By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Revi68ss, as any gamer by now has guessed, is a screen name, in this case for World War II Online: Blitzkrieg, an online title produced by a small Bedford company, Cornered Rat Software. WWII Online is known as a "massively multiplayer online game," meaning thousands of people across the world log on as players in the huge virtual battle zone of Western Europe (as either Allied or Axis players) and help simulate a real-time, ongoing battle against other players. In other words, virtual players shoot (think Doom) or drive or fly (think Microsoft Flight Simulator) under orders from other higher-ranked players to achieve objectives in this organic online theater (think any of the Sim games). It is, in concept and often in execution, an awesome melding of gaming styles into an absorbing, historically accurate, persistent virtual world. One kick-ass game, in other words.
Why, then, have you most likely never heard of it?
Well, if you're someone like Revi68ss, you have. But you're not like him. He is a sergeant in the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, stationed at Fort Hood and already deployed to Iraq (which is why no names, please). He is a flight surgeon of an air ambulance unit. And he's a gaming fan who is technologically savvy (the 4th Infantry Division is called the "first digital division") and is obsessed with World War II German history. "So many things have brought me to WWII Online," he says in an online interview before deployment. "I love WWII history...It's very realistic. I like the fact that I can call air support or a naval vessel. I like that it takes you 10 to 15 minutes to get back in the fight [after you die, you are "respawned" and have to rejoin your crew]...There are so many reasons."
These are the very reasons you've never heard of it. The game is realistic, too much so for many folks looking to drop into a battle and start shooting immediately, as they do in PlayStation 2 games or other "first-person shooters." The realism puts a premium on strategy, which can take a long time to learn. For example, every weapon or vehicle is made as almost an exact replica, meaning some drive faster or fly easier or shoot farther than others. Proper training (and, therefore, enjoyment) usually comes from joining a team, which changes the solitary nature of gaming into something communal, even intimidating, for new players. That's why other online games, such as the genre's 800-pound mystical ogre, Everquest, have a far higher profile and hundreds of thousands of more players.
Which is too bad, because the boys in Bedford at Cornered Rat Software have created, after a disastrous start, a unique gaming experience, partly because World War II Online is more than a game. It is also a passionate community, complete with a large contingent of mid-30s male gamers, as well as history and World War II buffs. But there are also Canadian grandmothers, war veterans in their 60s and 20-year-old "twitch" gamers looking for something more satisfying than Madden 2003.
"This game, this community, is unlike any other on the Net or in any game," says executive producer Chris Sherland (game name "Mo").
Also unique are the trials the group in Bedford has undergone. For WWII Online attempts to capture the "holy grail" for online games, a huge, ongoing virtual world that attracts people for its role-playing, fighting, planning and game-play elements. Even if it's on its way to achieving that, the terrible start the game had--now legendary within the gaming community--hampers its prospects for financial success. So although its players have achieved a unique virtual community, even though the real-life military continues to adapt and adopt gaming technologies for its recruitment, training and in-battle situations, the gamemakers at Cornered Rat are constantly scrambling to stay afloat--and to make the game more compelling for longtime players.
"In almost two years since its launch, the game doesn't even resemble the original release," says executive producer Al Corey (a.k.a. Rafter). "But no matter how many times we get reviewed, we always get, 'Although these guys had the worst launch in history...' We can never get over that. I guess we never will."
"But," adds Sherland, smiling, "we're still here."
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.
WarBirds had 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.
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.
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 Online itself 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 Online Web 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 Online community--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."
Such displays give weight to the gamer polls conducted by WWII Online itself, one of which suggests nearly half the WWII Online community values the friendships they develop with other gamers more than the game play itself.
"There's a culture that grows inside this game that's phenomenal," Corey says. "You take Internet cultures, which are pretty established at this point, and then you put them in an environment where it's person vs. person or person in concert with person against another person, and it just blossoms. We have a pretty deep community going on, and we didn't have to do anything. We just basically gave them a sandbox to play in."
Madurai piloted his wooden Fairmile B Type Motor Launch (sort of a slow PT boat without torpedoes) in a convoy up from the Antwerp docks; he was escorting several troop-carrying boats. It was early morning, plenty of light for enemy aircraft to show up, so tension was high.
Soon enough, one attacked. Madurai was on his game that day, successfully repelling an air attack with the ship's 20mm guns. But in the narrow canal between Antwerp and Bergen, German boats were waiting on the northern end. The boat ahead of Madurai's took blasts from close range, but meanwhile Madurai and his crew sank three enemy ships. Now, with Bergen in sight, Madurai shelled the town from close range, doing doughnuts in the bay to keep the defenders' attention fixed while the transports rolled up unscathed and unloaded their troops. Mission accomplished in two hours 13 minutes, no casualties, with only a few bullet holes in the ship's plywood.
Madurai--in the real world known as Stephen Blount, who recently moved from Dallas to Oakland--counts this mission as his greatest success in the nearly two years he's been playing. This for a lifetime military buff who knows the difference--and similarities--between virtual and real battlefields. Blount had two uncles who flew in Vietnam. He himself was in the Navy during the first Gulf War. "Other kids went to rock concerts," he says. "I went to air shows. We all came back hard of hearing with a new T-shirt."
He, like most of the gamers and the staff at Cornered Rat, have opinions on the current war in Iraq and the odd reality of playing a game with tanks and airplanes doing battle while a real one rages in downtown Baghdad. They stress that there are as many differences as similarities, even in terms of planning and tactics.
The greatest similarity, in fact, may be in the French-bashing that goes on--more good-naturedly in the game than in many areas within the United States. And it's not new. During early game-design talks, Chris Sherland recalls fielding the suggestion that they model the French resistance so players could join it. "And we had to remind them, hey, in our game, the French haven't lost yet," Sherland says, laughing. "They get another shot at it. Don't give up so easy!"
"But there are things about our game that mirror real life more than other games," Baldwin says. "In our game, you get a rush just standing in a field with no one around. You're alone, and when you're alone in this game, just like in real life, that's when you're most scared."
It takes only a glance at the current cover headline of Business Week ("The Doctrine of Digital War") to see there is more than a cursory overlap between the virtual and real battlefield. As noted this week in The New York Times, "The possibilities of networked computers, combined with an increasingly remote-controlled military like the one Donald H. Rumsfeld has vowed to build, has spurred increase in adapting the architecture of multiplayer games like Everquest and Ultima to create a 'persistent world' for training and perhaps more." In fact, this is already going on, to an extent. The makers of Operation Flashpoint, a competitor to World War II Online, helped turn the game into a simulation used by the Marines called, elegantly enough, Virtual Battlefield System 1.
The crossover between the military and video-game worlds is increasingly thorough. Examples are legion: There is the free-to-download Internet game America's Army, an $8 million effort created by the U.S. Army to aid in recruiting that has been downloaded more than 1.5 million times; since February, the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, has been using a game called Full Spectrum Command to teach infantry captains; recent game releases include SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs and Conflict: Desert Storm; the controls of the real Navy SEALs' new Mark V boat closely resemble a video-game joystick; and the controls for the Stryker, an autonomous robotic vehicle being tested at Fort Bliss, Texas, were designed to be like those of a video game, so they would be easy for young, computer-savvy recruits to operate.
But 4th Infantry Colonel John Antal says the usefulness of video-game-like training in virtual battlefields is useful, but military or gaming enthusiasts who suggest its importance is increasing don't understand real warfare.
"Video games are video games," he told the Cox News Service last week. "There is almost zero translation of skill in playing Ages of Empire to 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 Online models 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 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."