INTERVIEW: Luke Hughes Talks WW2 RPG Burden of Command

"Death is inherently a spiritual issue, whether you are prepared for it or not."

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Burden of Command is an upcoming WW2 RPG that seeks to provide “emotional authenticity” in its portrayal of war scenarios. I chatted with Project Lead Luke Hughes about what makes Burden of Command different to other WW2 games, and how the creative team manages to achieve this within the game build.

“There are primarily two kinds of games about WW2 out there,” Hughes explains, schooling me on a subject clearly dear to his heart, “one type is the first person shooter like Call of Duty. Call of Duty does make a genuine effort to reflect some of the realities of WW2. You feel like you are there in the bloodshed and sacrifice, and the characters are credible. However, this sensory immersion in WW2 is swiftly undercut by gameplay mechanics like near-instant reload. Death just becomes an inconvenience and gameplay too often a power trip as you off endless enemies.”

Burden of Command is a far cry from the likes of Call of Duty, which boasted throughout 2017 that it was “going back to World War 2”. Though achieving high praise from critics and Call of Duty fans alike, the game is not exactly an authentic war experience.

“By contrast, in Burden of Command, death is permanent,” Hughes explains, destroying any notions of respawning or reloading, “you are personally responsible for the lives of your men rather than being strictly a foots oldier.  Your charges can die permanently. So are you really ready to send Lt. Dearborn, whom you’ve built a real relationship with across our professional[ly written] scenes and many battles, up that machine-gun-infested hill for one more Victory Point? We want players to think twice about what it really means to “win.” This is also why it was a key goal to involve Total War famed artist Mariusz Kuzik for emotionally engaging portraits.”

Burden of Command Lt. Boston WW2 style artwork

“The second class of games on WWII are what are called wargames,” he continues, giving another example of how Burden of Command is different to other games already available on the market: “These focus heavily on the strategy and tactics. They are historically respectful but typically put you at an abstract distance. What do you care if one more unit sprite dies? Well…maybe you care about the resource cost to replace it. But we want you to think “that’s my protege Dearborn who trusts and respects me.” There are in fact literal Trust and Respect mechanisms in Burden of Command! You can read more on that in this dev blog.”

I then asked Hughes about why he chose the Second World War in particular as the basis for his game, and he explained that his reasons were both tactical and personal: “Part of it is the nature of warfare. Up until late WW1, military units were often large scale, long lines of men operating in sync, like you might see in a US Civil War film. There were no small “squads” of men (roughly 10 men) in the usual sense like we see in a WW2 or Vietnam or, for that matter, [any] modern movie. So things were at a scale that could feel a bit less personal. Further, there was less room for tactics at the small scale, since again small scale units were using marching in steps with their brethren. Meaning less interesting low level tactical play and less of a sense of responsibility for the lives you are directing specifically on the battlefield. It might be your specific decision that gets Dearborn killed. So WW2 gives more room for interesting tactics and a more immediate sense of responsibility.”

“The last reason is personal, my father served in WW2 and my mother as well as a nurse. So growing up WWII was always foremost in my mind. All that being said, we have had players suggesting many future DLCs placed say in Vietnam, or even modern [times]. There are also many many theaters and sides to visit in WW2. I hope some of your readers will suggest more here or on our social media sites at Twitter (@BurdenOfCommand) or Facebook.”

When talking about history, personal histories are as important as military ones. “I’ve been interested in games since I was eight or nine,” Hughes explained, “not only board games but I remember Pong. My father was an historian (Thomas Parke Hughes) so I grew up immersed in history. Therefore it was probably not chance that I was keen to try a game called Gettysburg I saw in Boys’ Life. In my professional life, I earned a Masters in Neurophysiology and Psychology (Oxford) and a PhD in human-centered AI (Yale). So you can see I’ve been fascinated for a long time by human emotional behavior. And there is hardly a more grim plane for emotional psychology than the battlefield. Vietnam Vet and novelist Karl Marlantes says that going to war is “entering the temple of Mars” because like it or not you will be in the presence of death. And death is inherently a spiritual issue, whether you are prepared for it or not. So: history, games, psychology, my parent served… maybe Burden of Command was my destiny!”

“As for gaming influences, the core idea for Burden of Command came to me while playing Crusader Kings II. There of course you lead your family personally through medieval politics and history. I suddenly thought, what would it be like to be an officer personally leading your band of brothers through WWII? Other key influences were This War of Mine, which does a remarkable job of emotional authenticity around the civilian experience of war.  Then story driven RPGs like Banner Saga or Shadowrun Returns. Finally, on the tactical level: XCOM (inevitably) for its clarity of design, and games like Darkest Dungeon and Battle Brothers for their emphasis on the psychology of the battlefield around morale. Early squad based games like Steel Panthers were also a key influence as well as the Ur game of squad level games “Squad Leader” (which influenced indirectly quite a few modern tactical games like Darkest Dungeon). We have a dev blog on the boardgame influences here and I plan a future one on the digital.”

A leader is nothing without their team, and Luke Hughes is fortunate enough to be the Project Lead of a development team that includes some well-known names in the gaming community: “We are incredibly fortunate to have as advisers famous game writers like Chris Avellone, Alexis Kennedy, and Ian Thomas. As well as “multi-millions of copies sold” and writing expert William Bernhardt! They helped our already experienced interactive fiction writers Allen Gies and Paul Wang hone their craft around generating empathy. If you don’t care you’ll send them up the hill without a thought, right? Paul has written this dev blog on generating empathy and Allen Gies this one on how we make your journey through the war a personal journey as you adjust your character’s Mindsets to cope with the stress of war. Much like a character arc in a novel. But it’s your novel!”

Finally, I ask Hughes if there’s any set release date for Burden of Command yet, because, hey, someone has to keep bothering the devs: “Our intention is still 2018 and for your readers I can reveal more specifically we intend… 2018.”

Dang, nearly had him there.

To find out more about Burden of Command, you can visit the official website for updates, FAQs, images and more.

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