By players, for players | Interview with Relic Entertainment

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Aina Prat Blasi
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On February 23, a title that fans of the saga have been waiting for for several years will finally arrive on the market. I'm obviously talking about Company of Heroes 3, third episode of the famous RTS series set in the Second World War which promises to raise the bar of the genre once again. A work that I was lucky enough to try a few days ago in London and that I described to you in my experience as: "bigger, bigger and meaner: this London hands-on of Company of Heroes 3 left me some excellent sensations, with the future title of Relic that seems to have all it takes to prove not only a worthy episode of the saga, but also one of the best RTS in recent years.”

In short, Company of Heroes 3 seems to be particularly promising and, just to find out more, I was lucky enough to have a few words with Relic Entertainment, the developers behind the anticipated title. New mechanics, expectations, the importance of the community and even some small glimmer of what the future of the saga will be: these are some aspects that I touched on during my chat with David Littman, VP of production of the famous Canadian studio, which I thank again for their great availability.

Relic Entertainment, the interview with David Littman

GT: Company of Heroes 3 will land on the market on February 23rd, which by the way is also my birthday: many thanks to Relic for this gift! Seriously, what do you think a veteran of the saga should expect from this highly anticipated new episode?

DL: Really? Well, best wishes in advance and we hope it can be a really nice gift! We worked to bring Company of Heroes 3 to fans of the saga something that could be immediately recognizable, but also full of improvements and new features. We therefore made sure to keep all those features loved by players, such as the cover system and everything you expect from a saga like Company of Heroes. We have improved many of the features already present, such as the artificial intelligence or the physics of building destruction. We then obviously also introduced something completely new, such as different factions, see for example the Afrika Korps, new gameplay mechanics, such as the tactical pause, greater attention to what is the verticality of the clashes or, again, the possibility for soldiers to climb on top of a tank. In short, we tried to create a mix of improved historical mechanics and new features.

The most important thing that we have been concerned with during the development of the game is definitely to make it more strategic level. It sometimes happens that some franchises try to simplify the various game mechanics over time; on the other hand, we have tried to make the title accessible to more and more players but at the same time increasing its depth, with new factions, units, gameplay dynamics and more. However, the presence of the tactical pause and a particularly in-depth tutorial will make Company of Heroes 3 accessible even for newcomers to real-time strategy.

GT: One of the most interesting additions to Company of Heroes 3 is the Full Tactical Pause. It is a mechanic capable of making the game more accessible to many players, but which also manages to prove to be something decidedly attractive even for the most experienced strategists. How did you manage to integrate it into a game system studied down to the smallest detail like that of a strategy game? Was it difficult to balance everything?

DL: The first thing we thought about when introducing this mechanic was to make it optional, so as to allow the player whether to use it or not. In short, our goal was to offer historical players a gaming experience like that of the previous episodes. The beauty of this new mechanic is in fact the fact that everyone can decide whether to use it or not, thus making Company of Heroes 3 on the one hand "simpler" for newcomers and on the other with the same game feedback for veterans . We are sure that those who will approach the saga for the first time will find the tactical pause very useful and will use it.

One thing we noticed and that surprised us during the playtest phases with our community, made up mainly of pro players and historical players, is how this mode was used and appreciated a lot even by all those who have already experienced the first two Company of Heroes. In fact, it helped them a lot to study more calmly and to learn the new mechanics, the characteristics of the troops introduced with the new chapter and so on. Obviously this is something that will only be present in single-player modes: as we all know, in fact, it is alas impossible to pause an online game!

GT: I fully agree with you. In fact, trying the title today, I found the tactical pause extremely useful and I believe that, more than a way to learn the game, it is a very useful mechanic even for the most experienced players to allow them to maximize their skills as strategists.

DL: Absolutely, also because Company of Heroes is a saga that is based on the intelligence of the player, on his ability to use his mind to get out of even the most complex situations on the battlefield, not something that is based on that which is the speed of action. We don't want our players to make hundreds of moves and click like crazy, but to think about how to turn the tide of the various fights. Also for this reason, as you said earlier, I'm sure that anyone will find the new tactical break of Company of Heroes 3 worthy of note.

GT: One of the things that most fascinated me about Company of Heroes 3 is what the creative process of the game was. I've read that you have recruited a council of players to vote on the setting of the campaign. Could you tell me a little more about all this? What was it like to reconcile your visions with those that came from the council? Have you encountered any particular requests?

DL: It has been a really interesting journey with our players in these years of development of Company of Heroes 3. All in all, everything started off in a soft way, with nine players scattered all over the world to whom we asked very simple questions or direct, like “what do you like about Company of Heroes and what not?” to then arrive at a council of a hundred people and much more specific and directed questions on what will be the third chapter of the series.

Working with them has been really, really helpful. One of the decisions we made thanks to them is, for example, the setting of the episode, namely the Mediterranean during the Second World War. In fact, all 9 players voted for this scenario rather than all other options. An overwhelming victory, which surprised us from a certain point of view but which has a well-defined reason. The council of players has in fact explained to us how they wanted a greater variety, both in terms of settings and of troops used on the battlefield. This, along with other reasons they explained to us, made us realize one thing above all: our players really know Company of Heroes as well, as if not even more than the developers. One thing that we have learned to recognize and appreciate more and more, such as the importance and luck that we have had to collaborate with them during development.

They really helped us in countless ways to make Company of Heroes 3 better and better, starting from the UI to the gameplay, obviously passing through all the other elements that make up a video game. Of course, every now and then there have been some unfortunately unattainable requests, but even then it was very constructive to talk about them and explain to them why certain things weren't feasible either on a technical level or why they would have damaged the balance of the game. Most important of all was being able to have conversations with our players early on and not after launch, allowing us to correct on the run and build a fan-friendly following.

GT: Company of Heroes 3, like its predecessors, is a game set in the middle of World War II. How is it possible to always be current and innovative with a setting that over the years we have already seen countless times in video games, even with regard to strategy? Is there some secret that allows you to always offer something new in these cases?

DL: It's a great question. I think that, at least for Relic and Company of Heroes, the key has been to focus on ever-changing scenarios of what that terrible conflict was. Going from the western to the eastern front and, now, to the Mediterranean has in fact allowed us to make everything always different, with new units, stories, factions, mechanics and so on. The three pillars of the series are after all his desire to humanize the battlefield, the presence of unexpected moments capable of distorting everything and, finally, making the battles and clashes particularly cinematic.

These three pillars can certainly go beyond what is the Second World War and it is precisely here that a new question arises: is Company of Heroes a saga based on the Second World War and that's it or could it open up to new settings? Now is absolutely not the time to talk about it but, if Company of Heroes 3 proves to be a success, the scenarios that could open up are countless. In any case, the Second World War still has a lot to tell, especially as regards the Mediterranean scenario, and we are sure you will appreciate what it has to tell and show you.

GT: How are you going to support Company of Heroes 3 in the months and years ahead? Have you already thought of something or is it still too early to talk about it?

DL: What I can tell you now is that we have been planning to support Company of Heroes 3 for many years and we want to do so in both single player and multiplayer modes. We also know that many players prefer the campaign, while others go straight to diving into some online skirmish. We will certainly produce new content for the game, but first we want to see what players like and what their requests will be, to try to make Company of Heroes 3 even more suitable for them.

GT: Age of Empires IV, Warhammer and, of course, Company of Heroes: it's certainly not a gamble to say that Relic is one of the biggest names in strategy video games. What's the secret to drastically changing the setting and mechanics from one game to another but always staying on very high levels?

DL: Well, first of all thanks for the compliment. This is certainly a difficult question, but I think there are three secrets in particular that allow Relic to always maintain a good level in its games. The first and most important is definitely the people: we have some amazing guys at Relic who have worked on several of the games you mentioned, including someone who even got their hands on the first Company of Heroes and Warhammer 40.00 Dawn of War. Our philosophy is to put people first, thus making Relic a place where people like to stay and where everyone is respected equally.

The second aspect is the Essence Engine, our proprietary graphics engine designed specifically for RTS and characterized by great versatility. It is a highly flexible engine, able to adapt perfectly to real-time strategy games of all sorts, such as Age of Empires 4 and Company of Heroes 3. A great technology for great people, therefore, to which SEGA is finally added . The support we get from them is incredible, as well as the fact that we can compare ourselves during development with experts from other studios such as Creative Assembly and Amplitude Studios. All these things therefore allow Relic Entertainment to be what it is today and to face the ever-new challenges of the gaming landscape.

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