Battalion 1944's lead on its troubled launch, plans for the future, and the color gray

Battalion 1944's Early Access launch could have gone better. Players experienced long waits to get onto servers, and sometimes couldn't play at all. I managed to get in a bunch of matches on the day of the launch, then went back later and couldn't get past the loading screen. But a series of updates and an explanatory (and apologetic) video seems to have smoothed over both the game and its reception. 

Now I'm playing in unranked mode because, at least on Australian servers, the waits are shorter. I've been able to run around its vision of competitive WW2 bomb disposal having a grand old time. I've succeeded in planting the bomb a total of once and been murdered without knowing who it was that got me more times than I can count (there's no killcam in Battalion 1944), but then I watch someone skilled like Dizzy play a round and I want to go back and try again.

I spoke to Joe Brammer, lead of Battalion 1944 studio Bulkhead Interactive, about the  experience of putting their game onto Early Access and seeing what players make of it.

So, the launch. How many players were you expecting?

I guess we were expecting around 3,000 concurrent. We had a lot more than that. We doubted ourselves a bit. It was so hard to gauge right. No one thought, "Oh, we'll do PUBG numbers." Everyone thought, "Oh, everyone's playing PUBG so we're not going to get any players." It was very hard to predict. We had 19,000 on day one I think. Obviously that was always going to fall off, but it was a pretty good day one with the exception of all the issues we had, but the reason I say it was good is because we got to show the community how quickly we respond to things.

If you've ever been to Normandy it's very gray. That's what it looked like!

Joe Brammer

You've obviously prioritized talking to the community.

It's pretty key to us. We were pretty exhausted, we're probably still affected by it now, to be honest. Haven't really caught up on sleep, we've just gone to sleep earlier a little bit. It was pretty tiring for a long time, but we're happy with the work we did and what we got out, now it's just about focusing on the long-term game and seeing where it goes from here.

Now that people are playing your game, what have they done that's surprised you?

I guess I was surprised how quickly people were very, very good. I'm also surprised that people play the maps the way we intended them to play. When you see two teams going off against each other they play it like we designed it, which is really cool because you don't think that's going to happen. You have no idea, then you're like, "actually we're pretty good at this." That was cool to see but you know we're always seeing new things. People can jump on top of each other's heads and create new spots, that was cool to see—how creative players would be with movement. It was definitely fun to see people playing and enjoying the game.

I've seen people on top of lamp posts.

Yeah. Some of that's intentional and some of it isn't but they found it and it's good to have like a bit of variation I think and allow players to be very creative with the movement. 

The maps are very readable, lots of flat walls and not much clutter. What other things did you do to keep your game legible?

We wanted to keep everything really basic, just totally useable, you can see where people are, that was really important for us. When we came from COD2 and COD 4, when we were looking at those games, one of the reasons they were so good is because they were so simple and basic. We tried to keep that in. Anyone stands out against a gray background so it was a predominant theme we kept seeing in those games, which is kind of annoying for the people that wanted this realistic Battlefield experience where it's like Frostbite engine stuff but we were never going for that. We were always super focused on gameplay and players being visible, that kind of thing.

There is a new competitive map coming out soon, that's all I can say.

Joe Brammer

When there is color it's very noticeable. When someone says "red building!" on the Coastal map, you immediately know what they mean.

Yeah, I think if you look at Coastal, you quoted that one, that was us probably being a bit sick of gray. We were like, "We need to change this up a bit," and we couldn't go to a normal building color, like an orange-y or yellow tan color, because that's the color of camouflage a lot of the time, browns and yellows. So we were like, "Let's go bright yellow and bright pink, just make everything really colorful." It works I think. That was our "fuck you" moment to gray in Normandy.

You must be more sick of it than anyone.

For sure. If you've ever been to Normandy it's very gray. That's what it looked like! It's gray everywhere: sky, walls, floor, everything.

You've pushed back the release of ranked mode, but it's just about ready to go live now?

We pushed it back because we were confident we had a community that we could do that with. We pushed it back and we'll be going live this Thursday. It's looking good and our matchmaking is pretty stable so we're happy now. We just had to get the confirmation in and see the game evolve a little bit. We made some weapon changes last week and we're happy, we're in the place we can comfortably go to matchmaking, it's not like a shot in the dark or anything. We've managed to test matchmaking, test the game itself, we're confident going into competitive. Excited for Thursday, to be honest.

Is there anything else coming soon?

There is a new competitive map coming out soon, that's all I can say.

I've heard that you're planning to make some changes to the card economy.

Basically we knew from the start that the card economy was a negative system. In Counter-Strike you're always earning something. Even if you're losing you earn money, but in our game it's about attrition. You're always giving stuff away and losing cards, and that didn't feel very good. It just felt negative, so we decided that we'd find a new way to do that. We're basically keeping true to the core mechanics behind the card system which is picking up cards, you pick up the physical currency in the world and we're gonna add a basic form of currency. It's not cash or anything, but there'll be an economy that's probably a little bit more in line with CS: GO. 

And what that does, it gives us the ability to make the game a lot more dynamic and move a little easier. Yes, you'll still be able to pick things up in the world and yes, you'll still share a team economy, you won't have your own money, but what you will have is maybe the ability to plant a bomb and by doing that you'll receive currency. Or knife kills, you'll get currency. That's a little bit more rewarding for the player and also incentivizes doing the game objective and that sort of thing. That's the plan, but that'll be in our third major update I think.

Do you watch a lot of streamers playing your game?

Yeah, all the time. I think I like watching the guys with under 20 streamers because they're a bit more authentic, they're just trying to make a stream. When the game came out we jumped on a stream and and I said hello, this guy's like "Oh my god, it's the developers!" We're like, "Hey man, are you having a good time?" He's like, "Yeah, just trying to figure out the game." I'm like, "Well, have you played in a team yet?" And we invited him to our Discord, we said "You can keep streaming, we'll just play with you if you want, as a five." He loved it and that was great. We like doing that kind of thing.

We built, for less than a million dollars, in two years, an FPS game—and we still have to add killcam.

Joe Brammer

How do you feel about the community you've gathered?

I think we planned from day one, before the game released we knew that we'd get X amount of players and then we'd lose some over the next 10 days. It's just videogame development, especially in Early Access. You have people fall off, that's not unheard of, we know the game's going to go down in player concurrents for the next six months. No one knows what we're gonna have in six months and no one knows what we're gonna announce in a year, but it's basically everything the players wanted and more. People saying, "The game's got a fourth of the amount of players it had on day one." Well, yeah, that's just how games work. But they don't know the information that we have, so that's super frustrating to see but we just ignore it now.

Like with Lawbreakers, people were more interested in watching the numbers than saying anything about the game.

It's frustrating cause SteamDB provide a good service but also they just—videogamers are the most entitled community ever, really, and that's great because us the developers get to get raw, genuine feedback but it's also not good because it's not the player's job to worry about player concurrents and it's not the player's job to worry about how many copies were sold because people don't know how important that is to them. They don't understand that we've actually, in terms of Bulkhead—let's be quite honest—we've made back our investment in Battalion 1944, so everything we're doing now we don't have that added pressure of, "We need to make money back so that we can please our publisher" or anything. 

Our publisher and us have made our money back and that means we can focus on making the game succeed long-term, over five to 10 years, and that's our focus now. That doesn't show up on SteamDB. That doesn't show, but I think players should worry about the gameplay part more and things like SteamSpy need to be a little bit better controlled by Valve because it hurts the economy of game development a little bit. But it's cool, freedom of information's great, so no problem really.

Do you still enjoy playing Battalion?

I've got hundreds of hours on Battalion so for us it wasn't like, "The game's out we can play it now!" We've been playing it a lot and still on the weekends we get some time to play together. I guess I personally want to play competitive and for me I want to be playing towards points and rank and that kind of thing. I think that in the future that's what we're going to be enjoying in the game is the competitive part, and also modding when we get to that. It'll be cool to see what other people do with the game. But for us obviously we've played it so much that it's not new for us, so I think ultimately we're excited to play the new content that we're working on now. When we get to that and give it to the community we will have played it. We're always kind of ahead there!

What do you want to see modders do? I know you've mentioned new factions.

We're adding factions ourselves but it would be cool to see the Gurkhas or something, that's not something we're doing and I'd like to see them do it. I think modding, I wouldn't want to say, "This is what I want to see" because the point of modding is I don't know. I want someone to take whatever they want, we've given them the palette and they can paint whatever they like. I came from a modding background, I started modding Battlefield when I was nine I think, or Half-Life. Big modder, then moved into game development at school. I just want to see people have fun with it, do whatever they want. Treat it as a sandbox. And then we work on our game mode specifically. I love modding, can't wait to see it.

Here's my entitled gamer question: why no killcam?

Because it's the most complicated thing in the world to write. We actually had it really early on, a really basic version of it and then we he had to choose between spectating and killcam. Call of Duty, every three years they start with a base game so they have like where we are now, where we will be in a year actually, they have a finished version with everything working: matchmaking, killcam, everything. They then spend three years refining that and making it perfect. We built, for less than a million dollars, in two years, an FPS game—and we still have to add killcam [laughs]. Players are so used to it. And like you said, this is your entitled player question, right? They're so used to it they don't realize it's so complicated to write. You have to roll back time and be actively recording what is happening to a player then roll back time and play it. Because it's not like a video that plays again, if you see sometimes in Call of Duty the arms or the gun will pop in afterwards, that's because they're replaying the animations and you have a spectator controller that replays it all. It's crazy complicated!

What else have you got planned?

A few things, nothing major. In three weeks we're doing a pretty big update where we're going to include a new map as well. It's coming but not right now.

Jody Macgregor
Weekend/AU Editor

Jody's first computer was a Commodore 64, so he remembers having to use a code wheel to play Pool of Radiance. A former music journalist who interviewed everyone from Giorgio Moroder to Trent Reznor, Jody also co-hosted Australia's first radio show about videogames, Zed Games. He's written for Rock Paper Shotgun, The Big Issue, GamesRadar, Zam, Glixel, Five Out of Ten Magazine, and, whose cheques with the bunny logo made for fun conversations at the bank. Jody's first article for PC Gamer was about the audio of Alien Isolation, published in 2015, and since then he's written about why Silent Hill belongs on PC, why Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale is the best fantasy shopkeeper tycoon game, and how weird Lost Ark can get. Jody edited PC Gamer Indie from 2017 to 2018, and he eventually lived up to his promise to play every Warhammer videogame.