Unity of Command: The unlikely origin of a modern wargame

After years fighting the music industry, Tomislav Uzelac turned to an easier task — taking Stalingrad.
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It's 2006 and Tomislav Uzelac is sitting in his home in Zagreb, Croatia with his young family.

The company he founded is floundering. The partnerships he helped broker, the contracts for technologies that he built, are all but worthless.

Broken promises have left him with broken hands. An electrical engineer with an incredible work ethic and improbable stamina, he has been idle for months. His savings can't last forever.

With his life's work withering on the vine, he takes inventory. What he's left with are the ability to make games and an academic passion that he directs toward one of the critical periods of World War II: the Stalingrad campaigns of 1942-43.

The story of his game, Unity of Command, is the story of entire nations rising from defeat, and it is also the story of Uzelac getting his life back on course.

We happy few

Zagreb, Croatia lies some 1,500 miles from Stalingrad (now Volgograd).

"It's a city of about 1 million," says Tomislav Uzelac. "I've been living here all my life because, in Croatia, there's nowhere to move to.

"I did move from my parents' house, though."

In the U.S., where an undergraduate can choose a world-class education in any of a hundred institutions in dozens of cities, this is anathema. But in a small, formerly communist country, things are done just a little bit differently.

"I used to be good at mathematics, went to this school for talented kids. ... They would do a test and then just 300 kids with the best scores would be in that [high] school.

"I wasn't extremely special there."

Uzelac is self-effacing to a fault. Where he shows pride is in his appetite for big projects, his stamina in the face of a daunting task.

In 1992, when he was attending university in Zagreb, the path to computers ran through the somewhat pedestrian-sounding discipline of electrical engineering (EE for short). Computer languages were the best way to model the complex electrical designs used to make advanced computer hardware.

For Uzelac's master's thesis, he proposed to create an MPEG video decoder, a piece of hardware that would play compressed digital video files. At the time, MPEG video files were relatively new, and there were just a handful of decoders available on the market. With luck, Uzelac would be able to reverse-engineer a device by studying the MPEG file format, and leave college with a physical product he might be able to sell.

Unity7
Tomislav Uzelac
"I hate it when people say, 'Oh, I was depressed, and game-making made me snap out of it.' It's the worst of cliches. And I don't want you to write it down."

It was the equivalent of building a passenger jet out of matchsticks.

"I was an ambitious student," Uzelac says simply.

His advisors eventually talked him into a smaller project, a decoder for digital music files. Neither of his advisors had any idea how much work even that would take, but it was orders of magnitude less complex than an MPEG decoder.

All the same, by 1997, after two solid years of work, Uzelac was only a third of the way done.

His advisors told him to stop.

"They said, 'Ya know? Screw the [hardware]. This [software] is good enough.'" Uzelac could graduate with his well-deserved honors and go out into the professional world.

But he did not stop.

"I said, 'Well, let's finish it.'" It would take him another year and a half, but by 1997 he had done it. He was the creator of one of the first modern MP3 audio engines, a piece of software that would translate a digital music file into analog sound.

"There weren't too many engines to go around. And basically, mine was the first one to become available. ... It's the first independent one. There was, whatever, the official 'one.' But that was encumbered by different copyrights and stuff."

Uzelac's master's thesis would grow to become the core of Winamp, a music player distributed as shareware that enabled much of the success of services like Napster and orchestrated the titanic shift in the music industry as we know it.

"It was very cool," says Uzelac.

For a time, Uzelac received payments from the makers of Winamp. He hesitates to call them licensing fees. The software continued to grow in popularity and in 1999, at the height of the dot com bubble, AOL bought Winamp for between $80 and $100 million.

"That was just bizarre. It was just obscene amounts of money," none of which went to Uzelac. Almost casually he mentions the lawsuit he filed, and his trip to Silicon Valley to settle it.

His eventual payout was a significant victory at the time, but it served to merely set him up for the defeat to come.

Outrunning your supply

While in Silicon Valley, Uzelac formed a company. Comprised of himself and three other colleagues from his university, PlayMedia Systems would build on Uzelac's audio engine in order to compete in the burgeoning digital music industry.

Uzelac's stately, almost monotone delivery becomes faster and more animated when he talks about that time. "Even today," he says, "the way you can buy music on the net has been really [slow to change] compared to how you can buy games. ... You can buy games everywhere you want. ... You can download it, it's always up there in the cloud and so on. With music you can only get that [with iTunes] ... but it's all been relatively recent. Technology for that has been around for like 15 years now."

Unity3
Unity of Command
"You know what happens when you have a kid? Suddenly shit becomes more real, so yeah. I was dumped hard into the real world."

PlayMedia was poised to bring those efficiencies online at the turn of the century. The company had the technology and the brainpower to do it; coupled with Uzelac's determination and stamina, you can't help but believe it would have worked. There were contracts with Napster for key software implementations, and with Sony for hardware designs.

But over a period of three or four years, the company never really got the chance to actually do anything. Not one of its projects was completed, as delays were followed closely by outright cancelations.

"At all times I just felt that we were doomed. It was like a dark cloud hanging over these people."

And so he exited the company. The technology he had taught himself to master when he was just a teenager, the industry he had helped disrupt in remarkable ways over more than a decade, Uzelac just walked away from it forever.

He started a family.

"You know what happens when you have a kid? Suddenly shit becomes more real, so yeah. I was dumped hard into the real world."

Hard is a relative term, however, for a man who has only recently been awarded a large sum of money in an international intellectual property settlement. Uzelac is quick to point out that he was not then, nor is he currently, broke. But it was nevertheless a dark time for him.

He says he tried his hand at web design for a time, but that during the next few years he was shiftless.

"I was mostly good for nothing. ... There are some periods where I cannot even tell you what I was doing because I don't know. I cannot put a finger on what it was."

For someone so capable, so driven, it was a real blow to be idle for so long. It would take a self-imposed deadline, a passion project to wake him up again.

"I hate it when people do these interviews when they tell you like, 'Oh, I was depressed and crap, and that game-making sort of made me snap out of it.' It's the worst of cliches. And I hate it, and I don't want you to write it down.

"Write something else please."

And yet, that's exactly how Unity of Command happened.

Entrenchment

In 1995, Strategic Simulations, Inc. published what many consider to be a seminal work in the wargaming pantheon: Panzer General. It was among the first true "grand strategy" games to appear on the PC.

In it, you could play as Axis Germany and attend to nearly every aspect of WWII, fulfilling Hitler's will to subjugate the Allied powers and unify the world under the Third Reich.

No simple task to learn and play, it appealed exclusively to hard core wargamers. Graced with a perfect score from Computer Gaming World, it would set the wargaming standard for years to come.

It was the perfect diversion for a young man so driven as Uzelac. While in university studying electrical engineering, he had played it constantly.


Unity1The first screenshot of Unity of Command, circa 2007
"I had maybe 500 lines of code, just a very simple engine, that would put these tanks on a map. And I said, 'OK. I'll give myself a year to make this game."

"I'm the type that finds one game. I find one game that I like and then I just play it to death."

It cast the mold, as it were, for Uzelac's gaming tastes from that day forward. Other games since had scratched the itch, like sleeper hit Korsun Pocket. But there's nothing quite like your first love.

During his exile from the field of audio technology, Uzelac returned to playing games. And, as a consequence of his learning programming in college, he suddenly found he could make them as well.

"I had maybe 500 lines of code, just a very simple engine, that would put these tanks on a map. And I said, 'OK. I'll give myself a year to make this game. Just to sort of get myself into sort of a working temperature, just to get myself going again."

He felt compelled to tell the people in his life that he was sorry for the time he had been so distant, so good for nothing. He was emerging from his funk, and to keep himself on task, he needed to be held accountable.

"I sent an email with this crappy screenshot or something and it said, 'This is what I'm doing.'

"Most people said, 'You're fucking nuts.'"

But along with the anticipated responses came an unanticipated one, from former classmate Nenad Jalsovec.

Jalsovec attended the same university in Zagreb, even shared the same electrical engineering history as Uzelac. But instead of slaving away for 5 1/2 years, he turned away from EE after two only to emerge with a degree in graphic design.

He also happened to be a game designer, one who had met with some success in 2008 winning the TIGSource Procedural Generation Competition.

"At that point, [Uzelac's] was a project in need of a substantial visual facelift," says Jalsovec. "I already had a couple freeware games released and seeing someone trying to finish their first game wasn't strange at all. ... I deemed I could add a significant amount of value to the game."

And so Jalsovec threw in his lot with Uzelac.

Uzelac hadn't been expecting a collaborator, but Jalsovec's passion overwhelmed him. "I think when it comes to games," Uzelac says, "he's just obsessive about it. He saw a project and he saw a chance to do something interesting and he just jumped on it. He's just really crazy about it. He likes games; that's his sort of chosen art form."

"When I joined," Jalsovec jokes, "the term 'art direction' was tossed around in a derogatory manner. I think that changed prior to release date."

The art of war

To make his audio engine Uzelac had taught himself one kind of programming, but when it came to making a game, he soon found he needed to learn another.

"There was no hardware acceleration," Jalsovec says, "and the visuals ... were condemned to the staccato of a 2D hex grid. Cheesy eye-candy effects you get for free when using acceleration were also out of the question."

The game looked more like an animated spreadsheet than a living battlefield. Uzelac saw the gift he was being given in Jalsovec's attention, and spent the entire year of 2008 rebuilding the game from the ground up. When Jalsovec was able to add even a simple graphical treatment in 2009, the effect was staggering.

"It became apparent that [Unity of Command] could potentially attract non-niche players," Jalsovec recalls. "In order to communicate this through looks, we needed to differentiate it from dense, grognard-centric releases and make it look approachable."

Instead of pixelated, sterile borders and pencil-thin rivers, suddenly there was a fullness and a softness to their maps. Instead of the brutal iconography of stars and swastikas, their game would use the busts of individual soldiers. While in other games soldiers might be standing at attention, indifferent to the player, here they would turn and acknowledge the player's presence when called into action.

Unity2Uzelac had to rebuild his engine from scratch in order to
accommodate Jalsovec's art style.

Jalsovec gave Unity of Command a stylistic grace that separated it from other wargames.

Jalsovec did not give the game realism, but rather a stylistic grace that separated it from other wargames.

While Jalsovec ginned up more graphical flair, Uzelac immersed himself in the history of the period, researching the battles in and around Stalingrad to a depth he had never before considered. Like other wargamers before him, his passion came from a desire to understand what actually happened during the massive conflict.

"I wanted to learn about it personally," Uzelac says. "If you look at [the battle of Stalingrad] as a game, then it's the most closely contested game that was ever fought. Both sides will have a stab at victory at some point. ... We have three reversals in one season. It's the most epic campaign to my mind there ever was. And I just wanted to learn about it."

Next came the user interface. Strategy games are famously about managing information, adjusting numbers and moving sliders across many different screens in order to move units from point A to point B. Or to create units at all. In Jalsovec's mind there could be no tolerance for confusing the player, and he imposed a strict doctrine that the user must be able to keep their eyes in one place at all times.

Giving the player the ability to manage information would be a natural byproduct of their design. Done properly, it could lead players back to the reason they loved strategy games in the first place, because Uzelac and Jalsovec granted players the chance to make difficult decisions and deal with their consequences.

For Jalsovec, it was all about the flow from decision to decision.

"He's a flow fanatic," Uzelac says. "Everything would be about flow. If you play a game it doesn't matter the objective; it just matters second-to-second flow. You click on something and you get a reward in terms of a sound and then you click something else and this sort of the rhythm and the flow that you get ... that, to him, is most important.

"You sit down to play this game and you play for an hour and a half sometimes. And I'm working on it with a guy who's thinking in terms of milliseconds."

The user interface, such as it is, occupies a discrete section of the top and right sides of the screen. The rest of the game is given to the player and the battle they are orchestrating. Keyboard shortcuts change the view of the battlefield instantly, removing units altogether and giving players a look into zones of control, terrain details, even information on the weather across the massive fronts.

Complex tables that govern the makeup of units and how they interact with each other, the result of all the historical research Uzelac had done, were pushed out of the way. It would be the lifeblood of the game, but it would be almost completely invisible.

Even the units themselves are studies of brevity and abstraction. At a glance you can divine, if not their exact function, their relative strength and potential application to the task at hand.

"We want to pack as much stuff onto the unit as possible," Uzelac says, "onto the little icon so that your gaze stays fixated on it. When you play the game your gaze doesn't move around."

The end result was a synthesis of form and function that allowed for a change in how wargamers, and even casual gamers, were allowed to understand the battle of Stalingrad.

Unity of Command became a game about supply lines; about how far you can move a group of soldiers and keep them fed and watered in a day, how long you can keep their vehicles fueled and running over open ground. Gamers of all types were creating salients, penetrating, bypassing, flanking and encircling.

But to players, it was as easy as matching three colored orbs and being gifted with the singsong clink of points falling into the high score field.

Uzelac and Jalsovec made their players into generals, crystalizing the raw decisions from the historical record. And they made it both easy and fun.

I served among heroes

After a long history of his professional setbacks, Uzelac is upbeat and hopeful about his future. He has a direction, a purpose to commit his incredible stamina to once more.

The strong sales of Unity of Command mean that his small company, 2x2 Games, will continue to release more strategy titles. Employee number one starts on the first of June, and his job will be to start work on a soundtrack for a new, unannounced game.

Unity4Unit icons for German and Russian forces.
"I don't really empathize with people who are generals."

Uzelac thinks the Unity of Command engine, with the right modifications, can do more than it's being asked to do at present. To hear him talk, you would not be surprised if he was planning to take up a task as formidable as his master's thesis originally was.

Perhaps instead of a single campaign, he'll treat his fans to a grand strategy game along the lines of Panzer General. Whatever conflict he models, players will benefit from his collaboration with Jalsovec. The two plan to work together again soon.

But even after leading a kind of small revolution in wargaming, a move towards more concise, compelling experiences, Uzelac is hesitant to talk about the leadership roles he puts his players in. He takes a more holistic view.

"I don't really empathize with people who are generals," Uzelac says. "One thing that did interest me is that you will always read how [German general von] Manstein was one of the important German generals, that he sort of saved the day for the Germans by pulling this victory in the Third Battle of Kharkov. That this is one of the most brilliant victories of all times. Just from a purely technical military standpoint. But when you read the books you never get the impression of what the hell did this guy do?"

A theater of war that ended millions of lives, with battlefields that could swallow entire regions of the United States, the battle for Stalingrad is made more clear because of Uzelac's work.

"I guess by taking the whole journey and making the game and reading about it I sort of got to figure out what it is that happened. And to sort of appreciate what was happening, and why it was so masterful.

"I did not know before." Babykayak





Image credits: 2x2 Games
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis

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