Tannenberg interview: Capturing World War I on the Eastern Front

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When World War I comes up in popular culture, the Eastern Front gets far less attention than the battlefields of the West. We hear about and read about the Somme, Verdun, or Passchendaele more than we do the Masurian Lakes or Tannenberg, the namesake for Blackmill Games’ second World War I multiplayer shooter.

And that’s a shame because the Eastern Front’s conflict can be just as fascinating as what happened in the West. Sometimes, it’s even more interesting, as armies were able to move around more freely than in the stalemate of the West. You have the historic encirclement of Russian forces at the Battle of Tannenberg, the siege of the Przemyśl, and the frequent German bailouts of Austro-Hungarian allies.

Tannenberg developers Blackmill Games and M2H wanted to capture the feeling of the Eastern Front. It’s hard to make a multiplayer shooter like this 100% historically accurate, so they instead aimed to preserve the feel and spirit of these battles.

Back when Tannenberg was getting ready to hit the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (it’s on PC as well), I interviewed Blackmill owner and founder Jos Hoebe. We discussed the history of the Eastern Front, the roles smaller countries like Bulgaria and Romania played amid the greater empires of Germany and Russia, and how to adapt the tactics and weapons of such warfare for a video game.

This is an edited transcript of our interview.

GamesBeat: I can understand going to the Eastern Front after Verdun, but why Tannenberg?

Jos Hoebe: With Tannenberg, just like Verdun, we wanted to try to encompass the entire Eastern Front. We have maps from the Baltic to the Black Sea. We tried to represent each sector of the front, each different, unique environment and strategic frontline in the game. The Baltic, obviously, is very forested. You go to the Carpathian mountains, the Polish plains, all the way to the Black Sea, where it’s a very dry area in Bulgaria, a grassland. We try to encompass the entire front, and all these different visual themes.

Why Tannenberg specifically? Tannenberg being the most known battle on the Eastern Front, where the tide of the Russian assault toward Germany was slaughtered in the early days of the war, that had massive symbolic value. It goes a bit beyond just the operation or the strategic victory that took place there. It has an almost cultural phenomenon to it. The Nazis used it later on, mystified it. Hitler built a giant monument there. It’s the point where two civilizations clashed, the eastern Russians versus the western Germans. There’s this giant cultural clash behind it.

The battle didn’t take place at the actual location called Tannenberg. But Tannenberg obviously being the battle where the Teutonic knights were defeated — the whole idea of the battle of Tannenberg at the time was thought of as a revanche for their defeat in the 1300s. There’s a great cultural theme built around it. Also, for us, it was the most known battle, and very impactful. Just like with Verdun, which was for us the symbol of the Western Front, with its attrition warfare, the longest battle, Tannenberg is the symbol of the Eastern Front in that regard.

GamesBeat: The way you approached development of the tactics and the battlefields is different in Tannenberg. Unlike Verdun, it allows for battles of maneuver. How did you address this?

Hoebe: Correct. With Verdun, we had the static back-and-forth. With Tannenberg we wanted to capture the sense of maneuver warfare, Tannenberg itself being a prime example of that, where two Russian armies were effectively outmaneuvered in the field and surrounded, cut off, with huge numbers of Russians captured. We worked on this in early access on Steam. We knew we wanted to capture the essence of the front. We knew we had to create a gameplay where we would have different points on the map, and you’d be able to cut off the enemy and gain an advantage for your team. Flanking and outmaneuvering are the most essential components of the gameplay, compared to Verdun, where it’s capturing the trenches and holding against counterattacks. Really distilling the essence from the history.

GamesBeat: Which front was more appealing to you as far as making a game? Or do they both have their attractions?

Hoebe: Well, they both have their attractions. Our affinity is more with the Western Front because it’s closer. It has more the typical WWI attributes to it. A friend’s house is very close to Verdun. I was there [recently]. It’s closer to my personal experience, going there.

With the Eastern Front, it’s a different appeal. When researching it, I found — I wouldn’t say it’s completely unknown, but you feel like you’re exploring things and finding out new things that you didn’t know, that you weren’t familiar with. I remember being very interested in trying to re-create these Polish villages for one of the maps: the typical architecture, that certain atmosphere, trying to re-create that atmosphere. I found that very interesting. That was the most fun part to work on, discovering those kinds of things. Similar to how the battles in Romania — I drove through the regions where those battles took place. That was very interesting as well. It’s interesting how the artists deal — we expanded the game gradually. We started off with a smaller selection of regions, and then we added Romania and Bulgaria. We did a poll on Facebook about which factions we should include next, Bulgaria or Romania. The reaction from the Romanians — they have a lot of thoughts about it in those nations. The national press in Romania, actually, one of their national newspapers, talked about the fact that Romanians were appearing in a video game, which I guess never really happens, not even in WWII titles. Bulgaria is even rarer. Romania is always about vampires and stuff like that, but never about the actual Romania.

Above: Przemyśl looks even more dreadful in the winter.

Image Credit: Blackmill Games

GamesBeat: Austria-Hungary based a lot of its tactics on the German model. Romania and Bulgaria had very different tactics, different equipment and training and perspectives. How challenging was this to capture in the game?

Hoebe: We did try to create unique perks for each faction. One of the attributes of the Romanians was that they rebuilt — Romania was pretty much defeated. They were spawn-killed almost. They joined the war, and then Germany and Austria and Bulgaria defeated them. The oil was very important. That’s also partly — in the Romania map there are oil derricks in important locations. It was important to represent that this is what happened to the oil there.

They rebuilt their army as the French came in. They held the line in the northeast part of the country, in Moldova. They had a piece of the line there. And the French retrained and re-equipped their army. That’s one of the perks, representing their additional equipment. The Bulgarians have a famous battle cry, Urra!, for their bayonet charge, which they executed to capture the forts on the Danube. That’s an active ability. They get more melee offense. We tried to give each nation a bit of their national flavor. Austria-Hungary was famous for siege warfare. For all their faults, the crappy field army they had — they pretty much lost everywhere they fought. The Germans had to bail them out on every occasion. They did hold off the Italians from going in, until they were exhausted, and then the Germans came in. The Caporetto breakthrough was pretty much a German affair, with Austrians behind them. And then obviously the relief of the Przemyśl fortress, the early days in Romania, that was all Germans who had to bail out the Austrians.

The Germans were always the tip of the spear. Even in Serbia, where [Austria-Hungary] tried to crush Serbia, the Germans had to bail them out. Anyway, their special ability is their siege ability. For all their faults, they did have excellent siege artillery, which they used in Italy against the forts.

GamesBeat: How does this play in this game?

Hoebe: You have phones on the map. Each sector has a strategic point, and if you capture it, you can telephone to call in artillery. For the Austrians, there’s the availability of the 305mm howitzers, these giant cannon that fire one big shot and obliterate the target area. There’s a tradeoff where you can call in lighter guns, but it’s less concentrated. If a lot of enemy comes straight on at one area, you can do a lot of damage calling in the one big gun. So we try to give each nation their own flavor.

GamesBeat: You have one of the iconic sieges on the Eastern Front — Przemyśl.

Hoebe: I actually had a talk with a professor about his book, The Fortress. He was impressed with how we did it. We did a big stream where we walked through how the battle took place, the actual battle.

Anyway, the fortress, it was a siege. Let me go back to why we did it, because it was pretty much the Verdun of the Eastern Front. We couldn’t omit it from the game. We wanted to make it from the beginning, but since it’s a fortress, it required extra assets. It was very difficult to make it. But in the end we tried to do it as the launch map for the console release. The fortress itself didn’t see a lot of action, except for one part, where the Russians, in the first week of the siege, tried to take one of the fortresses. We took map data and exactly made the area of the fort where the Russians breached it. We made that into the map. We captured part of the fort and its surroundings. We took that battlefield and molded it into the format of Tannenberg. All the typical elements are there. The gun emplacements — there are three sub-forts. There were about 35 forts, and then there was a sub-section of one fort ring, the outside area of the fort. It’s not like you go inside the city. It’s actually a fortified city, a vast area.

GamesBeat: How do you take that kind of iconic battle and adapt for a video game, making it something where people are spawning in and out?

Hoebe: All of our maps are based on actual geo data. We take a slice, basically, and we scale it down to the format of what the engine allows. The maps are 4-by-4 grids. It’s a diamond shape. We have a configuration of several key points in the center and then a couple of side points. Then we try to make a compelling configuration of points. In this case, there are several forts that come into play in the actual battle. We took a slice where the Russians actually made a breach into the defensive line. We made those forts into the center of the map. The Russians come from the village, and then the Austrians come from another fort. That’s the field of play. And then you have the strategic — the tactical arrangement of cover in between those, that’s all up to the level designers to shape that, putting layers of bushes here and there to make sure you can get from point A to point B, or create your trenches to go in between. A lot of times we have trench maps as well. We have trench maps where we know a trench was in a certain place, so we put the trench there, the machine guns. We have a format for how we want to lay out the sectors as well. Each sector needs to have a couple of machine guns in several directions so you can defend each point. The levels try to accommodate that format alongside the geo data and the historical elements of the location.

Above: All aboard the boom-boom choo-choo.

Image Credit: Blackmill Games

GamesBeat: When you’re playtesting, how hard is it to balance between historical context and making a shooter?

Hoebe: It’s always a bit of trial-and-error in that regard. On the test team, we look at the ways the spawns are placed. We have the machine guns I mentioned before. If they’re too close to an enemy spawn, we have to move the spawn area away or make the distances greater.

For some maps we have to change the format a bit. The map in Romania is one big king of the hill-style map. Different rules have to apply. It’s always a matter of trying to see how fast players move between one sector and the other. There’s a difference between the physical distance, the measured distance, and the actual time it takes players to get from point A to point B. If it’s an empty field, 10 meters or 20 meters over an empty field is way more dangerous than crossing a dense forest where you have cover. You’re way more visible. We try to balance out these areas, the open areas and closed areas. That’s a big part of how we iterate from the first versions of the map.

Most of the time there’s too little cover. Reality is quite boring. We had this in Verdun a lot. In the real world, in France or the Polish plains, it’s an empty field. There’s nothing there. Maybe there’s a ditch on the side of a cabbage field. It’s a challenge to go from something where there’s zero cover and try to make it fun to play, while not just randomly placing an armored car or a tank every five meters to create cover. The challenge we have continuously, through the whole series, is to balance gameplay with the realistic nature of the battlefields, where there’s little to no cover. It’s a gradual process. We’re always adding and removing cover while we’re playtesting.

GamesBeat: Did you handle the console port, or did you work with someone else on that?

Hoebe: We did it ourselves. For the initial version of Verdun for consoles in 2016, we had an external partner, but we were not quite happy with how that version launched. We took a step back and — I think it was 2017 when we decided to make our entire C codebase also run on consoles. We brought it completely in house. M2H, our partners, had some experience with other cross-platform tech on some of their party games. Using that knowledge, we completely converted the PC game to console. A big component, we had to revamp the entire user interface to work with controllers. But now you can plug in a console controller on PC and it’ll switch automatically. The controller part and the UI part was just about a third of the work for the console. Another third was getting the performance to work. With a high-end PC game you have way more leeway than you do on a standard Xbox. There’s very little memory. The CPU is not that powerful. We needed to make a lot of adjustments. And then another third was obviously the process of meeting Sony and Microsoft’s specification. At the final phase we were actually rejected because of some kind of language issue. “Controller” wasn’t capitalized or something. That took another three weeks of launch time away. We had to recertify the game, which is a pretty long process compared to PC. Steam is much more forgiving in that regard.

Above: German soldiers prepare to face the Russian army.

Image Credit: Blackmill Games

GamesBeat: Will you do the porting in-house again with future projects?

Hoebe: Yeah, this is something we have in-house now, all the knowledge. We can do it now. The entire engine base is converted now. It was a good experience, to go through that entire process.

GamesBeat: Now that you’ve released both of your games and you have this on console now, what’s next?

Hoebe: We’d very much like to continue the series. We’re not sitting still. I can’t say what we’re doing next, but …

GamesBeat: Are you open to leaving Europe and looking at the Middle East, or would you rather stay with Europe, where you have so much historical documentation?

Hoebe: Either of those is an option. The Middle East, Gallipoli, that could be very interesting. Italy, with the Alps, also interesting. Africa, the African theater. I think our format is trying to look at a front and distill the essence of the combat there. I’m very passionate to continue our game, in the light of the expectations. Hopefully we can do another game. But again, looking at the front and distilling the essence of it, like we did with Verdun with the front line game mode and trench warfare. Tannenberg, the eastern front and maneuver warfare there. Looking to one of the other fronts to see what kind of warfare happened there and trying to distill the essence from it, to do justice to the historical nature of the battles that took place on that front.

GamesBeat: Do you have any interest in porting to the PS5 or Xbox Series X?

Hoebe: Absolutely, yeah. It’s faster technology. It looks amazing, the new consoles. From what we’ve seen, I’m not sure what I can share or not about it, but we’ve been reaching out to our partners and trying to get the ball rolling. We’re very much interested and excited for it.


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