Carolina Mastretta Talks Army Customization in Dawn of War III

ETHICS NOTE: To conduct this interview, I was given access to a temporary closed beta for Dawn of War III. I independently decided to pre-order the game with my own money based on my experiences in the beta. No other compensation was related to the production of this piece.

After speaking with Dawn of War III’s Game Director Phil Boulle, Relic approached me with an offer to interview Carolina Mastretta, one of their game designers, about the game’s customization systems. Being a long-time proponent of personalization options in real-time strategy games as regards both cosmetics and play mechanics, I was glad of the opportunity.

Carolina was a gracious interviewee, patiently talking through the finer points of army customization and happy to retread over topics that she or I thought weren’t covered properly. While the somewhat narrow context of the conversation prevented me from focusing on some of the game’s larger controversies, I was more than happy to get some additional information about Relic’s goals and direction regarding supporting a variety of play styles, and what they’d learned from previous games.

Let’s take a look at what Carolina had to say.

Cosmetics: Paints, Sprays, and Elites

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I started out with some of the low-hanging fruit: the game’s cosmetic options. “In Dawn of War III, we wanted to broaden the paint and badge options that players have access to- so they can recreate factions from the lore.” Carolina said. “Skins and unique paint colors are tied to the progression system… Macha pink, for example.” Farseer Macha is one of the Eldar heroes in the game, and she apparently has a unique color swatch that can be unlocked via her progression path. Carolina continued, explaining that each Elite unit contains a number of unlockable paint swatches and badges specific to them. They also, she said, each have one unlockable skin. They’re not ready to talk about post-launch plans yet, but aren’t ruling out the possibility of adding more over time.

A longtime frustration of mine in the Dawn of War franchise is the limited number of army decals: it’s really hard to use them for custom color schemes and personally designed Chapters or Craftworlds when they’re all established in the canon. It doesn’t sound like this is changing for Dawn of War III, though: “We’re staying true to the lore, but there are definitely more badges than we’ve ever had in a Dawn of War title. Also, our Elite units will have custom badges to unlock, that represent them. Once you get an Elite to level 6, it unlocks a series of swatches of both type and material.”

Apparently, as with Dawn of War II, there will be not only paint colors but paint material that affects its appearance. Matte and glossy options will be available, as well as metallic colors. The big reveal in terms of cosmetics to me was that some options are tied to specific Elites and are a reward for using them. Personally, I’m a fan of this, but mileage is sure to vary on that one. I like feeling, well, elite, for having earned access to skins or other “bragging rights” content. Limited-access paint colors and badges are a fun reward for spending a lot of time learning the ins and outs of a particular option.

But, enough of that. Let’s get to the meat and potatoes of customization in Dawn of War III: Elite units, and Doctrines.

Loadouts: From Wargear to Doctrines, and Beyond

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Some of the defining elements of Relic’s latest RTS titles are varying forms of meta customization: In Dawn of War II, that revolved around choosing your hero/command unit. The hero character in DOWII has a large array of customization options in the form of wargear whose availability is tied to the player’s unlocked tech tier. Heroes have a pretty big impact on how the player approaches a match (particularly in its early stages) and often has trickle-down effects on the player’s faction, such as with Chaos Heretics’ Shrine, whose aura changes depending on your hero.

Similarly, a controversial feature of Relic’s last title (Company of Heroes 2) are its Commander and Bulletin loadouts. In COH2, players can pick from a variety of pre-configured tech, unit, and ability options, packaged together into Commanders. While in Company of Heroes 2, players are able to bring 3 Commanders along with them, choosing a Commander locks the player into its specific path for the rest of the battle. One much-requested feature in Company of Heroes 2 was player-designed Commanders. It seems that Relic has, in part, acceded to this in Dawn of War III. In Dawn of War III, players essentially design their own Commander via the Elite system.

We talked at length about how Dawn of War III is attempting to build on what Relic learned from the previous two titles, and from Relic’s other properties. I really loved the Wargear system from Dawn of War II, and asked about that specifically. Here’s Carolina’s response: “This is one of the things we struggled most to define. We knew we wanted big armies, but we wanted to keep the unique heroes people loved from Dawn of War II. We asked ‘How do you balance heroes with armies?’ We found our answer in synergies between hero and army.”

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In the beginning, Carolina explained, they’d wanted to stick more closely to the Wargear system. But they ended up feeling that the scope of battle was so large that hero loadouts weren’t manifesting in interesting ways. “Players weren’t seeing the impact of their choices.” She said. “We looked to the lore, for some of it. What kinds of squads are these heroes associated with in the Warhammer universe?”

Carolina had a lot to say about the evolution of these mechanics in Relic’s latest title: “We looked at Bulletins. They were interesting, but they didn’t give players ownership of how they acquired them. And they didn’t have a big impact. Players often wouldn’t notice 2% accuracy on a weapon, for instance.” She continued: “In Dawn of War III, we realized that Doctrines needed to be limited in amount, and strong enough to craft a strategy around. Company of Heroes 2 Bulletins didn’t have enough impact, and we wanted Doctrines to be a big deal.”

Regarding Commanders, Carolina had more to say, “We didn’t want to change the core play style of the faction. That was one complaint we saw regarding some Commanders. We wanted to steer Dawn of War III more into readability and clarity, and clear opportunities for counterplay, more clear than previous titles.” This really rang true for me. I’ve written before about taking specific lessons from other genres, and I think some of the deeper mechanical changes to Dawn of War III come, not from a desire to mimic or borrow specifically from StarCraft 2, or MOBA titles, but from a desire for Relic’s titles to be more readable and predictable in general. They want to limit the effects of RNG on their games, and smooth out cases where players feel they’ve been robbed of a win due to vagaries of an imperfectly predictable interaction between players’ forces. While I remain somewhat skeptical over DOWIII’s victory system, I was very glad to be able to do both this interview and my earlier talk with Phil Boulle, both of which allowed me to take another look at the reasoning behind some of the game’s more controversial design decisions.

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“My favorite doctrine is Holo Fields for the Dire Avengers” she said – it’s one of my favorites too, by the way – “It [Holo Fields] really changes the unit dynamic.” From there, we returned to talking about Doctrines and their relationship with Company of Heroes 2’s Bulletin system. “We did a lot of post-mortems from Company of Heroes 2. We wanted to learn what their design team would have done differently. It was clear that there should be very clear avenues to earn these things. No loot drops: we wanted to empower players to make decisions, and limit random factors in player progression.”

The concepts of expanding player choice, and giving the player a clear progression path as opposed to one dominated by item drops, was one that was often repeated in this conversation. Relic seems committed to learning from some of their missteps from past games, or to be more precise they seem to be committed to implementing game elements that resonate best with players. Random elements can be hostile to players, and provide widely varying gameplay experiences, and I think Relic is acknowledging that reality in the design of Dawn of War III.

I asked Carolina about her opinions on the pros and cons of their Doctrines and Elite system. Her response was “As a player, we’re giving you the means to acquire meaningful choices, to experiment with choices. To try something new in the next match. Each match can feel different. But we know there’s a challenge. The progression system can feel pretty hands-off. Players need to be willing to learn from mistakes. There are a lot of meta-game variables that you have to be aware of now, and that requires a lot of trial and error. There’s a bit of a learning curve here. How you use your army is balanced against the choices you make in the Armory, and ultimately I think that’s a good thing.”

Combat, and All That Implies

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I wrapped up the interview by asking questions about how the choices made in the Armory impacted gameplay. This is, after all, the most important thing to players: army customization, both cosmetic and mechanical, is ultimately in service to the game experience that players will have when they queue up for a match.

One of my burning questions was, basically, what’s up with those crazy end-tier units? The ones that cost 8 or 9 Elite Points to purchase? Beauty Da Morknaut, and its related Elites in the other armies. Personally, I take a unit like that as a challenge. I want to see if I can possibly get away with not using it. I asked, can players succeed meaningfully without taking a super Elite?

Here’s Carolina’s response: “The feedback from beta was that they felt overpowered,” she said, before continuing, “But part of that is people tend to build very blobby armies in the beta. super Elites melt those blobs. Your question applies to the game as a whole, though: Dawn of War III combat is about finding the right counter. Solaria is incredibly powerful – she can meltarmies. But I’ve seen her taken out by Shadow Specters, with the Eldar player moving them around. Skillful play can definitely take out the big units, but the player has to know their options well to take them out. It requires skillful use of units, especially with the Eldar, who have a high skill requirement.”

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Carolina continued talking about super Elites: “The player has to take advantage of the mobility of smaller units, and abuse ability cooldowns. Opportunities certainly exist to take them out. It’s a big part of our ongoing balance, though, to make sure that super Elites aren’t a win button.” She also noted that in her personal experience, it’s not all that common to see a player call in all three of their Elites in a match, that it’s common to see a single Elite unit called in early and used throughout a match, with the other two Elites held in reserve.

In the betas, each faction had access to five Elites, and Carolina told me that each will have nine when Dawn of War III launches. I wasn’t able to get her to spill the beans about more Elites coming, but the knowledge that more options were en route was heartening. Systems like this are more interesting if they give players a bevy of experientially different options, and it looks like Relic’s making a commitment to making their Elite system interesting.

From there, I turned to another one of my absolute favorite mechanics from the Dawn of War games, and Relic’s titles in general. Relic’s games have traditionally featured really tough, meaningful upgrade choices, particularly at the squad level: if you choose one weapon upgrade, often that choice lasts the life of that squad. If you pick Lascannons, you can’t change your mind later and choose another weapon upgrade. I asked if tough choices like these existed in the game: perhaps not at the level of the individual squad, but maybe elsewhere?

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“There are a lot of different answers to that question,” said Carolina. “We did move away from the Wargear system in Dawn of War II. We wanted players to make decisions that impacted the rest of their army. But, the fun in the Wargear system was exploring the options, to take Elite units and craft particular roles for them, meaningful roles. We’ve moved these hard, binary choices to the meta-level, the doctrine level. Over all, we’ve moved away from the idea of individual upgrades. We wanted to craft clear roles for units, and feel that benefits both the player and their opponent. For both the player and opponent, we want things to be clear and readable. We want people to say, ‘I know where my opportunities are.’ Too much modification of individual units made the game less readable.”

As much as I like squad-level customization, that definitely made sense to me: there’s a lot of value in making things instantly understandable, especially from a competitive standpoint. Here’s some more of Carolina’s reply: “We didn’t want to change the unit’s role, but have upgrades expand the pre-defined role of that unit.” She also mentioned that, for players like me who are fans of individual customization, the Ork’s looting system has an element of this with its random customizations.

In Conclusion

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I wrapped up by asking Carolina what she thought the strongest and weakest elements of Dawn of War III’s customization systems were. I’ll conclude with her words on this topic “We’re very excited to see how players can craft something that works for them, about providing new gameplay options via Elite units. We are excited for players to unlock other doctrines and expand their versatility over time. We want to see players grow in power based on the options they have to craft their perfect strategy. We do believe that the system is complex, and it will take a lot for players to learn and understand. We have tried to turn these challenges into features, to welcome the players in a learning environment.”

I want to thank Carolina Mastretta for taking the time to talk with me about Dawn of War III’s customization systems, and look forward to open beta where I can experiment more with them. Thank you for reading.

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