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Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War

Lead designer Jay Wilson on how the project came to be, how Relic developed the idea, and how he feels it'll go down with fans.

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Image credit: Eurogamer

Hi, my name is Jay Wilson, I'm the lead designer on the upcoming RTS game Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, and this is my designer diary. The role of the Lead Designer at Relic is to be the gameplay "vision-holder" for a game, to work with the team to establish the gameplay vision of the game and then make sure that vision is maintained through the development of the project. I'm in charge of the design team, which means I'm supposed to make sure the whole thing is fun to play as well! Given that role, I'm probably the ideal person to tell you all how Dawn of War came to be, and our strategy in utilising the Warhammer 40,000 universe to make an awesome RTS game.

Dawn of War started with a phone call between Relic and THQ, where our top people and their top people were talking about exactly how we could do a project together, and what that project could be. With THQ holding interactive rights to Warhammer 40,000, the property quickly came up as a natural option. Little did THQ know what a passion for Wathammer 40,000 they had found in Relic. There are over a dozen long-term, hardcore fans here, myself being one of them, and so we were a perfect choice for an RTS game with this license. So, our CEO (Ron Moravek) came over and said to me, "How would you like to make a Warhammer 40,000 RTS?"

And I said, "Space Marines don't mine minerals!"

For those who aren't familiar with the universe, it's set 40,000 years in the future, in a grim and terrible time where mankind is at constant war with various horrific enemies across the universe. This universe is the setting for a tabletop war game where players paint up miniature figures and fight fantastic battles. This is my hobby, and the idea of turning it into an RTS just didn't make immediate sense to me. So much about Warhammer 40,000 just doesn't at first glance work as an RTS. How do you turn a turn-based tabletop game into a real-time one?!? Of course, right around this point I realised if I kept talking we might not get to do it, so I shut my fool mouth and got to work!

After I got over the initial shock, I started working out what this project could be with some of the other designers, artists, and programmers. We talked a lot about where we wanted the RTS genre to go, and what kind of RTS game we'd always wanted to play. And we began to realize that those goals were very compatible with the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

We knew we wanted a more tactical game. A game that focused more on combat and less on resource management. A game where we could individualise the look of our army. A game that had fantastic battles, units, and abilities in a war torn setting. Everything about what we wanted screamed Warhammer 40,000, and moreover, it all sounded really cool to everyone we talked to, not just those into Warhammer.

It was after all this discussion that we realized that the real strength of the Warhammer 40,000 universe is not in the tabletop game. It's a great game, but Warhammer players purchase, assemble, and paint hundreds of dollars worth of models often before they ever play the game. So why do they do this? The answer is that they love the setting, the units, the themes, and how it all comes together to create one of the richest fantasy worlds ever created. Ultimately the main reason players play the tabletop game is the universe itself, and given that, any game that is true to the universe, and true to itself, and of course fun, would be great. So this was the solution, don't translate the Warhammer 40,000 game into an RTS, but rather set an RTS within the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

In our heads, the Warhammer 40,000 universe was giant armies clashing on the battlefield, ripping each other apart with fantastic weaponry, bigger than life heroes, and bigger-than-a-house tanks and creatures all colliding in all-out war. This has become the resounding warcry for the Dawn of War project. Once we settled on this, the project really started to come together to make the great game that we knew it could be.

I suspect that there will be a few Warhammer 40,000 fans who won't be satisfied with what we've done, who will accept nothing less than a direct translation of the tabletop game. I don't expect we'll ever win them over. But for those who have dreamed of seeing a small piece of the universe they know and love come to life, we think they'll be thrilled with the results. And for those who don't know anything about Warhammer 40,000, get ready for the most visceral frontline combat ever delivered in an RTS game!

Jay Wilson is lead designer of Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. His views do not necessarily reflect those of Eurogamer or its staff.

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