Toy Soldiers

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

"Video games are video games," he told the Cox News Service last week. "There is almost zero translation of skill in playing Ages of Empireto warfare." He says such games' greatest benefit is that new recruits come in techno-savvy.

Blount, with experience in both worlds, agrees. "Even the tactics are only comparable in the broadest sense," he says. "World War II Onlinemodels the equipment so faithfully that many of the specific tactics applicable to late 1990s technology don't work with 1930s equipment."

But, Blount notes, the game is similar to real life in a more subtle way. "It has its celebrities and scapegoats, its cliques and pariahs; it's not unlike the cross section of personalities you get in the military."

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.


Try to get the Rats to talk about the real war vs. their virtual war, and they will politely but collectively roll their eyes. Ask them to discuss the game's future, and they will dutifully but passively list their hopes (add more theaters, increase gamers, improve game play, etc.). But ask for an example of the game's unique communal spirit, well, that's when you'll get a story.

"At one point, there was a change in the German high command," Sherland recalls. "One guy was leaving and another taking over. And they had an in-game changing-of-command ceremony where they had infantry guys lined up in a square, and the guy walked down the square. He made a chat speech, then there was this parade of tanks. It was a completely non-combat ceremony."

Sherland also remembers a similar scene, when a well-liked gamer passed away, in which fighters conducted fly-bys in "miss-you" formations, and cease-fires were honored. "I don't think many people who aren't playing games or who aren't in a massively multiplayer community are aware that this kind of stuff even goes on."

He and the other Rats are confident that such displays will continue as the game develops, as new theaters and subscribers are added. For now, they say, they're just glad that someone wants to talk about the game's future instead of its past. They're hopeful that World War II Online's successes won't be ignored outside the massive multiplayer community much longer.

The troops, for once, agree. "The concept of a massively multiplayer 'virtual battlefield' was something that all the major movers and shakers attempted and abandoned, or simply wrote off as impossible," Steven Cochran says. "It took a small band of guys in Bedford to prove them wrong. They're bringing the world something the multimillion-dollar corporations couldn't. It's nice to see David succeed where Goliath failed."

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