The team at Firefly Worlds have been hard at work on Stronghold Crusader II for a long time now. The original title, Stronghold: Crusader, was an offshoot from the main franchise which released in 2002, so this sequel has been a long time coming.
We’ve seen Crusader II a few times in the past, but caught up with Firefly at Rezzed to see how things are progressing. The first order of business was to get my buttocks handed to me in battle by my eventual interviewee, Nick Tannahill, playing the multiplayer demo that they had on show, though I did enjoy sending a group of troops round the back of his castle, to slowly but surely chip away at the walls!
TSA: Roughly where in the development process are you at the moment? We’ve been hearing about this game for the last few years now!
Nick Tannahill: Well we started in earnest in May 2012, so it’s been going about two years. We’re in a position now where we’re self-publishing and we’ve got the backing of our most recent games, which we also self-published, so we’re in a good position to take as long as we want with the game and release when it’s ready.
To be honest, even the people who are most looking forward to it are saying to take our time with it, to make sure it’s bug free and balanced. It’s great, because normally you get people going, “Release it now! I want to play this right now!”
We’re in Alpha at the moment, and hope to reach Beta in a couple of months, and basically release it when it’s ready. The target, which we’re fairly confident of being able to hit, is late summer.
TSA: So, compared to what you showed me at Gamescom last year, what progress have you made?
Nick: Well it’s obviously completely playable now! We’ve got the campaign in there, the skirmishes in there and a lot of the single player content has been added. Most of the AI characters are in there too.
Back then it wasn’t at the point where we would spend our lunch breaks playing the game, but now testing has been going on for a while. The balancing and bug testing phase has begun in earnest and that’s going to continue for about six months. Ideally, that’s how long we’d like to spend, just play testing it and getting it ready for release.
The game has basically got to the point where you can load it up and play through the single player content. The bugs are getting squashed on a daily basis, which is really great for us because we really need to take our time with this and make it completely bug free for launch.
We’ve had a couple of people come to us and say, “Why don’t you do Steam Early Access?” and stuff like that, but it’s one of those situations where the game absolutely needs to be bug free at launch.
TSA: You briefly mentioned being self-published and funded, but there was the crowd funding attempt last year with Gambitious, which didn’t manage to reach your goals…
Nick: Yeah, we managed to raise about half of our target.
It was one of those things where they were friends of ours and we thought we’d take a punt on it. It did very well in Europe, actually, and we got some nice awareness and visibility over there.
But, as I said, it was a case of giving it a go and seeing if it works. Luckily it’s not integral to our funding, but we’ve basically taken the things we were going to use that money for and delayed them to post-release. Things like tactical powers, where there’ll be like an arrow shower that’s going to come in, specific buildings like a healer’s hut and stuff like that. It just means we’re going to have to push those back to post-release.
That was very much a thing which was an update to the original Crusader, so it’s not too strange for us to make it an update to this one as well.
All of the core stuff is still going to be in the game, so it hasn’t affected us too much.
TSA: You say it was just a punt and kind of going into it with some friends, but is there maybe a line of thought that if you’d gone to Kickstarter or Indiegogo, more high profile platforms, you might have had more success and awareness?
Nick: Yeah, potentially. We can never really tell how these things are going to go. You could say to yourself, “Oh, I went on IndieGoGo, but if I’d gone on Kickstarter, it would have been a really huge success.” Without actually trying it, you can never be sure.
I know what you mean, and in terms of traffic those websites are quite high up in the rankings, but it was a thing where we were going to use the money for additional features which we now have to put in post-release. We felt that if we went on Kickstarter it would have be to make or break for us, and it just wasn’t that situation.
TSA: Obviously you’ve got this demo here at Rezzed. What kind of reaction have you had from people playing?
Nick: It’s been really good, I mean we had it at Eurogamer last year, and it’s basically the same thing, where people are constantly sitting down, playing and really enjoying it. The thing that shows is that it really doesn’t annoy you too much if you get a bug or a crash, but it does if people aren’t enjoying it!
I mean, getting the design right is hard, while bugs are quite easy to fix.
TSA: If they’re annoyed that there’s a bug, then it means they want to keep playing!
Nick: Yeah, exactly! If it crashes and they go “Aaaaah!” it shows that they were enjoying themselves and that’s the main thing for us.
TSA: How difficult is it to actually show off the game, though? For example, this demo is multiplayer and you give everyone a lot of resources and troops right away, but that’s not really how the game plays.
Nick: Well, but if we came to a show like this, gave people the basics and told them they had to build their base up, it would take a long, long time…
I guess it doesn’t give the perfect image of how the game actually plays and how it actually works, but it does give people the chance to get a rough idea. You get all the people who are traditional RTS fans, who just want to build troops and blow stuff up, so to accommodate those people you set the demo up in this way.
But you also get a load of keen Stronghold fans who’ve come down, and you can spot them. They don’t attack, they build up their defences and get their economy going. So, the demo manages to appeal to both groups of people.
The problem with Stronghold is that it’s quite hard to demo all the sim elements, which can be quite overwhelming when you give people all of the options straight away.
TSA: I simply don’t know what all the buildings are, for example.
Nick: Exactly, and there are so many people who sat down like that. So we just want to give those people the options, because, you know, people love destroying the walls and explosions and just killing the other guy.
But in terms of difficulty, the game will have difficulty settings and a lot of the AI characters will be very different. So if you’re fighting against the Shah, he’ll be quite push over, or if you’re playing against the Caliph it’s going to be hard. Each AI character has, in addition to its own castles and strategies, its own rough difficulties.
One of the problems with Stronghold games of the past has been that the difficulty curve has been quite steep, and one things we’ve always talked about since the company was founded was that we want to have an easy difficulty curve that’s doable for the average person.
So we’re making it our goal to include a lot of those options at launch. A lot of people just get into a game, find it’s too hard and give up on it, without exploring the systems. Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls is a perfect example of that, really.
TSA: Yes, but then Dark Souls is catering to the people who want to be punished.
Nick: Absolutely, and you know, we’re a bit like that as well. People who traditionally enjoy our games don’t have an issue with the difficulty level, really, they just say that’s what Stronghold is like. Stronghold is hard!
But we definitely want to appeal to everyone. The difficulty will be there, but it’s so easy to add difficulty levels and tweak some numbers to make it more accessible.
TSA: Have there been any little lessons that you’ve learnt from watching people outside the studio play?
Nick: Yeah, I mean there’s a couple of things like, one of the design decisions in the original game was that you have to move siege equipment within range, before you can attack with it. If it was out of range it would kind of just sit there.
Watching people play and how they’re just so used to modern RTS games where everything is automatic, so that even if you’ve got a guy on the other side of the map and tell him to attack, he’ll just find a way. So that’s something we’re probably going to be tweaking.
Paul and I often go back to the office and say this needs changing and that needs changing, because when you’re testing a game internally, it’s completely different to giving it to people and just telling them to figure it out.
From a designer’s perspective, you can play the game to death in the office and think something is perfectly balanced, but then you put it in someone’s hands and they say it’s too easy or too hard.
Thanks to Nick for taking the time to talk to us. Then again, he got to beat me at Crusader II beforehand…