Tripwire Interactive’s story sounds like every modder’s dream. Since the core founders won the Make Something Unreal contest — created by Epic Games, the developers of the Unreal Development Kit (UDK) that provides the engine  games and mods of all kinds — the company has experienced a meteoric rise through the video game industry. The original Red Orchestra: Combined Arms was released as a stand-alone game, Red Orchestra: Osfront 41-45 through Steam in 2006 to great acclaim, players and reviewers praising the realistic, team-based style of combat that set it apart from other online WWII shooters. In 2009, Tripwire released their second game, Killing Floor, a survival-horror shooter that favored cooperative gameplay. With these two releases, Tripwire has gained attention for its innovative use of multiplayer gameplay and challenging first person shooters. Now with the release of the highly anticipated sequel to Red Orchestra due out in little more then a week, we had a chance to speak with Vice President Alan Wilson about the upcoming title, how to make a unique and challenging WWII shooter today, and the history and future of Tripwire.

For those not familiar with Red Orchestra 2, or the original game, could you tell us a little about the series as a whole?

Started out as a mod for Unreal Tournament 2003, went on to win multiple awards in the Make Something Unreal contest, including the Grand Final at the end of 2004. Always biased towards realism, wanting players to feel the intensity and immersion, the feeling that they have actually played a part in a battle, rather than playing a scripted role in a movie about the battle! Originally purely multi player, infantry and armored combat on the Eastern Front of World War II, now adding in single player as well.

World War II shooters have been around as long as I can remember playing video games. Developers of other WWII shooters have recently switched to a focus on other wars or conflicts, particularly counterterrorism. How do you differentiate Red Orchestra in such a saturated market?

“Recently” switched? I thought everyone had been doing modern conflicts for about the last 5 years! We hardly need to differentiate from that – what was the last good WWII shooter you played :) ?

Could you explain your decision to remain PC-only for Red Orchestra 2?

Well, it starts from the fact that all the development is done on the PC, using Unreal. We actually had a 360 version working a while back, as a demonstration. But the big multiplayer thing on consoles? Not going to work easily. Plus handling the servers, the big environments. It would be a significant piece of work. Doesn’t mean that we won’t do it at some point, though!

Reviews of the Red Orchestra series often note the game’s unusual setting for a WWII game. What motivated the decision to focus on a famously slow and grueling battle such as Stalingrad in Red Orchestra 2? How does designing and playing this setting differ from standard WWII settings such as Normandy beach or Berlin?

It always strikes us as slightly odd when people talk about it being an odd setting: over 70% of the fighting against the Germans took place on the Eastern Front. The Allied casualties were seen as being “high” on D-Day – about 10,000 casualties (4,000-some killed), out of 56,000 who landed on the day. The Russians recognize 200 days of combat at Stalingrad (17 July 42-2 Feb 43), during which time they took 680,000 casualties – 3,400 per day of the battle, for the Stalingrad Front alone. Stalingrad was hardly “slow”!

But the fact that it isn’t Normandy does make it unusual. It gives us a different setting, mostly unfamiliar to western audiences, which helps it stand out. Designing it requires a lot of research, some of which can be very hard to find. We managed one trip to Volgograd (the modern-day Stalingrad) and the archives and museums there. We want the game to have a “feel” of Russia – something a little alien to western players.

One of the other things that sets Red Orchestra apart from other WWII games and shooters (besides the setting) is how it promotes team-based tactical behavior, even in the single player mode. How did you approach this when planning and designing Red Orchestra 2? Were there any alternatives to the core RO design that you abandoned? Why?

We do two things: the first is to make the weapons play like they were in real life, with their good and bad points. For example, the light MGs can deliver high rates of fire – but you need your buddies to keep you supplied with ammo. The combination of SMGs for close-quarters work and rifles for longer distances. We find that people tend to drop into the real-world tactical roles, dependent on their weaponry, especially in the more tactical game modes. We also reward players for “good teamplay” more in this game than we did in the first. Smart teamwork will help players increase their honor ranking quicker than if they just solo everything.

We’ve thought about trying to ‘force” players to act as a team a number of times – but using the “big stick” approach never works in a game. You need to make people want to do things, not try and force them, constrict them. We love to make sure players have choices all the time, not remove choices.

What is the balance between single-player and the multiplayer gameplay in Red Orchestra 2 and how is this different than the original?

Well, there really wasn’t any single player in the original – just some bots to use as target practice! The single player component of RO2 gives the player 2 full (12 mission) campaigns to play through – one as Germans, the other as Russians. Each takes the player through some of the critical/most famous actions of the battle. We’re not doing the big, scripted story-line thing. It is expensive to produce, doesn’t suit a game where one bullet can kill you and isn’t very repayable. In ours, the player will work with his squad, plus supporting infantry and armor, to fight his way through a series of objectives – and he can do it how he likes. Take the enemy head-on or try and flank them? You choose. And do it differently the next time – the enemy will too!

So the single player is a full component of the game in its own right this time.

Tripwire’s developers mentioned in an article for IGN that while “other games of this type want you to feel like you’re in a war movie, [Red Orchestra was] meant to make you feel like you’re in a war.” How did you extend the realism from the first game into the sequel? Also how do you balance the difficulty and learning curve of a “realistic” approach to war with an appeal to new gamers?

For the realism, a lot of the core elements carry over from the first: one bullet will kill you, a lot of the time. No magic health packs. You can stop a wound bleeding, if you are lucky, but you aren’t going to get “better”. Death is all around – and it includes YOU! When you die in the single player, you’ll swap to the body of a live squad mate – unless you’ve managed to get them all killed.

About learning curves: apart from making more information available to the player, more easily (we hid info from the player in the first game, because there wasn’t a “realistic” way to deliver it), we’re also pointing players at the single player campaigns. There are training missions added in that will take the player through all the core components of the game, step by step. And you can actually learn off-line, at your own pace, without a bunch of vets ripping your face off in multi player!

Tripwire Interactive grew out of the modding community around Unreal Tournament. Can you describe the transition from an international modding team to a studio? Do you think Tripwire’s evolution is a model for growth in the gaming industry?

Our own growth is A model – it isn’t the only way to do it. But it can certainly be a model that can be repeated. We talk to mod teams and start-ups all the time and are looking to help where we can. We have had a lot of fun with the team that produced Dwarfs (Power of 2). I think they already employ more people than we do!

But the transition wasn’t easy. We had to find the money ourselves, do everything for ourselves – and it was a huge risk. There were houses on the line at times. Can’t say any of us want to do that again – once in a lifetime is enough!

Now that more of gaming is moving onto smaller platforms such as mobile forms and portable systems, what do you think the future of shooters and independent game developers is? Any suggestions for aspiring game designers and indie modders?

We always have suggestions. Never been known to be short of opinions! Shooters will be with us for a long time to come – people just enjoy that stuff too much for it to fade away. How many CoD incarnations have we had already? The newer platforms, plus some of the engine creators (Epic for one, Crytek for another) making their tools available for free/very small sums up front, gives people a very low cost of entry to the industry. The catch is that the cost of entry is low for everyone – and we are likely to be deluged in “cheap” games. The trick is to find the gems in there!

What are Tripwire’s plans after the release of Red Orchestra 2? Anything to look forward to soon? Do you plan to expand to other gaming genres or platforms?

First order of business will be catching up on sleep and family time, for everyone. We’ve probably ended up pushing our guys way beyond the point where someone should do an “angry wife” blog. But we’ll try and make it up to them – and try to make sure we learn the lessons!

We’ll be planning DLC for RO2 and for KF, for sure. Put some focus on Rising Storm, targeted for next year. And our own next major project is already in the concept stage.

Other genres – maybe. Other platforms – almost certainly. The only real questions are “which game” and “when”. We’re already involved in one piece for the mobile platform. And when we do other platforms (i.e. console), we’ll do it properly. Which means that the PC game will still be a PC game – and the console game will be designed to make the best use of the console. No “lowest common denominator”. That irritates the crap out of everyone (except perhaps the accountants at certain very large publishers).

Finally, you’ve recent set the game’s release back by two weeks. Was there anything in particular you felt wasn’t ready?

The polish really. Lots of little stuff, that can be quickly solved, so long as you have the time to do it. RO2 is a game where all the components need to work well together – and they do now. The main issue in the Beta testing is now about “small, isolated” bugs. Like the server browser hiding servers. But the core components are all there and working in harmony. The general feeling is that everyone is having a blast with the gameplay.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks for taking the interest and helping us get the word out. We appreciate it. Can I get back to work now?