Being an old gamer, I've seen quite a bit when it comes to the evolution of the real-time strategy game. So when I heard about Studio Centurion's upcoming Line War, I was understandably curious and cautious. The following interview was conducted via email.
GameLuster: First question: was this a long time "dream project" that you've been building in your head for years and years? Or was it a "pandemic project" to help keep the COVID cabin fever from getting to you?
Studio Centurion: Before Line War, Christian developed and continuously improved his own board game called Strategica over the course of 20 years. The idea emerged to convert Strategica into a new type of RTS video game that would be played differently from what is currently on the market. Christian had left his day job in early 2019 to focus on this endeavor and teamed up with Stefan to form Studio Centurion. Initially, we had a little office in the center of Stockholm, but a year into the development, the pandemic hit and we continued to work from home with daily Discord calls. We wanted to create a new gaming experience. The first thing we needed to do was to create a prototype to verify if the concept of controlling units with visual commands was anything like we envisioned it would be. Since early 2019, we have turned that prototype into the initial release version of Line War but we look forward to continuing to improve and evolve the game many years after its initial release.
GL: Historically, "combined arms" approaches in RTS games have involved creating groups of specific units and then just smashing them against the target in sequenced waves until the armies are slaughtered or the objective is destroyed. How is Line War following or deviating from that particular paradigm?
SC: The unit types in Line War were carefully selected with their distinct and traditionally easy-to-understand roles. Combined with how the visual command system works, we want to enable the players to express their strategy by using the strengths of their own units against the weaknesses of the opponent. Rather than box-selecting a group of units, we really put the emphasis on drawing commands to say which types of units should go where, and how they should behave. For example, by coordinating the commands, you can simultaneously send an amphibious invasion fleet, patrolled on each side by destroyers, missile ships, and cruisers, supported by air units, while dropping commandos in parachutes behind the enemy lines. You can do this while carrying out other coordinated operations simultaneously in the world since the units will continue to respond to the commands even when you have shifted your focus elsewhere.
Line War plays slower than most other RTS games which give the player the ability to read the battlefield. Many traditional military strategies and tactics apply in Line War where you can flank your enemy, conceal your true strength in terrain, and concentrate combat power at a decisive place and time to name a few examples. Carefully drawn commands often win over players that draw commands in haste.
GL: As a follow-up to the last question, how does Line War handle keeping forces concentrated? In other RTS games, motorized units tend to be faster than infantry, and light vehicles like AFVs or technicals tend to sprint past heavy armor units. How does Line War avoid the inevitable disordering of troops?
SC: In future improvements of Line War, we intend to introduce a formation concept where units will not outrun each other during an advancement. At the moment, however, the player has the ability to control which units should respond to which commands. Land units will not significantly outrun each other, but today, the player can draw commands specifically for faster units and activate them when necessary. It is possible, for example, to draw an attack path command with multiple lanes that only infantry and artillery will respond to. When the time is right, the command can be set to also attract tanks so they will join in the attack. Just before the land units have reached enemy units, the same command can also be set to attract air units. With some experience and understanding of the timing, the player can coordinate and concentrated the combat power.
The organizing of troops is handled through the ability to draw commands that only certain unit types respond to. Even in a disordered combat zone, you can create a command that only attracts infantry, for example, and the infantry will separate and distribute between commands that affect them.
GL: You mentioned RTS classics like Command & Conquer as inspiration, though Line War seems to have a kinship of sorts with Sins of A Solar Empire. What other major influences were there, and how did they help shape the game?
SC: Most of the inspiration to create Line War comes from the vision to turn a board game experience into a real-time experience. The simplicity, recognizable units types, and a retro-styled look are likely inspired from the earlier RTS games like Command & Conquer, whereas the strategic game play may be more influenced by board games like Axis and Allies. We did look at modern RTS and strategy games more to understand what players are used to when controlling the camera, handling user input, and presenting the user interface. It’s important that we give players as much familiarity with those areas where we can since the command management system is so different. Throughout the development process we have often also looked at titles in terms of what we would like to avoid. To give a few examples, we didn’t want a user interface cluttered with health bars or rely on rapid user input and micro management like in StarCraft 2. We did not want the slower pacing or in-depth complexity of 4X turn based games like the Civilization series. We did not want oversized representations of units walking in their places like in Hearts of Iron. Saying this, the same titles also inspired things we did like.
GL: Can you describe an "ah-ha!" moment that you had when you were working on the game?
SC: The first six months of development were done without having any real knowledge if it would be as fun to play as we envisioned while creating the game design document. It sure sounded like it would be fun to play by drawing commands, the delicate balance between economy and energy, and a chess-like battlefield experience. But without developing a playable prototype, including networking code, the visual command drawing system, and AI to control units, we did not know what it would be like to play. Finally, we had a working prototype with a single unit, the tank, and we could draw primitive commands on a static map and play against each other across the network. We found ourselves playing the prototype and truly enjoying it even in its most primitive form, so that was our “ah-ha!” moment where we knew we wanted to dedicate all of our efforts to turn this into a complete game.
GL: AI in an RTS tends to be either god-like or potato-esque in its functionality, whether in pathing for unit movement or executing an assault. Are players in Line War going to feel like they're getting a decent fight out of the computer, or are they likely to grumble about "AI hax"? Are they going to feel like they're constantly repeating the process of "order, counterorder, disorder"?
SC: It’s important to know that Line War is currently a multiplayer game only, and we jokingly say that it’s best enjoyed when playing against someone like when playing a board game, or a game of tennis, or even a football match when we introduce team game modes. The AI in Line War that is currently implemented now fully translates into how units behave to follow the command that you issue. If you draw multiple commands, the AI will prioritize and calculate which commands to respond to and how to act according to directives when enemy units are encountered. Since we don’t employ the “move-attack” principle to control units, the AI has a lot of work to do to make the units behave intelligently. Should I engage another target? Should I prioritize another command? Should I stay on my defense line? Should I return to my air base because I’m too damaged? Should I look for targets behind me? These are decisions that all units have to make through AI throughout the game. We still have plenty of improvements to do for the AI because today, what is really simple in most RTS games may actually be what is more challenging in Line War. For example, how long should a Landing Craft wait for units to embark before departing? How do you separate two individual units when you can’t click on them? So there are some situations where players may get a bit frustrated, but it’s good to know that it’s the same challenges for the opponent so there are no unfair advantages. Finally on this topic, knowing how the AI behaves is important for players to learn which comes naturally over time. It is not so good to leave what is called a nearly empty “engage command” which attracts a unit or two at a time that walks straight into enemy fire.
At some point after release, when the multiplayer experiences are completed, we will begin to create single player content. In its simplest form it will likely come in the shape of single player challenges where scenarios are created, by us and by the player community, where structures, units, and commands controlled by time and triggers. Completing the challenge within a certain time frame, or with minimal amount of casualties, could result in higher scores. Longer term, story-driven campaigns and true AI skirmishes where we make AI opponents play like a human to analyze and draw the visual commands is a very complicated undertaking that could be possible when Line War gains popularity.
GL: Where do you see Line War going from here? Basic sequels with slightly updated units? Heroic or grimdark fantasy settings (Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer)? Sci-fi (in the vein of Starship Troopers or Homeworld)? Something else entirely?
SC: We are looking forward to a long continued improvement journey for Line War. First up is adding more multiplayer modes, like 2v2, 3v3, and FFA. The concept of technologies will be introduced where existing units and structures can be upgraded through technologies depending on play style and situations that arise in a match. Examples of technologies could include increased rate of production, conversion of a Transport Jet to an AC130 gunship counterpart, Tomahawk-style missile add-on to the Cruiser, transport or sonar capability for helicopters, artillery towing capability for tanks. Through iterations, audiovisual improvements as well as more replay and spectator modes are planned followed by different forms of single player experiences. With the spectator friendly visual nature of the commands and the half-hour average match duration, we hope to encourage tournaments and e-sport events for Line War. In a more distant future, sequels or branched versions such as a WW2 version, could be interesting alternatives to consider.
Line War is scheduled to release on May 5 on Steam.