From the very beginning, we could see that developing a game based on historical events was going to be a tricky undertaking. At times it was a balancing act between reality and fun. It also required a huge leap for a small team on a small budget, as it could potentially have demanded hundreds of hours of research just to set the scene and hundreds more to complete the game.
Accuracy versus fun – The big question
Late in October last year we successfully received funding through Creative England’s Games Lab SW funding stream to develop our game, Victory at Sea. At that point Karl Hilton, CEO of Crytek UK became our mentor and suddenly we were able to make the game we wanted to, a World War II Sim with an indie heart.
In our first meeting with Karl, we discussed our key area of concern, the issue of accuracy versus fun. Through this discussion, it became clear that there were different ways to approach this, but that trying to remain 100 per cent true to history all the way through the game wouldn’t make a fun game, and actually was probably impossible to achieve.
As Karl pointed out, the first time a ship is sunk in the game that wasn’t actually sunk in World War II, then we would have changed history. In the end, we decided that as long as we laid out an accurate starting point, the player’s decisions affected the direction and ending of the game from that point on. This approach was proven to work throughout the game development process and in the satisfaction of our audience now playing the game.
Tackling game design
We discovered that there were three key challenges when it came to designing a historically accurate game.
The first was to create a feeling of authenticity by creating a world around the player that felt and reacted to their actions as they would expect it to. In Victory at Sea, this was created by something we came to call the ‘Tide of War'.
This was one of the most important parts of the game, and allowed it to be a living, breathing world, by focusing on enemy AI and what the other ships would be doing while your player sailed around the ocean. Players had to come up against enemies that would pursue them tirelessly, whilst others would be attacking ports keeping our "Tide of war" flowing. More importantly it helped us create the feeling that you had an enemy pushing against you and that for us was an integral part of helping maintain the games authenticity.
To achieve this, we really had to understand the background of the historical event we were working with. We read a lot of books and watched a lot of films and documentaries to look at how the war was fought, to keep the "Tide of war" as realistic and accurate as possible.
The second challenge was ensuring we kept roughly to the overall chronology of real events. For example ports that were held by Britain at the start of the war soon fell into Japanese hands, therefore lots of detailed analysis was required to ensure we were staying as close as we could to real events and timescales. We ensured there were chronologically accurate events along the way to help the player feel they are on track and can relate to the real history, even though they are on their own personal journey.
Thirdly we noted that whilst history records the outcomes and major events of history, it doesn’t record all, or many, of the individual or smaller acts that led to the outcome. For example, in the film Das Boot, the Submarine Commander knew he couldn’t win the war alone and his main concern was keeping his men alive. His decisions affected the story of that U-Boat alone, but played a part in the overall history.
This is where you can be creative with your design and narrative progression. You can have invented narratives, or events that play out totally dependent on player actions, whilst remaining true to history as long as they fit within that history. In our sandbox world the player starts as a Destroyer Captain, and the decisions they make create their own story as WWII happens around them.
When undertaking such a development, building a community is paramount because it can help you ensure the accuracy of the game, but also help you to gauge how far you can push away from that to make a fun game. In this instance we were very lucky, having chosen to re-develop a tabletop game under license it came with an existing community. This saved us a lot of time because the community let us know what was right and what was wrong with our re-imagined PC version.
With the wealth of specific and relevant historical knowledge at our fingertips within this community, we began actively looking to engage people who first and foremost liked the original Victory at Sea tabletop game not only because we felt these would be good people to have on our side, but because they could bring so much to the table in terms of getting the game and atmosphere right.
Thankfully Mongoose, the publishers of the tabletop game, had specific forums around the game with strong contributors, and we found many more fan groups on popular networking sites. If we hadn’t had this community already built for us, we would have needed to create one. If you are working with something factual like history, the chances are that there are still communities of enthusiasts or experts out there and even if they aren’t gamers, you can probably start to engage with them, even if it is a bit more challenging.
Something we realised early on in this process however is that an essential part of interacting and collaborating with fans is becoming a fan yourself. If it’s a subject that doesn’t interest you to that extent, then perhaps choose a different subject.
However, if you do know your subject and are as passionate as the communities with which you are engaging, in turn that community will help you keep on track and give you a near endless supply of ideas. These groups have become evangelists for us as they want the game to succeed as much as we do, they all have their idea about the ultimate game in this genre and we want to give it to them.
There are different ways to approach historically accurate games, however since it’s release, we’ve had great feedback overall and have found that some of the players play this game very differently to how we envisioned it being played, but when they have clocked up over 160 hours playtime only a few weeks after launch, who are we to argue.
We’ve also continued to have great discussions with history fanatics and tabletop gamers, all of whom have ideas of what they consider to be the ultimate version of this game.
The fact that we could respond with informed ideas does help to keep their respect, and in reality no one is wrong, but you’re always going to divide the room with a game like this, for one reason or another. Overall though, the passion from the community is amazing not only for sales but for future expansion and growing a whole new community around the existing one.
We do genuinely listen to feedback and take it on board, evolving our community’s ideas to help us meet our goals and visions for the game.
However, what we have realised is that we have to remember what our original goals were and stick to them, working historical accuracy in as much as we can without compromising the players' enjoyment and immersion, so we have to consider carefully any suggestions before implementing.