Broadening Horizons: Why Combat Mission: Shock Force 2 is making the leap to Steam

By Ian Boudreau 24 Aug 2020 1

When Battlefront and Slitherine announced that they were bringing Combat Mission: Shock Force 2 to Steam, Editor Joe was surprised - "The pigs have flown," as he put it in the headline. Since the implosion of brick and mortar retailing for PC games, Battlefront has been content to offer the consumer versions of its Combat Mission simulations through its own website, ignoring storefronts like Steam that have generally insisted on a sizeable cut of the profits in exchange for placement on digital shelves.

And why not? Battlefront has also had the professional military training side of its business to see to, after all.

But thanks to a deal brokered by publisher Slitherine, Combat Mission is going to be on the radar for a whole new audience of gamers. We had the chance to talk with Battlefront co-founder Stephen Grammot, who also is one of the co-designers of Combat Mission, about how this new arrangement came to be, and the particular challenges of making high fidelity simulations for both consumer and military player bases.

Many of us are pleasantly surprised to see a Combat Mission game arrive on Steam. What made that move possible?

Grammot: Why, Slitherine of course! For Steam to be worth doing, financially, we need to see significant sales above and beyond what we would otherwise be able to sell through our own store. Due to the way Steam works that isn’t likely without a dedicated and experienced marketing effort. Steering clear of significant and risky ventures like this is the primary reason we’ve survived in this unforgiving industry for 20 years while so many others have not. Slitherine, on the other hand, already has the marketing skills and experience to make this work. This gave us the confidence and assurances we required to move onto Steam.

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Battlefront's customers aren't just wargamers - you also have clients in the defence industry. How has that played into the publishing agreement with Slitherine and the move to Steam?

Grammot: The two are directly related. We’ve always had militaries and defense contractors interested in Combat Mission, going all the way back to [Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord] in 2000. The problem is securing significant contracts is extremely difficult, costly, and therefore risky. Many years ago Slitherine made a decision to go “all in” on securing professional contracts, therefore it made sense for us to partner with them and see what they could do with Combat Mission. A couple of years after we teamed up we had our first ever large military contract, proving to us along the way that Slitherine is great to work with. It was because of this direct partnership experience that we felt comfortable extending our trust to include commercial Combat Mission sales.

What does Steam offer Battlefront in terms of opportunity? Are you expecting to bring Combat Mission to a new audience, and if so, who?

Grammot: We honestly don’t know, but we have good reason to think our customer base will get a lot bigger very soon. We believe this is the likely outcome because prior to the retail implosion 10-plus years ago Combat Mission was sold world-wide on retail shelves by various publishing partners. That all went away and we switched back to the “word of mouth” company we were when we started Battlefront back in the late 1990s. This strategy has served us very well for a long time, and quite honestly still does. However we’ve always thought it would be good to find a way to reestablish a larger customer base without putting our existence at risk. Slitherine presented us with just such an opportunity and we look forward to seeing where it goes.

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Along those lines, what kind of player is Combat Mission: Shock Force 2 a good fit for?

Grammot: Blowing stuff up in 3D is fun and there’s lots of games out there that do it very well ($50,000,000 development budgets should be able to do that, right?). However, there’s few games out there that combine the thrills and excitement of 3D combat with the intellectual challenges that come from tactical realism. If a gamer out there wants that sort of depth when blowing stuff up, Combat Mission is definitely something to look at.

What kinds of applications are Battlefront's games used for by militaries? Can you discuss some of your defence industry partnerships - how have you adapted your games to their training requirements? Or have they been built to be ready for that right out of the box?

Based on our previous experiences we’ve found there’s three loose categories of professional uses; personal skills trainer, classroom trainer, and analytical tool. Each has slightly different needs.

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A big chunk of our customer base uses or has used Combat Mission while in active military service. Feedback from them suggests Combat Mission, as is, has what it takes to be taken seriously as a way to expand and reinforce otherwise traditionally taught skills. Also it helps with boredom when on deployment! Taken a step further, some military classrooms use Combat Mission formally in conjunction with traditional training. As an analytical tool, however, significant new features are needed to achieve the goals its users have in mind.

Our present contract with the British Ministry of Defence’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) allows them to use Combat Mission for exploring various concepts in a virtual environment. Obviously I can’t say what exactly those concepts are (and honestly, I don’t ask too many questions!), but the general purpose is pretty straightforward and logical. For example, think of the cost and time needed to traditionally verify the benefits of making even a small change to a core organizational structure, such as the headcount of a squad/section or increasing/decreasing/changing the weapons they carry. Compare that to Combat Mission’s ability to rigorously test and refine theories quickly and inexpensively before engaging in more expensive activities. It is quite reasonable to suggest that using Combat Mission wisely could help a military save millions, if not billions, compared to using traditional methodologies alone.

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As inherently capable as Combat Mission is for this sort of work, up until now it’s been missing a host of backend analytical tools and modification capabilities which either don’t have commercial value or are otherwise unsuitable for the commercial version. For sure a small percentage of our customer base believes the more numbers the better, and would give up a kidney or perhaps two to know how many rounds of 7.62 were expended in a battle, but for the most part the professional features really aren’t very interesting or useful for gamers. Therefore, it is unlikely that professional features will be made available to the commercial market.

What kinds of additional considerations do you need to make as game developers when working with modern militaries?

Our reputation is built on our proven record of listening to our customers and figuring out how best to satisfy their requests. In large part this is the same approach we have with our professional customers. However, there are two distinct differences. The first is our professional customers are focused on a narrower range of requirements for a given feature than is the case with commercial customers. Professionals are primarily concerned with getting the functionality they want for a time/price budget they can afford, not with how pretty it looks or how easy it is to use. Commercial customers have a much higher standard for usability and graphical presentation, which is more expensive and time consuming to implement. We find it a bit liberating to focus on getting the feature working more than how pretty it looks.

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The second major difference is our commercial customers don’t need us to protect them (as much) from themselves. For our commercial customers we need to have a “the customer is always right, except when wrong” philosophy to keep the game’s design cohesive and prioritized. Customers can demand something all they want, but if we don’t feel it is a good idea or find it too expensive for the return, we don’t do it. Period. With our professional customers our motto is “the customer is always right, as long as we can technically do it and get paid for it”.

In this relationship the professional customer sends us requests, we suggest solutions that are practical, and then we implement whatever choice they make. Our personal opinions on what makes for a better game aren’t relevant because that isn’t what they care about. In other words, if a professional customer wants us to spend a month to recode the game to simulate square wheeled vehicles, and is willing to pay for it, then we’ll do it. If a commercial customer made that suggestion… well… expect a different result!

How do you see Matrix/Slitherine working to help you achieve your goals?

On the commercial side of things, broadening Combat Mission’s customer base in ways that Battlefront could achieve on its own is great for us as well as all the customers that would have otherwise missed out on a great game. We’ve no doubts this will happen. On the professional side of things, our long standing goal of "putting Combat Mission to work” can only be realized with a partner such as Matrix/Slitherine that has the resources to wade through the contract process to a successful conclusion.

Combat Mission: Shock Force 2 releases on Steam on Tuesday, August 25th 2020.

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