As the third stand-alone title in the Dawn of War series, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III is an upcoming real time strategy game that is scheduled for release in 2017. Created by long-time series developer Relic Entertainment, the third entry in the franchise is being produced by Sega in partnership with Games Workshop – the creators of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. I spoke to Matt Kernachan (Producer, Relic Entertainment) in order to get more information about his game, what it’s like working under the directive of Sega as opposed to THQ (the defunct publisher under which the previous two Dawn of War games were published), as well as how the series sits alongside Total War: Warhammer by Creative Assembly – another Sega owned studio. Enjoy!
What is your background in games development, and what have you done prior to Dawn of War 3?
My background goes quite far back. I began making games in 1996, I believe. I used to work for Electronic Arts making sports games. I left the industry for a little while… started with Relic, and have been with Relic for about 11 years now. I’ve since shipped the original Dawn of War, Company of Heroes 1, Company of Heroes 2, and Dawn of War 2. And now I’m really excited to ship Dawn of War 3.
So you’ve essentially been with the Dawn of War series since its very inception?
I have, yeah.
When Dawn of War 1 and Dawn of War 2 were released, those games came out via THQ. Since then, the franchise is now publishing under Sega. What sort of operational differences have there been in terms of how Relic has had to operate under THQ’s direction, and now that you’re working under Sega? What have been the major operational differences between the two publishers?
I can’t really say too much about the technical differences. But what I can say is we had a lot of successes with THQ and had a great relationship with them. We shipped a lot of great products, including Dawn of War 1 and 2, and Company of Heroes 1. It was just before we were ready to ship Company of Heroes 2 that we switched over and were acquired by Sega. What I can say about our relationship with Sega is it’s fantastic. They’re a fantastic organization. We’re really proud to be part of them. They give us a lot of freedom and leeway, both creatively and to be able to execute on the vision that we have for the game as well. So we really couldn’t be happier to be part of them.
But obviously, they’ve had some sort of input as a publisher… What input has Sega had in order to ensure that Dawn of War 3, with the franchise going forward, is a markedly better product than Dawn of War 2?
To be honest, Sega gives us a lot of freedom. They have a lot of respect for us. That’s why they acquired us in the first place. And they have a lot of trust in us as well as we trust them. So we’re lucky enough to be given a lot of freedom by them. They want us to be successful, and they’ll give us the backing that we require to do so. But creatively, they really don’t get in our way at all. They’re there to support us. And again, we feel really lucky to be part of the organization.
Sega also happens to be publishing, via Creative Assembly, the Total War: Warhammer and Halo Wars 2 games. Disregarding Halo Wars 2, there must be some sort of friendly rivalry between you two as you both share Warhammer franchises between Relic and Creative Assembly. How do you manage that friendly rivalry, knowing pretty well that the other studio has a Warhammer property as well? And even though they’re more army-based whereas you’re more of a squad-based game, surely there must be something going on between the two studios that makes you just go, “We’ve got to do better than them”…
I won’t deny that there is definitely a sibling rivalry there. But it’s very friendly. We have nothing but love for Creative Assembly. When it comes to the products themselves, they’re actually very different. Total War: Warhammer and Dawn of War 3 are very different games, even though they are real time strategy games. And they do take place in very different universes, even though they share the same IP owner – Games Workshop. We love their games. We love Total War: Rome, Attila, all of them. Especially, we really love Total War: Warhammer as well. The universe that they’ve brought to life with Total War: Warhammer and the universe that we’re bringing to life with Dawn of War 3 are very different. So we don’t really feel that there’s a huge competition where we’re trying to outdo one another. We feel like we live in the same space but share it very willingly. When it comes to creativity and that sort of competition, yes, it’s definitely there because we love what they do. And they really help us elevate our game, and we try to do the same. We try to do the best that we can to help them do the best that they can, because in the end, we all win and we all benefit from it.
Creative Assembly have done Alien: Isolation. Is there any possibility that Relic Entertainment might end up mimicking Creative Assembly’s approach, by which you do something that isn’t RTS related in future? What about working on franchises that are owned by other publishers – such as Creative Assembly with Microsoft and Halo Wars 2?
I couldn’t really speculate on what the different games that we do in the future would be anyway. I’m really focused on Dawn of War 3, so I’d love to talk about this game.
Okay… Dawn of War 2 had a lot of expansions. Some would argue too many, where some of the expansions were games within themselves, and each having major enhancements over the base game. How does Dawn of War 3 distinguish itself as being a bona-fide sequel to Dawn of War 2 and its own expansions? What sort of improvements can fans expect?
That’s a great question. Let me take you back to the thinking when we first began this product. When we first wanted to begin Dawn of War 3, we were thinking about what we wanted that to be. Originally, we went back to… really, all of our games. Well, we started with Dawn of War 1, and then of course looked at Dawn of War 2. And we tried to isolate the elements of those games that we as developers were in love with and enjoyed the most, and especially what the fans loved the most. So we looked at elements from the first game… the larger armies, the base-building, the scope and scale of the maps. And then we looked at the second game and looked at the heroes, how the champions in that game were utilized, some of the progression elements, the customization of the army, and looked at all of these things, the cover system. Looked at everything and tried to identify what were the richest pieces of those two games and what really brought those games to life and help bring the Warhammer 40,000 universe to life as well.
Once we had identified the feature set that we were comfortable with and that we wanted to explore further, then we really started to refine all of those features, really explore everything about them. From there, we were able to really discern the baseline of what we wanted to accomplish with Dawn of War 3 and where we wanted to take this real-time strategy game in the Warhammer 40,000 universe and really bring it more to life than we even had before.
So what you’re looking at with Dawn of War 3 are the biggest armies that we’ve ever created. We’ve brought back some elements that were fan favorites like the base-building, bigger maps, bigger scope on everything. And of course now we’re using the next-generation Essence Engine, which has allowed us all sorts of freedom.
There are a few elements such as the cover system… In Dawn of War 1, there was a pretty straightforward cover system. You could move into a crater and get a cover bonus. And Dawn of War 2, the first generation to utilize Essence Engine, we used a cover system that was a directional cover system, something we had sort of inherited from Company of Heroes.
When we looked at Dawn of War 3 with the cover system, we recognized that as fine as the directional cover system was for Dawn of War 2, it wasn’t going to work on the scope and scale of Dawn of War 3 that we wanted. The army is very big. There was going to be a lot going on. And a directional cover system was just going to get lost, create a lot of noise, and take away some of the player agency as well. So we redefined what the cover system would be. Now cover is strategically located on the map. It’s another thing that the player is going to want to go out and fight for on the map and really invest in forces to take care of. It will protect all your ranged units. But it can always be countered by melee units as well. So just looking at the previous cover systems, redefining what it actually meant for the battlefield for this game and then distilling down the essence of the fun that we find within Dawn of War 3, we made the decision to place it how we have now and define what cover means in this game. It’s made a huge difference. So it’s one of those things that it’s taking elements from previous games and then kind of wiping the slate clean and redefining what it means. So you still have cover but it’s new. It’s brand new. And that’s what we looked at with a lot of things in the game, the unit readability. Readability in this game, because the army is so much bigger, being able to discern what’s happening on the battlefield at any one time is very, very important to us. So everything from the models, the effects language, the animations that are used are all designed to be able to convey information to you, both what you’re doing and about to do to the enemy, and as importantly what the enemy is about to do to you. Player agency is a huge one for us. And unit control is very important for us because you’re wielding such a massive army. You want it to be very easy and intuitive for you to understand what’s going on in the battlefield.
And obviously, part of that is to do the user interface… You mentioned yourself how you basically wiped the slate clean and started over. That in itself implies a fresh break from tradition. What steps have you taken to ensure that previous Dawn of War players won’t feel alienated from the changes that have taken place in Dawn of War 3 – where you are able to retain your player base whilst at the same time keeping the increasing complexity simple in terms of UI implementation, therefore you don’t end up alienating the new people that come on board? Sorry, did that make sense?
Enough sense that I think I could speak to it… The UI in this game, you’ll notice if you remember from both Dawn of War 2 and Dawn of War 1, we’ve refined it greatly. And again, it goes back to what I was saying before about looking at what was great about the other games and what we liked and really what we didn’t like as well and really trying to determine and articulate what that was. The user interface was a huge piece of that. You’ll see now that we’ve refined things greatly. It’s a lot more streamlined. It’s a lot faster. We try to get information across. Some information used to be in the form of the UI where you would read about some of the information about a unit and how it behaved. Some of that information we’ve actually telegraphed into the game itself, into the way that the roles and the capabilities of the units are on screen.
For example, in the Space Marine army, we have the tactical marine squad. In Dawn of War 1, you would have one tactical marine squad which then through the UI you could upgrade into various roles. In Dawn of War 3, we’ve actually separated all those roles. So they’re very clear and easily identified, both visually from a player, and just from an operational standpoint when you use it in the game as well. You used to have one and you’d have to go through a user interface to turn it into what you needed next. We’ve actually split that up, so everything is very fast to the user. You know exactly what a unit does, what all its capabilities are, and there’s no second guessing if you made the right decision because you made the right decision in the first place.
Same thing goes with the heroes. In Dawn of War 2, we had heroes that you could upgrade and tailor to how you wanted to play for that specific match. It was a lot of fun. But from a user interface point of view, it was very complicated. And it took a lot of mental power to dedicate just that one aspect of the game. So in Dawn of War 3, the heroes have very clearly-defined roles and capabilities. And it goes back to our desire to create fast, easy readability and player agency.
You’ve mentioned as to how Sega have a very hands-off sort of approach, and they’ve given you the resources to do what you want. But because Warhammer is a license that’s been granted to you by Games Workshop, that company must have some sort of editorial control. What sort of creative liberties have you been able to take with Dawn of War 3 within the remit that Games Workshop has given you with its Warhammer license?
I can’t speak to specifics. But I will say is our relationship with Games Workshop is really good. We’ve worked with them for over a decade now. And we have a very warm, very friendly relationship with them. We trust them implicitly and they trust us with their IP. Their IP is very, very important to them, of course. And we respect it wholeheartedly. So we have a very close relationship with them. Anything that we want to do to find a balance between what the IP and the lore dictates versus what we actually want to do from a gameplay perspective, there’s a lot of conversation and a lot of reception between both parties to make sure that both the IP is respected, the fan base and the lore is respected, and that we’re able to make a game that’s engaging and a lot fun to play.
This is a bit of an unfair question and I totally understand if you don’t want to comment on the following… But Dawn of War 2 had a number of expansions that were released. Can we look forward to a similar sort of treatment for Dawn of War 3?
All I can say right now is we’re just focused on shipping Dawn of War 3 as it stands now. So we’ll be shipping with three races: the Eldar, Space Marines, and the Orks as well. We’ll be looking to launch next year. But we don’t have a specific launch date yet.