual battles and having those battles have consequences that directly influence the victory of the campaign.

We think the game is as awesome today as it was when we released, and our focus would be on making the simulation aspect shine while improving the user-friendliness to help appeal to a broader non-sim market. Once you "get" this game, it is easy to get hooked, as proved out by the many long-time players we have. For the future, we want to help more players who aren't traditional sim players "get" the game.

Al "RAFTER" Corey: We've carved out a successful niche with our open-world, simulation-style war game. We've acknowledged the move away from open-world MMOs in the market, and some of the benefits of not having to support that kind of terrain and game systems opens other doors. Our product plan has always included expanding into other theaters of operations -- something that would certainly warrant a "sequel" title.

Of course we'd also argue that, with 10 years of updates, major feature additions, and countless new units and systems, we could have tagged a "version 2.0" on any number of our point releases. We don't live in the old-school publishing world anymore, so "sequels" might not be as relevant for an MMO. Having said that, we are still reaching for that next major step in the game's development, and we think we'll get there.

Thanks very much for your time.