Toy Soldiers

Computer game designers in Bedford re-create the greatest generation online

As you take on missions and complete them, you can ascend in rank and take on more complicated tasks, like flying planes or handling anti-aircraft guns. Or, if soldiering seems distasteful to you, then make like the Canadian grandmother and only drive troop transports. Perhaps, like her, you'll get so good that other players will vie for you to take them to the front, because they see how skilled you are at getting men in position to kill, but not to be killed.

Most important, understand that you're playing a game that is a combination of games you've played before. "You can play it like a Sim, like a first-person shooter, like a role-playing game," Sherland says. "But when you play it with friends as a multiplayer game, that's when you'll see it elevated above other games."

The veracity of that statement is, of course, in the eye of the gamer.

At top, the map of the Western European theater that makes up WWII Online's virtual battlefield, which is modeled on a one-half scale (every actual mile equals a half-mile in the game), meaning it would take you several days to walk across Europe; below, the game offers fighting by air (the Vickers-Supermarine Spitfire MkI), land (you choose which side your soldier fights on) and sea (the Brits' Fairmile B Type Motor Launch).
At top, the map of the Western European theater that makes up WWII Online's virtual battlefield, which is modeled on a one-half scale (every actual mile equals a half-mile in the game), meaning it would take you several days to walk across Europe; below, the game offers fighting by air (the Vickers-Supermarine Spitfire MkI), land (you choose which side your soldier fights on) and sea (the Brits' Fairmile B Type Motor Launch).
PlayNet/Cornered Rat exec Chris "Mo" Sherland, above, doesn't let his World War II model airplanes distract him when he's flying virtual sorties; below, associate producer Dana "Gophur" Baldwin says he wants you to play his game...so long as you don't act like an FNG.
Mark Graham
PlayNet/Cornered Rat exec Chris "Mo" Sherland, above, doesn't let his World War II model airplanes distract him when he's flying virtual sorties; below, associate producer Dana "Gophur" Baldwin says he wants you to play his game...so long as you don't act like an FNG.


These guys had the worst launch in history.

Yes, they're tired of hearing it, and they should be. But to understand how far Cornered Rat has come, you have to know just how cornered it was. "The fact is, we just weren't ready," Sherland says.

The game had been beta tested by a few hundred people but was unprepared for the massive number who immediately bought it and logged on upon its release in June 2001. Reports are they sold 15,000 in one day, and within the first week 40,000 to 50,000 people were trying to log on and play. The servers couldn't handle the work, beta testers became 24-hour hired customer service supporters, the servers had to be physically moved to another location and users had to download huge files just to get the game to begin working.

This disaster was met with uncommon rancor, even in the catty video-game industry. The influential Web site Gamespot.com called it a "dangerous mess of a game that can't be recommended." Customers demanded their money back (the game currently retails for $19.99). Free trials and apologies only went so far. There were several reports that Cornered Rat would shut down.

But the Rats kept paddling. In turn, they and the communities that built up around the game did so in relative obscurity. They made it play smoother, they introduced more weapons, they allowed real people to become commanders of the forces. This helped the game become a more self-generating ecosystem, more organic, as real people not only took orders but also planned the strategy that spurred those orders. Real people had to organize and lead troops, so that the entire virtual battlefield housed an intricate, involved group of folks who got off more on the tactical nature of the game than on its fighting aspects.

Not that World War II Onlineitself isn't fun, when played correctly. Reviews online have ranged from saying it has "heart-pounding action" to suggesting that "no other online game delivers this type of replayability." Shawn Snider, editor of Gaming Excellence, says, "For any game to come this far is astounding and truly a testament to the development team."

Not everyone is a believer, though. There are plenty of players within the game who post messages on the WWII OnlineWeb site complaining of unfair equipment deficiencies or tactics or a need for there to be a larger goal to work toward (at this point one can never completely "win" the game). And there are people like "Mathieu," who posted this concise review on Gamespot.com: "Don't buy this game...Because onlu reetarded can like that kind of reetarted game."

More convincing in his skepticism is Richard Aihoshi, editor-in-chief of IGN Vault Network, an online gaming site out of Ontario, Canada. "What I can tell you is that the game's launch has had a lasting impact. It created a poor initial image that still endures...My understanding is that it is a far, far better game now. However, the negative image, even if it's no longer accurate, makes it difficult to get potential customers to try the game."

Not surprisingly, during the past year the WWII Onlinecommunity--the Rats in Bedford and the gamers who were still giving it a go--retrenched. As the developers addressed the game's flaws, not only did the game improve, but the feeling of camaraderie among the players intensified. Now, it's like an extended family. It's OK for them to complain about the game, because they love it. Outsiders dismiss its appeal at their own risk.

"They are extremely tight-knit," Baldwin says. "They have a commonality that is unique. They know the game is fun, but at the same time they take it very seriously. It's engrossing."

This is evident in numerous ways. The game's Web site can take days to click through. There are message boards packed with discussions about tactics, the real war taking place and other important matters. (As in all things, no message header receives quite the response as the ones containing the words "hot chix!") Allied and Axis organizations create elaborate banners promoting their groups. Some have created movies, complete with music, that feature scenes from their battle victories. There are scores of Web sites run by players, some incredibly elaborate. When possible, they gather to imbibe, as many did recently at Razzoo's in Bedford during one of the Cornered Rat-sponsored "mini-cons." Players came from as far away as Arizona (Schone and Dorkfisk), California (Jaffo), Canada (Bazza) and Norway (Kokko). Kokko came in true Axis style, driving up in a black Mini Cooper with a sign on its door saying, in part, "Kokko Staff Car."

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