I sat down with Josh Morris at Game Developers Conference 2016 for an hour to discuss all things Armored Warfare (AW).
Josh is the Senior Producer at My.com and previously worked at Wargaming for three years as NA Producer for World of Tanks (WoT).
We covered a wide range of topics, including tank balance, PVP and PVE evolution, determining how modern tanks should work in-game, and matchmaking. Warning, very long wall-of-text incoming :)
Taugrim: What the relationship between Obsidian Entertainment, My.com, and Mail.ru?
Josh: We all fill different roles.
Obsidian is making the game, so the day-to-day creation is their job. Mail.ru is our parent company and has provided all the funding for AW. My.com is the subsidiary of Mail.ru that is tasked with bringing games to the West, so we’re the publisher of AW everywhere outside of Russia. My.com owns marketing the game, community management, outreach, special events.
Mail.ru is basically the equivalent of Google in Russia, they’re that big. They control the email services, social media, etc in that market.
Taugrim: How much interaction does My.com have with Mail.ru and Obsidian?
Josh: We have conversations with our partners in EU and RU every day and we share our stats and how the game is doing for each server. We get together quarterly to plan out the next 6 months.
It’s a challenge globally to interact with people around the world. It’s a bit easier for us in NA as we have Obsidian in same time zone.
Taugrim: Can you talk about the differences in game design between WoT and AW?
Josh: AW is much more skill-based than WoT. It rewards good play even more than WoT, but conversely it also punishes bad play. The fast paced nature of the game, the speed in which the vehicles can damage and move. In WoT if you see two tanks going down your right flank, you put that in the back of your mind, but you won’t see them for several minutes. In AW, if you doesn’t react to that situation almost immediately, you’re going to be in trouble.
WoT is a great game. I worked for Wargaming as a NA Producer for 3 years. I went to work for them because I am a historical gamer. WoT got the core mechanics down, the loop is good, and it’s fun to play. It’s just that the wrapper around it had a lot of sharp edges, e.g. the interface, the RNG, and design decisions that weren’t helpful for the NA and EU audiences and stunted the growth of the game in regions beyond Russia. Because of the success of WoT in RU it was hard to impact the game for the greater global good.
I was at Wargaming for 3 years and had to make a choice.
Taugrim: There’s the perception in the WoT community that there is Russian bias from Wargaming, and it seems merited.
Josh: I don’t know if there was Russian bias per se, but the attributes of the Russian heavy tanks were forgiving to new players: they have big guns, they have good armor, so a new player is going to stay alive for a while and they’re going to see some big numbers.
Often the best tanks in the game required finesse to play well, e.g. American tanks with their gun depression and French tanks with their speed.
Taugrim: In a lot of games, there’s a dilemma of how to balance squishier classes, because they are less forgiving. In AW’s case we’re talking about AFVs, LTs, and TDs. Is that a problem that can’t be solved unless you over-buff the squishier tanks?
Josh: That’s not a good solution either. There still are some balance issues to work out between the classes. MBTs still aren’t playing the way we want them to be. Yes, we do want to maintain their almost invulnerability from the front – that is what they are designed to do in real life, you just don’t shoot them in the front.
We do want to make other tanks good at other things, e.g. flanking. That means map design needs to allow for that, and the vehicles need to have special abilities to support the way we think the class should be played. That’s why the TD class got its special ability changed from the bonus damage to concealment. You can suppress your position.
Taugrim: I agree; the TD concealment ability is under-rated. If you can use that ability to squeeze off 2-3 shots without getting spotted, that’s huge.
Josh: I don’t think people understand the power of that unless you’re in an MBT getting hammered and you never saw the guy.
We have a definition of where we want classes to be, but we’re also blurring the lines, e.g. with the new Stryker coming out that is a missile boat with the AFV designate.
For MBTs specifically, in real life today they’re all blurring into the similar thing and they perform the same. They’ve figured out the right formula, but that’s not great for gameplay. So even within a class [such as MBTs] we need to look at each line and give it its own flavor, whether it’s ruggedness, maneuverability, DPM, or gun handling.
Taugrim: You’re accepting payment transactions in Open Beta, so AW is effectively live. What things would you need to progress to feel ready to ship AW as 1.0?
Josh: Yes, it’s a soft launch. What’s great about that is we can keep evolving the game. We’re stilling willing to make major changes to the game, the gameplay, the classes, and balance.
We’re happy that players are there to support us with their money and tell us that they believe in us. We’re humbled by that sentiment, and it’s not something we take lightly. It’s not like we’re just going to ship it to get money in. We want to get the game where we want it to be. Especially in the NA market, there are a lot of games to compete against, and we don’t want to waste our marketing efforts on a game that’s still in Beta.
What are those things we feel are still lacking? This is WoT 2.0 for all intents and purposes. In many ways we have a better product right now. However, we don’t have a complete product. There are still missing things: balance tweaks beyond tier 6 to make sure [non-MBTs] have strong counters and places to have a role in the battlefield and have fun.
The player experience is also something we want to improve over time.
Taugrim: Can you explain what you mean by that?
Josh: In 0.14, which is a week or so away, we’ll be adding in our in-game “player feedback loop“. Players learn best if you teach them while they’re doing.
The problem with WoT was that you couldn’t tell what you did well until the end of the game, and half the time or more you’re cutting back to the garage, so how do you know what you did and didn’t do well.
So we’ll have contextual badges that show up in [the battle] right then and there. Important ones like spotting damage and spots, I just got XP that guy shooting that guy because I was spotting him. That’s not taught anywhere. It’s a concept that gets away from people. People don’t understand that not firing in an AFV can make you XP as long as you are a force multiplier through your spotting. So we’ll keep improving that system.
Taugrim: What were you most surprised about since the launch of Open Beta?
Josh: We knew that people wanted PVE, but we didn’t know how much. So we want to make sure that our game experience is two full ways to get through the game. That means having a beginning, middle, and end. We’re missing the end for both paths (PVP and PVE) right now.
Taugrim: Are you able to shed any light on what endgame for PVP and PVE will look like?
Josh: There’s short-term, mid-term, and long-term for what we want in the game. I can speak to the short-term.
For PVP, we want to get competition into the game. We’re going to introduce a “King of the Hill” during certain hours of the day. It will show up like a PVP map, similar to the interface for PVE. It will allow you to enter in this contest, and you’ll acquire points for every win. Think of it as a pyramid. You climb up as you win and get matched up with other team. There’s one team at the top, and it fights the teams coming up.
You’ll be able to accumulate points and spend them on cool prizes at the end of every season.
Taugrim: Will that be premade or solo?
Josh: It’s both. As long as you participate you accumulate points with wins. Everyone wants prizes, but it’s also recognition. We’ll also have the leader boards.
Taugrim: This is great for bragging rights, it’s a big deal to competitive players.
Josh: Whoever is the leader of a group, the points go to that battalion. The coolest thing is that every time you retained or just gained the title, it’s broadcast to the server. Server firsts have always been an important thing on shards in RPGs, so we wanted to bring that in. The leader boards would be visible in-game and on the My.com site.
This isn’t our end goal for final recognition. We also wanted to make it casual-friendly, and players can participate in multiple teams.
Taugrim: OK, so it’s not like you can’t participate if some of your team is offline, e.g. a WoW Arena team.
Josh: Exactly. It won’t be like well we need 8 guys but only 6 are online so we can’t play. Those 6 guys can pick up 2 guys and play. They may not go to #1 that night but they’ll still get points.
Taugrim: Guild Wars 2 had a mode where when 8 teams queued up there would be an ad-hoc tournament.
Josh: That is also something I’d like to see, a casual “I’d like to participate in a tournament.” When 8 teams have formed and queued, we run a 3 round tournament.
People want to compete, and people conversely from a PVE standpoint just want to let loose and blow up bots. We can make that more compelling as well.
From an RPG standpoint, we have dungeons with our missions. We’re working on what would be considered a boss mode fight, so you would have bigger bad guys and mechanics where you have to think about how you defeat them. That gives us an ability to bring in things that wouldn’t be seen, e.g. maybe you’re fighting a helicopter or a tank backed up by missile launcher or a ship.
Taugrim: How do you figure out how to spec modern tanks, since they’re classified?
Josh: In some ways it’s an advantage. Anyone can go out and take measurements of a Tiger tank, and it’s harder to gamify that. With a classified tank, we can say it has 1500 armor or it has classified composite materials, what do you have to say about that.
We want this to be a game first and to look and feel like a Hollywood version of reality. We don’t get stuck in the tape rule thought process. We want a tank to accurately and visually look like what it represents, and we want it to have in-game the basic role that it has on a [real] battlefield. But everything else between A and B is up for interpretation.
Taugrim: That’s interesting, it gives you guys a lot more flexibility than Wargaming has with WoT. Wargaming goes back to Bovington and re-measures.
Josh: And that makes it a huge argument [with players].
A Tiger could have done this to a T-34, but a Tiger was also engaging at 2000 meters and that doesn’t exist in WoT, and rightfully so. They compressed everything because shooting dots on the horizon isn’t fun.
In our game, you can shoot at small targets but you also have the speed to close the distance.
Taugrim: And the guns in AW handle much better, so I can reliably hit targets further away in AW and it’s not as subject to RNG.
Speaking of gamification, the PL-01 (tier 10 LT) is built to avoid detection by infrared and radar, especially by aircraft, but obviously we don’t have planes in AW, so how do you gamify the stealthiness of the PL-01?
Josh: You have to take every weapon system and figure out how to translate it into the game.
Maybe [PL-01’s] don’t show up on the mini-map.
Take for example optics and thermals. Letting people flip to IR just destroys game balance, but those things can be factored into vision ranges and camo.
There’s no way a game like this is going to replicate the real life experience. Again, it’s that Hollywood version of reality and things should work the way you think they work, not how they actually work.
War is not actually that much fun; you’re shooting at people who never saw you, shooting at dots in the distance.
You have to look at every mechanic you put into a game and ask yourself is this adding to the experience or is this making it more complicated.
Taugrim: Going back to what we discussed earlier, AW is very rewarding toward good play and punitive towards bad play with the speed of the tanks, gun handling, and penetration values.
A lot of people complain about landslide victories and put on the blame on MM (matchmaking), but I think it’s due to those mechanics. Is this a perception you can constructively address?
Josh: It’s a perception issue. This is the thing: you asked for a game that was more skill-based, you asked for a game that was more fast-paced. We’re delivering it to you, and these are the results of a faster-paced game with skill.
In some ways, it’s nice that it’s over quickly. In WoT, you might have to wait five minutes for the winning side to kill you.
AW can be more frustrating for a bad player. There were also complaints about our game being harder to advance or it takes longer to grind out tanks. That on a per-match basis versus WoT is absolutely not true, we’re faster. However, we are much faster for skilled players and can be slower if you are not willing to work to get better.
What did we do for that? We did do some modifications to our system to bring up the bottom end [i.e. more XP for poor performers] without trying to push down the top end.
Editor’s Note: speaking of player skill, if you’re looking for guides and videos to help improve your gameplay, check out my “The Art of Warfare” series.
Taugrim: It’s a good solution. It helps people keep up even if they aren’t able to do so on their own.
Let’s talk about Skill Influenced Match Making (SIMM). This is probably the only area I strongly disagree with your design decisions.
Josh: Well tell me what you think it does.
Taugrim: I’m a 62% win rate player. Prior to patch 0.13, it used to pair me with bad players, e.g. a 38% WR player or maybe several 46% WR players. In patch 0.13, the WR was capped at 55%. So now I get a 45% WR player to offset me.
A lot of players in the higher-end battalions don’t like SIMM because they feel like they have to carry potatoes. When I’m solo queuing as a skilled player, if there are three other skilled players that get into the same battle and are in a platoon, I’m placed on the opposite team and that seems unfair to me.
Josh: You also have to consider whether skilled players are in a platoon, and would you have to weigh that differently. So there is still room to improve our system.
We’re going to keep going with SIMM until we think it’s not working.
The philosophy behind it is this. If I make it completely random MM, you could get on the same as that skilled platoon and you’re going to wipe the other side out. Or you could get a bunch of potatoes on your side and how fun is that?
We’re making it so that both sides have an equal chance, but of course that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a close battle. We want you to feel that you have a chance.
I want to give you a solo gamer with skill a chance to win every game you’re in instead of just some games. Every game, if you suck it up and play well, you’re going to have a chance to win. I think that’s a superior system.
Taugrim: How do you discern what is valid and insightful feedback about tank balance?
Josh: Everyone has their favorite tank or favorite class. At the end of the day we want the game to be fair and balanced for everyone. We don’t want to have those edge cases that are way out of line, and we don’t care if that’s a premium tank or anything. There may need to be a nerf to any tank in the game, including premium tanks.
My response to people that say they paid for a premium tank is that there are people who paid more to convert XP to get to a regular tank. We’ll try to keep what you love about a given tank intact, but not at the cost of you’re the only one having fun. That’s not F2P.
Taugrim: Have you guys considered dropping the premium matchmaking on some premium tanks and balancing them against tanks of their tier?
Josh: You paid for it so we want you to be comfortable playing the tank. We don’t want it to be pound-for-pound overpowered compared to what you’re facing.
Will we ever remove it? We might, but that’s why we’re in this Beta, to explore and see what the players think.
Taugrim: What would be the one thing you want for the community to know?
Josh: This is just the beginning. This is your chance to get in there and continue to impact the game, continue to give your suggestions, continue to play so we can analyze the statistics.
AW is going to be around for a long time; we want this to be a permanent franchise. We want to make this the game that people want to play and a better alternative to what they’re playing now. While we’ve set the table in many aspects, we want to continue to push that and give the player not necessarily what they want but what they need.
Taugrim: Thanks so much for your time!