History: Great Battles Medieval – Interview with Iain McNeil

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Interview Iain McNeil, Development Director of Slitherine, about the video game History: Great Battles Medieval

What was the motivation for Slitherine to make Great Battles Medieval?

We specialise in games that are based around History. It’s what we know, what we do best. We’ve covered games that go through the ancient period, World War II, Napoleonic, and Medieval is one of the periods we haven’t really looked at yet, so it was something that felt like a popular period with gamers and something that we wanted to cover, so when we started looking at the period, the Hundred Years War stood out as something that could work in a game so that’s why we chose the period.

What sets HISTORY GREAT BATTLES MEDIEVAL aside from other role playing games?

To be honest there’s nothing quite like Great Battles Medieval on console at the moment. There are other RPGs out there obviously, but there’s nothing quite like this. With Great Battles Medieval you have squads which travel with you through the game and there’s up to sixteen of those. Each of those squads represents up to 32 men, so you can have around 600-700 men with you, and all these guys can be personalised, so it’s just on this scale, there’s nothing been done on this scale before, and the combat model that we use is for fighting battles, rather than skirmishes between individual characters, so it has very different mechanics and rules.

Can you play multiplayer online?

Yes absolutely, the game can be played on PC over LAN or internet and on PS3 and Xbox 360 over PSN and Live. There are numerous ways to play multiplayer. You design your armies offline and there’s a lot of fun in actually building your army. You choose whether you want to have knights with lances and so on, and you equip them from the ground up, deciding whether they’re mounted or dismounted, what shields, what weapons, what skills. So there’s a lot of fun in the army design, and then in the battles themselves, the battles aren’t all just head on clashes – they can have objectives and missions. So you may have a mismatched army, you may have a smaller army versus a larger army, and the way it’s made fair is that the larger army has to achieve a more difficult objective to win. So there’s a lot of different ways to play multiplayer.

You said HISTORY GREAT BATTLES MEDIEVAL is “the most detailed and realistic medieval combat model ever created” – a bold claim. Why so?

This is what we do. We’ve been doing this for ten years as a company in computer games, but also we develop table top systems. So we have a table top game called Field of Glory, which is the most popular table top system out there for ancient and medieval warfare. That experience lets us draw on all the rules and mechanics that make a battle feel real and put them into a computer game. In addition, we’re working with the TV company that produces the Deadliest Warrior series, and they use our engine to replicate interactions between warriors from different periods. So there’s a lot of expertise there and a lot of realism.

How much detailed historical research was involved in making HISTORY GREAT BATTLES MEDIEVAL?

Yes we’ve done a huge amount of research into the battles. For example, at the battle of Agincourt, there was a muddy field that the French had to advance across, and this is one of the main reasons why they lost the battle – they were advancing across a muddy field against the English archers… We have the muddy field, and if the knights are moving through this kind of terrain they move more slowly and are penalised in combat, so we’ve got all these factors feeding in. Each battle reflects the reality of the historical event.

How did you recreate the various fighting skills of the battle groups to be true and faithful to the Middle Ages?

There’s a certain amount of information which is very easily available – swords, axes, the equipment – that’s relatively easy to research. That’s one part of the game – you can customise your troops with various types of armour, shields, and different weapons. In addition to that you can customise your squad with fighting skills, and while some of these are more generic – things like swordsmanship and how to parry and attack, some are more advanced, and these are taken from German fighting manuals, medieval fighting manuals. They’ve been translated and we’ve taken the skills out of them and used them in the game, so there are around 100 different skills in the game – all kinds of very detailed and very skilled manoeuvres that they used to do.

Will HISTORY GREAT BATTLES MEDIEVAL deepen our understanding of medieval military strategy?

Well the game model itself rewards realistic tactics, so by playing the game and becoming successful in the game, you’re learning tactics that the medieval commander would have learnt at the time. For example, things like spear-armed infantry are good against cavalry; infantry without shields are very vulnerable to archers; attacking somebody in the flank demoralises them very quickly and they’re likely to run away – the moral of a unit is almost more important than its combat ability. If you make a unit’s morale break and they run away, it doesn’t matter how well equipped they are, once they’re routed, they’re defeated. It’s these rules and these mechanics that the player will learn from playing the game, and these are real historical things that happened. So it will give them a basic understanding of how medieval combat would have worked.

Are the troops all dressed as they would have been at the time?

We work very closely with a specialist military history book publisher called Osprey, and they supply us with books that have images of all the different troop types that are available, and we model our characters based on those to make sure we’re accurately recreating the types of characters that would have appeared at that period.

Does the gameplay flow of HISTORY GREAT BATTLES MEDIEVAL evolve alongside the military history of the era?

We start off at the beginning of the Hundred Years War, and the technology is different over the period of a hundred years, things have changed. So at the start of the game your knights have lighter armour, and certain types of weaponry. As the game develops and you move into the French campaign, the armour on your knights generally gets heavier, and then gunpowder starts to come in so you start to get firearms and then bombards and artillery. So this also changed the tactics you use – the development of firearms starts to negate the power of armour, so a bullet doesn’t care whether you’re armed or not, it will pass through armour as easily as it will pass through skin.

Are the military strategy choices easy to understand in HISTORY GREAT BATTLES MEDIEVAL?

One of the most important things is to look at the equipment your units have got, so there’s a real strength and weakness to every type of equipment you give. Spearmen are very good against cavalry, but they’re generally very poor against infantry. Archers are very good against slow moving targets – they can be good against cavalry, but they tend to not get many shots off before they hit them, so your archers really need to be screened by someone that can protect them from the cavalry. Your swordsmen and infantry are good against other infantry, but weaker against cavalry. There’s all this “rock, paper, scissors” interaction going on, so it’s all about getting the right units in the right place against the right enemy units. In addition to that, you’ve also got some more general mechanics… Things like out-flanking the enemy – that always gives you bonuses when attacking in the flank or rear, and also concentration of force. One of the key parts to warfare through any period of history was concentrating your force against a small part of the opponent’s army, so you do this by delaying tactics on one wing while you concentrate on another, or just by quickly overwhelming individual units and then moving onto the next one.

Have your forum members helped with input and support for HISTORY GREAT BATTLES MEDIEVAL?

Absolutely… With Great Battles of Rome there’s a lot of feedback on the forums. We’ve got a very active community and we’re always listening to them to find ways to improve the games. We actually have created an extra campaign for the PC version which you can download from the site, which was in reaction to some of the feedback we got, so there’s a new bonus campaign available.

So there’s platform specific treats?

Yes there are… On the PS3 version there’s a Swiss Pikeman unit which is available in Skirmish mode and multiplayer – that’s not available anywhere else. On the 360, we have a Genoese crossbowman who’s only available on the 360. For PC we have an extra campaign called the Knights Tale which adds some extra gameplay mode as well. Each of the platforms has something special that is unique to them.

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Sharan Newman