It was with great sadness over this past weekend that I learned of the passing of designer Brian Wood. Only 33 years old, Brian was fatally injured in a motor vehicle accident Friday evening on Whidbey Island in Washington state. His wife Erin, who is 6 months pregnant with their first child, was with Brian in the vehicle when it was struck head-on by another vehicle just north of Oak Harbor. Two passengers in the other vehicle also perished, and the driver of that vehicle, along with another passenger, are expected to face criminal charges  relating to this tragic accident.
As many of Vancouver’s development community know, Brian was lead designer for Relic Entertainment’s  Company of Heroes Online. I first met Brian back in December of 2006 when he, along with senior artist Roland Longpre, presented a post-mortem on the then brand-new Company of Heroes debut title at the Art Institute’s ARTmageddon. 
Many of us will remember Brian as the guy with the kind of laugh and sense of humour that could get everyone going. A designer who believed in the importance of marrying story to gameplay, he was always on the go, a sports enthusiast and was always willing to share his knowledge of game development with those who wanted to learn. Michael will remember Brian as the guy who handed him his butt in a Company of Heroes tournament at ARTmageddon, making a big comeback in round three to steal the victory. The good-hearted banter between Roland, Brian and the gamers during the tournament showed how much Brian enjoyed being a game designer, and how important it was to him that the people playing a Company of Heroes game had a great time, even though he had their back to the trenches, so to speak. In memory of Brian, I am re-releasing the 2006 article I wrote about the Company of Heroes Mission Breakdown. Please feel free to share your memories of Brian in the comment section.
The focus of this lecture was the development team for Relic’s latest RTS release Company of Heroes, specifically Mission 7, a commando/infiltration-style mission which takes place in Normandy.
Mr. Longpre opened the lecture stating that the single most important element for a development team is communication. This stands true for every stage from concept to product shipping. The first step in developing a game is the concept stage. At this point, the game concept along with a one page outline of the game and a basic map are presented to the studio’s lead development team. If the concept is accepted and the go-ahead given to develop the game, then a basic team is formed. The actual development time for Company of Heroes was four years from concept to completion, with a development team of up to ninety members.
The main software used to develop Company of Heroes included WorldBuilder, 3D Studio Max, the Havok 3 Physics Engine, and Relic’s own next-generation graphics engine, Essence. This graphics engine was coded inhouse at Relic to take advantage of all of the next generation graphics possibilities including high definition lighting and shading in the environments. As anyone who has played a Relic RTS game knows, the developers add a lot of fine detail to their characters, world objects and environments. Essence Engine allows them to do this without requiring the game players to have high-end machines to play.
Both Mr. Wood and Mr. Longpre stated that as each mission is developed, there are many test play-throughs. The mission is checked thoroughly for load times, load quality, smooth game play and as little repetition in object skins as possible. It is important to the teams that each mission be as unique and accurate as possible.
Once the initiial team is formed, work begins on blocking in maps and objects, with any unique objects being designs by the artists. The first step is to create the map and then overpaint it. Once that is well underway, object placement and mission development begins. Each mission is like a game set, with the mission unfolding on the set. Attention to detail is something which Relic is well-known for, and Company of Heroes is no different. Developers researched World War II architecture, landscape, uniforms and weaponry. Each weapon’s in-game capability is historically accurate to the real-life weapon’s specifications, including firing range.
Mr. Longpre stated that as the game unfolded, the developers devised a system of encounters. Elements of stealth, the ability to take cover in buildings, as well as tactical flanking mechanics had to be incorporated into the game. The best ways to proceed with these elements was tested in early development mission play-throughs. Along the way puzzles for the gamers were scripted in, whereby the gamer would have to solve the puzzle in order to achieve certain goals, such as gaining access to an area where weaponry could be obtained. It was at this point in the lecture when Mr. Longpre confirmed what every gamer already suspected – the developers definitely discuss how “mean” they want to be to the gamers in regards to level advancement. While level difficulty is expected and an important part of the “reward system” in gaming, it wouldn’t do to make a mission next to impossible for the gamer to successfully complete.
Mr. Wood reminded the audience that several individual teams are all working on the main map at the same time, and this is where the importance of communication becomes paramount. Each team must know what the other teams are working on, not only to eliminate duplicity in the game, but also to ensure that the game will play smoothly and the storyline makes sense. There can also be problems if the game includes cut-scenes or non-interactive scenes. If a cinematic team has spent months developing a cut-scene for a certain level, it would all be naught if the completed cinematic is for a mission which has been completely changed by the level designers. The cinematic must match the environment into which it is inserted, so a system of markers was used in level design, showing those working on the schematics of the mission which areas would be used in relevant cinematic sequences.
There were many questions from the audience, including the involvement of sound engineers. Both Mr. Wood and Mr. Longpre stated that at least one sound engineer is involved in the game’s development right from the start, and then as more sound effects and music tracks are needed, more members are added to the team. It takes quite some time to ensure that effects are properly timed, and the play-through for sound placement adds another round of play-testing to ensure a quality product.
The final steps in completing the game for final test balancing is the lighting and any other similar effects such as fog, mist, sunrise, sunset and night. The Normandy mission is a night-time mission, so challenges had to be met in regards to player visibility. Mr. Longpre added that there is often debates over the darkness of levels during development. It was also important that effects such as explosions and smoke behaved naturally. This meant that buildings, ground and vehicles had to follow a realistic pattern when hit, with the ensuing fire and smoke being effects with other elements such as rain or air flow. Gamers are a hard audience to please, and the developers need to do their best to meet expectations without slowing the game’s frame speed to a crawl.
As the development team wanted to try many new elements in the game, and with the development of the Essence Engine, the entire process for Company of Heroes was a learning curve. Both Mr. Longpre and Mr. Wood agreed that the development time for a game needs to be kept as short as possible without compromising the quality of the game itself. With longer development times, there is more chance of team members leaving, and other or new members not being able to work with sections which only the leaving member knew about. This could effectively slow down development, or mean a re-design if legacy-related problems occur. Both men reiterated that teamwork is essential, there is no place for egos or section ownership during the development of a product.
The lecture ended with a few questions from the audience in regards to skills to possess and job-seeking strategies. Both agreed that prospective development students needed to get as much schooling as possible in their chosen fields. Artists need to be multi-faceted and should be able to do concept art as well as build objects and textures. Level designers need strong programming and math skills. Overall, they both felt it important that the students be sure to gear each application package to the team they are applying to.
After the lecture, Mr. Longpre and Mr. Wood moved out to the game tournament area, where they took in a few rounds of Company of Heroes with the gamers who were there to compete. I would like to state my appreciation to both men for taking the time to do this, as many gamers never have the chance to interact with the talent behind the game, and their taking the time to do so tells the gamers that they are important to the studios, and leaves a lasting, positive impression of the studio itself.