Shenandoah Studio Interview, Part 1: The Art of Battle of the Bulge

Part 2 of this interview, “Building (and Selling) Battle of the Bulge”, is right over here.
The forest for the trees.

“What stuck out for me was how much the course of the battle was dictated by the landscape.”

It would be tough to overstate my enthusiasm for Battle of the Bulge, Shenandoah Studio‘s first product and the finest wargame available on iOS, bar none. Bulge is more than just a great game – it’s proof that core gaming can be complex, beautiful, and user-friendly on a touchscreen, that games don’t need to “dumb down” to succeed on tablets and smartphones.

With Battle of the Bulge‘s launch two months in the rear-view mirror and work commencing on Shenandoah’s next title, El Alamein, I had the opportunity to talk to three of Shenandoah’s number last week: producer Jeff Dougherty, art director Patrick Ward, and lead developer David Dunham. I’ve divided our conversation up into two parts: today’s interview features Ward and Dougherty telling me the genesis of Bulge’s distinctive look and feel, representing an attention to visual presentation that is rare among wargames. Tomorrow, I’ll show you my conversation with Dougherty and Dunham about the business of making iPad wargames and what Battle of the Bulge has in common with King of Dragon Pass.

After the jump, my interview with Shenandoah’s Patrick Ward and Jeff Dougherty on the art of Battle of the Bulge.

Wargaming has always been about substance over style. Many of the most celebrated wargames (Harpoon, Perfect General, War in the Pacific, to name but a few) wear their mediocre graphics as a badge of honor – a symbol, perhaps, that the devs had their priorities straight.

Shenandoah Studio doesn’t subscribe to that line of thinking, and it shows in Battle of the Bulge – a game that is as visually fetching as anything else in the App Store, wargame or no. I wanted to hear the story of Bulge’s presentation straight from the source.

 

A hard-fought draw.

“Even if its an aesthetic that people weren’t used to, we were confident in it.”

Owen Faraday: Did you ever feel like you were potentially alienating that wargaming niche by making something that looked so high-concept, so different?

Jeff Dougherty: It looks different because it has more time and money put into the production values than anybody is willing to invest.

Patrick Ward: And in my opinion it looks like a computer game. And I come from a computer game art background and the expectations are higher.

JD: We’ve got something that looks good, even if its an aesthetic that people weren’t used to, we were confident in it.

OF: When did that look start to come together? Patrick, were you on the team from early on?

PW: I was probably the third or fourth person on the team at Shenandoah. As far as the look.. it’s down to my background, I suppose. I don’t come from a war-game background, I come from a visual effects background.

I don’t so much have a particular style but I’ve never liked the old traditional war-game look. It’s too sterile, it feels like a missed opportunity to me. I’d done a few war-game maps before joining Shenandoah, and the look we achieved with Bulge was an extension of the techniques I’d been using for a long time, really.

The ultimate look and feel was dictated by a lot of the research that I did. I’d been through a lot of photographs of the battle and the place to get a feel for the history. What stuck out for me was how much the course of the battle was dictated by the landscape. So for me, the trees, the weather, the map itself was hugely important for me.

OF: So many wargames focus on the weapons, the vehicles, little portraits of the tanks – Bulge focuses on the landscape.

PW: Right, yeah. I started with black & white pictures of the war, and any as with any snow scene they were very stark, with a lot of contrast. So I wanted to capture the simplicity of that, and keep the colour palettes very tight. Getting the map right and creating the feeling of place was very important.

OF: The interface demands a lot of attention from the user, too. It’s very in-your-face.

No sliders.

“I also tried to work the texture of Bakelite in there because that’s something that equipment at the time was made from.”

PW: A lot of the interface is inspired by the controls of a period radio set – that by itself is nothing particularly new, if you look around a lot of other games you see that motif. It’s almost cliché.

I wanted to do that radio look but I wanted it to look, not so much polished but more real. I hate to use the word but a lot of other games interfaces just look.. amateurish. It’s a horrible thing to say, but it’s just true. They lack a certain amount of polish and depth.

JD: When we were deciding the look and feel of the interface Pat actually went to the length of handing out images of WWII radios from museums.

PW: I had to ring the museum to get them.

JD: We said that if we were going to do a WWII radio look, we want to make sure that it really looks like a World War II radio, not somebody’s idea of it.

We looked at things like what kind of controls they had. What kind of thought went into their operation. What sort of materials and devices were possible with 1940s technology. I don’t believe there’s any sliders in the game.

PW: No, no sliders. Toggles and push buttons, which is what you’d see on real period radios. I also tried to work the texture of Bakelite in there because that’s something that equipment at the time was made from. I tried to get a blend of Allied and Axis materials. The total effect is to create something that makes you feel like you’re there, like it’s your battle.