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Q&A: Sproing and 10tacle Talk Panzer Tactics And The German Market

In this extensive interview, Gamasutra talks with Sproing designer Christoph Quas, currently working on hardcore WWII DS strategy title Panzer Tactics, about the German game market, and the challenges inherent in the critical task of bringing games
Austrian developer Sproing is working on its first title for 10tacle Studios, Panzer Tactics. In this latest in depth Q&A, Gamasutra talks to Sproing designer Christoph Quas and 10tacle Studios PR manager Jens Schaefer about the title and the challenges of marketing a hardcore strategy game in the U.S. The German and Austrian Markets In a region where a heavy focus on and market for strategy games has been the historical norm, we asked Quas for his views on the development climate in the region. "I think it's improving, actually," Quas says, recalling how the German and Austrian game market had begun to founder in past years, especially around the turn of the new millennium. "It was really really low, but it's getting better, we’re getting healthy, and as far as I can speak for our company, Sproing, we did exactly that." Quas continues, "Our development, I think, is rather a symbol for other companies out-of-state... we're constantly evolving, getting better projects." One goal for the studio that Sproing shares with many of its peers is a desire for entry into the American market. "Within the German market, there aren't those big-name AAA titles, except maybe from Crytek and so on, with really big titles, so we’re focusing on the smaller titles," he explained. "And of course games like strategy games, and economy games... they still sell very well. That's a fact, but it is not a big thing, I think. But we are evolving." Why Strategy? Why are strategy and economics games such a reliable seller in the region? Quas agrees there's no clear and simple answer, but offers, "I think it’s just the German habit, and this includes the Austrian culture which is kind of the same. To build up things. Sometimes we used to destroy things in the past, but I don’t know actually why." Even with a dominant genre and a PC focus, the market is getting healthier? We asked Quas about the state of the PC market and what that focus had to do with things. "As far as I think, the industry is now more focusing on consoles rather than PC, and the strength of the PC [is moving] in another direction; it's more like casual games, and download games and online MMORPGs." But, Quas opines, strategy games don't do so well on PC in the German market. "So we’re more focusing on consoles like Wii for example, and Nintendo DS, which are affordable projects, they have a certain time limit that you can reach, it’s like one to two years development, decent budget. So I think that’s the direction where the market is going at the moment." New Projects Is Sproing working on any Wii projects? "Our company is. We are currently working on a project ,and there will be follow-up projects on Wii as well. So it’s far more interesting for us than working for PS3 or Xbox 360," Quas says, adding that it won't be a continuation on Panzer Tactics, but something different. All of 10tacle's six studios seem to have a specialty -- why focus them so specifically? Next, Gamasutra turned to 10tacle's Jens Schaefer: "Because we need the people to do the games and once they have an experienced team, why do something completely different?" It's best, says Schaefer, to allow a team to hone a specific skill set and focus on that. Schaefer adds that the studios share technology amongst themselves with the goal of working more efficiently, but that the Belgium studio has a special project of its own. "Our studio in Belgium is developing a new owned engine, a new reality engine, that can be used in our other studios as well," he explains. Focusing on America And 10tacle also publishes games from external developers. Schaefer says they're looking for new partners "all the time" to get their products on U.S. shelves. Why is it so critical to enter the American market now? "We have six new titles coming out and that’s why we have to focus on the American market as well, it’s the biggest one in the world," says Schaefer. "If you’d like to be successful, you have to count on success in the U.S. market, and it’s very important for us." Of course, investments are required to make this possible. Schaefer explains that most of the money comes from game funds set up in Germany. The studio takes money from investors and puts 60 percent into development and the remaining 30 percent into marketing and associated costs, and then the investors reap money earned on the project. How to decide which titles to release in the U.S.? For Schaefer, that's an easy question. "We try to release every title in the U.S.," he says. However, some of them seem a bit Euro-centric. "That will be different in the future," he adds. Hardcore Vs. Casual Going back to Christoph Quas, we asked him whether Panzer Tactics, a more traditionally "hardcore" strategy title, could succeed in the generally more casual DS market. "Actually, that was a tough decision that we had to make in what direction we actually wanted to go with that game," Quas says. "Because on the one hand, you want to make a strategy game that works as a strategy game, and of course strategy is per se not very well-suited for the casual game market. So we had to have a core game that really works for all those hardcore gamers, and war gamers, and they have to be happy with that." He continues, "But we wanted to make a connection to the casual gamer regarding interface and all that stuff, in order to get the casual gamers on board." Quas hopes the dual focus, on both a casual and an experienced gamer, will work out well, adding that focus testing found that gamers intimidated by the title at first "completely got into it" after a few minutes. Of course, the biggest hurdle is that those users who were initially intimidated or disinterested in the Panzer Tactics concept will probably not buy the game. "It was a brave decision, at the very first hand, when we decided what kind of game we wanted to make," Quas says. "It was a decision that came, actually, from the first publishers of that game." He adds, "So what we hope is adult gamers, experienced gamers, let’s say [age] 20 upwards, people who started playing those games in the 90s, maybe even the 80s, [will] say, 'hey, finally there’s something to make the DS interesting [for me] as well.'" Historical Fiction? Will Panzer Tactics focus on historical accuracy, then? Quas, keen on history, says that's an important element of the game. "We try to be accurate as far as we could, because when you have on the one hand gameplay and accuracy, you have to find a compromise. So all the units that we have, for example, they are really accurately depicted in the game. Also, regarding the balancing and strength and so on. So we really try to sort of focus on that, and the map design, for example, in two thirds of the game, they’re really accurate battlefields, and we try to depict what happened there." There are some compromises, of course; "gameplay first," Quas notes. "Of course we didn’t say, 'yeah there were two battalions, so we need two tank battalions as well, also'." Most of the missions are historically inspired, though some of them are fictional creations. The Balance Of Power Faced with the challenge of balancing 150 units against each other in the game, Quas specifies, "You don't ever play 150 at one time. First of all, because you have three factions, you have enemy nations that you cannot play as, so it reduces them to maybe 40 units per one faction." Still, how was the balancing done? "There is always a stone-paper-scissors principle first of all," Quas explains. "Always, one unit type is good against one, but bad against another... so we introduced a hierarchy system; there's always a hierarchy of light to medium and heavy. And as soon as there is a new tank coming out, a new tank generation, the old one gets dropped out or upgraded automatically and you always, again, have that hierarchy of light, medium and heavy, so you only always have to deal with three kinds of one unit, and they are depicted with symbols so you can always see 'this is the heavy one, this is a light one, that’s the medium one' so it makes it easier to play overall. It was a lot of struggling around with Excel sheets and pre-calculation as we were rebalancing, seeing how every combat between every kind of unit would work out. So a lot of work." Are you allowed to control the Nazis in the game? "Of course you can," Quas says, adding, "One thing that was important for me, very important, is, of course, we have a kind of responsibility of regarding that topic. That's clear." A guilt complex on the part of the German developers? "Well it's not a complex. It's kind of a duty, really," Quas says. "But anyway, I didn't want to rewrite history, so you cannot do anything that did not really happen. So you cannot win the war as the Germans. When you play the German campaign, you play from 1939, which is the invasion of Poland, and end in Stalingrad, which is I think 1943, which was kind of the turning point for the Germans. And so the last thing you can do is capture Stalingrad, which the Germans actually did... and at that point, it switches to the second campaign, which is the Russian campaign. And you have to drive the Germans back again." The third campaign, as Quas explains, revolves around the invasion of Italy by the Allies, and then the war is finished playing as the West. It's somewhat surprising, then, that the game is accepted in Germany. "It's actually not, really," clarifies Quas. "I mean, as long as you don't use any of the symbols, which is strictly forbidden [in Germany, and] also in Austria. It's not per se forbidden to play as the Germans. I mean, there are thousands of games where you can play the Germans, as long as there's no political background and symbolism and whatever, it’s legal." It's All In The Details We noted that the Panzer Tactics graphics had a focus on realism. Why not make an equally strategic hardcore game with more mass-market graphics? "That was part of the strategy," Quas explains. "To not follow Advance Wars, the direction that Advance Wars took, because Advance Wars tried to make, say, a medium-depth strategy game with nice comic graphics and so on, which is a very, very good thing, but we didn't want to follow that. We wanted to have our own direction and as I say we wanted to target a more experienced, more adult group. And for those, graphics like this might be more appealing, and that's what we get from the reaction, a lot of times from older people is that 'it's cool, now I don't have to deal with those funny little Advance Wars figures, and I can now play real units in real tanks and real planes,' so that's been part of the strategy." With all of this research and detail, one wonders about the length of the preproduction phase. "The preproduction phase was actually about one and a half to three months [of] technical preproduction, because it was actually our first DS project at the time," Quas says. "And for me it was not so much research, because I had a lot of background on the topic, but of course, I went through dozens of map books and historic battle maps, partly in Russian. I had to ask our secretary, who is from the former German Democratic Republic in North Russia, to translate for me. And so it was quite fun." Despite the development of Panzer Tactics being "kind of an experiment" for the team, Quas feels strongly that the game can "hit a nerve" in the U.S. market, based on positive feedback. "And I can surely say that this is one game with maybe the most and the biggest value that you can get so far on the DS," Quas opines, "because you have 70 or 80 plus hours of gameplay, a full wi-fi mode, everything, so you can play the thing for months and years if you like." Quas admits, though, to being unfamiliar with price points in America -- when we told him $39 might be a little high, he joked, "So we'll write 'Nintendo' on it."

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