An Interview With Dawn of War III’s Game Director, Philippe Boulle

E3 2016 gave us an eye-opening demo of Dawn of War III’s gameplay (more on that here). Shortly after, I sat down with Philippe Boulle, the game’s director, to chat with him about what’s inspired Dawn of War III, why they made the choices they have, and the importance of intelligent UI.

The lead time in between Dawn of War II: Retribution and Dawn of War III was considerable. At one time, we would have expected the game a mere two years after the last Dawn of War II expansion. Unfortunately, troubles at THQ and layoffs at Relic made it almost impossible for the team to gain any ground on the beloved Dawn of War series. So, when Dawn of War III was announced, there was a collective gasp of happiness among Dawn of War enthusiasts.

While skepticism was at the back of my mind, it was refreshing to see Relic returning to Dawn of War’s roots. But I had to know why that was. (Curious writer is curious.)

“We took a lot of time to look back at the franchise, seeing which elements we wanted to bring forward — what makes up the core of Dawn of War, ” Boulle said. “Those large armies, those big over-the-top battles, really have stood the test of time. Once we decided we wanted big armies back, we definitely needed base building back because that gives players the pacing and gameplay that they want. Like, you can harass your enemies’ base, forward build — it just creates a lot of nice possibilities.”

But Relic didn’t want to lose the bombastic qualities that they’d introduced with their ode to Company of Heroes in the second Dawn of War game. So, they kept the heroes. “They have the most abilities, they reward micro a lot more,” said Boulle. “So putting those in the middle of a large army is what gave us the new combination of Dawn of War III. The chocolate and peanut-butter of the Dawn of War franchise.”

You had me a chocolate and peanut-butter, Phil. Yum.

So, What’s This About A New Planet?

Once upon a time, there was a planet named Acharon. Acharon was an icy planet with vast floes of… lava. Yep, lava. Why an icy-lavascape, Relic? “Warhammer 40K is, after all, a science fantasy,” Boulle explained with a grin. “So crazy landscapes that don’t make a lot of sense are our bread and butter. There will be several more landscapes that are like Acharon — with its bold palette of fire and ice —that will be revealed later on.”

Here’s the deal with Acharon: there’s a mythical super-weapon rumoured to be somewhere on the planet. So, three massive armies — Space Marines, Orkz, and Eldar — descend on the planet to fight it out and get to the super weapon. Because of course they do. Spoiler Alert: Space Marines do it for the Emperor, Orkz do it because they like shinies, and Eldar do it to protect the Warp. Or something.

About the Narrative & The Three Armies

RTS games don’t tend to dazzle me in the story arena. A lot of the time, the story feels tacked on so that the gameplay can sizzle and spark. The only exceptions to that rule have tended to be Dawn of War, StarCraft, and WarCraft. Dawn of War III is looking to embrace the round-robin narrative approach, weaving through the perspectives of the three factions in sequence, instead of sticking to separate campaigns for separate factions.

“It’s a panoply of sorts. We were inspired by Pulp Fiction, with its varied perspectives,” said Boulle. “You’ll play the first mission as Space Marines, the second mission as Orkz, the third mission as Eldar, and so on. That allows us to do a couple of interesting things narratively. It introduces dramatic irony, where the player knows more than the protagonists. And then you can also see how what you did in mission one affects mission two or sets up the third mission, etc.

In addition to the return of Gabriel Angelo, whom we saw in the demo, Relic is giving us some additional fan favourites from the franchise, including Macha the Eldar Farseer and Gorgutz Headhunter, the Ork Warboss. However, you don’t need to be on the up-and-up on Dawn of War (or Warhammer 40K) lore in order to enjoy the story. Each character in the story will be introduced properly. No need to “bone up” on preceding story.

Intelligent UI That Makes War Manageable

With larger armies and a faster-pace, having an intelligent, crystal clear UI is not only important: it’s required. In the past, we’ve seen RTS user interfaces encumbered with too many options, not enough readability, and a general lack of clarity. Dawn of War III’s UI team built the new user interface from the ground up, “taking cues from MOBAs — ones that have done really good things, especially with hero abilities.”

Even the heads-up display (the HUD) has gotten a complete overhaul. We’re not bogged down with an abundance of options (and a dearth of usefulness). “We’ve tried to open up the screen as much as we can without losing functionality.”

War is chaos, of course, so while the unpredictability of the tabletop game makes its way into the intensity of the player’s interactions, the developers didn’t want things to get out of control as they have in the past. “We spent a lot of time making it more readable for the players, so that there was less overwhelm,” Boulle said. “It’s always going to seem chaotic.”

Ease of use is the prime directive for putting together Dawn of War III’s user interface. Increased contrast is one of the ways that the team is executing this directive.

For example, we’ve had grenade throws in our games forever. You issue the command, one little guy moves across the screen, lobs the grenade, and it’s maybe two pixels wide. There’s maybe some smoke. Maybe a countdown. And then there’s this big explosion. Super satisfying when you’re throwing the grenade. Not so great if you’re on the receiving end because you don’t see it coming.”

I’ve been on the receiving end of those terrible grenade lobs one too many times. “WAIT! I HAVE TO — nope. Toast.”

“So we spent a lot of time on making sure that the tell was just as eye grabbing as the explosion so that you can react and potentially counter or get out of the way,” Boulle said. “Or, just know what’s happening so that next time you have a better chance of not getting surprised in the future. And then we applied that across the game, from the smallest bolter fire to the monstrous orbital bombardment laser show ‘finger of god’ thing.

Establishing a new installment in a beloved franchise is a difficult enough journey to undertake, without having to compete with the shadows of game-decisions past. But Philippe Boulle and the team at Relic are up to the challenge. The new UI paradigm coupled with the blend of the first two games’ mechanics may yield an experience that’s exactly what we’ve wanted Dawn of War to be in the first place: an over-the-top war-game that is as close to the tabletop game as we can get in real time and digital space.

(Original Post: The Daily Crate)

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