Building a Civil War: NorbSoftDev on Designing Scourge of War Gettysburg
By Matt Peckham
Gettysburg: Scourge of War isn’t a real-time strategy game for the masses. It has a perfectly functional interface, but you’d never call it “slick.” It’s more study-intensive than the comparably simplistic Total War series but yields commensurately higher returns. It tackles the mother of all Civil War battles with aplomb and occasionally startling historical verisimilitude, offering control of blues and grays from army scale down to regimental level. It’s wargaming without apologies, designed by hardcore history buffs for hardcore history gamers.
This spring I spoke with the Scourge of War’s creators, Jim Weaver and Norb Timpko. In part one, we talked about Gettysburg maps, canonical books, and how they got from Waterloo to Little Round Top.
In part two, we discuss the design process.
Game On: Why Gettysburg?
Jim Weaver: Because it’s the 800 pound gorilla of the Civil War. The original plan with Mad Minute was to start at First Manassas and then go battle by battle through the war. That kind of fell apart, and when Mad Minute went out of corporate existence, or at least functional existence…I don’t know what the legal status is…it was like, okay, what are we going to start with.
We knew from what we had with Second Manassas that we had a good framework that worked pretty well, but we wanted to bring in multiplayer, which has turned out to be a really great feature, though it was a tremendous amount of work.
So Gettysburg was sort of…if you’re going to do something with the Civil War, everybody knows Gettysburg. Every school kid’s heard of Gettysburg. If they don’t know any other battle in the Civil War they know that one. It’s the easiest thing to sell even to people who might not be hardcore Civil War.
GO: How did you approach it coming off the Second Manassas technology?
JW: By saying let’s take the concept that we put together and make it better. We wanted to make it the next generation. We wanted to make the A.I. smarter and harder to beat. We wanted to add multiplayer. But we were also looking at this as building a base. The engine is designed quite intentionally with an awful lot of versatility to it.
You could do the American Revolutionary War simply by changing the uniforms and a bunch of the files. You could actually mod it, if you had enough talent to put together a whole team and build the uniforms. The Revolutionary War could be built on a mod basis. It’s a lot of work…well, actually you couldn’t do all of it, because the maps are locked, but everything else could be done.
So it’s designed to be a very versatile core engine that you could use for more or less any age of linear warfare, at least involving firearms. I’m not going to say you could use it as-is for Roman battles.
GO: When you were trialing new features, who tended to lead? Creative or developmental?
JW: It’s never quite that obvious or smooth, and it’s also more than just me in the role of the lead designer. There’s a tremendous amount of contribution from everybody on the team. Norb isn’t historically minded, so this is essentially a way to give him some real challenges in coding. And it’s a really cool thing to do, to take something like this and turn it into real American history.
But the whole team’s involved throughout. One person might throw an idea out and it’ll ping-pong back and forth in email for a bit, and if it looks good we’ll put it in as an official feature request in the tracking system. At that point Norb will look at it and determine how implementable it is. Sometimes he’ll rotate it 30 degrees and tilt it a little bit to make it work, then put it out there for the team to test, leading to more back and forth until its refined and ready to go. So there’s a lot of dialogue between various members of the team, you know, the map people want this, the scenario people want that. I get to make the final call if we’re stuck on something and have to make a decision to keep the ball rolling, because you can easily get bogged down in the details here. This is a long process, and we’re all doing it because it’s a fun thing to do, not because we’re expecting to get rich off it.
GO: Speaking of profits, the wargames market’s never been where you stick your retirement portfolio. Why develop a game for such a niche audience?
JW: We’re not corporate. Nobody’s doing this as their day job, and we’re publishing ourselves, so our timelines are our own. They’re all self-imposed. We’re not like Microsoft. We don’t ship on a calendar. We ship when it’s ready to go out the door and clean enough. We take a lot of pride in shipping virtually bug-free games.
Of course something as complex as Scourge of War…we find that as we go from six people playing it to hundreds of people playing, a lot of things that we never thought of doing, somebody else tries it and says hey, you’ve got a problem here. So there’s always that process to be mindful of, but we’ve already rolled a few patches out and we’re down to pretty minor stuff in terms of fixing apparent bugs.
GO: Did you spend much time at the battlefield gathering intel with the game in mind?
JW: We actually started an annual tradition of having a get-together on the battlefield for everybody on the team that could make it. Not everybody can, of course. The guy who did most of the uniforms is in England. The guy who’s our wizard of CSV [comma separated value] files is in Germany. We opened it up this year to anybody who wants to show up who’s a player.
We had one guy who did the historical scenarios, and he’s been to the battlefield like 50 or 60 times. He leads a tour around for anybody that wants to go. Last year we supplemented that with the first open test of the multiplayer, where we rented a little conference room at a nearby hotel.
But a lot of going to the battlefield was just kind of to…you know, we’ve looked at it onscreen and looked at the maps and looked at 10 different kinds of maps. So going to the battlefield’s really just to get a feel for seeing it in three dimensions, in spite of all the tourists and monuments cluttering up the battlefield. That stuff’s appropriate to a certain extent, but we’re used to looking at it in 1863 and not 2010. So yeah, it’s kind of cool to go up and see it in person and gauge how good a job we did.
GO: Speaking of battlefields, I like that Norb started with Manassas. After touring it myself, it’s probably the easiest to take in and wrap your brain around and game without getting lost in the details. Gettysburg on the other hand…I mean, Antietam was crazy enough. I’m still getting my head around that.
JW: Oh Antietam…that’s some of the most deceptive terrain I’ve ever seen. It’s so sneaky. You look at it and think oh, little rolling fields, big deal. Then you go out and walk it and realize how easy it’d be to hide an entire division behind some of them, which of course is exactly what happened.
GO: Standing up in the observation tower you can’t even see Bloody Lane because of the way the terrain slopes.
JW: Yeah, it’s extremely deceptive. It must have driven the commanders nuts to fight a battle on something as sneaky as that.