Home > Interviews, Uncategorized > Interview: Matthieu Brevet, Steel Division II

Interview: Matthieu Brevet, Steel Division II

Recently, I had the opportunity to pose a list of questions about history and games to Matthieu Brevet, historian and game designer at Eugen Systems, makers of both historical and counterfactual strategy games such as R.U.S.E., the Wargame series, and Steel Division: Normandy 44. Eugen is finishing up production as lead designer of the WW2 real-time strategy game, Steel Division II. The game releases on Steam June 20, 2019, and is available for pre-purchase now.

Jeremiah McCall: Hi Matthieu. Thank you so much for your willingness to talk about your work as a designer of historical video games. There are a number of us who study and talk about historical games as kinds of history, and your insights as a professional designer are invaluable.  

Can you, for readers’ sakes, tell us a little about yourself, the work you’ve done in game design, and your current project?

Matthieu: I’m 40 and I’ve been (very) briefly a high school History teacher while studying & obtaining a PhD in Napoleonic History. Since then, I’ve been combining my passion for History with my other one for strategy videogames by working at Eugen Systems. First as a game designer (RUSE, Wargame: European Escalation & AirLand Battle), associate producer (Wargame: Red Dragon, Act of Aggression & Steel Division: Normandy 44) and now lead game designer (Steel Division 2).

Cover

As a game designer, I’ve been building maps, designing gameplay mechanics, scripting missions, balancing units, … As a producer, I’ve been doing preparatory works ahead of each next project, drafting army lists & equipment database for the game designers to balance units, collecting historical vehicle references for the 3D modelers, finding historical photorecons or map surveys for the map builders, writing scenarios & historical context for the missions, …). I’ve always had one leg in both departments, hence the back-and-forth between them.

Currently, we are working on Steel Division 2. Still set in the Summer of 1944, this sequel takes place on the Eastern Front and focuses on Operation Bagration, the decisive Soviet offensive.

 

JM: In what sense do you think a game like Steel Division II is historical? It’s a game, of course, but does it also count as history and, if so, what sort of history?

  • Is it an accurate record of the past?
  • Is it a playspace?
  • In what sense is it historical?

Matthieu: It is a playspace first: being a videogame, it has to be fun. We are not creating a simulation whose purpose is to be accurate above all things, but we are trying to be as accurate as an RTS can be.

The game is historical in its recreation of the opposing armies; unit distribution & performance, divisions, orders of battle, strategic maps, … are as accurate as possible. Bagration, despite being the killing blow of the Wehrmacht, isn’t very well-known to the public, being overshadowed by the events taking place in Normandy at the same time. We are hoping to bring it more to light and that the players will feel like they know more about it after playing the game.

JM: What’s the appeal of designing a historical game? SD2 is a real-time strategy game. What’s the appeal of designing it as opposed to an unhistorical rts like starcraft, or Command and Conquer, etc? What are the advantages and disadvantage of a real time strategy game as a form of history?

Matthieu: Trying to be as realistic as possible imposes some challenges you don’t have in an unhistorical one. In Starcraft or C&C, when you design a powerful unit for one side, you are free to design an equally powerful one on the opposite side to match it.

In a historical game, we have to do with what existed in real life. Not everyone gets to field Königstiger-like heavy tanks! Therefore, it is a matter of balancing the game through what we have, not what we wish each nation should have.

Tiger.jpg

JM: What is gained and lost using an RTS approach over, say, a turn-based model?

Matthieu: Turn-based wargames are more of a niche, while we are trying to bring new people to realistic & historical games. The main advantage of RTS is that they appeal to more people.

 

JM: How much of gameplay is inherited from the genre conventions (for example, this is a war based RTS so it needs to have X in it)?

Matthieu: One of the main convention is to have stats sheets. The more stats there are, the happier the players. Localized armor is also a must have. With SD2, we’ve introduced realistic armor & penetration values based on real-life data, instead of some abstract ratings.

Soviet Fighter.jpg

 

JM: What levels of command are being simulated in SD2? Are there limitations in game on the player/commander that reflect actual strategic/tactical limitations for WW2 commanders?

Matthieu: In skirmish, the player’s battlegroup is roughly the size of a regimental combat team, with on average something like an infantry battalion and half a tank one, plus a company-worth of support units like AA, artillery, recon, etc.  The skirmishes place the player in the shoes of lieutenant-colonel or full colonel.

In the solo campaigns, the player will take command of several divisions, even armies in the case of the Soviets (but the scale is roughly equivalent). The players there assume the role of lieutenant-generals.

Map.PNGJM: Take me through the process of designing this historical game. First of all, how much control over the final project do you have a designer? So, for example, are you the last word on whether a more or less historical element comes into the game? (What I’m trying to get a sense of here is how much does “authorship” of a historical game come down to a single designer.)

Matthieu: Historical realism doesn’t command other aspects. Every new feature and mechanism has to be arbitrated depending on the time/effort it would require to implement and what it would bring to the game. For example, for SD, we unfortunately don’t have the iconic Soviet tank riders (JM: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tank_desant), for they would have required too much time and effort to implement. For the same effort, we could add several other features, all historical too, such as different ammo types (APCR, HEAT, …) & selection for vehicles, artillery spotters, chain of command, …

Tanks.PNG

 

JM: Does research come before the prototype design or after? To what extent is the core prototype meant to be historically accurate and in what sense?

Matthieu: Usually at the same time. We don’t need much research for a prototype, we usually select a few dozen units per side and we’re quickly developing the prototype with them. For SD2, selecting some Panther, Tiger, T-34/85 or IS-2 as test units didn’t required much research. And in the meantime, while the prototype is being developed and tested, we can start researching further & deeper into the context we’ve selected.

But we usually don’t start from scratch, having “draft lists” ready well in advance for this or that front/period.

JM: Tell me about sources. What is your impression of the past in SD2 based on?

Matthieu: Mostly books, and published archives (on paper or on the internet). For SD2, we have tried to get as much of the Soviet points of view as possible, not relying entirely on Western (most often German) sources. Anyone can write a good account of the operational level of warfare, or detailed OOBs, without much bias, but the best sources often are the down-to-ground memoirs from soldiers or junior officers. Those very often break the back of many myths and much-repeated stories, especially regarding the Red Army.

 

JM: Do you ever as a designer go back and check a historical detail when modeling the game? How (i.e. what are your sources?)

Matthieu: Sure, pretty much all long the production of the game: for skirmish divisions’ strength and composition, for solo campaign’s orders of battle and troop positioning, etc.

Most of the sources we’re using are old-fashioned books, but you’ve got some published on the internet, such as Nafziger’s OOB, or Dr. Niehorster’s TOE (as well as work on the Hungarian army).

 

JM: Is there a tension in design between historical accuracy and fun? Can you tell us some places where you compromised in SD2, parting with historical evidence in order to make the game more fun/more playable/more engaging?

Matthieu: The main historical aspect we can’t really represent 100% faithfully in-game is the artillery. Historically, artillery power should be much more devastating, since this arm branch was the cause of over ¾ of the casualties during WW2. And it is among the most frustrating when you’re on the receiving end of it. Therefore, we’ve had to find a place for it, still powerful but not too annoying.

Artillery.PNG

JM: Again, thanks so much for your time and insight. Steel Division 2 looks great! Good luck with the launch!

 

 

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