Flattery will get you everywhere in this business. Having peeked over my shoulder during a multiplayer session of Dawn of War II, lead designer Jonny Ebbert rated me an "advanced player". I perhaps should have reciprocated by complimenting him on his rugged features, but it didn't seem the time or place to say such things given our surroundings inside Relic's Vancouver offices. Instead I calmly accepted the kind words, blushed ever-so-slightly and buried deeper the shameful fact that I'd never actually won a multiplayer game of Dawn of War.
"That guy behind you, with his back to the window," said my new best friend, referring to a correspondent from a famous European gaming website who had been my teammate in the co-operative battle, "He was struggling. He was barely hanging on."
Ebbert evidently sets a lot of stock in watching people play his games. If he were a film director, he would be freaking people out in movie theatres. Tall and as bald as a Space Marine's genitals, he probably freaks people out regardless. Thankfully as a designer of real-time strategy games he can be afforded the luxury of watching from safe distances. Having cut his teeth on the flawed masterpiece that was Empire Earth, he jumped across to Relic to help design Dawn of War's first expansion. He's been keeping a close watch on the design team ever since.
2009 will see a fifth Dawn of War release in as many years. But by way of being a direct sequel DOW2 is understandably the most anticipated and, thanks to taking inspiration from Company of Heroes and its own heritage, is easily the most distinct of the series.
"Remember Carentan?" Asks Jonny Ebbert, referring to Company of Heroes' finest hour. "That feeling of having three squads, and that's it, and you gotta take a whole town with them? That was the most engaging strategy moment I'd ever seen in my eight years making RTS games. We watched people play that mission and they'd be on the edge of their seat, pupils dilated, every click counts... 'holy shit'..." His arms stop flailing and he retreats from the flashback. "The next mission was make a big base, make lots of guys. You'd see people totally check out."
DOW2 is Carentan extended, extrapolated and transposed onto the Warhammer 40,000 canvas, with four squads in Imperial power armour and bolters ready to do the Emperor's bidding against those dastardly Space Orks and the others in their fragile alliance of futuristic Greenskins. Only now though, the squads have names, they talk to each other between each mission, during missions, and, more importantly, they improve.
"The core fantasy of the 40,000 universe is few against many," says Ebbert, "a small force making a last stand, overcoming impossible odds. If you look through the artwork from the universe, that's all you see: a few Space Marines on a hill against a huge horde. We wanted to recreate that."
Recognising that they must keep the brutality of Warhammer intact, and mindful that players weren't going to be happy buying their way through the same series of games played through a new 3D engine, the team considered what had to be changed.
"We identified a problem with real-time strategy, that other genres are providing a superior fantasy," says Ebbert. "We broke it down to three things: starting over just destroys it for most people, no-one likes it, it feels arbitrary, and it ruins any kind of storytelling you are trying to do.
"Secondly the RTS reward structure is awful compared to other genres. They just front-load everything, overwhelm you and there is very little to discover after that. Other genres reward you constantly for playing. The final thing is that it's hard to feel attached to the action because everything is disposable. We felt that persistence across missions would provide that attachment."