Interview: Darkest Hour
Wargamer gets some time to interview Rayan Nezzar, game designer of the grand strategy game Darkest Hour, which utilizes the Hearts of Iron engine.
Wargamer: Can you explain to me the premise behind Darkest Hour? I see that it’s based on the Hearts of Iron engine, but what new and exciting ideas does it bring to the table?
Rayan Nezzar: Darkest Hour is a grand strategy game featuring a mixture of short and in-depth campaigns set across the darkest chapters of the 20th century, from the outbreak of the Great War up to the onset of the Cold War. Our project started more than two years ago, when Paradox Interactive gave us the opportunity to work on their Europa Engine, upon which were developed great games like Hearts of Iron, Europa Universalis and Victoria. We started with initial bug fixes of the original game and soon ended up implementing a huge amount of code optimization to increase performance. Hard-coded modifiers were then moved to text files whilst hard-coded limitations were removed. But this was just the beginning of our ambitious project.
We sought to create a dynamic grand strategy game where players can impact the course of events. Many innovative concepts have been implemented to achieve this, ranging from a detailed province based 2D map drawn by a group of geographers and military historians, to a reactive artificial intelligence able to reach historically plausible outcomes.
Moreover, Darkest Hour has been developed by an independent band of fans and former modders. Our philosophy has always been to stay true to the community and provide the most fun for players as well as the best platform for modders.
Besides, we want to keep developing Darkest Hour for a long time to come and plan the addition of new content through patches (not just bug fixes) even long after the release!
WG: I understand that the map has been redesigned and improved. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Rayan: Our map does not have much in common with the original Hearts of Iron II map as we basically created a new one starting from a blank paper.
The basic problem with game design is to find the best compromise between simplicity and realism. We had to resolve the dilemma between the community’s fondness for historical realism (as well as our own) and the need to deliver a “game” that is fun to play instead of yet another boring simulation.
First of all, the shape of the provinces is very detailed and is based on real maps. This gives our map a very special feel that provides players with a lot of realism and immersion. Playing as the United States, you will for instance have to decide whether to invade Europe from Normandy or the Pas-de-Calais (among other options). Both options are viable to a certain extent and both have their pros and cons. There are two sea zones between Portsmouth harbor and the Normandy beaches whilst there is only one from Dover to the Pas-de-Calais. Players can thereby choose between surprise and supply efficiency.
When it comes to borders, we decided to put an emphasis on the 1914-1945 era. This means that whenever borders of different eras conflict, borders from the World Wars era would prevail. One of the basic map features is to use a distance calculation which is based on real geographic coordinates. You can now see real distances between one province and another. The distance between Berlin and Moscow is for instance the same in the game as it is in reality. This also reduced the calculation time for each distance check and improved the performance dramatically, especially in late games with a lot of units, which was one of the main issues with Hearts of Iron II and one of those which raised the most complaints among the community.
WG: Also the AI is supporting improvements as well. What will long time Hearts of Iron gamers notice about this new AI? Does it fight better? Use its production more effectively?
Rayan: Obviously the AI is one of the most important aspects of every game. We have worked hard to improve it, but it can always be better and therefore we expect to introduce improvements and fine tuning with every patch, so it is a never ending struggle. One of the most enhanced aspects of our AI is the one that regulates the trade market. Now the player can fully entrust the purchasing and selling of resources to it because it is able to find what it needs at the best possible price. This also means that the player can no longer exploit its weaknesses, as was possible in the original Hearts of Iron II. Another important enhancement of the AI is in the production AI, which utilizes every bit of Industrial Capacity it has: compared to the past the AI is able to produce more than before on the same industrial base. Obviously this will be more challenging for the player!
Moreover, we solved the most annoying and disruptive Hearts of Iron II bugs such as the AI code that regulated strategic bombings. It was flawed and forced bombers to hit the same province of an area over and over. Strategic bombing is far more effective in Darkest Hour and can be performed over a whole region (like England or Germany) or only a province (Cologne, London). The AI also knows how to choose the best target for its bombers dynamically. Thus you obviously need to achieve air superiority over your own country; otherwise you will be bombed back to the Middle Ages by your enemies. This was very poorly represented in Hearts of Iron II (if at all). Luckily for the players, we added a new type of mission available for air units. This “Air Scramble” mission should help them keep their industry safe. Its efficiency is nonetheless influenced by the presence of radar stations in your provinces. Strategic planning has therefore to take these new factors into consideration!
WG: Can you talk a little bit about the diplomatic system and its improvements over the original game?
Rayan: We aimed at achieving a dynamic diplomatic system that allows the player to have a real impact on the course of history. We refined and enhanced the event system of Hearts of Iron II introducing many new features and possibilities, like floating events and more realistic random events, where the user cannot directly choose the outcome of a situation (like an election or an enemy attack). We also created a new decision system and improved the AI in order to achieve historically plausible outcomes. For example, our new automatic release of nations for the AI allows post-WWII scenarios where not only Germany can be split into two different countries but also other nations like Poland, Italy, Netherlands and Belgium as it could have been possible if the Allies' invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe had occurred earlier or later or with more or less success than how historically happened.