Michael Eckenfels, 2 October 2019
Tell us a bit about yourself – where you live, what it is you do for a living.
I’m Joni Nuutinen, a history buff and a Finnish professional software developer.
Tell us the story of how you first became interested in military history.
Growing up in the eastern part of Finland it was impossible to avoid running into the Second World War; not only did several of my family members serve, but some also perished, and living fairly close to the border with the USSR meant that I could both visit the physical remains of the battles and also experience the atmosphere such events inevitably leave behind on the border regions.
What is your ‘favorite’ battle? Campaign? (I’m guessing something Russian Front in WW2, most likely Finland vs. the USSR – but I’m just guessing of course.) You can list multiple ones if you have several that fascinate you.
I always say that I’m interested in history, more specifically in WWII, and even more specifically in WWII Eastern Front. I just feel that the gigantic scale and totality of the warfare by both sides (Germany and the USSR) make it its own universe. Both sides made horrible mistakes from the individual human level to the grand strategy and economy, and I’m sure the speculation about all the possible what-ifs will never end. Add to that the terrain, changing seasons, unique personalities, changes in weaponry and technology, politics, and the smaller nations squeezed between the two titans, etc., and you are deep in the drama quickly.
I own 35 of your titles, so I know you’re rather prolific. Also, your ‘Meet the Developer’ page (which can be found with every game you make) says you started working on your wargames back in 2010. How many titles have you created so far?
There are currently over 40 campaigns under my name (I’m trying to slowly move away from the name Conflict-Series to use my own name more to avoid clashes with other older conflict games). Unfortunately, the huge number of releases also means that the maintenance (code, store presence, legal hassles, etc.) eats up more and more of my time and energy.
How many are you currently working on, and how many do you plan on working on later? Can you share what battles/campaigns you’re working on? (We understand completely if you’d rather not share the exact battles.)
There are handful of projects I’m usually working on, but I don’t like to talk too much about those, as raised expectations rarely lead to anything good (more stress, less joy in the work process). One of the unfortunate facts is that whenever a new game is out, a very tiny percentage of players suggesting new campaigns are happy, and the vast majority are unhappy that their wish didn’t come true!
I have been working on a massive scale WWII campaign for years, but it seems almost impossible to push through, as both technical limitations on mobile platforms cause issues (all the processing just takes too much time), and the more moving parts you have, the more testing you need to do — and it is just not feasible to work years on something which is a niche product inside already very niche market. But hopefully one day, I will get out something with politics and science and such elements.
Most of your titles seem to be within a particular timeframe – say between the Civil War (1860s) through Korea (early 1950s). Any plans to go outside of that, possibly do Prussian War or Napoleonic era stuff, or Vietnam/modern titles?
Most of the games took place in WWII for multitude of reasons. I like that period the most, so I know plenty about it which speeds up the development since I don’t have to research everything from scratch, and once you have icons for a time period that also speeds things up, plus once you have fan-base interested in a time period that tends to mean that going outside the target period also means less sales.
There is also the question of how well the game engine and rules apply to the different time periods and tactics used. The asymmetric nature of the Vietnam War, for example, makes it a bit difficult war to tackle, as the front-line based game-engine and AI would need major adjustments.
What, in your mind, makes for a good scenario?
A good scenario makes you say: “I’ll play just one more turn.” The challenge is that some players want really simple mechanisms (to just control a dozen ground combat units), while the other extreme wants to micromanage every drop of fuel and production. I have tried hard to maintain the spirit that if player wants to keep it simple he can; you can just turn storms and unit supply depots and so on off from the game’s Settings menu, and ignore individual unit tactics and other micromanagement, and just enjoy playing it simply and quickly — while those who enjoy tapping through the menus to tweak everything can do so.
Only the first full test of a game shows whether those crucial key decisions were right or not
One of the most nerve-wracking decisions about creating a new campaign is setting the scale of the map and the number of units (Regiments vs Divisions vs Armies). Only the first full test of a game shows whether those crucial key decisions were right or not, and sometimes you painfully have to re-scale everything to get enough fluidity in the game-play.
In practical terms the first tricky decisions to make after the background research is how much area to include in the map. A classic example would be Operation Barbarossa; does the war end with the capture of Moscow, or the Grozny oil fields, or production centers in the Ural Mountains, or only when every last acre of the Soviet Union all the way to Siberia has been captured? Clearly, this decision can cause re-framing of all other decisions.
Let’s for more detailed example take the Battle of the Bulge: Since the Allies reinforcements emerge from the flanks you should leave extra area on the flanks for Allied units to be able to enter the game play without being right in the middle of the German advance (which gives the Allies unfair advantage, but on the other hand wasn’t that what kind of happened).
However, huge areas of inactive area in the flanks cause countless issues like increased memory and processing requirements to store and handle all that area, what if these areas had formations in them but they were not used in the maneuvering should they be excluded or included, inexperienced players might get confused where to focus their main force and the whole historical flow of the campaign can get distorted, plus movement across passive area takes many turns making the game play boring, and what is the relation of this empty flank space in the victory conditions (if there are too many Victory Points to be gained from empty staging areas then that relatively decreases the value of main targets), and does this peaceful flank area offer too easy resting opportunity for the Allies, does all the area confuse AI, etc. And once the actual game play gets under way then unexpected questions can pop up like (for example with less flank area): what if Germans manage to push the Allied flank attacks back but there is no space, where do they withdraw into, they just get pinned against the edge of the map and are more easily cut off from supply and destroyed. But you can’t solve this by adding only couple of more rows of hexagons to flanks since that requires just one or more turns of attacking side to cover, you need to add a ton of area to provide meaningful withdrawing-option. So, now you’re back into adding a lot fairly pointless area into the game play, especially for the good players who do not need to pull back that often – and having all the problems that the big useless area causes.
The amount of compromises made during the creation and refinement of a campaign is not appreciated or understood well by most players, which naturally opens the door for any history buff to criticize any one of the hundreds of details which are now ever so slightly off by pointing out that “historically this unit was included/excluded from campaign”.
Spanish Civil War looked like a horrible entangled mess on paper, how can you make a campaign out of this patchwork: you have couple of units south and couple of units north, and how can supply routes make any sense when you control narrow pieces of land. But it played just fine pretty much instantly. The exact opposite happened with Falaise Gap, everything looked so simple on paper: Germans drive this way, the Allies that way. But in reality the one-sided movement directions of forces meant that things could get out of balance really quickly, killing most of the suspense and challenge. So the amount of modelling of different playing styles I had to do was massive, just to get the basic game play somewhat coherent. Then handful of players tested it having wildly different views, resulting another big wave of refinements.
How do you balance game scenarios that were historically lopsided battles (e.g. one of my favorites of yours, Ardennes Offensive, where you control the German side in the Battle of the Bulge)?
Balancing a scenario is tricky, and one of the main reasons why I haven’t done some fairly often-requested campaigns is that the initial setup just has too many major elements lethally tilted in favor of the player.
Another factor which makes this task hard is the inescapable difference in the style of players; some take huge risks, losing plenty of units as they play, while others approach the campaign very carefully, building up support and momentum and resources for any big push.
All you can really do is test a game by playing it through in different styles, and start tweaking hundreds of tiny things which eventually balance things out enough, such as having replacements arrive a turn earlier, improving line-of-sight and area control a bit, and so on. Things will eventually have a big effect as the smaller cumulative effects come together. If you have enough moving parts, you do not need to make any single drastic change like making units artificially 30% stronger; just make 50 small basically undetectable tiny tweaks each making the campaign 0.1% easier/harder. And of course, you will often have to make decisions as to how many of the possible nearby reinforcements to use, and so on, which gives a little bit of room to even out any possible major unbalancing factors in the campaign.
In the end, you will always get feedback from both sides. For every email that I receive saying that campaign X is too easy, there is somebody else complaining that it is too hard.
What are some features of Conflict-Series that have changed the most over the evolution of the game?
There are more resources, options, settings, and features, which is good in a way that experienced players can truly play in a way they want to. Unfortunately, some of the simplicity has been lost, or at least the amount of information a new player faces can be overwhelming in spite of efforts to simplify things. Thankfully, the huge volume of feedback over the years means that the biggest issues have been fixed or tweaked if possible. It is the never-ending struggle between keeping it simple and having a ton of features.
What are some of the things that you got right on the first try, and really didn’t have to modify at all?
With so many moving parts affecting each other, every part and component eventually needs so fine-tuning to play smoothly with other elements.
For example, when you have only one or two resources and skills then clearly the qualities of the actual unit are the main driver of combat results, but what if over the five years you add dozen resources and new co-factors that affect the combat? Now, there is a danger that slowly the significance of the unit gets overshadowed by all these new additions. And the more sometimes-cumulative sometimes-terrain-multiplied parts there are in the combat formula, the harder it is to even understand how big of an effect different parts have without doing plenty of simulations.
So, effectively, if you reduce the effect resources have then what is the point of having them if they don’t have any noticeable effect, but if resources have a huge effect then multiple resources can mess up the balance between units and soon some weak scouting cavalry unit overruns full strength Panzer division. It truly is a never-ending tweaking process. On the other hand you don’t want to make battles so predictable that the whole game turns into math problem in which the result of every single battle can be calculated beforehand.
Have you incorporated any ideas from other systems and/or games? What are some of the things that you think are more original in your system?
If you talk to creators in any field, you quickly realize there is a spectrum – from those whom never watch/play what others make to avoid getting influenced by their ideas, to those whom want to watch/play everything to get a comprehensive feel on what is happening on their chosen field. If you copy a lot of features from others, that guarantees that you never miss anything major and players feel right at home thanks to unified experience across different games. However, your original contribution could then be tiny, and why would you want to create something which just copies everything from everyone?
If everybody just copies every feature from each other, in the end, we will just have 20 copies of the same exact game. On the other hand, not checking out what others are doing can mean that you miss a nice useful trend (be that a feature or design), and you must rely more on your own creativity and on the feedback from the active players. I’m more in the “do not check what other developers are doing” camp.
Have you incorporated any ideas from other systems and/or games? What are some of the things that you think are more original in your system?
My influences are definitely from the past; classic tabletop board games and early turn-based PC strategy games. I like to think that the amount andlevel of variation is something you rarely see and that gives a lot of replay value. Some players report playing Operation Barbarossa for a handful of years daily during their commute to work, so I must be doing something right (considering how small the map is in that game and the fact that players still experience new situations). Plus, the AI doesn’t just blindly follow one path to attack an enemy city. And, thanks to building everything in the game engine from ground up allows a ton of settings to alter different aspects of gameplay.
What is your perception of and satisfaction with the public’s response and the commercial success of your series?
I wouldn’t have kept creating new games and maintaining the existing ones if there weren’t more positive sides than negatives. I’m not big on comparing myself or the financial side of things to other developers or studios. The number one complaint I have is about discovery; from time to time, I get an email saying that the player has spent years searching the Play Store for a good strategy game before finding and trying one of my games. Discovery is effectively zero, which explains why many developers just give up and as a result many apps are abandoned.
Of course, creating anything and putting it in the world and then getting a constant relentless flood of feedback about bugs and suggestions on how to improve things can at times get to you, but on the other hand, constant feedback tells me that the games resonate with the players. Naturally, military history is a sensitive topic, and sometimes feelings of a player can boil over after his offensive completely crumpled, so you roll with the punches and praises.
On the plus side, I get to do creative work on a field I love – programming – while dealing with a topic I love, history. And over the years, genuine friendships have emerged from the exchanges about the games and military history.
Special thanks to Joni for taking time to chat with us!
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