In the trenches: Behind the scenes of Verdun, and a preview of the next expansion

How Blackmill Games recreated WWI's battlefields, and how its next expansion doubles down on realism.

Verdun is a multiplayer shooter with an unusual dedication to historical accuracy, pitting small teams of players against one another on maps inspired by real World War I battlefields. Polygon sat down with Jos Hoebe of Blackmill Games who, along with studio M2H, is developing the game. We found out how their teams went about creating these spaces, and received a preview of its next free expansion — Horrors of War.

Over the top

About two years into the conflict, WWI had devolved into a type of warfare where millions of men faced off against one another from inside trenches. Every step out into no man’s land risked death from the two great innovations of the day; the machine gun and the heavy artillery piece.

At a strategic level, WWI was less about maneuver than about merely having enough bodies to throw at the enemy to push them back. The U.K., with a much smaller land army than nearly every other combatant in the war, was at a disadvantage just about everywhere. For that reason, their intelligence service was particularly attentive to the disposition of enemy forces.


This chart, from the United Kingdom's national archives, was one of the earliest pieces that Hoebe chose as a reference for Verdun. Marked "secret" and intended for high-level British commanders only, it shows the number of German soldiers per yard of front line in nine of WWI’s key European theaters in 1916.

Importantly for the team at Blackmill, it also shows along the x-axis a historical record of how the battlefields themselves were defined. It became, essentially, their map list.

"This image did put into perspective the different ‘theaters’ of war within the Western Front and provided an excellent framework for us to represent the different environments," Hoebe told Polygon. "In each of these theaters — bar perhaps Lorraine — at some point a major offensive took place.

"Because we are actually familiar with most of the regions ourselves — either driven through or visited — we realized the diversity that could be created."


Anyone who has studied WWI recognizes the first stanza of the poem "In Flanders Fields" by Canadian John McCrae, written in May 1915 after the Second Battle of Ypres.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Flanders, Belgium was the site of several horrific battles, none more tragic than the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as The Battle of Passchendaele, where the mud was so deep that it simply swallowed men and machines whole.


"With Flanders we wanted to represent the worst of the fighting in the region," Hoebe said. "As a goal, we wanted to represent several elements that were iconic. Above all is the pure disorientation that arises from the fact that the landscape is entirely flat in the salient, unlike most of the maps set in the rolling hills of France."


Working from historical archives, the team at Blackmill created this montage of photographs. Each one, from the reconnaissance photos in the upper left corner to the rare, colorized images in the lower right was used to set the tone for the respective level, as well as create individual features on the map.

What makes Verdun so different from other first-person shooters is the way battles ebb and flow. Some players are instructed to assault individual enemy strongpoints, while others are told to defend. Anyone who disobeys an order by moving outside the engagement area is killed — effectively shot on the spot for cowardice.

"The maps are a composition," Hoebe said. "This imagery can all be found through Google. There are large collections of postcards on Flickr, but also Belgian towns post their historical collections online. I pretty much went through the extent of what could be found ... and compressed this into on overall image.

"We know what kind of gameplay we wanted to have, with a certain distance between each line. So we tailored the elements and fit them into a design."

The Flanders map sees players moving on their bellies at times, trying to move into the shadow of a small rise in the ground where they can assemble with their teammates, stand and prepare to rush the enemy cohesively. There’s almost no cover on the map between fortifications. All of it, Hoebe said, is as historically accurate as the team could make it.

"There are few points of recognition other than a small forest," Hoebe said. "There's a very high water table as well, which challenged us with adding a convincing water/mud mechanic. There are the bunkers which became ‘islands’ in the sea of mud. They are scattered, and the trench lines are built around them."


The Artois region of France was the site of three famous battles throughout the war. While one muddy moonscape looks much like another to the untrained eye, the Artois map in Verdun is very different from Flanders. "For Artois we set out to make a smaller map," Hoebe said. "We also wanted more cover and a more interesting no-mans-land with more obstacles.


"The main inspiration came from the battle of Loos and the Hohenzollern Redoubt with its mine craters. But also, to lesser extent, the area around Vimy Ridge. What typifies the battles — and several others fought by the French in the region — was the fact that the Germans occupied a hill with significant height advantage."

"Another thing that you can see is the desolateness of the region. Miles of farmlands, little to no trees at all. The mine craters allow for the 'redoubt' area to have the lines closer together again, which changes the pace from both long-range engagements and short-range trench fighting. An additional feature that this map has is the connecting 'communication' trenches which provide cover when moving from line to line. So all in all, this result is a different experience than the ‘shell-hole leap frogging’ in Flanders."


Often, Hoebe and his team didn’t just have photographs to work with but hand-drawn diagrams showing the perspective from the trench line, invaluable artifacts when creating a first-person game. For Artois, they found a sketch by Canadian Walter MacKay Draycot of his perspective of Vimy Ridge in the Artois.


Blackhill used this and other sketches to piece together the multiple viewpoints captured by period photographs. With the wider image as a reference, Hoebe's team was able to reconstruct entire vistas, placing discrete details like bunkers and redoubts accurately within the landscape.


"We specifically wanted to try to break with the stereotype that all battles took place under the mud-ridden conditions that existed in for instance Flanders," Hoebe said. "In this case for the Aisne map, we chose to name it after the sector it represented. Not so much the Battle of the Aisne River, which generally refers to the battles on or near the Chemin des Dames ridge.


"What we tried to do here was create this representation of the fighting at the very end of the map; namely the trench lines in the last German sectors. The bulk of the map is lush terrain ... relatively unspoiled.

"I think the main inspiration comes from the Third Battle of the Aisne. We chose this place and time because we specifically wanted a break from the maps with trenches and open and destroyed countryside, a break in both visuals and gameplay.


"The First and Second Battles of the Marne — both big battles in these environments — had to be represented in a game based on the Western Front. This region fits perfectly within our big picture and adds to the diversity in scenarios."

Some of the photos used to design this map actually came thanks to French re-enactors, including a re-enactment hosted in September 2008 that included over 200 costumed soldiers.


The next free expansion for Verdun features a massive upgrade. Blackmill will include a new map, taking place around and inside a French fortress called Douaumont. Hoebe says his team is not only doubling down on game’s historical accuracy, but also the drama of the period. The expansion is called Horrors of War.


Douaumont was a fortress built to protect the city of Verdun, France in the 1800s. In the early months of WWI, after devastating German bombardments of similar Belgian structures, the French decided that Douaumont was too big of a target. So they had its larger guns removed, and left it almost entirely undefended.

In February of 1916 the fortress was captured by a small group of German raiders who never even fired a shot. Later, it became a centerpiece in the Battle of Verdun; the French dedicated three infantry divisions to recapturing it.

"What we are doing is building a more dramatic and gritty experience," Hoebe said. "One pillar of that is this historically accurate level; then another one is the gore system, which we are currently developing, which will add to the immersion and grittiness of the experience."


The final piece of the expansion will be a new, historical offensive game mode. Here, instead of artificially moving from attack to defense throughout the course of a mission, specific battles will be modeled with one side on the attack and another on the defensive for the duration.

"Only one side attacks in a historical scenario," Hoebe explained. "Say, the French recapture of Fort Douaumont in 1916, or the Canadian assault on Vimy in 1917. Put together, this will all be the included in the free expansion.


"We hope to add one additional level to the expansion which will focus on full in-trench combat — during the night — to augment the 'horror' aspect of it. This also will be a great addition to the gameplay as the focus will be on the close range combat.

"In terms of weapons and equipment we are doing a massive increase as well, adding more than double, but those will be combined in a later free expansion pack."

Horrors of War is scheduled to release in October. Babykayak