James Cobb sits down with Battlefront18 Apr 2016 2
Developer Battlefront continues to thrive in an industry where companies sink, get sold or become comatose. The Combat Mission series continues to be popular with tactical gamers. What’s the secret to their success? Jim Cobb asked co-founder Stephen Grammont on how things get done at Battlefront.
James Cobb: You’ve been with Battlefront since the late 1990s. How did you become interested in computer gaming?
Stephen Grammont: It was a natural progression from growing up with board and paper wargaming in the 80s. My first computer wargame purchase was Chris Crawford’s “Eastern Front” for my Atari 800 (which I still have, BTW). Obviously I was hooked ever since.
JC: What games inspired you to become a developer/designer?
SG: I’d say the massive hours put into Gary Grigsby’s War in Russia and Kampfgruppe (the precursor to Steel Panthers) contributed heavily to my desire to make games. I could see the potential but I could also just as easily see that technology was holding better designs back. In the early days I made design docs and dreamed of better things to come while playing pretty much anything that came out.
JC: What was the first computer game you worked on?
SG: In 1993 I decided I had to put my ideas and my skills to the test. The result was a strategic level warggame called “Onslaught”. Unfortunately my timing was bad as the market was going through one of its first big consolidations as the industry shifted towards more mass market gaming. Lots of pioneer game companies were bought up or destroyed around this time. Although I beat the long odds of getting a game into the market, I did not beat the even longer odds of making any money from it. I then went to work for Impressions (Sierra Online) and did strategy and wargaming with them for two years before once again striking out on my own, but this time with a partner (Charles Moylan). Together we formed Battlefront in 1998.
JC: The first series of Combat Mission seemed to have been popular with Beyond Overlord, Barbarossa to Berlin, and Afrika Korps. These were updated until 2009 and are still played. Why did you completely change engines with Battle for Normandy?
SG: As we were working on Barbarossa to Berlin we determined that the game code was too difficult to support new ideas and new technologies. We almost didn’t make Afrika Corps because of that, but in the end decided the game engine had enough in it to do one more game. While we were making Afrika Corps we started development of a brand new engine which became Combat Mission: Shock Force. Battle for Normandy came after and was the project that matured the game engine.
JC: Battlefront is known for add-ons to base games. What prompts the development of an add-on?
SG: The first Combat Mission engine (CM1) was based on a fairly simplistic simulation and a whole lot of units. It focused on breadth, not depth. We determined our customers wanted more enriched game experience (realism, features, details, etc.) and therefore we designed CM2 to focus on depth, not breadth. This meant it was no longer practical to simulate a huge swath of front with any one game and instead had to break up the content over several releases. This developed into the strategy of Families, Base Games, Modules, and now Packs. We define a Family as a particular timeframe/front, the Base Game as the building blocks for the defined setting, Modules as extenders of forces and/or the time period and/or geographic area within the Family’s defined scope, and Packs for a flexible means of fleshing out areas that were not covered by the Base or the Modules.
JC: How long does it take to develop an add-on versus a stand-alone game?
SG: It varies greatly. Modules definitely take less calendar time than a Base Game, but some have taken almost as many development hours. Packs are definitely shorter and easier to do concurrent with other projects. Expect more Packs now that customers have proven to us they want them.
JC: Have there been major changes in the development team over the years?
SG: We have been very fortunate to hire great people and have them stick around for a long time. The shortest anybody has worked for us is 5 years. The longest, excluding Charles and myself, is 12 years. We’ve had three people break the 10 year mark. Not bad considering there’s usually only 4-6 full timers on staff at any given time. We also have long term relationships with contract partners, some of which are going on 10 years as well.
JC: Red Thunder only deals with the East Front in 1944. Do you plan to go back to the earlier years of that conflict?
SG: Yes, but we’re going to go forward before we go backwards. Who doesn’t want to role there IS-2s into Berlin, right?
JC: Are you planning a stand-alone for North Africa or the 1939-1940 campaigns?
SG: We would love to, but we’re not sure how that fits in with our plans. We have been putting out WW2 titles for 5 years now and we’re still mostly in the 1944/45 timeframe (Fortress Italy being the slight exception).
SG: We started with Shock Force because we wanted a break from WW2 and we needed to make sure the game engine was coded with high tech stuff in mind. It’s much easier to design code to fire something like a Javelin ATGM and then “dumb down” features to simulate a Bazooka than it is to go the other way around. Since we had a strong desire to venture into contemporary combat environments, it made a lot of sense to start there and work backwards.
JC: The modern games, especially Black Sea could be seen as controversial. Have you seen any push-back about them?
SG: The only push-back we’ve seen was at the very beginning when a core group of CM1 fans were ticked off that our first CM2 game wasn’t going to be Normandy. That was a controversy about our direction rather than the subject matter itself. Now that the flexibility/speed of releases is an established fact, customers don’t get so worked up because they know they’ll have something they want soon enough even if we are working on something they aren’t interested in.
As for topic controversy, nobody thought Syria was going to be a warzone so nobody gave us flack about it at the time. Black Sea hasn’t been perceived as controversial since it was in development years before Russia invaded Ukraine and our story line was pretty much exactly what Russia eventually went on to do. If we started making the game as a result of Russia’s actions (i.e. jumping on a bandwagon) there might have been some raised eyebrows. As it turned out people seemed to be more shocked that we “predicted the future” so closely. Also, since we have an unbiased approach to how we simulate combat we’ve avoided accusations of producing a propaganda game to show how super awesome NATO is and how backwards cruddy Russian forces are. We have a lot of Russian customers and they’ve found little to complain about compared to other games.
JC: Some game designers make their living doing simulations for the military. Does Battlefront or you do any government work?
SG: We’ve tried to work with militaries and have, in limited ways, done so. We had a small contract with the Australian MoD for historical research studies, there was a draft contract with the US Army’s TRADOC that got sideswiped by the invasion of Iraq, CM was used for a Captain’s Course at Ft. Benning one year, we were in talks with West Point potentially to fill a sim gap they had, and CMSF was used for a Brigade sponsored CPX. Of course this doesn’t include legions of military folks from all over the world who use CM for personal and unofficial training purposes. Our customers span the globe and range from buck privates to generals. For sure CM needs significant features added to meet training standards necessary for military classroom use, so we do understand that CM is not “instructor ready” in its present form. However, we are constantly told by the guys making sims for governments as well as those using them that if we put certain things into CM we would have the best battalion and below training tool bar none. But that takes money and the sources of that money are guarded by defense industry lobbyists in $5000 suits. Even if we went out and got a $5000 suit to wear, we don’t have generals and members of Congress on speed dial. It’s a tough war and we are smart enough to know we can’t possibly win without a “champion” on the inside who has sufficient clout and isn’t about to retire.
JC: Thanks, Steve, for your time and enlightening answers.