Warhammer 40,000: Eternal Crusade launched via Steam Early Access in January, and we caught up with developer Behaviour Interactive to find out more about their plans ahead of the full launch on PC and consoles this summer. We had a chat with senior producer Nathan Richardson and lead game designer Brent Elison.
What first attracted you to work on this license and what made you decide to go with this sort of game?
Brent Elison: Interestingly this project actually started in the early idea phases back at Funcom. I was working at Funcom with a few people and the opportunity came up to start exploring a Warhammer 40,000 game, because there were some people here who had a lot of experience with it, really enjoyed it, and of course at the company itself we had a whole bunch of people who loved 40K, so we wanted to do a 40K game. So there was a sort of concepting phase that got put together and then what actually happened was that an executive ended up going from Funcom over to Behaviour and took the team with and that's where the project actually started. It was always the idea from the beginning 'let's make a 40k game that's online' but then it was up to us the kind of online game that we wanted to make, and from the beginning it was always about how can we do 40K. It wasn't about we wanna make 'this kind of game' it was about how can we do the best justification to feeling like you are one of those soldiers on the tabletop, or in the lore, there in the middle of all the explosions, vehicles and combat.
From our point of view it sounds a little bit like the game that it is now is not perhaps the same thing that it was in the beginning at Funcom. Was it very different back then?
BE: So the initial pitch which ended up being part of the announcement was a much larger more open-world game. Due to some various factors relating to our technology partners which we were exploring at the time, it ended up not being feasible and we ended up focusing more on making the game as good as it could be given those constraints. Now the thing is though that from the beginning even though we were exploring and talking about these sort of larger scale elements, the actual game itself, the core combat iteration has been sort of the through line all the way to today, and that's what's been constantly iterated on and improved in trying to make a core 40K combat experience.
More recently you launched into Early Access, what can you tell us about that experience? What sort of things have you been mainly interested in testing out?
Nathan Richardson: Brent just said it's mainly the core combat experience that we have been working on, because our development philosophy is basically getting players in as early as possible and then based on feedback, and evolving them in the direction of where we should be going. Improving on that and, by all statistics and surveys and everything we have received, we have been quite successful in that and we're quite happy with that because when we started doing the core combat vertical slice we were of course scared shitless that it would be horrible, but everybody really liked it so we started from a good point and then we moved forward. In the beginning of 2015 we changed the scope to be technologically feasible and in that model the core combat was incredibly important; if that didn't work then the rest of the systems wouldn't matter at all. So now we're at a point where a couple of months ago where all the statistics and surveys and even form feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and we started moving on to doing the more persistent world features, where we have character advancement, territorial control, we have campaigns, we have warlords and PvE, all of this is now coming into Early Access. It'll just be one of the features will be dropping in over the next few weeks and months.
Will it be the full scope of the game at some point in Early Access or will you still be holding back on certain content for full release?
NR: No we put it all in.
BR: This is the kind of game where you need large numbers of players in order to test it properly. Just to do the smallest match you need 30 people, we can occasionally test that internally but it's not the same as going online and testing it with people.
NR: I mean having 50,000 people going on and testing your maps, and systems, and combat battles, there really is no equivalent. I imagine if we had only the team doing all that testing internally I can assure you that the game would not be fun. What is actually happening right now is with us working this close with the customers in the development of the game. This is something that other companies really don't want to do, they're reluctant to show customers the early phase of development even with a fun core gameplay which we are improving and expanding upon. Us using Unreal Engine 4, which we also switched over to in early 2015, we're actually developing things at a very fast rate because all our engineers and everybody is essentially working on the game, they're not writing a graphics engine or something so it's been pretty amazing how fast we've been moving, and that's why you'll see these more massive features actually dropping in quite fast over the weeks so that everybody starts seeing the greater scope of the game.
You touched upon it a little bit here and we noticed in the latest state of the crusade that you said the best stuff is achieved in game. Does this imply some sort of loot system or is gear unlocked through progression?
NR: No loot. We call it rewards, you won't be running around and picking it up from the ground, you'll be getting it at the end of the match.
BE: There's both XP-based rewards and currency based random rewards, so as you earn XP as you perform certain actions during the match that are generally tied to playing to the objectives, that allows you to unlock stuff in our progression tree which is fixed and those are things like the ability to use weapons more efficiently, the accessories that improve your survivability, classes those sorts of things. Then there's the reward boxes which will give you different types of weapons, mods, consumables that sort of thing, mods being weapon mods like scopes and barrels and the like.
You said that you scaled down on the ambitions or the scale of it in some ways, but there's still quite a lot of scope, especially when you talk about all the factions and the units that are in there. We're just curious because there's a mode that's balanced based on 40k. I can imagine that it can still be an issue keeping balance, since it's skill-based and not turn-based. How do you approach this?
BE: Well, it's particularly interesting because we're offering so much, so many options and customisation to the player that there will be a very large set of things that the player will have access to. What's happening is that right now we are shoving things into the game, it's all about new stuff and getting it in there and sort of seeing how that interacts with everybody else. Our philosophy generally in production is that you do your riskiest stuff first, so the bigger impact a weapon or character has, the earlier we want to put it in. So that's why we're putting in new weapon types, we're putting in new factions, the things like that right now. And then when we're talking about variations on weapons, that's all coming later. The intention is we get as much of this stuff in as possible going up to beta then once we have everything in the game, that's the point we can realistically start balancing and tuning, because we can change the numbers on the spreadsheet right now, but until all the elements are in it's kind of just a toss up and we'll have to do it again. So once all those elements are in then we will do serious balancing for several months as part of our beta. We don't want to do a two week beta like some people do, it's actually a real beta where we're really getting feedback from the players using our metrics and responding to it.
NR: In terms of scope, what was actually tuned down was more on the technological side, so in the beginning if you can imagine a huge open world, like Skyrim, and will still have thousand player PvP battles. We took a different approach which was much more closer to The Division and Destiny which is that you have some form of hub or meta map which ties everything together and from there you jump into different types of activities. So there is a huge persistent world that we have still, it's just that you can't drive from end to end in it. Maybe that's going to be possible in the future but this is a much more feasible and viable approach to actually doing it, and actually gives us more freedom, because we can make matches and locations and game modes both in PvE and in PvP which are very different from each other without it affecting the entire game itself.
BE: The content actually hasn't been scaled down that much. The Eldar should be coming within a month and then the Orks shortly after that, with all of the classes and vehicles we intended to add at this point, so that part is still on schedule
Do you feel that this approach is more inviting to a wider audience if you will, rather than sort of the big open world thing where you would have been in a more MMO mindset and play-style?
NR: That's a good question. It seems that a lot of people which are stigmatised by the word MMO don't have problems playing Destiny or The Division. That's not to say that we're doing the same things, we're doing things differently, but it's the same fundamental framework I would say. You have a hub and you can jump into whatever gameplay you feel at that point in time. MMORPG's actually do the same, and we're not an MMORPG by the way, they do the same but it's more you run around, and then you run into a raid, and then run over somewhere else and you do a mission from a quest giver and stuff like that. We are much more focusing on the territorial conquest, and that huge persistent world map, and the factions battling each other. So you have personal goals, and you have the campaigns which are more based on the factions, these are maybe two weeks long and based on what happened in the previous campaign, we might actually change what happens in the next campaign. Each faction has its own goals and it's much more driven like that from our side, that's what differentiates us from the others, because they are more closer to an MMORPG because they have quests and stuff like that, but we don't.
We find the whole sort of faction warfare meta game fascinating. Have you designed that exactly how you want it to work or is that still in progress?
BE: Actually the very early UI iteration is going to come in potentially in the next patch, we're working on the back end. Our goal there is to be something where it actually feels like each match is making a difference. You can sometimes see with these games, even the more massively single-player, is that what you contribute seems to be more of an aggregation and you don't really feel like when you won this battle as the attackers it actually did anything other than tip a number in a certain direction. Our goals with the territory control map is that each point on the map actually reflects a battle that you do and will actually visibly move the front line to encompass the territory that you control. When you do an outpost match, which are the 30 player games, that tips the frontline forward and you can see it on the map. Then the big goals, which are the fortresses, which are the 60 player battles, and those are the goals of the territory conquest. So you're always trying to move it, surround the fortresses and take it over, and that will be what makes the biggest difference for your side.
NR: And then of course you have the PvE which ties into the level of infestation of those territories because the PvE is against the Tyranids. So you have to cleanse your territories of the Xenos or lose the benefits of actually having that territory. Some territories give your warlords, which are like commanders in battlefield, access to special abilities and you can lose those if you don't keep your territories clean.
That is a very smart way of making you actually contribute to the grander campaign, because that is something that can be a little bit of a challenge.
BE: We want to make smart use of that PvE and PvP by sort of switching up the rewards, because frequently what you'll see from a game that offers both is that people will sometimes tend towards the path of least resistance. So if you can do PvE and get just as good or even slightly worse rewards than the PvP, but predictably then you'll frequently just end up doing that forever. It's very important for us that people are contributing to the PvP since that's the focus of the game. People who are playing PvP are content for other players, so we want to make it so that PvE is always accessible but the rewards scale based on the needs of your faction. If there's been a really big Tyranid infestation and you're in danger of losing stuff then you are motivated more due to the rewards that you'll get to go off to do PvE.
NR: And, again, essentially what we have is more opportunities based on the framework. It's not without reason that games that are coming out right now are trying to be a hybrid of an MMO and some other type of game. I'd say just massive online whatever. We have two massive online driving games already, they're not quite MMO's but they're massive persistent worlds, where you can jump into different types of gameplay from the strategic map. For us because we have free expansions every three months and we update Early Access every one or two weeks depending on what features are coming in, that's why we're seeing those features coming in there, but in the free expansions we can add a new set of PvE and apply new game modes, not just to the new maps but to the old maps, so it's even lowering risk and increasing flexibility.
How do you plan to facilitate player cooperation and things like voice chat for PC and other means of communication?
BE: So one thing that's going to be coming in relatively soon is a change to the flow of how you enter the maps, right now we have a simple system that's trying to get you into a map as quickly as possible so there's no lobbies or anything like that happening. Soon, both for the alpha, beta, and final release we'll be moving more towards a system that encourages players to spend more time together before the match properly begins, you'll end up in a lobby before the server is set up whereby we're trying to get as many people as possible there at once so we can start the match with the maximum number of players in most cases. Then once you start the match you end up in the deployment screen for a period of time, during which we strongly push you to look at the composition of the squads, what classes people have selected and look and see how you can best contribute with what you like to play. At the same time the warlord will have been chosen at that point and he can give orders to the squads as to what they should be concentrating on. So by pushing the whole game more towards that kind of flow where people can talk, get coordinated before the match actually starts then I think that will contribute a lot. Once you're in the game we have various mechanics for the squads, there's always a squad leader who always has a standard on his back and by staying next to him you get certain benefits, we emphasise where the squads are on your screen so you can always see where your friends are, we have the squad Rhinos that you can spawn into to stick with your squad and those are the sorts of things we're using to push people together. On the voice communications part I think Nathan can tell us a bit more about that
NR: We're looking at a couple of providers for voice communication but obviously yes we will have voice communication integrated. Right now we're using Steam Voice, but it doesn't allow for very complex integration right now, at least it doesn't fulfil our needs in terms of the different squads and the warlords and complex channel setup, but there will definitely be voice and text chat. Like Brent said you get XP in the game and it's not just that we encourage you by systems and through the game loop to actually group up, it's just also when you're close to your squad and your squad is achieving a goal on the map together like capturing a point, if it's a squad and an order from a warlord, there are multipliers to the XP that you gain, so as a warlord I say capture point A to a squad, the squad goes there and they capture it and they as a group get more XP than they would have if they were solo or if they were as a squad doing something random.
BE: The warlord places down a spot and whenever you're in that spot the XP gains you get are given an additional bonus.
NR: There's also the repeating voice of me saying "play together".
BE: The characters also have lots of quick comms and lots of auto barks so the characters end up being quite chatty and they're going to be even more so because we've been using a placeholder set of voices until now by using one of the developers and it actually sounds pretty good, but the professional voice actors are coming in in the next couple of weeks and that's going to be a huge change for the game.
So how is work on the console versions going?
NR: I'm not supposed to tell you but it took us two weeks to get up and running on the Xbox.
BE: I mean we're using Unreal 4 which is made to be a cross-platform engine, so it's not that hard to just get things up and running and rendering and all that sort of thing.
NR: We expected to be spending far more time getting it up and running on the consoles and we built the Xbox build, threw it on an Xbox dev kit and fired it up and it worked, but of course there were errors and stuff that we had to iron out. I'd say it took us two weeks to get fully into the game with the hub and UI and everything working. I was thoroughly impressed.
BE: It's going to launch on all platforms simultaneously, we've been designing from the beginning under the assumption that you would need to play this game with a gamepad so it's fully functional with a gamepad right now. All the menus and things are being designed with that in mind we will be adding some additional features for the console in terms of the gameplay, things like aim assist and those sort of things that you expect on a console, but really they're pretty much the same game.
NR: There will also be betas for the console and the Xbox even has an early access program which we are considering doing, but I wouldn't quote me on that because generally what we're saying is that we would like to do some sort of influential program, like we did with founders, on consoles, but that's entirely up to Microsoft and Sony whether that's possible. There will of course be betas, that's a pretty standardised thing that we have and we need to do that because we need to test the scale of the environment on the consoles. With Unreal 4 partly the reason of course is that we aren't at this point in time modifying the Unreal Engine 4 that much. It's not quite vanilla but it's quite close, it's not like when you had Unreal 3 and you wrote almost 80% of all of it and then tried to port it, and of course it didn't really jump over and just run, so that is probably a part of why it moved so easily onto the Xbox, but we're getting the PS4 kits this week so we'll see if that is as easy as well, which means that we'll be quite ahead of time in those ports.
We'd like to wrap up with a more general question on the studio. Behaviour has done a lot of projects with assisting and porting, but now with Eternal Crusade and Dead by Daylight it feels like there's a little bit of a shift there, doing more of your own projects. Is that a correct assumption and something you've been working towards?
NR: Yes, so Behaviour reorganised during 2015 after 20 years focused on work for hire, more or less. During those 20 years of course we've been working on huge titles, most of which we can't even talk about yet or ever, because of course studios want to own their title, having had made them themselves. As an example, lately one which we can talk about, we made Fallout Shelter and we made a huge part of Fallout 4 for Bethesda, but what we did do in 2015 is that we created a division of the company which is called Behaviour Digital and that is a division which is making the company's own games. So we're pretty much leveraging those 20 years of best practices and discipline in terms of development because when you are doing work for hire your part of the innovation is actually making the development part of the process efficient and effective. Now the next step was simply diversifying and utilising that experience. Dead by Daylight is one example, where we were working with Starbreeze in Sweden, and Warhammer 40,000: Eternal Crusade, while it's a licensed game, it's still our game of course. We're not funded by Games Workshop at all. It's the first steps for us in terms of making our own games and that will continue because our division and our purpose is that we are that division within the company that makes our own games.
Below is an interview when the project was first unveiled, in a slightly different shape, back at E3 2014.