By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Until you see the company's high command, clad in the tennis shoes, T-shirts and ball caps that are the norm in tech companies and frat houses. It would be too easy to make the joke that Cornered Rat is a bit of both--but it wouldn't be entirely inaccurate. Testers, coders, developers, other dudes in cubes who don't look up as you walk by, they can often be found working at their desks, and by working we mean playing, and by playing we mean killing customers.
The company's big guns--Sherland (Mo), Corey (Rafter) and associate producer Dana Baldwin (Gophur)--not only encourage "testing" the game during the workday, they often gang up and go in together. When they enter the game, word spreads quickly, and their firefight becomes the battle du jour. Everyone wants a piece of the Rats. "And if I've had three or four bad sorties," Sherland says, laughing, "it can put me in a foul mood."
CRS is a small group, 25 or so employees, which makes the scale and depth of the game even more impressive. The name comes from the way in which the company was formed. When working on another game in the late 1990s, WarBirds, their company was taken over. Employees were told they had two choices: move to the headquarters in North Carolina or lose their jobs. They chose a third: jump ship.
WarBirdshad a similar gaming culture to WWII Online, but squads were never more than 15 or 20 teammates. In this game, there are squads with well over 100 people and waiting lists to join. Such a scale is both the joy and the frustration of WWII Online. Because to succeed, Cornered Rat must capture an ever-expanding slice of the 114 million people who are expected to be gaming online by 2006--especially since 23 million of those will be playing through their consoles like Xbox or PlayStation 2 and not their PCs, according to the firm DFC Intelligence. It's the Anna Nicole Smith rule: If you ain't gettin' bigger, you're forgotten.
Some of World War II Online's best salesmen are its longtime players, those who've seen how far it has come from its early days, when it didn't offer much beyond crashes, poor graphics and uninspired game play. "The other popular massively multiplayer games are concentrated on groups of players fighting against static monsters advancing in levels and acquiring 'loot,'" says Steven Cochran (Torgen), an original beta tester for the game who writes freelance articles for Massive Online Gaming magazine. "In World War II Online, you are fighting with and against other players, which is, of course, more challenging. You can easily be in a house-to-house battle in a single city that is 10 times the size of a standard Counterstrike or Day of Defeat map [competing games], with 200 other players in a battle that can rage for hours. And this is just one city among over 200 towns and famous Western European cities.
"You could be the one who captures the army base or ambushes the enemy reinforcements and allows your side to take a town and move the front. Conversely, you can be the idiot that takes the last heavy tank in town and gets killed while trying to play Rambo."
A quick primer to avoid being the "newbie" or idiot Rambo who does such a thing. We're not suggesting that I should have heeded these tips before I first sat down to play the game, plunked down the $13-a-month fee, got spawned into the contested town of Rheims, grabbed a gun, shot at barking dogs, fell off a rooftop, fired my rifle vainly toward enemy airplanes engaged in a dogfight over the city, then hoofed it until I found an airfield full of fellow soldiers and in my haste ran right into the path of a Spitfire taking off, nearly killing both pilot and soldier. Not saying that at all.
After you pick a side--there are more Axis players than Allied, but only by a small margin--you join a squad (all this is on the Web site, www.wwiionline.com), which you can find very easily. Most of these groups have Web pages that tell you how eager they are to teach newcomers the game. Then study the glossary so you know the lingo. It's more enjoyable if you know that a "cc" means "I understand," that "dirt nap" means "dead" and that "FNG" means "fucking new guy." You'll need this because when you go on missions (seriously, this is the way to do it--don't Rambo it, at least not right away, or you'll be disappointed), you will either talk via the chat screen on your monitor or by using a program like Roger Wilco, a real-time Internet voice program. And because you'll take on organized missions, you will have a thrilling few hours of game play instead of spending every evening running around, looking for action. Again, not that this impatient reporter ("Kragnor") did that.