When Peter Molyneux's latest magnum opus Black & White was released in Europe earlier this year, it went straight to the top of the charts in most countries. Except for France, where a real-time strategy game from a little known Ukrainian company called GSC Gameworld held resolutely on to the number one slot.
The Art Of War
Cossacks was the second chart topping release in a row for German publisher CDV, and its success wasn't just limited to the notoriously weird French market. "Cossacks was a big hit for us in the UK", PR bod Spencer Low told me. "It went straight to number one the week before Black & White, and sold around 100,000 units." The man behind this surprise hit is Sergiy Grygorovych, and we met up with him in London during a recent press tour to find out what his company has up its sleeves for the future. Unfortunately Sergiy's English isn't very good (although it's certainly a lot better than our Russian), so the interview was mostly carried out through a translator. Our session began with a demonstration of The Art of War, the expansive Cossacks mission pack which is already available in France, Germany and Russia, and should be released in the UK and America early next year. With five new single player campaigns, six stand-alone missions and another half dozen historical battles to re-enact, it's every bit as big as the original game. A lot of attention has also been focused on extending Cossacks' already excellent multiplayer support. A bewildering array of new options now allow you to limit which units are present in a battle, to adjust how big an army (if any) players begin with, set a "peace time" truce at the beginning of the match, and select whether or not unattended peasants can be captured and converted by enemy troops.
King Of The Hill
Perhaps the most exciting addition though is the new online meta-game and ranking system, which allows players and clans across Europe to fight over territory, compare their past performance and study graphs and statistics from previous games. "We have a ranking system on the net [where] you get points for winning games [and] if you beat someone who is much stronger than you, you get more points", Sergiy explained. "You get a rank which depends on the amount of points you get, and as reward you get a coat of arms." Starting out as a humble esquire this doesn't look particularly impressive, but as you rise through the ranks to baron, count, marquis and eventually king, the coat of arms keeps expanding, with more and more new elements appearing each time you go up a level. Something else which has kept growing is the size of the maps and the armies that fill them; the add-on pack allows for truly vast battlefields capable of housing as many as 16,000 troops. "If you have a ship, it takes one hour and forty minutes to go from one corner to the other", the translator told us. "Sergiy thought it was going to be boring for players, but a lot of people wanted it. They like to think and not rush when they play."
Cossacks was GSC Game World's first big international release and proved to be a massive hit, selling over half a million copies worldwide. Did this success come as a surprise to its developers? "He was hoping that it was going to be this way, but he didn't expect it", came the answer from the translator. "In Russia there were more than 300,000 copies sold. And because he made it, it's his baby, he thinks it's the best." The one disappointment for Sergiy is that "it didn't sell well in America", something which the company is hoping to put right with their aptly named follow-up American Conquest. "It's similar to Cossacks, but .. an American Cossacks", Sergiy explained, jokingly comparing it to the Mel Gibson movie The Patriot. With a more familiar historical background for the US audience, GSC are hoping it will mirror the European success of Cossacks. Certainly at this stage things are looking very promising, and once again GSC are upping the stakes when it comes to the epic scale of the battles. Even the translator was a little shocked when Sergiy said that American Conquest will support anything up to 64,000 units in a single mission. So .. where does this madness stop? "In [Napoleon's] battles they had about 120,000 soldiers, so no time to stop at 64,000! In time we are going to show a real battle in a real map with a real amount of people on the battlefield."
And Napoleon Bonaparte will be the subject of GSC's next big effort. "In about two years we're going to create Cossacks 2, which is going to be based on Napoleonic battles", Sergiy revealed. And it won't stop at 1815 either. Other possible settings for future games include the American Civil War and the First World War, while GSC also "have an idea of creating a game based on Atlantis". So far they've been working their way forward in time with each new release, but are there any plans for games set in earlier periods of history, such as the Middle Ages? "They already have Age of Empires and Age of Empires II", Sergiy laughed. "No, we want to go forward!" "They want to do a new game about the Roman Empire, but they can't do it because of Age of Empires", the translator added. Age of Empires was a huge hit for Microsoft, and understandably they guard its name jealously. "The add-on called Art of War, Age of Enlightenment is what they wanted to call it, but people from Microsoft called and said they weren't allowed to use 'Age of' [in the title]." Whatever the name though, the Cossacks add-on pack looks set to build on the success of the original game with a host of new features and additional scenarios. And the line doesn't stop here, as a second add-on is already being planned. "In add-on two there's going to be a hundred new missions", according to Sergiy, although "there won't be any changes apart from that". Apparently in the Ukraine they're big believers in the saying that "bigger is better". And from what we've seen so far, we aren't about to disagree...