For me, one of the surprising delights in gaming this summer came from French independent developer and self-publisher Eugen Systems, which launched its real-time strategy game Steel Division 2 on Steam on the Windows PC and Mac.
The $40 RTS takes you back to the Russian Front of World War II, where the Germans and the Soviets squared off in 1944 with huge battles involving tanks, infantry, and air units. In Steel Division 2, you can relive these battles, zooming in close on the action or zoom out high to get a bird’s eye view.
I played the game for many hours while on vacation, and then I interviewed Alexis Le Dressay, game director at Eugen Systems.
While Steel Division: Normandy 44 from 2017 (published by Paradox Interactive) was set on the Western front, the new game is set during the massive Operation Bagration on the Eastern Front in the summer of 1944. Eugen Systems built the game on its R.U.S.E. war game engine.
The developers focused a lot of attention to detail in the historically accurate units, weaponry, vehicles, aircraft and battlefields throughout the course of Steel Division 2’s new campaign, multiplayer, and co-op modes.
Steel Division 2 owners can enjoy new dynamic strategic campaigns. The turn-based single-player mode has four different campaigns, which let players reenact crucial engagements during Operation Bagration on a 1-to-1 scale. Each campaign offers dozens of authentic units (it has 600 in all), and thousands of soldiers and tanks for players to command. I talked with Le Dressay, who started the Paris studio in 2000 with his brother Cédric Le Dressay in Paris, France, about how it all came together.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How long did you work on Steel Division 2?
Alexis Le Dressay: Something like a year and a half, I’d say. A year and a half to two years.
GamesBeat: There’s a lot of content for that amount of time.
Le Dressay: Yes, I hope so. Regarding the content, that’s something we tried to provide, because–I think this kind of game is more dedicated to a specific audience. It’s interesting for them to have a lot of content.
GamesBeat: What was the most difficult thing about making a game like this?
Le Dressay: When we were working on the army general mode, it was having something that could best fit the tactical resolution and the auto-resolve. How to handle an AI that deals with the tactical level and an AI that deals with the operational level, that was difficult. Also, we wanted to have something that was at the battalion size, which meant that we had to create multiple pawns. Which is not really, from what I can see, something done in games that already exist. I didn’t find any turn-based wargames that used multiple pawns to set up battles at the same time.
GamesBeat: I thought it was interesting that in the skirmishes I played, I would have my section of the front, but there were AI battalions on either side of me. That also seems like it would be difficult to do well.
Le Dressay: Exactly. We’ve been working on the AI, the tactical AI, through all of our games. But especially since Act of Aggression, we’ve achieved a decent AI. From what I’ve read from that time, a lot of players, when they select the medium difficulty, think the AI’s cheating. Of course it isn’t cheating at all. It uses the same rules as the player. We should probably change the name of that level to hard, because we usually have some upset players when they get beaten by the AI. But I guess that means the AI is doing its job.
When we developed it, we felt that the best thing to create a decent challenge for players was to emphasize the ability of the computer to use multiple units at the same time, launching multiple attacks. For a human player, it’s much more difficult to attack on several fronts at the same time.
GamesBeat: That’s what I felt, that it was hard to keep track of so many things. The computer can do that more easily.
Le Dressay: That’s something we’re working on right now. We’ll be able to release it within a couple of months, or maybe a little bit more. My feeling is that a lot of players have difficulty in managing multiple actions at the same time, and they’d probably like to have the possibility to activate groups of units and give them smart orders, like “Defend this area” or “Attack on this side,” while they’re doing something else. It gives you the opportunity to have some help. In order to have a higher point of view over the battle, you can zoom in and zoom out. You’d have the opportunity to select one tank, or to give more strategic orders across the battle. I think this is something that could be very interesting for refreshing the experience.
GamesBeat: I found I almost never zoomed in all the way to figure out what was actually happening to a single unit. Is that common, or do you think a lot of players do that and gain some advantage by doing it?
Le Dressay: Zooming in is just something that allows you to understand and see that everything you do and see on the battlefield is happening. But when you play, normally you never zoom. You have to keep an overview. Sometimes people ask why we have the zoom if you never use it. Usually my answer is, if the zoom wasn’t there, everybody would ask for it. It would be frustrating to be unable to get close to the action, just to experience what it’s like to be there and see a bit more of the mechanics.
But of course it’s impossible to play correctly if you’re zooming in all the time. Maybe 70-80 percent of the time you’re zoomed out. If you’re winning the battle or the pace is slowing down, sometimes you can zoom in and see the different heights of the map and the details of the battle.
GamesBeat: I managed to play it on a brand-new Origin PC laptop. Is this a very demanding game on the computation front? It seemed like it.
Le Dressay: Normally, no, because the engine is very scalable. Depending on the computer that you have–of course, you won’t have all the high-res textures and stuff like that, but normally you can play it on a very old computer. That’s something we’ve worked on, to improve our engine. In Steel Division one, at the minimum settings it wouldn’t run very smoothly. It looked a bit bad. We put in some effort on that front. As it is, it’s very scalable. You can play it on almost any computer.
GamesBeat: The dynamic campaign, is that the big difference from Steel Division one? What were some of the big additions?
Le Dressay: Yes, the dynamic campaign is totally different from what we’ve done in the past. We’re dealing with a lot of different battalions and maps. In my opinion, this is the first step into something that could be, for us, in the next months or years–something we’d like to improve and polish and bring more depth to it.
What I didn’t like in Steel Division one, in the strategic campaign, was the inability to understand the theater of operation, the big picture of the war. Sometimes it was difficult to go from mission to mission and understand exactly what was going on. Here, in Steel Division 2, the order of battle that we put on the different missions is very accurate. It’s very authentic in relation to history. When I started on Steel Division 2, I knew some things about that, but my knowledge was still limited. Now, I hope the players who have experienced the full missions we put into the game have a great understanding of those operations.
In Steel Division one we covered D-Day and the different operations that followed. But I think it was difficult to understand what the U.S. and the U.K. were doing, how the terrain played a part, what the density of divisions was like at the time. It was difficult because you can’t experience the big picture.
GamesBeat: I thought it was interesting that there were so many opportunities to bypass and surround the enemy. I wouldn’t have expected that to be so important, the speed of the offensive. It felt like that was one of the things you could only learn by playing it
Le Dressay: Yes, that’s true.
GamesBeat: If someone tried to play the whole thing, the whole campaign, do you know how much time it would take to play every battle?
Le Dressay: It’s really, really long. I have no idea how long it would take to do all the battles through the campaigns.
GamesBeat: I wonder if any streamers have tried to do that.
Le Dressay: I don’t know. Maybe it’s about 100 hours? Maybe 200?
GamesBeat: I tried to do that for Total War: Attilla back in 2015. I think I spent about 400 hours on that game.
Le Dressay: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s big.
GamesBeat: It reminded me of the Total War series, though. Did you have an appreciation of that one as well, or do you feel like it’s a different experience in Steel Division?
Le Dressay: No, I’m a huge fan of the Total War series. Of course, the idea of having two games running at the different pacings, and fighting the battles at a different level — I guess they’re in the same family.
GamesBeat: It surprises me that your company can find a big enough business in this kind of game series. Does it feel like there’s a very strong real-time strategy audience out there still?
Le Dressay: Well, real-time strategy is not what it was, but it’s still big enough for a company like ours. I believe that a lot of people like to play with strategy and to be able to fight battles in real time. With our previous wargame series, we hit more than 2 million copies sold. It might be more now, closer to 3 million. There are a lot of opportunities out there. The Total War series, the last one was a big hit.
On our side we’re looking at reaching the maximum of our audience. We still have a long way to go. There’s a lot of space before we hit the — I don’t know how you might say this in English, but the roof of glass? The limit.
GamesBeat: It seems like an interesting time right now. The capability to zoom in and zoom out, you couldn’t do as much of that before. It’s a computational power thing. Now real-time strategy games could get a lot better, because you can do that.
Le Dressay: I hope so. It brings a lot of problems with it, though, when you can zoom out all the way. It means that the battlefield is really big. It means that the pace has to be very specific. Like you were saying, it’s a lot of calculation. You have a rise in the number of units. It’s nice on the one hand, but on the other hand, creating this kind of game is getting more difficult.
GamesBeat: I wondered about the challenge of translating from the army-general level to the tactical level. It was fairly common for me to attack someone from maybe three directions, attacking a surrounded unit. Would that surrounded unit have much of a chance to survive that kind of attack on a tactical level, with enemy units coming in from both sides?
Le Dressay: A surrounded unit has lost all its combat ability. If they can be helped out by another adjacent unit, they can survive. Otherwise, they’ll surrender.
GamesBeat: It’s more fun to do on the army general, to surround and attack, but it must be very hard to do if you’re trying to fight things out tactically and actually win those battles. How did you decide to do Operation Bagration and the Eastern Front as opposed to continuing with the Western Front?
Le Dressay: What’s very interesting about the Eastern Front is the Soviet forces. When we thought about doing a World War II game, we were thinking about all the different nations involved in the conflict. The Soviet Union is one of the most important. But I’d say it’s more interesting to play with the nations on the western front. That’s why we decided to go with the western front the first time and have the eastern front in the second game, so the audience could compare all the different units.
As far as Operation Bagration itself, something very interesting about World War II is that in the first years of the war, the units are very unique, these very small units, and then when you work toward the end of the war, 1944 and 1945, the tanks are getting closer to modern main battle tanks in terms of armor and gunnery. We had to go for something that was close to that in terms of technology and timing. And Bagration itself was in some ways an even more important military victory than anything on the western front. It was a good choice to compare with D-Day.
GamesBeat: One of the easy mistakes I was making in the army general mode was that I wasn’t really looking at how strong each unit was. Some of them were on the verge of collapse. I didn’t realize that some of the German units were so weak compared to full-strength Soviet units.
Le Dressay: There’s a hot key you can use, the Alt key, to display the strength of all the different units. But it’s a little bit rough at this stage right now. We’re working on polishing those elements some more. In video games now, when you release a game it’s the beginning of something. If you continue development around your game — adding content, polishing things, correcting bugs, bringing in new things to do — this is something we’ve done a lot in the past for our previous games. It’s something players like. What I want to do with Steel Division 2 is to be in a state of mind where this is the beginning of something.
GamesBeat: The other thing about army-general mode is that some of the attacks I made — I could never tell whether it would completely succeed or completely fail. I don’t know if there’s some luck of the dice in there.
Le Dressay: I’d say there are two things that you have to take into account. If you’re attacking a unit that’s in the forest, it will be difficult to break through. You won’t have a lot of help from your tanks, whether you play on auto-resolve or on the tactical side. Infantry has the upper hand. It’s more of a World War I kind of fight. It takes a long time, and it’s more about attrition. But when you’re outside the forests, if you have more and better tanks than the enemy, you’re probably going to directly destroy them.
The second point is that you have to use joint forces. You need to have infantry, tanks, and artillery. If you only have infantry, that’s not going to work. If you only have artillery, it won’t work either. Having all three kinds of units in your battalion makes it much easier to break through the enemy lines.
GamesBeat: What are some of your favorite things that you’ve learned about fighting battles more effectively?
Le Dressay: What’s interesting is the amount of battalions to choose from, historically speaking, that were present on the battlefield, and how you can create defensive lines. You can envelop the enemy. To break through, the enemy has to break through those battalions, and you have to replace the battalions that are too weak to fight with fresh troops. I like that kind of gameplay. When you break through their lines, you have the ability to surround and encircle them. I like that kind of action.
Something that we’re going to release in the next couple of months is the ability to play multiplayer, in order to create another level of challenge. When you play against the AI, that’s one thing, but when you play against a human, it changes the way you want to use your good units, whether you want to keep them in reserve or not, things like that.
GamesBeat: I found that the Germans were particularly good at taking out my aircraft in the tactical mode. Is that just a historical fact?
Le Dressay: Yes, they don’t have a lot of aircraft, but when they have their aircraft in the area, it’s very good. They have a lot of flak, too. We tried to be consistent with history, but of course, when you play–normally, if you have flak, aircraft just won’t go where the flak is. Usually it’s too dangerous for them.
GamesBeat: After one or two flights, I’d lose most of the Soviet aircraft.
Le Dressay: Some aircraft are more resilient than others, of course.
GamesBeat: As far as individual buildings and sites go, how did you handle that? Trying to make every map look unique in some way. Was there anything you could do procedurally to give the player the impression–sometimes I could spot things that looked familiar, some of the bigger buildings and churches.
Le Dressay: For the Belarusian villages, we did something that was — there’s a name for those kinds of houses, the small wooden houses, the dachas? With the small gardens. We have something that makes those in an intelligent way. There are a lot of combinations, so it’s difficult to see the patterns. Otherwise, the overall maps, most of them are drawn from real places. It should give you an idea of Belarus at the time. We had some ideas about changing the landscape and twisting it a little bit when you play different maps, to balance things out for both sides.
GamesBeat: The hills, the elevation, it seems like that’s particularly hard to show, but that’s where line of sight becomes very important.
Le Dressay: Also, you may have noticed that the heights, the stages, are only so natural. You have stage zero, stage one, stage two. Otherwise it’s difficult to understand, if you have anything that’s more realistic. Even if you have line of sight, you have to learn whether there are holes there. As you were saying, most players are playing at a level of zoom that’s pretty high. You can’t see the details in the landscape. That’s why we always decide to make things simpler than in real life.
GamesBeat: I provided that one video of the battle among the the hills, the Last Hope scenario. I thought the interesting thing there was that when I put some of the bunkers in the hills facing the enemy, they were just destroyed right away. But if I put them on the other side of the hill, hiding them, they’d be very effective against the German tanks coming through the valley between the hills. They’d just stop them. They couldn’t go any further. It was an interesting way to defend. It gave me a better understanding of how exposed you want your defenders to be.
Le Dressay: In fact, what you did is exactly what they were doing during the war. They always had the bunkers hidden from the enemy, never in a large field. The bunkers don’t have big guns, and tanks are much better at shooting back at them. But if you hide them in the forests and use them to ambush, it’s very effective, just as was the case on the eastern front. You understand how efficient it is when you try the two different options. One works and the other one doesn’t.
GamesBeat: What comes next for you? Do you have any other announced projects to extend this or to move on to a new game?
Le Dressay: Right now we’re extending Steel Division 2. We’re doing a lot of support on the game. We want to try something on the tactical side where you can use AI for your own troops. We’ll see how that works. This is something that could be very interesting in terms of pacing. It can change the way you experience the battlefield. We’re also working on the army general multiplayer and other new content.
We have two other projects as well, but they’re still very early in development. I’d better not talk about them, because if they get cancelled–if they’re ready a year and a half from now it would be a miracle. It’s just too early.
GamesBeat: How do you handle the historical research behind the battle?
Le Dressay: We have some very dedicated historians here in the studio. One of our team members has a Ph.D in history. We do a lot of research in our spare time, reading a lot of books.
GamesBeat: Do any of your fans find anything out of place, or are you pretty good at getting it right?
Le Dressay: No, we have some fans that are specialists. We also use some of our fans to help us. When we don’t have the real name of a unit or its order of battle, we ask them. Sometimes we make mistakes and they’ll gently tell us that something isn’t accurate so we can change it.
GamesBeat: How large a team did it take you to do a game like this?
Le Dressay: Between 50 and 70 people. Most of them are on the development side, engineers. We have a lot of artists as well. But it depends on — usually we start with the art in the early stages of development, modeling all the units and elements of the terrain. It takes a lot of time, so it has to start as soon as we can. Then we have a lot of designers, of course, to tweak and balance and integrate all the different elements.
GamesBeat: One of these days you should marry that army general style with something like Hearts of Iron. You could do the entire world war.
Le Dressay: [Laughs] We can try! The four missions, this is something I was working on today, trying to have the four missions in just one. I think we have a bit more than 1,000 battalions that have been integrated into the game. I wanted to see how big the map would be and how many pawns there were, how long it would take to go and capture Minsk.
GamesBeat: I never got around to doing the deck-building. Is that something fans are doing a lot of?
Le Dressay: Yes, a lot of players want to — they only play online, and they want to optimize their deck. Trying to find the best division with the best deck possible. Of course, a good player will know how to do that, but a good player is a good player because even with a bad composition of units, they’ll beat a bad player. Usually the other player, if they’ve been beaten badly, will complain about the balance of the game. [Laughs] But that’s the definition of a bad player. He doesn’t change the way he thinks.
GamesBeat: What do you notice as far as differences between beginning players who are just learning compared to someone who’s very good at it? What are the kinds of things good player do differently?
Le Dressay: The main characteristic of a good player is they’re always taking the initiative. By initiative I mean they’re able to send some of their troops somewhere knowing they’re going to be crushed, but that sacrifice accomplishes an objective that’s meaningful. A bad player is always responding in very small ways with small units, just focusing on tanks, focusing on their losses rather than winning objectives. Bad players always focus on having the biggest tanks. It’s good to have big tanks, but what’s better is to have the biggest forces in the right place to break through, set the pace, and keep the initiative.
Something that interests me, a bad player or new player is often not able to micro-manage everything, because that’s too demanding. They want to do a lot of things — they have some great ideas about what to do — but they can’t accomplish them all. The game can be frustrating for a number of players who’d like to get into this kind of strategy games, but they say, “I’m not an octopus. I can’t click everywhere. It’s too demanding. I don’t want to train myself to get better at this.”
That’s why, as I say, we’re working on bringing players tools to give them the ability to control a larger number of units. To give you an example, if you’re smart enough to have a group of infantry units with machine guns, the classic rifle platoons, some mortars, some recon, one or two armored cars–let’s say it’s about 10 units. If you’re not a veteran at real-time strategy games, it’s really difficult to control 10 different units. You have to control those 10 units on your left side and your right side.
What I want to deliver is the ability to say, those 10 units have an order, and they have to intelligently do whatever they can to take a given position or defend a given position, because I don’t have the time to make them do exactly what I want. But if you find the time, you can take back direct control of the from the AI. I want to give a lot of freedom in using your units, but also some intermediate AI to help you get everything into the right buildings, the right positions. You probably don’t have the time or the MV to do it.
One of the questions you asked before was whether there was a big audience for this kind of game. I think there is a big audience for military subjects, for tactical and strategy gameplay, but maybe it’s a bit more limited if you ask your players to love micromanagement. That’s a bit too demanding, I think.
GamesBeat: That reminds me of something like StarCraft, where you could set up different groups where you could aim them in a given direction and they’d all go there.
Le Dressay: Yes, but the problem with — well, we have groups in the game, but the group is not intelligent. If you ask a group to go to a position, like the middle of a small village, they won’t take the best spots. They’ll be a stupid group. What I want to try to create is some sort of AI-driven smart groups. You can give over half of your army to the AI and it will use it. If you want to take them back, you can do that too. It could really change things. I’m not saying this is going to be really good, but it’s something I want to try and see how it works, see if it’s good enough to deliver to the community.
GamesBeat: As far as the tutorial or the manual goes, how did you approach that, trying to make this game a little more accessible to people?
Le Dressay: We delayed the game twice. We asked ourselves a question: should we delay the game a third time to add tutorials? We decided to go ahead–we said to ourselves that Steel Division 2 is a wargame for an audience that’s eager to try it out anyhow, and so we decided not to. That was a mistake. We should have had a proper tutorial in the game right when it came out. That’s something we’re working on now.
There’s one tutorial on its way for the army general mode, where we explain how to win a battle, how to understand the auto-resolve, all the different aspects of the mode at that level. We’ll also add a tutorial for the tactical battles later on. I think that upset a lot of players. It might have been seen as a little bit rude, not bringing them any way of learning the game. I understand that. Like I was saying, we thought that delaying the game a third time would be asking too much of the community. They were a bit upset when we said we’d delay it the second time.
GamesBeat: I felt like the YouTubers really stepped in and supplemented that with a lot of videos that were helpful for me. That was interesting. When I played Hearts of Iron 4 and was deciding whether to put a lot of time into that, I felt like the tutorial was almost baffling, even after three years that game’s been on the market. I had no idea how to start playing, so I went on to more of Steel Division 2.
Le Dressay: [Laughs] Thank you. A lot of players look to YouTube videos, so like I say, I thought it might be okay if we did the same kind of thing as far as tutorials. With Hearts of Iron, to understand how to play the game I had to watch videos myself.
GamesBeat: I did wonder what it would be like if you played a battle in a very big city. Did you ever consider that?
Le Dressay: We thought about it a bit. But it’s demanding in terms of the work to build something really big. It would probably be overwhelming in terms of pacing and micromanagement, too, if you had to go inside and around big buildings and make that work. We didn’t want to approach it if we didn’t think we could bring the proper quality to it.
GamesBeat: Thinking back on the games I played, it was very easy to try to send out units to patch some of the holes in my line, rather than concentrating a lot of force against one target. It was also easy to miss exploiting an advantage. I’d take a target, but not follow up enough. I was surprised by some battles where I took an objective and I thought it was secure, but then the enemy took it back by surprising me much later, sending a lot of concentrated force against it. That was interesting. It felt like I was playing against a person.
Le Dressay: The way we developed the AI, we copied the way a good player would play. If it evaluates that an objective has a good value and it’s vulnerable to recapture, the AI will do it. If it’s too heavily defended, it will find somewhere else to go. That’s something that a good player will usually do.