Skip to main content

Marek Spanel of Bohemia Interactive

Interview - we talk to Marek Spanel of Bohemia Interactive about the ambitious tactical combat game "Operation Flashpoint"

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Over the past few years the computer games industry in what used to be the Soviet Bloc has seen something of a renaissance, with fresh new developers springing up across eastern Europe, from Poland to Yugoslavia.

The latest company to break the surface is Bohemia Interactive from the Czech Republic, whose ambitious breakthrough title "Operation Flashpoint" is set to be distributed by British publisher Codemasters. After running into him at a recent press event in London, we caught up with Bohemia co-founder Marek Spanel to find out more...

A squad of infantry move in

Iron Curtain

Although Operation Flashpoint will be the first game from Bohemia to reach a wider global audience, the company's roots go back to the final tense days of the Cold War.

"We started to develop games with my brother Ondrej - our lead programmer - many years ago", Marek told us. "Ironically, as I remember, it was in 1985, during the time of the Cold War. We were just two young boys living behind the iron curtain who had got their first computer but no software for it. We wanted to play games, so we had to write our own."

Although the company has come a long way since then, their aims remain the same - "we still want to develop the games we want to play, and we're doing everything to realize this dream". The Czech Republic has come a long way since then as well, and today Marek believes that being based in the Czech Republic doesn't put the company at any disadvantage.

"I don't think there's a big difference between being a game developer in the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, France or the United States. We have access to the best technology available, and have even built an in-house state-of-the-art motion capture studio here in Prague to stay on the front line of games development. It's important just to develop fine games, and I don't think anyone will really care from where you are."

Bohemia aren't the only company to emerge from the Czech Republic in recent years either. "We have a very close relationship with the leading publishing and distribution company in the Czech Republic. However, the gaming market in this country is still very small. There are other teams trying to develop computer games seriously though, and Illusion's Hidden & Dangerous was the first big international success for Czech developers."

Marek demonstrates what he means by "having better access to both Western and Eastern army and weapons" .. by parking a tank outside the company's office


In fact, Marek sees the company's location as an asset, especially when it comes to their current project. "It's a great position to develop a game with a Cold War setting - we have good knowledge of the Cold War history from both sides of the Iron Curtain, and maybe we have a better access to both Western and Eastern army and weapons resources."

Appropriately enough, Operation Flashpoint is set during a fictional Cold War conflict, and starts in 1985, the year the company's founders first started writing computer games. "A small conventional conflict escalates in an area near the Soviet Union shortly after Michail Gorbachev took the leadership of the Soviet bloc", and it's all downhill from there on in as NATO and Warsaw Pact forces come to blows.

Although the game does have a back story, Marek says that "the game is not about telling a complicated story, it is about fighting and surviving", just like in a real war. "It's war, and it's more real than anything you've seen before. Infantry, mobile, armored and aircraft units and large squads at your command - there's a whole new world of combat. But we are not glorifying war, and we are not trying to show you a story of a super hero. The game is just trying to show you war on your monitor, and to let you be involved in it."

But why did they decide to choose the Cold War as the setting for the game? "During the Cold War, the conventional military technology probably reached its peak", Marek explained. "We wanted to create a large war, but today's high tech wars don't seem to have as much potential for a good game as the conventional infantry / armour / aircraft war has. No other period offers such a huge selection of military equipment, although we had to come up with a fictional conflict because there wasn't a real conflict between the US and the Soviet army; and everyone is happy there wasn't, I think."

It's got helicopters, but it's no hardcore flight sim

Real World

While the conflict which Operation Flashpoint is based around is strictly fictional, the game is intended to have an authentic Cold War feel, and to be realistic, although not at the expense of fun. The result is something of a mix of action, strategy and sim elements.

"We have tried to create a very realistic game, as we believe that realism in games (especially in war games) creates great immersion. But realism doesn't mean complicated controls - we are not trying to simulate every single button in every vehicle, for example. The goal was to create a game where the player will feel as if they are in a real war on one hand, but to keep the controls in a first person shooter style on the other hand. From this point of view, I think we are aiming more at action gamers who want to try something more real and dangerous than one of the many sci-fi shooters."

"But I believe that we have enough to offer to sim fans as well. Operation Flashpoint is starting from more action ground, but it's going into many areas normally covered by pure simulation games, or even some aspects of strategy games. Maybe the most impressive things are happening on the border line between these areas. Just imagine a damaged tank and three people escaping from it, or a transport helicopter unloading infantry troops into combat. The unique thing in Operation Flashpoint is that you can experience it from both positions - the pilot, or the soldier on board."

And to make sure that the game appeals to both the hardcore and more casual action gamers, it will feature seperate veteran and cadet modes depending on how realistic an experience you want. "In the cadet mode the player has more on-screen help from the computer, and the game is giving the player a favour against the AI soldiers so that he can survive more hits than the AI. In the veteran mode it's the pure war in 3D environment - you have to use your eyes and ears in this mode, and everything is as real as it gets."

Grabbing a lift in a passing truck

Mission Drive

The combination of on-foot action and driveable vehicles has been problematic in the past, and very few games have got it right. Last year's hilariously bad "Codename Eagle" was an example of what can go wrong when vehicles and first person shooting mix.

"There are many difficulties in creating this type of game, combining on foot action, driving, armored vehicles and aircraft", Marek confirmed. "First of all, before you could even start to balance the game you must create so many things - an infantry part, a car simulation, a tank simulation, a helicopter simulation, commanding structure and interface... I think the main difficulty is that this type of game is simply too big, and honestly I think we would never have started to develop it if only we had known how big it would be one day."

It's certainly been a long haul for the company, and Marek told us that "the first lines of our engine's source code were written in January '97", almost four years ago now! "It's been a long, long time... First my brother Ondrej, the lead engineer of the game, started to work full time on the game engine and some proprietary tools. Then we looked for more people to join us, and the core team was formed in April 1998."

Since then the company has been hard at work developing the game, and this year all of their efforts finally paid off. "Codemasters were looking for new PC titles for their expansion, and they liked Operation Flashpoint. We signed the publishing deal at this year's ECTS [an annual computer games trade show in London]. We're extremely happy with Codemasters, I have to say, because their company style and the way how they look on games is similar to our own vision."



According to Marek, Operation Flashpoint is about to go alpha, and should be ready for release in about three months. But that's not the only game which Bohemia are working on. "A second team at Bohemia Interactive is finishing a game for children right now. It's a very nice fairy tale game, and it's a completely different game than Operation Flashpoint!"

In fact, although Operation Flashpoint will be Bohemia Interactive's first big international release, the company is keen not to be constrained by it. "We have some plans to extend Operation Flashpoint in the near future, but before the game is out it's still very hard to plan anything. The only thing I am sure is that we don't want to be a military games specialist."

Read this next