LNL-Tactical (Modern)

Grogheads Interview: The Command – Modern Air Naval Operations Team

Command: Modern Air Naval Operations is one of the most decorated wargames of 2013, including a hard-fought Usenet award, and both of its categories here at Grogheads.  It’s also been one of our most-talked-about games of the past year in our forums.  The guys behind the game took some time to chat with us about where Command came from and where they’re headed next.

 

So guys, let’s start at the beginning – what was the impetus behind Command, and why did you want to build your own game instead of continuing to build on existing proven platforms?

CMANO-smallCommand is a culmination of all our hobby experiences. Our interest was born reading & watching the great techno-thrillers of our youth (Forsyth, Clancy, Ludlum, Coyle, Brown etc.), absorbing all the political & military history and facets of the Cold War (which at that day seemed far from over) and playing some really great amazing games of the era (F-19, RSR, M1TP, SPI’s CentFront series, the Fleet series, Gunship, Steel Panthers, Fleet Defender, Tornado, Harpoon and loads more). Our involvement with Harpoon and AGSI helped cultivate it as we met each other through the Harpoon community and really started learning about modern warfare, talking with professionals and thinking about simulations. We started out as avid modders for Harpoon 2 and then 3 and had great success helping to grow the Harpoon community and helping AGSI develop their game (including doing the grunt work for their first pro deal).  All of this played a part in our own development and helped us build  a strong and skilled team that had a vision of the game they wanted to build and the energy and motivation to do it. So we reached a point where we really wanted to do our own thing  and as is now self evident we went ahead and did just that.

 

When you have to describe Command to someone who doesn’t know wargaming, what’s the “elevator pitch” for the game?  How do you hook a potential player with just 1-2 sentences?

If the guy is getting off at the next floor and I have only 5 seconds:

“Command is the ultimate modern air and naval wargamer’s sandbox.”

If we’re both heading for the loft and he’s stuck with me for just a bit more:

“Breakfast – you trade machine gun fire & rocket salvos with pirates & smugglers in the littoral.

Lunch – you plan and execute an Alpha Strike from a carrier.

Dinner – you launch a strategic nuclear attack over the North Pole.

Midnight snack – you spin your own historical or what-if anywhere on the globe, with practically any war machine in existence post-WW2.

All with high realism & accuracy. All in one game. Command.”

CMANO-interview-SPLASH

Give us two or three of the key differentiators between Command and the Harpoon series, and Command and the Naval Warfare series.

We believe that Command’s models are significantly more detailed than any other similar simulation or game. Our product is more focused on building scenarios and has many key features that allow players to go much further than has been hitherto possible. Command is a product that will continue to be developed and will be supported throughout a fair product lifecycle.

A few examples:

  • Whole-globe theater (no edge-of-map kludges). Able to do stuff like trans-oceanic convoys, intercontinental strikes etc.
  • Combination of scale, detail & performance (try doing a scenario like “Shamal” on any other game with the same level of detail)
  • Intuitive Windows desktop-based interface
  • Hands-on, discrete modelling of elements often abstracted/under-modeled in other games (satellites, mines, air ops complexity & vulnerability, docking ops, replenishment etc.)
  • Variety of theaters and available hardware to play with.

 

Obviously technical factors are a key component of the research in any hardware-heavy game like Command, but how have you incorporated soft factors like leadership, training, resourcing, and esprit-de-corps?

This is something we underestimated initially – understandably so, as air and particularly naval warfare is significantly more hardware-based than land combat (e.g. rallying the troops is a big deal in a firefight, but no amount of Maverick hotdogging will save you from 3 Aegis cruisers emptying their SAM magazines at you). Our user base, who have been outstanding, correctly pointed out certain cases where overall crew proficiency still does play a significant factor (e.g. close air combat, individual weapon avoidance, reaction time against pop-up threats, air ops base activities etc.) so we introduced this in one of our update releases. We want to expand this more in the future.

 

One of the great things about modern wargames is the ability to play out current events as they unfold in real-time.  How quickly can you guys prototype and deploy a scenario based on a real-world confrontation off the Philippines or another Argentine swipe at the Falklands?

Significantly faster than most simulations.

Our game includes two databases. There is the Cold War database which covers late WWII to 1979 and the Database 3000 which covers 1979 to the near future. Both have thousands of units available for players to use and are regularly updated. Both of these represent years or research, reflect most changes made to most platforms over the years and can be viewed in our database viewer. Players can filter, search and add these platforms with only a few clicks. Several hotkeys are available to quickly group, move, copy or rename.

CMANO-editor

click to enlarge the view of the editor

AI editing is done through a mission editor, ROE (Rules of Engagement) settings and our Event Editor. Missions are scripted out strike, patrol support, ferry, mining or mine-clearing behaviors and most of these broad types have sub variants with different parameters allowing variability. Rules of engagement are constraints or lack thereof applied to sides, missions or units group. The event editor is very powerful tool that allows players to add variability, scoring and narrative to their scenarios. All of this is implemented in a fairly straight forward sensible UI that windowsIt probably took us longer to write all this than it would take to build out a simple, functional scenario. If you want a ball park we could probably put together a Falkland’s skirmish scenario in about an hour. We do hope though that people really dive in to our features. This game was developed with scenario editors in mind.

As a concrete example, a couple weeks ago the Greek air force performed a surprise exercise practicing a coordinated anti-air sweep and anti-ship strike from airbases spread all over the country. D was able to spin up and publish for feedback a scenario recreating this exercise within 2-2.5 hours, and most of that time was devoted to carefully checking that the AI opponent is putting up a good fight (it does – nobody yet has reported to have beaten this scenario, including ourselves).

The Chinese have become more and more adept at moving civilian naval forces into an area and overwhelming the available space with their fishing fleets while choking off naval access to the countries that had previously claimed those areas.  How does Command replicate these non-combat units as a part of the scenarios that may lead to shooting confrontations?  Any plans to expand the scope of the game to incorporate a greater range of less-than-combat confrontations?

You can add a near limitless number of sides to the game and set postures to other sides in the game that include friendly, neutral, unfriendly and hostile. Our databases also have a wide range of commercial, civilian and even police vessels. Using the event editor and exclusion zones you can currently build combat-less confrontations and then ratchet up hostilities as well as scoring them appropriately. Many scenarios available now use such elements and additional complications such as false targets (look ma I just torpedoed a whale). We are aided in this by the sim engine’s inherent performance (it’s much harder to decide to stick non-combatants in a scenario if you know they’ll kill your game speed). We also employ complex side allegiances so those innocent fishing trawlers may in fact be acting as tattletales feeding information to your enemy (and you can’t touch them unless you want to be the source of a major diplomatic embarrassment). Other sneaky stuff may include custom mods on any platform – so for example that harmless container ship passing by (The DB reference says so! Not even shark rifles!) suddenly opens up one of its containers and off come a bunch of Club-K cruise missiles….

 

How far into the future are you guys looking for potential hardware on the horizon?  How are you trying to model that in a game that’s not (intentionally) trying to predict the future?

Traditionally we’ve been very conservative about adding future platforms because defense acquisition is definitely not a sure thing and once a player adds a unit to their scenario that gets cancelled (e.g. RAH-66) it becomes significantly more difficult to remove it as we run a huge risk of wrecking that scenario. We’ve since revised a bit by adding a hypothetical flag to the database and have begun adding really cool but cancelled/aborted units & systems to the databases. The first example is the Yak-141 Freestyle which was a very promising Soviet carrier based multirole VTOL aircraft that was killed due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Players will be seeing units like the A-12 Avenger II or Tomcat-21 in the very near future. We would not expect at this point though to see any Robotech fighters.

In terms of unconventional, new & future tech we already have lasers in and we’re looking at stuff like directed-EMP and better modeling of FAE/thermobarics, psyops, comms intercept & jamming etc. Part of the challenge with future hardware is reading the tea leaves accurately enough to be able to judge whether a “coming” system and its CONOPS is probable enough, and significant/influential enough, to warrant modifying parts of your codebase to accommodate it (I’m looking at you LRASM, with your supposed dynamic threat-avoiding AI).

 

What’s been the biggest disappointment in the development of Command, and what are you plans to go back and address it with a future release?

There are always things you wish you should have done or can do better. The important thing is to learn and keep moving forward. As an example, it was a real bummer when we realized we would not be able to fit a full-fledged land combat engine (think Steel Panthers or Armored Brigade fidelity) in the game in time for the dev & release schedule we were working with. This is definitely something we want to address in the future and you’ll probably see a lot more of it as we move ahead.

CMANO-boat

 

What’s the near-term focus for enhancing the game, and rolling out new features, as opposed to just big fixes?  What’s the longer-term plan for where you want to take the game?

Near term is the release of v1.03, which will be focused on stability and content rather than (much) new functionality. After that we have a few interesting ideas as to where we want to go but we need to nail a few things down before we can talk about them more freely in public. As with during pre-v1 development the last thing we want to do is to make unkept promises. The customer base has appreciated and rewarded our stance on this so I think we’re on a solid path. It is fair to say though, if your impression of Command is “this game is freakin’ awesome, I just wish it also had feature-X then it would be better than sex”, there’s a good chance that feature-X is also on our minds. We play the game too!

 

What would we have asked you if we knew what we should’ve been asking?

Is Command one of those once-in-a-decade games? Yes, and more.


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