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Relic looks to the future

Ron Moravek discusses the THQ-owned studio's next-gen plans.

It's been nearly a decade now since Vancouver-based studio Relic Entertainment set up shop, and more than two years since the company was acquired by publishing giant THQ. Relic followed up the success of its debut title, Homeworld, with another PC hit - Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War - and since the THQ deal, has made the move onto consoles with The Outfit for Xbox 360.

But with its next title, Relic is going back to its roots. Company of Heroes is a real time strategy game set during World War II, and according to Ron Moravek - general manager at Relic and THQ's VP of product development - it's the best thing the studio's ever done.

We caught up with Moravek at this week's Company of Heroes press event to find out how life at Relic has changed since the THQ acquisition, what he believes the future holds for other independent developers, and what the studio's plans are with regard to online and next-gen gaming. It's been over two years since THQ bought up Relic - how would you describe your relationship now?

Ron Moravek: I think THQ has got a very interesting relationship with its studios and the head office, and I think it's one of their greatest strengths. Basically each studio runs as a separate business unit, and they keep their own culture, and they make their games, and they keep their locations.

There are some other publishers that buy studios and want to bring them all in-house, but THQ looks at it as, well, they're successful on their own, and they like their culture and they've created that, so let's let them leverage that strength and we'll give them the resources and the support to be successful. That's the way we work.

How have you found the transition from being an independent studio to being part of THQ?

It's been really good. I've been with Relic nine years now, since the start, and when you're an independent you spend probably 30-40 per cent of your time, at least on the business side, worrying about your next deal. It's tough, it's a lot of stress, a lot of pressure, especially if you've got a lot of employees. Moving into being part of THQ, and getting their support, you can take that 40 per cent of your time and then put that focus into making your games better. So it works pretty well.

Have you found that since you've been part of THQ you've been constrained creatively in any way?

Not at all. Their whole philosophy and strategy is to let the developers do what developers do, and that's make games. So no, I would say absolutely not - they've been great at supporting whatever we want to do.

Do you think there's still room in the industry for both independent studios and studios that are owned by publishers?

I think there is. It's very difficult, though, because... Going back to the Homeworld days, Homeworld was made for $2.1, $2.2 million, something like that. You look at today's games, where they're costing between $10 and $20 million, and maybe the big games - the Halo 3s and the next GTA's probably going to be $25 million - it's like, how would you do that as an independent? It's so, so difficult.

They're also massively complex. On Homeworld, we had 21, 22 people at the max; on Company of Heroes, we've got a hundred. It would be very, very difficult. Gabe Newell over at Valve, he's probably fine, because he was employee number 69 at Microsoft and he can fund it himself - but there's probably not a lot of people like that around. I do think there's room; it's just challenging.

Can you see a situation a few years down the road where perhaps all studios are owned by publishers?

In business, things always go in circles. So you'll go through a time period where all the developers are being bought, and next thing you know, the next cycle, a whole bunch of people are breaking out and starting.

I think in the last cycle you saw that when handhelds started coming in with the DS and the PSP, and started becoming more popular; suddenly you saw a whole slew - in Vancouver, I think ten companies started up - because it's new and it's exciting.

Or there were some new companies started up working on PS2 and Xbox titles, so it depends what's going on in the industry. Whenever you get a new platform, or something changes strategically, is when you see new things pop up.

How much attention to you pay to successful games - do you look at Halo or GTA, and say, well, these titles are doing really well, maybe we need to look at doing something in this genre?

Absolutely, you're always paying attention to game ranking scores as well as sales numbers. And you're not always looking at sales numbers overall - you're looking at them geographically.

So we've always tried to be more successful in Korea, because of Starcraft. We know that Germany is a big strategy market - we sold 250,000 units of Dawn of War just in Germany alone, but why didn't we sell a million? You're constantly looking at sales numbers.

The other thing you're looking at is, say you look at World of Warcraft right now, and you start analysing what people like about it. It's the hobbyist side, it's collecting - that doesn't really apply to our games, so you might look at something else. So for example, when we did The Outfit, we brought strategic elements to an action game.

There's a saying in the industry that people don't always want something completely different - they want something a little bit different. So they understand what it is, but then they get that little bit of innovation that gives them a new experience, not just the same old thing. You're not going to go out and create a real time strategy game today, and then try to create a first-person shooter the next day, because you have to leverage your strengths.

When you try to do that, your probability of success is pretty low, because it takes time to be a master at anything. And sometimes you never get there. We've been working on producing the best real time strategy game for nine years - and we feel like we're not there.

Not even with Company of Heroes?

Well, I'm keeping my fingers crossed. But you always feel like you can do better. With Company of Heroes, it's definitely the best thing we've ever done, absolutely; we'll have to see what the market thinks.

What about the argument that there are already too many RTS games or World War II games out there?

Well, I think because games are so much more expensive and so much more complex, you're really seeing a divide in terms of the ultra-high quality versus the low quality. There's fewer people making higher-end games. But I think in terms of World War II and strategy, this is the first triple A World War II RTS that's ever been done.

I was talking earlier about movies - we counted them, and there's maybe 80 or 90 World War II movies made prior to Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Enemy at the Gates; yet those came out and were absolute hits. Why is that? Well, World War II has become modern day mythology, and people still have a huge interest in it.

You mentioned World of Warcraft previously, which as you said has been hugely successful - is that an area you're interested in? Could we see an MMO coming out of Relic?

I can't really see us doing an MMO. What I can see us doing, and this comes back to what you were asking earlier - with Company of Heroes we're launching Relic Online. And one of the things we want to do with Relic Online is bring a Dawn of War persistent campaign.

So it's not what you'd traditionally see with an MMORPG, but we might bring a real time strategy game and do that in a massively multiplayer persistent campaign. It's delivering a massively multiplayer experience, but maybe not in the same genre. So yes, I think there are opportunities there, but there are huge challenges with making an MMO.

Do you see online gaming as the way the industry is going, and the way gamers are going?

Absolutely. If you look at 360 launching with marketplace, I think we've only touched the surface of how huge that's going to be. With Relic Online, we're going to be creating our own community. We already have people making mods and downloading content, so we're definitely going to be taking that and moving it on to something much bigger.

Do you have any plans to bring Company of Heroes to consoles?

We're keeping a close eye on it. We've done a lot of work to see how we would do it, and we same to the same conclusion as I think the Lord of the Rings guys did; we're watching Lord of the Rings going to 360 very closely. Because if it's successful, I think there's a good chance we could bring Company of Heroes and even Dawn of War over.

What's your strategy generally with regard to the next-gen consoles?

As a company, we've got three main focuses right now. We're going continue to try to be a leader in the real time strategy space; we're going to take our strengths of knowing how to get to high quality and try to bring that to the next-generation consoles, specifically the Xbox 360 and the PS3; and we're going to move to support online with Relic Online, and marketplace, persistence and so forth.

In terms of the consoles specifically, we like some of the innovation we did with The Outfit, but we're definitely going to push harder and see what other great things we can do.

You mentioned the 360 and the PS3 there, but not the Wii - why is that?

We make more mature-rated games, and more high-end graphical games, and the Wii is going in a little bit of a different direction; they're not going to play the same game as the 360 and the PS3. You never know - if we came up with something cool we could do it, but right now our plan is not to. THQ is big into that, because we've got Pixar, we've got Spongebob, we've got all that, and the other studios will be doing amazing stuff, but not Relic.

Is it simply a creative decision not to support the Wii, then?

It's creative, and you can't do the same types of games on the Wii because the power is a lot different. It's a different type of technology. I think it was really smart for Nintendo to break out on their own and do their own thing. The platform's going to be really successful.

Going back to the Xbox 360 and the PS3, from what you've seen so far, which one do you favour?

I don't think we've seen enough of the PS3 to say which one we like or dislike; I think we like them both and we're going to be supporting both.

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Ellie Gibson: Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.