Making Of: Stronghold

By Kieron Gillen on February 22nd, 2008 at 1:04 pm.

[Way back when Firefly were revealing Stronghold 2, I had a chance to talk to Simon Bradbury about the genesis of their big-in-Germany management RTS and its demi-sequel, Stronghold: Crusader. As usual, this originally appeared in PC Format. All sales stats referenced are circa then.]

Strong!

It’s easy to underestimate something like Stronghold. We shouldn’t. As far as a games go, it’s been an incredible success. Ask our colleagues in Germany about it and you’ll receive a voluminous response. Over there it outsold Grand Theft Auto. It did it with nothing more than be a good idea (i.e. Make a castle, defend it and knock down someone else’s), well executed. Unique enough to attract an audience yet familiar enough not to confuse, it’s no surprise that it found an expansive and devoted fanbase. However creators Firefly have a far longer history, whose lessons directly contributed to their later successes.

“We were originally working for Impressions,” explains Designer Simon Bradbury, “We used to do the Caesar games. The last one we did was III, which was also a city builder. That’s part of our heritage.” They also worked on the first two Lord of the Realms game, so had experience with Real Time Strategy. “We’ve always ploughed that niche and done well out of it,” he says. “But we always felt that nobody had done a Castle Sim for a while and it was the perfect thing to combine a City Builder with an RTS game. It’s a castle, so it’s got fighting, but at its heart it’s about building, resources and depictions of medieval life. We had always wanted to do that, but decided the best way to do that would be to go and set up our own company.”

Strong!

“No-one else in the market had done a Castle game since Interplay did Castles 1 and Castles 2, which were successful games… but then, for some reason, they didn’t do any more,” Simon says, “It’s not often you see a gap like that in the computer game industry.” So seeing an opportunity, they set forth to found a new company. “Everything slotted into place – our background, a hole in the market…” he says, “Let’s go do it. We were quite confident when we set Firefly up in 99 that our first title was going to be a successful one.”

No matter what the final results, things were never that simple in games development. It took until half-way through the game to realise something was amiss. “The biggest thing we found was that it took a while to get the basics of the game,” claims Simon.
When it took so long to get it genuinely playable, they realised they didn’t have the time available to include all the more realistic siege approaches they wanted. This lead to the appearance of trad-RTS elements like soldiers being able to knock down walls with swords, such as in Age of Empires. “We didn’t set off wanting to do that,” Simon says, “but we got to the point where we ran out of time and were tied to certain milestones.” It was important to do so, because they had a reputation of being good in this area. “It’s the sort of thing which lets you make friends with publishers very easily,” he advises, “if you can hit your goal dates regularly. To make them though we had to make the decision to simplify Stronghold 1.” Of course, simplifying caused further problems. “We then found out later that players didn’t use ladders or siege towers, because there was no need to,” Simon notes, “We’d balanced them out, essentially, and there wasn’t much we could do to address those issues.”

Strong!

Since their games are so complicated and take so long to work in even a basic fashion, they take a flexible approach to design, assisted by their small studio size. “We’re always taken an approach that we know what we want to go in the game, and we know – roughly – how those systems will work. If you give too tight a specs it’s normally a recipe for disaster. If you don’t, [coders] come back at every juncture to ask what to do next, so you think “Knowing what I know now, what’s the right decision to make?”.

A sacrifice of this decision was the Skirmish mode originally planned for inclusion in Stronghold. “We really wanted to do it,” Simon remembers, “However, we discovered fairly early on that Stronghold was kind of new ground. We also weren’t just developers at this point – we were running a company. We had to deal with marketing, PR, company admin and things which were dragging our attention away. We realised that there was probably enough in the original game in terms of gameplay, at which point it became a positive thing, as we had our next game sorted. It was a benefit in the end.” So was born Stronghold’s semi-sequel, Stronghold: Crusader, which concentrated purely on skirmish.

Similarly, multiplayer. “It has to work well,” Simon says, “But it can’t detract from single player because that’s still our core market.” However, multiplayer has uses outside of the finished game. “The way that we approach it is we use it as a balancing tool,” Simon notes, “We’d play and start balancing. We use multiplayer for that, as it’s the easiest way to get the single-player working. In fact, we’re working on a game in the US which won’t have a multiplayer component in it, but we actually have multiplayer in it [For testing]. It also allows us to save a log of all the actions which makes bug fixing easier.”

Strong!

Setting a new company while making a new game is clearly stressful. What sort of advice would he give to someone wanting to head into the strategy world. “Nowadays you have two choices,” he says, “You can do it by yourself, and still produce a really interesting cool game through shareware. And I still download things like that, and there’s not that many really accomplished strategy games out there. If I were starting out now, that’s where I’ll probably go – either for my own benefit, or as a way into a bigger company later.” For a more traditional team route, however, you need to get organised. “You need to go into it with someone who understands business,” he opines, “Unless you have someone who’s prepared to do budgets and cashflow, you’re going to get into trouble. You do see developers getting into trouble due to that total disregard. So many developers fail not through being a good developer – but being a bad cashflow manager. “

As they continue work on the true sequel, there’s still much to be proud of in the first games. “My favourite thing is in Crusader,” Simon says, “is the Skirmish mode. I really enjoyed playing a skirmish battle. We had a skirmish trail which had 15 missions that got harder and harder and harder. It’s kind of insane… why would you play to the end? Many, many people did. I still have a campaign I plan to play to the end. I have played the last mission – which took me seven hours of constant play and 20 save games… but I beat it. And I got a real sense of satisfaction. Building that skirmish on top of Stronghold was a crowning glory in a way, and I’m pleased we managed to get that.”

Still, there’s much to have regrets is part of the core design which was never quite implemented right in the full game. “I like castles and have dragged my daughter a few,” Simon says, “Some of the best ones have plaques about the place – like “This is a Killing Zone when they rained down arrows”.” This is what they wanted to bring into the game. “We wanted to try and get that sense of how the layout of your castle can trap people and funnel them in: the idea of a building as a killing weapon,” He sighs, “I don’t think we really got it in Stronghold. It was a little too much of knocking down walls with catapults with a very medieval flavour, but it wasn’t really the castle itself being a weapon. That, I was a little disappointed with, because it didn’t feel as if we hit that Castle sim right on the head.”

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9 Comments »

  1. Andrew says:

    The first Stronghold was pretty damn excellent. It still holds up today, which its sequel doesn’t.

    Crusader is pretty good but not quite as fun.

  2. Fumarole says:

    It was great fun back in the day creating castles for my friend to assault only to see his army go up in flames in my pitch traps.

  3. heartless_ says:

    Lol pitch traps… remember the first time I showed someone in multiplayer what a pitch trap was.

  4. Wozza says:

    I played Stonghold for hour and hours, i loved all the little details, like your army throwing ladders up to climb the walls, it’s a shame they messed with the mechanics so much on Stronghold 2, they focused far to much on resource gathering and ubermicro, rather than concentrating on the good stuff like storming castles, exploding cows and walking pig BBQ.

  5. Stromko says:

    For me the ultimate failing in Stronghold was the incompetent AI that necessitated that it cheated. There was no point attacking their economy or infrastructure because they didn’t use it. Every level all I did was wall up my weak spots and build as many archers and/or crossbowmen as possible. This wasn’t always easy so there was a challenge, it threw a lot of curveballs at you dependent on the scenario, so I’m not saying it was a flop, I did have a lot of fun with it still.

    Stronghold 2 tried to complicate things with the little territories all over the map that you had to take over and develop, without the benefit of walls, to supercharge your economy. I actually kind of liked that. It also seemed more like the AI was playing fair. But, it stumbled over an AI that was even more hopeless, that could and often stalled out completely in skirmishes.

    Still not what I’d call a failure though, I had a lot of fun with it also. I just feel that either game could’ve been so much better if the AI could keep up. I have to cut them a break as that seems to be the unattained holy grail for 97% of games that come out.

    Multiplayer may have helped mitigate this but I always judge a game based on the singleplayer, the experience I can just boot up and play at any time. Especially when it’s a bit of a niche title and you can’t just find an open game whenever you want.

  6. Alan Au says:

    That reminds me, I still want a proper remake of Castles, not that Stronghold was entirely a bust, but the insta-build/fragile walls were a bit of a let-down compared to the epic fortress construction, where over-designing meant your fortress was attacked with the walls only half-built.

  7. SwiftRanger says:

    Nice article, I think I’d give everything for the perfect mix of Castles, Lords of the Realm II, Stronghold, Knights & Merchants and to a certain extent even TA: Kingdoms (for that 3D/weapon physics feel).

    There is still a gap, I don’t think the latest Settlers game filled it up very well.

  8. SwiftRanger says:

    Just forgot, add in Beasts & Bumpkins to that mix as well.

  9. edh says:

    I came into the Stronghold franchise with my purchase of Crusader. I love it! I still play the deathmatch mode against the bots from time to time. Sounds like I need to find a copy of Stronghold if it’s so much more fun, though! ;)

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