Darkwind War on Wheels Interview: How it all Started
Questions by Vincent Haoson, OnRPG Journalist
Answered by Sam Redfern (lead developer/designer)
Darkwind: War on Wheels is one of the more unique games I’ve played in a while. The mix of tactical, turn-based carnage in an MMO setting really works well. We here at OnRPG got the opportunity to talk to the lead developer of the game Sam Redfern and here’s what he had to say on how the game started and what’s in store in the coming months.
OnRPG: How did you guys come up with a game like Darkwind?
There were a number of important inspirations, and in ways I initially designed Darkwind as my own “ideal” game, having spent many years observing what I like and what I don’t like about other games. I don’t like the ‘sanitised’ model that other MMOs have – in other games your characters can’t get permanently killed or injured, they can merely lose their equipment. In Darkwind they can get killed. And eaten. And lose their legs.
I used to play a boardgame called ‘Car Wars’ back in the 1980s, and this provided a clear inspiration for an MMO. The one big flaw with Car Wars was that the complex rules were too much effort to manage by hand – a computerised games-master was required!
For the first year or so of development, I worked alone. Gradually other part-time team members were added: artists, level designers, fiction writers. I have been more than happy to let these contributors, and even just the enthusiastic players, to help define the game and where it’s going. I am regularly astonished by the talents of our community, and I think it would be a mistake not to let them influence the game.
OnRPG: Where did you get the idea of mixing turn-based battles for car combat?
From boardgames such as Car Wars and Formula De, we knew that turn-based car control works really well. We also are strongly of the opinion that so called ‘Real Time Strategy’ (RTS) games are not really strategic at all – they are merely a ‘fastest clicker’ and ‘best micro-manager’ competition. True strategy games, if they hope to have any depth of gameplay while allowing multiple soldiers/vehicles per player, simply have to be turn based.
A major breakthrough in terms of the core gameplay idea came when we decided to use proper physics, just like real-time car racing games. This makes Darkwind quite unique: tactical yet requiring driving skill too.
OnRPG: What was your inspiration for creating Darkwind?
In terms of gameplay content, the main influences would be the Car Wars boardgame (as the core gameplay), football manager games (which provide an excellent model for character-driven development, far better than RPGs in my opinion), and MMOs such as Ultima Online and Eve Online, which have various flaws and strengths pertinent to the MMO approach.
The single greatest influence would be Car Wars, which is a car combat boardgame from the 1980s that I used to play. Many of our long-term players are Car Wars enthusiasts; it’s very satisfying to have produced a game which these people see as their “dream” game that they have literally been waiting for since they were kids. The big problem with boardgames (especially those that aspire to realistic movement and combat systems) is the time and effort it takes to play them. The fact that Car Wars games took more than an hour to play out 15 simulated seconds of time was its major problem. Computers are perfect for running this sort of game, removing all of the effort and none of the fun.
The thematic and atmospheric influences would most strongly be the Mad Max films and the 2000 AD Judge Dredd ‘Cursed Earth’ series.
OnRPG: Majority of the maps in Darkwind seem to emanate a post-apocalyptic feel, was this part of the game’s original plan while it was being developed?
Yes, absolutely. Darkwind takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which civilization has been destroyed by a ‘solar event’ – basically, the earth’s magnetosphere suffered temporary failure around 2020 and this caused much of the protective atmosphere to be burned away and anything above ground at the time to get fried. We didn’t want anything clichéd like a nuclear war or so obvious as a human-caused environmental disaster. I invite you to read our two ‘official’ background stories, which explain it quite dramatically: “The Birth of Death Racing” and “In The Beginning“
OnRPG: Speaking of which, how did you guys develop a game like Darkwind? Is developing the game as difficult as developing big 3d client games? Why?
We are a small team: I have been the only fulltime team-member who has been involved for the entire length of the project; I also have full control of all programming. This actually simplifies things, since there is never any need for technical documentation and negotiation. The artwork has been produced by a number of part-time contributors and contractors. As mentioned above, I have always encouraged the game community itself to discuss and influence the evolution of the game. Their ideas are often far better than mine.
I would say developing an online game like Darkwind is more complex than a 3D client game, since it contains all of the technical complexity in the client, plus the additional complexity of the multiplayer interactions, and the control and simulation of a persistent world.
For a small team, it certainly makes sense to ‘pick your battles’. I knew that large amounts of 3D animation wasn’t possible — the beauty of a car game is that animations are produced by physics rather than handcrafted by artists. I also knew that large amounts of custom content wasn’t likely – Darkwind therefore operates as a complex world simulation, and the long-term challenge is produced not by narrative script-writers but by the interactions of a complex simulated transport/manufacturing economy and its deathracing leagues. The game is fundamentally like Football Manager or Sim City, rather than a standard Fantasy MMO, in this regard.
OnRPG: Where did you get the idea of using the current roster of car chassis for vehicles used in combat? Will you be including more in the future?
Most of our car models were purchased from online shops such as turbosquid.com. Certainly we needed a nice range of musclecars – and 60s/70s retro is so much more stylish than modern-looking cars, in our opinion. For strategic depth, we needed to have a wide range of other vehicles too – from small offroad buggies to sedans to fire-engines! – currently around 50 chassis types in all. Yes, there are more in the pipeline – I prefer to focus on unusual chassis types these day. One that I’m looking forward to adding is an agricultural tractor!
OnRPG: Where do you get the ideas you use for the arenas and maps that players would drive on in the game?
The game world was sketched out early on, and the game towns and wilderness areas follow the themes laid down at that time. As you would expect in a post-apocalyptic game, many of our maps include ruined buildings, broken highways, and abandoned manufacturing areas.
We needed a wide range of different racing circuits and combat arenas, of course. The majority of the maps were made by two of our contract artists – they worked closely with me fleshing out the game world and making sure that their towns and wilderness maps fitted the correct themes.
OnRPG: Are you guys satisfied with what the game has achieved up to this point? Why or why not?
Yes, in many ways. Darkwind has forged itself a niche market which attracts astonishing enthusiasm and loyalty from its core players. Many of these players are people that would never play a traditional MMO for very long, yet some have been playing Darkwind solidly since its release in 2007 and even longer, back to our Alpha and Beta testing.
We haven’t gotten rich, but we have achieved a unique game that brings pleasure to hundreds of players – this is very satisfying. It is equally satisfying to get recognition in the mainstream press – earlier this year PC Gamer ran a very positive full-page review, for example.
OnRPG: The game has been operating for quite some time, how is Darkwind faring against the competition?
Darkwind doesn’t really have much direct competition – there are no other games very much like it. Sometimes players disappear for a while – as they would with any game – but they invariably come back months later. I attribute this to the fact that no other game fills the same gap.
In terms of overall size, Darkwind is really a small player in the MMO market. But that’s ok – it keeps the community friendly and it sustains a small development team. Our costs are low, we have taken few risks – this is why we’re moving along quite happily while games like Auto Assault have folded.
OnRPG: What do you think keeps your players in Darkwind? Why do you think so?
Darkwind appeals to mature gamers – your characters get permanent injuries and die. The game world runs as a complex simulation. Even the best players are never guaranteed to get home alive when they leave the safety of the towns. I think this is one reason that the game has such longevity.
The core gameplay – strategic vehicular combat – also works very well. No two battles are ever the same, and battlefield tactics really are very important – and take months or years to become expert at. The fact that your cars are constantly moving, and that keeping up their momentum is essential to staying alive, makes it much more subtle than, say, a tank game or an FPS combat game. ‘Speed is life’, as they say in Darkwind.
Many of our long-term players are ‘casual gamers’ – who log in for an hour or two in the evenings for some community scouting (taking a multiplayer squad out into the desert to fight some bad guys) – so I think both the complexity and subtlety of the core combat system, plus the great community of mature gamers that we have contribute to its longevity.
OnRPG: What do you say is the game’s biggest advantage against the competition? Why?
Its uniqueness. We’re not really competing with any other games directly, other than for a general player-base. There are no other games that provide persistent world multiplayer, gritty vehicular combat in a tactical battlefield environment.
OnRPG: What does a 3D persistent-world multiplayer car combat mean actually?
The game world runs out of a database – so it’s persistent. Your characters gain skills over a period of months; they age and die; their vehicles get smashed up beyond repair or simply stolen during a failed combat. Travel, training and manufacturing take hours, days, or weeks, real-world-time. Our combat and deathracing leagues run over 12 week cycles (which is one game year). The combats/deathraces use client-server technology and therefore offer a 3D, multiplayer view.
OnRPG: With the game mixing up turn-based gameplay in a 3D persistent-world multiplayer car combat, does the game use an exclusive physics engine for it to work? Why or why not?
The game is, ultimately, based on the Torque Game Engine (TGE) – which provides a quite functional physics engine. With five years of development behind us, Darkwind probably now shares no more than 50% of its codebase with other TGE games. We have toyed with the idea of integrating a 3rd party physics engine, but have never done so. Five years of tweaks and improvements have added a lot of complexity to the physical model – we have tyre pressures, suspension settings, aerodynamics, slipstreaming, different terrain tractions, a variety of engine profiles, feedback effects from weaponsfire and explosions, and so on. The turn-based element works quite effectively: the whole game freezes while players are setting their orders (within a 30- or 60-second limit, typically), and then one game second is simulated using the physics engine, and displayed to the players. Weaponsfire happens while the cars are ‘frozen’.
OnRPG: Do you consider Darkwind as a niche online game or more for of a mainstream MMO? Why or why not?
There’s no doubt that Darkwind is a niche game. No other games are very similar to it, although in terms of demographic it would tend to appeal to players of other complex, simulated open-world MMOs such as Eve Online.
OnRPG: What’s in-store for the game in the months ahead?
We always have a range of features and improvements in the pipeline. Here’s some that we’re currently working on:
– Further work on the artificial intelligence used by the computer cars in combat situations. Specifically, they currently use a pathfinding system to navigate the terrain, but we are currently in the process of adding a ‘pheromone trail’ approach, in order to learn ‘popular’ routes around the terrain by copying the human players (this form of A.I. mimics the behaviour of ants and other social insects: we have discussed this feature.)
– Localization – there is, unavoidably, a lot of text involved in the game. Injuries, targeting commands, battle reports, league tables – all are currently in English only. We would like to be in a position to appeal to non-English speakers.
– ‘Into the Ruins’ – a new gameplay component which will involve characters on foot (‘peds’ – pedestrians) exploring caves, basements and ruined towns, in search of rare equipment caches, medicines etc. The main enemy in these combats will be huge mutated insects (who are currently already in game – they like to attack anyone unlucky enough to be travelling around the desert on foot).
We have many other game features in planning, so please feel free to check back with us in the future for an update!