We recently had the opportunity to interview David J. Lewis, founder of Hawk Wargames, about several aspects of the development process of Dropzone Commander. Dave was extremely gracious in giving us the time for this interview and providing thoughtful answers to our questions:
More after the jump…
What is your background in wargaming prior to the formation of Hawk Wargames? Both in terms of games you’ve played and involvement in the industry prior to developing your own venture?
My first taste of wargaming was as a teenager with Warhammer 40k, as is the case with about 90% of gamers out there it seems! I started at the dawn of 3rd edition but also dabbled in 2nd too. I then played my way through several GW games such as Inquisitor, Epic and Battlefleet Gothic back when they were still in stores.
I had a brief hiatus when I first went to university but soon got involved in the hobby again through working for Spartan Games while studying. I designed and sculpted all the original ships for Uncharted Seas up to the Shroud Mages and the flagships. I also designed and sculpted some of the ships for Firestorm Armada before they were turned into digital versions (the early Dindrenzi and the Aquans). Although I didn’t write the rules, I was also involved with playtesting both Uncharted Seas and Firestorm Armada.
As I neared the end of my time at uni, I had the usual ‘real life’/ ‘time to get serious’ sort of choices to address and did my best to continue doing what I love – designing and producing miniatures! I wanted a project which I could truly call my own with a free design direction, so I made the difficult decision to lock myself away and go it alone!
What was your inspiration for undertaking the long and difficult road of developing a wargame from scratch, and Dropzone Commander in particular?
For me, it seemed the best and purest way to get what was in my head into the real world! I spent three months travelling round Australia before putting pen to paper. Whilst there, I had the luxury of time to get some serious thinking (and drinking) done – it’s a great country for both of these things!
In addition, I was both inspired and driven by the success of Spartan Games. Having seen firsthand a company accomplish so much from nothing made me believe it was possible that I too could do the same with my own venture.
How long did DzC take to develop?
DZC took just under two and a half years full time to develop from first sketch to Salute 2012. I worked alone 99% of the time, although I did get help with the assembly/ publishing side of the book, not having had any previous experience in that area!
I think working on my own gave the project a very tight consistency and purpose – something which gets difficult to do with a large team. Unfortunately the caveat being that I needed to do the work of several people by myself, at a level of quality to rival and perhaps exceed established names in the industry. This not only led to a long development time, but long hours as well (I typically worked from 8:30am to midnight – but sometimes later!) Weekends became something of an abstract concept…
Was it difficult to remain committed to developing a wargame given the time investment and how risky this type of venture inherently is?
Financially it was hard, of course – two and a half years with no income is difficult for anyone! I was very lucky to have the complete support of my family during this time. They didn’t lose faith in me at any stage and I guess I’d proven myself capable with both my strong work ethic at uni and my success at Spartan.
As for the work itself, staying motivated was never an issue. Obsessions are dangerous, I have to say – beware of them! I kept thinking of the light at the end of the tunnel and that soon I’d be able to emerge back into the world!
This type of project is indeed incredibly risky. Costs can (and did) spiral and the longer you spend on a project this large, the more it drags you in. The investment my family has in my business has driven me even harder to do well – pressure is a great motivator and it’s a good job that I thrive on it!
Has the explosive success of DzC and accompanying rush to meet demand affected your game plan for Dropzone Commander at all?
Not much! We have of course held off a bit on the drive for new releases. We released Dropzone Commander with a very large range from day one. Once you’ve played the game it’s obvious why we needed to do this (DZC is focused heavily on combined arms – you need a bit of everything). Supplying the world with such a large range proved to be a major challenge for us and obviously the level of success was well beyond my modest estimations!
Now that the casters have expanded their output four-fold from our original capabilities of only a few months ago, we’re making excellent headway at reducing our order backlog. Once this is clear and the stock issues are behind us we’ll be pushing DZC in new markets and will be much more active on both the social and promotional scene. This also gives us the ability to continue with our plans to greatly expand the range! There’s lots more planned for DZC- in fact, the current roadmap extends past 2015 and we intend to support the game for as long as people are playing it!
What were the considerations that went into the choice to create DzC at a 10mm scale?
The game started with a ‘core ethos’ if you like, or ‘mission’ for what I wanted DZC to be. The idea of rapid deployment and manoeuvre-based futuristic warfare is one that’s always enthralled me. Once I had the idea for the game itself, everything else was built around this core concept. That way, the project stayed true to itself and consistent throughout development.
10mm scale emerged fairly early on as the clear and only choice. I knew it was risky, given that it was a fairly niche scale back then! 6mm scale would have been too fiddly for all the ideas I wanted to implement (folding turrets, truescale thin parts, cinematic gameplay etc). Also, I believe that 10mm is the smallest scale where infantry can be imparted with some true character. 15mm upwards at this quality would have made the dropships extremely costly and quite unwieldy on the table – I wanted there to be space for a city and room to breathe on a 4’x4′ table!
One of the most unique aspects of Dropzone Commander is the resin you choose to cast the models in, can you tell us a little bit about the resin and why you choose it as the material for creating the models?
Simply put, we use the highest quality resin we can get our hands on! We were lucky to start using resin at the introduction of some newer high tech materials. This not only includes the resin, but also the rubber used to make the moulds. The combination of the two and working with an experienced and excellent group of casters led to superb detail retention and clarity.
Our resin not only holds detail extremely well, but is also able to withstand impacts, bending and shocks like no resin I’ve ever come across before! Obviously it’s not indestructible, but dropping even the Shaltari models (which feature many fine and thin parts) usually results in a harmless bounce rather than a depressing crack. It also loves superglue, which means that joints are extremely resilient (some might say a bit too sound at times – be sure to get your assembly right first time!)
One of the things I enjoy the most about DzC is the unique approach to company level warfare, with its strong emphasis on manoeuvre and area denial and less emphasis on rolling large volumes of dice repetitively: What were the design considerations that led DzC to have such a strong focus on manoeuvre and led you to abstract away from getting bogged down in detail, as it were?
You’ve pretty much said it in the question! Many games do direct combat with a lot of dice rolling very well already and I wanted to deliver something fresh to the market. Such games usually ‘retrofit’ manoeuvre/ aerial deployment into the rules to the point where it exists but isn’t essential to the way the game plays, or to eventual victory. For such a concept to be a success, the whole game, models and everything, needs to be designed around this idea from day one.
I believe that in the future, deployment, reaction speed and flexibility will be more crucial to tactical victories than any other factor (excluding sheer weight of numbers obviously – there’s not a lot you can do when outnumbered 10-1 by equal adversaries!). Even in such circumstances, a swift, surgical strike behind the lines may still swing things the way of the underdog!
I wanted the game to be more about the use of your tactical brain and less about number crunching or list stacking. Obviously, luck still plays a part in DZC, like most wargames, as well as in reality – if a few crucial RPG’s had gone wide in the Battle of Mogadishu things may have panned out very differently! Luck of the dice gives our games flavour, tension and hope, as well as ensuring that every game turns out differently! However, I believe that the more skilled player will win most of the time with DZC.
One of the most common debates surrounding wargames is whether they are more focused around narrative gameplay or competitive gameplay. How did you balance these considerations in developing DzC?
I wanted the game to feel cinematic while at the same time being fairly ‘screwed down’ in terms of rules. Many small scale games often end up as quite a dull, grinding, numbers exercise a lot of the time, while some other games are full of character but very loose rules wise and are utterly unsuitable for tournaments. I tried to balance DZC with a bit of both. I believe that that scale, scenery and model design lends a lot to the cinematic feel of the game, especially when you have fighters sweeping in on the last turn to shoot down an escaping dropship, with AA unleashing hell from below! As such, narrative feel is brought in through events, scenery and gameplay developments whilst keeping the rules themselves tight enough for tournaments.
Personally, I haven’t yet had the chance to see any factions besides the PHR and UCM in action yet, but I did want to ask you how you went about playtesting the various factions and units prior to the release of the game?
We got a sizable pool of playtesters involved including a varied set of gamers. Some were my friends who hadn’t played wargames for years – a great help in that they had ‘fresh’ minds for something new and very little pre-conceived notions of how a game should play. We also playtested with a lot of experienced gamers from several gaming clubs.
Each faction was played against the other many times and with multiple scenarios, of course, which involved a lot of mid-game wrangling and rules changes, right up until the end! As you’d expect, there’s only so much time you can spend refining a game before letting it out of the cage, but I believe we did a good job on DZC and I receive very few balance related complaints. Such is the design of DZC that victory will depend much more on your tactical skill than the precise fighting prowess of your units so the bulk of playtesting was focused on the best ways of achieving this goal!
Turning to the aesthetic of the game and the designs of the models, can you speak to the inspirations that led to the wildly diverse aesthetics of the UCM, PHR, Scourge and Shaltari?
The UCM’s aesthetic and inspiration is perhaps the most obvious, as it’s based on quite an established and familiar look in modern Scifi. I’m a big fan of the Aliens movie franchise as well as the style of the Halo series and Avatar showcased some awesome design work of course (perhaps the less said about the plot the better though!). Although I loved the aesthetic of all these things, I tried to keep the UCM fresh with some innovative designs and vehicle layouts while maintaining a slightly familiar feel. I focused on real human logic in designing for a future where we have access to much better materials and technology, where folding turrets and one man crews would be a sensible approach. The UCM is focused on the mass production of vast armies and efficient use of its great manpower. It’s not the ‘callously send millions of men into the grinder’ sort of popularised scifi military feel, but it is utilitarian and built to task.
The PHR needed to feel human and yet wildly different to their UCM counterparts. There, I looked closely at Asian design, modern consumer electronics and anime as inspiration, especially Ghost in the Shell (I thoroughly recommend the Stand Alone Complex series if you haven’t seen it!). I wanted the PHR to feel more real, plausible and Western than typical anime mechs though. It’s hard to design ‘fresh’ looking and non-derivative mechs, but I think those of the PHR are quite distinctive.
The art of HR Geiger, in addition to the look of some of the nastier of nature’s critters, were the core inspiration for the Scourge. I wanted them to be instantly and unequivocally recognised as ‘bad guys’ as well as being biologically sinister. As the game’s arch nemesis, the Scourge needed to feel dark, predatory and disturbing whilst avoiding the excessive use of the usual ‘spikes and spines’ that are often seen and certainly no skulls to be used! Although this is something of an established aesthetic, I aimed to keep it fresh with some unique designs and configurations, such as the vertically loaded dropships.
The Shaltari were the hardest race to ‘pin down’ stylistically, and probably my personal favourite as I think they are my most original creations (although I always strive to create innovative designs!). I drew on a wide variety of source material for the Shaltari, from tribal artwork to jewellery. I wanted them to be beautiful, elegant yet still martial and unequivocally alien. Both in background and in game terms the Shaltari are an aggressive and warlike hyper-advanced species and I think the models suit this well! My chosen colour schemes in particular serve to heighten this effect.
Is there any intention to develop more complete painting guides for some of the colour-schemes for each of the factions? Personally I was more or less able to develop my own variant of the UCM standard colours but I could see that being an issue for people relatively new to wargaming?
This is something I’ve been promising to do for a while now, but we’ve been too busy for it to happen yet! It’s hard to take time out to produce guides and suchlike when we’re under this much pressure; however, we’re working towards some excellent solutions to this and hope to have some first rate (and free) hobby guide material available soon! More news on this can be found in our latest Newsletter, available from the ‘downloads’ section of our website.
We’d again like to thank Dave for taking the time to give such thoughtful answers to our questions. If you’ve been following our Wargame Wednesday series, you’ll know we’re big fans of DzC and big fans of the way Hawk Wargames engages with the player community.